From Russia With Love: A Look at Dasha Zhukova's Burgeoning Arts Philanthropy

When Harpers Bazaar dubbed Moscow-born, L.A.-raised Dasha Zhukova the "newly crowned queen of the international arts scene," we couldn't help but pay attention. In a few short years, she's made a significant impression on both the fashion and international art worlds.

For example, the 34-year-old Zhukova oversaw the renovation of the Garage, her contemporary art museum in Moscow, which features a temporary pavilion designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and the overhaul of an abandoned building by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas' OMA. To put it in perspective, Harper's Bazaar equated this project to a "New York girl-about-town commissioning Frank Gehry to build a museum in Central Park." 

Having conquered the international arts scene before the age of 35, Zhukova is now pivoting to arts philanthropy, and her first gift is an impressive one—$1 million to establish the Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist Program. The gift provides endows an ongoing residency organized by the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), open to creators from art, architecture, or design.

This contribution marks Zhukova’s first major gift to a university and first to endow a visiting artist program, which will be sustained over time through her continued support. 

If MIT's center sounds familiar, it's because we've profiled it in the past here at IP. Back in May, the center received a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, bringing the foundation's total support for CAST to $3 million, among the largest gifts received by the arts at MIT. At the time, we asked, "What, exactly, is so special about CAST?" The short answer is that it's built on an innovative, cross-disciplinary framework that integrates research and programming with art, science, and engineering.

But as much as you may value our opinion on CAST, it's Zhukova's opinion that really counts. "After spending time at MIT and exploring its Center for Art, Science & Technology, I see it as a true hub of creativity—a virtual center that touches all areas of the arts, from the visual arts to architecture, design, music, the performing arts and more," she said. "What most impresses me is the way that CAST creates mutually enlightening encounters for visiting artists and the creative culture on campus. I’m both excited and honored to begin this relationship with MIT and to launch such an innovative visiting artist position."

The fact that Zhukova herself spent time at the center underscores the nature of her personality and likely foreshadows her future philanthropic efforts. She's actively involved, unafraid to get her hands dirty, and willing to listen to what matters to others. As she noted in her interview in Harpers Bazaar, "Everyone we work with, whether it was the art space or the museum, I sat down and spoke to them personally. You can tell when someone is passionate about something and when you're excited about it."

There also may be some friendly partner rivalry at play. Her husband is billionaire Russian businessman, investor, and politician Roman Abramovich, who, according to Bloomberg News, is the most charitable Russian on the planet. After years on growing wealth in Russia, a country that now has 110 billionaires, according to Forbes, we should all now be on the lookout for a major uptick in Russian philanthropy—beyond from givers who are already on people's radar, like Abramovich and Yuri Milner. What's more, there are good reasons to think that some of this largesse will be focused in the U.S., given the ties many Russian billionaires—or their wives or children—have to this nation. 

Zhukova is a good example. She settled in Los Angeles at 11 before going to college in Santa Barbara. So we might expect her gift to MIT to be the first of many within the U.S. "I don't know what drives me," she says. "But I wake up in the morning and I want to participate in the creative cultural conversation."