A lot has changed for Russian-born philanthropist, collector, and entrepreneur Dasha Zhukova over the past decade. In the last two years alone, she celebrated a new marriage (to Greek shipping heir Stavros Niarchos), the birth of her third child, and her 40th birthday. She’s been spending more time in New York, where she lives on the Upper East Side, and amid all her other personal life changes, she has also been moving into the next phase of her journey as a public figure. She transformed her Garage Center for Contemporary Culture into a full-fledged museum. She started a magazine—also called Garage—that she sold to Vice Media and then reacquired. She has brought her largesse and expertise to bear on the boards of some of the world’s biggest art institutions. She has started a forward-looking art-and-real-estate venture. And all the while, she has continued to build her reputation as a powerful art collector in her own right.
Not that being busy is anything new for her. When I first interviewed Zhukova 10 years ago, she had recently cofounded the Garage Center (which changed its name to the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art three years later) with Roman Abramovich, her partner at the time, from whom she split in 2017. She had shown a group of Mark Rothko paintings worth $150 million at Garage and was gearing up for an exhibition of work by performance art star Marina Abramović. She’d joined the board at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and helped director Michael Govan get loans from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. She’d invested in an art startup, the website Artsy; she’d been the editor of the British fashion magazine Pop; and she was getting ready to move Garage to a more central location in Moscow, in Gorky Park. Collecting multimillion-dollar masterpieces by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Zhukova had quickly become, as I wrote back then, “a symbol, not only of a new Russia that wanted to invest recently made billions in cultural endeavors but also of the buying power of emerging markets generally.”
In 2011 Zhukova and I spoke over salads at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel during Oscars week, not far from Steve Martin’s table. (Zhukova was born in Russia but spent part of her childhood in L.A.) This time around, we chatted via Zoom. The setting had changed, but what had changed even more was Zhukova’s enhanced confidence and self-assuredness. She is no longer a symbol of anything but herself.
Zhukova is at her most animated when talking about Garage. Asked when she realized she had made a difference with the institution, the first of its kind in Russia, she joked that it was when it turned up as the subject of a clue on Jeopardy! (Answer: “The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art has begun a revitalization of this Moscow park.” Question: “What is Gorky Park?”) But in all seriousness, she said, the main measure has been the reactions of visitors. In 2011 she talked about making the institution “more democratic … for people who don’t know art”; she has kept that promise, and then some. Having turned 13 this year, Garage is “transforming into an increasingly complex organism,” Zhukova said. There’s a comprehensive education program, the first public library in Russia focused on contemporary art, and a vast archive of art through the ages, with research and publishing programs built around it. And film and performing arts of different kinds have become an integral part of Garage’s offerings.
“We’ve also established a new approach toward private support,” Zhukova said. Through a program of private patronage, Garage now has “a community of more than 80 patrons,” she said. And, most important, it has started an endowment, a distinction that separates private museums built to last—like the Broad in Los Angeles—from those that could fizzle out when their founders pass on. “This is a restoration of the Russian tradition of private support of socially important institutions,” Zhukova said. “I hope this paves the way for our future, and Garage will become an independent institution that will stand on its own.” The departure of Kate Fowle—Garage chief curator for six years, who left in 2019 to head up MoMA PS1, an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art in New York—was a loss, but it also put a feather in Zhukova’s cap: she handed someone off to the world’s most prominent institution for modern art.
As a museum leader, Fowle said, Zhukova brings an inspiring sense of curiosity and leads with an open mind. “She’s always inquisitive,” her former director said. “She always wants to know more. And she leads by having conversations with people. She never made decisions out of the blue that were absolute directives. She looks to collaboration. She spends a lot of time listening.”
Top collectors have been opening private museums around the world at a rapid rate over the past two decades, and most of them are essentially showcases for the collectors’ holdings. Garage is different. Zhukova, Fowle said, “is interested in how to develop institutions for today. That doesn’t mean just opening a place that presents her collection. She’s been giving resources to projects that aren’t necessarily going to result in end products that could be artworks. She’s been really pushing research [and] things that create a stronger foundation for how she’s actually supporting artists and art, rather than just collecting. She’s thinking about conducive places that need to be created for artists of all kinds, whether it’s theater, architecture, or art.”
What has characterized Garage in recent years is, as Russian curator Viktor Misiano has observed, its ability to be truly “glocal.” Even as it brings global art to Moscow, it supports local and regional organizations through grants and programming and is spearheading the Four Museums program, a groundbreaking collaboration between Garage and Moscow’s other three leading art institutions, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, and GES-2 by the V-A-C Foundation. Zhukova said Garage is invested in questions like, “How do we measure our responsibility as an institution for our community?”
Much of Zhukova’s work with Garage has been about placemaking, through work with celebrated architects like Rem Koolhaas, who designed the Gorky Park building, and Shigeru Ban. Around five years ago, she started to think about the fact that, for most people, their sole interaction with art happens in the very structured confines of museums, and wondered what it might mean to bring that experience—“the beauty or delight or meaning [of] art”—into day-to-day life. “I started to think about what it might mean to create conditions for a wider audience, to have that personal interaction. I thought through how people spend their time socially, professionally, personally. There’s been a lot of entrepreneurship around coworking and office spaces, the digital communities. I just noticed there’s been very little attention [given to] the residential space.”
Thus was born her latest venture, Ray, a real estate development firm focused on offering cultural programming in residential buildings. “We start with thoughtful architecture,” Zhukova said. “We consider how design can support experiences and what unique possibilities come with building exterior artist interventions on the facade to maybe a thoughtfully curated art program in interior spaces.”
The 53-year-old National Black Theater in Harlem will reopen in 2024 in a 21-story building on 125th Street, as part of a project that Ray is working on in partnership with another development firm and with Sade Lythcott, director of the theater and daughter of its founder. Lythcott told The Wall Street Journal that the “project and partnership have felt [like] kismet from the time Dasha and I first met in 2019, not around aesthetics or Ray’s business model, but around our mothers. What it has meant to be women raised by fearless matriarchs.” (Zhukova’s is a molecular biologist.) Another building that Ray is working on in Philadelphia will feature an installation piece by Rashid Johnson, one of whose enormous ceramic tile works from 2019 is in Zhukova’s personal collection. Yet another project, in Miami’s up-and-coming Little River neighborhood, will see Ray partnering with the artist residency organization Oolite Arts to provide space for artists in a building there.
“Ray really centers around what it means to have art as a core value when you design and build space,” Zhukova said. “Hopefully, we’re creating a new model for traditional industries to consider how they can impact people’s lives by inviting art and culture into the day-to-day environment.”
For Zhukova, the vision for Ray recalls what she started with Garage. When she announced Ray this past spring, she told The Wall Street Journal she had noticed that visitors to her museum would keep coming back, even after they’d already seen everything on view. She told me she has had the same feeling herself. “I didn’t want to leave the Garage,” she said. “I’d run out of everything that I had to do that day, and I’d make up things to do. I found the proximity to art and to that energy really, really compelling.”
As a collector with a wide-ranging sensibility that she often refers to as quirky, Zhukova is never very far from art. In her own residential spaces—in addition to New York, she has houses in Moscow and Connecticut—she lives in the company of everything from a figurative painting by Mark Tansey to an abstract one by Piet Mondrian; from animal-shaped bronze sculptures by Urs Fischer to a Surrealist painting of breasts by René Magritte; from one of James Turrell’s immersive light installations to paintings by Peter Doig and Anselm Kiefer.
LACMA director Michael Govan said Zhukova is “steeped in a modernist idiom. She has a classical sense of great modern art, but she’s also very open. She’s not dogmatic.”
She’s also not a speculator. “There’s a faction of the art world that has a focus on investment and speculation,” Zhukova said, “but that’s never been the primary reason to collect art, for me.” Rather than investment value, what she looks for is a certain level of complexity—a quality in an artwork that rewards repeated viewing. “Living with art is a layered experience,” she said, “and sometimes I’ll notice something new after a year of living with and looking at a work every single day. I prefer art that opens up over time, or presents some sort of challenge.”
Two large paintings in her collection fit that bill particularly well. Paula Rego’s 7-foot-tall The Policeman’s Daughter (1987), formerly in the collection of Rego champion Charles Saatchi, is a highly charged image of a young woman vigorously polishing a black boot. “I find it so bold,” Zhukova said of Rego’s work. “It’s always very strong women. [Yet,] there is a certain softness and strength.” In David Hockney’s 12-foot-wide Beverly Hills Housewife (1966–67), a woman stands on the patio of a well-appointed modernist home, gazing off into the distance, suggesting the question: what might she be thinking?
The Hockney depicts another accomplished female art collector and philanthropist, Betty Freeman, who, not unlike Zhukova herself, was a big supporter of boundary-pushing contemporary art—in Freeman’s case avant-garde musical composers like Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and John Cage. Freeman bought the painting from Hockney when it was complete, and cherished it until her death in 2009. Though Zhukova herself would not measure her prescience in dollar signs, the painting would now sell for multiples of what Zhukova paid: a few years ago, one Hockney California painting sold for $90.3 million.
Artworks by female artists comprise a good portion of Zhukova’s collection, but gender is not a primary factor for her. “There are an overwhelming number of female artists in my collection, but that wasn’t a calculated decision,” she said of holdings that include a fiery 1912 painting by Natalia Goncharova, a huge bronze Louise Bourgeois Spider, and more recent works by Jenny Saville, Bunny Rogers, Sarah Crowner, Cindy Sherman, and Taryn Simon, among others. “It was purely intuitive. My approach is organic and casual—I don’t think of art as a competitive sport. It’s just not my personality. I can miss a show or a fair. I want to live with works that touch me and give me a sense of wonder and balance.”
One way she finds out about new artists is through the artists she already collects, like L.A.-based painter Jonas Wood. “I love seeing what he’s working on but also what he’s collecting,” she said of a favorite whose studio she frequents. “You come into the studio and there’s all this other art on the wall—artists that he’s following and collecting. I leave the studio and I’m googling these names, because half the time I’ve never heard of them.” She’s also gotten ideas from Takashi Murakami, himself a prodigious collector of traditional ceramics and other art forms in Japan. “I love to immerse myself in this other world and get to know an artist not only by looking at their work but really seeing their environment and their interests.”
Zhukova’s interest in modernism extends to design. She owns pieces like Pierre Paulin’s Élysée Bookcase, a modular unit he created in 1972 for the residence of French President Georges Pompidou at the Élysée Palace, and a bronze-and-glass Expansion Table from 1977 that marked a rare move into the furniture world by French sculptor César. Design dealer Suzanne Demisch, of the New York gallery Demisch Danant, said Zhukova acquired both “before they were known and popular—she is a forward-thinker.”
Thinking about the future has served Zhukova well on the boards of established and emerging institutions both. A member of LACMA’s board since 2009, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s since 2016, she became a founding board member of the Shed in 2017, two years before the New York art and performance venue opened in Hudson Yards.
“The thing I’d say about Dasha, which is not always the case [with] what you traditionally think of as boards, is that she’s quite forward-looking,” said Alex Poots, director of the Shed. “She doesn’t take that formulaic approach of, ‘Well, here’s what’s worked in the past—now let’s copy it.’ She has a progressive approach.”
While not on the same scale, Poots compares Zhukova’s style of giving to that of MacKenzie Scott, the increasingly high-profile ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The New York Times has called Scott’s approach to philanthropy “highly unconventional” in that, even as she gives away large allotments of her ever-growing fortune—nearly $9 billion over the past two years—she has not done so through traditional channels such as a foundation with a staff that pores over grant applications.
Poots pointed to Ray’s project with the National Black Theater in Harlem, which is framed as a partnership. “It’s a smart approach because it’s not this kind of noble, on-high gift to them,” said Poots. “They’re both trying to create something that might be sustainable—you plant the seed and it grows into something strong and powerful. It’s thinking about redressing the systemic imbalances that exist in our society. It’s an inventive way to support that organization—not a particularly traditional philanthropic way, but a way that empowers them. When you have significant wealth like she does, you should be generous with it—but also smart.”
On the board at LACMA, Govan said, Zhukova has been a strong supporter of satellite campuses that the museum plans to open around Los Angeles in an effort to establish what Govan has called a “decentered museum for a decentered metropolis.” She has also been a strong proponent of the forthcoming LACMA flagship on Wilshire Boulevard designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, and proved “instrumental in advocating for the architecture,” said Govan. “I would call her a cultural entrepreneur. She’s doing it for the future of serving larger audiences. She’s leading the push [for projects that are] bold, specific, and future oriented.”
Max Hollein, appointed head of the Met three years ago, said that Zhukova is “making a big difference, and, for me, as a director, she’s a great partner in moving the institution forward.” She has taken a special interest in the museum’s digital initiatives, chairing a visiting committee—a group of supporters who are closely involved with the digital department’s offerings—in 2019 and 2020. In the challenging times since, those offerings enabled the museum to stay connected to—and even grow—its audience during periods of pandemic-related lockdown.
“She strongly believes in potential outreach and presence that goes far beyond the physical building,” Hollein said of Zhukova’s support of programs such as elaborate online “primers” that the museum offers to accompany exhibitions, with in-depth podcasts featuring artists and curators. Hollein attributed her affinity for media to her roots with Garage magazine and with other digital entities like Artsy.
“She has her finger on the pulse,” Hollein continued. “She and I can have very informed conversations. What I like about Dasha is that she immediately gets it when we talk about what we’re doing, what we’re planning, who is involved—and makes suggestions about how she can help or improve that approach, whether through her experience or her connections. She’s deeply committed but also is very colorful and has a certain energy and vibe that helps an institution of this type.”
That same energy and vibe has helped Zhukova bring her own kind of color to the institution of art collecting as well as her appreciation of art as more than just what sits on a pedestal or hangs on a wall. “Whatever we think a museum is, first and foremost, it’s a collection of people,” she said. “People are the lifeblood of museums. Without them and the vision and the work that they’re doing, it’s essentially just a collection of objects.”