How Two Kyiv Art Centers Are Making It Work During Wartime

Despite electricity outages and shellings, Voloshyn Gallery is eager to join Pinchuk Art Centre in revitalizing the Ukrainian capital’s art scene.

Lesia Khomenko, "Max in the Army" series, 2022. Provided by the PinchukArtCentre © 2022. Photographe...
Lesia Khomenko, "Max in the Army" series, 2022. Provided by the PinchukArtCentre © 2022. Photographed by Pat Verbruggen.

Max and Julia Voloshyn thought they were in for a long trip when they left Kyiv—home of their namesake gallery, Voloshyn—for a series of art fairs in Guadalajara, Dallas, and Miami in the fall of 2021. They were right—and then some. It’s now been nearly a year and a half since the couple stepped foot in Ukraine, where war with Russia broke out shortly before they originally planned to return home. “We have a three-year-old daughter, and we can’t bring a little kid to a place where you can expect shellings,” Julia says, noting that the family has finally rented an apartment in Miami after a year’s worth of constantly bouncing between Airbnbs.

Nevertheless, the Voloshyns plan to reopen their gallery space later this month with an exhibition that will use the camera obscura as a conceit for the light that art can bring to the darkness currently blacking out Ukraine (both literally and figuratively). The hope to restore their pre-wartime operations may seem overly optimistic, but proof that it can be done is just a few blocks away, at the sprawling Pinchuk Art Centre, which has been fully operational since last June. On weekdays, the museum attracts around 600 visitors, and on weekends, around 1,000—about the same as its pre-war numbers, pro-rated to account for the millions who fled the city last year. “It shows that people need to engage with culture, and we have a real role to play,” Björn Geldhof, curator and artistic director, tells me via Zoom from his office there.

The latest edition of the Pinchuk Art Centre’s annual exhibition accompanying its prestigious Future Generation Prize features the Commercial Public Art collective, whose contributions extend outside of the museum. Their public sculpture /Reassembling the Urban/ (2022) incorporates everyday urban objects such as benches with wartime ephemera like metal beams known as anti-tank hedgehogs and concrete blocks. It will be on view through the end of April.

Provided by the PinchukArtCentre © 2022. Photographed by Sergey Illin.

From its website, Pinchuk Art Centre looks like any other cultural institution; one can find information on not just its regular exhibitions, but also café, bookstore, research library, and programming (including weekly lectures and art classes for children and people with disabilities). The only indications that it’s located in a country amid a full-scale war—well over 100,000 Ukrainians are estimated to have been killed in combat so far, and according to the United Nations, nearly 18 million Ukrainians are in dire need of humanitarian assistance—are the descriptions of a number of shows since the war began. The shift began at the 2022 Venice Biennale with “This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom.” Traditionally, the museum’s pavilion would have been a showcase of that year’s prestigious Future Generations Art Prize winners. But the curators began to wonder whether they should do something more timely—and if it would be worth the significant cost. A conversation between the center’s founder, billionaire philanthropist and oligarch Victor Pinchuk, and Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, sealed the deal. “This is essential, crucial,” Geldhof says while summarizing Zelensky’s response. The president went on to not only open the show with a streamed speech, but also become a patron of the center’s subsequent, even more polemic exhibition, “Russian War Crimes.”

Pinchuk Art Centre’s “Russian War Crimes” culminated with Oleksiy Sai’s film compilation of 6,400 images of evidence of the exhibition’s title in Ukraine.

Provided by the PinchukArtCentre © 2022. Photographed by Sergey Illin.

The latter show first opened at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, then traveled to NATO Headquarters, the European Parliament—and, quite importantly to Geldhof, back to Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv, when it reopened last summer. “The exhibition had to be anchored in reality, not escapism,” he says. But he’s also keen to note the importance of making the global art community aware of the fact that war has been ongoing in Ukraine since at least 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasions of the Donbas, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions.

The Voloshyns are also keenly aware that the art world paid little attention to the conflict in Ukraine until Russia officially declared war in February 2022. A large part of why they first stuck around Miami was the attention they got for what the New York Times heralded an “unintentionally timely” showcase of artists such as Nikita Kadan, Lesia Khomenko, Nikolay Karabinovych, and Oleksiy Sai. Visitors were shocked that the works featured were made not in the present, but over the past eight years. For the Voloshyns and the artists they represent, however, responding to “the situation” in Ukraine had long been natural. In fact, the Voloshyns were in the midst of opening an exhibition of Sai’s “Bombed” series when the gallery reconverted into the bomb shelter it last was circa World War II. Shortly afterward, Kadan curated an all too timely exhibition during his month-long stay there—one comprised entirely of works from the gallery’s storage.

The Voloshyns heeded the Ukrainian government’s request to convert their gallery into a bomb shelter on the very first day Russian president Vladimir Putin officially declared war. Here, Kyiv residents prepare to sleep amid the exhibition of Oleksiy Sai’s “Bombed” series—paintings that show an aerial view of bombed regions of Ukraine—that was mid-installation on February 24, 2022.

Photograph by Oleksiy Sai

Nikita Kadan’s “Artists in a Time of War.”

Courtesy of Voloshyn Gallery.

The Voloshyns had nothing material to do with the exhibition. And while they may be more physically distant from their gallery than ever, they’ve made sure its global footprint has never been bigger. “We didn’t even think to start operating—we just started to think how we could operate in different ways,” Max says of how they’ve kept the space fully operational from a distance. Since unwittingly leaving behind Kyiv, the couple has been showing constantly, participating in at least 10 global art fairs and collaborating with an equal number of galleries across the world. “Galleries [in the U.S.] don’t understand our situation—they work in normal conditions, where they can predict and manage one show,” Julia says. “When you have shows in Prague and Vienna and Miami and New York and in Copenhagen, it’s crazy.” Particularly given the cost of shipping their artists’ works from Ukraine and Europe, she adds.

“This Is Ukraine” put contemporary Ukrainian artists in conversation with not just their centuries-old counterparts, but also today’s artists from all over the world. JR contributed a monumental tarp depicting a five-year-old named Valeriia—one of more than four million Ukrainian children who have become refugees since February of 2022. (A public art installation of the work appeared on the cover of Time last March.)

Provided by the PinchukArtCentre © 2022. Photographed by Pat Verbruggen.

Hence the hope to return to Kyiv—and as eager as they are to do so at the end of the month, the Voloshyns know that, in this climate, nothing is for sure. They had similar plans last fall, when the playground at Taras Shevchenko Park, located directly across the street from the gallery, was shelled. The explosion shattered windows for blocks—as far as the Pinchuk Art Centre, a 10-minute walk away. “This is a risk we cannot avoid—a risk that can happen today, right where I’m sitting,” Geldhof says, gesturing around his office. “And I think Ukrainians understand and accept this risk—but also do not accept this risk limiting the fact that their life must continue.” After all, people keep coming back—despite the air alerts that have staffers encouraging visitors to join them at a nearby shelter on a daily basis.

Had Voloshyn Gallery not been a bomb shelter circa World War II, its window would have been shattered just like the rest of those in the pictured building, when Russia bombed the park directly across the street on October 10, 2022. The Pinchuk Art Centre had much more damage to assess, despite being located a 10-minute walk away.

Photograph by Anna Kopylova, the director of Voloshyn Gallery.

Speaking of which, Geldhof has work to do—this year’s Future Generation Art Prize winners are currently being exhibited, but it’s already time to pick the next. They come from all across the world, and to the Voloshyns, international artists are one of their biggest hopes for the future of Kyiv’s art scene. It’s no mistake that Banksy recently created seven new murals across the city, they add. “Before the war, a lot of artists visited, and I think they would be interested to come here after,” Max says. Julia echoes his hopes for a revitalized art scene in Kyiv: Their move back depends not just upon when the war ends, but also on the local art market’s stability. “We are planning to come back and contribute to the art scene in Ukraine,” she says after stressing how eager she and Max are to reopen their gallery. “However, we also need to have the financial means to sustain ourselves and our gallery in the long run. Our goal is to return to Ukraine and continue our support for artists, but we also have to ensure we can maintain a stable presence there.”