Dasha Zhukova's artful rise

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Dasha Zhukova's artful rise
Dasha Zhukova at a party thrown by V Magazine to close out Paris Fashion Week, at La Perouse in Paris, March 7, 2017 (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

by Caitlin Moscatello

NEW YORK, NY.- “If there’s one place in the world that’s fighting today for freedom and democracy, where people — men, women and children, everybody — are dying as we are having dinner right now, that is Ukraine,” chef José Andrés told a well-heeled crowd at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in November, as he accepted an Innovator Award from the Wall Street Journal Magazine, a Ukrainian flag pin on his lapel. Attendees rose to their feet and broke into applause.

Among them was Dasha Zhukova, a philanthropist, entrepreneur and socialite. For a decade, she was married to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

The former couple, who divorced in 2017, still have an arts foundation and co-own the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow; Zhukova also continues as creative director of New Holland Island, a cultural hub in St. Petersburg that they founded. Their young children, alongside his children from a previous marriage, were reportedly named beneficiaries of trusts worth billions of dollars in a hurried reallocation of their father’s assets, not long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

If anyone found it strange that Zhukova, who is also the daughter of a Russian oil magnate, was spending an evening in the same space as Pussy Riot co-founder Nadya Tolokonnikova (who spent more than a year in a penal colony for criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, and presented an award that night in a jacket with the words “ARREST ME” on the back), they didn’t let on.

Zhukova, 41, who is now married to Stavros Niarchos II, grandson of a Greek shipping tycoon, was in the midst of a post-divorce rebrand when the first Russian bombs fell on Kyiv, Ukraine, a year ago. She had a new husband and baby, as well as an art-inflected real estate venture that she was getting off the ground in New York and Philadelphia.

But the work that had built her reputation continued, too. She had recently returned from Moscow, where she and Abramovich, 56, had announced an expansion of the Garage, by then an internationally recognized museum. She did an interview and posed for photographs in Vogue Russia to promote their plans.

The atrocities of the war unfolded quickly, and public outcry was just as swift. There was newfound scrutiny of what it meant to do business with the oligarchs, who, during the Putin era, had become deeply entangled with the art and real-estate worlds in New York and London as they sought to invest in the West.

Zhukova, who has U.S. and Russian citizenship, is among the most high-profile people in the United States to be closely connected to a Russian oligarch.

As a result, the last year has represented a test of sorts for her, and for the art world: How much did it matter that the money that had built her reputation came largely from an oligarch?

People close to her brushed aside Zhukova’s association with Abramovich, or claimed not to know much about their relationship. More than 40 people, most of them in the art world, were interviewed for this article, although some declined to go on the record, worried about professional consequences.

Art dealer Larry Gagosian agreed to an interview about Zhukova, a longtime client, but cut it off at the first question, after the mention of the word “Moscow,” and said he was uncomfortable. Condé Nast’s Anna Wintour also agreed to an interview, and then was suddenly unavailable. She emailed a statement instead, writing, in part, “You can’t fake the kind of passion Dasha has for the arts.” David Geffen (who called her “kind, charming”) and Rem Koolhaas, who designed the Garage Museum (and said she had “solid intelligence”), were happy to talk, however.

Zhukova declined to be interviewed for this article.

Over the past decade and a half, Zhukova had ridden the wave of the art scene’s embrace of oligarch money to build a career for herself in the upper echelons of that world. With her carefully chosen spending and giving, she was following a classic American script, and alchemizing money into cultural status.

Other Russian oligarchs have collectively donated millions to major arts institutions in New York and London. Some became trustees (and stepped down last year). But it was Zhukova, not Abramovich, who joined art-world boards — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) — helping to establish her as a powerful figure in her own right.

And she had proved to be a connector, as founder of the well-received art magazine Garage, co-founder and early investor in the online art marketplace Artsy, and a tastemaker among some socialites and collectors.

In some ways, Zhukova is what Anna Delvey, the now-famous con artist, wanted to be: an ambitious businesswoman and maven of the art world, with family money and social influence that runs as deep as her pockets.

Damage Control

In February 2022, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Zhukova issued a statement condemning the war, “in solidarity with the Ukrainian people as well as the millions of Russians who feel the same way.”

She spent the first few months of the invasion lying low — no Met Ball, no sharing on Instagram — then quietly vacationed in Europe for the summer.

As she tried to remain out of the spotlight, some of her closest friends posted about the war on social media: Lauren Santo Domingo, founder of luxury retailer Moda Operandi and the doyenne of New York socialites, frequently retweeted about war crimes being committed by Russian forces in Ukraine; Derek Blasberg, a well-connected writer who is executive editor of Gagosian Quarterly and media and culture consultant for “Succession,” shared an Instagram image of the Pablo Picasso peace dove holding a Ukrainian flag. His post received both praise and backlash, with commenters pointing to his close relationship to Zhukova as evidence of hypocrisy.

The art world responded, too. British artist Damien Hirst — a favorite of the oligarchs — painted a Ukrainian flag with his signature butterflies for a last-minute Venice Biennale exhibition titled “This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom.” The Russian Pavilion was nixed from the biennale, and there was a sudden, urgent focus on Ukrainian artists.

Auction houses, which had for more than a decade courted the Russian oligarchs, went into damage control. Christie’s and Sotheby’s made donations to Ukrainian aid, and canceled upcoming sales of Russian artists’ work. Phillips Auction House, which is owned by Russians, donated more than $7 million to the Ukrainian Red Cross. (In February, federal prosecutors in New York reportedly subpoenaed auction houses for sales records to look for potential sanction violations; Abramovich was one of several oligarchs named, according to Bloomberg.)

The official Instagram account for the Garage Museum posted a since-deleted black square with text announcing that the museum was stopping all exhibitions until the end of the war, and opposed “all actions that sow division.”

Alison Gingeras, a curator and art historian who helped lead an art-world protest of Ivanka Trump after her father was elected president, copied the post to her own feed and called it “PR tiptoeing double speak and whitewashing.” She wrote: “Nothing less than a full throated denunciation of Putin and his oligarch enablers is acceptable.”

Behind the scenes, museum board directors concluded that Zhukova’s involvement with their institutions posed no issues. When the war began, “there were a number of conversations,” said Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who stepped down from the international advisory board of Russia’s State Hermitage Museum in reaction to the war. But he said there was “no doubt” about Zhukova continuing as a Met trustee. It was important to Hollein that Zhukova had issued an early statement against the war.

“She’s been here in the U.S. for a long time,” Hollein said. “She’s not on a sanctions list.”

Michael Govan, director and CEO of LACMA, noted that Zhukova spent a significant part of her childhood in Los Angeles. “Anybody who knew the details inside, of course, didn’t really associate her in that way,” he said. “Plus, obviously, she’s already remarried.”

By fall, her social hiatus was over, too. In September alone, she attended the opening of Urs Fischer’s show at Gagosian Gallery, a party at Wintour’s town house and the opening of a $250,000-a-year members-only club on the Upper East Side.

Around the same time, Abramovich anchored his yachts in sanctions-free Turkey.

(Britain and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Abramovich, but the United States has not, reportedly at the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who believed he might be a useful lifeline to communicate with Putin. However, the U.S. government has warrants to seize two jets it says belong to Abramovich.)

Abramovich declined to comment for this article.

A Moscow Socialite by Way of Los Angeles

Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981, her own story mirroring the explosion of wealth that would come to define the post-Soviet era. Her mother, Elena, was a molecular biologist, and her father, Alexander, worked as an editor. They divorced when Zhukova was 3.

When Zhukova was 10, she and Elena moved into a one-bedroom rental apartment in Houston, after Elena accepted a job at Baylor College of Medicine; scientists were leaving the Soviet Union in droves as funding for their work decreased. Her father remained in Moscow, where he was part of the rush to profit off the natural resources up for grabs in newly capitalist Russia.

Two years later, Zhukova and her mother moved again, after Elena was offered a job at UCLA. Zhukova went to Pacific Hills, a small private school in West Hollywood, which her father paid for. Starting in the eighth grade, she worked at the Beverly Center shopping mall. (“How many ‘oligarch’s wives’ worked at Mrs. Fields Cookies in the mall?,” Blasberg said.)

She was aware of her father’s new wealth; when they’d take ski trips in the Alps, it was apparent he had entered another stratosphere. As she was finishing her degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she studied abroad in Russia. In the new Moscow, she was a socialite with a hint of a Southern California accent. She began dating Russian tennis pro Marat Safin, then one of the top players in the world, and was photographed at his matches.

Zhukova, who moved to London in 2004, made the most of her fame, starting a clothing company, Kova & T, with a friend. Its faux-leather leggings and skinny jeans gained traction with starlets of the mid-aughts. Young, rich Russians in London wore them, too, eager for an alternative to the flashy clothes they had become known for.

In 2006, the same year Kova & T’s “Dasha” jeans appeared in major stores, a friend introduced Zhukova and Abramovich. He was at the time one of the wealthiest people in the world, according to Forbes, after he had bought a state-run oil company in the mid-1990s, then sold back his shares to the Russian government at a significant profit.

Abramovich served as governor of a particularly frigid Russian region, but was spending more and more time in London, where he had bought the Chelsea football club, making him famous in parts of Europe, even though he was said to be quite shy.

Soon, Zhukova and Abramovich were seen at Chelsea matches together. In 2007, he and his second wife, of 16 years, divorced.

Neither Zhukova nor Abramovich spoke publicly about their relationship. The money talked loudly enough: Zhukova had become interested in contemporary art, and Abramovich set records in 2008 by buying a Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud at auction for a combined $120 million. Abramovich had been quietly collecting already, but there was speculation in the press that Zhukova had inspired the purchases.

Early on, the media framed Zhukova as a dilettante. She appeared on the cover of a Times of London fashion insert, described as “the girl who transfixed Britain’s richest oligarch.”

In interviews, however, she gave the impression of wanting to be taken more seriously: In 2009, she told GQ Russia that Miuccia Prada and artist Cindy Sherman were her role models. Asked whom she would want to be for a day, she answered, “Obama.”

Building the Garage

In the mid-to-late aughts, Russia’s contemporary arts scene, which had gone underground during the Soviet era, was having a moment, as the Russian men made rich by the last decade decided to play in the cultural realm.

“The oligarchs I know of bought themselves, first and foremost, access to knowledge,” said Joachim Pissarro, chair of the U.S.-based Hermitage Museum Foundation and head of the Hunter College Galleries in New York. “If they did not know what they were buying, they made sure to have all the right experts.” (Zhukova’s art adviser, Sandy Heller, has also worked with hedge-fund billionaire and New York Mets owner Steven Cohen and venture capitalist Joshua Kushner.)

Buying art wasn’t just an investment. It achieved what buying a yacht — obvious, gauche — could not. The goal was to “convert your money into something that has a cultural touch,” said Elisabeth Schimpfössl, an associate professor of sociology and policy at Aston University in Britain, who interviewed Russian billionaires for her book “Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoise.”

It was an effective strategy, including on this side of the pond. “If you take New York’s attitude toward moneyed people and accelerate it 100 times, now you have the art world,” said Michael Gross, who has chronicled the city’s high society for decades. “The art world doesn’t give a damn who you are. The art world just wants to see the number of zeros in your checkbook.”

Gagosian recognized the power of this new class of Russian buyers early on and made inroads in Russia as early as 2003, lending Cy Twombly works to the State Hermitage; other dealers followed. Sotheby’s opened a Moscow office in 2007, and Christie’s did so in 2010.

Zhukova, who opened the Garage in 2008, was part of a trend: A number of women related to oligarchs started art initiatives between 2003 and 2008, when the contemporary art market was booming, in part because of a surge of new Russian buyers. Compared with some of her peers, she was initially seen as an arriviste. But she proved skilled at cultivating relationships, and bringing on big names to work with her.

In just nine months, she turned a 1920s Constructivist bus depot into a renovated exhibition space, and the Garage was born. For the soft opening — a party with 300 guests, including Jeff Koons, Gagosian and Ronald Lauder — she displayed a hanging light installation by artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that pulsed with the heartbeat of whoever touched it. After dinner, at which prawns and roast sirloin were washed down with vodka and Champagne, Amy Winehouse took to the stage and performed her song “Hey Little Rich Girl.”

Zhukova’s newfound cachet quickly extended beyond Moscow. The same summer she celebrated the Garage, she hosted the Serpentine Gallery’s annual fete in Kensington Gardens, a prestigious event where artists and wealthy collectors mingle with celebrities and socialites. The New York Times declared that “overnight” she had become an “art-world It Girl.” In 2009, LACMA named her to its board.

And powerful officials in the world’s most influential cities wanted to be in business with Zhukova, too: In London, Mayor Boris Johnson asked her to lunch, to talk about funding a cultural project there. In New York City, she hosted a 2013 dinner with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg said he was making Zhukova and Abramovich honorary citizens of New York, and joked, “Roman’s going to have a heart attack thinking he has to pay taxes.”

The geopolitical mood shifted in February 2014, when Putin illegally annexed Crimea. The United States and the EU responded with what were ultimately toothless sanctions against various Russian companies and individuals with ties to the Kremlin. Abramovich was spared, as was his and Zhukova’s social status.

Two weeks after Putin claimed Crimea as part of Russia after a fraudulent referendum, Zhukova posed for photographs at the 35th anniversary gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Vogue named her to its “best dressed” list for the week, noting her Lanvin frock.

(She received backlash that year, but for a different reason: In a rare public blunder, she posed for a photograph sitting on a “chair” by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard that depicted a Black woman in bondage. The image spurred outrage online, and Zhukova publicly apologized.)

Behind the scenes, Zhukova was expanding her ambitions for the Garage, with plans to turn it into Moscow’s equivalent of MoMA or the Tate Modern. She hired Kate Fowle, who later went on to lead MoMA PS1, as chief curator. Zhukova and Abramovich also brought on Koolhaas to re-imagine what had been a cavernous Soviet-era restaurant into a silvery modernist box, outfitted with big garage doors. The new museum was the centerpiece of a revamped Gorky Park, now filled with bike paths and restaurants.

Showing at Garage became, for artists, “a credible and attractive thing to be able to have on your CV,” said artist Rashid Johnson, whose works have been acquired by MoMA and the Met, as well as by Zhukova. (Only rarely did artists decline, Fowle said, but it did happen. The most common reason was discomfort showing in a country with anti-LGBTQ laws.) Fowle piloted a training program for contemporary art curation at the Garage, which she said was the first of its kind in Russia, and also developed an extensive Soviet art archive.

To celebrate the reopening in 2015, Zhukova once again got a crowd (George Lucas, Karlie Kloss, Harvey Weinstein, French art dealer Almine Ruiz-Picasso, Serpentine Gallery director Hans Ulrich Obrist) to Moscow. Arianna Huffington moderated multiple panels, and journalists flew in from across the globe, their expenses covered by the museum.

From Oligarchs to Oprah

In the middle of the past decade, Zhukova shifted her focus to New York, where she already had friends from the international jet set. She and Abramovich planted a flag in Manhattan: Over time, he bought multiple town houses on the Upper East Side to be configured into one giant mansion. (He already owned a $36 million mansion and $11 million ski chalet in Colorado, mere blips in his vast real estate portfolio.)

Privately, however, their marriage was unraveling. (Neither Zhukova nor Abramovich has spoken publicly about the cause of their split.) In August 2017, they announced that they were separating, their official statement noting that they remained “close friends, parents, and partners in the projects we developed together.” The same week, Zhukova was pictured on Geffen’s yacht near Sicily along with Diane von Furstenberg and Oprah Winfrey. She was comfortably ensconced among the United States’ own billionaires.

As the divorce unfolded, Zhukova and her children temporarily moved into an unoccupied East 64th Street mansion owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. In the spring of 2018, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on Deripaska, and he left the country. Then, as part of the divorce settlement, Abramovich transferred the Upper East Side homes he had bought — valued at $92 million — to Zhukova. On their son’s first day at a new school, her friend Blasberg went with Zhukova to drop-off.

Several months after the separation announcement, .Zhukova attended an event at the Met with Niarchos, who had been tabloid fodder in his 20s when he dated Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. He was already part of Zhukova’s social scene. (His jewelry designer sister, Eugenie, was friends with Zhukova.)

At their much-Instagrammed $6.5 million wedding in January 2020, most of which took place at the Niarchos family’s luxurious Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, guests included Prada, Kate Hudson, Kushner, Wendi Deng, Katy Perry, Baroness Dambisa Moyo, members of the Greek royal family and Princess Beatrice.

For a Russian-Winter-themed party that was part of the weekend’s festivities, they dressed in traditional garb, including furry ushankas, military jackets and floral crowns. (In the lead-up to the wedding, Blasberg helped organize Zhukova’s bachelorette party in Las Vegas, where she wore a 1980s wedding dress and later danced onstage while Gwen Stefani performed.) For Zhukova, who had kept much of her first marriage out of the public eye, it was a significant shift.

In March 2021, she and Niarchos had their first child together, and two months later, Zhukova announced her real estate venture, Ray. For now, Ray is focused on residential rental buildings with an artistic bent.

Ray’s flagship location is in partnership with the National Black Theater in Harlem, a $185 million development scheduled to open in 2024, designed by Frida Escobedo, an architect in Mexico City who was recently hired to design the Met’s new $500 million contemporary wing. Construction is in the early stages, but the space will eventually include a renovated theater owned by the NBT, along with public art galleries, shared work spaces and apartments. (A portion of the apartments, in compliance with New York City’s mandatory inclusionary housing rules, will be below market rate.)

In early press coverage, Zhukova seemed eager to position the project in modern Medici mode. WSJ Magazine, edited by Zhukova’s friend Kristina O’Neill, reported that Zhukova hoped the complex could help keep more artists in a city with skyrocketing housing costs, and noted a partnership with Artspace, a nonprofit in Minneapolis that creates and supports housing for artists. But a spokesperson for Artspace said they have never had a contract. Zhukova’s spokesperson said conversations between Ray and Artspace “are ongoing.”

Ray’s first location, a market-rate rental building in Philadelphia, will open this spring and include six artist studios, one of which has been granted to an artist-in-residence. Rashid Johnson, who has work on display at the Met Opera, is designing an installation for the lobby.

The Art World Moves On

As the Russia Ukraine war rages on, the Garage, once a beacon for contemporary art in Russia, is a shell of its former self. As a result of the war, the substantial expansion to the Garage that Abramovich and Zhukova had announced in late 2021 is on hold. The museum is operating with a fraction of its staff, and exhibitions are paused indefinitely. Russian artists, including some of the country’s most famous, have fled, as a matter of both safety and conscience.

For now, the art market has moved on from Russian oligarchs. In November, Christie’s had a record-setting auction, with five sales over $100 million, and total sales reaching $1.5 billion — about a quarter of which came from Asian buyers.

Multiple people in the art world who know Abramovich expressed fondness for him, even sympathy — but not publicly. (Several mentioned his philanthropic efforts.)

Schimpfössl said that in London, a similar sentiment about the Russian oligarchs is shared among the wealthy. “People often ask me, highly intelligent people, ‘Well, we allowed them in,” she said. “‘They ask, how do we all of a sudden do a U-turn? It’s not fair to them.’” She predicted that ultimately, many of the oligarchs will be rehabilitated, “in order to do normal business again as soon as possible.”

Back in New York, Zhukova is accruing more credentials in the art world. She is pursuing a master’s degree in art history from New York University. And in December, weeks after being named to the new Gagosian Gallery board, she was a chair of the Met acquisitions gala, just as she had been the year before.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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