Zofia Cielątkowska, The Changing Face Of Warsaw’s Art Scene, Text published in Contemporary Lynx / 2014
Warsaw’s contemporary art scene – particularly private gallery initiatives – has quickly evolved into something dizzyingly vivid, multilayered and diverse. Agnieszka Rayzacher, owner of lokal_30 Gallery, remembers the somewhat subdued atmosphere that used to surround Polish galleries. “In 2005 the situation was completely different,” she says, “Only three internationally active private galleries in Warsaw had profiles which resembled what we had in mind”. Matylda Prus, who owns the M2 Gallery, agrees. “Back in 2007 the art press was still wondering if the Poles were ever going to start collecting contemporary art. The same articles would go on to list the names of the same few canonical artists: Kantor, Krasiński, Stażewski, and Szapocznikow”, she recalls. “Today, however, over a dozen galleries are actively supporting artists of younger generations.”
A few years ago gallery activities – with a few exceptions – were to all intents and purposes a marginal part of art life in Warsaw. Nowadays, however, with growing places and possibilities their influence is more visible. Broadly speaking, the period being considered is Poland after the fall of Communism to the present day. This article presents a select set of galleries in Warsaw divided into three chronological groups and one thematic group; The Very Beginning, The Second Wave, New Spaces and a Special Focus on Photography.
The Very Beginning
Established in 1997, the Foksal Foundation is perhaps the most well-known institution outside Warsaw and does not need introduction. Among the many artists who have had their works exhibited there are such illustrious names like Santiago Sierra, Katarzyna Józefowicz, Wilhelm Sasnal, Felix Gonzales Torres, Monika Sosnowska and Mirosław Bałka. Their offices on Górskiego Street have recently been renovated and the building’s new facade has as many admirers as it has critics. It was built in 1963 and originally designed by Polish architect Leszek Klajnert. Klajnert envisioned it as a modernist cube – a homage to the neoclassical buildings of Nowy Świat Street which were restored in the fifties. The new project is in stark contrast to the previous one. It is heavier and more solid from the outside, while giving the impression of a classical white cube from the inside. Now, it is important to note that although they have very similar names, the Foksal Foundation and the Foksal Gallery are unrelated and have separate programmes and characteristics. The Foksal Gallery is a public institution founded in 1966 – since then it has undergone several reorganisations – and is located on Foksal Street.
“Our ambition is to have a well-thought programme and precisely planned exhibitions – the best of premiers. We not only pay special attention to the artists whom we represent, but also to their work with respect to an international perspective. We represent all artists, both young and experienced, from all over the world. – says Łukasz Gorczyca, the owner of Raster Gallery. The gallery opened in 2001 and was and still is a very popular place – organizing exhibitions as well as concerts and performances. Zbigniew Libera, Wilhelm Sasnal and Aneta Grzeszczykowska are among the many artists represented by it.
The Second Wave
BWA Warszawa, established in 2011, organizes exhibitions and lectures as well as theatrical and other performances. BWA stands for Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych [Bureau for Artistic Exhibitions]. It was created in the 1950s, when the Polish Ministry of Culture decided to organise a network of local contemporary galleries in major cities. They still share the same name despite the fact that they all currently exist as independent initiatives. BWA Warszawa represents international artists Nicolas Grospierre, Karol Radziszewski, Jadwiga Sawicka and Ewa Axelrad.
Agata Smoczyńska, owner of the Le Guern Gallery (founded in 2004), emphasizes the importance of creating personal relationships with artists represented by the gallery. “I could never imagine working with someone with whom I had no common language and no similar sensitivity or sense of humor”, she explains. Le Guern is focussed on contemporary Polish and international art. The exhibition programme is mostly based on three areas: solo exhibitions of established artists, projects by younger artists, and thematic and group exhibitions. There are only a few places in Warsaw which give special attention to video works, and Agnieszka Rayzacher (lokal_30) is one of them. “The artists one finds in the gallery are from different generations; they represent different approaches and different experiences. What they have in common, however, is a specific emotion and a constant need to search for something more.”
Founded in 2007, the Leto Gallery has an interdisciplinary programme focussed on visual arts and music. Similar to a few of the aforementioned galleries, Leto is both market oriented and quasi-institutional. Its exhibition programme can be described as diverse – among the artists represented by the gallery are Maurycy Gomulicki, Konrad Smoleński, Radek Szlaga, Aleksandra Waliszewska and Honza Zamojski.
Few other galleries combine contemporary and more recognizable names; one of them is the ProfileGallery and Foundation which was established in 2008 and concentrates on promoting modern art, as well as the archival of avant-garde art from the 1960s and ‘70s. The gallery’s main interests lie in social issues and historical reinterpretations. Emphasising the role of the foundation, the director of the gallery Bożena Czubak says, “It is important that many projects are not for sale; research and publishing programs are as important as exhibitions”. Ms. Prus’ M2 Gallery is devoted to contemporary art produced by young, but already renowned artists. “To me, the most important thing is an artist and his or her way of development. When I make a decision I always think of the impact it will have on the artist career. Obviously, we have to sell works to function, but I take a strong interest in the artists as well – when they exhibit in renowned places or when there is an article on their work, for example.”
Propaganda Gallery – established by Paweł Sosnowski in 2007 as Appendix2 – has been operating from Foksal street since 2011. Jacek Sosnowski, gallery curator, says: “When my father and I were opening a gallery, our first concern was the audience. Not clients, not art critics, not even our own sense of well-being – the audience. The gallery should be accessible. Accessible in a sense of keeping away from exclusive art and keeping it open as long as possible”. Although group exhibitions are popular in the gallery programmes, they do also solo shows and publish catalogues. Among the artists represented by the gallery are: Aleksander Ryszka, Lodz Kaliska, Ryszard Grzyb, Sharon Balaban, Stanislaw Drozdz and Tomasz Kulka.
Starter Gallery has been operating in Warsaw since 2010. Gallery owner Marika Zamoyska talks enthusiastically about the programme, “It is fluid, it is in a constant state of redefining substantial issues. In practical language; I not only care about the artists we represent, but also about other venues and exhibitions which explore interesting problems. Until quite recently, we were more focused on experimentation and the sole process of developing a work of art, rather than the art itself. It was more about unfinished then finished pieces. For instance, we put on an exhibition composed entirely of movable parts; so it was up to the viewers to reorganize it. We also organised open air meetings this year. The programme, therefore, is somewhere between beingpragmatic, andvisionary. Fascination in art is important, I really don’t want to be bored!” In the gallery programme one finds both young and established middle-aged artists working with various media (inter alia Alicja Bielawska, Mikołaj Moskal, Anna Zaradny).
The idea of dialogue between different generations of artists is also present in – a relatively new place as it was established quite recently in 2014 – Monopol Gallery. Gallery owners Anna Ciabach and Zuzanna Sokalsa talk about it. “Our program is mostly based on the idea of a dialog between already well-known artists of conceptual and post-conceptual periods and younger generation artists. Medium is not a matter of choice, what really matters is the quality of art, the approach of the artist and the subjects he or she is exploring.”
Quite an unusual initiative analyzed in context is The Arton Foundation; it is a non-profit organization which does not sell any art. It was established in 2010 and the gallery space has been open since 2012. The programme of the Arton Foundation is mostly concentrated on artists from the 70s who, for whatever reason, are less visible now. Although they present exhibitions, it is not the most important nor the only thing in their programme. Marika Kuźmicz, director of Arton Foundation, explains it to me, “What we do is recalling, discovering and researching forgotten artists of that period. Our aim is to show these artists in a contemporary perspective, to give them a place in the contemporary discourse and to make them a source of inspiration for younger artists. We work on archives and digitalization; the content is accessible through the Digital Repository of Arton Foundation. We also pay special attention to documentary films about artists and publications.”.
Another fairly new place is the Kasia Michalski Gallery established in 2015. It focuses on contemporary art and photography from Poland and abroad. Kasia Michalski specifies the program of the gallery, “Our mission is to make art accessible. We always wanted to create a place which would be a new cultural hotspot. We focus on contemporary art from Poland and abroad, and try to bring new local and foreign names to the art scene – like Damir Ocko, Maurice Schobinger and Jurek Wajdowicz. Parallel to that, we also promote our artists abroad; this autumn we will participate in the Warsaw Gallery Weekend and the Vienna Contemporary Art Fair for the first time. Providing freshness to the local crowd will remain an ongoing project for the gallery.” The Kohana Gallery, also established in 2015 – run by the Fine Arts Foundation (Kochański Suwalski Knut FINE ARTS FOUNDATION established in 2014) – concentrates on avant-garde artists active from 1960s till ‘80s with a special attention to geometric abstraction. In addition to that, their aim is to show selected works by artists from the younger generation (Ignacy Bogdanowicz, Piotr Grabowski, Mieczysław Knut, Tycjan Knut, Szczęsny Szuwar, Noriyo Yoshida and Mateusz Dąbrowski). Director of Foundation Marta Czyż points out that exhibitions and publications are equally important to the program. The Dawid Radziszewski Gallery was established in 2013. “From my point of view, as the owner of the gallery, the most important thing is to be truly honest to yourself. I mean to be honest to the artists and the audience. If someone thinks of selling art and is compromising the program to achieve that aim, then the result is usually the art not being sold. I’m trying to compose the gallery programme in such a way that would appeal to the viewer. I try to present my gallery the best way I can.”
Focus on Photography
There are a couple of places in Warsaw which focus mainly or only on photography. Some of them have already been mentioned: Lookout, Asymetria, Arton, Czułość and, last but not the least, The Archeology of Photography Foundation. Let’s briefly go through a few of them. In the Lookout programme we mostly find young Polish and international photographers. Asymetria is places emphasis on Polish photography of the 50s and 60s and– as the owner, Rafał Lewndowski, explains – collaborates with artists who are close to historical approaches. The program at Asymetria Gallery was built around Zbigniew Dłubak’s idea of the lack of symmetrical ties between reality and its depiction. Within that understanding, photography questions the way things exist.
One of the most intriguing places successful in functioning on the edge of – as I would call it – alternative formality, described as “photo-gang with an ideological bent”, is Czułość. Visited by a mixed and relatively young audience, they like experiments and unusual places. Janek Zamoyski – artist and owner of Czułość – says, “What we are interested in for our gallery program is research around the meaning and understanding of photography as a medium. In that respect, I think that issues like – the values and relations within an artistic group, development of the artists related to the gallery, and creating an active community around the gallery as well as making international contacts and relations – are very important.”
The Archeology of Photography Foundation – the last part of its name is quite meaningful – has a very complex and meaningful structure. “Above all, Archeology is not a commercial gallery, but a foundation whose task is to maintain the archives of outstanding deceased photographers such as Zbigniew Dłubak, Wojciech Zamecznik, and Zofia Chomętowska. Maintaining the archive means processing the contents of the archive, preserving works, digitizing them, and promoting them.” On the Archeology web page – also available in English – you can search and browse through archives.
You can also find exhibitions of various photographers and publications in the programme. I would pay special attention to the publication section which is quite impressive. While speaking of photography and publication, I should definitely mention Piktogram  – the name of an organization as well as a magazine; both started roughly at the same time. To begin with, its activity exhibitions were in different places but it has been located at Soho Factory since 2011 and has been functioning as a gallery since 2013. The magazine is a combination of different fields which are all somehow related to art. Another initiative on the edge of the gallery sector is Sputnik – an international collective founded in 2006 by documentary photographers from Central and Eastern Europe. Rafał Milach, one of the artists from the group talks to me about their work and sources of financial support, “We work together on long-term photographic projects mostly in Central and Eastern European, and former Soviet Union areas. We also publish a lot of photography books and this part of our activity is evolving at the moment. Each publication is accompanied by an exhibition. We also lead educational programs. Quite recently we did three documentary films. Most of our projects are presented in private galleries or public institutions, but we never had any commercial episodes. Obviously, individual photographers from our group have had some relations with the galleries, but as a Sputnik collective we are not a part of it. Most of our funding comes from grants, which you have to work really hard to get as the competition is very strong. We also do workshops which help us financially; we have a studio, a magazine, and some payments for the collective.”
The rising number of increasingly exciting exhibitions, publications and other art initiatives proves that Warsaw art life has changed for the better, and that the so-called ‘private’ galleries play a very important role in keeping it that way.
Text published in Contemporary Lynx