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Ukrainian Museums: Between Two Evils

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At the moment a bureaucratic battle is being waged for the post of Director of the National Art Museum Ukraine (NAMU) in Kiev. The results will be announced very soon. So far, one of the main contenders for the post is interim director Tatiana Mironova, who has already been in charge for half a year. However, her running for Director is extremely problematic as Mironova is both an art dealer and the owner of the commercial gallery "Mironova" in Kiev. Despite this obvious conflict of professional interests, she was not prevented to occupy her current office. The National Art Museum is an important institution in the cultural landscape of Kiev. The exhibitions that have been implemented here in recent years, such as "The Ukrainian New Wave", "Big Surprise", "Beuys. Paik. Vostell. Actionism and Video-art 1960-1970", have demonstrated the powerful relevance of NAMU’s activities as well as its crucial influence on the contemporary Ukrainian cultural context. This is the first institution in Ukraine that has overcome the mental barrier of the post-Soviet museum-archive, becoming an active support for research and experimental projects of contemporary art. And yet, the acting director defined this institution’s mission as follows: "The Museum should become a brand", thus bringing contemporary art into the sphere of commercial brands. For example, the recent Pego cars which have come to decorate the entrance to the museum in exchange for the company sponsoring exhibitions.

Part of the local art community, outraged by the dire future prospects of the institution began to organize a series of meetings, discussions and initiated a petition letter to the Ministry of Culture, in order to draw attention to the aforementioned issues and organize a legitimate competition for the post of museum director. (documentation of these activities can be consulted on the web site of Art Workers’ Self-defense Initiative. Unfortunately, however, one cannot speak of the art community in Ukraine as a united body of people. There are quite a few followers of neo-liberaliberalism typified by Mironova. The response of Vogue Ukraine, who expressed support for Mironova is symptomatic of this: "The case of Tatyana Mironova is similar with  that of Diane Ryland from the Metropolitan Museum (NYC).  A bureaucrat once asked her whether she had proper education, meaning museum training. Ryland simply replied: "I do not have such an education, but I was able to bring people to the museum".

Such signs of neo-liberalism in contemporary Ukraine are only one of the evils that plague its culture today. The other has deep roots in conservatism and Soviet bureaucracy. Here it is important to recall the case of the exhibition "The New History", curated by the SOSka group in the Kharkiv Art Museum in 2009. The project was conceived as an intervention of contemporary art in the traditional museum exhibition space (the bulk of the museum’s collection consists of painting, graphic and sculpture from Russia and Ukraine spanning from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The goal of the exhibition was to create an open space for dialogue between different cultural layers, while avoiding pitting classical against contemporary art.  But the idea of communication proposed by the exhibition soon turned into a veritable scandal – which resulted in the exhibition being closed, a decision taken solely by the director of the museum, Valentina Myzgina.

Not only that, but one of the installations in the exhibit by artist David Ter-Oganyan was destroyed by Muzgina in an emotional outburst of rage. After this, the exhibition organizers spent several hours taking down a great deal of technical equipment and installations which had taken several days to put up. It should also be noted that the museum had another scandalous affair in the recent past – in 1995 Boris Mikahailov’s exhibition was similarly censored. It is striking that the last 15 years of societal transformations have not really affected the state cultural machine.  On the contrary, the director of the Kharkiv museum was awarded a prize from President Yushchenko for  "outstanding work". In an official letter explaining the reasons for the closure of "The New History", Muzgina wrote: "If this Kharkov project is considered the best in Ukraine, then I weep for our culture – this is but an aggressive new wave, financially backed, which is ready to sweep over the cultural achievements of the past. This shocking travesty was stopped in this museum".

Just a few years later, at the beginning of this year, similar arguments were used by Serhyi Kvit, the rector of Kiev-Mohyla Academy to censor the exhibition "Ukrainian Body", and ultimately close down the Visual Culture Research Center in Kiev. By commenting "This is not an exhibition – it is shit" Kvit cited the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. This case brought the attention of the international community and several protests, including the action Occupy Ukrainian Body stood as a reaction against the violent censorship.

Curator Viktor Misiano once commented on the "New History" case: "This conflict was not resolved, it will long remain as a haunting illness. The decision to close the exhibition and to throw artists out the door is in itself an odious act, no matter how good the reasons may have been – it resonates deeply with our common recent past, which should be overcome".  This reflection could also be applied to the case of the exhibition "Ukrainian Body" and other similar cases. In Ukraine, these types of cases have unfortunately become a deplorable trend. Ukrainian cultural institutions are currently caught between two evils, aptly symbolized by Myzgina and Mironova- between the "fight against immorality" and car-advertisements inside art exhibitions, between cherished conservatism and festive glamour.

Author: Mykola Ridnyi/ artist and curator, SOSka Group

Source: ArtLeaks http://art-leaks.org/2012/10/17/ukrainian-museums-between-two-evils/