Grace Warnecke of New York and Vineyard Haven is as familiar with the people and culture of Ukraine as anyone on the island. She spent four years in the currently beleaguered country while leading the organization she founded in 1999 called Women’s Economic Empowerment. While in Kyiv, Warnecke met many locals, including a number of artists and gallery owners, and she brought 32 paintings back to the United States with her. A substantial portion of that collection will be on display this month at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, with proceeds from the sale of the work going to Ukrainian relief efforts.
Warnecke, who is celebrating a milestone birthday this month, said: ‘I felt like giving someone else a present. I didn’t want my birthday to be just appetizers and dinner. I wanted to do something with more meaning. I was only thinking of my friends in Ukraine. I wanted to do something to help.
The selection will range from works by some of Ukraine’s greatest artists to emerging and lesser-known painters. Warnecke, who has been an art collector for many years, amassed the collection during frequent visits to galleries and artists’ studios in Kyiv.
“At first, I had no friends. I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “I started going to art galleries.” Soon, Warnecke became close to many artists and gallery owners. She was very impressed with the work of local artists, which was often offered for a fraction of its real value because the subjects did not fit the dictates imposed by the communist government during the Soviet era. Artists were only allowed to sell propaganda paintings.
This did not stop Ukrainian artists from creating works of all kinds, and once the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a wealth of art available at bargain prices. Warnecke remarks that she didn’t have much money at the time, but was able to bring home a total of 32 paintings when she returned to the United States in 2003.
In 2004, Warnecke showed the paintings to the Ukrainian Institute in New York. A number of pieces sold, and the rest mounted on the walls of the collector’s apartment in New York and the Vineyard house. Now, Warnecke has decided to part ways with them in order to help a cause close to his heart.
“When the war started, I wanted to do something for Ukraine,” explains Warnecke. “I have a lot of friends there. What they are going through is incredibly horrific. When, and if, and however this war ends, they will have to rebuild their country.
Warnecke spent his life immersed in politics. Her father, George Kennan, considered one of the most influential diplomats of the 20th century, served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union under President Truman and Ambassador to Yugoslavia under the Kennedy administration. He was instrumental in shaping America’s Cold War policies of Soviet containment.
His daughter Grace attended a Soviet school during World War II and went on to a multi-faceted career, which included founding various humanitarian and cultural organizations. She has worked in a variety of ways as an NGO leader, foundation director, small business development expert, writer, editor and photographer. Warnecke has twice traveled abroad to serve as an international election observer, to Ukraine and Azerbaijan. She was associate producer of a PBS documentary, “The First Fifty Years: Reflections on US-Soviet Relations.”
In her role as an NGO consultant, Warnecke recalls a private one-on-one meeting with President Putin. “He had the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen,” she said. In 2018, the University of Pittsburgh Press published her memoir, “Cold War Daughter.”
Proceeds from the sale will go to three organizations that have been well vetted by Warnecke – Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee and an organization based in Ukraine.
Warnecke will be on hand for the opening reception. She hopes the collection she has lovingly amassed and cherished over many years will help make a small difference. “I am happy to donate an important part of my collection to help the suffering and courageous people of Ukraine,” she says.
“Art for Ukraine – Paintings by Ukrainian Artists from the Collection of Grace Kennan Warnecke”, a benefit for Ukrainian relief efforts. From June 2 to 18. Outdoor reception Saturday, June 4, 5-6:30 p.m. The Playhouse Art Space Gallery is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 1-4 p.m., or by chance or appointment, 24 Church St., Vineyard haven.