COLOGNE – At the sold-out Alexander Ernst Voigt show at Cosar HMT in Düsseldorf, the insider buzz was not only about Voigt, the young Berlin-born painter who studied under Jörg Immendorff. “Poland is the new China,” a vernissage attendee whispered discreetly into the welcoming ears of collectors. Ever on the hunt for new, collectors were immediately hooked. Conversation about where to find hot artists began.
A month later, Art Cologne hosted a series of talks entitled ‘Spotlight on Poland’ about the arts scene, artistic practices and collecting strategies. In February, emerging artists Wojciech Bąkowski and Piotr Bosacki opened a show at Schmela Haus, part of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. The Berlin Biennale that took place from April to July was dubbed by many the ‘Polish Biennale in Berlin’ because of Polish artist curator, Artur Zmijewski, and Associate Curator, Joanna Warsza. In July, Museum Ludwig in Cologne hosted a talk by Joanna Kiliszek, Deputy Director of the Warsaw-based Adam Mickiewicz Institute, about the current art scene in Poland.
Poland is currently appealing to collectors’ sense of curiosity. The work engages experienced risk-takers because its non-commercial, multimedia nature tends to be both intellectually and visually challenging. And collectors are hearing about it through a sudden influx of well-placed reviews, exhibitions, and talks that results in more word of mouth.
The source for most of the buzz in Germany comes from Klopsztanga, a Polish cultural exchange taking place in 2012/2013 in the North Rhine region. Film, literature, music, dance, theater and visual arts events are taking place in over 20 German cities. Sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, the NRW Culture Secretary, and the Polish Institute in Düsseldorf, the event is proof that Poland’s culture politics are strong, well-funded, and far-reaching enough to propel a country with a small but dynamic contemporary art offering to the top of German art insiders’ minds.
Whether or not this recognition will remain or spread to the rest of Europe is debatable. Poland as a brand has a problem. According to the 2008 Anholt-Gfk Roper Nation Brands Index, which measures 50 countries in various categories, Poland is one of the countries least known for its culture and heritage. However, the country prides itself on these very same values. Since its 2004 entry into the European Union, the country has invested heavily in targeting elites, culture enthusiasts, and the socially ambitious. Germany is seeing the result with Klopsztanga. The UK was targeted in 2009/2010 with Polska! Year, a similar but larger initiative funded by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The masses did not turn up at the UK events, and press was limited. According to a study conducted by The Institute of Public Affairs, 8% of the general public heard about Polska! Year and only 1% took part, despite more than 200 events nationwide.
Poland’s recognition is currently high in Germany, but German collectors are remaining consistent in their buying patterns. Raster, an established Warsaw-based gallery, has attended Art Basel four times and Liste in Basel five time. “Interest from German collectors, particularly from Düsseldorf and Cologne, has always been very strong,” said Michal Kaczynski, of Raster. Joanna Kiliszek, Deputy Director of the Warsaw-based Adam Mickiewicz Institute, agrees. She said, “Germany is collecting Polish. Polish artists have Germany to thank. Then come the English, Swiss and then maybe Americans.”
Gabriel Sulkowski is a German art collector and real estate developer based in Düsseldorf. His mother came from Warsaw and his younger cousin, Pavel, lives there. Pavel describes his cousin as a hamster. “There are collectors who buy and sell. I’m not a seller. I like owning,” said Sulkowski. He prides himself on discovering emerging artists years before they become internationally successful. He started collecting Chinese work in 1989, and he bought Neo Rauch way before his price explosion.
Some of the Polish artists in Sulkowski’s collection include Teresa Rudowicz, Miroslaw Balka, Natalia Stachon and Norman Leto. “How artists see and discuss their own work is important to me because there has to be intelligence,” he relates. The Polish pieces in his collection were chosen for the merits of the work or the philosophy of the artist, not because they are Polish. “Rudowicz’s piece from the 60s is one of the only works that is not my contemporary. I find her work very impressive,” he said. He recently purchased a Wojciech Bakowski piece from Galeria Stereo at Liste in Basel because it immediately spoke to the real estate developer in him. Like a proud new father, he showed pictures of the work on his iPhone. “Poland is a small plant,” he told me. “One needs to wait to see what will happen to it.”
“There isn’t a big art scene yet in Poland. It’s not a trend right now because the Polish do not like, understand, or support contemporary art,” he says. ”There is not a strong local market trying to support young contemporary artists, and there are only three good institutes – there are nearly no museums.”
Sulkowski is right that local support is a challenge for Polish artists [though it's unclear why he believes there are so few museums in Poland (all three museums in Warsaw alone are collecting institutions -- MOMA Warsaw, Zacheta and Ujazdowski caste art center - and there are several others.) PJ] There are only a few Polish collectors interested in contemporary art. Two important collectors who hail from Poznan are former tennis star, Wojciech Fibak, and Hanna and Jaroslaw Przyborowski, founders of the Signum Foundation, which supports children and youth through education and contemporary art. “Polish are collecting for a few reasons. Some are doing it to resell but most are collecting for the love of it,” said Joanna Kiliszek. “Polish collectors tend to be modest and very civic-minded. They play a very important role in the community.” And they are good ambassadors for their country; the Przyborowskis, for example, have a permanent exhibition space in Venice where they show part of their mostly-Polish collection.
Alongside these established collectors, a new class is emerging. When I spoke to Zuzanna Hadryś and Michal Lasota, the owners of Galeria Stereo, they told me, “We know 4-5 really strong art collectors interested not only in Polish art. We noticed a positive change in this during the 3 1/2 years of our gallery’s existence. Young rich people have started to collect art.” When Joanna Kiliszek, of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, talked about Polish art collectors, she jokingly said with a smile and tilt of the head, “Yes, there are rich Polish people.”
Poland was the only country in the European Union that had no economic recession in 2009 and this optimism is showing in the art world. Seven years ago there weren’t any Polish visitors at Basel (Swiss version), then a few started showing up. The number has almost doubled every year over the last few years. Michal Kaczynski, of Raster Gallery, said, “It’s all so young and it’s so positive. I notice a positive energy and Polish are starting to travel.”
So German collectors are consistent and supportive, Poles are just getting their feet wet, and according to Paulina Bebecka, Associate Curator at the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, American collectors buying Polish are adventurous and curious. “They are interested in the work and not the value at auction sales or art as investment,” she said. Blue-chip American collectors like the Rubells and Horts also have Polish work in their collections.
Poland’s gallery scene is small, concentrated primarily in Warsaw and shows mostly Polish art. Funding is a challenge. The government helps some galleries with funding, but there is no formal agreement to show only Polish artists. “It could seem questionable that the government supports commercial galleries in going to international art fairs, but there are so few and they do not have a strong endowment like top international galleries. Traveling to international art fairs would be a huge financial strain and without government help, they would not be able to do it,” said Bebecka.
Galeria Stereo is located in Poznan, Poland’s 5th largest city, which is also home to a good art school. “Polish culture is very centralized in general and our stubbornly sticking to Poznan as a base is a bit perverse,” said Zuzanna Hadrya and Michal Lasota, the co-owners, “We stay on the margins. But it has its positive side. We live in a city where most of our artists live, so we can maintain friendly relationships. We represent a very specific art community, which needs us. While we can undoubtedly say that there is such a thing as ‘art from Poznan’, this can not be said about any other Polish city.”
Warsaw’s whopping 17 galleries will host their first-ever gallery weekend from September 28-30. “This is a sign that the art scene in Warsaw is maturing and growing,” said Michal Kaczynski, of Raster Gallery. The weekend will also be a chance for Polish collectors to show their collections.
Poland is building itself, and artists living and working there want to help. In studios, there is a sense of “If not now, then when?” The body is a main theme and most young artists are creating multimedia work with film, animation and performance. Experimentation is heavily prized. Bebecka said enthusiastically, “An artist to watch is Julia Kul, and I stand behind her work 100%. The work is very challenging in a way because it’s mainly video and performance. It’s not the work that you can hang above your couch. Kul’s themes are about being other than the rest, the outsider, with issues of gender, which are all very relevant. And she does it in a humorous way without ridiculing the theme.” Flight from reality is another popular theme at the moment.
A Polish artist can now show locally and experience success. Many of the young artists of the artist group Penerstwo did well last year: Wojciech Bakowski, Piotr Bosacki, Tomasz Mroz, Konrad Smolenski, Magdalena Starska, Radek Szlaga and Iza Tarasiewicz. Other emerging talents to consider are Jasmina Metwaly, Olaf Brzeski and Slawomir Rumiak. Reaching international success no longer means you need to leave. Young Poles represented by major New York galleries like Paulina Olowska, at Metro Pictures, and Jakub Julian Ziolkowski and Wilhelm Sasnal, at Hauser & Wirth, are still living in Poland.
The art scene in Poland is slowly coming into its own, but it won’t become an international darling overnight. Magda Sawon, of Postmasters Gallery in New York, who represents Katarzyna Kozyra said, “Some of the excitement drops on the US but it is not market hysteria, it’s a slow process and a few people are collecting in a serious way. Kozyra’s work is in major collections but the market explosions are dependent on the medium the artist uses in terms of commercial success. Commercially-ready work is done in China, while we’re still fighting the notion of video being a collectible media.” The Polish government has enough funding, infrastructure and patience to continue to improve its culture and heritage image. When asked what resonance Klopsztanga will have, Joanna Kiliszek said, “It simply needs time, time, time and continuity. You can’t lose the continuity.”
But perhaps Kasper Koenig, soon-to-be-retiring Director of Museum Ludwig, summed it up best at the end of Kiliszek’s talk: “It’s worth taking a trip to Poland.”