Yuri Onuch reflects on Ukrainian contemporary art

by Oksana Zakydalsky

The Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Kyiv, whose mission has been to foster contemporary visual art and culture in Ukraine, was established in 1993. Currently it has five professional staff, two support staff, one intern and from six to eight volunteers. It is located in the Podil district of Kyiv, in an 18th century historical building that belongs to the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy (NUKMA). Through a contract with the NUKMA, the CCA has use of the premises for 10 years, after which the property reverts to the university.

Yuri (Jerzy) Onuch became director of the CCA in 1997. He was born in Poland but, since 1985, has been a resident of Canada. After seven years as the director, Mr. Onuch has left the CCA. He was in Toronto at the beginning of this year and this writer asked him to describe and evaluate his years at the CCA.

Q: How did you become the director of the CCA?

A: The first director of the CCA was Marta Kuzma (from the U.S.), and the CCA was then funded by the Soros Renaissance Fund in Kyiv. In 1997 Soros decided that the CCA should become an independent organization - part of a network of Centers of Contemporary Art, of which there were about 20 in Europe - funded directly from New York. I was successful in the competition for the new director, and it took me a year and a half to register the CCA as a Ukrainian international charitable foundation. The law on charitable organizations in Ukraine is very restrictive and limits their functioning. They can only receive donations and cannot engage in any income-generating activities. For example, a gallery can't charge any entrance fee or sell its catalogue in order to recoup costs.

By 1999 it became obvious that the funding of the Soros network of CCAs was going to stop as Soros was planning to cease the funding of all cultural programs from New York. He agreed to a three-year phase-out period for the CCA, which then had to begin its own fund-raising. Just to run the physical plant - staff, telephone, computer maintenance, garbage collection, etc. - the CCA needs about $50,000 annually.

We were not able to find any local sponsor that would replace Soros. Hence, it was not possible to remake the institution as I had hoped nor do long-range planning. Today everything is done on a one-off basis. Funding for every project, for every show, for every activity is specific. The $35,000 the CCA now receives annually from the Kyiv Renaissance Foundation does not even cover the running costs. I invested a good chunk of my life into this institution and, as I leave, I fear that my younger colleagues, whom I have trained and prepared, will not be able to find adequate support and the CCA might change into a post-Soviet organization - not yet dead but no longer living, of which there are many in Ukraine.

Q: What do you consider to have been the highlights of your years as director?

A: We tried to find a balance between international projects and Ukrainian-based projects. As for highlights in the last few years, I could mention the Andy Warhol exhibit that came to us from Pittsburgh, the Kabakov and Kossuth show, Joseph Beuys, and the "Brand: Ukrainian" show, which had a wide resonance in Ukraine. We took part in the "Year of Poland in Ukraine" program with an outstanding exhibit of seven contemporary Polish artists and were able to produce a wonderful catalogue thanks to financial support from Poland. Six of the artists came to Kyiv and created their projects right in the gallery.

And just recently, we formed a coalition of partners such as The British Council, Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise and others, to be able to pay the fee of 26,000 euros to bring to Kyiv the World Press photo exhibit.

We have a group of contemporary Ukrainian artists who work with us. This group, which includes people such as Arsen Savadov, Alexander Roitburd, Oleh Tistol and Andrei Sahaidakowsky, began their careers at the end of the 1980s and today the artists are 40 to 50 years old. Everyone had long been waiting for a new generation of artists and finally last year, they appeared. The catalyst for this was the Orange Revolution. The CCA gave these 20- to 25-year-old artists a platform for their creative activity. They adopted the name REP (acronym for Revolutsiinyi Eksperementalnyi Prostir) and gathered and lived at the CCA. They showed tremendous energy - that's not to say that they had very interesting or phenomenal artistic ideas but, because of the maidan (Independence Square), they came out and began to say what they thought, what they wanted and what pained them. [Part of the initial REP maidan exhibit from the CCA was shown recently in Chicago.]

During 2005 they were made artists-in-residence at the CCA. They were able to work there, present shows, projects, actions and performances. Because they were young, they drew in a lot of their own audience. The CCA will continue to have artists-in-residence, but this program will be limited to three artists and one curator-critic.

Usually, a new generation appears every five years, but the gap between the previous group of artists and this new group is 15 to 20 years. Why did it take so long? One of the reasons is the system of art education in Ukraine. The Academy of Arts does not work in the paradigm of contemporary art. Its level of consciousness is stuck in the mid-20th century. People interested in contemporary art have to learn from each other rather than their teachers. The Orange Revolution brought these young together.

Q: What do you consider to have been your successes?

A: Today, the CCA is the most important institution in Ukraine which deals exclusively with issues of contemporary culture and contemporary art. Not only the most important but the only one. At the same time, we have been able to maintain a professional level, and even serve as an example to other galleries. We were the first to bring the curatorial system to Ukraine. We at the CCA worked with curators who worked with the artists. We had high standards of how to exhibit visual art - its physical presentation, the design of the exhibit, the lighting and so on. And we brought public relations into our activities - we issued press releases for every activity, organized press conferences before each event and so on. And, finally, all our printed work, such as invitations or catalogues, was on a professional level even when money was tight.

Another thing I am happy about - something that engenders optimism - is the public. When I came to the CCA, the budget was almost half a million dollars annually, but the annual number of visits to the CCA was about 7,000. Whereas, last year, up to November 2005, 43,000 people have come to the CCA. There have been, on average, 40,000 visits annually in the last few years. I estimate that we have about 10,000 persons for whom contemporary art forms part of their cultural life. This does not mean that they are all fans of contemporary art, that they like everything - we often get critical reactions. But the fact that they come, that it interests them, that they want to know about it - this is a great success of the CCA.

I believe we are ready for a generational change in Ukraine. There is a small group of specialists - experts, critics, professionals - who are ready and there is a public that is ready. When the attitude to culture in the official policy is changed, the ground will be ready. There is no need to start from the beginning. That is why it is important to maintain what has been achieved, to have the institution continue to exist.

Q: You mention the attitude to culture in official policy. What is your evaluation of this policy and have you seen any change in it during your years in Kyiv?

A: From my perspective of eight years working in the field of culture in Ukraine, I have not noticed any systemic changes or any desire to make them. Remnants of Soviet institutions persist. There are 27 or 28 so-called creative unions or associations (tvorchi spilky), some of which have national status. Although I understand that it's good to have representative organizations, the problem is their monopoly position.

A good example was the Ukrainian presentation at the Venice Biennale in 2001 which I started to organize. The Union of Artists was not interested in the Biennale, maybe it didn't even know it existed. But my competitors for the Ukrainian presentation were able to use the unique monopoly position of the union to sabotage the project. The affair showed that the union was powerful, that it could wreck projects in which its involvement was not sought.

The Ministry of Culture is obligated to partially support its activities and the Union of Artists is sitting on very valuable real estate - union buildings, union establishments - almost all artists' studios (except for Lviv where they have been privatized) are formally owned by the Union of Artists.

Q: How did Ukraine's neighbors - for example Poland and the Baltics - solve this problem of monopoly?

A: One must understand that in those countries there were people who wanted systemic changes, and they formed a critical mass among the remnants of Soviet legacy. Many changes took place thanks to the ministers of culture in those countries. For example, the minister of culture in Latvia was a person who was 28 years old. He had no experience but a will to make changes. The CCA in Latvia was created by the state; the director who was appointed was 30 years old. It is important to bring in new people into positions where decisions are made.

In Ukraine no systemic changes in cultural policy have taken place, nor are they taking place now. Since the Orange Revolution there has not been enough time and, currently, everything is overly political. To make serious, systemic changes, one needs political will and expertise, although political will is more important than knowledge. There has to be an understanding of what gigantic changes in communications, in cultural dissemination, in the functioning of culture have taken place in the world.

People keep saying "Time is needed" for change - but time by itself means nothing. One thing that can be done is to study the experience of others. What Ukraine will do then - that is another issue. Whatever is learned will fall on local ground where there are different people and a different context. For example, one phenomenon of the history of culture is what is called Ukrainian Baroque. Everyone is very proud of it, it is interesting, it's our own, it's very specific - all that is true. Ukrainian Baroque differs from Baroque in Germany, Poland or Italy, but it is still Baroque.

Another problem in the cultural sphere is the fact that there was such a long Soviet period that certain things have been lost, certain things didn't happen. You can't go back to them. You can't draw a line in the development of visual arts in Ukraine and then accurately compare it to what happened in Poland or in the world because certain periods can't be reconstructed - if at some period in your life you didn't read particular books, you won't read them now. But should you stop reading altogether? No, at some moment you have to decide that now you are entering the game. The game is called such and such. When we speak of Europe, the game is called Europe. It is made up of a lot of elements and you should plunge in.

One must establish some sort of priorities - in the end it is not important who represents Ukraine at the Venice Biennale - but it is important to understand what the Biennale is, why we go there, what is our aim, why we want to be present there. It is a gate to a huge art world and, unless you understand what this means, you will make mistakes. One cannot take works there that don't fit into the context. If there is an international exhibition of electronics, one does not take a vacuum lamp radio - it should go to a museum of technology. Because of misunderstandings or lack of knowledge, such opportunities as the Venice Biennale are not taken advantage of, although they can promote the country. What image does Ukraine have? What kind of image do we want it to have? One has to think about these things and see what Ukraine's neighbors are doing - they have similar historical baggage.

Q: You are now leaving the CCA?

A: I had planned to stay three years but I worked as the director for seven years. I think my biggest achievement has been to maintain this institution. Last year I announced that I would not seek the renewal of my contract. I wanted my younger colleagues, whom I had trained and with whom I have worked, to take over. Seven years ago they had just come out of university and I saw to it that they would gradually take over, that they would internalize this institution, that the CCA would become their center.

I have stayed on as the chairman of the board of the CCA. The CCA building is in a prime location and very valuable. What the NUKMA will want to do in three years when its contract with the CCA expires is not known. So I have also formed the CCA Foundation in order to safeguard the brand and the history of the CCA and to deal with some fund-raising.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 30, 2006, No. 18, Vol. LXXIV

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