Victor Pinchuk grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine, first in Kiev and then in the eastern town of Dnipropetrovsk, where queues for food and goods were a dreary facet of everyday life. Now one of the most prominent of the oligarchs who flourished so quickly in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and one of the richest men of the region, he is proud of creating another queue.
“We have only one queue in the country now, that’s the queue for my museum,” he tells me. “Although,” he adds with a surprising flash of humour, “during the crisis there was also a queue for some banks … ”
We are sitting under tall trees in the garden of the Palazzo Papadopoli, the resplendent mansion on the Grand Canal in which Pinchuk’s displays during the Venice Biennale have taken place since he emerged on to the international art scene in 2005. This year it hosts the exhibition of artists shortlisted for his newly launched Future Generation Art Prize, a vastly ambitious global competition whose board and judging panel read like a Who’s Who of the art world. He is a quiet presence, affable and courteous, although his visibly nervous staff had anxiously checked the timing of our interview over and over again, adding “You won’t mention politics to him, will you?”
Since Pinchuk was, for a time, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, and his wife is the daughter of a former president, it might have seemed a legitimate area of enquiry. What’s more, the website of his Future Generation Art Prize bears the (surely debatable) assertion from him that “art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics.” But luckily it’s art we are here to talk about. So instead he tells me about the museum with the country’s only queue. This is the PinchukArtCentre, which opened in Kiev in 2006, the first private museum in the former Soviet Union. It has a string of firsts to its credit. Its current show, for example, is the first in eastern Europe by light-artist Olafur Eliasson, with 16 huge works, several specially made. The centre is not only a generous gesture towards his country but, more than that, the flagship for Pinchuk’s mission.
For Pinchuk, still only 50, is not just your average private collector. Part of the fortune (estimated by Forbes at some $3.3bn) that this former metallurgist has amassed from steel, commodities and other businesses over the past 20 years has been devoted to spectacular art purchases: among other hair-raising sums he is reputed to have paid $23.6m for Jeff Koons’ “Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)” in 2007. His tastes run to the flashy: apart from Koons, his favourite artists include the glossy Japanese art-star Takashi Murakami, and he owns Damien Hirsts by the dozen.
But it is not the scale or gloss of the contemporary art he chooses that distinguishes Pinchuk’s hoard – it is the purpose that accompanies it. He is a passionate ambassador for his country and devotes huge energy to its development – the Art Centre is only one of many philanthropic projects in the Victor Pinchuk Foundation – as if determined to haul Ukraine out of its post-Soviet torpor singlehandedly. And art has its place in that enterprise. “Contemporary art will help to build our society, our country,” he announces, as if reading a prepared statement. “It will create the environment we need to grow.”
Then, more informally, he adds: “What is extraordinary about contemporary art is the energy – it has our energy. New energy. Pieces hundreds of years old are beautiful from an aesthetic point of view, but without our modern energy. This new aesthetic is really something.”
That energetic new aesthetic is over-running the great palazzo behind us. The Papadopoli – created in the 16th century and re-modelled in high rococo style by the Greek tycoons who were its 19th-century owners – is one of the most lavish in Venice, and the tall elaborate rooms with their over-the-top gilded bling host installations, videos and contemporary pieces of all sorts from the 19 artists on show here, chosen from online applicants from an astonishing 129 countries. A neat block of watermelon entitled “Politically Correct” (2009) by the Cuban Wilfredo Prieto sits in the middle of a splendid floor; Clemens Hollerer’s wooden “How to Disappear Completely”, specially built for the space, climbs four storeys of stairwell; Hector Zamora’s “BAM: Construction of the Century” is the skeleton of a ship constructed so tightly into one of the palazzo’s rooms that it manages to incorporate the chandelier. Against windows overlooking the Grand Canal of this sea-bourne commercial city, its rich melding of cultural references needs no explanation. Next door the gentle video-work entitled “Crusade”, by the Brazilian prize-winner Cinthia Marcelle, occupies a large chunk of blacked-out space.
How did it come about, I ask Pinchuk – this devotion to contemporary art?
“I’d started to collect Ukranian art, period art and contemporary, and then – since as a businessman, I like to work with the best consultants – I took advice. I got some very strong, very important advice: ‘Victor,’ they said, ‘if you want to promote Ukranian art, you have to put it in a very international context.’
“They were right. So then came the first acquisitions, step by step, it totally changed my taste. For example, in my offices it used to be beautiful classical, now it is totally minimalist; with my wife we’ve totally changed the decor of our new house. It came about like that.”
Apart from the Future Generation Art Prize, which is for countries across the world, Pinchuk also runs a prize for Ukranian artists whose winner automatically goes forward into the larger arena of the new award. While he sees more common themes than disparate concerns across the global stage, Pinchuk – for all his fervent nationalism – is aware that his countrymen still have some way to go in the art scene.
“What I found, and it wasn’t good news for me, was that our Ukranian artists were still not brave enough, still they have the mentality influenced by our post-Soviet schools, the thinking of that era – not so open, not yet ready for really strong experiment. Derivative of other people’s ideas. They’re nice, but a little bit more traditional.
“In this show there is only one painter – he is from Ukraine. For them it’s very educational, they have to be more pro-active, ready to take risks.”
Pinchuk himself does not sit on the prize jury. “No, no, that would be absolutely wrong – my taste is for my collection. We have a powerful board, which is important for artists – it would be wrong for my own taste to be prominent in this decision. We have a top jury, drawn from the whole world, very professional, top people.”
“Top” is a word Pinchuk uses a lot. And “energy”. And – shades of the Soviet boyhood – “official”. “This exhibition is part of the official programme of the biennale, so the artists are official participants of the biennale – that’s good for them.”
And, surprisingly perhaps, another favourite word is “tradition”. When I ask whether the Future Generation prize-winners will go into his permanent collection, he says, “I think – yes. I was interested in the piece [by Cinthia Marcelle] even before the decision. I was more than happy that she was the winner. Now I want to establish the tradition that the winner of the prize will automatically go into the collection.”
So as well as the tradition of bringing his prize to Venice every two years, which he thinks is “logical”, after an annoucement in New York and a show and prizegiving in Kiev, there is yet one more tradition he wishes to establish. “The winner will have the right,” he says, “to present his culture in Venice. The party will reflect the culture, so because our winner is Brazilian, we will have a Ukranian-Brazilian theme – borsch and vodka, good food from Ukraine, as well as singers and music from Brazil.”
As Pinchuk moves off across the garden to give instructions for his Ukranian-Brazilian party, I reflect how well he fits in Venice – the city of successful adventurers who turned to art and created traditions in the course of a sentence. You wouldn’t have talked to them much about politics, either.
Exhibition runs until August 7 www.pinchukartcentre.org