Activists Occupied Venice’s V-A-C Foundation, Founded by Oligarch Leonid Mikhelson, to Protest the War in Ukraine

The billionaire energy magnate has close ties to the Kremlin.

Russia's gas producer Novatek CEO Leonid Mikhelson in Red Square in Moscow, Russia on May 9, 2022. Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Demonstrators occupied the Venice headquarters of the V-A-C Foundation over the weekend, protesting the war in Ukraine. Leonid Mikhelson, a Russian oligarch who co-founded and funds the V-A-C, has close ties to the Kremlin as board chairman of Novatek, the second-largest gas company in Russia.

Global Project, the organization behind the protest, targeted Mikhelson because the billionaire is still not subject to sanctions from the U.S. or the E.U. The group believes that Western dependence on Russian gas has kept them from taking a stronger stance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that the continued import of fossil fuels from Russia is effectively funding the nation’s war.

“The initiatives [V-A-C] organizes are aimed at thoroughly cleaning up the public image of its founder, Leonid Mikhelson, second richest man in Russia,” Global Project wrote on its website.

“Leonid Mikhelson represents all the contradictions inherent in the rhetoric of Russia vs. NATO, of the democratic West versus Putin,” Global Project wrote on Facebook. “The war that is taking place now is the result, like all other wars that oppress people and territories, of the clash between two empires that differ only in facade but are profoundly similar, based on capitalism, exploitation, violence, and oppression.”

As of January, V-A-C was planning to host the exhibition “When Gondola Engines Were Taken to Bits: A Carnival in Four Acts,” which was on view at the institution’s new Moscow flagship, GES-2, from December to February.

But GES-2 closed all its exhibitions after the start of the war, issuing a statement saying it “cannot turn a blind eye to the tragic events we have all become witnesses to.” (Western artists such as Ragnar Kjartansson had already begun withdrawing their works from the institution.)

The V-A-C website currently lists one artistic project and six musical installations that appear to have opened in Moscow in early April, but notes that “all activities at Palazzo Zattere are temporarily suspended.”

Francesco Manacorda, artistic director for V-A-C in Venice, resigned from his post in March in protest of the invasion.

By targeting the shuttered museum, Global Project hopes to draw attention to the hypocrisy of the continued import of Russian gas by countries who claim to support Ukraine.

“We want to assert strongly that we know very well which side to stand: against Putin, against NATO, on the side of civilians under bombs, on the side who escapes wars and with who stays,” Global Project said in its Facebook post. “We are on the side of those who organize themselves from the bottom up and create networks of solidarity in response to the destruction of bombs and the capital.”

The organization is planning additional actions on the other side of the lagoon in Venice, at a new military base in Pisa on June 2, and at the Festival of Economics in Trento on June 5, during an appearance by the former commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan.

As of press time, neither Global Project nor V-A-C had responded to inquiries from Artnet News.

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