Ukraine’s art scene soldiers on despite political crisis

Artists can fight for freedom as the country asserts its independence, says gallery founder Victor Pinchuk



Candles on Maidan, the city’s central square, form a flickering Ukrainian trident. Kreschatik—the Champs-Élysées of eastern Europe—seems eerily calm; traffic is now banned at weekends. Two façades draped in sheeting and a couple of smashed cash machines with wires a-dangle are the only signs of recent violence.

Dima Zaporozhets, an entrepreneur from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, is opening a new restaurant; he has hung contemporary art on the walls and hired a chef from Tel Aviv. The dress-circle tickets at the opera cost the equivalent of £8 each, the same as in 2010, and are sold out.

Kiev seems back to normal. But the art scene? Not quite. Victor Pinchuk is a billionaire businessman and philanthropist. Until July 2013, Russia accounted for 38% of his main export: steel pipes. That market has gone. The city’s Pinchuk Art Centre for contemporary art will have to make cuts. Longer, less frequent exhibitions are on the cards.

“We will maintain quality and free admission,” its founder says. He has downsized the ceremony for his Future Generation Art Prize. Even so, shortlisted artists from 17 countries have been flown in to attend the opening, some staying to install their projects for several weeks at Pinchuk’s expense.

“To do this exhibition in the current environment was risky and challenging,” Pinchuk says. “Some consider this kind of event a luxury, but I’m a strong believer in contemporary art as one of the most revolutionary forms in the world. Artists are our allies in creating an extra-territorial value of freedom.”

Art centre used as a prison

Pinchuk has one eye on Donetsk, where the non-profit Izolyatsia contemporary art centre, founded by Lyuba Mikhailova in 2010, was stormed by pro-Russian rebels in June. They have since used it as a prison, munitions depot and militia base. The Russian news site welcomed its demise and, in words redolent of Nazi Germany, dubbed it a “museum of decadent art”.

Kiev’s other main art venue has had problems of a different nature, largely of its own making. The Mystetskyi Arsenal has been in crisis since July 2013, when, in what was seen by many as an attempt to curry favour with former president Victor Yanukovich and the Orthodox clergy, its director, Natalia Zabolotna, daubed black paint over a mural by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, which was conceived for a show marking the 1,025th anniversary of the kingdom of Kievan Rus.

Oleksandr Solovyov, the exhibition’s curator, and Kateryna Stukalova, the editor of Zabolotna’s magazine, Art Ukraine, promptly resigned. Artists urged a boycott of the second Kiev Biennale, which was due to be based at the Arsenal in 2014. They need not have bothered. Ukraine’s chaotic political situation meant that the event was cancelled anyway, or at least postponed until 2015 (although no details have yet emerged).

After blaming “organisational shortcomings” for the Kuznetsov fiasco, Zabolotna blithely carries on. Art Ukraine continues with a new editorial team. The Arsenal hosted the ninth edition of Art Kyiv in November. It consisted of 40 non-commercial projects and was no longer a contemporary art fair in any meaningful sense. There was no printed catalogue.

Pinchuk understandably takes pride in his political independence. Foreign embassies were represented at the award ceremony, but the government was not. True, the deputy culture minister, Olesya Ostrovska, was in attendance, but declared her presence “semi-official”. She feared the chop in a reshuffle; her boss at the ministry, the actor Evgen Nyshchuk, had just been replaced by Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, a journeyman politico with no known interest in the arts.

Overcoming corruption

“Corrupt politicians are the problem,” says the London-based dealer James Butterwick, who is trying to mount a show in Kiev devoted to Alexander Bogomazov (1880-1930), “the greatest Ukrainian artist who ever lived”. But when he proposed it to Ostrovska last summer, she asked: “What’s in it for you?”

Even so, Butterwick says that Kiev’s National Art Museum is keen to host his show in 2016, and Martin Muller, the president of San Francisco’s Modernism gallery, has offered to help fund the catalogue raisonné. But there are problems. “Eighty per cent of the big Bogomazov collectors are in Moscow,” Butterwick says. “They would lend to the West but not, unless things change, to Kiev.”

He is toying with the idea of launching a new gallery in Kiev, in conjunction with Mikhail and Aleksey Vasilenko, co-owners of the Golden Section auction house, “to get ready for when Ukraine does eventually move fast-forward”.

Although their top saleroom price is a modest $165,0000, for Nikolai Gluschenko’s neo-Fauve Cruel Sea, 1974, the Vasilenko brothers exude optimism. “More and more people are leaving Ukraine and selling their collections,” they say. “Many works are now on the market at a level [£20,000-£60,000] we could never have imagined two years ago.” Petro Poroshenko, the country’s new president, is also boosting business. “He’s a big collector. His circle feel they need to follow him.”

Many galleries in Ukraine are struggling. Mironova, formerly one of the country’s most prominent ambassadors on the international fair circuit, has closed its showroom and now operates only by appointment.

Tsekh, however, offers light in the gloom. Oleksandr Shchelushchenko, its founder, devotes his efforts to just eight artists. His latest is Yaroslav Derkach, who lodges with Shchelushchenko, having fled eastern Ukraine when his flat in Lugansk was bombed.

On a freezing Sunday afternoon, in his cavernous gallery on an industrial estate far from the city centre, Shchelushchenko is busy installing a giant brazier to reduce heating costs and “make things a bit more fun”. He had just sold a work by Mykola Bilous for €4,500 and is sampling some Pusser’s British Navy Rum. “I sell something every week,” he says, passing me the bottle. “If I don’t, I die.”