No one has done more in recent years to put Ukrainian contemporary art on the map than the Pinchuk Art Centre and Izolyatsia. On the face of it, these two private institutions established by well-connected and generally well-liked industrialists — Victor Pinchuk and Luba Michailova — have a lot in common. Built around their founders’ personal collections, each in its own way nurtures the local art scene and attempts to build an audience for contemporary art at home, while giving Ukrainian artists greater international visibility and creating opportunities to show their work abroad.
This was not always the case – at least not as far as local artists are concerned. “The Pinchuk Art Centre has started to change its position but before it was not interested at all in the Ukrainian art scene. It was this huge institution built by a rich guy to show only stars from the West,” says Crimean-born artist and activist Mariia Kulykivska, who has worked with both institutions and is in a good position to compare them. To her mind, “Izolyatsia is a less established and glamorous place, closer to the real people.” Although Izolyatsia is not immune to the allure of superstars either, in Kulykivska’s opinion, it “started showing Ukrainian artists sooner”.
As well as teaching at the Pinchuk Art Centre, in 2013 Kulykivska was nominated for the sought-after Pinchuk Art Prize. Alternating with the more prestigious international Future Generation Prize (and a fraction of its monetary value), the bi-yearly national prize was set up in 2009 as part of a “changing strategy” designed to offer “consistent support for developing an art scene”, in the words of the Pinchuk Art Centre’s deputy artistic director Björn Geldhof. In addition to covering the production costs for new work, the prize gives the 20 nominees exposure and curatorial support in the context of the Pinchuk Art Prize show. The winner is also automatically short-listed for the Future Generation Prize the following year.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the Pinchuk Art Centre blazed a trail. The museum owes some of its iconic status to the fact that it was the only space dedicated to contemporary art in the whole of Ukraine, before Izolyatsia opened its doors to the public in 2010 — not in Kiev but in Donetsk in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine — and long before the Euromaidan protests of 2013, which stimulated the growth of self-sustained organisations and grass-root initiatives that offered an alternative to both these platforms for aspiring Ukrainian artists.
‘People know contemporary art in Ukraine through the Pinchuk’
“It was the Pinchuk Art Centre who started this project; people know contemporary art in Ukraine through the Pinchuk,” Izolyatsia founder Luba Michailova concedes in a Skype interview. “At a certain point it became clear that he took a capitalist approach of capitalising his private love for art, which is fine. Every country has to have ten more Pinchuks. We tried to build a different platform.”
The difference between these two rival institutions is partly one of style. If both non-profits are open to visitors free of charge, the Pinchuk Art Centre's well-attended openings are by invitation only and have an aura of VIP exclusivity about them. Spread over six floors with an elegant café at the top, boasting stunning views of the city, the Philippe Chiambaretta-redesigned complex in the central Besarabka area of Kiev looks and feels like a white cube. Given that many of the artists who form the basis of the oligarch’s collection — from Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons to Takashi Murakami and Anthony Gormley — are represented by Larry Gagosian and Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, this seems fitting.
The working shipyard retains something of the gritty feel of Izolyatsia's original factory home
Izolyatsia has none of the “luxury-style exhibitions, [nor] the pretension” of its counterpart, as Kulykivska puts it. The rented four-storey building situated on the premises of a working shipyard next to the river, in the increasingly trendy but still somewhat peripheral Podol neighbourhood, retains something of the gritty feel and working class aesthetic of Izolyatsia's original, sprawling factory home in the industrial city of Donetsk, where Michailova hails from.
Set up in a disused insulation materials plant that her father Ivan Michailov directed, Izolyatsia was inspired by Zollverein in Essen, a repurposed Bauhaus-style coal mine in the Ruhr area that Michailova visited in 2010, the year when Essen was the cultural capital of Europe. “I saw what my Donetsk could be in 20 years, when people breathe new life into industrial heritage,” says Michailova. She considers the preservation of the country’s Soviet-era heritage an integral part of Izolyatsia's mission, together with creating an infrastructure for art making and educating the public about 20th and 21st century art, which are not taught at school.
Michailova, who developed her taste for contemporary art while visiting museums around the world on business trips, started collecting socialist realist art in the 1990s in an attempt to preserve it after the fall of communism. This became the core of Izolyatsia's collection, which grew organically to include works made by international and Ukrainian artists in the context of residencies and for specific exhibitions staged at Izolyatsia, such as the 2012 show “Gender” for which Kulykivska fashioned 20 life-sized plaster clones of her body; three additional soap-based casts made at a later date were left to slowly dissolve in Izolyatsia's garden.
The militiamen destroyed many of the artworks that they considered to be ‘degenerate’
When Izolyatsia's premises were seized by armed pro-Russian separatists in June 2014, these were used as shooting targets by the militiamen, who destroyed many of the artworks that they considered to be “degenerate”. “I’m still not over the shock of losing most of my collection,” confides Michailova, who estimates the loss at about two-thirds. What could be salvaged was moved to Kiev along with the staff, ushering in a new period of “Izolyatsia in exile”. As Geldhof points out, “the tragedy of losing a space is also in a way a tragedy of losing identity. Especially as it’s not just a venue that they lost; they lost their origin, the place where they came from.”
Understandably, Izolyatsia has been outspoken in its indictment of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing of the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, which relegated the institution to the status of “cultural refugees” in their own country. Recent exhibitions such as Reconstruction of Memory (February-March 2016) tackled these sensitive issues head on, whereas the guerrilla occupation of the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015 by Izolyatsia members and associated artists (Kulykivska among them) sporting military fatigues bearing the logo “#onvacation” stole the show from the Pinchuk Art Centre's own project for the Ukrainian national pavilion, addressing the question of “transparency” in a group show emphatically titled “Hope!” curated by Geldhof.
The fact that the founder of the Pinchuk Art Centre derives much of his business profit from trade with Russia invites a more cautious approach. “We’ve never shied away from the political,” Geldhof assures me in an exchange over Skype. The R.E.P. (revolutionary experimental space) group – whose individual members like Zhanna Kadyrova, Nikita Kadan and Lada Nakonechnaya the Pinchuk Art Centre has worked with and supported over the years – stood out for him precisely because it “wasn’t afraid to touch upon sensitive political themes in a rather direct way”. Be that as it may, exhibitions such as Fear and Hope in 2014 – made soon after 100 hundred people were shot in the streets of Kiev – have the merit of addressing a potentially incendiary situation “in a non-partisan way”. In Geldhof’s eyes, “by doing that you create the possibility for a conversation.”