March 20 — To Be a Curator of Lost Art

It should be perfectly clear by now that every museum and architectural monument in Ukraine is in peril. But what about the art that exists everywhere else in the country? Efforts to evacuate and safely store the collections of public institutions are ongoing, but private galleries and the studios of contemporary artists are in a zone of daily danger.

One such studio belonged to a dear friend who passed away last year. He was an influential artist and legendary personality. Most of his works are still in his studio, which is on the top floor of a typical Kyiv high-rise. He loved that studio. During my last visit to Kyiv, he proudly showed me the roof terrace. It had a striking sunset view of a chaotic cityscape pierced by residential towers that had sprung up like mushrooms, vivid symbols of post-Soviet post-modernity. Like other penthouse owners, he could hardly imagine that such a glamorous perch would be a terrible liability in wartime. The top floors of Kyiv high-rises have been the most common target of Russian bombardments. Kyiv’s skyline has been turned into a front in the war. My late friend’s artistic legacy is decided by a kind of daily Russian roulette, a deadly game played not with bullets but with Iskander missiles.

Art-lovers in Kharkiv salvage paintings from a destroyed art gallery.

But how to evacuate all of his paintings? Where would they go? And how to evacuate other artists’ studios in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa?Any evacuation like this costs a lot of money. It’s logistically complicated. There’s certainly no state support for it.

I pled the case for help to one West European cultural foundation president, but to no avail. He felt it’d be too hard to establish hard values for pieces of Ukrainian contemporary art; therefore, he wasn’t willing to allocate resources for such an endeavor. I suppose he had a point. Who knows? Maybe these contemporary pieces won’t be worth much in the future; on the other hand, they could be received as future masterpieces. Another game of chance.

Last week in Vienna, I briefly met with Ai Weiwei, the legendary Chinese artist. He wanted to know what was going on in Ukraine. I told him about the perilous state of contemporary art, how many treasures might be bombed, burned, stolen, or otherwise destroyed. The great master listened to me and then asked a question that sounded to my ears like a Zen Koan: “Which do you suppose is better – intact contemporary art, or ruined contemporary art?”

“Interesting,” I said. “Maybe after the war, I’ll become the director of a new Ukrainian institution — the National Museum of Destroyed Contemporary Art.”