BY Moses Hubbard in Opinion | 26 DEC 22

Dispatch from Lviv: The City that Became a ‘Cultural Fortress’

A trip to the cultural capital of Ukraine reveals how art institutions have adapted to life during wartime

BY Moses Hubbard in Opinion | 26 DEC 22

Lviv, the westernmost major city in Ukraine and a relative safe haven far from the eastern front, has become a sort of cultural fortress for a nation at war. Church windows are covered in thick plywood and the statues on the facade of Lviv National Opera are wrapped in black plastic; the image of a city wound down in a defensive crouch. Galleries like The Naked Room in Kyiv have transferred their permanent collections to the region for safekeeping. The Kharkiv School of Architecture has also moved its entire campus into the cafeteria building of the Lviv National Academy of Arts (LNAA). Although existential questions are less urgent in Lviv than in many other parts of the nation, the city's art institutions must constantly adapt to the shifting realities of life during wartime, a process that is both exhausting and catalytic for the city’s creative scene.

Lviv National Art Gallery-2022
Lviv National Art Gallery with windows protected by sandbags, 2022. Courtesy: Getty/AFP; photo: Yuriy Dyachyshyn

In the first two months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost all of Lviv’s cultural institutions canceled their regular programming and reengineered themselves for more utilitarian functions. Ya Gallery, a contemporary art space in a belle-époque apartment complex, closed to the public to house artists fleeing from the east; people slept on the floor and lit fires in an ornamental ceramic oven. The founder, Pavlo Gudimov, jokingly told me that the former residence was finally being used for its original purpose. As the Russian advance was pushed back to the east, many creative professionals in Lviv returned to work with an expanded sense of purpose. Now, in addition to his curatorial duties, Gudimov organizes tours for resettled Ukrainians to enjoy the city’s sprawling parks and iconic Austro-Hungarian architecture.

Dmytro Moldovanov, 'Hopakue Chornobai’, 2022, exhibition view. Courtesy: Ya Gallery 

Daily life in Lviv is defined by constant interruption. Construction has restarted at the Jam Factory, a contemporary art centre that was set to open in August, but airstrikes on the energy grid have caused rolling blackouts, further delaying the work. Completed sections of the complex are used so far as possible. The basement, for example, now moonlights as a bomb shelter. Programming continues where and when it can; Bozhena Pelenska, the executive director, describes a moment when an air raid siren interrupted an experimental sound installation. Rather than stop, they simply moved the performance to the basement, where construction workers and people from the neighbourhood joined the audience while they waited for the danger to pass.

A performance at the Jam Factory, undated. Courtesy: Jam Factory, Lviv

At the Lviv National Academy of Arts, the heating has been switched off to conserve gas, so students work bundled in coats and scarves. The campus’s hallmark glass blowing furnace, a massive three-story contraption, one of only ten in Europe, has also been shut down. Here too artists have found ways to innovate – students have begun to experiment with stacked glass sculpture, a technique in which forms are cut in relief from layered panes of glass. Undeterred by the challenging conditions, students have been flocking to the LNAA, which is one of the few Ukrainian art academies still in operation. I was told that before the war, approximately half of all applicants were admitted, whereas now the number is closer to one in six.

Student in a glass class at Lviv National Academy of Arts, undated. Courtesy: Lviv National Academy of Arts

Conditions in the city continue to deteriorate – winter is setting in and Russian airstrikes have intensified since Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson, leaving Lviv largely without electricity. But people keep making art, thinking about art, and trying to share it with others. Olesya Domaradzka, curator of The Green Sofa gallery, told me a story about a man who wanted to buy a photograph from her but decided not to because his house had been destroyed and he didn’t have anywhere to display it. A couple of days passed and the man came back and told Domaradzka he wanted to buy the photograph anyway. Art is an emotional purchase and people don’t always behave the way you expect them to, she said. The man knew his house would be rebuilt, but he couldn’t be certain the photograph would still be for sale.

Main image: Maria Prymachenko artworks saved from eastern Ukraine go on display in Lviv, 2022. Courtesy: Getty/AFP; photograph: Jeff J Mitchell

Moses Hubbard is a Berlin-based writer and critic