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Pinchuk Art Center mediators lose jobs after forming union (Kyiv, Ukraine)

February 26, 2020
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A mediator stands beside a piece of art at the exhibition Future Generation Art Prize 2019 in Pinchuk Art Center in Kyiv on Feb. 8, 2019. Photo by Irynka Hromotska

 

Contemporary art can be hard to understand. That’s why progressive galleries and museums hire mediators, who contextualize exhibits and broaden visitors’ knowledge about them.

At Kyiv’s Pinchuk Art Center, cultural mediation has been an essential part of guests’ experience for years. The center was one of few contemporary art platforms contributing to the development of the profession in Ukraine.

For their current exhibition, however, the gallery decided to drop the practice, stating plans to re-evaluate the role of mediators. But about 20 former employees who lost jobs because of that decision believe it was their “punishment” for forming a union to protect labor rights.

“It was just an attempt to protect ourselves and establish an official dialogue,” Anastasia Bondarenko, the head of the union, told the Kyiv Post.

The gallery, however, denies that. “This is not connected,” reads their official comment to the Kyiv Post.

The Pinchuk Art Center is one of the most visited galleries in Kyiv. It’s a rare day when lines outside of its building don’t stretch out along the Bessarabska Square.

The gallery was founded in 2006 by controversial Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, a billionaire who built his fortune when his father-in-law, Leonid Kuchma, was president. Pinchuk is accused of using his media holdings to obstruct the investigation into the 2000 murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze as well as of supporting corrupt regimes, including the administration of overthrown President Viktor Yanukovych.

Pinchuk is also one of Ukraine’s most renowned philanthropists and holds the annual Yalta European Strategy conference. However, his beneficent activity is largely seen as attempts to clean up his stained reputation.

Union

In its 14 year history, the Pinchuk Art Center has become an influential institution that introduces artworks from all over the world to Ukrainians and gives a platform to local artists. Its biennial Pinchuk Art Center Prize is one of few awards that celebrates young Ukrainian creators and pushes the growth of the local art scene.

For seven years, the gallery had mediators working in nearly every hall during exhibitions to improve visitors’ experience – to answer their questions, expand their understanding of an artwork and ignite their imaginations.

The mediators were mostly young people from all walks of life – students, artists, culture researchers, philosophers. What they had in common was the knowledge of multiple languages, enormous love for art and the ability to infectiously share it.

The Pinchuk Art Center didn’t hire mediators as full-time employees. The gallery signed temporary contracts with them for each exhibition. In between exhibitions, when it sometimes took months to set up a new one, mediators remained unemployed.

Although the schedule was unstable, there are few alternatives for mediators in Ukraine, so many of them stuck to the place.

“Pinchuk had the most developed institute of mediation and the biggest stuff,” Bondarenko says.

However, no matter how much they appreciated the job, with some of the violations of their rights they didn’t want to compromise, Bondarenko says.

According to Bondarenko, Pinchuk Art Center’s mediators couldn’t take sick leave and were forced to work nine-hour shifts while ill or risk losing their jobs.

The gallery denies that and says that their employees have all rights in accordance with Ukrainian law.

Bondarenko says that between exhibitions, mediators had to attend meetings with management and study exhibition materials to prepare for upcoming shows, without being paid. Their complaints about it were ignored, she says.

She also says that before employment, mediators had to fill out a nine-page form with detailed information about their relatives.

Pinchuk Art Center says that those questions weren’t mandatory and the collected information was kept in the personnel records. According to Bondarenko, the gallery’s human resources specialists told them they collected the information for their internal security service.

In order to stand up for their rights, the mediators decided to form a union in October, which eventually grew to about 20 members. Bondarenko says that they wanted management to hear them out and to find a peaceful solution.

Soon after that, the union sent an official letter to their management expressing concerns about the violations.

Bondarenko says that days after that, the center’s executive director, Dmytro Logvin, told Bondarenko at the meeting with the employees that since they decided to “play activists,” their cooperation would end as soon as the current exhibition was over.

The gallery denies that. But that’s exactly what happened.

The mediators’ contracts expired along with the exhibition’s end in late December, and none of the union members were invited back.

But the gallery denies any connection between the events and says it decided to experiment with a different model combining tours and audio guides.

“We love our job. We didn’t expect such a reaction,” Bondarenko said.

Artist solidarity

The gallery’s current exhibition showcases projects by 20 Ukrainian artists, nominees in Pinchuk’s 2020 art prize.

The winner of the award is selected by an international jury and receives Hr 250,000 ($10,000), two runners-up get Hr 60,000 ($2,500) each and one more nominee selected by the audience gets Hr 25,000 ($1,000).

The exhibition is an important, highly promoted event for the center, that is only held once every two years. And for the first time in seven years, it doesn’t have mediators.

The dispute between the gallery and the mediators erupted around the same time as the Pinchuk Art Prize exhibition opening, and the nominees were thrust into the conflict.

Two nominees decided to refuse the award in solidarity with the mediators, including Pavlo Grazhdanskij, an artist from the eastern industrial city of Kharkiv whose nominated project is a reflection on the militarization of modern Ukraine.

Grazhdanskij addressed the issue on Facebook after Pinchuk Art Center published a Feb. 20 open letter on Facebook that calls the mediators liars and continues, “We are under constant public scrutiny. And that is right, but give us some space!”

Grazhdanskij says that the center’s current prize exhibition can’t be isolated from its context, and believes that the conflict with the mediators shows the gallery’s inconsistency: its unwillingness to publicly discuss the issue with the art community contradicts with its stated aspiration to support and develop this part of society.

He says that by at first avoiding and then completely abandoning the public debate over the conflict, the institution undermined artists’ trust and attracted questions about the goals and transparency of the award.

“Any conversation about art and its social value within the walls of the art center is hypocritical until the parties mutually resolve this issue.”

Following Grazhdanskij’s example, another artist, Valentina Petrova, refused her nomination as well.

In a Facebook post, Petrova said that she made the decision after reading the center’s open letter, which prompted her to question the prize’s selection process and to call the center “a PR project of oligarch Pinchuk.”

Petrova said that the gallery doesn’t look for new and original artists but promotes “their” nominees.

“No international jury can look at twenty works in one day, delve into them, delve into the context in which these works are created,” Petrova’s post reads. “It’s not hard at all to refuse something that nobody offers you.”

Toma Istomina, Kyiv Post, February 23, 2020

 

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