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INTERVIEW with Natalia Shpitkovska,
Director of the M17 Contemporary Art Center


This week we interviewed the director of the M17 Contemporary Art Center Natalia Shpitkovska on their latest exhibition “An Open Opportunity”

(a collective effort between the M17 and the Ukrainian Club of Contemporary Art Collectors), the recent donation Ukrainian collectors made to none other than Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and, last, but not least, we discuss the results of the “M17 Art Collectors’ Forum” that the center has organised and hosted this month.

Who initiated the collaboration between M17 Contemporary Art Center [M17 CAC from here] and the Centre Georges Pompidou?

The initiative came from the Ukrainian Club of Contemporary Art Collectors [UCCAC from here] — it was an ongoing process that overall lasted more than three years. M17 CAC is a partner of UCCAC and acts as a platform for its events and gatherings. The negotiation process between UCCAC and Centre Pompidou took more than three years. After a year the two discussed a possibility of making a donation to the institution. Curators from the Centre Pompidou [Nicola Lucci-Gutnikov], along with other representatives visited main cities of Ukraine - Kyiv, Odesa, Lviv and Kharkiv, in order to acquaint themselves better with artists’ works, as well as their environment. Members of the UCCAC have accompanied foreign guests throughout their trip, while introducing them to Ukrainian artists, as well as leading Ukrainian art historians, such as Oleksandr Solvyov and Alisa Lozhkina. They, in turn, have delved deeper into artists’ oeuvre. Myriad of professionals were involved in this process, including The National Art Museum of Ukraine. It took three years for them [curators] to form an in-depth understanding about Ukrainian modern art. After careful consideration, they have assembled a collection. At this point in time, the artworks have already arrived in Paris.


Which artworks by prominent Ukrainian artists were fortunate to be included in Centre Pompidou's permanent collection?

All in all, 164 artworks have been chosen for the donation, which includes around 20 artists. These are just some of the names of the participants: representatives of Kharkiv School of Photography, such as Evgeny Pavlov, Oleksandr Suprun, Oleg Malyovaniy, Sergei Solonskiy, Shilo Group; works by Odesa’s Conceptualists - Sergei Anufriev, Oleg Sokolov, Leonid Voytsekhov, as well as Stas Volyazlovskii and Illya Chichkan (“Atomic Love'' artwork). It is important to stress that no paintings have been selected for the donation, only contemporary mediums, such as photography, video art, conceptual art objects and recordings of performances. Unfortunately, some of the works couldn’t be included due to their expenses, such as Nikita Kadan’s work.

The exhibition on the other hand, was a collaborative effort between M17 CAC and UCCAC. It shows significant components that make up the Ukrainian artistic landscape. This exhibition sets an important precedent in Ukraine and implicitly addresses the elephant in the room — the existence of a museum of modern art in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the museums don’t have enough funds and resources to form their own permanent collection. All of the modern art pieces are concentrated in private collections of the collectors. Museums depend on them to donate the artworks. The title of the exhibition “An Open Opportunity” also suggests a possibility for a further collaboration between other artists and collectors, who can submit their works.


Sergiy Solonskiy

Is M17 CAC planning on giving lectures or other events in the English language to acquaint expats and visitors of the capital better with the history of Ukrainian modern art?

Some of our guides speak English, therefore we are able to meet international guests. Our website is bilingual, too. For instance, we held a group exhibition “M17 Sculpture Prize 2020” and we had expats visiting all throughout the course of the exhibit.

Our projects are typically done on a large scale, considering the vast space of our center. Our main three focal points are: group projects, sculpture and latest technologies. For instance, we had an exhibition dedicated to technologies, titled “Frontier: New Monuments” — an exhibit dedicated to virtual reality. As I said earlier, we are also partners with Ukrainian Club of Contemporary Art Collectors, therefore we have common projects with them, too. To be honest, if they [collectors] combine their collections together, they could form a museum-worthy art collection on their own! M17 CAC participates in multiple art projects across Ukraine and supports artists in a myriad of ways.


Odesa’s Conceptualists

How crucial is the role of a collector in the art world?

Due to the history of our country, the role of a collector in general was considered clandestine in the Soviet Union. Such activity could easily lead to incarceration. Now, there is an implicit understanding that a substantial art collection ought to be shared with the public. The collectors are aware of the cultural asset in their disposition. Therefore, if one possesses more than 300 items, they ought to be at least displayed to a wider audience, and at the most — included in a permanent museum collection. It is also a way to show their appreciation to the artists.

The issue that Ukrainian art collectors are facing today is that they are willing to loan the works for a temporary exhibit, but they wouldn’t trust any museum or galleries for a longer period of deposition e.g. ten years, as do leading European institutions, such as the Swiss National Museum. Two key reasons why Ukrainian collectors aren’t motivated to share their works with a public institution:

Museums don’t have the necessary storage or funds to accommodate and pay for an artwork.
Not all museums can guarantee sufficient research dedicated to the history of the artwork, and its context, which are crucial to demonstrate the value of the piece.

No collector wants his prized artwork to be dusting somewhere in a storage space. Unfortunately, museums don’t have sufficient funds for restoration and conservation practices necessary to keep an artwork relevant in the public eye, nor do they have  additional room to display it in. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has separate halls named after their patrons. Thus, the museum honours patrons of the museum or gallery. Additionally, it’s part of the museum’s job to frequently publish papers on their art pieces, in order for them to stay relevant and valued, which is important for the collector.


Valentin Khrushsch "Memory of the past"

M17 CAC hosted a large-scale event this month — “M17 International Art Collectors’ Forum”, where the collectors presented the ‘Ukraine in Pompidou’ project. What are the results of the event?

Everyone understands that if a country’s art collection is worthy of attention, then it ought to be displayed in top art institutions. However, what is significant in this case is that the donated artworks haven’t been exhibited at such venues yet. It will mean a great deal for them to be present in a collection of such caliber. It is also important that these artists will be presented primarily as Ukrainian artists, which isn’t always the case even if an artist is originally from Ukraine. For instance, Illya Kabakov is from Ukraine, but on the international arena he is considered as a Russian artist. Therefore, when these artists are presented to a wide international audience, they will be known as Ukrainians. 

It isn’t lost on us that these works are going to a foreign country — but the collectors aren’t at fault, this is an incredible opportunity for Ukrainian art to be displayed from such a reputable institution ranking top ten in the world. The works there are always being studied and researched. A new generation of curators will refer to Pompidou’s permanent collection to study their works as well. Moreover, many artworks of the aforementioned artists will be kept in Ukraine, and some of them are even more valuable than those travelling to Paris.

Three years ago, M17 held another international forum — “The New Generation — The Artist and his Genesis”, dedicated to the art of the avant-garde. It included a host of cultural institutions, such as Archipenko and Malevych foundations. This year we held the forum both offline and online for international guests. The guests included The Louis Vuitton Foundation, Contemporary Art Society in London, Anders Petterson from ArtTactic (art market analysis firm), among others. One of the pressing topics was the future of technological advancement. We had roundtable discussions about the opportunities and perspectives of art collecting. We accumulated a wide range of information in the form of presentations and talks from different sources, which we are excited to share with our audience in one or two months' time. Perhaps, we will organise another such event in one or two years. Typically such forums are held within a context of a larger event, such as an art fair. We were lucky to hold such a large-scale event as part of the “An Open Opportunity” exhibition.

The role of the government in art markets abroad is bare minimum, private patronages are encouraged. We have people with means who are willing to participate in such activities, however there is very little motivation from the government. For instance, the government of the United States offers a great deal of support to public institutions, hence their culture is thriving. If our government creates the right motivational model, including necessary changes in the judiciary and taxation systems, as well as loosening of the red tape, import and export of artworks, licensing of it, would prove incredibly helpful in aiding the ecosystem [of the art sphere], and it would encourage the collectors to donate money and become patrons of various institutions. If such changes are made, we can expect the same results as in the U.S.


One of the important topics discussed at the forum were the latest technologies and how they impacted the relationship between the artist and the collector. Could you elaborate on this topic, since technologies became ubiquitous in all spheres of life, especially during the pandemic, how did they affect the art market?

One of our guests, Anders Petterson from the art market analysis firm ‘ArtTactic’ dedicated an entire presentation for this topic. Data and analytics have shown that the number of people purchasing art online has increased twofold. Nowadays, almost every collector views artworks online first, if not buying them there, too. He could also make the purchase via a phone call, but the online practice will only increase over time. Especially among the younger generation, the Gen Z’ers, who value the technological aspect more in artistic practices than the other generation, such as virtual reality art. 

There seems to be a generational divide among the collectors. Collectors aged 35-40 years old, tend to put more emphasis on the tactility of a piece. It’s a prerequisite to see the artwork in real life - to touch it, in order to feel what energy it emanates, what effect it has when you’re in its presence, does it ‘hook’ you. All of these aspects are considered before making a purchase. There are some collectors, who approach purchasing art systematically, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Whereas others adopt a more spontaneous attitude. The younger generation tends to prioritise other factors — an idea behind the artwork, whether new technologies are incorporated into it or belonging to a certain community - being associated with certain interests or a group of people.

For example, when one of the collectors at the forum, Ivan Podmask from Synoptic (a data analysis company), shared an artwork from his collection, Ukrainian curators and collectors were startled, since the piece was so outside of the confines of the definition of art that they are used to. They have two different worldviews on art, which reflects on the criteria, which they use to select an artwork. Traditional collectors aren’t totally clear yet on how to evaluate contemporary artworks. Some younger collectors, such as programmers, even consider a written code a work of art in itself, which causes an obvious confusion in the traditional art world. Despite the occasional misconceptions, common projects could be created.


Are you planning on making “M17 Art Collectors’ Forum” an annual event?

We would definitely act as a partner for such an event, perhaps we will repeat the format of this year’s forum. The topics discussed at such meetings provide a plethora of solutions due to the variety of the experts present and their invaluable experience in their fields.


“M17 Art Collectors’ Forum” has one last event scheduled on 24th of July, 2021, so there is still availability to join art collectors in the global art discourse.


All photos have been provided by M17 Contemporary Art Center

Interviewed and translated by Anna Shevetovska


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