While most media outlets focus on Bidzina Ivanishvili the opposition politician, he has been a major art patron for much longer. Contributor Brittany Pheiffer explores how, with Ivanishvili’s new political ambitions, art has become a battlefield for political influence.
By Brittany Pheiffer
A little over a month ago, the Georgian government made a contentious decision. It proposed a bill that would not only bar contributions to political parties, but also prohibit financing persons or organizations “directly or indirectly” connected to politics. On the heels of this, Minister of Culture Nika Rurua, announced that henceforth theaters, artists and actors could not receive donations from private individuals, as it could be construed as politically motivated. Many were quick to note that this state embargo on private philanthropy was an attempt to curb newly opposition-aligned Bidzina Ivanishvili and not an effort to curb artistic production in a nation where the arts are highly valued. Rurua’s announcement also shifted the discourse after months of the government appearing to vacillate between playing down Ivanishvili’s financial support and attempting to discredit it as a political ploy. Rurua’s bold move not only highlights the importance of the artistic community to Georgian political life, but it also clarifies years of conjecture about Ivanishvili’s purported involvement in local arts and theater.
Before Ivanishvili announced his candidacy for the presidency, his biography seemed — at least to me — more myth than fact. A secretive billionaire with a mansion in rural Georgia, he was said to be supporting his entire raion with free refrigerators, televisions and utilities. Rumors abounded about how he had made his fortune and why he was so averse to publicity. His role in the arts played into the myth. A July 2010 article in Prospect Magazine highlights the image of opulence behind the man (zebras on his grounds?), but perhaps even more fascinating than his supporting local townspeople was his purported patronage of many of Georgia’s artists. He is said to be behind massive renovations of multiple music and theater venues in Tbilisi and it is popular knowledge that he bankrolled the construction of the enormous Sameba (“Trinity”) Cathedral in Tbilisi. Many attested that he was paying additional stipends to artist who would otherwise subsist on around 200 dollars a month.
Ivanishvili’s financial dedication to the arts became world news after he purchased a Picasso at a New York auction in 2006 for a sum well over estimates. Acquiring fabulously valuable art may hardly seem shocking — how better to establish yourself as nouveau riche than by raising eyebrows at an art auction? — yet his purchase of Picasso’s 1941 painting Dora Maar au Chat for $95 million was the moment when Ivanishvili crept onto the international radar for anything other than just being rich. I say crept, because it would be months before news sources could link Ivanishvili to the “Russian-sounding” man (in fact a proxy purchaser) who astounded the audience at the Sotheby’s show in 2006, buying not only the Picasso, but a Chagall and a Monet as well. After the sale, experts and private collectors were aflutter as to who the man could be. The additional purchase of the Chagall set off red flags that the buyer must be Russian, as the Russian-born artist was apparently rising in demand among the ranks of wealthy Muscovites. People who sat near the buyer during the auction testified to his Russian-sounding speech, his inexperience with bidding (waving too frenetically) and total anonymity: no one recognized him from any other sales. Insiders were aghast that someone with so much money to burn was seated in the back row of the room instead of in a private booth with white glove service. Photos circulated around New York, London and Moscow but no one recognized the buyer who bought well over 100 million dollars of art in a night. After exhausting contacts with more public Russian collectors who denied sending proxies for the Sotheby’s auction, some journalists settled on a mystery man from the greater post-Soviet realm of oligarchs — one insider proposing that the buyer must be an Azeri oil baron.
This was all five years ago. Now we know that Ivanishvili was not only the buyer, but that his purchase was not out of a love for Picasso, but as step towards building a serious collection of modern art for public consumption in Tbilisi. Of course, buying wildly expensive 20th century masters may be the sign of a savvy investor and not an art lover. Ivanishvili even admitted in an interview with the Telegraph that he is “not a big lover of art.” The Picasso was not simply a financial investment. Instead, it seems that the billionaire has realized that bringing modern art to Tbilisi increases the country’s cultural capital. He plans to bring a Guggenheim-esque collection to the city and house it on the main thoroughfare in a building currently under construction.
His publicly-growing collection is not the only thing making headlines in the small but vibrant Georgian art world. The December 23 move from the culture minister to block funding further coalesced Ivanishvili’s legend into fact, in large part because of the popular response to the prohibition on private donations (Interestingly, Ivanishvili’s hearing to have his citizenship restored began on December 22). No sooner had Rurua issued his mandate than theater troupes issued a response in their so-called “document of good will.” They insisted with a united voice that they had the right to accept charity and that Rurua did not have the right to speak in the names of actors and “teach them morals or character.” This language of morality was no doubt driven by implications that the autonomy of artistic production was being compromised by outside funding. Some artists went so far as to question whether government contributions to the arts were any different than private philanthropic donations in terms of attempting to gain political or social leverage. Such questioning was particularly apropos as it came to light that the government had purportedly promised a 20 percent salary increase to those who rejected Ivanishvili’s patronage (Rus).
While Rurua has stepped back from his earlier demands after the public outcry from theater artists, it is clear that the tension between government and private cultural funding remains a contentious issue in Georgia. For those who have been in Tbilisi recently, one wonders if the graffiti scrawled throughout downtown reading, “Sorry, where is the contemporary art museum?” is not a witty call to arms by someone eager to see Ivanishvili invest in modern art in the city. At present, the National Art Gallery has been beautifully restored under Saakashvili, but a floor of Pirosmanis hardly competes with what Ivanishvili promises to be a massive collection of European and American art from artists both living and dead.
A few emails to colleagues in the arts and theater confirmed that Ivanishvili has long been known in the art world as a generous benefactor, especially during the turbulent 90s when state funding was altogether scarce, let alone for the arts. The recent skirmish between theater troupes and Rurua may not be a bad thing. In fact, I see it as quite the opposite. Both the current government and its rivals see that the heart of Georgia lies with its culture and that you can’t just win a people over with new police buildings and promises of roads: in Georgia, you have to invest in theater, dance, visual arts and music if you want popular support.
Brittany Pheiffer is a graduate student in Slavic Studies at Columbia University, where she is researching how religion influences national identity in the Caucasus and the former Soviet Union in both the cultural and political spheres. She has been studying Georgian since 2009 and is mostly interested in Georgian visual and literary culture.
 The Prospect Magazine article also outlines Ivanishivili’s close relationship with the French ambassador, one of the few people close to the collector before he went public.
 The link also includes photos of Ivanishvili’s art collection.