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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Novatek Sponsors Samara Art Show

BloombergA Bolshevik leader being held by a comrade in Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's 1928 work titled "Death of a Commissar."
Billionaire Leonid Mikhelson's company Novatek is sponsoring Russia's first exhibition of a state museum's works by a private gallery, with a display of 30 masterpieces by 20th-century master Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

The company, Russia's second-biggest gas producer, is making history 860 kilometers southeast of Moscow at the Victoria Gallery in the Volga city of Samara. Patronage is aiding Russian culture despite the decline in economic growth, stocks and the ruble.

Some of the paintings, known to many Russians since childhood, show a Bolshevik leader dying on the battlefield and a peasant riding a red horse that sails off into the sky.

"Novatek doesn't abandon friends in hard times," deputy chairman Vladimir Smirnov said in an interview. "We will continue to finance exhibitions at leading Russian museums." The pieces are on loan from St. Petersburg's State Russian Museum.

Shows of this caliber are rare outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, as most regional museums lack modern premises. The Victoria Gallery, however, has one of Russia's most modern spaces and is helped by Novatek's patronage: Some of the company's executives, including Mikhelson, grew up in the region.

"The Samara region is our motherland," Smirnov said. "People in Moscow and St. Petersburg have more ways to spend free time. This isn't the case for people in the provinces."

Before the financial crisis, the company's market value was about $15 billion. Three of its main shareholders are among the Forbes list of the 100 richest Russians.

The show marks the 130th anniversary of painter Petrov-Vodkin, a shoemaker's son who explored mystical topics. His symbolist works combine vivid color and images of Russian icons.

"Fantasy" (1925) features a levitating horse. "Herring" (1918) shows a fish on a table with bread and potatoes. "Death of a Commissar" (1928) shows a Bolshevik in a leather jacket; a comrade holds him in his arms.

Unlike Gazprom, Novatek isn't a household name. Still, the company has emerged as a supporter of the arts in the past two years.

Novatek CEO Leonid Mikhelson
With its sponsorship, the Samara Museum of Art has exhibited treasures from the Tretyakov Gallery and the Kremlin Museum. In November 2006, Novatek sponsored a show of 20 Russian artworks, consigned to Christie's International for a London auction, at the Victoria Gallery.

Novatek is also a supporter of violist and conductor Yury Bashmet and his orchestra, Moscow Soloists, who won a Grammy in 2008 for best small ensemble performance. The company also supports St. Petersburg's basketball team Spartak, and it sponsors shows at the Russian Museum and the Kremlin Museum.

Novatek's next big project this year is financing the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in June. The company is the main sponsor and has pledged 300,000 euros ($385,700). MasterCard Worldwide is another sponsor of the pavilion, while the Russian government will pay about 10 percent of the costs.

"Without Novatek's support, it wouldn't have been possible to pull this off," said Olga Sviblova, chairwoman of the Russian Pavilion. "Most Russian companies prefer to support classical art, not contemporary art."

Mikhelson is a collector of Russian fine art. While he declined to comment about his collection, art dealers say he prefers 19th-century and early 20th-century Russian art.

Born in a town on the Caspian Sea in Dagestan, Mikhelson graduated in 1977 from Samara's Civil Engineering Institute. Before helping to create Novatek in 1994, he spent most of his career building gas pipelines.

In April 2008, Forbes estimated Mikhelson's fortune at $5.9 billion and ranked him as Russia's 27th-richest person. Among other shareholders, Gennady Timchenko, who founded Swiss-registered oil trader Gunvor, was ranked 43rd and was worth $2.5 billion; Leonid Simanovsky was 97th and worth $1.2 billion.