France has the Institut Français, Germany has the Goethe-Institut, now Ukraine is getting its own international culture and language center.
On June 12, Volodymyr Sheiko will take the reins as the head of the newly formed Ukrainian Institute (UI) whose vision he said is to promote the country “internationally through culture, science, education and language.”
Speaking to The Ukrainian Weekly on May 29, the nation’s chief cultural diplomat said that the tumultuous events of 2014 “actually helped the creative community to be hungry for international connections,” Mr. Sheiko said. “There has never been a better time for Ukraine to work in culture.”
Authors like Serhiy Zhadan and Maria Matios are seeing more of their works being translated and sold abroad. Hollywood starlets often are seen with gowns and dresses designed by Lilia Poustovit or Lilia Litkovskaya. Ukraine’s national ballet recently made its U.S. debut with performances of “Don Quixote” and “Sleeping Beauty.” And Ukrainian filmmaker Serhiy Loznitsa this month won the best director prize at the Cannes film festival.
This is where the 33-year-old native Kyivan and the UI come in.
It’ll be his job to cultivate formal interaction between artists, cultural leaders, celebrities, writers, as well as organizations.
“The UI should move in a few directions. The first one is to reach out to non-Ukrainians who live abroad. To make them understand that Ukraine is one of them,” Mr. Sheiko said. “The goal of UI is to make the world recognize that Ukraine is an equal among them and has a lot to offer and that we ultimately speak the same language.”
Several programs are envisioned to accomplish this, some of which are practiced by similar institutions like the British Council, where Mr. Sheiko previously worked as arts director, regional arts manager and marketing and communications manager.
Eventually, international travel grants and art residencies will be awarded. Exchange programs and research projects will be funded. Close cooperation with the Education Ministry will enable the UI to teach Ukrainian and offer certification in order to develop a model for language schools abroad.
Mr. Sheiko would also like to hold touring visual arts shows internationally, have Ukrainian artists attend biennales and festivals, and see theater and dance troupes go on tour.
Before that can happen, the UI leader has a budget of less than $800,000 for the remainder of the year to set up an office, finish hiring a team of 12 people, and develop a website and brand.
Five countries are a priority for the UI’s first foreign offices, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry to which the autonomous institution is attached: Poland, Germany, France, Italy and Belgium. Afterwards, the U.S., Canada, as well as either China or Turkey “are being looked at in the medium-term perspective,” he said.
After institutionalizing the UI, Mr. Sheiko will start mapping Ukrainian communities abroad.
“What I realized… is we know very little about our fellow Ukrainians who live around the world,” he said. “There’s been no attempt to do a holistic mapping of their interests, their professions, and whether they would like to somehow be engaged with Ukraine.”
Aside from having a mandate that he says is “challenging” because of a “much-regulated bureaucratic system,” Mr. Sheiko said a lack of funding also poses a problem as does researching what can legally be done in each jurisdiction in which the UI plans to operate.
Groups like the British Council operate with yearly budgets that surpass $1 billion, but relies on its government for only about 15 percent of income. Thus, the UI will seek grant or contractual opportunities and hopefully generate money from language courses.
“That’s why we’ll [also] be counting on Ukrainian communities abroad and their support, and also from the private sector. We won’t be able to pull this off alone without outside help,” Mr. Sheiko said.
Unlike its better-known counterparts, the UI will have to spend more time informing the public of what Ukraine and its people are.
“The British Council doesn’t have to do what the UI will have to do,” he said. “Such as, inform international communities about what Ukraine really is, and it’s not just about war and corruption.”
Mr. Sheiko realizes that his mission “sounds like an impossible task.”
He says his informational approach will be “subtle – I believe in building people-to-people links and that’s the most powerful way to change perceptions of another culture, of another nation.”
And he’ll do everything to avoid “straightforward” messaging like “Ukraine isn’t Russia – we won’t say this is who we are and this is what we do,” Mr. Sheiko said.
He also realizes that public diplomacy in the global information age, where plenty of information leads to scarcity of attention, means that “our voice will never be heard… unless we offer something of value, and that value lies within the domain of culture.”
So, as he awaits the outcome of initial research and mapping, Mr. Sheiko said he will immediately start to engage with Ukrainian communities abroad through personal contacts in the U.S., Germany and Poland.
“I want to build on that appetite for engagement with Ukraine, for living to their national identity, which some of them cherish and try to express,” he said. “To support them through their artistic practices, their social activism… and to ensure people of Ukrainian origin stay connected with their country.”
Over the next three years starting in 2019, he will devise a strategy with a larger budget, boost his staff to 30, and get started on the various cultural and language programs.
In the end, Mr. Sheiko wants to show the world Ukraine’s “shared cultural process, our shared history, our shared heritage. That we are one of you.”