Growing up in the neighbourhood known as Ukrainian Village in Chicago in the mid-1960s, Peter Doroshenko barely knew a word of English before he was five. His parents were from Ukraine and, in the Second World War, had both fled across the Atlantic as youths with their respective families.
‘At home and at kindergarten, the only language I heard was Ukrainian,’ Doroshenko says. ‘It was spoken on the streets, too — and used on the radio I heard, and in the newspapers I saw. It was a real surprise when eventually I learned that I wasn’t living in Ukraine.’
Now 60, Doroshenko has stayed in touch with his roots throughout his career as a successful curator and museum director. Later this spring he steps down after 11 and a half years as executive director of Dallas Contemporary art museum in Texas, but before that he’s curating part of an exhibition of Ukrainian art at Christie’s.
With all the works for sale, the exhibition will support World Monuments Fund’s newly launched Ukraine Heritage Response Fund, aimed at protecting that country’s historic sites and aiding those employed in its heritage sector.
‘In the early years [following independence], there was great energy and excitement around, and a sense of liberation. After so long under Soviet control, people were open to new ideas’
The works on show date back to the start of the 20th century, with Doroshenko’s section dedicated to contemporary practice. It features imagery by four Ukrainians: the photographers Boris Mikhailov (b. 1938) and Yelena Yemchuk (b. 1970); the graphic designer Anna Kulachek (b. 1987); and the multi-media artist Ira Lupu (b. 1990).
Doroshenko has known Mikhailov for more than three decades, and in 2017 commissioned his Ukraine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The pair first met in Kyiv, during the earliest of Doroshenko’s many visits to his parents’ homeland — shortly after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. One night out on that trip has lived long in his memory.
‘Back then, there were perhaps three bars in the entire city,’ says Doroshenko. ‘Which really isn’t a lot in a place with four million inhabitants! Even the bars that did exist were pretty makeshift and probably not at all in line with government regulations. Boris, his wife Vita and I had a few drinks in one of them one night, and then stepped out into half a metre of snow that had suddenly appeared.
‘Ukraine had been cut off from the broad discourse of contemporary art, and artists now wanted to immerse themselves in it. People began making conceptual art, a movement that was new to Ukraine then’
‘There were no taxis in Kyiv back then, so it was a case of wading back to the hotel through snow that pretty soon had reached a metre high.’
Since that episode, Doroshenko has organised solo exhibitions worldwide by 14 Ukrainian artists, including Mikhailov, Yemchuk and the much-respected husband-and-wife duo Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. He has also been commissioner of three Ukraine Pavilions at the Venice Biennale (in 2007, 2009 and 2017).
How does he think that art in the country has evolved since independence was declared in 1991? ‘In the early years, there was great energy and excitement around,’ Doroshenko says, ‘and a sense of liberation. After so long under Soviet control, people were open to new ideas. Artistically, this meant a rapid amount of catching up with what had been happening in the West in previous decades.
‘Ukraine had been cut off from the broad discourse of contemporary art — and artists now wanted to immerse themselves in it, through the reading of books, magazines and so on. The likes of Illya Chichkan and Kirill Protsenko, for example, began making conceptual art, a movement that was new to Ukraine then.’
‘After early-career success, artists such as Malevich, Delaunay and Exter moved away. This has led to a strange blurring of their nationalities by art history. But they were Ukrainian rather than Russian’
Doroshenko would go on to hold important roles at two institutions that played a key part in supporting the scene in Ukraine: the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (which opened in 1993) and the PinchukArtCentre (which opened in 2006), both in Kyiv. He was on the board of trustees at the former between 1996 and 1998, and was the inaugural president of the latter, where he remained for four years until 2010.
He says that, in the past couple of decades, art in Ukraine has moved on from what he calls its ‘post-Soviet period’ of the 1990s, into something more globalised. ‘The creativity is still there, but these days it’s part of an international context. There’s not too much that marks out a work made in Odesa in the 21st century from one made in Oslo or Ottawa.’
In the long history of Ukrainian visual arts, the highs have included the marvellous icon paintings of the Middle Ages and the Modernist offerings from the start of the 20th century by artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Sonia Delaunay, Alexandra Exter, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Archipenko.
‘In most cases, these figures went on to develop their careers in Moscow,’ Doroshenko says, ‘because that’s where the money was. Cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv didn’t have the collector base to support these artists in the long term — so, after early-career success, they moved away. This has led to a strange blurring of their nationalities by art history. But they were Ukrainian rather than Russian.’
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Fast forward to 2022, and museums and galleries across the nation are closed. Artworks have been destroyed or packed up and hidden away until the conflict is over.
Artistic production has all but stopped, too. ‘Obviously the short term doesn’t look good,’ Doroshenko says. ‘But I look forward to better days further into the future. Peace will return at some point, and one sure sign of that will be artists creating art again.’
Safeguarding the Irreplaceable: A Selling Exhibition to Benefit the Ukraine Heritage Response Fund at World Monuments Fund runs from 25 April to 5 May 2022 at Christie’s in London, with works on display available for purchase privately.