An Open Letter from Nataliia Zabolotna to Ukrainian contemporary art workers

Dear friends!

As Director of Mystetskyi, I find it regrettable that the “Grand and Great” Exhibition, envisioned and realized as a large-scale inter-museum project involving 35 leading Ukrainian museums, would come to be marked by the now infamous conflict surrounding the Volodymyr Kuznetsov painting “Koliyivschyna - Final Judgment”, a painting which would not be exhibited during the event. The incident has resulted in the emergence of conflict within the arts community, and the elucidation of a string of important concerns. Concerns which must be rightly addressed, but in open and frank dialogue.

Certain of our national artists have called for a boycott of the Second Kyiv Biennale of Contemporary Art. I might suggest that they have perhaps done so in a manner which does not fully appreciate the impact that such an action will have – not merely on the Biennale and the Mystetskyi Arsenal, but on the arts in Ukraine in toto. Unhappily, we are now compelled to state that the informational war conducted against the Mystetskyi Arsenal has borne its first fruits: leading art theoretician and critic Boris Groys has regrettably declined to act as facilitator for the Biennale Discussion Platform. He has expressed his misgivings that – in the current situation – concerns to be addressed during the platform would only devolve into unproductive quarrels among the local arts community. While I am disappointed with this outcome, I cannot fault his rationale.

What will be the cost of Mr. Groys’s declination for the Ukrainian arts community? Impossible to say at this point. What is known, is that the singular opportunity to host a foremost international contemporary art theoretician in Ukraine is now lost. Lost further is the opportunity of a worthy intellectual exercise of international significance. The Kyiv Biennale is a unique event to Ukraine – the type of event about which we have all, until very recently, only allowed ourselves to dream. It is an event marked by the spirit of the venture of our native arts onto the international stage, and by reduction, or outright failure, may be rightly characterized as a fiasco which Ukraine can little afford.

I am also troubled that some among the arts community would attempt to reduce the Kyiv Biennale to an event limited by the space of the Mystetskyi Arsenal, attempting to exploit the Biennale via boycott in order to exert pressure on the Arsenal itself. Yet our arts team is steeled to the task of fixing the damage that would be inflicted upon this vital project; we have begun it and we will bring it forward despite the significant obstacles which attend any large-scale project undertaken in our country. For its part, the Kyiv Biennale is the nation’s sole international cultural project which aims at the full integration of Ukrainian arts within the global context.

The Mystetskyi Arsenal and the projects which it carries out, projects which enjoy the collaboration of hundreds of leading national and international artists, is truly the task of all of us. Over these last several years, the Mystetskyi Arsenal has become a true “House of Art”; surely, this calls for greater care and accountability on all our parts. Conflicts may arise in every house as we well know, but a people who would overcome conflict must invoke wisdom, seek the spirit of compromise, and in this search distinguish themselves. In this work which is before us, the edification of Ukrainian art, vital tasks remain. Essential to this work is our willingness to aspire to comity, not discord.

Questions have been raised recently regarding the operating principles of Mystetskyi Arsenal. It is certainly not enough to suggest that these principles are self-evident; the posing of the question in itself presupposes that not all segments of the arts community are aware of the objectives of the Mystetskyi Arsenal project, and at what stage of its fulfillment that project finds itself.

We are constructing a contemporary museum of art, and not a museum of contemporary art. These priorities of operation envisioned for the Arsenal are reflected, accordingly, in its name: we are a National Cultural-Art and Museum Complex. Mystetskyi Arsenal is dedicated to presenting the highest level of expression in Ukrainian arts from antiquity to the current moment. The Arsenal is engaged in the effort of becoming a multi-functional institution, poised to draw from the full spectrum of Ukrainian artistic initiative and accomplishment, and unite it in a singular, national, conceptual project aimed at representing the artistic heritage of Ukraine, and affording this heritage its due position in the greater global culture of accomplishment in the arts. This is our mission.

Contemporary art, of a certainty, has its own place in a museum so envisioned, for without it, the project would be less than complete, and certainly lacking. In addition to plans to house standing and rotating exhibitions, to establish a permanent collection, to found a restoration and scientific research center, the Arsenal will include the infrastructure to foster the development of contemporary art: an arts school, art laboratories, residencies, digital libraries, and more. A plan that can begin to function fully only with the final, and complete restoration of the Arsenal. What follows is a fact that calls out for broader acknowledgment: as of today, the Mystetskyi Arsenal is a construction site. It is 63,000 m2 of potential space dedicated to the arts, but space which is in need of urgent restoration.

Under the current circumstances, it is more efficient to run projects which occupy 12,000 m2 of the ground floor of the venue, rather than to host small exhibits. Arsenal does not own the necessary technical equipment to carry out exhibitions. For each discrete event, light and sound equipment must be rented; further costs include climate control, venue design, promotional campaign, the hiring of security services, cleaning services and more. Smaller-scale showings are organized on the premises of our “Mala Galeria”, where we have routinely focused on the work of emerging Ukrainian artists. The accusation that Mystetskyi Arsenal focuses exclusively on the creation of so-called “art blockbusters” is as baseless as it is ill-informed.

Drawing on our team’s enthusiasm for this work we have been successful at creating the impression of the Arsenal as a fully-endowed institution. Yet we are currently ill-served by this illusion, with our “construction site” too often regarded as a mature, functioning institution of long-standing, existing in fertile, “hothouse conditions”. The time has come to call things by their proper names, and emphasize again, that Mystetskyi Arsenal currently operates at only 5% of its territorial capacity. For reasons which are readily apparent to all, at the present time it is quite simply impossible to afford the use of the exhibition space on a daily basis.

For nearly 10 years the dream of creating a signature national museum has been on hold and could go on so indefinitely. But our team has chosen another path – a path of action. We have adapted the venue given us to host projects, and we have created conditions amenable to museum visitors. Over the last three years 35 arts projects, viewed by more than one million visitors, have been carried out in this venue. Contemporary art has been included in that effort in significant measure.

Within the arts community the notion exists that the Mystetskyi Arsenal is a wealthy institution, blessed with an inexhaustible budget and an immense staff. But this is, in fact, far from reality. Each project undertaken involves the difficult search for financial support, and due to frequent financial shortfalls we are unable to realize all of our plans to their full potential. Our staff numbers the same as it did three years ago when I became Director. There is one difference: at that time, not one exhibition had yet taken place at the Arsenal. Despite our inability to adequately fill all necessary staff positions, all members of our undersized team regularly assume double and triple levels of responsibility simultaneously. While these conditions create for difficulty, our current status does not allow for the expansion of our team of curators, museum specialists, exhibitors, and support staff. In keeping with its “under construction” status, the Mystetskyi Arsenal is reckoned as a State Enterprise rather than a Cultural Institution. It should also be noted, my personal status has frequently, and mistakenly, been referred to as that of a “State Employee”. This is demonstrably false.

The complicated status of Mystetskyi Arsenal (not excluding its ongoing, partial reconstruction), stands in the way of establishing good working relationships with artists, among other disadvantages under which we labor. This touches on another issue the Arsenal team has been confronted with recently. We are certainly interested in developing this aspect of our work – working directly with artists. And to that end, the incident surrounding the impermanent work by Volodymyr Kuznetsov served as an important lesson. In order to avoid a repetition of this situation in the future, working relationships between the institution, curators, and artists must meet more strictly defined legal requirements. To wit, all future contracts with artists for commissioned and/or existing works for exposition will include an approved sketch or, in the case of extant works, a color photo-reproduction of the piece.

In this transitional period for the Arsenal, however, there are positives, and we can and must speak about the future of our institution. We are open to suggestions and ideas concerning those principles on which the activity of a signature national museum must be grounded. Ukraine has not seen a project on the scale of the Arsenal before, and experience in this area is lacking. The formulation of said principles of activity for an institution so envisioned can only come as the result of a common effort. As a first step in this direction we have created a type of ‘public suggestion box’ at where you may direct your ideas concerning the specifics of this work. We are also open to dialogues and future meetings at Mystetskyi Arsenal.

Finally, let us address the questions of censorship and vandalism. I will say simply: there is no validity to this charge. In the early days following this unfortunate incident, I offered an apology for the consequences resulting from my actions, but these words, published on the Mystetskyi Arsenal and ART UKRAINE websites, went largely unheeded.

I take this opportunity to address the arts community directly that there may be no mistake: it pains me greatly that such a situation occurred, and has resulted in such negative repercussions for the artist, for this project of national scale, and for the Mystetskyi Arsenal. I would like to offer my apology to the community as a whole, and personally to Volodymyr Kuznetsov. I regret those organizational shortcomings of the project which resulted in miscommunications among the curatorial group and brought about these troubling consequences.

I would like to emphasize that I am not a person inclined to force, nor do I seek to justify my actions. I oppose censorship and acts of vandalism. Projects that have been implemented under my leadership, beginning during my tenure at the Ukraine House, have always included art of a critical nature. I have never acted to limit artistic expression. The work of Volodymyr Kuznetsov and of the group REP of which he is a member, has been included in nearly every large-scale project held at Mystetskyi Arsenal; his work has also enjoyed two personal exhibits at the Arsenal “Small Gallery”. Mystetskyi Arsenal is virtually the only State art institution in the country which has regularly collaborated with contemporary artists and exhibited their work over the last three years.

From its initial conception, the “Grand and Great” Exhibition was not structured as a contemporary art exhibition, but as a large inter-museum project – a sui generis museum biennale, aimed at bringing to light the collections at museums throughout the country, and developing the Arsenal’s own direction of inter-institutional collaboration. The accusation has been leveled that this project was overly ecclesiastical in character. The facts say otherwise.

It is true that the exhibition was dedicated as a part of the national observance of the 1,025th Anniversary of the Baptism of the Kyiv Rus. The exhibit, however, accented the singularity of the material and did not adopt any particular ideological tone. The Ukrainian Baroque, the Volyn Iconography, and the works of Johan Pinzel marked only the beginning of the exhibition. But what a beginning. How can any negative be derived from the exhibition of timeless and nonpareil Ukrainian sacred art in the halls of the Arsenal? As the exposition continued, one encountered ancient artifacts, avant-garde masterpieces, prehistoric archeological treasures, and the Ukrainian Secession – all on loan from collaborating regional museums. All these bring out the true spirit of this exhibition. As the exhibit progressed toward its end, these works were joined by contemporary works, completing this grand-scale panorama of some of the most striking creative work to manifest itself on the Ukrainian territory over the last 15 millennia.

Certainly, such an ambitious approach set certain conceptual limits to the project. Sadly, due to the severe time restrictions under which the entire Arsenal team was working in the lead-up to this unprecedented-in-scale exhibition, miscommunications occurred within our curatorial group regarding the impermanent mural to be painted by Volodymyr Kuznetsov on the Arsenal walls. The resulting misunderstanding became evident quite late: after the building had been secured, and less than a day prior to the Opening of the Exhibition, it became evident that this impermanent work was less than half completed and that the portion which had been completed directly violated the long-established conceptual emphasis of the exhibit. As the head of the curatorial group I was compelled to respond to the situation at hand. Were we addressing a work painted on canvas, it would have been a simple matter of removing the painting from the hall and continue with the task of putting the final touches on the exposition. Unfortunately, I was left with no alternative: a less than felicitous exit from the circumstances.

As the leader of the Arsenal, I am dedicated to apply every effort to address the decision-making processes for our projects, in hopes that we may eliminate the possibility of any reoccurrence of these regrettable events. I would further reemphasize that this situation was not an act of censorship, nor was I under any duress when I reached the decision to remove the work. I am prepared to publicly enumerate the steps required to eliminate any such future situations. Situations which serve neither the greater interests of the institution, the artist, nor the Ukrainian arts scene.

I appeal for a change from the rhetoric of boycotts to the language of open dialogue. Let us together dispense with the spirit of conflict which has arisen, and demonstrate that the Ukrainian artistic community is a discriminating community, and inclined toward constructive collaboration. The path of internecine hostilities must not become the norm while culture in our land continues as the domain of the dedicated loner, while the nation of Ukraine lacks a cogent strategy for cultural development. In this situation we are quite simply obligated to join forces, and together construct the basis for a national approach to cultural development. For without it, one may wonder how Ukrainian art will ever reach the heights which await it.

Mystetskyi Arsenal is a cultural project with the potential to become the most resonant calling-cards of our nation in the world. But the Arsenal must not be the sole respondent to the absence of a fully-realized cultural arts process within the country. So, in hopes of laying the groundwork for the emergence of this process, I ask you to join forces with us. Mystetskyi Arsenal can certainly become the driving force of this process, but as things stand, it is in need of support – broad-based and willing support.

I encourage all of us to do more than merely focus our efforts on each other’s mistakes; those who risk nothing will never err. We, however, must offer one another real help. We must cooperate on the development of this institution, but in a way which shows we understand its limitations at present. I propose that we make these mutual principles of business and creative collaboration among artists, curators, and institutions a reality.

We are looking forward to meeting with you at Mystetskyi Arsenal, and are sincerely hopeful for a friendly and constructive dialogue. We cannot, sadly, change what has gone before, but we certainly are capable of affecting our common future. All that is called for is for us to join hands in friendship and mutual understanding. I offer my hand in confidence that together we may accomplish this.


sincerely, fraternally

Nataliia Zabalotna

October 17, 2013