MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) in Minneapolis took quick action. The following day, on its social media accounts, the museum posted a statement of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and three days later, an enormous display painted with the colors of the Ukrainian flag was installed outside its building.
But TMORA’s gestures of support have been met with apprehension in the Ukrainian community. Since the invasion, the museum has held fundraisers supporting Ukrainian relief, including an online auction of Owen Brown’s painting “Zelensky and Putin, ‘Villains and Victims Series #3,” and co-presented the “Worldwide Readings Project” with Theatre Novi Most, the Playwrights’ Center, and the Jungle Theater, centering responses to the war by Ukrainian playwrights.
Olga Frayman, a Ukrainian-American singer and musician, was one of the performers. “To be honest, not a lot of members of the Ukrainian community came,” she says.
“To them, anything that has Russian in the name is already to be viewed with a lot of skepticism,” Frayman told Hyperallergic. “They have always taken so much from other cultures and claimed it as Russian. I mean, they claim that borscht, the national Ukrainian dish, is a Russian soup, which Ukrainians always scoff at because it’s not. It’s a Ukrainian soup.”
According to Frayman, who is married to a Russian American, many viewed the act of painting Ukraine’s colors outside the museum as disingenuous. “I’m feeling a little bit caught in the middle,” she admitted.
Housed in a former Congregational church, TMORA was founded in 2002 by two non-Russians, art dealer Raymond E. Johnson and his wife Susan, who had the largest collection of Soviet-era paintings in the United States. The museum hasn’t acquired any works from Russia since 2011 due to an embargo that resulted from an embroiled legal battle over ancient texts that had been passed down over many generations to leading rabbis of Chabad, known as the Schneerson collection.
“We don’t depend on work from Russia whatsoever or from any of the former Soviet republics,” Mark J. Meister, executive director and president of TMORA, said in a phone interview. “We have our own collection. We have access to items from other museums and private collectors in the US.”
TMORA primarily exhibits Soviet-era Socialist Realist art and nonconformist art from that period. The museum also has folk art in its collection, and regularly features exhibitions by contemporary artists who have Russian heritage or heritage from countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine. In the past three and a half years, TMORA has shown more Ukrainian art than Russian art, according to Meister.
Leon Hushcha, a Ukrainian-American artist born in an Austrian refugee camp in 1947, has been featured twice at the museum in solo exhibitions in 2016 and 2018; earlier this year, TMORA exhibited the painting “Grandmother has never seen me. I long to be with her.” The abstract piece, featuring blue and yellow squiggles with sporadic drops of deep red, stirs an emotional feeling, elevating Ukraine’s national colors and evoking looming violence.
Hushcha was thrilled when he was first offered a show. “I was having a heart attack,” he said. “Are you kidding me? I love that space.” The artist favors collaboration between cultures, something he deems something of a lost art. That said, he is in favor of the museum changing its name, which he believes is the main reason the Ukrainian community avoided his show.
“I thought they would be happy and that they would come. They didn’t,” Huschcha says. “They don’t like the word ‘Russian.’”
The museum’s name is also an issue for Nadia Ladyzhynsky, who moved to the United States from Lviv, in Western Ukraine, three decades ago. She would often swing by the museum when visiting her son, who lives in the Twin Cities. That changed in 2014, when Russia conquered Crimea and chopped off a piece of Eastern Ukraine. “I had kind of hard feelings,” Ladyzhynsky says. “I was still going to the museum, but it was giving me a cringe to see the name together with Russia.”
Then, three years ago, TMORA had an exhibition of Ukrainian national costumes. “I was thinking it was somehow sarcastic, or cynical to have these costumes while this hidden aggression was going on,” Ladyzhynsky said.
Since the Russian invasion, Ladyzhynsky is refusing to go to the museum until they change its name. “This is not the correct name. It is not the Museum of Russian Art,” she says. “They have a lot of Armenian, Ukrainian, Jewish pieces. It looks like appropriation. It looks like exactly what Russia is doing.”
Vita Faychuk, another Ukrainian American who lives in a Minneapolis suburb, first visited TMORA soon after the invasion last March, bringing her daughter with her. She was struck by how many works by Ukrainian artists hung on the museum’s walls, as well as pieces by Lithuanians, Armenians, and others from Eastern Europe.
Faychuk said she shared with staff members her feelings that the museum’s name didn’t reflect the many other types of art in the collection by artists from former Soviet states.
“I understand that it’s convenient for everybody— instead of learning multiple national identities, to use just one term,” she told Hyperallergic. “But this is unfair. This is an example of colonialism, basically.”
For Faychuk, calling Ukrainian art “Russian” harks back to centuries of erasure of Ukrainian identity, even before the Soviet Union. In the early 19th century, she says, Ukrainian language was prohibited, for example. “Ukrainian identity and culture was very badly persecuted for many centuries, since the mid-1600s at least,” she says.
Faychuck was born in Western Ukraine and Ukrainian was her native language, but there was limited access to it on television. Her Russian language teacher was paid more than Ukrainian language teachers — part of a state policy.
Using “Russian” as an umbrella term for all post-Soviet art reinforces centuries of Russia encroaching on Ukrainian freedoms and prosecution of Ukrainian culture, she argues. While grateful to the museum for its support of Ukraine, she feels some of its actions, like the display of Ukrainian colors outside, are misinformed. That gesture is painful, she adds, given the terror Russia has inflicted these past nine months. Faychuck took her concerns to social media, starting a heated conversation amongst mostly Ukrainian and Russian Americans on Facebook.
The Museum of Russian Art has heard the concerns from the community and is beginning a deliberative process to consider a name change, according to Meister. “I believe that we will start in December, and we will establish a timeline at that point,” he told Hyperallergic. There’s no word yet from TMORA about what the new name might be.
TMORA member Diana Yefanova, who is Russian, considered not going to the museum anymore after seeing the various Facebook threads criticizing it. But she felt it was important to separate what’s happening with an authoritarian regime in her home country from the community in the United States.
“We need to stick together and we need to keep talking,” she said. Ultimately, she decided to renew her membership. She hopes the museum will change its name.
At a TMORA exhibition opening on November 12, Russian-American Vitaly Katasonov said he hadn’t heard talk about the name change. “My opinion is things happen in the world. You can’t change the name each time,” he opined. “Today is war, tomorrow is peace. You shouldn’t flip flop.”