the rise and fall of the Russian billionaire’s huge new artistic hub

GES-2 House of Culture – a 20th-century powerhouse across from the Kremlin acquired by Russian oligarch Leonid Mikhelson and reimagined into a burgeoning art space by Renzo Piano – opened to much fanfare in December 2021 as a symbol of a new Russia. Less than a year later, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, it has become a symbol of the country’s cultural death knell.

Teresa Iarocci Mavica, the Italian-born co-founder with Mikhelson in 2009 of the VAC Foundation, resigned as director of GES-2 just weeks after leading Russian President Vladimir Putin on a tour of the facilities. when it is opened. piano there – in footage shown on state television news. After he left, his facial expressions during the tour were scrutinized by observers of the arts scene and Kremlin watchers for signs of displeasure with an outsider running a flagship institution.

A press release at the time (December 2021) indicated that Mavica would continue as general manager of VAC Zattere, the foundation’s space in Venice. After the invasion, the Venetian Hall was “temporarily suspended…out of respect for our audience and our artists”. In May, Zattere was targeted by anti-war protesters; it then closed indefinitely. Last month, Mavica’s name was removed as co-founder of VAC on the foundation’s website. Neither she nor VAC responded to requests for comment on the rewrite of the organization’s history, although Mavica said, “I completed my task by finishing the construction of GES-2 and since then I have not played no part in his life on any level.”

Meanwhile, Francesco Manacorda, artistic director of the VAC Foundation, resigned in March, citing the war as the reason. Artists and other participants in GES-2 programs also began accusing the venue of censorship.

President Putin with Leonid Mikhelson, co-founder of VAC, who established the GES-2 arts center in 2021 Photo ©

Alisa Prudnikova, curator of the Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art in the Urals, was appointed director of the VAC and GES-2 program in May. Putin appeared again at GES-2 in July, chairing a forum on technological innovation whose theme was “Strong Ideas for a New Era”.

In 2019, during a press conference with Mikhelson at Tass, the Russian state news agency, Mavica announced a five-season schedule for GES-2, starting with Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. St. Barbara based on the eponymous American soap opera. Kjartansson ended the project and his affiliation with GES-2 following the invasion of Ukraine and revealed to The New York Times that he had helped Masha Alekhina of Pussy Riot, on the run, to flee Russia.

GES-2 sent out a press release in September with its schedule through the end of the year. There is no hint of any event that might mention the war. A series of exhibitions presents the strong collection of international contemporary art from the VA-C at GES-2 in interaction with sound installations by Russian composers.

The lineup includes new commissions for the venue’s central Prospect space, which had been occupied by Kjartansson’s St. Barbara a film set, a concert series and forays into Kostroma, a historic town northeast of Moscow, to host GES-2’s first regional festival.

Funding issues

“The park near the city philharmonic will become an open platform for creative interaction between citizens, artists, designers, musicians and artisans,” according to the press release on Kostroma. “Part of the decor of the festival will be special art objects created by Kostroma craftsmen. The partners of the program are the subsidiaries of Novatek, which participate in the cultural and social life of their region. Program events will also take place in Murmansk, Chelyabinsk and Kamchatka.

Mikhelson, who is worth more than $24 billion according to the business magazine Forbes, is the chairman and main shareholder of the gas company Novatek. The capital cost of GES-2 is estimated at at least $300 million.

Nikita Rasskazov, a curator in charge of music programs for VAC who also quit during the war, says that as the venue’s opening approached, Mikhelson became increasingly vocal about his programming. His daughter Viktoria – VAC would be named after him – also “spread a partially different vision”. She could not be reached for comment.

Rasskazov said: “Mikhelson has an opinion, which he has expressed to us personally in meetings, that he seems to know what people want, based on the fact that he travels through Russia as part of his gas business and when he was an engineer in the 1980s.” He added that the billionaire’s preference was for simple, folk-style festivals “He got frustrated that our plans weren’t always clear at a glance.”

Rasskazov said Mavica had long planned to leave GES-2 after overseeing its construction, and that Mikhelson’s change in behavior “is unlikely” to have prompted the decision. Most of the VA-C team remained in place, he added.

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