Odessa bids to become arts city

The scene is flourishing in the once-important port

Odessa. When people think of art in the former Soviet Union, they normally think of Moscow, St Petersburg or Kiev, but now there is a new city to add to the list. The long-neglected city of Odessa is emerging as a hotbed of art activity.

The current city was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great and its status as the Russian empire's only free port ushered in a rush of people from all over Europe. By the 1820s, Odessa was cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic, and by the 1890s it was the third largest Russian city after St Petersburg and Moscow, and one of the empire's richest. Vast fortunes were made on international trade, leading Fabergй to open a workshop here. The city today remains Russian-speaking, but it is now in southern Ukraine.

Before the communists seized power in 1917, Odessa had a flourishing art scene that produced a unique movement called the South Russian School. Powerful merchants created vast art collections, and some of them founded private museums that became the city's current leading art venues. Kandinsky was born in Moscow but spent almost all his childhood in Odessa, studying music, drawing and painting. Leading Russian modernists Natan Altman and David Burliuk also studied in the city.

Just less than two decades after the end of the Soviet Union, Odessa has over one million inhabitants, and a new wealthy elite eager to acquire fine art and luxury goods. Jaguars and Bentleys cruise city streets, and many new galleries and private museums are appearing that help create an incentive for artists to stay at home and not leave for Kiev or abroad. Odessa's art scene still faces many problems, but the city is now clearly on its way to exclaiming its past glory.

John Varoli

Odessa, Ukraine Issue: 198
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