Notes on the institutions and presentation of contemporary art in Warsaw
The Warsaw gallery scene is vibrant and dynamic, featuring institutions with relatively distinct profiles that have different characters and specialisations. The last decade has seen a boom in the number of new galleries established here, a phenomenon that began around the same time as the publication of the first edition of a major book on collecting contemporary art, Przewodnik kolekcjonowania sztuki najnowszej [Guide to collecting the latest art] (ed. Piotr Bazylko, Krzysztof Masiewicz). The Warsaw Gallery Weekend, an art event bringing local galleries together and attracting local and foreign audiences, was first held in 2011, and each autumn since then it has offered a varying programme of art-related activities. This year, for example, saw the launch of the Summit of the Central European Art Collectors. Another event, Friend of a Friend (FOAF), established in 2018, is more exclusive as participating galleries need an invitation from the main organiser. In spring, the chosen Warsaw galleries invite artists and galleries from abroad to be part of their programme. FOAF was itself invited to this year’s Art Düsseldorf, which not only shows how much interest the initiative has generated abroad, but also proves it can work in a different context. This October witnessed the official opening of the first Warsaw Biennale, conceived to combine performative and discursive activities: a series of lectures, conferences, film screenings and performances culminates in the final exhibition.
Who and what make up the Warsaw gallery scene?
During my residency I had the chance to meet and talk with curators from major museums, gallerists from private institutions (the so-called “foundations”), and also researchers and independent art theorists. Almost all institutions and art professionals have one thing in common, namely a lively exchange with partners from abroad. The objective is to represent Polish artists within the international context through various art platforms, in order to help build their reputations and enhance their market value, and to create a space for them alongside the leading lights of global contemporary art. There are residency programmes involving foreign art practitioners and opportunities for international cooperation, as evidenced in the gallery programmes of various institutions and exhibitions, and even in the automatic bilingual communication with visitors (Polish/ English). At the same time, certain formats for presenting contemporary art demonstrate that the institutional basis is not necessarily bound to a particular place or building. An institution, first and foremost, consists of the people working together to create its structures and frameworks of (self)representation. An example of such an experimental attitude towards gallery-making is Polana Institute – a gallery, research centre and educational institute all in one, without a fixed address.
The Polish art scene has long been influenced by the formidable and often controversial directors of major institutions, whose decisions capture the imagination of experts and the general public alike. Contemporary art in Warsaw is represented by three main, publicly funded institutions, all three of which have previously made efforts to build their own collections. (The Kunsthalle format typically found in the Germanophone world, which focuses on exhibiting but not on collecting, is not present here.) The three institutions in question are, in chronological order of their establishment, the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.
What they have in common are a strong focus on educational activities for various age groups, digitisation of their collections, and online publication of their archives (including gallery activities and digital artworks).
Warsaw’s museum triangle
Compared to Vienna, where I currently live, the urban pace of Warsaw is different – its frenetic 24/7 tempo is definitely alien to the Viennese lifestyle. Warsaw oozes charisma, but it also suffers from the drawbacks of a 21st-century capital city – although the intermixing of cultures is not yet so prevalent here. The post-war practice of filling in the gaps left by damaged houses with an assortment of residential and utilitarian buildings, coupled with the current fashion for skyscrapers, has resulted in an urbanistic patchwork criss-crossed by broad main boulevards, which aid navigation. In my opinion, this city is best enjoyed not only through the lens of a camera, but also by exploring it thoroughly on foot. During my search for galleries, I found myself oscillating around a couple of main focal points, the flourishing centres of commercial and cultural life in Warsaw: the so-called Hipster Square [Plac Hipstera] (officially called Plac Zbawiciela [Saviour Square]), the artificial palm tree by Joanna Rajkowska on Jerusalem Avenue, and the vicinity around the communist skyscraper, the Palace of Culture and Science.
As an employee of a private gallery and a freelance curator in regional and state-supported institutions, with a fascination for the varying degrees of professionalism and casualisation among cultural workers, I became interested in two main issues: the ways in which galleries form networks with foreign partners; and the extent to which politically motivated state interventions – whether nationalistic or Christian – are pervading the lifeblood of the local art scene.
The oldest gallery in Warsaw, Zachęta (1860), which operates today under the Ministry of Culture, has gained notoriety for a number of censorship “scandals” and for provoking some furious debates between Polish conservatives and liberals. The topics of these divisive debates include the untouchability of Catholic Church dogmas and the darker chapters in Poland’s national history. The gallery’s collection is presently housed in the National Museum in Warsaw. Under the new, politically appointed director, Jerzy Miziołko, the piece titled Consumer Art by Natalia LL (1973) was removed from the permanent exhibition of 20th- and 21st-century art, prompting accusations of censorship. So-called “banana protests” were held, and the artwork was temporarily reinstated. Zachęta exclusively holds temporary exhibitions, but it is clear from its programme that it is in the process of being transformed from the biggest communist art gallery into a platform representing mostly Polish contemporary art. (In 2012, a Project Room was established for experimental art practices.) During my stay in Warsaw, Zachęta hosted an exhibition on the history of Polish theatre and social stage design in the 20th and 21st centuries [Zmiana ustawienia. Polska scenografia teatralna i społeczna XX i XXI wieku], curated by Robert Rumas. It was outstandingly curated and staged, and not surprisingly focused on the intertwinement between art and politics. (Among the exhibits were some controversial pieces by Polish contemporary artists, as well as a photograph from the Czarny Protest against the restrictions on abortion rights). The museum’s networking is usually based on the professional contacts of the director, Hanna Wróblewska. For several years, Zachęta has been responsible for the Polish National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and the museum organises a prestigious prize for young artists, entitled Views, sponsored by Deutsche Bank.
Art is not a competition, but I am winning
The Museum of Modern Art (2008) is actually a city gallery, whose building is still under construction. Prominently located in front of the Palace of Culture and Science, the somewhat sober concrete structure should be finished by 2022. Until then, the museum is using exhibition space owned by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation near the river Vistula. Additionally, for the last 11 years the gallery has organised two nomadic festivals – Warsaw Under Construction and Open ‘er Festival –, installing art in disused city landmarks and connecting the visual arts with music. The Museum of Modern Art supports young artists with the Hestia Artistic Journey Competition, and has recently become a member of the international association of museums, L’Internationale. Apart from opportunities for cooperation with partners around the world, membership grants access to a range of financial resources which are independent from the decisions of the Polish government. Exhibitions such as Pomnikomania [Monument mania] (curated by Łukasz Zaremba and Szymon Maliborski) and Nigdy więcej [Nevermore] (curatorial team: Sebastian Cichocki, Joanna Mytkowska, Łukasz Ronduda, and Aleksandra Urbańska) touch upon topics of importance to contemporary Poland (and Central European countries in general): the abundance of traditional monumental forms in public spaces and the search for alternatives in contemporary art; and the way art has resisted forms of fascism from the Second World War until today.
The majority of private galleries are run as so-called “foundations” (fundacja, technically non-profit organisations, although they are not in the least charities), with all profits ploughed back into the gallery budget. These foundations are doing well; they have partner galleries abroad and they take part in international art fairs.
One of the best-known is an offshoot of the very oldest gallery Foksal (established in 1966 and still running today), named the Fundacja Galerii Foksal, which broke away from its parent institution specifically to sell art, although it initially concentrated mainly on publishing. Interestingly, players such as SCCA and tranzit.org did not enter the Polish art scene directly, at least not by establishing a gallery venue, but only through supporting certain projects. Justyna Kowalska, gallerist of the private gallery BWA, claims that commercial frameworks and independence from state funding have given her the freedom to pursue programmes of her own choosing. On the other hand, major public institutions constitute some of the main purchasers of contemporary art from private galleries.
While talking with multiple gallerists, I could sense their pride in having discovered certain artists at a time when they were not so well-known – this applies both to neoavantgarde artists and to younger ones as well, in the sense of my favourite maxim, love is not a competition, but I am winning (replace love by the word of your choice, e.g. art). Many commercial galleries present themselves as platforms for representing feminist art or queer positions, or for reflecting on environmental issues. Efforts to connect art with topics relevant to broader social discourse are widespread on the Polish art scene. Among the galleries I appreciate the most, I would like to highlight the programmes and exhibitions at Lokal 30, Piktogram and Pola Magnetyczne, which are led by charismatic gallerists who are also experts in their field.
To support independent projects, applications can be submitted for Adam Mickiewicz funding or EU grants, and partnerships can be entered into with commercial or international partners. Marika Kuzmic from Fundacja Arton is one of the few people whose attention is devoted solely to research. She rediscovers and rehabilitates mostly forgotten feminist artists from previous decades, and her aim is to digitise this content online as part of a project titled Forgotten Heritage – European Avantgarde. She is currently working with partners from Germany, Croatia, Belgium and Estonia.
Public institutions, predominantly financed by the state, are constantly subject to political games, such as changes of leadership at major museums. A case in point is the fate of Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, who is still waiting for governmental approval of his appointment. Other alarming instances include the aforementioned censorship of the artwork by Natalia LL at the National Museum, and the recent appointment of the director of Ujazdowski Castle without open competition (see below).
Warsaw is a city with numerous theatres and a strong tradition of performing arts, which is continuing with the youngest generation of students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. One of the leading supporters of the performing arts is Ujazdowski Castle (1988), which carries on a tradition of connecting the visual arts with works on stage, established by the institution’s legendary first director, Wojciech Krukowski. Since 2002 Ujazdowski Castle has offered residency programmes for artists and curators.
Since the 1980s Ujazdowski Castle has been a symbol of Poland’s connections with the international art scene. This is proven by their latest performative exhibition, created by the Dutch artist collective Bik Van der Pol (curated by Joanna Zielińska), which is devoted to presenting both the collection itself and the transformations the institution has undergone since it was formed. A couple of days before the opening ceremony, the Ministry of Culture appointed a new director to lead Ujazdowski Castle, a conservative art historian named Piotr Bernatowicz. As a curator, Bernatowicz’s previous exhibitions have included anti-Semitic and misogynistic artworks. The choice of director is an unmistakeably powerful gesture from the government towards a museum that has long prided itself on being liberal, and which, in its published programme, openly undertakes to represent postmedia and queer positions. It is terribly ironic that this art historian, who combines right-wing political views with Catholic conservativism in order to challenge “gender theory”, was a student of the late, great art theorist Piotr Piotrowski. Admittedly, the two years that Piotrowski spent as director of the National Museum did not pass without scandal either, and not only because of the controversial exhibition Ars Homo Erotica. However, as explained by Karolina Plinta, a writer for Szum Magazine, these two otherwise incompatible art historians shared the belief that art and politics are inextricably linked. Currently, there is an online petition collecting signatures against the appointment of Bernatowicz. One reason for this is the fear of potential future arbitrary appointments to important positions in culture. One of the most relevant arguments against Bernatowicz is his lack of the soft skills needed for cultural diplomacy, resulting from his inexperience at collaborating with foreign institutions and international curators.
Though Poland’s visual arts scene may be small, it is not monolithic in terms of its values, and it faces the same kinds of problems as elsewhere amid the current global wave of polarised political views. At Ujazdowski Castle, the differences of opinion between an earlier director, the Italian Fabio Cavalucci (2010–2014), and his employees were resolved to the benefit of the collective of gallery workers. This was achieved with the help of artists (initially a solo exhibition by Pawel Ałthamer) within a project titled Winter Holiday Camp in 2013-14, who insisted that power within the institution should be redistributed and the public should be consulted on reforms. How the story of Bernatowicz and Ujazdowski Castle concludes may have ramifications for other institutions in the future. We might, however, have to wait for Mercury to leave the retrograde zone before we find out the answer.
Special thanks goes to my Polish coordinator Romuald Demidenko
The author is a curator and art critic based in Vienna and Bratislava
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.