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Money in art: how Ukrainian artists build life in Austria

To talk about Ukrainian artists and cultural workers’ representation and visibility in Austria wouldn’t be possible without talking about their working conditions and the art market. It’s not a surprise that most artists have a precarious position, and a few can sustain just from their art practice even if they were born in the EU and have a European passport. Speaking about refugees and temporary displaced people, it’s important to consider the difficulties they are facing in terms of language barrier, bureaucracy, and lack of network and connections. In our spring issue, we want to highlight the working art landscape for Ukrainian artists in Austria, to share the experience of different artists and some hard facts.

Office Ukraine Wien

Money in art: how Ukrainian artists build life in Austria

According to the statistics, there are around 80,000 Ukrainians in Austria. In spring, there were 1,647 temporary displaced persons registered by AMS (Public Employment Service Austria) in Vienna. Among them, there were 42 persons registered as artists.  At the end of January 2024 in Vienna 6,572 Ukrainians were  in employment. AMS noted that they can only evaluate the employees by nation but not by whether they are displaced persons. They could, therefore, also be Ukrainians with other residence permits. Also, 645 temporary displaced persons are taking courses through AMS.

Support is currently being provided, particularly on learning German and recognition issues. With a focus on orientation, AMS also offers a special service for Ukrainian women: “FAVoritIN_U – Women-specific labor market preparation and orientation with a focus on women from Ukraine 2024”.

Moreover, recently, the Austrian government adopted a new law that will be beneficial for those Ukrainians who work more than twelve months and earn more than 1,200 EUR per month. They can get a rot-weiss-rot plus card. It will give Ukrainian refugees a more stable residence permit and other working perspectives.

Everyday struggles
In Vienna, we talked to several Ukrainian artists and asked how they are dealing with their current financial situation. Everyone has a different story but a lot of everyday struggles. As far as OU knows, most artists live from social support and savings, others have mini jobs; some combine art practice with side jobs unrelated to art. However, the stories are very different; some people could never imagine living from  art in Ukraine, but they managed to do it in Austria.

Kateryna Kurlova from Kharkiv, for example, used to design interfaces for mobile games and apps. After moving to Austria, she devoted herself entirely to painting, leaving digital art behind. “Already in my second week in Austria, I presented my painting at an exhibition in Gmunden and sold it for 800 EUR. This success allowed me, starting practically from scratch, to acquire new materials and continue to pursue my creative endeavours actively. In Ukraine, I would not have had such an opportunity, not having a well-known name, to sell my work successfully and profitably. Austria has proved to be very responsive to artists”, she said.

Arina Pryputneva from Kyiv had worked for many years as an applied artist and art therapist in Ukraine but could hardly find any opportunity in Austria. “I have not earned a single penny from my work in Austria. My opportunities in Austria are very limited. I can’t even teach or hold art workshops.” Arina connects it with the system of the art market and German language proficiency that many Ukrainians don’t have so far.

No guarantee for financial security
Danylo Kovach from Zaporizhzhia, who participated in numerous exhibitions in Europe and beyond, admits that the profession of an artist doesn’t guarantee permanent financial security, whether in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world.  “If an artist does not have a signed contract with a leading gallery, institution, or business partner who takes care of all organizational issues, it isn’t easy to survive on art. It was somehow easier in Ukraine because there was already a circle of stakeholders who helped artists find their audience”, adds Danylo.

Danylo arrived in Austria in 2022 with his pregnant wife, and at the moment, they are raising a son. He says that he applied for jobs at the AMS as soon as he arrived in Vienna. But the irony is that no “professional artist” existed in the application form or anywhere else.

“My wife and I are both young, potential, ambitious artists with a son born in Vienna who is twenty months old and does not yet attend kindergarten. Therefore, integration is a rather difficult process for us. Of course, language skills are critical. I had the experience of learning German online, but it did not lead to successful learning. I was preparing for a personal exhibition during this period and spent the rest of the time with my child. We have two Austrian friends but we see them too rarely to be able to practise German regularly. Unfortunately, there is a tendency that in Austria you need to study at an art university or be a successful artist to be noticed”, Danylo notes.

Difficult to find suitable jobs
Kateryna Kurlova, from the beginning of her stay in Austria, was looking for a job through AMS and on her own. However, despite her efforts, it was not possible to find a suitable job directly related to creativity due to the lack of a wide range of job opportunities for artists and her lack of knowledge of German.

Instead, she started to organize exhibitions and sales on her own. “When I arrived in Austria, I was welcomed by a family from Traunkirchen who became my support in the new country. Thanks to their help, I could exhibit my work in my first exhibition. Using the last of my money to buy canvas and paints, I created a few paintings in a few nights. My optimism and hard work were rewarded when I sold my first work and attracted media attention. This success was a pleasant surprise for me, considering that there was little demand for my work in Ukraine. At the beginning of my migration, in the first year, a stable income in the art field seemed almost unattainable without a stable job in any company. However, with each passing year, it has become easier and easier for me to find different opportunities for advancement. This is due to gradually building new connections and expanding my social circle. Establishing yourself and building your reputation takes time and labour, but it pays off over time,” concludes Kateryna.

Danylo, who exhibits regularly, says that he got the impression that Austrians are simply afraid to buy art from Ukrainians because they don’t know if it’s legal at all. “To be an artist is a profession. Many people do not take artistic and intellectual work seriously, confusing the concepts of hobby and professional activity”,  he adds.

The majority of artists we talked to agreed that Austria provides numerous opportunities for artists at the moment: different types of funding, residencies, and studio spaces, but the learning process to benefit from it takes time. Danylo mentioned that he spent the last six months writing applications and applying to various open calls.

Informations on funding possibilities
Office Ukraine regularly informs the Ukrainian art community about funding possibilities in Austria.Office including the special funding of the Federal Ministry of arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport. More than 200 artists have received scholarships from the BMKOES so far.

We also asked artists what kind of support they need and what Vienna lacks. Arina Pryputneva states that studio space is tough to get these days. Kateryna Kurlova adds that the digital sphere and everything that could be connected to the game industry is not really developed in Austria. She also thinks that there’s not enough support for international artists, especially artists from third countries in Austria. She mentions a lack of information, consultancy, and administrative support in general, but appreciates the support of Office Ukraine.

Danylo Kovach says that his desires might be utopian. Still, he stands for flexible tax conditions for self-employed artists, reduced prices for studio rent, clearly established fees for solo and group shows, and basic income secured by the state, online, and offline platforms that could present artists with refugee, migrant, and temporary displaced backgrounds.

All these thoughts reflect the current state of the artists and they hope it will be heard by those who can shape cultural policy in the country.

Office Ukraine Graz

“It’s unclear what will happen next year”

Text: Felix Neumann

As it stands the EU Temporary Protection Directive will expire in March 2025. Visual artist Valeriia Lysenko and digital media artist Svitlana Zhytnia talk about why the next year worries them and how their lives and work in Graz have changed.

First of all, a brief overview: The EU Temporary Protection Directive has been offering immediate and temporary protection to displaced persons from Ukraine since March 2022. It makes it possible to stay in a member state, live there and work outside of an asylum procedure. The directive for the more than four million displaced Ukrainians in the EU has been extended several times, most recently in autumn 2023 when the EU Council decided to extend it until 2025.1 This means that the maximum duration of three years, as stipulated in the directive, has been reached. From today’s perspective, the temporary protection status will expire on 4 March 2025.2 It is not yet clear what will change for Ukrainians* in Austria. ?

One possibility was discussed in the Austrian Council of Ministers in April 2024: The Austrian government announced that it would also issue the Red-White-Red Card plus to Ukrainians*. They shall therefore still have free access to the labour market. To apply for the card, however, it is necessary to have already worked for twelve months within two years. Moreover, applicants* must have received an average net income of at least 1,200 EUR3. This is only the case for a small proportion of Ukrainians* living in Austria, criticised Caritas, for example. The Red-White-Red Card plus is a good step, but must be part of a comprehensive solution.4 The government expects the card to bring improvements for around 7,000 of the almost 50,000 displaced Ukrainians* of working age in Austria.5

For two years now, Ukrainians in Austria have been eligible to apply for an ID card for displaced persons, also known as the ‘Blue Card’.6 This includes health insurance, a work permit and basic care (accommodation and pocket money). Work is only possible for recipients of basic care up to a certain additional income limit.7 If you earn too much, you risk losing your basic care or accommodation. In the past, Johannes Rauch), Austrian Federal Minister for Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection, already suggested switching from basic care to Social Help.8

Visual artist Valeriia Lysenko has lived in Graz since November 2022 and has already realised numerous projects. One of her artworks has already been featured on the front page of the regional daily newspaper Kleine Zeitung. After a three-month stay in Vienna, Svitlana Zhytnia, digital media artist, also moved to Graz in summer 2022. Much like Valeriia, she also has a strong network in the arts and cultural scene.

Below, the artists Valeriia and Svitlana talk about the doubly precarious working situation as women artists with displaced person status in Austria and the associated fears for the future.

What do you currently do for a living as artists, how do you earn your money?

Svitlana: It is better than expected. When I left Ukraine, I just wanted to escape the bombs. In Austria, I not only found refuge, but was also able to grow as an artist. I usually apply for various subsidies from the federal, state and city governments. This helps to realise projects and make the required materials affordable. I am constantly looking for cooperation partners* and networks. Sometimes the remuneration is higher, sometimes lower. Spring, summer and autumn, for example, are peak seasons for my sector.

Valeriia: I completely agree that we artists* do not have a stable income. Work-intensive phases with many projects at the same time alternate with phases with only a few projects. My main sources of income are residencies, for example I’m currently on a three-month scholarship—that wouldn’t have been possible in Ukraine. This makes artistic work and print experiments more affordable. I apply for many calls for proposals, scholarships, grants and exhibitions. I also take part in workshops and sell my artworks.

What topic are you currently preoccupied with?

Valeriia: The future, or rather the next year, is very much on my mind. It is still unclear what will happen after the end of the Temporary Protection Directive, which is currently only valid until March 2025. That scares me.

What would you like to see changed?

Svitlana: I hope and wish that we Ukrainians* will continue to receive support in Austria even after the end of the Temporary Protection Directive. Above all because I don’t believe that the war in Ukraine will end next year. As things stand, security for living in Ukraine would not be guaranteed. Valeriia, for example, cannot return to Mariupol because the city has been occupied and destroyed.

Valeriia: I no longer have a home there. My roots were cut off by the destruction and the war. In Austria, however, I have a job and a small flat.

Svitlana: I am also convinced that Ukrainians can make an important contribution to social development in Austria. Many talented artists* from Ukraine add value to the Austrian arts and cultural scene, which is also appreciated.

So you want to stay in Austria, even if the war hopefully ends soon?

Valeriia: Yes, because most of my family and friends are no longer based in Ukraine and are now living in countries. I still don’t really feel at home here, but Graz feels more and more like home.

Svitlana: I would like to live in Ukraine as well as in Austria because of my family. Regular physical contact with my mum, my brother and my nieces would be important to me. In Austria, however, there are more opportunities for me to develop as an artist than in a post-war country, for example, where art is not a top priority.

Life as a woman artist can be very challenging. What motivates you in this endeavour?

Svitlana: Having worked in different professions and fields in the past, I realised that this is exactly what I am passionate about—working at music events, regardless of genre. Doing this, I have found the meaning of life for myself.

Valeriia: If you work in the arts and cultural sector, there are no limits. This makes it possible to grow personally and professionally. It’s not always easy, but the activities and challenges involved are incredibly exciting.

  1. Ukrainian refugees: EU member states agree to extend temporary protection – Consilium (europa.eu)
  2. See articles 4 & 6 and Ukraine: Europäischer Rat verlängert Vorübergehenden Schutz bis 04.03.2025 – Berlin hilft! (Ukraine: European Council extends Temporary Protection until 4 March 2025 – Berlin helps!) (berlin-hilft.com) and Flüchtlingskoordinator Achrainer: Ukraine-Vertriebene im Wartedilemma (Refugee coordinator Achrainer: Displaced persons from Ukraine in a waiting dilemma) (profil.at)
  3. https://www.diepresse.com/18354025/rot-weiss-rot-karte-plus-steht-kuenftig-ukraine-fluechtlingen-offen (10.04.2024 APA0221); Regierung öffnet Arbeitsmarkt für bereits beschäftigte Vertriebene aus Ukraine zur Gänze (Government fully opens labour market for already employed displaced persons from Ukraine) – Inland – derStandard.at › Inland
  4. Caritas: Switch to regular residence permit for Ukrainian displaced persons remains unclear for the majority of displaced persons: Caritas Austria
  5. Cf. footnote 3
  6. Blue Card: ID card for displaced persons » all information | AMS; Production start of the card for displaced persons from Ukraine (bmi.gv.at)
  7. Ukraine: Caritas hilft Flüchtlingen in der Steiermark (Caritas Helps Refugees in Styria): Caritas Steiermark (caritas-steiermark.at)
  8. Grundversorgung wird zum Integrationsproblem für Ukraine-Geflüchtete (Basic services become an integration problem for Ukrainian refugees) – Arbeitsmarkt – derStandard.at › Wirtschaft

Office Ukraine Innsbruck

House of Europe

The European Union has been supporting the Ukrainian cultural sector for many years. A large number of institutions, initiatives, platforms, companies and individuals work every day to provide opportunities for creative people in the field of culture and education, as well as to build bridges between Ukraine and Europe. One of these projects is House of Europe. In December 2023, we had the opportunity to talk to them about their activities.

Franziska Simon – Head of Programme

Ilona Demchenko – Manager International Cooperation and Infrastructure Grants

E-mail: ask@houseofeurope.org.ua

Address: Vul. Lavrska 16 L, 01015 Kyiv, Ukraine

What is House of Europe?

Franziska Simon: House of Europe  is an EU-funded project that started in 2019 and since then has been implemented by Goethe-Institut Ukraine. It aims to connect Ukrainians working in the fields of culture, education, creative industries, media youth and social entrepreneurship with their colleagues in the EU, foster professional and creative exchange and build up capacities for people working in these fields. To my knowledge, in 2019 it was the biggest project dedicated to support culture, creative industries and education that the EU ever initiated outside of the EU.

What was the concept at the beginning and how has it been modified over time?

Ilona Demchenko: There was a programme called Culture Bridges that was launched in 2015/16 by the British Council and that offered grant funding and capacity building for the cultural and creative sector in Ukraine when the conversations about Ukraine strengthening ties with Europe became more concrete. It was the first major support programme for Ukrainian cultural projects. When we started developing House of Europe, we drew on the experience gained from the Cultural Bridges programme.

Ilona emphasizes that House of Europe has learned a lot about the needs of its target group over time. Accordingly, the project has constantly evolved in response to feedback from the grantees and participants.

Ilona: The project can and does adapt, and I think this flexibility is a great strength.

Franziska: Over the years, we were able to build up a structure that allows for flexibility. When Covid came the project used its structures to deal with the situation and this also helped us after the 24th of February 2022. For example, we were able to repurpose 1.5 Mill EUR funding for emergency support for our partners and target groups.

How did House of Europe change after Russia’s escalation of the war?

Ilona: The thing is that this project is funded by the EU. EU-funding programs are not known for being very flexible and I was very impressed that we were able to continue. It was a gesture that revealed a lot about the underlying values. We were allowed some flexibility and so were our partners. For example, our grantees, who received the money before the full- scale invasion were asked if they wanted to keep the money to continue working on the project or if they would rather give it back. And some people really wanted to implement the projects, despite the war.

We had grantees based in Mariupol who not only managed to escape themselves, but helped many others to get out of the city, which is very impressive.

And in the first year of the full-scale invasion, we were also able to support a number of interesting projects. We supported the DocuDays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in archiving videos of war crimes. Another example is a program to support mothers who gave birth in bomb shelters. And of course we helped to evacuate museum collections from the most affected regions. People have done so many brave things to save art and we are happy to know that we have contributed to that.

Franziska: It was so impressive to see the grantees who at the beginning of the full-scale war said that they wanted to continue with their projects. It was a symbol of resistance.

And also to see how quickly people adapted to the situation and how fast they switched, for example, from working in the cultural field to working as volunteers and doing emergency support. How quickly they organized themselves was impressive.

What is the situation of Ukrainian artists in Ukraine right now from the House of Europe perspective?

Ilona: There was a lot of mobility both outside and inside the country. Of course, the situation is different for male artists. Some of them have joined the military, some of them have not but have still stayed in Ukraine. Some of them were outside of the country when the full-scale war started, and–depending on how they see their role in the current situation–decided not to return.

Working in art and culture can be very precarious. Most artists don’t have stable contracts and of course they feel the instability financially very much. On the other hand, there are now more opportunities for them, because there is more interest in Ukrainian art also in the EU. There have been quite a few exhibitions that reflect on the war.
Cooperation has become more active, I would say. So these already turbulent times are particularly turbulent for artists right now.

And of course, the war influences the issues that are addressed in art. On the one hand, for many artists, what happens now gives them more material to work with and on the other hand I see that a lot of them are very depressed, but some of them are still working, even in such conditions.

Franziska: There indeed was or still is more interest in Ukrainian art and culture than before. It gave the Ukrainian art scene a boost. At the same time, it can be difficult for Ukrainian artists in Ukraine in terms of funding, that’s why the programs by House of Europe are very much needed to support artists and creatives, they are essential for Ukrainians. And I think it is now even more important to showcase Ukrainian art abroad than last year, because unfortunately the attention of countries in the EU and others is slightly decreasing. This is something very crucial, for Ukraine, for Ukrainian artists and cultural professionals, to continue to show Ukrainian art and culture and the Ukrainian perspective.

I would like to ask you about your communication with artists. What do they need? How do institutions in the EU respond to their needs? And what are the most frequent questions about the European artistic scene?

Ilona: I would say that the needs have not changed in nature. People always need funding, people always want new knowledge and people are always trying to establish new connections. These things were needed before and after the full-scale invasion. I think they are even more needed now. We are not talking about interests, we are talking about needs. The situation for many people has changed, it is not stable. The demand is high and this is also linked to the economic situation within Ukraine.

Among the frequently asked questions is the need for more information on how to get access to funding in other countries, for example. The network is really growing and this is one of the positive outcomes of the situation, still very sad, but it is something that will be useful for people in the future.

What feedback do you get from the artists after the end of the programs? What are their plans? Do they want to stay in Europe or come back to Ukraine?

Franziska: The participants send us reports about their activities and their plans for the future. Not all of our programs are in the EU, most of them are in Ukraine or for those who are in Ukraine. What we know is that many participants who applied for programs in the EU say that they had a chance to either make new contacts in the EU or revive old ones.

Ilona: I think it is important to say that we don’t have programs for longer stays abroad. As far as we know, most of the participants have returned to Ukraine. Of course, we know that artists who are abroad now very often cooperate with projects implemented in Ukraine.

For example, we see that many European organizations working in the field of culture hire Ukrainians who stay longer in their country, so this diffusion works. I often ask people on a personal level if they want to stay or if they want to come back and what I have learned so far is that they can’t answer this question at this point. They don’t know. Just like we don’t know if we will stay or not. This type of emigration is not chosen. I think that in the future, when the war is over, we will be able to offer something. Many more people will come back, even those who now think they won’t. This uncertainty is the hardest thing.

What are the plans of House of Europe for the future?

Franziska: We are continuing to implement our programme lines. Grants to individuals, translation grants, for mobilities, support for cultural infrastructure, international cooperation projects, workshops for cultural professionals and people from the education sector, conferences, activities for our alumni community. We will also launch a programme to support creative businesses and resume the implementation of smaller festivals in the regions.
House of Europe has become a very well-known project in Ukraine. It has several social media channels and you can follow us on Facebook, Telegram and Instragram. We also have a youtube channel in which we show relevant videos of our work and grantees. And a newsletter with information about our programmes and other relevant offers by other oranisations is sent out once a week and has over 15.000 subscribers. We have over 55.000 followers in the social media channels and we use our reach not only for promoting our own programmes.

One of the focal points for House of Europe this year are initiatives aimed at supporting cultural heritage in Ukraine.

Ilona: In this situation, cultural heritage is particularly fragile, damaged or completely taken. This really demands attention and since it’s also one of the main foci of the European Union, the needs and interests on both sides meet. We will have some grants to support people who work with museum collections. We want to connect people working on topics related to cultural heritage with experts in the EU for exchange and knowledge transfer.

We already have partners from Europeana who worked with us last year. It’s an initiative that focuses on digitalizing cultural heritage across the EU.

In 2022, we hosted an online Hackathon for projects working on different cultural topics and more than 1000 people wanted to participate. We have activists who are ready to do more and we hope to repeat the hackathon with new topics, new people, new experts and new ideas.

Franziska: And of course we hope that we can continue and further develop the project after 2024.

Thank you for the interview!

Interviewer: Anastasiia Diachenko / Office Ukraine