Taras Vozniak, Director General of Lviv National Art Gallery
We evacuated the most valuable exhibits not only to protect them but also to show them to the world
07.11.2023 12:58

The Borys Voznytskyi Lviv Art Gallery is one of the largest and richest museum institutions in Ukraine. It consists of 21 museum complexes, and its collections include almost 65,000 works of world and national art, from ancient times to the present day. How can we protect such wealth in times of war, when Russian invaders are looting museums in the occupied territories and taking away our historical heritage, and enemy missiles are burning cultural monuments? Ukrinform correspondents learned about this from the Director General of the Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukrainian cultural critic and political scientist Taras Vozniak.


- Mr. Vozniak, I am very glad to meet you in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, you have been traveling abroad a lot. Are you engaged in cultural and museum diplomacy?

- Yes, we are. We are probably the most active museum and cultural institution in Ukraine. Sometimes we have 8-10 exhibitions abroad at the same time. And they need to be accompanied. Not only to close or open them, but also to meet with influential delegations, popularize Ukrainian culture, and establish partnerships.

- Did the war cause such a rush to hold exhibitions in the EU?

- Even before the war, we cooperated extensively with museums in Poland, Lithuania, Italy, and Germany. But it is worth noting that Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has given new meaning to international cooperation. Now we don't just hold exhibitions from our gallery's collections, but also save priceless items from a possible threat. I say "probable" because we have not yet suffered so much, although there are some losses, as elsewhere.

We have made a decision that we will take the best quality and most valuable things we have abroad as much as possible. While there, our masterpieces will de facto be in evacuation, safe, and on the other hand, they will open new pages of Ukrainian cultural history for foreigners.

- What collections from the gallery's funds can Europeans see now and where exactly?

- On October 5, we, together with the Royal Palace Museum in Warsaw and the Lviv Historical Museum, opened a huge exhibition of the best of our collection, The Spirit of Lviv, in the Polish capital. These priceless treasures will be more comfortable in Warsaw. These are almost a hundred works that, if not for the shroud of war, would never have left Lviv. These works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were exhibited in the Lozynski Palace at 3 Stefanyka Street. They show how the artistic process in Lviv and Galicia developed from 1800 to the 1930s under the influence of Prague and Vienna.

In addition, in Warsaw, the Okno na kulturę gallery, with the participation of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland and the Polonika Foundation, opened an exhibition of the iconic figure of the sorrowful Christ, which is a landmark for Lviv. Just before the war, we began its restoration and removed it from the Renaissance Boim Chapel. The restoration was continued by our colleagues in Poland, and for now the sculpture remains there, but after the exhibition is over it will return to Lviv.

Also in the Royal Castle in Krakow, as part of the exhibition "Expression. Lviv Rococo Sculpture" exhibition featured works by Johann Pinsel. We transported these sculptures there in the first days of the Great War, before that they were in Vilnius, and two days ago they returned to Lviv. Now we plan to exhibit them at the Latvian National Museum in Riga. Today I am having talks with their director.

Almost the entire collection, which was exhibited on the second floor of the Potocki Palace, is also on display in Vilnius.

- And your business card, the only painting in Eastern Europe by Georges de la Tour, "Payment"?

- This painting by Georges de la Tour doesn't really have a title, it's called "Payment" or something else, but I think it has a completely different story. Namely, when a Roman soldier wouldn't let St. Peter into the church, he threw a net into Lake Kinneret and caught a fish with coins in its mouth. He paid with them so that he and Christ could enter the synagogue. Most likely, this story is depicted there. Now this work is in the Lithuanian National Museum of Art, in the Hotkevych Palace. Other paintings from our gallery are presented in the palaces of the Radziwill family and the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.

- And what was the most surprising thing you managed to do to surprise the Europeans who are demanding to art?

- One of the most brilliant events was the exhibition of Pinsel's sculpture in Krakow. The exposition, organized by Andrzej Betlej, the director of the Royal Wawel Castle, was the best in the exhibition history of our Pinsel. There was nothing like it in the Louvre, Milan, or Vienna. The works were so well displayed that they impressed everyone, and hundreds of visitors came. The exposition imitated the throne in the Church of All Saints in the village of Hodovytsia near Lviv, for which these works were created in the eighteenth century.

The exhibition of sculptures by Francis Olensky in Northern Italy was also impressive. You realize that Italy has everything, and no one can compare with them. We presented his angels, and they were impressed by these works.

These were the most outstanding exhibitions. There are others, because none of our exhibitions are just any exhibition.

Ukraine is extremely important in the cultural and museum environment of Europe. Over these 20 months, the EU has been responding to challenges together with us. In the first days of the full-scale war, our Polish partners immediately arrived with their materials, assistance, and proposals for the protection of exhibits. Tomasz Lenski, director of the Poznan National Museum, was the first to arrive in Lviv, and then others joined in. Today, the exhibition of Jacek Malczewski, which we placed in Poznan, has just returned. It was stylized as a collection fleeing from the dangers of war, a collection that is being saved by museum workers from both countries - Ukraine and Poland. Now we are planning to send it somewhere else, because the war is not over.


- You decided to "evacuate" the masterpieces from the gallery's collection abroad. However, it is said that there are vaults in Lviv that were used to preserve works of art during the Second World War, and now Lviv museums also use them...

- During the Second World War, there were no massive lootings in Lviv. Yes, the Nazis took some things, but it was the "liberators"-the Bolsheviks and Russians-who stole. But the Germans, a strange people, even left receipts. And we have documents about what exactly they expropriated, including works by Albrecht Dürer that were in our gallery.

There are indeed vaults for museum collections in Lviv, but they are, firstly, not enough, and secondly, they do not provide 100% security. Yes, of course, we buried most of the exhibits there, but there is no guarantee. The danger exists even though Lviv region is not under constant shelling. However, rockets fell near our two castles: in Zolochiv a year ago, and some time later near Pidhirtsi Castle. The holes were 6-11 meters deep. Even if we had hidden the paintings or sculptures in the basements or in a beer hall, I doubt that we would have saved them from the powerful force of enemy missiles.

- Do these bunkers contain items from museums in other regions that are currently under fire or temporary occupation?

- I can't say. This is confidential information that cannot be disclosed.

- After reports that the Grieving Jesus from the Boim Chapel was in Warsaw, Lviv residents began to worry whether the evacuated cultural property would return to Ukraine. And since this news coincided with the story of Scythian gold in Spain, there were worries that some fakes would be returned to us. What do you think about this?

- I find it funny to listen to this screaming. Any work of art that is state property cannot be moved abroad without the permission of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine and the ministry of the host country. All of this is formalized with contracts, insurance, documents, and payment... It goes and it comes back. But there are spiteful bastards who, knowing that everything will return, let an unpleasant "smell" through Lviv. What can you say to them?

- What is the process of exporting national masterpieces abroad?

- When we send an item from us to any museum abroad, we first receive letters from them to our gallery and to the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine. If the Minister of Culture agrees, we prepare a contract in two languages: Ukrainian and the country that hosts the exhibition. It is signed by both parties, and it specifies the cost of the works, how they will be stored and transported. It is clear that it is impossible to transport such masterpieces by throwing them on a cart. Although in the Soviet Union it was normal to transport them by truck... Nowadays, there are specialized companies that take into account temperature and humidity during transportation, and a special commission sets the cost of the work for insurance purposes. The receiving party pays for the delivery services, and this is one of the most expensive parts.

Before shipping, we conduct an examination to determine the condition of the artwork and the conditions for its presentation. Then the artwork is sealed by specialists and sent to the customs office, which records the border crossing and checks whether the documents are true. Upon arrival, the artwork is unpacked and an acceptance certificate is drawn up in the presence of a specialist from our gallery. After the exhibition, at the proper time stipulated by the contract, these works are checked by experts from both sides, packed, checked at customs and returned home. And finally, in our gallery, in the presence of an expert from the party where the works were located, we check the originality of the return, the state of preservation and damage.

This is how our things travel. And those who are looking for reasons to gossip should know that this is an extremely complicated bureaucratic and technical procedure that requires both financial costs and great responsibility to the country.

- However, many artworks are taken out of Ukraine by thieves. Have there been any cases when customs officers handed over valuables seized at the border to galleries?

- Usually it is not the thieves who take them out, but the owners who do not declare these works. Often these are not very valuable things. For some reason, customs officers don't catch anything that is really valuable; they often seize some amateurs who are carrying a family icon. But there have been other cases. Recently, customs officers found a painting that someone tried to smuggle out disguised as the bottom of an apple crate. Now this extremely valuable work is in the Volyn Art Museum. Probably, this portrait was lost during the Second World War, was somewhere, and now they wanted to resell it abroad.

- The Russians looted all the museums in the occupied territories, and I think a lot of things were resold to private collections. How can Ukraine return its masterpieces?

- There are relevant websites and institutions in the world where stolen items are tracked. At the level of the Polish Ministry of Culture, there is a special department where employees sit from morning to evening, watching all the auctions, special websites that are opened by the police in New York, Beijing, or Paris. They monitor it all and, as they say, from time to time a seed falls to a blind chicken. Then the Polish Ministry of Culture comes forward with a claim that it is the property of their people.

As far as I know, there is no such service in Ukraine. But I think it would be worth creating one.

- Does the state have the opportunity to buy out works by Ukrainian artists at international auctions to return them to Ukraine?

- To buy back, for example, Kazimir Malevich, you need about 10 million euros. Could the Ukrainian state, even before the war, have allocated funds for such a thing? Of course not. At the same time, small countries like Latvia or Lithuania have this practice and can buy. I'm not talking about Poland, where hundreds of millions of euros are spent on this. As for Ukraine, this is not prohibited here either, but we can currently buy works by contemporary Ukrainian artists that, for example, cost UAH 30,000 instead of 30,000 euros. And this is also not bad. But now we don't have this opportunity either, because we have access to funding only in terms of utilities, salaries, and security.

- As for security: the first thing that caught my eye in your office was the gun on your desk. What do you need it for?

- To protect culture (laughs). I am not joking.

- Do you have any experience?

- I am an officer, though still in the Soviet army. If necessary, I will not hesitate to take up arms to defend myself. A month before the war, I issued an order to prepare for a possible attack. A month before! And if I am now told that Kyiv did not know that there would be a full-scale invasion, I do not believe it. But I have no right to judge.

At first, we had guards from the Rotary Club Leopolis on duty here around the clock with their weapons. Later, thanks to the RMA, I managed to get military units deployed near the gallery, and they stayed here for almost a year. Now we have slightly changed the form of security, but it is there.


- What do Ukrainian museums need to reach the European level?

- Of course, we need funds, new technologies, barrier-free access, repairs, from the roof to the foundation and walls. In addition, Ukrainian museum workers should travel abroad without fear. One of the problems of our colleagues-I'm not talking about those from Lviv, Kyiv, or Odesa, but from smaller cities-is that they are afraid to get out of their museum shell. They're not used to traveling anywhere, they don't know languages, they don't have contacts, and they just sit there. Although they often have something to show the world.

Our museums at the Lviv National Gallery are definitely European. We have renewed the expositions in the Lozynski and Potocki palaces and other museum institutions, and they are clearly of a European level. As for our collections, there are countries that have lost a lot due to historical circumstances, and they don't have artworks like ours. Lithuania is a good example. Back during the Napoleonic War, the Russian army plundered the entire country, and then looting during the world wars was added.

- You recently received a high award from the Lithuanian government. Tell us about it.

- Yes, in October I was awarded the Jerzy Giedroyc Award of the Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation between Poland and Lithuania and received the Order of the Republic of Lithuania for Merit in the Field of Culture "Nesk Savo Svesa ir Tikek" (Order of those who "bring light and faith"). Throughout history, 42 people have been awarded this medal, but only Latvians. I am the only foreigner who has received this honor, and there was even a discussion whether it was possible. I will try to be worthy of such high awards.

- You say that in order to meet European standards, Ukrainian museums need to be rebuilt first of all. Before the war, some of the castles of the Lviv Gallery were funded by the Presidential program "Great Restoration," but the war suspended this project. Did you manage to finish the objects on which the work was started?

- Even during the war, we restored the UNESCO monument, the ancient wooden church of the Holy Trinity in Zhovkva, virtually from scratch. We did it! First, with funds allocated by the state, and later we completed it with the help of our Polish partners. Now, however, we are still solving the issue of land management around the church. After all, in order to put any facility into operation, it is necessary to regulate property, land and other relations. We are working with the Zhovkva city authorities to ensure that the land under the monument is properly registered. We don't want a coke plant to be built on top of it, because that's not the world's practice. The security zone must be properly arranged.

I may say a trivial thing, but one of the elements of culture is the arrangement of a restroom. In our provinces, people are embarrassed to do this or even talk about it. For them, a wooden "birdhouse" near a historical cultural landmark that attracts tourists from all over the world is a brilliant way out of the situation. We don't think so, and we are now persuading the Zhovkva City Council to build a civilized toilet with sewage and water. This is where culture begins!

The war caught us when we were working on the roof of the Zhovkva castle. Actually, on February 23, the guys completed the concrete floor on the second floor and wrote the date "23.02.2022". But after that, they still had to put up the roof structure and cover it... The funds ran out. But, as you saw, the roof is already in place. Because a miracle happened - we found sponsors.

- In September, the acting Minister of Culture and Information Policy Rostyslav Karandieiev visited Lviv region. He noted that it is possible to resume funding for the Great Restoration for the sites where work has begun. This included Zhovkva Castle. Do you know how much money is involved?

- If you noticed, one of the towers there is not covered, it needs to be completed.

- At the expense of the state?

- We'll see. You don't have to say "hop" about such things. Our country is in a time of war, and it is not known whether there will be funds or not. Rostislav Karandeyev's good will is there, but he is also a government official and must work within the state budget. Nevertheless, we hope for additional funding to complete critical issues related to the restoration. I can't say for sure about the amount.

- What about the other castles of the Golden Horseshoe?

- Before the war, we started and managed to complete the restoration of the 18th-century Baroque Church of St. Joseph near Pidhirtsi Castle. The restoration turned out to be fantastic: the church was in such a state when it was built, but even then there was no copper roof, just tin. The restorers restored the staircase in the narthex of the church, which was completely lost, and brought the central staircase out of disrepair with partial replacement of the lost elements. The plaster on the façade was restored, and 90% of the cornices and rods were fully recreated according to authentic patterns. In addition, burglar and fire alarms and lightning protection were installed. Additionally, the perimeter of the church was illuminated and a video surveillance system was installed. The restoration cost us UAH 23 million, but it was worth it.

During the war, repairs were also carried out in Zolochiv Castle, because a Russian missile fell near it and damaged the windows, roof, and gatehouse. We restored everything at the expense of the gallery. The "well-wishers" immediately raised a shout: they say the windows are plastic, although they are actually wooden. The roof is not as it should be, although it is temporary, made back in the days of Borys Voznytskyi. We are planning to remodel it, but it is not yet time.

- When a new exhibition was opened in Lozynskyi's palace in 2021, former Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko said that it was planned to build a roof over the courtyard, which would house the Sculpture Garden and a modern storage facility. Tkachenko resigned, but what about the grandiose plans?

- The plans remain. They are not abstract, he did not throw words to the wind. Yes, there will be a "Sculpture Garden" in Lozynskyi's palace, and we already have the project documentation ready. It's just not the right time right now, as there are no funds and no sense in starting this work. We will return to this project after we win.


- How do you see the culture of Ukraine on a global scale after the war?

- Ukraine is a huge country with a rich culture, and it's not just fake Scythian gold, which is the stuff of legends told by ignorant people. And even, I think, the most interesting thing is not the artistic treasures we have in our museums, but what our artists are creating now and will create in the future. Contemporary art in Ukraine will make a name for itself all over the world. We need to look forward, and that's what I'm doing.

- Do you often hold exhibitions of contemporary Ukrainian artists in the gallery now?

- Yes, and it's great. When we removed the expositions from our halls, we started organizing exhibitions of contemporary artists. For example, Vlada Ralko, Olena Pryduvalova, Volodymyr Budnikov, and others are artists who create today's art, who describe what is happening to us now. Ralko has made a huge series of graphics that metaphorically reflect the hot phase of the war. In comparison with world art, it is something like Francisco Goya's The Disasters of War. And when in 100 years someone will be looking for a visualization of this war, Ralko's works are, in my opinion, the best in this regard.

Now in the lobby of the Potocki Palace we have an exhibition of one of Yuriy Shapoval's works, "I am Sickly Whole." When I saw this work on the Internet, I couldn't ignore it. The plot of the work illustrates the dramatic events that took place in the village of Oleksandrivka in the Kherson region. It was shelled by Russian troops. And the animals from this village - wounded cows, cats, dogs, goats - all got together and went to the neighboring village. They just stood in the square and looked at people, and you could read in their eyes: "Why, people, what have you done?" What he heard struck the artist. With this painting, Shapoval proves that only after experiencing pain do we realize the gift of life and appreciate every living thing. Pain purifies, teaches humanity. It makes us fight, makes us stronger, crystallizes values and paves the way.

- The other day you also opened an exhibition of Maria Prymachenko's paintings from the collection of the Zaporizhzhia Regional Art Museum and supplemented it with objects of Trypillian culture dating back to the VI-III millennia BC. Isn't it scary? After all, these are priceless things, and Lviv is still attacked from time to time, both with missiles and UAVs.

- We organized this exhibition at the request of Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. It will not last long, because we also plan to send it on a foreign tour. It is important that the world should see more things that remind us of Ukraine, its culture and history, and at the same time emphasize the present. These should be recognizable sights and names, such as Prymachenko, Pinzel, Shevchenko, Trypillian culture, Scythian gold, etc. Ukraine's cultural and artistic diplomacy is now reaching a new global level, and we have to stay there.

Liudmyla Hryniuk, Lviv

Photo by Anastasia Smolenko

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