Russian-bred, American-educated, England-based Dasha Zhukova may well be the most dazzling poster child for our globalized era’s reigning Nouvelle Society. Some might say she’s also the most unlikely—after all, who could have imagined in 1981, when Zhukova was born and Leonid Brezhnev still ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip, that three decades later Russia’s elite would come to embody the more-is-more brand of capitalism that was so near and dear to the Le Cirque crowd back home?
And yet so it is. Zhukova, the girlfriend of the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, is the most influential member of a pack of bright young things with hard-to-pronounce surnames who hop from Basel to Beijing as easily as their social forebears sauntered from 740 Park to the Frick Gala. Born in Moscow, she moved with her family to Houston when she was 10, then to Los Angeles. In her early 20s she left for London, and since then one could be forgiven for thinking that most of her time has been spent on a private plane. In the past few years, by dint of persistence, good instincts, and—let’s face it—virtually unlimited financial resources, Zhukova has become a key player in the international art scene, at a moment when Gerhard Richter paintings have turned out to be much sounder investments than, say, Bank of America stock.
Zhukova’s calling card is Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, which she opened in 2008 in a former bus depot; she has since introduced the Russian masses to contemporary art stars like Carsten Höller and Marina Abramović. Zhukova is also schooling them in the works of international starchitects: Earlier this year, Garage moved to a temporary structure designed by Shigeru Ban; in 2013, it will occupy its permanent home, an abandoned Soviet-era building in Gorky Park that is being revamped by Rem Koolhaas. In 2011, Zhukova debuted Garage, a publication that she views as an “additional platform” for the gallery; the first issue featured a cover by the artist Damien Hirst of a woman’s tattooed vagina overlaid with a peel-off butterfly decal. Zhukova is also a partner in Art.sy, a website for collectors and art lovers that she hopes will become an “encyclopedia of artworks in one place.” And she is spearheading a long-term endeavor in Saint Petersburg called New Holland, which she describes as a “cultural urbanization development that will encompass art, technology, and innovation, as well as commercial elements such as hotels and hostels, restaurants, etc.”
Zhukova can rattle off facts and figures about all these projects with surprising ease, but she is famously unforthcoming when it comes to anything not related to her work. All she’ll concede, by way of “personal” information, is that she intends to travel less because her son, Aaron Alexander Abramovich, who will soon turn 3, is starting preschool in London; and that the artists of her generation she currently admires include Tauba Auerbach and the collective known as Bruce High Quality Foundation. Still, much can be gleaned about Zhukova by the ambivalent way in which the press has covered her, if not by what she’s actually said.