Cultured Magazine

Fall 2014

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72 CULTURED Though she may need to pause to accept an award from Performa this November, art-world It Girl Maria Baibakova shows no signs of slowing down. BY RACHEL WOLFF PORTRAIT BY MATTHU PLACEK ART OMNIVORE hen I ask Maria Baibakova to tell me her story, to characterize the earliest seedlings that spurred her rigorous engagement with the makers and mech- anisms of contemporary art, she does so in a way that immediately cuts to the crux of what the greatest among them strive to achieve: "Because," she says, "art history is all-encompassing. It's economics, history, psychology... It's everything." As such, it should come as no surprise that Baibakova's professional path through said art world has been similarly rich. Born in Moscow, raised in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and educated at Barnard (where she hopped on the intern track early, doing time at galleries, museums, an art advisory and an auction house all prior to her 2007 graduation), the 29-year-old curator, collector, consultant, investor and recent Harvard MBA now boasts a CV detailing a formidable workload that could easily be divvied up between three or four very capable, very busy individuals. She is a senior advisor to Lincoln Center Global, the nonprofit consulting arm of the legendary New York City institution; strategic director for Artspace.com, a major player in the art-tech sector; and founding director and chief curator of Baibakov Art Projects, a nomadic arts nonprofit she founded in 2008. In addition, Baibakova serves on the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee at Tate Modern and on the Board of Advisors at Art Dubai. On November 4, 2014, she'll be honored for all of these efforts at the Performa 10th Anniversary Gala Dinner as a contemporary Renaissance woman alongside fellow patrons Toby Devan Lewis and Shelley Fox Aarons and artists Wangechi Mutu, Laurie Simmons, Joan Jonas and Shirin Neshat. Baibakova, who splits her time between London, New York and Moscow, grew up with little connection to the type of art she now so avidly supports. "I always thought art was decorative," she says. "I think that's the default, that art is there to please. Learning about the Russian Avant-Garde and Suprematism really showed me that art is functional and that it can be didactic in a way." She also acknowledges the fortuitous timing of her entrée into the field, recalling, for instance, when she met Larry Gagosian at a dinner celebrating a Willem de Kooning exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg that she attended while still an undergraduate in 2006. "I was the only Russian girl in the room who spoke English and was studying in the United States," she says. "The players there were interested in hiring someone to help them on a consultancy basis who was of both worlds because Russian collectors were starting to buy art." She admits: "I was overwhelmed by job offers after that." Soon after, Baibakova started collecting art with her father, Russian metals oligarch Oleg Baibakov (Blue-Chip Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann and Jean-Michel Basquiat initially, she says, though her personal tastes quickly veered toward artists of her own generation), and took on consultancy gigs for Gagosian and Sotheby's. But she soon realized that the greatest needs were in Russia, where international art remained rarely seen and contemporary artists had little to no infrastructure or support. So Baibakov Art Projects was formed, taking residence in 2008 in an old Moscow chocolate factory called Red October. Fate intervened yet again when, in the earliest weeks of Baibakova's inaugural season, the global financial market crashed and burned. A Basquiat show on the horizon was scrapped and Baibakova found herself with 30,000 square feet of exhibition space to fill and an all but empty exhibition calendar. "There was no way of going back, I just had to find a way to go forward," she says. She shrewdly enlisted the local artist community to help. "We asked Russian artists to do a show in the space," she says. Titled "invasion : evasion," the exhibition challenged the participating artists to make their "most ambitious projects, the ones that would never be produced by a gallery because they are not commercially viable, and we said, we'll support you in doing this. We offered them the actual Red October space as a place to work in as a big joint studio for two months before the opening." The well-received exhibition piqued interest abroad and Baibakova went on to exhibit then-on-the-cusp young American artists such as Sterling Ruby, Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker and international art stars such as Luc Tuymans before shifting her focus to auxiliary support for special artist projects and publications. In the years since, Baibakova has pivoted as well, investing in art-tech startups such as Artspace, Paddle8 and Art Binder, and enrolling in Harvard Business School as a means of strengthening her chops as a nonprofit administrator. And while multitasking seems to be something of a natural state for Baibakova, she's looking forward to the day when a singular passion project will emerge. "I definitely am suffering a bit of anxiety over the fact that I'm doing so many things," she says. "It is difficult and I do think that maybe there will come a time soon when I really need to double down. It hasn't happened yet—I haven't really found the one project that completely drives me and overwhelms all of my other interests. I also feel like I currently have a lot of capacity to work, to manage multiple projects." So, she does. "Maybe my 30s will be a time to really commit to one thing," she adds. "We'll see." W

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