Arūnas Gėlūnas: Illuminating Cultural Ties and Shared Histories

Arūnas Gėlūnas at an opening

In the panorama of cultural conservationists, the General Director of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art, Arūnas Gėlūnas, emerges as a luminary. His dedication is not bound by the confines of museums or galleries; it stretches beyond, knitting together the tapestries of shared histories and collective memories. Gėlūnas’ endeavours are not merely acts of preservation but profound gestures of reverence towards a past that moulded nations and shaped identities.

Arūnas Gėlūnas‘ name has become synonymous with a pioneering spirit, especially evident in the historic collaboration he orchestrated between Lithuania and Poland. These two countries, nestled in the heart of Europe, share more than just borders. Their intertwined destinies have seen alliances and conflicts, joys and sorrows, and, most profoundly, a shared Jewish heritage that faced the horrors of the Holocaust. While the aftermath of World War II left deep scars on the European continent, the annihilation of the Jewish community during the Holocaust was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. This shared sorrow became a focal point for Gėlūnas, who recognised the urgency to illuminate this aspect of their intertwined histories in several of his capacities during many years.

Taking the helm of this ambitious project, Gėlūnas in his position as Lithuania’s Special Envoy at the UNESCO, sought to create a platform that would shed light on the post-Holocaust Jewish heritage of both Lithuania and Poland. But his vision was not rooted in melancholy; it aimed at celebrating resilience, highlighting tales of survival, and showcasing the undying spirit of communities that rebuilt themselves from the ashes. This collaboration was more than a mere historical exploration; it was a tribute to the human spirit and a testament to the enduring bonds between the two nations.

One cannot delve into this initiative without being captivated by figures like artist Rafael Chwoles. His story, in many ways, encapsulates the essence of the Jewish experience during and after the Holocaust. Born in Lithuania, Chwoles’s life was a series of upheavals, marked by the harrowing experiences of the Shoah in Siberia. But adversity could not dim his spirit. He emerged, not as a broken soul, but as an artist of extraordinary calibre. Moving to Poland and later to France, Chwoles’s art became a poignant narrative of survival, resilience, warmth and rebirth. His works, which beautifully melded the influences of his diverse experiences, became emblematic of the shared Jewish heritage of Lithuania and Poland.

Gėlūnas, with his keen acumen, recognised the importance of figures like Chwoles in this narrative. He ensured that such personal histories were not sidelined but given a prominent platform. The inclusion of notable figures added layers of authenticity to the initiative. Attendees of the first-ever Lithuanian-Polish joint Conference and exhibition on the impact of the Holocaust, organised at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris back in the mid-2010s,  were not just presented with historical facts; they were introduced to lived experiences, personal journeys, and real stories of individuals who faced the darkest of times yet emerged with their spirit intact.

Justina Augustytė, director of the Radvila Palace Museum of Art, Arūnas Gelūnas, director general of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art, and Skaistis Mikulionis, curator, special envoy for cooperation with Ukraine, examining the 16th-century Western European prints from the collection of Khanenko museum (Kyiv) that have just arrived from Ukraine. Photo: Gintarė Grigėnaitė. Credit © LNMA, with kind permission.

Through this collaboration, Arūnas Gėlūnas did more than document a shared history; he breathed life into it. The initiative became a beacon, drawing in scholars, historians, artists, and the general populace. It served as a poignant reminder of the bonds that Lithuania and Poland share, bonds forged in adversity but shining brightly with tales of hope, survival, and cultural resurgence.

“ These years in Paris, at the UNESCO headquarters, were quite formative for me from the point of view of real understanding of many cultures and people whom I knew theoretically about before that” – reflects Arunas Gelūnas today. – “Without actual meetings, conversations, and first-hand engagements, I would never really understand the original cultures of the Caribbean, Africa, Afghanistan, and some other places which I had no chance to know and to be there in person. But by working closely with my colleagues from all those countries at UNESCO, I have learned so much. And naturally, learning leads to real understanding and authentic feelings. It was a great and highly important experience for me, additionally to have the honour to represent Lithuania at the international cultural stage’, – said Arunas in our recent conversation.

In Arūnas Gėlūnas, we see more than a historian or an organiser; we see a visionary. A man who understands the power of shared narratives, the importance of remembering, and, most importantly, the significance of ensuring that future generations never forget. Through his efforts, the intertwined Jewish heritage of Lithuania and Poland has found a voice, a platform, and a guardian.

The conference, illuminating the shared Jewish heritage of Lithuania and Poland, was just the commencement of a larger vision that Arūnas Gėlūnas nurtured. This vision transcended borders, bridging continents and cultures, and it was art that lay at the heart of this global odyssey.

The Global Artistic Vision

Inspired by the profound impact of the UNESCO conference, Gėlūnas embarked on an ambitious journey to curate a global art collection. This wasn’t merely about gathering artefacts; it was about weaving together a narrative that spanned regions, echoed diverse voices, and showcased the universality of human expression. From the intricate sculptures of Italy to the vibrant canvases of the US, from the haunting melodies of Lithuania to the evocative verses of Israel, this collection was a celebration of art in its myriad forms.

Central to this artistic vision was its alignment with UNESCO’s mission. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, with its commitment to promoting intercultural understanding, found a kindred spirit in Gėlūnas’s initiative. This global collection, representing a tapestry of professions from poets to painters, resonated with UNESCO’s ethos. It became a testament to the power of art to foster dialogue, bridge divides, and inspire unity amidst diversity.

A defining influence on this collection was the indomitable spirit of Leonard Cohen. For British readers, Cohen might be a familiar name, an iconic singer-songwriter whose verses have touched millions. But beyond his global acclaim lies a deeper connection to Litvak heritage. Cohen’s roots trace back to the Jewish communities of Lithuania, a lineage that added layers of depth to his poetic expressions. His influence on the collection was palpable. It was as if his verses, echoing themes of love, loss, resilience, and hope, became the golden thread weaving together the diverse artistic expressions.

The Ukrainian Endeavour

Yet, Gėlūnas’ mission was not limited to celebrating art; it was equally about preserving it, especially in the face of adversity. As the shadows of merciless war loomed over Ukraine, the world watched with bated breath, praying for peace. But Gėlūnas recognised a pressing concern amidst this geopolitical turmoil – the potential loss of Ukraine’s rich artistic heritage.

With an urgency that mirrored his commitment to cultural preservation, Gėlūnas spearheaded efforts to safeguard priceless artworks from the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv and the National Art Gallery in Lviv. These masterpieces, echoing centuries of world history and culture, found a temporary sanctuary in Lithuania’s Radvila Palace. This endeavour was not just about saving artefacts; it was a profound gesture of solidarity. The Radvila Palace, often spoken of in the same breath as illustrious institutions like the Louvre and Prado, became a beacon of hope, a testament to the indomitable spirit of humanity even in the face of conflict.

Honours and Beyond

For his unwavering dedication, the world took notice. Gėlūnas’s efforts in cultural preservation were recognised with the Ukrainian national medal, the All Ukrainian Homeland Order of Unity and Will. But for those familiar with his journey, this honour was not the culmination of his efforts but a mere acknowledgement of his ceaseless commitment. Gėlūnas, with his humility, often brushes aside accolades, focusing instead on the larger mission at hand – ensuring that art, in all its forms, remains a beacon of hope, unity, and resilience for generations to come.

Taras Voznyak, director of the Boris Voznytsky National Gallery in Lviv, decorates Arūnas Gelūnas with the All Ukrainian Homeland Order “Unity and Will”. Photo: Edmundas Jakilaitis.

And he does not forget that the best leader is the one who respects and loves his team: “I am very much indebted to my wonderful team, – he underlines. – Without them, their devotion, their understanding, their interest and their professionalism I would not go far on my own. Nobody ever does. I am very grateful to each of them and all of them as a team”.

When he started as the new director of the complex of museums four and half years ago, Arunas knew precisely where he would start: “The first and main thing was to get rid of everything Soviet there, from door handles to the way of thinking. Or the other way around. It was my principal position when starting at the Museum”.

In the tapestry of cultural preservationists, Arūnas Gėlūnas emerges not just as a guardian of art and heritage but as a visionary, a beacon, and an inspiration. Through his endeavours, he has underscored the timeless allure of art, its power to heal, and its role in shaping a more inclusive and harmonious world.

In a world where fleeting moments often capture the limelight, Arūnas Gėlūnas’s steadfast commitment to cultural preservation has not gone unnoticed. Among the accolades he has garnered, the Ukrainian national medal, the All Ukrainian Homeland Order of Unity and Will, holds a special significance. This isn’t merely a medal; it is a symbol of international recognition, an emblem of the deep respect and gratitude extended by a nation towards an individual who, in its hour of need, stands as a bulwark against cultural erasure.

Gelūnas is helping Ukrainian museums in a large way. This work alone is a full-time occupancy. “You need to know what you need and what you can to save at once; you need to visit places, to see the works and to speak with your Ukrainian colleagues. You need to plan everything here at home, to prepare places, to come up with the ideas of the best possibilities, and to implement them, of course. You have to organise the shipping and insurance; you have to supervise it all. You need to designate people to work on this task full-time. You have also to organise the display of the preserved works for several purposes, including drawing attention not only to the saved priceless, unique, world-class important art, but also to the screaming situation with the outrageous bandit war in general, and how we all could help Ukraine in all and every way”.

And he knows the situation in Ukraine first-hand: “You know, when we were filming in Lviv recently to tell the story about our effort to save and preserve the art from Ukrainian museums during the war, we were bombed. We spent a few hours in a bomb shelter in Lviv, and then and there, for the first time in my life, I realised, I felt, I’ve got it under my skin what it is like when you are bombed’,

But to confine Gėlūnas’s achievements to a singular medal would be an oversimplification. His work, spanning countries and cultures, resonates with a profound impact that transcends tangible recognitions. In today’s complex geopolitical landscape, where borders are often contested and histories manipulated, Gėlūnas emerges as a beacon of authenticity. His endeavours underscore the significance of preserving cultural narratives, not as relics of a bygone era but as living testimonies to human resilience, creativity, and unity.

In a world fragmented by differences, Gėlūnas’s initiatives serve as bridges. By showcasing the shared Jewish heritage of Lithuania and Poland, safeguarding Ukrainian art, or curating a global collection, he continually emphasises the interconnectedness of human narratives and efforts. His work is a reminder that amidst our varied cultures, languages, and histories, there exist threads of commonality – tales of hope, love, loss, and resurgence, the humanity that bind us all.

As we reflect upon Arūnas Gėlūnas’s illustrious journey, it becomes evident that his contributions are not mere footnotes in the annals of cultural preservation; they are chapters that will inspire generations. Through his visionary zeal, Gėlūnas has not only safeguarded artefacts and narratives; he has breathed life into them, ensuring they continue to inspire, educate, and foster dialogue.

In Gėlūnas, we find a rare amalgamation of a historian’s precision, an artist’s passion, and a humanitarian’s empathy. His endeavours are a testament to the belief that art and history are not confined to museum walls or academic papers; they are living entities that shape societies, bridge divides, and chart the course for a unified future.

In today’s fragmented world, where divisions often seem insurmountable, the activities and stand of Arūnas Gėlūnas stand tall as a reminder of the power of cultural dialogue. His work is a clarion call, urging us to look beyond immediate differences and recognise the shared narratives that weave humanity together.

In paying attention to Arūnas Gėlūnas, we do not just honour an individual; we celebrate a vision – a vision of a world where art, history, and shared memories serve as the bedrock for understanding, collaboration, and mutual respect.

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