Not many people in the art world have heard of Leonid Mikhelson. But the Russian businessman, who is worth $15.4bn, according to Forbes, is emerging as an important funder of international exhibitions. Mikhelson’s foundation, V-A-C, is one of the main sponsors of this year’s Venice Biennale, and next year his company Novatek, Russia’s second-biggest producer of natural gas, will help to pay for the construction of a gigantic new work by Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov for the Grand Palais in Paris. Described as a “city”, it will consist of seven separate “chapels” that will fill the exhibition hall.
Meanwhile, back in Russia, Mikhelson is helping artists produce and display new work through V-A-C, an organisation set up in 2009 and named after his 20-year-old daughter Victoria (its full name is Victoria, the Art of being Contemporary).
Mikhelson hopes that Victoria, an art history student at New York University, will eventually run the foundation. “People at my level often want their children to be in their own business, but I am against it very radically. I know how hard business is. People’s relationships change when they are in business and I didn’t want this to happen to my daughter,” Mikhelson says (through an interpreter) when we meet in Novatek’s Moscow offices.
He talks softly, and is affable and courteous, his gentle demeanour belied only by the numerous staff members who flit around him nervously: four of them sit in on our interview. Mikhelson’s business empire includes about 25 per cent of Novatek, as well as a large stake in petrochemical producer Sibur Holding and the largest shareholding of the First United Bank of Samara. This has made him the third-richest man in Russia.
Mikhelson worked hard to inculcate in his child a love of art. “When Victoria was a teenager and we were on vacation in Paris or London, I would say: ‘Let’s go and see a museum’, and she would be bored. She wasn’t interested at first.” But eventually the visits paid off and on a student trip to the Pompidou Centre, Victoria had “a revelation”. “The next time we went to Paris, it was she who took me to the Pompidou,” he says. Victoria’s interest in contemporary art made Mikhelson rethink his own views on art, he says. Until that point he had collected 19th-century Russian paintings.
Born in Kaspiysk, a small town on the Caspian Sea, Mikhelson grew up in Samara. “I remember nothing about any museums,” he says. “There was nothing related to art in the school where I studied.” Much later “I started buying pieces by local painters ... when I was about 30 years old.”
Nowadays “99 per cent” of his interest is in contemporary art, both Russian and international. This interest has been guided by Teresa Iarocci Mavica, a Neapolitan whom he met at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and who has directed V-A-C since its inception. Mavica, who moved to Moscow from Italy as a student, already had a track record in the Russian art world. In 2003 she had helped set up Moscow’s Stella Art Foundation, one of the first in Russia to show Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“I was asked to explain the importance of the Venice Biennale to [Mikhelson],” Mavica recalls. “He said he had only 15 minutes to spare. I didn’t know who he was. I explained that there is no contemporary art, just good art and bad art.”
At the next Biennale, Mavica spent two days guiding Mikhelson round exhibitions. They spent most of the time “arguing about art”, Mavica says. “I’m from Naples; I can’t hold my opinions back. In Russia people are deferential but I don’t care who you are.” Shortly after, he offered her a job.
Initially Mikhelson wanted her to help him build his personal art collection but she wasn’t interested. She wanted to support young artists and told him his Russian paintings were mediocre at best. “He looked at me like I was an alien ... but why should I love artists who go abroad and copy the impressionists? We had a long battle.” It was a battle that Mavica eventually won. The two made an agreement: Mikhelson would set up and fund V-A-C and Mavica would advise him on acquisitions of contemporary art.
Some of the purchases Mavica has made now hang in Mikhelson’s office. Above his desk is a 1982 candle painting by Gerhard Richter bought from a private collection in Germany (a similar work dating from the same year sold for £10.5m at Christie’s in London in 2011); an abstract canvas by Sigmar Polke hangs on another wall; and a sculpture by the late Louise Bourgeois is nearby.
Elsewhere in Novatek’s building are photographs by Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Dayanita Singh, tapestries by Pae White, and paintings by Rudolf Stingel, Christopher Wool, Gary Hume and Farhad Moshiri, among others. Other highlights of the collection include a Francis Bacon canvas once owned by Swiss collector Ernst Beyeler, which is currently on loan to a show in Japan. Mikhelson says he is particularly fond of work by British painter Glenn Brown.
“Now I cannot even imagine myself being in a room or an office without any art on the wall. It was too boring without it,” he says. “I remember the Soviet Union and the big offices of the time: oak walls and big columns. I am sitting surrounded by [contemporary art]; it changes your attitude, the way you think ... it gives you ideas.”
Few contemporary Russian artists have more ideas than Anatoly Osmolovsky, whose work will appear in a V-A-C show in Venice alongside Polish artist Pawel Althamer in a display titled Parallel Convergences and curated by Nicholas Cullinan of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. In the early 1990s, Osmolovsky staged a series of protest performances in Moscow that gained him a cult following and got him arrested; he would also come to be emulated by the members of Pussy Riot. The sculptures in the show include abstract lumps based on the shape of Osmolovsky’s toenails, which he grew for a year and a half in a quest “to explore form”.
It’s a far cry from the 19th-century Russian landscapes that Mikhelson first fell in love with but he has no qualms. “Maybe I am not able to understand [all contemporary art],” he says. “Maybe there are some things I will never understand.”
‘Parallel Convergences’, Casa dei Tre Oci, Venice, June 1-October 6, www.treoci.org
News in brief
Ai Weiwei under wraps
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has become one of the world’s biggest art names for his political stance as well as his work, is not known for understatement. His output is always socially aware, intellectual, witty, and with a lively sense of showmanship. At Venice this week he reveals two projects, one of which, an installation in a church in the Castello district, the Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, is still under wraps as we go to press. It is, however, widely rumoured to be closely connected to his detention under house arrest in Beijing in 2011. The image on the right is one that Ai has released as a teaser. Has he turned himself into a plaster saint? See our news story on the project in Tuesday’s FT to find out more.
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Venice management under fire
Venice is a city under threat – not only from rising tides, rotting foundations and the ravages of time, but from the tsunami of tourists that floods the city relentlessly. How best to save Venice for future generations has been a matter of hot debate for many years. The latest salvo is fired by Anna Somers Cocks, editor in chief of The Art Newspaper and until recently a leading figure of Venice in Peril, an organisation devoted to preserving the city and its treasures. This week in the New York Review of Books she launches a powerful attack on the city’s management, from the state of overall political decision-making down to the horribly insensitive intrusion, in St Mark’s Square, of a crude but permanent souvenir shop leaning right up against the campanile of St Mark’s, marring one of the most magical city panoramas in all of western art.
See www.nybooks.com from Monday.