By Alex V. Cipolle – Reporting from Minneapolis – Oct. 18, 2023
Overlooking Interstate 35, one of the main arteries that weaves through this city, is a tower painted in yellow and blue for the Ukrainian flag. It belongs to the Museum of Russian Art.
Museum staff members painted the flag on Feb. 28, 2022, just days after the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The first time I saw it, I pulled over, got out, took a picture and put it on” Instagram, said Leon Hushcha, a Ukrainian American artist based in Minneapolis. “Very, very meaningful.”
The museum’s chief curator, Maria “Masha” Zavialova, said that one of their installation specialists, Gini Tyson, suggested painting the flag right away.
“We took buckets of paint and we just painted it ourselves,” Dr. Zavialova recalled. “We were so appalled by the war and we wanted to make a statement that we — our museum and we, as a group of people who work here — we stand against the war with Ukraine.”
The flag is one of myriad public efforts the museum is making to demonstrate an antiwar stance. On Feb. 25, 2022 — the day after Russian troops invaded Ukraine — it also put out a statement urging Russia “to cease hostilities immediately and withdraw.”
Since then, the museum staff has worked to procure antiwar, pro-Ukraine works by contemporary Ukrainian and Russian artists, mounting shows driven by current events alongside some of their more traditional exhibits. The museum plans to mount a solo exhibition of some 40 of Mr. Hushcha’s paintings Dec. 2 to March 3. It has also committed to showcasing until the end of the war “Say No to War: Political Cartoons by Ukrainian and Russian Artists,”which opened in April 2022.
Navigating this complicated sociopolitical landscape is a delicate maneuver, however, as the museum must also manage an identity inextricably linked to Russia. While there are other museums in the United States rooted in Russian culture and history — the Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts and MORA Museum of International Art in New Jersey, for example — the Minneapolis museum is the most visible one dedicated specifically to Russian art. Dr. Zavialova said it hosts the largest collection of Soviet-era paintings outside of Russia — some 12,000 artworks and artifacts.
For Dr. Zavialova, it’s also personal. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, where her sister still resides, and her father’s relatives lived in Kyiv, Ukraine. She came to Minneapolis in 2001 for her doctorate studies at the University of Minnesota and never left.
“It was horror and disbelief,” Dr. Zavialova said of her reaction to the Russian invasion. “And it’s from the country you were born in.”
The museum has experienced a backlash for its Russian identity, Dr. Zavialova said, with some even calling for a name change after the war began.
“We were disoriented and appalled, and yes, we did discuss that option,” Dr. Zavialova said. “But then we realized we have a mission as the only museum of Russian art.”
The criticism is based in confusion, she said, emphasizing that the institution is an independent American museum, not a Russian one, founded in 2002 by an American couple, Raymond and Sue Johnson. The museum receives funding from various U.S. federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is a registered 501(c)3 in Minnesota. The collection is about 95 percent Russian art, Dr. Zavialova said, with the other five percent coming primarily from former Soviet states like Ukraine and Belarus.
“We still have the collections of Russian art, and that’s the treasures of past centuries. We cannot just take everything out and burn it in the street,” she said. “It’s such a huge country and, as it’s falling more and more behind that new Iron Curtain, we knew that we became one of the few institutions that would provide knowledge of that very closed society.”
Part of that mission to provide knowledge includes focusing on work critical of Russia by contemporary and historic artists from Ukraine and Russia, and of the Ukrainian and Russian diasporas, even when doing so means pivoting away from programming that had been in development since before the war began.
At the end of 2022, for example, Dr. Zavialova learned of the project of the Connecticut-based Ukrainian American artist Elena Kalman and postponed a long-planned exhibition that was to feature thousands of Russian dolls. Ms. Kalman, who was born and raised in Kyiv, had been painting explosive canvases about the devastation wrought by the invasion. It became the museum’s “Ukraine Defiant” exhibition.
Dr. Zavialova decided to juxtapose Ms. Kalman’s exhibition with “Premonition of a Russian Dystopia,” which featured the Russian artist Geli Korzhev’s “mutant” series, a collection of ghoulish depictions of Russian bureaucratic and military figures painted in the 1980s and ’90s. Mr. Korzhev was predicting the fall of the Soviet Union, Dr. Zavialova said.
Ms. Kalman flew in for the dual show opening in March. “I feel the connection between these two pieces is very important,” Ms. Kalman told the crowd on opening night. She explained that the “rottenness in the souls” featured in Mr. Korzhev’s art led to the catastrophe captured in her own work.
Those shows were set up adjacent to the ongoing “Say No to War” exhibit of political cartoons. Ms. Zavialova said the decision to keep the exhibition up until the end of the war was “unorthodox” for a museum (art experts agree), but necessary for capturing the ongoing struggle. “As the war goes through different stages, artists react in a different way.”
The cartoon exhibition is ever-changing, updated as artists — Alexander Dubovksy, Valery Momot, Alesha Stupin, Andrey Feldshteyn and many more — continue creating new work. (It’s now in its fourth iteration.)The exhibit now features a series by the Ukrainian artist Vladimir Kazanevsky, who fled to Slovakia from Kyiv when the war began. One of his illustrations shows a baby in a Z-shaped crib (the “Z” symbol is believed to be an orchestrated Kremlin effort to drum up support for the war, as well as to intimidate Ukrainians) next to a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a toy tank. In another, Ukrainians flee a city by night as a looming Grim Reaper sleeps on the horizon. Mr. Kazanevsky, who has become the face of antiwar cartoons in Europe, also draws President Vladimir Putin as a ruthless buffoon leading the country to collapse, as many other artists in the exhibition do.
Andrey Feldshteyn, a Minneapolis-based Russian American cartoonist, came up with the idea for the show shortly after Russia started the war and reached out to the museum.
“I wanted to participate, to just do something against Putin’s aggression,” Mr. Feldshteyn said. “It will be a good reminder for Americans that something wrong is going on in Europe and we need to help.”
Like Dr. Zavialova, Mr. Feldshteyn is from St. Petersburg. He moved to Minnesota in 1993.
Mr. Feldshteyn helped found Cartunion, an online international cartoonist forum. As the war started to unfold, Mr. Feldshteyn saw an explosion of antiwar political cartoons from Russian and Ukrainian artists. Many had lost jobs as publications shuttered or were fleeing their homes, he said.
“They just wanted something to do,” said Mr. Feldshteyn. When he approached those artists with the idea of this exhibition, they were enthusiastic. Why? “It’s thanks to the museum policy,” he explained. The museum “chose a side in this conflict.”
In his studio across town, in downtown Minneapolis, Mr. Hushcha stood in front of a towering painting with hundreds of black and white skulls raining down against a backdrop of blue and yellow, sliced in half by a band of red. The new work is one of the paintings that will be in his winter show at the museum, with the working title “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”).
Mr. Hushcha was born in 1946 to Ukrainian parents in a camp in Austria for displaced people. Before that, his father had spent 11 years in a Siberian gulag, he said. The family moved to St. Paul, Minn., in 1949, and Mr. Hushcha grew up in a home where only Ukrainian was spoken. His family frequently discussed Russification, he said, and when he learned of the war he “broke down” but was not surprised.
He quotes Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, “‘This is a war against our identity,’ and that is something I understand.”
When the museum approached him to do a solo show after the war began, Mr. Hushcha did not hesitate. He had previously done two shows there, a solo show and an exhibition with another artist.
“The museum is antiwar,” Mr. Hushcha said. “If I saw them as my enemy, I would not be doing this.”
Back at the museum, Dr. Zavialova sat next to another of Mr. Hushcha’s paintings, swirling with blue, yellow and red. She said the war now colors everything she does at the museum. Even shows about Russian icons or folk art now require additional context, she noted.
“You don’t just say, ‘Oh look at this art, how great it is,’” Dr. Zavialova said. “It’s putting things into historical context, showing the country as a country of revolutions, and a history of oppression and resistance.”
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 22, 2023, Section F, Page 22 of the New York edition with the headline: Taking Sides.