Cultural policy News Ukraine

Is Ukraine’s new president sweet on culture?

The newly elected billionaire and “chocolate king” understands the importance of soft-power

Poroshenko has always been depicted sympathetically by Ukraine's contemporary artists, as in this portrait by Petro Lebedynets

In a symbolic move, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, is making the most of the country’s cultural soft-power by holding his inauguration on Saturday, 7 June at Mystetskyi Arsenal, the home of the Kiev Biennale of Contemporary Art.

“Poroshenko said before he was elected, ‘Whether I become president or not, I understand the [cultural and historic] importance of Mystetskyi Arsenal… and I will make every effort for it to be rebuilt’,” says Nataliia Zabolotna, the venue’s general director, referring to a $150m reconstruction plan that would transform Arsenal into one of the largest museums in Europe. She adds that she was informed last week that Poroshenko would hold his inauguration there.

Poroshenko’s headquarters confirmed the date of the ceremony, but not the location. However, the 63,000 sq m complex, built as a weapons arsenal in the 18th century, has already served as the election night headquarters for Poroshenko, a billionaire who is known as Ukraine’s chocolate king, and Vitali Klitschko, the boxer turned politician who was elected the mayor of Kiev. The night before their 25 May victory, both candidates attended a touring performance of “Hamlet” at Arsenal put on by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

Poroshenko’s wife, Marina, who has a degree in art history, is a frequent visitor to Arsenal, and the couple and their children have visited art museums around the world, Zabolotna says. But the couple is not known to have contemporary art in their personal art collection. Ukrainian media reported in 2011 that Poroshenko owns dozens of paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky, the 19th-century painter who was born in Crimea and is famous for his seascapes.

Kostyantyn Doroshenko, a Kiev-based art critic and cultural commentator for Radio Vesti tells The Art Newspaper that, although he knows little about Poroshenko’s art collection, his cultural foundation is “not as formalised as the foundations of [Rinat] Akhmetov or [Victor] Pinchuk,” two oligarchs known for their significant support to the country’s artists through exhibitions and juried prizes. “Poroshenko can order that a creative person who makes a personal impression on him be given financial support for a project,” Doroshenko says.

While little is known about Poroshenko’s personal interest in contemporary art, he has certainly caught the attention of the country’s artists. “It is interesting that Poroshenko, in contrast to other oligarchs, has always been depicted sympathetically by contemporary Ukrainian artists,” Doroshenko says. Examples include a portrait by Petro Lebedynets and a striking graphic work posted on Facebook during the presidential campaign by a young artist named Vitaly Yankovy, showing the billionaire dripping in chocolate and titled Petro Poroshenko enjoys candies from his own manufacture, 2014.


Petro Poroshenko enjoys candies from his own manufacture, 2014, by Vitaly Yankovy
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