In a rare interview, Victor Pinchuk tells us about his plans to build a new contemporary art space in Kiev

A “landmark” museum for Ukraine


Post-Soviet Kiev is a city in transformation. There are new shops and restaurants; airports are expanding, and the Olympic stadium is being revamped in preparation for the 2012 European football championships to be hosted jointly by Ukraine and Poland. But perhaps nothing exemplifies change in the country’s capital so much as the crowds queuing up to see sharks in formaldehyde, balloon rabbits in stainless steel, and sculptures of sperm-wielding adolescents, works by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami respectively. All three artists have been shown for the first time in Ukraine at the Pinchuk Art Centre (PAC), a private museum of contemporary art in the centre of Kiev, which has just celebrated its fifth birthday.

Since its opening in 2006, nearly 1.2 million people have visited the gallery, which charges no admission and also includes a bookshop and a trendy bar with views over the city. Of these visitors, 60% are aged between 16 and 30. “Our society, especially young people, accepted contemporary art in a great way, in an unexpected way… there is a huge appetite for it,” says Victor Pinchuk, the steel magnate and billionaire who finances the museum and who has put himself at the centre of efforts to modernise Ukraine.

Pinchuk recently gave The Art Newspaper a rare interview on his estate outside Kiev, where he told us the success of his gallery has encouraged him to attempt a bigger, much more ambitious museum project. PAC is currently housed in an early 20th-century building in central Kiev which was once a hotel. But Pinchuk now wants to give it a new home in a purpose-built gallery designed by a top international architectural firm.

“It has to be an important building for our country, for our city. It has to be a destination for sightseeing tours in Kiev. I hope the image of this art centre will be on the most popular postcards… it has to be,” he says.

PAC hosts temporary exhibitions curated by museum staff and also shows a rotating display of work from Pinchuk’s own collection. The new gallery, in an “iconic” building, will do the same, says Pinchuk, who believes it could be ready within five years. He will not reveal the architects he is considering for the museum, however sources close to the project suggest Switzerland’s Herzog & de Meuron have been hired for the job.

An embarrassment of riches

Victor Pinchuk is an easy man to like. He is funny and charming and likes to gossip. He is also very, very rich. He trained as an engineer in the Soviet era, gaining a PhD from the Metallurgical Institute in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, before setting up his own company in 1990 to manufacture a new kind of metal tubing that he had invented. He went on to sell it all over the former Soviet Union. His fortune increased further after he met and married Elena, the daughter of the ex-president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma. The family connection helped Pinchuk secure Ukraine’s Kryvorizhstal steel company for $850m when the industry was privatised. Following the Orange Revolution, the sale was rescinded and the company was sold again, this time to Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for $4.8bn. Despite the setback, Pinchuk has gone on to even greater success. He diversified and in 2006 set up EastOne Ltd, an investment advisory company which controls several TV stations and the most popular tabloid newspaper in the country, as well as multiple industrial assets. Today, Forbes estimates Pinchuk’s fortune at $3.3bn.

With that much spending power comes enormous influence. Although Pinchuk has only taken a serious interest in art in the last five years, he is courted by museum directors the world over. When Pinchuk asks for a favour, one imagines few turn him down. Alfred Pacquement, Glenn Lowry, Richard Armstrong and Nicholas Serota, respectively directors of the Pompidou, MoMA, the Guggenheim and Tate, all serve on the board of Pinchuk’s Future Generation Art Prize, a $100,000 award given every two years to an artist under 35 of any nationality.

When we visit Pinchuk on a sunny day in late spring, it is the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, Julia Peyton-Jones, who has come calling. It is the morning after the opening of an Olafur Eliasson exhibition at PAC, the artist’s first in eastern Europe, and we are sitting in a small circle in the 50-acre grounds of Pinchuk’s home outside Kiev. As well as Eliasson and Peyton-Jones, the other guests include the American ambassador to Ukraine and his wife; Eckhard Schneider, general director of PAC and curator of the Eliasson show; and Pinchuk’s parents.

To get here we drove through a dense forest, but the landscape surrounding us now is a perfect replica of a traditional Japanese garden. There are wooden bridges, ponds filled with carp, scholars’ stones and hundreds of Japanese maples, each one apparently approved by Pinchuk.

Pinchuk, it turns out, is a fan of all things Japanese. He tells me he recently flew to Kanazawa on the north coast of Japan as part of his search for an international architect to design his new museum. He stayed just a few hours, long enough to visit the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art designed by leading museum architects Sanaa. “I flew especially… to see that building. Of course, for me it was an additional inspiration, they have a beautiful Japanese garden there and a fantastic Japanese restaurant.”

To those who know him only through the art he puts on display in his museum, Pinchuk’s tranquil garden is a surprise. The man who brought Richard Prince’s photos of nurses in pornographic poses and Paul McCarthy’s videos of sado-masochist sex to Ukrainian audiences for the first time, has rather more conservative taste in his own home.

But then the art he is putting on public display has a clear purpose: to introduce young Ukrainians to international ideas and help modernise their way of thinking. If it sounds like a lofty ambition, Pinchuk has no doubts that the strategy works.

“The change [in young people’s mentality], you can feel it very fast. To have material results will take time. For example, these people [visiting the gallery] will become citizens, they will be more active in the life of the society, some of them will go into politics, they will become decision makers [and] they will be more modern. I absolutely believe that contemporary art is one of the most revolutionary forces in the world and it works. I am absolutely sure.”

Pinchuk, who himself served two terms as a member of parliament, preaches with the zeal of the recently converted. By his own admission, he knew nothing about contemporary art just a few years ago. I first met him at the Venice Biennale in 2005 when he gave me a tour of the Palazzo Papadopoli, an elegant 16th-century palace on the Grand Canal which Pinchuk used that year, and at every biennale since, to show art from his collection or to present Ukraine’s official biennale pavilion. Standing in front of Olafur Eliasson’s walk-in circular construction of steel lozenges which seems to change shape as the lights within vary in intensity, Pinchuk explained that the shippers had struggled to get the piece into the building. Pinchuk had suggested a simple, if somewhat drastic, solution: chop off the top of the installation.

Now Pinchuk describes the 2005 biennale as “absolutely inspiring and educational… I came back from Venice… and within one or two months we bought the PAC space and we started to make renovations… One year after Venice we opened.”

A source close to Pinchuk, who asked not to be named, sheds further light on the billionaire’s motivations. Pinchuk’s father in law, Leonid Kuchma, had been implicated in the murder in 2000 of an investigative journalist, Georgiy Gongadze (Kuchma was finally charged with involvement in the killing earlier this year. He denies the charge and says it is politically motivated). The family was battered by bad headlines and Pinchuk hired a PR company based in Paris to help. One of their recommendations was to buy art and put it on public display.

The opening of PAC is just one of Pinchuk’s acts of philanthropy. For around two decades he has been funding medical training and equipment for premature babies, and has put money into Aids care. He is investing in the training of the country’s future leaders by funding higher education, by creating a School of Economics in Kiev and a co-operation programme with the Aspen Institute in Colorado. He supports Jewish community programmes and helped fund a documentary, in collaboration with Steven Spielberg, about the Holocaust in Ukraine.

Pinchuk is also the leading promoter of Ukraine on the global stage. He hosts a session at Davos every year, collaborates with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and others on international initiatives, and he hosts an annual conference at Yalta to promote Ukraine’s entry into the EU.

A bad time to buy

In 2005 Pinchuk was a new collector in a hurry to buy art with hundreds of millions to spend. Over the next few years he acquired voraciously as prices for contemporary art were reaching their peak. His focus was work produced in the 21st century and he concentrated on just a handful of artists who he describes as the “pillars” of his collection. “I love very much artists like Bacon, Picasso, Rothko, but I didn’t buy a single painting by them,” explains Pinchuk, “because I think I don’t have even the smallest chance to build a serious collection of that period. Other people have already built great collections… maybe as a collector I have a chance… to make a serious contribution to the next page of this book about art history. Maybe my story will be about the period of art from 2000 to 2010 or 2020. No longer than 20 or 30 years. Maybe there is a niche for that and maybe on this page I will be one of the interesting participants. Just a few collectors have this focus, especially in this part of the world. This is important because we are one of the few institutions between Berlin and the far east, there are not many institutions in this part of the world.”

Behind closed doors

When we visit PAC, a selection of the Pinchuk collection is on display on the top floor, above the floors devoted to Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition. But an even more interesting selection is shown in the Pinchuks’ office. Occupying an entire floor of a new skyscraper in downtown Kiev, the Pinchuk work space is sleek, smart and crammed with art. On one side are the headquarters of Pinchuk’s EastOne Limited group, on the other are the offices of Elena Pinchuk’s Aids foundation. In the foyer that serves as entrance to both corporate spaces are matching his and hers spin paintings by Damien Hirst. There are more Hirst canvases—spins, spots, butterflies, skulls—as well as an enormous pill cabinet. There are works by Gary Hume, Andreas Gursky, Sarah Morris, Sam Taylor Wood and at least five large sculptures by Antony Gormley. There is an entire wall of flower paintings by Takashi Murakami and the works by Jeff Koons include a version of the giant Cracked Egg (Blue), 1994-2006.

It’s an intriguing list, not least because, with the exception of Gagosian artists Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, every artist shown here is an artist represented by the London gallery White Cube. Although Pinchuk has occasionally bought at auction, most notably paying $23.6m for Koons’s Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), 1994-2006, at Sotheby’s New York in November 2007 and temporarily setting a new auction record for a work by a living artist, much of the art he bought in this period was acquired from a single source: White Cube founder Jay Jopling.

“Pinchuk liked Jay and Larry [Gagosian],” says a source close to the collector who asked not to be named. “He didn’t want to meet any other dealers. He wanted to buy only from them. Then, after a while, it was just Jay.” Pinchuk bought so much art from White Cube that in one year alone he is said to have spent around $180m with the London gallery.

The clear temptation for any dealer with such a keen and rich buyer in a hurry, particularly one who knows little about art, is to encourage him to purchase work that more discerning buyers wouldn’t look twice at. It is Pinchuk, after all, who bought numerous paintings by Damien Hirst based on cancerous cells which were shown in June 2007 at the White Cube exhibition “Beyond Belief”. From the same show the Ukrainian bought a number of the artist’s so-called “Birth paintings”, painted by studio assistants and chronicling the birth of Hirst’s son Cyrus. Neither cycle is likely to be remembered as Hirst’s finest work. Even worse are the Bacon-inspired blue paintings made by Hirst himself which were shown first at PAC and then in October 2009 at the Wallace Collection in London. Pinchuk owns several of them. Rarely has so much money been spent so quickly on so much bad art.

Critics? What critics?

Does Pinchuk care that Hirst’s own paintings were universally panned by critics? “Different people have different opinions,” says Pinchuk. “It’s not only about Damien Hirst, it’s about Warhol, Bacon… in the past [people] thought [their work] was not so important. I am not in a hurry. I believe that some of these artists—Hirst, Koons, Murakami—will represent the 21st century in the future. This is my vision. Maybe I am right, maybe I am wrong, but this is my personal take… I am a private collector, I have the right to make mistakes. I don’t want to be seen as a really crazy guy but I also have the right to present these artists to the future.”

He also says he is not too bothered about the fluctuations in price of the works he buys. “This is not a financial investment.”

What saves Pinchuk’s collection from being a museum of Jay Jopling is that the Ukrainian has started to widen his scope. He says he now prefers to buy directly from artists, rather than dealers, and he has started to add a number of Chinese works to his collection. One of them is Shi Xinning’s Yalta, 2002, a painting which shows Mao Zedong sitting alongside Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the 1945 wartime conference in Crimea. Pinchuk brought the Chinese painting with him one year to show participants at his annual Yalta conference.

And this is the single most attractive quality about Pinchuk as a collector. He genuinely appears to believe in the power of art to encourage debate and influence lives. You can like the art bought by Pinchuk or you can hate it, but what you can’t deny is that the collector has given people who are interested in contemporary art and culture a place to go in Kiev. They may go there to admire his exhibitions or to argue about them and disapprove but that, after all, is what modern society is all about.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A “landmark” museum for Ukraine'