Museum director who fled Ukraine fights for his heritage, far from the ocean

Oleksandra Kovalchuk, director of the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts in Ukraine, had to flee with her husband and young son when Russia invaded on February 24. She is now in Massachusetts and works to protect the museum’s collection from afar. She also spoke about the importance of preserving art and objects of cultural significance in times of war. Photo courtesy of Odessa Museum of Fine Arts

OGUNQUIT — Before the birth of her son, Oleksandra Kovalchuk used to say that the Museum of Fine Arts in Odessa, in Ukraine’s third largest city, where she was director, was her baby, something that ‘she would fight fiercely to protect at all costs.

When Russia invaded her country on February 24, she had a choice. She could stay and help protect the museum and its contents, risking her life and that of her son, or she could leave knowing that the museum might not be standing whenever she could return.

“I was so worried about him, about his future,” Kovalchuk said of his now 21-month-old son Yehor. “We see the way the Russians acted in the occupied territories, they would usually find local government officials, especially from the party of (Ukrainian) President Zelensky, of which I am a part.

“So after all the books I read about the history of the Nazis and about the history of repressions in the Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes, I knew what it would mean if they succeeded in occupying Odessa. “

Kovalchuk fled with her husband and son, bouncing for three weeks between hotels and staying with friends in neighboring Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria before flying to Massachusetts, where her parents live in a suburb. from Boston.

Since leaving her country, Kovalchuk can only watch the horrors of war unfold, but she still fights for her museum at a distance from the ocean.

The 37-year-old has made several appearances throughout the Northeast to speak about the importance of preserving wartime art and cultural artifacts, most recently last week at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.

“I think everyone was really shocked by her story,” Ogunquit Museum Director Amanda Lahikainen said. “It put so much into perspective and served as a reminder that all museums must work to preserve all cultures.”

In addition to speaking here, Kovalchuk has worked with cultural organizations, primarily in Odessa, to help raise funds and provide logistical support to protect works of art and other objects of cultural significance. Most museums and arts organizations in Ukraine had not anticipated an invasion and had to scramble.

“Instead of doing programming, we became experts in bubble wrap and checkouts. I guess it could be some kind of contemporary art,” Kovalchuk told an audience of about 70 Tuesday in Ogunquit, one of the few lighthearted moments in an otherwise dark conference.

Intentionally targeting cultural sites and wartime property can constitute a war crime, under the 1954 Hague Convention, but Kovalchuk said she does not expect Russia to follow those guidelines.

She recalled what Russian President Vladimir Putin said before the invasion.

“He said, ‘Ukraine doesn’t exist, it was invented,'” Kovalchuk said. “Well, our works of art, our heritage collections, that’s what proves that Ukraine existed. That’s why it’s so important to preserve.

CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE

Ukraine gained independence as a country in 1917.

That same year, Kovalchuk said, leaders established the Ukrainian Academy of Arts to emphasize the vital link between art and heritage.

Many of the more than 10,000 objects inside the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts predate the country’s independence, but its collection has grown in recent years to include more depictions from the last century. In addition, the museum has made efforts to recover the work of artists of Ukrainian origin classified as Russian.

Now all of that is in limbo.

In mid-March, a missile strike shattered the windows of the Kharkiv Art Museum, which houses one of the country’s largest collections. A week later, the Kuindzhi Art Museum, dedicated to the life and work of influential Ukrainian realist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi, was destroyed in the eastern city of Mariupol. And in Skovorodinovka, in the Kharkiv region, a museum dedicated to the Ukrainian philosopher Grigory Skovoroda was razed by a Russian missile.

“At Skovorodinovka there was nothing else around, no government or military targets and they hit the museum directly,” Kovalchuk said.

Throughout history, works of art have been targeted in times of war. In Nazi Germany before World War II, many rooms were burned. More recently, works of art in Syria have been destroyed.

“They destroy anything that doesn’t fit their narrative, and Ukrainian culture certainly doesn’t,” Kovalchuk said of the Russians.

Even after his escape, Kovalchuk worked with other Odessa museum staff to remove the works from the walls and put them in a safe place. But where is the safe?

“There is no real safe place,” she said. “They bomb everything.”

Lahikainen, who has been a museum director in Ogunquit since 2021 and whose father was a longtime curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, said she’s thought a lot about ways to protect her museum’s collection, but she had never had to think about bombs.

“There are always threats to trying to take care of a collection, but that’s not one we’ve had to deal with directly,” she said.

Those who listened to Kovalchuk speak in Ogunquit were struck by the stark choice she and so many others faced.

Ogunquit Museum board member Carol Leary said the photos Kovalchuk showed of the museum’s dark, empty walls were devastating.

“One of the thoughts I had while listening to her, I was so deeply saddened by the depth of what she must have felt personally,” she said. “There was so much silence in the room at the end, I don’t think anyone knew what to answer.”

TO HAVE HOPE

Since arriving in the United States, Kovalchuk has been in constant contact with his family and colleagues in Ukraine.

She is still considering her decision to leave.

“Some people who stay in Ukraine say that it is difficult inside, but outside it is even more difficult because you feel this guilt and you feel like you are not allowing yourself a life. normal,” she said.

This month, his museum opened for the first time since February. It looks very different. There are only contemporary works on the wall by artists who understand risk.

“I was crying,” Kovalchuk said of this news. “People need art, even in times of war.”

As for the permanent collection, she said there had been talk of trying to temporarily move it out of the country.

“It’s an interesting concept, but let’s think where,” she said. “France? Italy? Germany? None of these places look attractive. Right now it’s a very intriguing moment in history. We don’t know anymore. We just know that we won’t give it to the Russians.

Art is a small world. Lahikainen first heard of Kovalchuk from a Boston Globe article in March. The town where she stayed, Salem, is the same town where Lahikainen grew up. They attended a social in late spring, which led to an invitation to have Kovalchuk speak in Ogunquit.

As a mother of young children, Lahikainen said she understands Kovalchuk’s decision to leave.

“I’m sure it felt like that final choice to her, but everything she does now, she always fights to protect her museum and her culture,” the Ogunquit museum director said. “And she took her 21-month-old son to a museum in Maine to give a talk in a foreign language because it’s important.”

Leary said those who appreciate art don’t always understand how closely it relates to cultural history.

“We have never known (in the United States) the attempt to eradicate a culture,” she said. “But this country has incredible resilience. They keep coming back. And they’ll put those pieces back on the wall.

While visiting the Ogunquit Museum, Kovalchuk stopped by a painting by Jacob Lawrence, a modernist painter who for much of the 20th century chronicled the African-American experience through his work. The 1977 work, titled “Carpenters”, was strikingly similar to a painting made 50 years earlier by Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Bogomazov which is part of the collection of the National Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv.

“These are two examples of different artists, in different countries at different times,” she said. “But there’s one thing I think all artists share, and that’s hope.”

Kovalchuk also has hope. That the war will end soon. This Ukrainian independence will be affirmed. That his museum will look like it did before the end of February.

“We are definitely going back,” she said. “I don’t even want to think about the ‘if’. Because I think ‘if’…it will be very bad news for humanity.”


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