The tradition of selling artworks to finance charitable causes, such as helping children or fighting AIDS, has a fairly long history. The fund-raising event called ‘Prosto. Mystetstvo’ (Simple. Art) is unique in that its proceeds will be used to support art itself. Therefore, participating artists and buyers will invest directly in the space of freedom and experimentation which is critical for Ukrainian art now that it has found itself between the Scylla and Charybdis of commercialization and government control.
Since 2008, after the Center for Contemporary Art at Kyiv Mohyla Academy was closed, its successor, a foundation with the same name (abbreviated FTsSM), opened in a different location and adopted a different foundational principle: a focus on enhancing artists’ professional abilities rather than hosting exhibits. Public discussions (On the Floor forum), meetings with painters, the Kyiv Offline program for art critics and journalists and, finally, Korydor – an online edition of art criticism which in the two years of its existence has turned into a lively intellectual hub, are all geared toward the foundation’s overarching goal. These activities come just at the right time. Since the Pinchuk Art Center was founded and works by Ukrainian painters started selling at foreign auctions, the commercial segment of Ukraine’s contemporary art has been growing, but it does not automatically enhance its quality or establishes ethic norms for cooperation between artists and galleries.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian artists have experienced a sharp decrease in opportunities for producing and presenting experimental artworks. Galleries are focused on sales. That some of them afford alternative projects is proof of their owners’ civic engagement, but it is an exception that proves the rule. There is a widespread opinion that non-profit art does not require money. But artists need to have resources both for their sculptures, canvases or installations and for living, which makes them dependent on sources of income, i.e., sales or ideologically motivated commissions of various types.
Ukrainehas virtually no government grants, exhibit floor space in museums or civic foundations that would support non-profit art. Nor does it have transparent schemes for distributing funds. Justifying the need for the recent auction, FTsSM Director Kateryna Botanova says: “There has to be a space where art does not have to be either graphically erotic, expensive, craved, or fashionable. It is a space in which art can simply be itself.”
A PAINTING APIECE, A PENNY APIECE
Sixty-seven Ukrainian artists supported Botanova by submitting their works to the auction free of charge. This way they have invested in their own field and prospects for themselves and their younger colleagues. This is a sign of recognition for FTsSM which runs only non-profit programs. It even involved the National Art Museum in the exhibit that preceded the auction, thus helping part of the country’s culture officials grasp the importance of experimental art.
A collection worth nearly USD 250,000 was put together for the auction. It comprises old gifts to FTsSM (Andriy Sahaidakovsky, Viktor Marushchenko), specially created works (Stas Voliazlovsky), early works by noted artists (Ihor Husiev), recent artworks (Zhanna Kadyrova), commercially successful artworks (Illia Chichkan) and totally non-profit items (Anna Zviahintseva). The contributors include both established artists (Valeria Trubina, Olena Turianska, Vlada Ralko, Oleksandr Roitburd, Tiberiy Silvashi and Pavlo Makov) and the younger generation (Oleksiy Say, Alevtyna Kakhidze, Nikita Kadan, Mykola Ridnyi and Lesia Khomenko). Moreover, works by Ukrainian diaspora artists – Ivan Bazak (Germany) and Taras Polataiko (Canada) – were put up for auction for the first time. The auction sold 61% of all lots and yielded UAH 812,000.
TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN?
“Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art ‘Survive’?” is the title of an essay by American Martha Rosler. The author analyzes the contemporary structure of the art world and how much topics and art forms depend on a given political and economic situation. Looking at commercial and independent institutions (government-financed or supported from donations), she considers freedom in art in general and its critical potential, because even the most politicized projects can be monetized via the art market and used as a litmus paper of faked democracy (to give an appearance of tolerating criticism). The solution is seen in self-organization and joint creation, volunteering and interaction with other social groups outside the “professional” environment.
This is precisely the way Ukrainian critical art has functioned over the past 20 years: first as marginal with regard to social-realism-turned-patriotic art and now as “dull” against the backdrop of shining multimillion-dollar installations in the Pinchuk Art Center. By donating their works to the fund-raising auction, painters have shown collective solidarity and readiness to promote the freedom and enhance the intellectual level of their field. Now the ball is in FTsSM’s court: the foundation plans to use the proceeds in 2011–12 to hold an open competition of experimental art projects, invite leading international curators and experts to Ukraine and set up an international school for young artists, art critics and journalists.
However, as the space for critical projects continues to shrink, FTsSM alone will be unable to save the situation. This space will have to be expanded by artists themselves with a realistic understanding that highly intellectual projects still can (and will have to) be done on small budgets and volunteer enthusiasm. Concurrently, artists will need to demand greater involvement from relevant government institutions.
VladimirUs, Oberlicht Association of Young Artists, Moldova
“Initially our organization focused on youth art exhibits. But after I took a curator course in Europe, we have put more emphasis on addressing the public space through a series of artistic interventions which operate on small, or no, budgets. Since 2007 we have had the KIOSK project running – it’s a street sculpture in the form of a Soviet-style one-room apartment without walls. We have been using it as a cultural info point and a platform for interaction between art and society.”
Rael Artel, curator, Estonia
“In 2004, I opened an experimental project space in what used to be a garage in Pärnu and then another one in a library cellar in Tartu. When the meager financing I had from the Estonian government was discontinued several years later, we had already completed over 40 unique non-profit projects with more than 150 participating painters and curators.”
Artur Bielozerov, initiator of artist-run spaces LabGarage and LabKombinate, Ukraine
“Commercial galleries now have a monopoly in Kyiv and promote well-known older artists, primarily painters. LabGarage was located, as the name itself suggests, in a garage in Peizazhna Aleia (2006-2008) and operated as a democratic and independent platform for young painters and their projects executed in experimental media. We also promoted contemporary music. Our recent attempt to open LabKombinat in the building of an old meat processing factory attracted over 1,000 people of all walks of life, from punks to diplomats. It shows how much the public is interested in alternative art. Now we have to find a bigger building.”