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In Conversation: Dasha Zhukova

1 October 2015

Dasha Zhukova is the founder of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, Garage Magazine and the non-profit IRIS Foundation.

On a 2015 visit to Doha to attend the International New York Times Art for Tomorrow Conference, Dasha spoke to us about her vision for contemporary art in Russia.

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Portrait of Dasha Zhukova leaning against a table featuring an architectural model

Dasha Zhukova Russian-American art collector, businesswoman, magazine editor, philanthropist and socialite

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the most successful contemporary art spaces in Moscow. Tell us more about your vision and the focus of the museum.

In the last four years, we’ve gone through significant structural development at Garage, which you could say is a process of transforming the institution from a platform for new ideas (or receiving house) to a place where people, art and ideas connect to make history (a production house).

In 2010, I invited Anton Belov to be Garage’s director, to spearhead building the Moscow team, as well as oversee the move to Gorky Park. In 2013, we hired Kate Fowle as the first chief curator, and together started to formalise a long-term creative vision for the organisation, which unites education, training, publishing and research programmes with expansive plans for an archive collection, as well as exhibitions of international and Russian art, design and architecture.

As such, Garage is operating much more closely to the privately-funded, publicly-minded model of a museum that we see, for example, in the United States with The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim, or the New Museum. It is the first philanthropic institution in Russia to create a comprehensive public mandate for contemporary art and culture, which is an interesting proposition to think through when the concept of “public” currently does not imply civic responsibility, nor exist functionally, insofar as there are only “private” or “state” enterprises. Another interesting challenge is that the word for modern and contemporary in Russian is the same, so the very concept of a contemporary museum is not one that is inherent in the language. This means our job is to introduce new models of what an art institution could be, working for local audiences but using an international perspective. Because of this, the creation of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art also means developing different infrastructural possibilities for culture in the future, including new patronage models that work within the evolving Russian system.

When did your passion for contemporary art begin?

I became interested in contemporary art around the time I was at university. That’s when I really started being drawn to artists and creatives. They had truly unique perspectives. Artists are living inspiration.

What impact do you hope your work will have?

It has become more essential than ever before to provide access to strong education and independent ideas in today’s Moscow. My belief is that contemporary art has the ability to create common ground among people across borders and backgrounds.

Tell us about Garage Magazine. Why art and fashion?

The Garage is a single entity, and both the museum and the magazine are extensions of that idea. We are biannual, and what makes us different from most magazines is the format we adopt, which is slightly larger. This makes it exciting for artists and fashions photographers that we collaborate with.

There has always been an overlap between art and fashion, especially more so in recent years. There are many contemporary fashion designers I would consider artists because of the type of almost architectural garments they make. Technology has been providing a wide range of possibilities for a lot of these designers and allows them to do incredible things on the runway. Every contemporary designer is an artist in a way.

Artists are society's greatest problem solvers.

Dasha Zhukova, Founder, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

What role does the artist have in society?

An artist is able to ignite a unique dialogue among people from different backgrounds, cultures, ideas and thoughts through visual language. A singular work of art can generate a myriad of diverse responses and provoke many questions. An artist provides introductions to new ideas and suggestions for tackling different issues. They are society's greatest problem solvers, in my eyes.

What excites you most about the future of Qatar's cultural sector?

I think that the programme at Mathaf is great, particularly with all the education initiatives that are taking place there.

Can Qatar learn from Russia's experience, in establishing a broad access to contemporary art and ideas?

I like to think that we can always learn from each other. It will be interesting to see how this might happen through the Qatar/Russia cultural year in 2018.

Tell us about the artistic process for you, from an idea and concept to delivery?

With any project, I make sure my collaborators and I agree on our approach to a project before we even begin. With the new Garage museum, Rem (Koolhaas) and I had a shared vision for the building from the start. What drew us to this building was our love for Stalinist-era architecture, which is not as appreciated right now as work from other time periods. The idea was to preserve Russian architectural history while maintaining consistency with the needs of a forward-thinking institution.

We didn’t want to transform it into something completely new and shiny. Instead, Rem decided to preserve a lot of the original elements and modernise them. He used a polycarbonate façade. We were able to preserve many of the original walls and tiling of the building. The interior has very few white cube spaces.

That said, we also wanted to remain flexible in our exhibition options. Therefore, OMA created a new system of hinged up white walls. We now have the option to either display the art on the tiles that we have preserved or, if the artwork calls for it, we can drop down white walls and create a more conventional exhibition space.

The project hopes to project both historical integrity and innovation. Engaging in these types of creative solutions are what I value in the artistic process.

Which artists do you find particularly inspiring right now?

One I've been thinking a lot about lately is Louise Bourgeois, as we are staging a large exhibition at Garage in September. Her work was so influential and inspiring to so many young artists, especially women. I think her spirit very much embodies what we are trying to achieve at Garage.

What do you love most about your job?

My greatest takeaway from Garage is the impact we are able to make in the realm of arts education. I have always been an advocate for education and looked for ways to expand Garage’s education programmes, which engage tens of thousands of Russians on an annual basis. Our audience is typically very young – the majority being 18-35. I love knowing that Garage serves as a creative outpost and cultural centre for not only those that come from creative fields like contemporary art, film, and literature but also hardworking, modern global youths of Russian at large.

What are the highlights of your working day?

I enjoy being surrounded by and working with a group of young people that make up my team. The average age of our team is 28 - they have a very distinct point of view. With fresh eyes, they allow us not only to bring a wholly innovative approach to the museum but also allow us to present a diverse and global perspective.