Ukrainian Institute of America

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 69 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Max Vityk’s “Outcrops” series of tactile, colorful, geologic abstract paintings installed in the third floor library and dining room.  Sometimes abstract art clashes with classical decor, but these go better than they have any right to.  Compliments to the curator for a beautiful installation.

Ukrainian Institute, New York

Three First Impressions

The first thing you notice walking into the Ukrainian Institute on a balmy day in June is the warmth.  No air conditioning. Which is okay — fancy Fifth Avenue mansions (and the Ukrainian Institute occupies one of the fanciest) have thick walls and high ceilings to keep them reasonably comfortable on all but the hottest days.

The second thing you notice is the quiet.  They keep the front door of the house locked, you have to buzz for admission. Someone eventually emerges  from the non-public (and I bet air conditioned) offices to let you in and find out what you’re about.  She’s happy to admit you, though a little…surprised maybe?… I’m not sure the Institute gets many visitors.  (There were three others while I looked around, at least one of whom spoke Ukrainian.) She tells you that the admission fees quoted on the desk are suggested, and whatever you want to pay is fine.

And the third thing you notice is the amazingness of the interior, and how much of it you, now admitted as a guest, have available to roam around in.  I expected a single gallery space with a small, obscure show, like the Czech Center or Japan Society.  Instead, I got four floors of beautifully cared-for Gilded Age rooms, with Ukrainian or Ukrainian-related art very thoughtfully integrated into the fabric of the place.

Ukrainian Institute, New York

The House (Condensed Version)

The Institute makes its home in the 1899 Fletcher-Sinclair House, designed by C. P. H. Gilbert for wealthy (duh) manufacturer Isaac D. Fletcher.  It occupies a corner lot on Fifth Avenue, diagonally across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’d call the exterior “extreme French Gothic”: extravagant stonework with flowers and garlands and dragons and such, while the interior feels more mellow, tasteful, and comfortable according to early twentieth century standards.

“…Comfortable, by early twentieth century standards.”
View of the Met
View of the Met

Fletcher died in 1917 and left his fabulous art collection and the house to his neighbor across the way.  And unlike Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s collection, the Met Board accepted.  But then a few years later, not really needing an opulent mansion (I suspect the Met today would find something to do with it), the Met sold the house. (It kept the art).  An oil man named Harry Sinclair lived there with his family for a decade. Then the very last direct descendants of Peter Stuyvesant moved in starting in the 1930s.  After they died off, the house went on the market in the 1950s, just as William Dzus’s fledgling Ukrainian Institute needed a home.  Which it got for the unbelievable auction price of $225,000 (the 1955 Times headline reads “Ukrainians Take Fifth Avenue Mansion.”)  I’m sure the place needed work, but what a bargain!

A Top-to-Bottom View

Ukrainian Institute, New York

Here’s what I saw, from top to bottom:

  • Fourth Floor:  Ukrainian Socialist Realism from the Jurii Maniichuk and Rose Brady Collection — impressive pieces from a more Soviet time, including a fantastic, huge, triumphalist painting of Khrushchev greeting Yuri Gagarin, unfortunately jammed into a hallway.
Mykhailo Khmelko, “Motherland Greets a Hero,” 1961
  • Also Fourth Floor:  The Sumyk Collection of sculptures by Ukrainian-American Alexander Archipenko, which gets a room of its own.
Ukrainian Institute, New York
The Sumyk Collection of Archipenko Sculptures
  • Third Floor:  Max Vityk’s “Outcrops.” As mentioned previously, I just loved the art and the installation.  Each piece’s title comes from one of the geologic ages of the Earth. The description talks about appreciating them just as highly textural abstractions, but also as a spiritual or environmental account, “an antidote to the tyranny of time, or chronarchy…” Down with the chronarchy! 
Library, Ukrainian Institute, NYC
Contemplating the Chronarchy, More of Max Vityk’s “Outcrops” series
  • Second Floor:  Portrait photographs of WWII Veterans by Sasha Maslov.  Rather wonderful pictures of these ordinary men (and a few women) in their unassuming homes, accompanied by quotes from interviews with them that reveal each as extraordinary.  Maslov traveled the world to take these pictures, of both Axis and Allied veterans.  He defined the word broadly, including some people who didn’t fight, but who nonetheless were involved in the war (and really, who wasn’t?)

  • First Floor:  A brief introduction to Ukraine, the place, its people, history and culture.  It includes a nice touchscreen display for those who want a deeper dive, and an overview of  notable Ukrainian Americans.

This is my second Ukrainian place for this project (see: Ukrainian Museum).  I get why they both exist.  Different wealthy patrons wanted to celebrate their heritage and raise the profile of their culture.  But if anyone asked me, I would recommend the Institute over the Museum by a wide margin.

A House Museum AND a Ukrainian Museum

I suggest thinking of the Ukrainian Institute as a house museum as much as a museum of Ukrainian art and culture.  As an opulent Fifth Avenue mansion-turned-museum, it stands in good company with the Jewish Museum (also by Gilbert), the Cooper-Hewitt, the Neue Gallerie, and the Frick Collection. But with relatively fewer modifications, it feels much more homey. 

It lacks the original furniture, but retains amazing amounts of period detail. The rooms aren’t labeled, but they don’t need labels.  The ballroom (of course it has one) still looks like a ballroom, the library unmistakably remains a library.  Even better, there are no barriers or blockades, and very few “please do not touch” signs.  The woodwork smells pleasantly of oil or polish, and has a luster of well-preserved age.  The wood floors aren’t pristine, but are much more beautiful and interesting for that.

The rooms have been re-tasked with sharing Ukrainian art and culture (broadly defined), but without losing their former selves.  I deeply appreciate that.

Ukrainian Institute, New York
Sasha Maslov did it in the Ballroom with Portraits of World War II Veterans

I also appreciate that the Institute takes care to relate the story of the house.  It provides a quick summary in the ground floor “Intro to Ukraine” section. It also offers a much more thorough version of the tale (complete with newspaper quotes and other primary sources) in a series of panels in a fourth floor room. 

Last Thoughts

The Ukrainian Institute may be one of the best-kept secrets of New York that is still actually being kept.  Except by me, I guess.  Sorry?  Anyone who enjoys a taste of Gilded Age splendor (and who doesn’t?) must visit.  Even the warm summer temperatures just add to the authenticity. Though I realize that the wealthy Fifth Avenue Gilded Agers did have air conditioning. They just called it “spending August at my Newport cottage.”

Pysanky, or Ukrainian eggs

Based on my visit, the art on view will be worth seeing, too.  And as a bonus you get to learn something about Ukraine and its people.

I’m  surprised and delighted with this place, and I feel confident that  art and architecture lovers will feel the same.

Ukrainian Institute, New York
Ukrainian Institute Facade.

For Reference:

Address 2 East 79th Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $8 (suggested)
Other Relevant Links
  • A neat history of the house with a behind-the-scenes tour on the Big Old Houses blog


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