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Alexander Roytburd and his legacy in Odessa

09 Aug, 2021
Alexander Roytburd and his legacy in Odessa

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By Ugo Poletti, Editor-in-Chief of "The Odessa Journal"

I met Alexander Roytburd several times in Odessa, since he was appointed Director of the Odessa Fine Arts Museum (OFAM). The first one was when he came as a speaker to a dinner I organised with Odessa’s business community. He spoke to managers, entrepreneurs and foreign diplomats about the need to invest in art for the identity building process of Ukraine.

Then, we met regularly at the Museum, where my friends and I used to attend some of the many exhibitions and social events, realised under his guidance. It was fascinating to see the contagious enthusiasm of his young staff, working for the new strategy of development of OFAM.

I know from my life experience in Milan how hard it is to change the governance of a museum belonging to the state administration. As an innovator you are bound to become a sort of Don Quijote. The resistance by the bureaucracy to a different management approach and new projects is like a fight against the wind mills. But, as Edmond Rostand wrote in “Cyrano de Bergerac”, you can either fall down, or fly in the sky, while fighting against wind mills.

GUICHE: “Let a blow of their long arms throw you to the ground in the slime!”
CYRANO: “Or to the stars!”

The proof of those obstacles was the political ambush organised by some politicians in the Odessa Regional Council to dismiss Roytburd. That was a moment of truth: from one side there was the spontaneous rally of all the Odessans, who did care for the Museum and city's cultural life; from the other side a group of Soviet-style politicians, who probably never visited OFAM, interested only in their self-referential battle, although a harmful one for Odessa. Fortunately, the city lovers, with the help of the Ukrainian Government, prevailed, and the Director could continue his work for the development of the Museum. Today, one of his painting (Roytburd’s only one hanging on the walls of the museum) celebrates that victory.

Cubist interpretation of Caravaggio's "Judith beheading Holofernes" (representing a victorious rebellion against an oppressive power)

Alexander Roytburd was definitely one of the souls of Odessa. He personified the cultural turmoil, which once allowed the city on the Black Sea to challenge St. Petersburg and Moscow in the fields of music, art, literature and technological innovation. He came to OFAM as an already recognised national artist and brought to the Museum the same a wave of energy and disruption, present in his paintings. His main achievements are two:

  1. Revamping of the Odessa Fine Arts Museum: Roytburd found a museum in bad condition (holes in the roof, many paintings to be restored, Soviet-oriented presentation of art collections), with insufficient funds and few visitors. He found funds to renovate the building, reorganised the collections, and put the Museum back to the centre of Odessa’s cultural life, organising a lot of new exhibitions and social events.
  2. Attraction of private donations from the city: he created the Marazli Club (after the name of the legendary mayor Gregorios Maraslis), an association of donors supporting OFAM, which today is a club of Odessa generous businessmen, ready to participate to the cultural development of the city. Roytburd showed businessmen that investing in culture is a gift to their city, creating a more favourable environment for their activities.

His most important legacy is the example of his leadership. He showed the country that it is possible to guide a local cultural institutions with ambitious projects and a without waiting idly for public funds from ministry, region or municipality. In fact, central and local governments tend to foster more likely proactive institutions, than passive ones.

The Director of OFAM proved that even in a post-Soviet country like Ukraine, citizens are ready to support their cultural institutions with personal funds and participation, notwithstanding they belong to public administration, if they trust the management. Moreover, the Museum offered international donors to buy online new frames and glasses for the paintings exposed, and get a mention of their donation under the artwork. "The Odessa Journal" supported this campaign. Several of our readers from Belgium, Italy, Norway, Turkey and the United States bought frames, together with many Ukrainians.

How to use the lesson of Alexander Roytburd?

Each single person can support Ukraine investing in culture: either buying artworks of Ukrainian artists or supporting local cultural entities. But this is possible if the head of a museum/theatre shares with the donors his programme and how he intends to invest the funds with transparency, as Roytburd did. Moreover, Ukraine needs a law on cultural sponsorships, regulating tax credits for companies investing in culture, as in most of European countries. There are many Ukrainian companies ready to invest in cultural sponsorships, in case of tax exemption.

In conclusion, Alexander Roytburd awoke the old spirit of Odessa, before Soviet times, when the wealthiest men of the city invested personally in culture: building theatres, museums, music and art schools. Traders and nobles took the responsibility of the cultural development of their city. This combination of culture and business, cooperation between public and private personalities, was the reason of the past spectacular growth of Odessa and her internationl reputation. Let's hope that the work started by him will be continued.

May the earth be light upon you, Aleksandr. It was a privilege to meet you.

The Odessa Journal

The Odessa Journal

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