Tate Modern names extension after billionaire Len Blavatnik

USSR-born billionaire made one of largest donations in Tate’s history to help fund building temporarily named Switch House

Tate Modern has named its new extension the Blavatnik Building, after the USSR-born billionaire oligarch Len Blavatnik [see footnote], who made one of the largest donations in Tate’s history.

The building opened in June 2016 and had been temporarily named Switch House, after the part of the old power station where the new galleries stand.

Blavatnik was named the UK’s richest man in 2015, with an estimated wealth of more than £17.1bn, which was accumulated through investment initially in chemicals and oil, but has since expanded into property, music and film.

He made the Tate pledge in 2011. Government and local authority grants for the new galleries totalled £58m and the Blavatnik Family Foundation’s donation made up a substantial amount of the £260m total needed to complete it. Since its opening, the Tate Modern extension has received more than 6 million visitors.

The Tate’s departing director, Nicholas Serota, said: “The generosity of this gift is almost unprecedented in Tate’s history.

“Len Blavatnik’s enthusiastic support ensured the successful realisation of the project and I am delighted that the new building now bears his name.”

Blavatnik said: “My family and I are honoured to support Tate, and to be linked to this exceptional building. Tate provides incomparable service to the arts, culture and education throughout the world.”

Blavatnik was born in Odessa in 1957, during the time of the Soviet Union, but emigrated to the US in 1978. He became a US citizen in 1984 and a UK citizen in 2010.

Len Blavatnik with Ed Sheeran
Len Blavatnik with Ed Sheeran, who is signed to the oligarch’s Warner Music group. Photograph: Richard Young/Rex Shutterstock

Blavatnik, who describes himself as a “major American industrialist”, is best known as the owner of Warner Music group, one of the biggest record companies in the world whose roster includes Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and Kylie Minogue. However, he made his fortune through his company Access Industries, which began buying up aluminium and businesses in Russia during the fall of the USSR.

Up until 2016, Blavatnik was director of the world’s biggest aluminium company, Rusal, and in 2013 his company sold its stake in Russian oil company TNK-BP for $7bn. His buyout of Texan chemicals company LyondellBasell Industries, which was going through bankruptcy, eventually earned him another $8bn and was later described as the “greatest deal in Wall Street History”.

He has been a major donor to disease research, giving $50m to Harvard and $10m to Yale.

In 2010, Blavatnik also gave £75m to Oxford – the biggest donation in the university’s history – to build the Blavatnik School of Government. However, it proved controversial after an open letter to the university asked it to turn down the money and accused it of “selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”.

The signatories accused the university of failing to investigate whether Blavatnik and other “oligarchs” played any role in what they described as a state-sponsored campaign of harassment against BP in Russia in 2008.

The letter claimed that in 2008 and 2009 dozens of British and western managers were “forced out of Russia” after a bitter dispute between BP and a group of powerful Russian billionaires including Blavatnik.

However, lawyers for Blavatnik have denied he is an associate of Vladimir Putin, saying he has had no personal contact with the Russian president since 2000. They have also dismissed allegations that he was involved in any state-sponsored campaign of harassment against BP in Russia.

Since 2004, Blavatnik has owned property in London, after purchasing a palatial property in Kensington Park Gardens, one of London’s most prestigious addresses, for £41m.

As well as his own investment in art – he bought Damien Hirst’s giant gilded woolly mammoth skeleton, Gone But Not Forgotten, for $15m in 2014 – Blavatnik has made donations towards several UK arts institutions, including the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum.

Last year, the Blavatnik Family Foundation announced it would fund the new hall at the V&A.

Note added 16 May 2017: Mr Blavatnik’s lawyers have informed the Guardian that the term ‘oligarch’ in his view does not apply to Mr Blavatnik. The Guardian editor-in-chief disagrees.


Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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