Think of Natalya Zabolotna as a six-foot-tall optimist, leading a revolution in her Louboutin heels. The stunning lawyer and former reporter is the art diva of Kiev, and she’s determined to transform Ukraine’s capital—a cultural backwater for most of the last millennium—into one of Europe’s top art destinations.
Zabolotna’s greatest triumph so far is converting a disused brick arsenal into the largest museum in the former Soviet Union. The building’s heavy arches and stone columns—constructed more than 200 years ago on the orders of Catherine the Great—smack of drab military utility. Still, it’s an impressive property, commanding a view of the ancient bell towers and cupolas of Kiev’s 11th-century Monastery of the Caves.
Originally, former president Viktor Yushchenko planned to make the space into a museum of Ukrainian folk art. Instead, Zabolotna gleaned input from the Guggenheim, the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, and a dozen other leading curators, and filled the Art Arsenal’s long, vaulted chambers with contemporary pieces by big-name Ukrainian and Western artists such as Arsen Savadov, César Baldaccini, and Arman.
Even before the Arsenal’s roof was finished and the plumbing installed, Zabolotna staged an exhibition of street-art stick figures by Swiss graffiti artist Harald Naegeli, along with hundreds of contemporary paintings that featured, among them, a kinky, naked Vladimir Lenin and Napoleon sporting a monkey’s face. A few months later, Zabolotna got her hands on a private collection of Degas sculptures and sound-video-light installations from European galleries. Lines to the museum snaked around the block—a rare sight at Ukraine art venues.
Not all Ukrainians have been so thrilled by the Arsenal. Last fall as Zabolotna was preparing for the Art-Kiev Contemporary art fair, five police officers showed up with a complaint from the museum’s neighbors—the orthodox monks at the Monastery of the Caves. “The church suspected I was building a podium for strip shows,” she says. As a peace gesture to the monastery, she agreed to remove a painting of a crucified, bleeding monkey from the exhibition.
In addition to outraged monks, Zabolotna has faced the hurdle of funding the museum. Initially, the state was skeptical of the project, so she turned to local businesses and private donations. Since then, the state has slowly come around, and President Viktor Yanukovych’s aides have talked about pouring $150 million into the museum to turn it into Ukraine’s answer to Paris’s Centre Pompidou. In another positive sign, Yushchenko has been appointed chairman of Zabolotna’s advisory board. Still, until the government comes through, the museum’s expansion plans remain on hold.
Fortunately, the money Zabolotna has raised is enough to fund a new art event every month—by and large, showings of Ukrainian artists. Ever since the George Soros–funded Center For Contemporary Art opened in Kiev 18 years ago, Ukraine has been generating some of the most interesting contemporary art in Europe. The new generation of artists is fueling a boom in Kiev’s private galleries and has been shown in international venues such as the Venice Biennale and Art Basel. Kiev’s appetite for art is inexhaustible, and it’s stoking Zabolotna’s ambitions: next year, she’s negotiating to bring 100 masterpieces from French museums to the Arsenal.
Despite the difficulties getting the Arsenal up and running, Zabolotna is undaunted. Perhaps Art Arsenal won’t ever be in the European mainstream—but on the edge of the continent and the edge of contemporary art, is exactly where things get interesting.