Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia's richest men and a major benefactor of the arts, who has been closely associated with President Vladimir Putin, is to step down from the board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York "effective immediately", the institution said in a statement on 2 March. Potanin had held the position of trustee for 20 years.
The news comes as cultural institutions across the world grapple with how to respond meaningfully to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Potanin funded numerous Guggenheim exhibitions of artists from Russia and beyond during his time as a trustee, including the current show of the celebrated abstract pioneer Wassily Kandinsky, who was born in Moscow but spent his childhood in Odessa, Ukraine.
In a statement thanking Potanin for his service, the New York institution also pointedly denounced Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, saying: “The Guggenheim strongly condemns the Russian invasion and unprovoked war against the government and people of Ukraine.”
Potanin's resignation came less than 24 hours after US President Joe Biden's State of the Union address on 1 March, in which he said: “Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime, no more.”
President Biden also announced that the Justice Department would “assemble a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs”.
Potanin is the second wealthiest man in Russia, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His investments span mining, metals, energy, finance, retail and real estate. Potanin briefly served as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia in 1996-97, under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.
Potanin initially made his fortune via the loans-for-shares auctions programme in Russia after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, which allowed him and others in his network to buy huge numbers of shares in formerly state-owned Soviet industries.
Potanin made headlines in 2016 when companies he owned were the first to acquire a suite of assets in Iran after sanctions linked to the country’s nuclear missile programme were lifted.
In 2018, he was included on what became known as the "Putin list", a document released by the US Treasury Department listing 210 Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin, who rose to prominence under the current Russian president.
Potanin has been a long-term supporter of Russian culture in the Western sphere. In addition to supporting the Guggenheim, his foundation donated millions of dollars to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
In Russia, Potanin is also chairman of the board of trustees of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, a position he has held since 2003.
Potanin is the only Russian billionaire to have signed the Giving Pledge, set up by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, whose signatories promise to donate at least half of their wealth to charity.
He is not the only Russian oligarch to sever ties with Western cultural institutions as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. On 1 March, Petr Aven, the chair of Alfa-Bank, Russia's largest commercial bank, stepped down as a trustee at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Royal Academy also announced it would return a donation from Aven which helped to fund its current exhibition, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast.
Aven has announced plans to build a museum in the centre of Riga, Latvia, where his art collection will be exhibited. It remains to be seen whether the project will go ahead after Aven was included on the EU's sanctions list related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.