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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Natalia ZABOLOTNA: Today, even art needs “presidential guarantees”

Director general of Art Arsenal explains that without an appropriate legislative basis, Ukraine will never have its own Louvre or evДen a progressive contemporary art center
14 September, 2010 - 00:00
Photo by Maksym BILOUSOV

Natalia Zabolotna headed the Ukrainian House for nearly six years. During this relatively short period of time the Ukrainian capital was enriched with a number of interesting artistic events (Art-Kyiv Contemporary, Great Sculpture Salon, Great Antique Salon, Fine Art Ukraine), and the European Square saw masterpieces of Rodin’s and Dali’s stature. The peculiarity of the mentioned art forums mainly lies in the fact that they were developed literally from scratch, or to be more precise, from the former Lenin Museum, which literally within a few seasons drastically changed its image and acquired the reputation of the main arts venues in the Ukrainian capital.

In May this year, Natalia Zabolotna headed Art Arsenal, a much larger and elaborate project — in terms of area, volume and the complexity of the tasks involved.

Art Arsenal became one of the symbolic objects of the Yushchenko-era. The concept of “The Ukrainian Louvre,” as the Arsenal was labeled (not unlike five-year old girls attempting to try on mother’s high heels), was a constant mockery, with the holey roof or the whole pieces which broke away from the building. Actually, the Arsenal became a symbol of unfulfilled hopes and missed opportunities. The concept of “The Ukrainian Louvre” moves not only by its lack of realism (because the only thing that makes the Arsenal look like the famous French museum is its area), but also by the fact that it was a reflection of Ukraine’s aspirations to return to the European cultural world.

In an interview with The Day the director general of Art Arsenal Natalia Zabolotna speaks about the shift in the Arsenal’s concept and the urgency of changes in the Ukrainian legislation to realize this concept; she shares her, without exaggeration, sensational plans regarding Botero, Malevich and the International Biennale “Manifesta,” and explains why the Arsenal is not the Louvre and why that is a good thing.

“The phrase the ‘Ukrainian Louvre’ sounds nice, but it is impossible to realize this concept in a few years. The Louvre is based on imperial collections formed for over 500 years. The previous concept of Art Arsenal presupposed the removal of the best exhibits from Ukrainian regional museums. But we moved away from that plan of so-called expropriation, although we certainly do not desist from cooperation with regional museums. On the contrary. But the format of this cooperation will be quite different. Art Arsenal will not deprive regional museums of their most valuable artifacts, but will popularize their art. For example, we plan to invite expositions of the Aivazovsky Feodosia National Art Gallery for a long period. And while the exhibition takes place in Kyiv, we will try to help the museum with repairs. There are many museums with worthy exhibits in Ukraine. And we will gradually show their expositions in Art Arsenal.”

Art Arsenal will cost Ukraine 1.5 billion hryvnias, at least such numbers are mentioned in the press. Can Ukraine afford a museum for a billion and a half? What justifies this expense?

“This figure was not estimated by me personally, but by experts working on corresponding policy.

“The sum is connected to the fact that we deal not just with big premises, but with a monument of architecture with a total area of 53,000 square meters (excluding the atrium footage). And almost each meter needs restoration, and architectural and design work. Previous centuries left us with barren walls. We believe that covering the luxurious rare bricks with plaster (that was to be done according to the previous plan) is simply unacceptable.

“Moreover, the previously mentioned sum included developing ten hectares of adjacent territory.

“Everything here breathes with history. In particular, the ramparts of the old Pechersk Fortress built by Cossacks led by Mazepa. This fortress was erected by the order of Peter I, for protection from a Swedish attack. Earlier, starting from the 17th century the Maiden Ascension Monastery was located here. It was known for the fact that the mother of Hetman Mazepa, Maria-Magdalene Mazepyna, was its dean. In fact, the current Arsenal building is located in the place of the Ascension Cathedral, built with the funds of the Hetman and his mother. During excavations in the Arsenal’s courtyard, the cathedral’s foundations were unearthed. In order to remind people about this page in the history of Kyiv, every night a laser projection of the Ascension Cathedral will be seen.”


What is the new concept of Art Arsenal that you developed based on?

“It may sound provocative, but we are building a museum-magnet, which people not only will want to visit, but will have to return to. It will be very vibrant. Art Arsenal will become one of the largest centers of gravity for art-thirsty guests of our capital.

“Our ‘space-museumology’ concept differs slightly from the previous one. Since the Arsenal is a cultural and artistic complex, we took symbols of the major milestones of the history of Ukrainian culture as a basis. If you go upwards, the two-story underground space will consist of a concentration of rudiments of Ukrainian art, starting with archeology and finishing with Kyivan Rus’. Perhaps the most vivid exhibition of ancient sculptures will become the central exhibition. I am sure it will become the face of Ukraine, a kind of Ukrainian ‘terracotta army.’

“I want to stress that the exhibition of Art Arsenal will in no way resemble either historical or local lore, or archeology museums.

“Precisely in the underground part of the atrium there will be a single, 80 percent stationary exhibition (we will reserve the other 20 percent of the atrium space to demonstrate collections of archeology and antiques from different countries).

“The first floor of the Arsenal will be dedicated to contemporary art. Art festivals, art fairs, biennials, solo exhibitions of famous Ukrainian and foreign artists will be held here; collections of modern art from world museums will be shown.

“The second floor of the Arsenal will be allotted for visiting expositions. Already today we are negotiating with many museums around the world. We also look for ways to cooperate with owners of collections in Ukraine and abroad.

“The third floor will be partly occupied by an exhibit of Ukrainian baroque, sacred, and decorative and applied art. Perhaps later we will use the attic floor for Ukraine’s only major digital library of world art and literature. It will provide art laboratories where seminars, workshops, meetings, and lectures will be held, and a powerful media department will be located.”

What about the Lavra museums, which, as the press says, are to be “relocated” to Art Arsenal? What do you think of such an idea?

“Some officials may have their own vision of the concept of Art Arsenal as a storehouse where you can pile exhibits from other museums, the buildings of which are suddenly needed by someone. We already have an example of a museum-ghost — the Museum of Kyiv’s History turned into a two-story warehouse in the Ukrainian Home. I’m sorry, but we are making a museum of world quality, with a clear concept, our own philosophy, and with curatorial approaches to expositions. Of course, we would not refuse assets from other museums. But Art Arsenal, which is built according to international museum requirements — standards for climate control, security, fire safety and so on — will be ready to accept art for storage no earlier than in two years, provided timely funding is available.”


The concept you developed reveals the “holes” in the Ukrainian legislation, which were to be patched long ago. In particular, the new version of the Law of Ukraine “On export, import and return of cultural property,” and the adoption of the law on patronage. How do you intend to lobby for their adoption now that the need for these laws is so urgent?

“Legislation is the biggest problem for the art world today. This is especially true of the new version of the Law of Ukraine ‘On export, import, and return of cultural property.’ The lack of this law does not allow our collectors to bring to our country the artworks that they buy at international auctions (by the way, often these are the works of Ukrainian artists), because importing them would mean having to pay half the amount spent on the purchase of the work of art. I personally know at least 20 collectors who in their Paris, Prague, London, and New York apartments retain extensive collections, which could become a part of the Ukrainian cultural heritage. A huge collection of Ukrainian art, belonging to the five richest Ukrainians, is kept in Switzerland, where there are special warehouses.

“The ‘holes’ in the legislation prevent Ukrainian artists of the past from entering the global context as recognized (even experts of leading global auction houses do not know who Hlushchenko, Shyshko, Shovkunenko, or even the cult Prymachenko are). But the world knows Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, Edward Munch, and Andy Warhol. Art must be convertible. And this is a basic prerequisite for the global recognition of artists. This legislation prevents our artists from joining the world’s art-space, and foreign galleries — from showing their artists at international art fairs. Comparing art with goods, as it is customary in our country, levying taxes as from a commodity — this is some regrettable misunderstanding. I’m told completely preposterous stories about communication with customs officers and border guards allowing themselves to abuse gallery owners and artists, suspecting that works by Roitburd, Mamsikov and Savadov allegedly leave Ukraine in gold stretchers, etc. Meanwhile, it is proved that the country’s image in the world today is made by modern art.

“It is important to bring the urgency of this legislative problem to the president. I’m sure the laws on import and export of works of art and patronage marked as ‘presidential’ will finally be adopted. And this will instantly qualitatively affect the development of art in Ukraine and the popularization of modern Ukrainian artists in the world. As a result, from the ruins a beautiful museum will rise — the world-famous Art Arsenal. By the way, as history shows, many politicians and industrialists were remembered for centuries because they supported the arts and made friends with charismatic artists.”


You plan to complete the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the bigger part of the museum within a few years. How, according to your expectations, will Art Arsenal affect the surrounding space: firstly, the Ukrainian art market and, secondly, the cultural climate of Kyiv?

“Some of our officials (despite the fact that have lived in Kyiv for years, and held rather high positions) seriously lack what is called internal culture. While this trait, as for me, is largely genetically determined, there are those who are able to re-educate themselves through a particular environment. I think our museum will become that environment, it will be a great center of ‘reeducation’ and developing internal culture.

“Not only officials but also the whole Ukrainian society should rouse itself and regenerate. Only culture can give us the appropriate impulse. We would like to promote internal changes in people, make them art ‘junkies.’

“The Ukrainian Home served as an example for this. When we brought collections of masterpieces, we saw the faces of people change, their self-esteem increased.

“The first presentation of Art Arsenal to the international community will be held as soon as this year, within the framework of opening the project Art-Kyiv Contemporary on November 8. A pool of international press is already accredited, including The New York Times, and several globally known broadcasters. On November 9 the round table ‘Museum in a global context’ will be held, which will be attended by directors and curators of world-class museums: the Metropolitan Museum, the Solomon Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Berlin Museum of Modern Art and other museums in Germany; we also have been negotiating with Great Britain.”

When the respectable guests and the international press come to Kyiv, they will see Art Arsenal in fighting trim. But what will be happening around it? Artists are thrown out of workshops, museums and libraries are deprived of their buildings. Obviously, this is not your concern...

“No, this is my concern, too. For nearly six years as director of the Ukrainian Home, above our heads the storehouses of the Museum of Kyiv’s History remained dusty. By the way, we do not mind, if eventually the collection of the Museum of Kyiv’s History is passed on to Art Arsenal.”


Finally, please tell us about the most ambitious plans of Art Arsenal for the near future.

“We are now working on our first presentation of the renewed Art Arsenal. The main focus of Art-Kyiv Contemporary is on galleries and world art celebrities. Street art is the theme of other special projects this year. We will bring artists from Germany, France, Russia, and Switzerland.

“The Great Antique Salon is sche-duled for December, Great Sculpture Salon — for March. Maybe as a part of it a solo exhibition of paintings and sculptures of the world-famous Fernando Botero will be held. If we manage to invite the Colombian artist, it will be terrific. I think people from around the CIS will come here.

“Already within the next few years Ukraine may have its own art biennale. But there is the question of state support, because an event of this scale with international status must be 50 percent state-funded. By the way, Ukraine has a great chance in 2014 to host a kind of ‘Art Olympics’: the International Biennale ‘Manifesta.’ A week ago we received a delegation from Amsterdam, headed by President of Manifesta Hedwig Feyen. They are impressed by the Arsenal area, so we look forward to this opportunity. During the Biennale the additional inflow of tourists into the country ranges up to a million and a half within three months.

“One way or another, the state must enter into negotiations with, so to say, art movement activists. Because it is culture and art that are the most important arguments in international politics.”

What about a major exhibition of Malevich? I remember some time ago the Ukrainian Home attempted to negotiate with Russian museums…

“Now we are negotiating with Moscow and St. Petersburg. The curator of this direction is the famous Ukrainian art critic Dmytro Horbachov, and our concept has already become intercontinental: the collection will be based not only on the collections of the Museum of Russian Art, the Tretyakov Gallery, but also the Stedelijk Museum, the MoMA, The Pompidou Centre, The Yale University Art Center, and others. We will be able to afford this exposition already in 2013. Of course, provided there are guarantees from the president and the government.”

Interviewed by Maria TOMAK, The Day