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2 March, 2020  ▪  Олена Мигашко

From art space to cultural brand

Ukraine enters a new decade with a new identity among its museums and art centers

In the last few years, not just private foundations and projects by generous art lovers but also state agencies have actively worked to fix up those areas of the cultural environment that have proved troublesome for most developing countries. This means inclusiveness, digitalization, participation, horizontal systems – whether in business or the arts – innovativeness, and a re-thinking of gender roles. For Ukraine, it’s a two-way street. On one hand, at the turn of this new decade, the country has grown a critical mass of independent institutions like never before, and moreover they are stronger and more autonomous than 5-10 years ago. On the other, the state has also taken on a number of those issues that, out of sheer habit, it was inclined to hand over to private “oases” in the past.

An interesting way to put it would be that the main accents, hot topics and directions taken today are moving towards polyphony. Moreover, the public/private debate is no longer so grotesque in terms of understanding the main purpose – even given all the never-ending problems with bureaucracy, funding, lack of taste, and officiousness – as it was for the last two decades. The 2018/2019 season proved to also be an extremely important segment of this pathway, where Ukraine not only saw a slew of fundamentally new projects and forms of cultural entertainment made themselves known, but also those whose survival was under question also showed clear results. It’s worth taking a look at the chronology and noting the key points with which Ukraine 2020 is being launched.

Certain processes that seem to have already become routine for Ukrainians are actually relatively recent. This includes the reconstruction and change of exposition optics among the most familiar museums that are the country’s visiting cards, such as the National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU), the Odesa Museum of Art, the Taras Shevchenko National Museum, and the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Art. How important this step is can be understood by anyone who has been to similarly important historical national museums abroad and knows that the National Gallery of London, the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen or, to be fair, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg are not boring places with dusty corridors that lack the most basic navigation, up-to-date customer services, properly restored areas, and easy-to-use sites.

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For possibly the first time in decades, Ukrainians can look in the face of tourists and breathe easily, knowing that they can show visitors a National Art Museum that has been completely renovated and restored in partnership with Banda, a creative agency. Instead of a dusty, ragged old sage, the museum’s new identity is that of a wise but lively, open and interested guide. Being old, after all, is not necessarily boring and outdated. We’re talking about a legendary museum that has preserved the heritage of the entire country, and these are always current, interesting and alive. What remains is to finish renovating its stairs, retaining walls and window blocks, which is planned to be done by 2021.

Other notable art developments are taking place with the M17 Contemporary Art Center, which is now in competition with the Arts Arsenal and Pinchuk Art Center, and the new building of the Taras Shevchenko Museum in Kyiv, together with its expositions of contemporary Ukrainian artists or a curator’s reassessment of the famed poem Kateryna. And this is only a very short list of the post-Euromaidan achievements, as the need to reform was obvious in a slew of spaces and museums outside the capital as well. For instance, there are the Bukhanchuk Museum of Art in Kmytiv, the Korsakiv Museum of Contemporary Ukrainian Art in Lutsk, and the Jam Factory Art Center in Lviv, which really is located in an old jam-making factory.

The more intimate spaces and galleries that in some ways affect the cultural map even more have also played their role in these changes. In 2020, visitors can discover the new space for the independent art showcase Set, which is still TBA, or the new name of the Naked Room library, opened by Raymond Wilkins in late 2018. This is also the year it will be possible to state boldly, “Let’s get going with art clusters,” with, as a minimum, the completely refurbished brand-new Dovzhenko Center and the opening of the P13 Center for Contemporary Culture at the VDNH or Expo Center of Ukraine. But even bigger than these largely reorganized landscapes will be the work, internal and personnel shifts whose results visitors will eventually also feel.

It’s not enough that NAMU renovations are supposed to be completed shortly or the latest center will launch its updated website. Far more important than even these are the changes that have taken place and continue taking place with the teams running these museums. For instance, in addition to its new identity from Banda, which offers openness, interaction and mobility to both local and out-of-town visitors, NAMU has updated its office, hired on a bunch of young specialists, and organized a program of intriguing master classes and lectures for kids.

The Odesa Museum of Art decided to make similar values – openness, lightness, ergonomics, contemporaneity – more than just words on a wall. A clever 2019 collection of t-shirts was designed to break stereotypes about women in the arts with the help of well-known faces and captions reading “Go ahead, ask me when I’m going to get married,” “My body is not a space for your ad,” or “I’m my own oligarch.” Each t-shirt had the identity of one or more women from paintings that are in the museum collection, with the caption next to it. These works included a sketch from the panel “Woman with Bird” by Zinayida Serebryakova, “The Revolutionary” by Yuliy Bershadskiy, “Portrait of T. Braikevych” by Kostiantyn Somov, “The swimmer” by Carl Timoleon von Neff, and “The swimmers” by Amshey Nurenberg.

The Khanenko Museum is also entering the new decade completely renovated: the efforts of a newly-hired PR manager, Olya Nosko, to expand the real and potential audience based on age and genre has given results. Not to be outdone by others, the Museum presented its new identity in the fall of 2019, which included a new visual style designed by graduates from the Visual Communications Profession course at the Projector School of Design, Danylo Nesterevych, Yevhen Chuhuyevets, Olha Bakan, and Anastasia Lutova, and was immediately followed up by activities: open discussions, concerts and even events like a Hallowe’en party. The Khanenko’s curators went even further to actualize not just the notions of openness or interaction, but also inclusiveness: the museum proudly announced the launch of an inclusive site that made its famed collection of art works a bit more accessible.

Indeed, in museums like the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, such innovations are taken for granted. In the New Museum of Berlin, visitors who are visually handicapped are allowed to touch the Nefertiti bust. Whatever might be said about it, but identity is the first step away from who and where these institutions are today to who and where they want to be tomorrow, what they want to tell the world, and what kind of interactions they can offer it.

Now that even such giants as NAMU, the Shevchenko Museum and the Khanenko Museum have placed their bets on the future, when these huge greybeards have even started selling their own march and understand that, “Hey, the Arsenal and M17 aren’t the only contemporary art centers that are really contemporary,” the old provincial state galleries and concert halls don’t stand a chance. For instance, just recently the Chocolate House in Kyiv launched its new identity. Of course, without this event, it would probably just drown unnoticed among the many art spaces on the capital’s map. Over the next few years, Ukraine is likely to see presentations, renewals, and design changes across the entire spectrum, from provincial performing arts centers to one-room museums of history or medicine.

The obvious has become the inevitable at last: the kind of stereotypical cultural society, public library-type space or arts center that were engendered under the soviets with the purpose of covering the provinces and pushing conformity will simply not survive today. It’s no longer enough to be a space: you have to be a brand.

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There’s an urge to more optimistically look around at what’s going on and say that, more than establishing the past, Ukrainians want to not waste their future. Fear of remaining stylistically, temperamentally and ideationally lost in the forests of endless stability has overcome the fear of accepting the transgendered, of loosening “spiritual bonds,” or riding to work at the Verkhovna Rada on a bike. Rigidity has been melted by the desire to show that they are hip. All of this is a very noticeable positive trend, but so far it looks just a little like the mood of a young woman who, having just broken with her old flame, goes out and buys a new dress as a kind of easy form of therapy. No matter how nice the new dress looks – and we all know what this is about – no matter how much she claims that she has changed, how often she insists that it’s over, how strongly she declares that it was her choice, there will 100% for sure still be upsetting phonecalls, problems, attempts to revive things, times of distress and encounters with herself. Real lightness of being, a truly new phase will begin some time in the not-so-near future, and not when she “changes her hairdo, starts a new job, or decides that things will be different in the morning.”

The new phase will become possible when the entire set of changes at all levels, from the director to the ordinary museum-goer, is affirmed, not so much as an achievement but as completely normal as the standard that can no longer be imagined any differently. Clearly, only a few of the cosmetic changes are likely to bring long-term results. Which those might be will be evident very very soon.

By Olena Myhashko


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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