Marta Kuzma, the first director of the Kyiv Center of Contemporary Art — founded with funds from the philanthropic billionaire, George Soros — was elected one of the two curators for the fifth European biennial “Manifesta.” Biennials are international art exhibits held once every two years. They are meant to be concept shows for contemporary art, reflecting modern attainments, setting trends and evolutionary strategies.
Compared to those in Venice and S Л o Paulo, Manifesta is rather young, dating from 1996. Yet, this forum has firmly asserted itself in the world’s creative establishment; it boasts popularity as well as influence. There is a snobbish touch to the whole affair, evidenced by separation; Manifesta is a European biennial, representing the Old World’s art. Meant as a venue for creative dialog within a civilized and post-totalitarian Europe, it is involuntarily transforming into an elite club. Geographic limitations, moreover, do not make it any easier to exhibit political correctness, enlist curators and painters from third world countries, and reckon with the latest fashionable compromises. On the other hand, Manifesta is that rare case when a US passport is more of a disadvantage.
Marta Kuzma has a US passport, yet she has every right to consider herself an international, European, and Ukrainian curator. In 1993, she quit a prestigious job at the International Photography Center and headed the first contemporary art center in the land of her forefathers. Ms. Kuzma recalls, “I was scared by the situation in Kyiv. My work in the States had to do with organizations professionally handling art exhibits. In Ukraine, it was a newly established foundation that had to have a contemporary art program, yet they didn’t seem to have a clear idea about it. Honestly, I was very cautious about the Soros Foundation in Ukraine.” Anyway, she accepted the curator’s post, much to the benefit of all concerned.
Marta Kuzma shaped the first organization in Kyiv to handle alternative art in a professional manner. Her energy, professionalism, and confidence, complimented by international contacts, helped manifest this art in the Ukrainian public consciousness as a very real and expressive phenomenon. Moreover, she talked George Soros into financing a separate venue to study contemporary art and stage exhibits. Kyiv became the only link in the international chain of contemporary modern art centers with its center built using the foundation’s grant. Some of Marta’s plans never came to fruition; while in Ukraine, she could not convince the bureaucrats in charge of culture that it was necessary to support contemporary art and she could not make Ukraine a participant in the Venetian biennial. Yet, her efforts to develop, support, and propagate contemporary art in Ukraine have yielded fruit; no one can pretend any longer that this style of art does not exist in Ukraine. Ukrainian artists and curators can now submit works to prestigious world exhibits and polish their skill at US and Canadian institutions of higher learning. A contemporary art center opened in Odesa. And the Kyiv public can interact with the stage-by-stage development of contemporary art, hear lectures by curator Achile Bonito Olivi, see paintings by Bill Violi, Joseph Boyce, and artists of the Italian association, Arte Povera.
On the other hand, as head of the Ukrainian CAC, Marta can establish contacts within the international artistic community and carry out significant projects. The New York Times carried a review of her Alchemical Capitulation project aboard a warship in the Crimea. Kyiv’s exhibit, Opera Formosa (staged in collaboration with Italian curators Niccolo Asta and Julio Allesandri), turned out to be an international cultural event, involving the almost legendary contemporary classic Janis Cunellis. “Imagine, Cunellis did attend. Incredible!” recalls Marta Kuzma. “The thing was not even that he visited Ukraine. The incredible thing was that he spent two weeks and built a project there. As a creative personality, he likes to have an insight, trace the cultural roots of a given region; in his installation he used real church bells from Ukrainian museums. Just as easily as Cunellis can have an insight into any situation, he can step aside from it. He would have simply left Ukraine the next day, had he sensed anything fake. Cunellis is a man that keeps his creative situation under absolute control. Very few other artists anywhere in the world can do so.”
In January 2000, Marta Kuzma headed a contemporary art program at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, not far from the White House. Yet, she was disappointed by the capital’s conservatism and mannerism. She defended her thesis in London and received a prestigious offer from Manifesta. The biennial will take place in San Sebastian, in the Basque land, in 2004. Work is already underway. Her co-curator is Massimiliano Gioni, an Italian authority on contemporary art. Marta comments on this bend in her career, “I am not sure as yet what this appointment actually means to me. Everything seems totally new, yet Massimiliano Gioni and I realize the impact this project may have on the process of contemporary art within the global environment. San Sebastian is anything but global, it’s a beautiful coastal city and the ETA separatist movement plays a big role in its life, creating a lot of problems for Spain. Problems that aren’t very different from those Ukraine made for Russia under the Soviets — or what the Crimea is doing to Ukraine these days. I think the Manifesta organizers were rather interested in my experience working on the Alchemical Capitulation in Sevastopol.”
Ukrainian artists are quite likely to be on display at Manifesta. Manifesta curators Marta Kuzma and Massimiliano Gioni will visit Ukraine this spring and will, of course, examine more closely what our art has to offer.