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PayoutSource: The New Yorker. Author: Rebecca Mead. Published on December 14th, 2009
There are a number of phrases that are typically used to identify Victor Pinchuk, who flew into town last week to attend a party at the Gramercy Park Hotel. “The second-richest man in Ukraine” is one of them; “the owner of six television stations and the most popular newspaper in the country” is another, as is “friend of Bill Clinton,” “friend of Elton John,” and “son-in-law of the former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.” But Pinchuk came to New York in another capacity: that of influential art collector—one of the top two hundred in the world, according to ARTnews—and the founder of the Pinchuk Art Centre, his private museum in Kiev. The purpose of his visit was to announce the launch of the Future Generation Art Prize, an award of a hundred thousand dollars, to be given biennially to a young artist. “I arrived this morning, and I am going to fly back tonight, after this,” said Pinchuk, who wore an impeccable dark suit and a white shirt open at the collar, and who was looking as fresh after such travels as only a man of his material endowments can. On the way home, he said, he was going to make a stop in Düsseldorf, to drop off Andreas Gursky, the photographer. “Of course, of course—we’re all Europeans,” he said, with a shrug.
Pinchuk, who is forty-eight, has dark, closely cropped hair, an imposing profile, and a manner of instant intimacy of the sort sometimes adopted by movie stars when thrown into social situations with the less famous: the guiding hand on the elbow; the ironical, twinkling eyes; the murmured, inconsequential confidence. He trained as an engineer in the Soviet era and made his fortune in steel piping in post-Communist Ukraine. He has been collecting contemporary art for only five years, but what he lacks in experience he makes up for in intensity. Among Pinchuk’s purchases: Gursky’s “99 Cent II Diptychon,” for which he reportedly paid $3.3 million in 2007, thereby making it the world’s most expensive photograph. (Gursky had flown in the previous day for the party, in spite of other commitments. “It’s a really bad time, right before Christmas,” he said, admitting that the ride to Düsseldorf made things easier.) “His collection is tremendously concentrated—he tends to buy in great quantity, and has very high standards,” Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim, who is on the board of the Pinchuk prize, said. (Armstrong visited Kiev last year, where he enjoyed a dinner in a Japanese teahouse on the grounds of Pinchuk’s estate.) “He has a great collection of Koonses,” Eli Broad, the collector from Los Angeles, who is also on Pinchuk’s board, said. (Pinchuk paid a reported twenty-three million dollars for “Hanging Heart,” a sculpture by Jeff Koons, in 2007.) “And he did the best show I’ve ever seen of Damien Hirst,” Broad added. (Pinchuk reportedly owns half of Hirst’s current show in London, at the Wallace Collection.)
Hirst couldn’t be in New York for the party, but he did send a video message. (On the video, Hirst reminisced about winning the Turner Prize, in 1995: “My mother suddenly understood my work.”) Takashi Murakami, who, along with Hirst, Koons, and Gursky, will serve as a “mentor artist” to the prize’s recipient, also sent a video message, from his gallery in Tokyo, though Pinchuk seemed more interested in a cartoonish red sculpture that stood off to one side of the frame than in Murakami’s respectful greeting. “That’s something interesting—I don’t know what that is,” Pinchuk whispered, but any momentary desire to acquire the piece evaporated when, a little later, he learned from one of Murakami’s associates that it was by another artist altogether.
Pinchuk will not have a hand in the selection of the prize-winner, but he has already put a thumb on the scale—the finalists will necessarily include the winner of a prize that he has established for Ukrainian artists. “Let’s just say that from the beginning I wanted to give some privilege to Ukraine,” he said. Pinchuk is determined to establish Kiev as a “cultural hub.” He served two terms in Ukraine’s parliament, but says that he is staying out of politics now, or trying to. “It’s not easy, when you are the owner of the biggest media group in the country—you can imagine,” he said, miming the activity of answering many phones at once.
In any case, he said, it was more important to listen to artists than to politicians. “I think that art is really one of the revolutionary forces in the world, especially in developing countries,” he said. “Here in the U.S., you cannot feel the power as strongly as we feel it in our part of the world.” Hence the popularity of the Pinchuk Art Centre, which has already drawn nine hundred thousand visitors, most of them between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. “We always have queues,” he said. “There is only one queue in the country, and it is ours. Frankly speaking, during the crisis we had a little bit more queues in Kiev, to the banks—there was panic. But now our gallery has no competition.”