Tate galleries cut ties with sanctioned billionaires after Ukraine invasion

Group severs relations with donors and supporters who were sanctioned by US and EU

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The Tate has severed relations with Viktor Vekselberg and Petr Aven after the Russian billionaires were sanctioned by the US and EU after the invasion of Ukraine.

Vekselberg, the founder of a Russian energy conglomerate and an associate of Vladimir Putin, was an honorary member of the prestigious Tate Foundation, a fundraising charity for acquisitions, exhibitions, education and capital projects.

“Mr Vekselberg donated to Tate seven years ago and no longer holds his honorary membership title,” the London gallery group said.

Vekselberg has already been the target of US sanctions imposed in 2018.

On Friday, he was again among a list of Russian billionaires facing US sanctions, with the government saying he has “maintained close ties” with Putin. His jet and yacht have been identified as “blocked property”.

As well as the Tate, he has donated in the US to the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall – prior to sanctions being imposed.

Vekselberg’s fortune is estimated to be as much as $9.3bn (£6.9bn), which he began amassing after Russia’s oil and aluminium industries were privatised.

“This relisting is not only unfounded but seems to rely on demonstratively baseless assumptions,” said Vekselberg in a statement.

In a letter sent by Vekselberg to Tate on Thursday, seen by the Financial Times, he said he was ready to step down “if the foundation believes that this act is necessary”, adding that he had been “genuinely happy [his] donations have contributed to the development of cultural ties”. He added: “I will continue to do everything I can to accelerate the advent of peace.”

The group, which operates Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London, has also ended its relationship with Aven, a member of its donor programmes.

Earlier this month, Aven stepped down from LetterOne, the London-based investment company he co-founded with fellow businessman Mikhail Fridman, after the EU imposed sanctions on the pair earlier this month.

Aven, who has an estimated $5.5bn fortune, owns Ingliston House, near Virginia Water, on 3.4 hectares (8.5 acres) of land in a gated estate next to Wentworth golf course.

It boasts an art collection including works by Larionov, Goncharova and Kandinsky, as well as garden sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore and Antony Gormley.

Aven and Fridman have rejected the accusations made in the EU sanctions as “spurious and unfounded”.

Aven was a member of the Tate donor programmes known as the International Council and European Collection Circle.

“Mr Aven’s support of Tate has now ended,” the gallery group said.

Earlier this month, he stepped down as a trustee of the Royal Academy Trust and the London gallery returned his donation towards its current exhibition, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast. Aven declined to comment.

Tate said it had no further relationships with, and donors, current or former, associated with the Russian government.

“We are ready to act if any sanctions are extended to anyone in our network of supporters,” the Tate said. “And our trustees and directors are committed to doing all they can to support the people of Ukraine and to join the international condemnation of Russia’s invasion.”

Among the Tate’s donors is Sir Leonard Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born billionaire with US and UK citizenship, who was a college friend and former business partner of Vekselberg in Russia during the 1990s. After he made a £50m donation towards the new extension at Tate Modern, it was renamed the Blavatnik Building in 2017.

Blavatnik does not appear on any sanctions lists and has never been a Russian citizen.

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