Cultural policy – “Office Ukraine”: Integration work for refugee artists

Three Austrian art institutions reacted quickly at the end of February and set up the “Office Ukraine” within a few days with the support of the public sector. According to the initiative, two months after the start of the war, around 300 Ukrainian artists are currently being looked after. In addition to providing for basic needs, it is important to network and enable artistic activities to continue.

While the Ukraine was still new territory for many in Austria a few weeks ago, this can be the case for tranzit.org in Vienna, in Graz and the Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen in Innsbruck are by no means valid: In addition to the general focus on Central and Eastern Europe, the association tranzit.org 2015, subsidized by the Erste Foundation, was a key partner of the Kiev Biennale “The School of Kyiv”, shows similar interests and had cooperated with the Kharkiv art scene in previous years, and Büchsenhausen had the well-known Ukrainian video artist Mykola Ridnyi (Ridnyj) as a guest in 2021.

The idea behind it

When it became clear in the days after the beginning of the war that the flight from Ukraine would also affect a larger number of female artists – as is well known, Ukrainians between the ages of 18 and 60 are currently not allowed to leave the country – the three institutions became active. With the support of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the “Office Ukraine. Shelter for Ukrainian Artists” was set up within a few days, which works for this specific group. “The idea was to meet the artists who had fled on an equal footing, to find contacts for them and to get started here more quickly,” explained Margarethe Makovec from in Graz.

Applause for the Austrian initiative has recently also come from abroad. “We were really impressed by how quickly these art institutions, which are independent of the state, started their assistance,” said Andrea Křístek Kozárová, the Bratislava-based president of the International Association of Art (IAA) Europe, a federation of international artists’ associations, the APA. There is nothing comparable in Slovakia, she regretted.

“First and foremost, we are a networking point,” explained Susanne Jäger, an employee of “Office Ukraine”. Currently, around 300 artists and cultural workers from Ukraine are looked after in offices in Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck, some of them fled to Austria with their families and therefore there is talk of around 650 to 700 people in total. On Tuesday evening, Jäger and her colleagues addressed around 100 mostly Ukrainian visitors to an informal meeting in the “Freiraum Ukraine” provided by the Museumsquartier. It was also mentioned here that the initiative was still looking for living space for female artists, but reference was also made to the new scholarship programs of the Ministry of Culture.

Curator Hedwig Saxenhuber also invited those present to actively participate in the “Freiraum”, which will be used for screenings and presentations starting this week. From May 6th, the exhibition “The Scents of the Earth” can also be seen, which deals with a historical expedition of a Ukrainian artist couple to an indigenous people in northern Russia and questions of Russian colonialism. A presentation by the Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kachidze is already on the program on Saturday: Kachidze, who captured her perception of the war in well-regarded drawings, was comparatively lucky: her place of residence Musychi, which is outside the capital Kyiv, escaped conquest by Russian troops by a hair’s breadth, he stayed thus spared a fate à la Butscha and Irpin. At the end of January, the well-known artist explained in an interview with the APA that she wanted to waste as little thought as possible on a possible war.

After the events of the past few weeks, it is of course difficult to ignore the now real war. The multi-genre artist Julija Makarenko from Kyiv, who fled to Austria with her son, told the APA about sleep disorders and memory problems that are currently plaguing many of her colleagues. She used it to describe classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Makarenko, whose husband had to stay in the Ukraine, is continuing her series of humorous self-portraits in Graz, which has been going on for years. “It’s the only way to distance myself, pathetic postings are not my thing,” she said. The war robbed her of her apartment, her usual life, past and future, but she herself was spared, she said. “I defy him and try to do something, there is no other way out,” she said. It is also important to position yourself as an artist in Austria.

A photographer from the Kharkiv region, who has relatives in the war zone, told APA about 20 extremely traumatic days under Russian occupation. “They had a daily schedule: It was quiet between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Then they started shelling the north of Kharkov with multiple rocket launchers and cannons set up in our village,” she said. The Russians set up cannons between houses, dug in tanks in the village, all houses were looted and men who had done military service in eastern Ukraine since 2014 were abducted. “We were just cannon fodder ourselves,” said the artist, who was eventually able to leave the war zone via Belgorod in Russia. She traveled through Russia to Latvia and ended up in Graz, where some of her artist colleagues from Kharkiv had already found refuge.

“At first we and my wife didn’t think about leaving Kyiv, we’re not the youngest anymore,” said Wassyl Mitschchenko. But then his son, who lives abroad, categorically asked him to do so. Acquaintances of an Austrian acquaintance had provided an apartment in Vienna, which is why they came to Austria, he told APA. Born in Kiev in 1949, who was successful in his homeland with colorful, expressionist oil paintings, he is one of the few male artists supported by “Office” in view of Ukrainian exit restrictions for men of military age. “I want to develop a little artistically here,” he said. At the same time, he reported on contacts with a gallery owner in Vienna and the hope that his pictures could also be exhibited here. (apa)

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