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Museum Director Showcases Ukrainian Arts and Crafts in Modern New Facility


New York City is renowned for its great museums -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art. Less well-known, but just as much a part of the city's vibrant cultural life, are the myriad small, highly specialized museums displaying fine art and cultural artifacts. One of these is the Ukrainian Museum, which has just moved into brand-new quarters in a colorful multi-ethnic area of lower Manhattan called the East Village. The director of this museum, Maria Shust, is our guest today on New American Voices.

T he Ukrainian Museum's new four-story glass- and-brick building nestles among well-kept brownstones in a neighborhood where more recent immigrants from Bangladesh, Japan, and Latin America mix comfortably with the descendents of earlier Jewish and other East European settlers. But the area still carries a strong imprint of the Ukrainian immigrants who settled here in large numbers beginning in the late 19th century. Around the corner from the museum is the large, domed, Byzantine-style St. George's Ukrainian Catholic Church. Just down a short street is Surma, a bookstore established in 1918 and now selling everything from honey to embroidered blouses to decorated Easter eggs. Within the space of a few blocks are several Ukrainian cafes and restaurants, a Ukrainian meat market, a Self-Reliance credit union, and the offices of sundry Ukrainian-American youth, women's, veterans' and cultural organizations.

Maria Shust has been the director of the Ukrainian Museum since its founding in 1976 by the Ukrainian National Women's League of America. Until the new museum facility opened this April, only a small portion of the museum's vast collection could be displayed in the tiny fifth-floor space it previously occupied.

The new museum was built at a cost of more than ten million dollars, after years of consciousness-raising and fund-raising in the Ukrainian community. It has two levels of exhibition space which, Ms. Shust says, will finally allow the museum's holdings to be showcased to their best advantage. "We have three areas that we collect in: fine arts, folk arts and archives. These are the areas from which we'll be choosing the exhibits, and also from other collections," she says, adding, "hopefully we'll be able to bring in items from Ukraine. Our goal is really to show Ukrainian art and culture, and history, to some extent -- to show the input of Ukrainians into the history of America."

The exhibition chosen for the opening of the new museum was a retrospective of the works of Kiev-born sculptor Alexander Archipenko, an influential figure in the avant-garde art of the early 20th century. One of the next exhibits will be from the museum's extensive archive of photographs and documents, reflecting the cultural contributions of Ukrainians in the United States.

Exhibits of folk costumes and folk art from the various regions of Ukraine - including ceramics, metalwork, carved wood objects and decorated Easter eggs - are being planned. Ms. Shust says the new museum finally allows her to do justice to the works of both Ukrainian artists and craftsmen. "I think the folk arts are one of the most beautiful expressions that Ukrainians have, almost all aspects of it, whether it's the costumes or the Easter eggs that we're known for. But also the fine arts," she points out. "I think the fine arts are the individual expression of a people, and the folk arts are the collective expression of a people. Both are beautiful. And as a museum we try to bring out the best, and show it in the best way."

Ms. Shust did not start out with the career goal of becoming a museum director. After studying German and art as an undergraduate in college, she went on to receive two Masters' degrees - one in art education, the other in fine arts and sculpture. Just as she was finishing her second Masters, the Ukrainian National Women's League of America advertised for an assistant to the curator of the opening exhibition at their newly-founded museum. Maria Shust got the job, and when the exhibit closed and the curator went on to other projects, Ms. Shust stayed on to oversee the Women's League's collections. In this way, almost by default, she became the museum's director.

"It really became sort of on-the-job training," Maria Shust recalls. "I took a number of courses. At the time when the museum was opening the New York State Council on the Arts offered a number of courses on museum administration, and the running of museums, and on various subjects that had to do with museology. So I attended most of these courses, and became familiar with how other museums were run, and how collections should be stored and cared for."

Having worked in the Ukrainian Museum and with the Ukrainian National Women's League for close to 30 years now, Maria Shust says that Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian community have pretty much taken over her life. But she was only a little girl when her family immigrated to the United States in 1956, so her identity, she says, has been forged by both this country and the land of her ancestors.

"I live in America, and in a sense I feel American. An American of Ukrainian descent, who is able to give something to America by showing what my heritage is able to bring to and enrich the lives of people who live in America and come to America," Ms. Shust says.

In addition to its exhibits, the Ukrainian Museum has an extensive outreach program, offering courses in embroidery, bead-stringing and other traditional Ukrainian crafts. Maria Shust says she is pleased that while the museum's programs are popular with Ukrainian-Americans, they draw many non-Ukrainian visitors as well, and are now an established feature of New York's cultural scene.

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