This summer—and presumably many more to follow—the art tribe will take an unlikely detour to Moscow. The June 12 re-opening of founder Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in a historic building that has been given the Rem Koolhaas treatment (respectful of the past, but also newly dazzling) ranked among the top openings of the year, along with the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Prada Foundation in Milan.
Located on the formerly seedy Gorky Park, the 58,125-square-foot building is actually a significant avant garde structure from 1968 that has been artfully tweaked, and it will give the Garage its first permanent home. The London-based Zhukova, who is married to billionaire Roman Abramovich, is a powerhouse on the art scene who has never been short on ambition. The new Garage will be Moscow’s most significant art museum that is not state-sponsored.
In a city still dominated by brutal Soviet landmarks and wide-eyed Byzantine icons, the impact of this new force can’t be overstated, especially in light of Russia’s current political isolation. The Garage’s director, Anton Belov, calls it nothing less than “a bridge between cultures and peoples.”
The institution will have a dual focus, with half of its concentration on contemporary art, kicking off with five interactive projects, including work by Yayoi Kusama and Rirkrit Tiravanija. But, the Garage isn’t alone in its efforts to double-down with cutting-edge projects. It’s the second half of Garage’s mission that you won’t find anywhere else: an unearthing of, archiving and reinterpretation of a lost era in Russian art, the second half of the 20th century, when the best work was being done underground.
Chief curator Kate Fowle, formerly of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, has worked at Garage since 2013 and has seen the new facility take shape. “It was about four or five years ago that Dasha and Roman started talking about doing something with the spot,” says Fowle of the former Vremena Goda restaurant, a Soviet Modernist landmark. Previously, Garage had an elegant temporary headquarters in a Shigeru Ban-designed pavilion in Gorky Park, close to its new digs; the structure was recently taken down.
The idea was catnip for Koolhaas, who was familiar with Vremena Goda. “The first time Rem went to Russia in the 1960s, he actually saw the building,” says Fowle. “It was a very fashionable place to go.”
Koolhaas has clad the building in a double layer of translucent polycarbonate, admittedly “a strange material for a museum,” says Belov. But it is elevated approximately 21 feet above the ground, a kind of peekaboo skirt revealing the structure’s inside. Its unique silhouette is further enhanced by two enormous sliding panels in front of the two entrances on opposite sides of the building—garage doors, essentially.
Inside, an original Vremena Goda mosaic is being preserved—truly “taking a stance” against the present-day Russian architectural philosophy of “knock it down and build something else,” says Fowle.
The two-story atrium will provide a large space for new commissions, juxtaposed with the original mosaic. “Koolhaas didn’t want it to be this white space that could be anywhere,” says Fowle. One of the opening shows features photographs by Moscow conceptualist George Kiesewalter, and the Garage Archive will be mined for a display of “The Family Tree of Russian Art,” focusing on the era from the 1950s to 2010.
“There’s a very big statement being made,” adds Fowle, but given the talent involved in the Garage’s rebirth—Zhukova, Abramovich, Koolhaas and Ban, not to mention Belov and Fowle herself—big statements are to be expected.
“When you walk into the building, you are seeing all these contemporary exhibitions, but what you’re also walking into is a moment in history,” says Fowle. “And that is very, very visible in everything we do, rather than working around it.”