With Ukraine under siege from Moscow, Tate is facing calls to cut ties with Kremlin-linked billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, a patron of the London institution and a target of U.S. sanctions since 2008. Vekselberg, the founder of a Russian energy conglomerate associated with Vladimir Putin, is an honorary member of the Tate Foundation, the gallery confirmed to the Guardian.
“We need to use every single sanction available to us: financial, cultural and sporting. We can’t be the generation that stood by while naked aggression stalked Europe,” said Labour MP Chris Bryant. “Of course Putin supporters should be removed from our cultural institutions and galleries and museums should run a mile from blood-drenched Russian money.”
Vekselberg, whose fortune is estimated to be as much as $9.3 billion, is one of many Russian oligarchs to forge ties with Western cultural institutions since the fall of the Soviet Union. In addition to the Tate, he donated to New York venues the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall prior to his sanctioning. There are currently no U.K. sanctions on Vekselberg.
Over the past few decades, cultural patronage has emerged as an integral tool for rich Russians to exert influence in Europe and the United States—a so-called form of “soft power.” Vladimir O. Potanin, a banking magnate, has been a donor and board member of the Guggenheim Museum since 2002, and donated $6.45 million to the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Leonid Mikhelson, Russia’s one-time richest man and top art collector, helped underwrite a 2011 exhibition at the New Museum in Manhattan through his V-A-C Foundation. He was later appointed a trustee of the museum, a position he held even while his company, Novatek, was placed under sanctions by the U.S. government. His daughter Victoria, was until recently a member of the exclusive Tate International Council, consisting of major international collectors and philanthropists.
In a statement to the Guardian, a Tate spokesperson said, “Neither of these individuals are current donors, and there are no UK sanctions on any of Tate’s supporters.”
Last week, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson prematurely closed his exhibition at Moscow’s new GES-2 House of Culture, financed by Mikhelson’s foundation. The center opened in December with a ceremony attended by Putin. “It is not possible to have this work when this horror begins,” Kjartansson told the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service – Ríkisútvarpið, calling Russia a “fascist state.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music are among the Western museums to accept gifts from wealthy Russians or the companies they manage.