Kyiv, February 2023
Olga Zhuk, you are the Deputy General Director for Contemporary Art and Museum Affairs. What has changed since the start of the war for the Mystetskyi Arsenal museum complex?
Of course, it can’t be “business as usual” for us. In Kyiv, we’ve heard 667 air threat alarms in a year. People had to hide in shelters or their basements for 747 hours, which means we’ve had one month stolen from each of us. But, in reality, every single minute since the war started was stolen: People never feel fully safe and we constantly fear new attacks.
The last massive missile attack we had was last Friday. When this happens, all public activities must be stopped, but the Mystetskyi Arsenal staff keep working and resisting. We do this to ensure the continuity of our identity and to support the people who are still in the city.
All of us have lost our normality, but we refuse to be paralysed. We must do something towards recreating our normal lives in future, towards the sustainability of our country and society.
“You always must have a plan A, and a plan B and that means there is much more ‘invisible’ work”
Did you adjust your program to the new reality of war?
Now when we plan and design every project or event, we must first consider all the dangers and security risks to ensure the safety of people and art. In practice, this means cultural institutions are changing their programming as well as adjusting their basements to serve as emergency shelters.
During the first months of war, it was almost impossible to go out because of the bombing. Even now, with security algorithms in place, the threats, their intensity and frequency are unpredictable.
This complicates everything from project logistics to fundraising and financial planning. You always must have a “plan A”, and a “plan B” and that means there is much more “invisible” work. Therefore, planning times in institutions became much shorter, and we also had to rethink our programming.
In 2022 Mystetskyi Arsenal implemented two big exhibitions, which was much more work for the team than the usual 4-5 exhibitions and 2 big festivals in times of peace.
“At the opening there was another blackout and visitors had to view artworks with pocket lights”
Such conditions made us to redirect our programming to partly address international audiences beyond Ukraine, to strengthen our work in the realm of cultural diplomacy.
For example, we presented numerous events at international book festivals and fairs, among them the stand and literary program at Frankfurt Book Fair, or co-curated a series of events “Ukraine Day” with the Cheltenham Literature Festival as a part of the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture supported by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute.
Which practical issues were you confronted with and how did you cope?
Of course, the most recent and urgent issue were electricity outages due to Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure. When it first happened, we were preparing our current contemporary art exhibition – “Heart of Earth”, dedicated to the effects of war on land, food, ecology and global security. We had to finish our installation process in the dark, with the help of portable lights.
At the opening there was another blackout and visitors had to view artworks with pocket lights. Then these outages persisted and were unpredictable.
“The first practical issue we had when Russia started its invasion, was to save and evacuate the artworks”
Unfortunately, the Mystetskyi Arsenal is too big to solve the outages with the help of generators. On the other hand, every challenge makes us more creative. Maybe one of our next exhibitions will be about art in the dark.
The first practical issue we had when Russia started its full-scale invasion in 2022, was to save and evacuate the artworks. As we had thought about the threats in the months preceding war, our museum specialists managed the evacuation very promptly.
However, this brought another challenge that many Ukrainian museums are facing: being forced to close permanent expositions. The Mystetskyi Arsenal collection is a vast collection of artworks, historical and archeological objects. No longer having immediate access to the most famous artworks in the collection affected our future exhibitions. We solved this by focusing on works which were still in the building.
We also now focus on contemporary art, and started documenting artistic reflections on the war from its beginning in 2014 until the current full-scale Russian invasion. Our contemporary art lab created and continues to develop an online art archive “Ukraine Ablaze”.
“In the first months some of our colleagues, mostly women with kids, moved from Kyiv to Western Ukraine or abroad”
How was your team affected?
Everyone’s life was endangered and we were constantly worried about each other. Some of our colleagues survived and escaped from Bucha and villages in Kyiv region which were occupied in March and April by Russians, shocking the world with their atrocities.
In the first months some of our colleagues, mostly women with kids, moved from Kyiv to Western Ukraine or abroad. Some later returned, but we lost some of our valuable specialists and had to rebuild our team. Moreover, any man working in our team can be mobilized to join the army anytime, which remains our big concern.
Also in the first months we felt it was important to help artists, so we joined our fundraising efforts with the NGO “Museum of contemporary art” and launched the project of Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund that gave small grants for relocation and survival to hundreds of artists and independent cultural workers.
“It is hard to explain to those who have never encountered war on daily basis, why it is that people in unsafe circumstances still need art”
Are people still visiting the exhibition?
Our current exhibition of contemporary art welcomes up to 500 visitors per week. That is four times less than usual attendance at Mystetskyi Arsenal before the war, but an encouraging amount for a city that is being regularly bombed.
Besides the big gallery space, we also have a small one – Mala Gallery, which is the basis for our contemporary art lab. There we hold experimental projects and exhibitions of young artists every month, host their meetings and talks, attended by some 300 people per week.
It is hard to explain to those who have never encountered war on daily basis, why it is that people in unsafe circumstances still need art. I think it helps restore a lost sense of peace and safety.
In May 2022, when the bombings became less intense, we asked the audience to share their experiences of war through dialogue with classical works of art. Having survived harsh attacks and being stuck in shelters and at home for two months, people had a great need to talk. The title of the exhibition, curated by the head of our museum department Olga Melnyk, was simple and direct: “The exhibition about our feelings”.
The interview was conducted by Atifa Qazi