Why you should care
Because a visit here mixes Ukrainian history with modern visual expressions.
Meandering through the cavernous halls of this urban art gallery, it’s impossible to stop your eyes from wandering toward its vaulted, exposed-brick ceiling. On a quieter day, you’re enveloped by the echo of your own footsteps as the sounds bounce off one imposing wall onto another.
So impressive is the space that it often risks drawing attention away from what’s actually on display. “Every curator who works here knows that,” says Kateryna Filyuk, a Kiev-based art director who has curated an exhibition here. Sitting in the one of the building’s gaping, light-drenched foyers on a recent Saturday, she flashes a satisfied smile that betrays the apparent frustration of working at one of Ukraine’s most celebrated and prominent galleries.
Welcome to Mystetskyi Arsenal — a former arms factory in Kiev now showcasing the work of some of the country’s best and brightest visual artists. Spend a couple of hours here and you’ll get a double dose of culture: a fascinating exhibit or event, plus an impromptu history lesson on Kiev’s legacy as one of Eastern Europe’s most important hubs. While it’s been open for nearly a decade, this hulking testament to the city’s rich cultural history — which produced some of the Russian-speaking world’s greatest cultural luminaries — took on new importance after Ukraine’s 2014 pro-democratic revolution prompted a national reawakening.
The gallery has become a major focus of Ukraine’s budding art scene.
Completed in 1801, the original massive rectangular structure spanning more than 180,000 square feet was part of a sprawling arms complex perched atop the city overlooking the Dnipro River. Boasting walls more than 6 feet thick, and built with local bricks that give the building its unique pale yellow hue, the classical-style building served as a key munitions factory and arms depot for nearly two centuries, first during the Russian Empire, then under the Soviet Union. The Mystetskyi Arsenal (aka “the arsenal”) also sits across from the 1,000-year-old Monastery of the Caves, a large network of tunnels. It’s intriguing to think that this heavily fortified and secretive defense asset sat so close in one of Kiev’s holiest sites.
Recognizing the potential of the space, the Ukrainian government began turning the building into a cultural complex in the mid-2000s. But it’s only in recent years that the arsenal has begun to truly shine. Dubbed locally as the Revolution of Dignity, the events of 2014 sparked a cultural rebirth, turning Ukraine into what Filyuk calls a “laboratory” for artistic and cultural experimentation. The gallery has become a major focus of Ukraine’s budding art scene — one that includes not only artists and writers but also designers and other cultural innovators. “Everything is changing, and everything is developing very quickly,” she says. “In this context, the arsenal is a place where you can come and observe it all through the prism of art.”
Filyuk co-curated “Revolutionize,” a recent exhibit that brought together several dozen artists from Ukraine and beyond in a multimedia effort to explore varying perceptions of social upheaval. Timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Ukraine’s own revolution, the exhibit featured installations, photographs, films and other interpretations of what revolutions are and can really accomplish. On display until May 5 is another nationally minded exhibit, “Amazing Stories of Crimea,” which focuses on the rich and diverse history of the beautiful peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
But the arsenal is not just about appreciating art. It also regularly hosts other cultural events, such as the Book Arsenal Festival, which was recently declared the best literary festival at the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards. In 2014, President Petro Poroshenko had his election headquarters here, and in recent years, the gallery has hosted an annual global conference on Ukraine’s future in the world.
So if there’s any one place to put on your cultural shortlist while visiting Ukraine’s thriving capital, make it Mystetskyi Arsenal — and don’t forget to look up. Exposed brick, especially when centuries old, has never been cooler.
Go there: Mystetskyi Arsenal
- Directions: Take the red line of the Kiev Metro to Arsenalna station and walk straight down Ivana Mazepa Street before continuing onto Lavrska Street. The museum will be on your right.
- Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, from 11 am to 8 pm.
- Entrance fee: About $3.00.
- Pro tip: While in the neighborhood, don’t miss the nearby Monastery of the Caves and the Motherland Monument.