Victoriya Danelyan’s Case Study: How To Implement A Сuratorial Project In Ukraine And In Georgia?

We decided to start really getting to know the core team of the Cultural Manager Association and their practical experience looking at it through the series of case studies. Our first publication is about the founder of the Kyiv Museum of Dreams and a curator of a large-scale project "Sergei Paradzhanov: dreaming of the 21st century" (Kyiv, Tbilisi) and of a multigenre cultural awareness-raising Parajanov International Festival in Levandivka (Lviv). Using the examples of her implemented projects Victoriya is talking about her curator career and specifics of operating in the field of culture both in Ukraine and in Georgia.

Project background

International project "Sergei Paradzhanov: dreaming of the 21st century" translates into 6 years of working with the subject, exhibitions in the National Museum of Tbilisi and Kyiv Museum of Dreams with participation of over 30 artists, 3 multimedia installations, 2 festivals in Lviv, international residence programme and publishing a book. The project is ongoing.

Wherever I've turned – there he was, Paradzhanov...

I was born in Tbilisi in 1980 and moved to Kyiv in the beginning of 2000's. My first encounter with Sergei Paradzhanov as a personality happened when I rented an apartment near Dovzhenko film studio. One of my neighbours asked me once: "Do you know who used to live in this apartment?" Well, he answered his own question listing numerous people connected with film-making business who used to stay here and said that even Paradzhanov spent few nights in this place. At that time this surname didn't ring any bells for me. Then strange things started to happen: here and there, I would come across different stories, things and recollections from other people that were connected with his personal and professional life. It was in Kyiv, Koktebel, Tbilisi... I have been gathering all of these pieces for years. And at a certain point there were so many that I could no longer keep them inside. I started on a journey towards the right form to share this story. Making a film wouldn't do, would it? So I came up with an idea to create my own interpretation of the art of this great master of cinematography.  

Idea is nothing

So, it's the idea. It can be everything for a project and at the same time it would be nothing. The important thing is how you are planning to work with it. I decided to create a collage installation for our Museum of Dreams. The concept was already there: "Sergei Paradzhanov: dreaming of the 21st century" I wanted to research the way we see and dream about Paradzhanov today. As our dreams constitute the product of our processed images of the past. Paradzhanov already lives in our today's dreams, in the way we think, in what we say and what we do. The whole "Paradzhanov myth" has been and will continue to be bountiful material for various research and studies. We will always have what to discuss over here, starting from his personality and art, his freedom and his limitations to it.

Curatorship in Ukraine

I had great hopes to get financial support for this idea, but no strategy. Having tried a few times to get funding for the project I realised that this is not what I would like to spend all my efforts on. As I am more of a curator than a manager. But to switch from pure management to curatorship in Ukraine is not such an easy task as that divide is way too blurred. It's not that rare to hear: Why would a project need a curator? Can you imagine to hear in Western Europe or in the US such a phrase as 'What would you need a curator for'? We still have to get to the understanding of a curator in the sense of a meaning-creator. And this job can not be measured neither by a ruler nor with some statistics. There's no measuring it. It constitutes quite specific functions, life experience and communications.

To be frank, I raised no funds at all. Moreover the exhibition concept was fully formed in autumn 2013; meaning things at that time didn't look that good with the crisis and Maidan about to happen. But at that time I already felt that that was the moment and I could not have given it up. Indeed, I had no money, but did have that determination to make the exhibition. Well, I was lucky to have my friends' and family's support in this endeavour.

Cultural resuscitation

Large part of the research work was done by my co-curator Tetyana Tsvelodub. Visual part was with artist designers sisters Mila Gaidai and Lilia Lukianova. The team finalised all the preparatory and compiling work in January 2014. The exhibition on display was formed by art objects, photographs, film posters, collages, assemblages, artifacts of the 20th century and film retrospective – all that we managed to collect. The grand opening was in February. That day Maidan saw no shootings and there ware no news, but only chillingly disturbing silence.

One by one visitors started to arrive. There were even some TV-channels. Of course, the attendance rates were low. No advertisement tricks would work – those days people dreaded leave their homes. But those who did come from that external world of terror and dived into the exhibition with just 40-60 minutes spent with the display, its sounds, pictures, images, texts and stories, their breathing steadied. This was a real cultural resuscitation for those entangled in the horrors of the real world with no breaks for breathing, with all that blood, war, pain and chill. This is my personal example of the curing and resource-restoring power of culture and arts, as they bless us with the possibility to rethink and survive such extreme situations. On the one hand, it was a real success, though on the other hand – a disastrous failure of the exhibition as it didn't get the attention it deserved.

Afterward I was left with the feeling of certain understatement. Yes, indeed we managed to masterfully recreate the vast Tbilisi world of Paradzhanov within the closed cozy space of Kyiv museum. But that wasn't enough. I couldn't implement what I strove for, first and foremost, due to the lack of funds. So this naturally brought me to the idea of trying to arrange a similar exhibition in Tbilisi – the home town for both me and Paradzhanov. By the way, there's still no museum of Paradzhanov in the Georgian capital. Well, it took me 2 years to get there with this project.

Tbilisi: the first approach

I set off to Tbilisi for a couple of days. I wondered if Tbilisi gallery spaces were potentially ready to host us. While wondering around the Karvasla National History Museum ("Caravanserai"), I thought why not try my luck and just went to talk to the museum management. That was pure gambling. That's how I met the Museum curator Lika Mamatsashvili. It turned out that she used to know Paradzhanov himself and had lots of different stories about him to share.

I showed Lika our Museum of Dreams portfolio and our promo-video about Kyiv exhibition (Thank God, we managed to produce it at a quite professional level). She watched it and exclaimed: "My God, that's a great deal of work!" That moment, for the first time I realised, what a genuine pleasure it was talking to a professional. Only a professional is able to really see the exact scope of efforts and time spent on that kind of work – otherwise left unnoticed and unappreciated by common people. Lika was truly impressed, she took my hand and led me to a 300 sqm exhibition hall, that was 5 times larger than the space we had in Kyiv. When I heard "Please have your exhibition here, let's settle the dates", at first I didn't get it, I literally couldn't grasp it and believe it.

Business sector support: compromises vs. principles

It wasn't long afterwards that I met Masha Shyrshova – she immigrated to Georgia over a decade ago, already spoke the language and was more than interested in cultural initiatives. She joined me as a project manager. We settled that our cooperation will be exclusively result-oriented for there was no talking about set honorarium or anything like that as I could provide no financial guaranties.

Together we started approaching different businesses. They all were eager to cooperate but as soon as we would start talking about their input, here came the challenges. This is best illustrated by one of the cases: one large retailer in electronics asked for their branded clad promoters to be part of the exhibition. I wasn't ready for such aesthetic compromises for the sake of funding – the moral purity of the idea have outweighed the gain. That is why there was neither financial nor any other support from the commercial sector.

Why is it difficult to manage your project remotely?

I had a plan and was negotiating with one of the local PR-companies to take up PR and management of the project with my clear remote guidance from Kyiv. I spent countless hours negotiating, e-mailing, colling, setting goals and explaining everybody literally everything. Well, at the end I understood that this is not an option and nobody will do anything properly remotely. I had to move to Georgia for half a year. In doing so I took up all the management of the project and again it couldn't have been done without the support from my friends and significant others.

The importance of personal curatorial communications

At that stage, I already knew some of the artists. I was lucky that with Lika's support I managed to jump-start with artistic contacts and get right to the top ones: she simply pointed to the artists I definitely had to approach. And here I was, talking to them and realising that the strongest selling point of my exhibition with them was that my yet unknown to Georgians project was attractive to them because of its context and the core idea. Simply hearing my name and, naturally, Paradzhanov's all the authors wanted to jump in!

And here the communication was at the core – the way we would be introduced, meet, the things we discussed and the ideas we generated during these dialogs. All the artists were so unique, with their own different ambitions, their own priorities. We had to create one common space where all these people would want to express themselves. But then again, all these talks were of a deferred nature as we still had a whole year to go before the launch of the exhibition.

I understood that at the beginning none of them would be creating anything specially for me and for this brand new project. And if there are some promises, they come without guaranties. The only safe way out of it for me was to offer the artists choose something out of their already created works. However, going a bit forward, I must say that some did created new works as well!

Specifics of a dialog with state institutions

After the complete failure with business sector I had nevertheless big hopes for getting financial support from the state. A new state cultural policy was in full swing. E-governance helped to get through the hurdles of reform swiftly and efficiently, making the process of approaching the Georgian Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection easy and transparent. I just had to come to a state office, fill in an application for project funding, send it via e-mail and wait for a guaranteed answer withing a set one-month deadline. We could only dream about something like that at that time in Kyiv. What we had was a total information vacuum in terms of grant opportunities: the only way to get it was to have the right connections or friends with such connections.

Following the review of my application, I was invited to the Department for international projects. There was a real shower of questions pouring on me during the interview. Well, of course no one will question the fact that a well-prepared presentation is the key to successful negotiations. The idea should be communicated in such a way that it is interesting for the listener. Because sometimes some curator's visions are simply not in line with what an official wants to see. You have to find that common ground. In my case that was predominantly the reputational aspects – Paradzhanov's name, participating famous artists, as well as the readiness of a National Museum to provide us with an exhibition space. This dialog turned out to be a success and I got the potential support needed for the project.

What if the parties are unable to agree?

At the same time we found out that there is option of applying for financial support to the Centre for Cultural Events at the Tbilisi City Hall. My good friend Eliso Rekhviashvili helped me to prepare a respective application as she is quite experienced in this field. At the end we got another green light for the project support initiative.

And here came another crisis: I had two approved applications, but the funds were from one state. You cannot possibly take money, let's say, for the materials from both sources at the same time. I didn't see how I could split my budget lines to understand which part is going to be supported by which of the institutions. The deadline was approaching, but the Ministry of Culture was waiting for the budget to be approved by the City Hall, and the City Hall was waiting for a similar approval from the Ministry. And this could go on and on! The only option for me was to try and organise a teleconference between the two offices so that they could solve this.

One more peculiarity of working in Georgia for me was: wherever I'd go in Tbilisi I have always been presented as a Ukrainian curator. As if I wasn't in my home town, as if I was just a guest. And here comes the magic trick: Georgians will go above and beyond to please their guests. At certain points this status of mine was stressed for that very reason and really helped the project.

A few words about the budget itself

Together with Masha we went through different retail stores in building materials so that we would know local price ranges. We also had to plan for unforeseen expenditures. With this in mind we had to remember that changes were possible but only within the 10% fluctuations. Thus everything had to be strictly calculated nearly to a penny.

Of course, there was no talking about advance payments. All honorarium and contract settlement payments were done  ex post facto. The only prepayment we had allowed us to buy the materials needed for the display construction. On the one hand that was freedom as such as we were free to buy what we needed, though on the other hand, this was limiting us in really managing our budget. For every single nail bought we had to produce a contract with the exact time of the purchase, set invoice, acceptance report and what not.

My dear friend Katya Benidzhe was our project finance manager and it is solely to her professionalism that we managed to produce an ideal final financial report. We were remembered and acknowledged by all representatives of the Ministry, City Hall and those managers who vouched for our project, as we delivered and proved that such projects could be very well prepared and organised.

Installation works

We had 5 days to install everything. Exactly 5 days before the grand opening I had all my exhibits collected and ready. They were so varied and so numerous... Part of them were works by modern artists as well as items from the Museum fund, meaning the antiques – one more extraordinary present from Lika, considering I had carte blanche to select what I thought appropriate from the museum collection.

The main curatorial task was to put this all together. We needed to recreate the composition, the spirit of the era made up by all these unique objects. That is way I tagged this undertaking as a collage exhibition – a big picture made of different pieces, little details, works by Georgian and Ukrainian artists, video and audio art objects. Guga Kotetishvili was one of our exhibition stands designer, while from the Ukrainian side we had our female artists who designed the Kyiv exhibition.

The preliminary work on the outlook of the display began in my own apartment. And this is a completely separate story I could tell about turning your place into a commune with non-stop buoyant activity of dozens of artists. We were busy drafting texts, editing video, creating exhibits...

Another carte blanche we had was our complete freedom to arrange the exhibition space in line with our own vision. We were free to paint the walls, use nails to our liking, glue or paint anything we wanted thereon. Well, we sure had the separate line in our budget for the materials to restore the hall after the exhibition to its original looks.

Why cannot I stop?

We launched a massive advertisement campaign trying to get the most out of the Ministry press-service resources.

There were at least 1500 people who came, with the queue forming in the streets! The display itself was a magical non-static collage of all our distinctively different and unique works. For instance, we had a wishing tree for your to make a wish or a magic fountain where you could catch one of Paradzhanov's famous sayings that, who knows, could turn out to be prophetic.

When I saw how many people were there, so excited and finely enjoying the show I realised that this is what really stimulates you to continue. 

My principle lesson learnt from this experience is that you need a professional team for such undertakings. These should be not only good people from the cultural sector you know, as you will need professionals from managers, financial specialists to those who know how to ideally put your installations and lights up. They should be really good in knowing and understanding your tasks and specifics of the sector. Otherwise, the most genius idea of yours faces the risk of turning into nothing. 

Photo by Sophia Chaikovskaya

Text by Angela Khachaturova

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