KIEV (Reuters Life!) - Each day long queues snake onto the pavement and into the night opposite Kiev's main vegetable market in the center of this city of 3 million.
Patiently, young and old Ukrainians wait to see the latest exhibit on display at a free modern art museum funded and set up by steel, media and banking tycoon Viktor Pinchuk.
Pinchuk says the economic crisis will magnify the role of art in his country, which has been battered by a drop of more than 30 percent in industrial production in the first nine months of this year.
"In five to 10 years, people will be speaking about this period like a renaissance for art -- renaissance two," he told Reuters in his PinchukArtCentre.
Installed in a renovated office block overlooking the courtyard of a large entertainment and shopping center, the center is now hosting a exhibition of more than 100 works by Damien Hirst. It is the British artist's biggest show ever.
"This is maybe a moment of truth. I think big artists have a much stronger motivation to speak to the people and to tell just the truth," Pinchuk said at the opening.
He and Hirst found much in common. The British artist, he said, "talks about the same things as Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt and Klimt."
Economic crises make modern art "even more important. People need a fresh portion of hope, of love. Art really can give this fresh air... This is an extremely important period for art."
Young people flocking to the Hirst exhibit said both the works and the center were sources of inspiration.
"I believe that art is something that makes you think. I want to come back and see more," said Yevgeniya Zhukova, a young professional in the media business.
Yulia, a student on a day trip from provincial Ukraine, said: "I want to be an artist myself. This has inspired me."
Artists like Hirst, a billionaire superstar whose works here include pickled sharks and the corpse of a cow suspended from a rope, gravitate to Pinchuk. And they heap praise on his center.
"You kind of think that museums are for dead artists. But with Viktor (Pinchuk) it's a little bit different," Hirst told Reuters.
"His vision for Ukraine is very exciting -- to bring important cultural things from the rest of the world. He's very persuasive."
U.S. artist Jeff Koons, equally successful and controversial -- his most celebrated works include a giant steel dog -- was also enthusiastic at the opening.
"It was wonderful to see some of things Viktor has acquired in his collection," he said. "And to see how they used the city of Kiev with the installation in the center courtyard."
Local artists get special attention at the center -- courses have been organized and a prize set up for young competitors.
Opened in 2006, the center is a part of the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation, which also supports local cultural groups, helps present Ukrainian business to the world and assembles international speakers at an annual conference in the Black Sea resort of Yalta.
His activities include bringing former Beatle Paul Macartney to Kiev last year for a vast open-air concert -- an event praised by many Ukrainians as a symbol of freedom they never had in Soviet times.
Cultural activists -- including experts hired by Pinchuk to run the center -- say the enthusiasm for modern art stems from a "hunger" dating from those times.
Ordinary citizens, inspired yet limited by the Soviet Union's reasonably effective education system, they say, craved access to cultural events barred by Kremlin leaders.
"I saw people queuing here from the very start when I came here. And I understood immediately that there is a great, great hunger here for culture and especially for contemporary art," said Eckhard Schneider, the centre's German General Director.
"Of all the cultural layers you have, contemporary art gives everybody the right and the possibility to develop his own individuality. No one, not even the best policeman, can control what you are thinking when you meet an art work."
The center was proving so effective, he said, because of its location and the fact that it was free to get in.
"This signals that this is an offer to everyone. It is not limited by your pocketbook," Schneider added.
Additional reporting by Mikhail Yelchev and Ron Popeski