A Tale of Two Billionaires

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A Tale of Two Billionaires

In this rapidly changing world of ours, there seems to be one island of certainty and stability: traditional encyclopedic museums with their vast collections of treasures of every kind imaginable. Think about the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, seemingly impervious to cultural and political changes of the day. Or so we want to believe.

The recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, has been headline news, leading to speculation about major shifts in Russian politics and the future of its democracy. You may ask what this has to do with the fortunes of the Hermitage, the country's most famous museum? The latest issue of Art Newspaper reports on its front page that the "Khodorkovsky arrest hits (the) Hermitage hard".

Since the fall of Communism in the early 90's, the museums - along with the rest of Russia's cultural institutions -won freedom from complete government control, but lost the comfort of knowing that the state would fund their budgets 100%. Understandably, the Hermitage and its director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, turned to the private sector for support. And 40 year-old Khodorkovsky, who before his arrest was Russia's leading philanthropist with an estimated worth of about $8 billion dollars, was a natural target for the museum's solicitation and courtship.

The philanthropist generously contributed to the museum's satellite in London - the Hermitage Rooms at the Somerset House - where the largest gallery was named after him. He also sponsored the exhibition of Hermitage treasures in a provincial city south of Moscow, and was in negotiation for a major contribution to modernize the museum's historical buildings in St. Petersburg.

From prison, Mr. Khodorkovsky issued a statement claiming that he spends $100 million dollars on charities every year, which is roughly equal to the annual budget of the National Endowment of the Arts. Not bad for one man. But too bad for the numerous cultural institutions who've grown dependent upon his largesse. Welcome, Russian brothers, to the free-market world.

Here in Los Angeles we have some interesting developments as well, though nothing as colorful as the Khodorkovsky drama. Our wealthiest philanthropist, Eli Broad, continues his generous support of various L.A. cultural endeavors. With Disney Hall under his belt, his next project - the new LACMA Pavilion that will house his personal collection of contemporary art - cannot be, and hopefully will not be, anything less than an architectural milestone.

Rumor has it that Renzo Piano, the celebrated architect of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, is the frontrunner for the project. In recent years, he's been the most sought after architect for a number of high-profile museum projects around the world. Going through his Beyeler Museum in Basel, I was immensely impressed by the sensitivity of his architecture to the exhibited art, so rare among contemporary architects.

Reportedly, Mr. Piano had a prolonged visit in L.A. for a series of meetings to familiarize himself with LACMA, its needs and problems. If we're lucky, Eli Broad, who has already pledged $60 million dollars to this project, will select this excellent architect and will succeed in persuading the museum trustees to support his choice. Because, as we all know, one cannot be too rich, too thin, or have too many splendid buildings in one's backyard.