Sanctions and sanctimony

A gallery of Russian oligarchs. Wikimedia Commons
LAURA GASCOIGNE casts an eye on oligarchs and their arts

The Art Newspaper has published its annual museum attendance figures for 2021. The Louvre is top, 5% up on the year before, followed by the State Russian Museum at + 88%. Really? There are four Russian museums in the top ten: the Multimedia Art Museum at no 3 (+42%), the State Hermitage Museum at no 6 (+70%) and the State Tretyakov Gallery at no 9 (+77%). By comparison Tate Modern lags at no 16 (-19), the V&A at no 24 (-2) and the National Gallery at no 30 (-41).

There was a time when British visitor figures needed boosting to attract government funding. No longer. Now galleries hope desperation will loosen the purse strings: the message being sent out is HELP. So are we really supposed to believe that during a pandemic, with the international tourist industry in meltdown, Russian museums beat the British Museum (+4%) into 11th place?

No. No one is actually meant to believe these figures. Like the Ukrainian Nazi regime with its Jewish President and the Special Military Operation to remove it, they’re a pack of obvious lies. For the Kremlin, lying is official government policy. As our own government is discovering, lying works: if it doesn’t convince, it sows alarm and despondency. In fact, the less it convinces, the more alarm and despondency it sows, by loosening the population’s grip on reality.

However much we now gasp and stretch our eyes at the dreadful lies being told by Putin, we were happy to ignore the truth when it suited us. Western liberal democracies accepted arts sponsorship from Russian oligarchs without ever stopping to ask where the money came from. It’s not as if we didn’t know; we knew all along. It’s only now that we’re faced with the brutal reality of what an authoritarian kleptocracy means in practice that our cultural institutions are responding to Russia’s Special Military Operation with a Special Reverse Ferret Operation.

Western museums have rushed to ‘freeze’ relations with their Russian counterparts, at some cost to their exhibition programmes. It’s more than a case of the National Gallery’s being short of the odd Holy Family from the Hermitage for its Raphael show; the Ashmolean has had to put its summer exhibition ‘Russia! Icons and the Avant-Garde’ on indefinite hold and the National Railway and Science Museums have been forced to cancel their joint Trans-Siberian exhibition. The V&A has brazened it out and hung onto all the eggs in its Fabergé exhibition basket, two of which are on loan from the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg funded by sanctioned oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Still, no British museum has so much egg on its face as the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which commissioned Putin to pen the foreword to its recent Morozov Collection show.

Now the art market is feeling the pinch. On 15 March, four days after Arts Council England introduced a moratorium on loans, the government banned exports to Russia of all high-end luxury goods including art and antiques. Russian collectors have been sent to Coventry where they can brush up on their knowledge of another English cathedral, hopefully without poisoning any of its parishioners. Like rats leaving a sinking superyacht, Sotheby’s announced that they were shutting up shop to Russian buyers. A spike in sales of high-end art to Russians was apparently recorded in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February as oligarchs rushed to put money into non-seizable assets they could squirrel away in secretive freeports of the sort our tax-paying chancellor is so keen to open on these shores. Fortunately for Sotheby’s, thanks to the use of intermediaries it’s almost impossible to find out whether buyers are Russian, unless they pay in roubles.

The big hit will be to museum sponsorship. Of the big four oligarchs sanctioned by our government, three have been heavily involved in cultural philanthropy and their beneficiaries are scrambling to dump them. On 1 March it was announced that Petr Aven, a long-term trustee of the Royal Academy and a leading donor to its Bacon exhibition, had ‘stepped down’ before being pushed down the Potemkin steps; with some sense of honour, the RA returned the money before painting out his credit at the exhibition entrance. Roman Abramovich’s name has also vanished, without recompense, from the supporters’ list outside the Holocaust Galleries he helped to fund at the Imperial War Museum and Viktor Vekselberg has forfeited his honorary membership of the Tate Foundation. His contribution to Tate Modern’s extension now consigned to history, it was out with the chisels to chip his name off the donors’ plaque.

It’s harder to write Russian money out of museum history when it’s sunk into bricks and mortar. Vekselberg’s 2016 support of Tate Modern’s extension, then called the Switch House, was not as generous as that of his mate from Moscow college days, Len Blavatnik, whose record-breaking £50m donation to the Tate turned the Switch House into the Blavatnik Building. Though not a Russian citizen – he holds US and UK citizenship (bought for a song in 2010) – Blavatnik is a person of interest. A Ukrainian Jew born in Odessa, he emigrated to America with his family in 1978 aged 21 but that didn’t stop him joining the feeding frenzy that followed the ‘opening up’ of the Russian economy in the 1990s. With Vekselberg as a partner, he laid the foundations of his global business empire by buying up state aluminium and oil companies. Last year he topped the Sunday Times Rich List for the second time with an estimated fortune of £23bn; he raked in an extra £7.2bn during the pandemic.

Blavatnik likes to splash the cash on cultural causes. He has donated to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the RA, funded a new Blavatnik Hall at the V&A, financed the Courtauld’s refurbished Blavatnik Fine Rooms and in February – just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine – underwritten new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries at the IWM due to open late next year. He was knighted for services to philanthropy in 2017 and in 2020 the Times described him as ‘Britain’s art philanthropist-in-chief’. But in the current mood of sanctimony, with sanctioned friends like Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska, his position is borderline. How long before the Blavatnik Building is switched back to the Switch House? Watch this space.

When our museums took money from the previous philanthropists-in-chief, the Sacklers, they could at least plead innocence of Oxycontin. It’s not so easy to plead innocence of the crimes perpetrated by Russia’s oligarchs on the Russian people. We all know where the kleptocrats’ money came from; in accepting funding from them, Western museums have been knowingly in receipt of stolen goods. Cabbage soup has been taken from the mouths of ordinary Russians so that museumgoers in rich democracies can enjoy blockbuster exhibitions and swan about in overextended galleries. For years our museum sector has been living beyond its means. Who will we turn to for subsidies next? The Saudis? The music changes, but it’s the same old dance with the devil. We can be sanctimonious after the event, but at some point our museums must face the fact that, in the matter of so-called cultural philanthropy, sanctimoney is the exception, dirty money the rule.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.