Oligarch May Have Helped Seal Garage Deal

MTAbramovich and Zhukova at Garage's opening. The billionaire may have played a key role in securing Zhukova's rights to use the space for her gallery.
Daria Zhukova's Garage Center for Contemporary Culture drew comparisons to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Modern when it opened in a vast, reconstructed garage last month.

But the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, an architectural landmark, is far from a permanent accommodation and will have to be vacated in two years to allow for the construction of the Russian-Jewish Museum of Tolerance.

"Daria's center is absolutely temporary," said Timor Kireyev, a spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities, which holds the lease on the building. "We never turned the lease of the building over to her. We allowed her to use the space."

Several media outlets, including The New York Times, have reported that Zhukova has taken over the lease.

How Zhukova won the right to use the space for her art museum is a complicated tale of Russian bureaucracy and good ties -- in this case the fact that her boyfriend, billionaire Roman Abramovich, is chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities' board of trustees.

In 2001, the Moscow city government granted the 8,500-square-meter garage, built by constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov to the Federation of Jewish Communities, on the condition that it create a cultural and educational complex on the property. The government still owns the property.

Following massive reconstruction work on the building -- expected to begin in late 2009 -- the garage will become home to the Russian-Jewish Museum of Tolerance, said Alexander Boroda, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities.

Although a press release issued by the gallery included two short paragraphs devoted to the history of the garage, neither the building's future as a Jewish museum nor its connection to the Federation was mentioned.

Messages left at Zhukova's London press office were not returned. A Moscow spokesperson for Garage said it is unclear where the Center will move when construction work for the museum begins.

Zhukova, 27, is the daughter of an oil tycoon and girlfriend of Abramovich, one of Russia's wealthiest men.

The billionaire sponsored Garage's first major event, last month's exhibition by renowned emigre artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov. How much funding he contributed is undisclosed.

The Federation had already made plans with the Kabakovs to host their retrospective in the garage before Zhukova had expressed an interest in creating an art center there, according to Baruch Gorin, the organization's press secretary.

"It was on our initiative that Garage opened the exhibit," he said. "We weren't prepared to fund and organize the event and so we approached her to take the project over."

Several sources close to the Federation say the deal allowing Zhukova to use the space temporarily was worked out between Abramovich and Alexander Boroda, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, behind closed doors.

A spokesman for Abramovich denied that the billionaire had anything to do with Zhukova's acquisition of the space, and Boroda said that Zhukova was the only person he dealt with, and that Abramovich did nothing directly to influence the Federation's choice.

But Boroda nevertheless mentioned Abramovich, as a major reason for allowing Zhukova to use the space while plans for the museum were in development.

"We had other offers and options, but we picked her project because, first of all, Abramovich is the chairman of the board of trustees for the Federation," Boroda said. "And second of all, not many could develop a space that large and create a project on such a massive scale."

Neglected for years and nearly condemned to demolition, the garage was in need of massive restoration, some of which was undertaken by Zhukova for the cultural center's opening.

"The installment of electricity cables, the construction of a sewage system and other things, like cosmetic renovation, all need investment and the Center for Contemporary Culture will be investing in that," said Kireyev.

"The air-conditioning system and the expensive fire-safety system they installed will remain," said Baruch Gorin, the Federation's press secretary.

Boroda, on the other hand, insisted that almost everything the garage center installed would be taken down when the construction for the Jewish museum begins. Only "some of the building's systems will come in handy," he said.

Kireyev also said Zhukova's use of the space will help the Federation publicize and "brand" the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage as an important cultural landmark, which will help raise the profile of the Russian-Jewish museum.

"This is a collaborative effort to promote a cultural space," he said. "Now more people will know about the garage when it becomes the Jewish museum."