“We’re not yet used to organising parties like this”, said the laconic young Ukrainian. This was the opening in Kiev on 16 September of the PinchukArtCentre, funded by 45-year old Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. The big band had swung through “In the Mood”, the symbolic wall had been knocked down and the stage fizzed with fireworks. Everyone had been promised a surprise, but it was no surprise that the polystyrene blocks caught fire. Fortunately, this was in the courtyard behind the art centre; everyone trooped out calmly and no serious damage was done.
The art centre with its 2000 square metres of galleries occupies three floors of an ornate early 20th-century building downtown. It has been converted by the French architect Philippe Chiambaretta into elegant white-cube spaces with pleasant, diffuse lighting and granite floors, laid parquet-style. Mr Pinchuk has many connections with Paris and he was advised to appoint Nicolas Bourriaud, formerly of the Palais de Tokyo, as his curator for international art. The opening show is of ten international and ten Ukrainian artists, the latter chosen by art historian Olexandr Solovyov, and this split is to be the basis of future buying policies
They started buying in 1993 and last year a first selection was presented at the Venice Biennale, alerting the world that Mr Pinchuk was a new player on the international art scene.
The curators have a pretty free hand, and what is currently on show could be described as hip eclectic, with some painting (Sarah Morris, Alexandre Gnilitsky, Thomas Ruff etc.), some kinetic and environmental (Institution of Unstable Thoughts, Charles Sandison), some photography (Oleg Kulik, Boris Mikhailov), some video (Ilya Chichkan, Carsten Höller). If there is a detectable slant, it is towards the slightly mechanical, a tribute to Mr Pinchuk’s origins as an engineer. Hence Olafur Eliasson’s walk-in circular construction of steel lozenges, which seems to change shape as the lights within vary in intensity, and French artist Xavier Veilhan’s clanking, banging, Constructivist-looking machine. The Ukrainian artists hold up well against their better known Western counterparts (Mr Solovyov estimates that there are about 20 contemporary artists in the Ukraine worthy of the title who manage to live by their art) and the next exhibition is to be devoted to them exclusively. Collaborations with outside institutions, such as the Jumex Collection in Mexico City, are also being considered. Labelling is minimal, but there is to be an education department next to the white-floored bar with great views over the city, which is certain to become one of the coolest places in town. Admission is free.
Like all rapidly developing economies (it has growth rate ot 8.4%), Ukraine is running at widely differing speeds. The crowd at the opening were Versace-inspired, with more bling and fetishistic high heels than at the Oscars. Bentley cars have a showroom in Kiev, but most people use the subway, where tickets cost the equivalent of a dime. Many of the country folk still barely have a cash economy.
It is how this economy will modernise that interests Mr Pinchuk, a man whose fortune started with his invention of a new kind of metal tubing. With perestroika in the 80s, he was managing to sell these to industry all over the Soviet Union. He then diversified, and this February sold his Ukrotsbank to Italy’s Banca Intesa for $1 billion. Mr Pinchuk suffered a set back after the recent elections (he is the son-in-law of ex-president Leonid Kuchma), when the purchase he had made of Ukraine’s largest steel company under the previous government was rescinded and resold to Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. Government also scotched his plans to house the art centre in the former Arsenal by announcing that it was going to put a museum there itself, a “project as conservative and ambitious as it is risky and utopian”, according to the launch booklet of the Pinchuk Art Foundation.
So Mr Pinchuk is rich and powerful but not invulnerable, and well publicised international links with the outside world, such as this art centre, may well be part of a protective strategy. But he has also established his credentials as a bona fide benefactor: for the past ten years he has been funding medical training and equipment for premature babies, and he has put money into Aids care. An admirer of the financier George Soros, who in the 90s financed projects in the former Eastern bloc to stimulate the development of Western civic values, Mr Pinchuk is also investing in the training of the country’s future leaders by funding higher education, by creating a School of Economics in Kiev and a cooperation programme with the Aspen Institute in Colorado. At the opening he stressed that he hoped the international language of contemporary art would teach the Ukrainians about modern ways of thinking.
He himself prefers not to live with this kind of art, however. His collection is of late 19th- and early 20th century art, stretching as far as the Soviet Avant-garde. His new house outside Kiev is to be neo-classical, and in the meanwhile, three hectares of his 19-hectare estate are being turned into a real Japanese garden under the guidance of a Japanese expert, with more specialised gardens to come, including one exclusively of Ukrainian species.