Her father is one very rich man, her surname ends in “ova,” she was raised in America and she runs a sprawling new contemporary art space in Moscow.
But the parallels between the polished, 24-year-old Maria Baibakova and her art-world rival, the equally slick Dasha Zhukova, end there.
Baibakova, a former track star at Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey and a graduate of Barnard College and London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, wants Russia and its artists to blend easily into the contemporary art world — not stick out like weird, provincial newcomers. “I think the West sees contemporary Russian artists as people from the wild, wild East — or at best just derivative,” she says over tea and cookies at Brown’s hotel in London’s Mayfair. “My plan is for Russian art to fit into the larger picture, and for Russian artists to speak an international language, rather than a local one.”
Last year, Baibakova took over one floor of the iconic Red October building, a former chocolate factory not far from the Kremlin, for Baibakov Art Projects, a not-for-profit venture aimed at promoting cross-cultural exchanges. The 32,000-square-foot space, which Larry Gagosian used for an art sale last year, has soaring ceilings, freight elevators and loading docks.
On Friday, Baibakova will unveil “Five,” a show by Walead Beshty, Matthew Brannon, Wade Guyton, Sterling Ruby and Kelley Walker that explores the artists’ American Modernist roots.
It is Baibakova’s third show in six months as director and chief curator of Baibakov Art Projects. The first, “invasion:evasion,” offered Russian artists the chance to create large-scale works on-site, and the second, “Natural Wonders: New Art from London,” showcased 22 London-based artists including Idris Khan and Conrad Shawcross.
Baibakova is quick to note the differences between her space and Zhukova’s Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, which opened across town last year. “Mine is very much a project space. I’m a curator and an art historian. Dasha is more of a producer — much more hands-off,” she says, adding the two are acquaintances and grew up “in the same sphere of friends.”
The self-possessed Baibakova says she always had art on the brain, though her early years left little room for creativity. As a very small child growing up under Communism, Baibakova remembers standing in the seemingly interminable bread lines. “All the parents left their kids to wait while they ran errands,” she says, recalling her first bite of banana. “The first time my father brought one home, I ate it so slowly. I still think of bananas as a luxury,” she says.
She moved to America when she was 10, a few years after the Soviet Union fell, and it was there she began her artistic pursuits. She attended Barnard while spending her spare time helping run the Mike Weiss Gallery in New York’s Chelsea. After getting her master’s degree at the Courtauld, she began curating the private collection of her father Oleg Baibakov, a renowned financial whiz and former executive of the mining company Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia’s largest producers of nickel and palladium.
It is her humble childhood beginnings, however, that continue to fuel her endeavors. Going forward, she said, her shows will be “temporary, topical, and executed quickly,” and will feature international artists who have never before shown in Russia. “We Russians are making up for lost time, and we can’t afford to waste time — which is why you can go to yoga classes in Moscow at 1 a.m.,” she says. “We believe it’s always our last moment, that somehow we have to do things right now, because tomorrow might never come.”