Russian Oligarch Steps Down as Guggenheim Trustee as Outrage Grows Over Ukraine Invasion

Russian billionaire Vladimir Potanin has stepped down from his role as trustee at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The news comes as cultural institutions worldwide face pressure to sever ties with Russian oligarchs and Kremlin associates amid mounting indignation over the invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, the Guggenheim did not cite the reason for Potanin’s departure but expressed its opposition to the war.

“Vladimir Potanin has advised the Board of Trustees of his decision to step down as Trustee effective immediately,” the museum said. “The Guggenheim accepts this decision and thanks Mr. Potanin for his service to the Museum and his support of exhibition, conservation and educational programs. The Guggenheim strongly condemns the Russian invasion and unprovoked war against the government and people of Ukraine.

Potanin, who served as Russia’s first deputy prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin, maintains ties with current President Vladimir Putin and was among 13 billionaires summoned to a meeting at the Kremlin last week, according to Forbes. During Yeltsin’s administration, Potanin was one of the principal authors of the infamous “loans for” scheme, in which the government traded ownership in state-owned companies for bank loans — a Russian voters bitterly dubbed policy prikhvatizatsiya, or “grabification.” Potanin, then president of Oneksim Bank, was one of the program’s beneficiaries, securing a stake in Norilsk Nickel, the largest producer of refined nickel in the world.

For the last two decades, he has lent financial support to numerous initiatives at the Guggenheim through his foundation, including an 800-year survey of Russian art in 2005 and a conservation fellowship in 2019. Among the most recent projects sponsored by Potanin’s foundation is an exhibition of approximately 80 works by the Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky currently on view at the museum. Since the oligarch’s departure from the board, the Guggenheim has removed his name from the list of funders of the show on its website.

In the last week, a number of arts organizations have willingly cut ties with Russian moguls or come under scrutiny for those relationships. On Tuesday, March 1, Russian banking magnate Petr Aven stepped down as a trustee of the Royal Academy in London, which also returned a donation he made to a forthcoming Francis Bacon exhibition. Aven was included in the European Union’s recent list of sanctions, described as “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs.”

London’s Tate Foundation, which supports acquisitions funding and other projects for the Tate’s museums, has been asked to divest from Viktor Vekselberg, a Ukrainian-born aluminum baron and Putin associate. Before he was sanctioned by the United States in 2018, Vekselberg also made donations to New York’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

The Tate has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. The museum told the Guardian that Vekselberg is not a current donor, adding that “there are no UK sanctions on any of Tate’s supporters.”

Meanwhile, state-backed museums in Russia are facing a different form of backlash, with some artists withdrawing works from these institutions as a gesture of protest. On February 25, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson announced his decision to halt performances of a work he created for the GES-2 House of Culture in Moscow. The museum was founded by Leonid Mikhelson, one of Russia’s wealthiest men, who has been described as an ally of Putin. Novatek, an energy company in which he owns a 25% stake, has also been the target of US sanctions.

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