Art Basel 2015
Art Basel 2015
Art Basel 2015

Collectors emerge from behind the Iron Curtain

In east central Europe private collectors are leading the way, both promoting local talent and bringing international art to their countries

by Julia Michalska  |  18 June 2015
Collectors emerge from behind the Iron Curtain
An open-air cinema in the Stary Browar (old brewery) in Poznan, Poland's largest private cultural institution. Photo: J. Wittchen

The free art market in east central Europe is only 25 years old. And its image abroad reflects this: many Westerners assume the region’s cultural infrastructure is about as sophisticated as its potato-heavy cuisine. But as former Iron Curtain countries, such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, become richer, and the number of institutions and galleries continues to rise, a new generation of private collectors is emerging. Fuelling local markets and launching national artists onto the international stage, these patrons are picking up where their young democracies may have fallen short of their responsibilities.

Beyond national borders

Most private collections in east central Europe that were assembled immediately after 1989 focused on historical works by national artists, but since 2000, collectors in the region have increasingly been looking at contemporary art, often from beyond their borders. Grazyna Kulczyk—Poland’s richest woman and the founder of Art Stations Foundation and the Stary Browar (old brewery), Poland’s largest private cultural institution—started buying works by foreign artists in 2005, giving her collection a “decidedly international character”, she says. Now, displaying work by local artists alongside international art stars helps to show “that their artistic endeavours were fairly similar and that, despite geographical or political differences, Polish art is not inferior to art from around the world in any way”. 

A recent exhibition organised by her foundation juxtaposed works on paper by the late Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski with pieces by the Dutch artist René Daniëls and the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans. The show has travelled from Poznan, Poland, to the Drawing Room in London (until 11 July).

Museum-makers

To further promote Polish art abroad, Kulczyk, a member of the Tate’s Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee and the Modern Women’s Fund at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is building a museum near St Moritz, Switzerland, which is scheduled to open between 2016 and 2017. It will display works from Kulczyk’s collection and newly commissioned site-specific pieces. A space for temporary exhibitions will also be included. 

Nonetheless, Kulczyk still keeps her eye on Poland. When her plans to open a museum in Poznan were thwarted in 2009, she began talks with the authorities to build one in Warsaw. The Polish capital “needs a modern art museum on an international level”, she says. “I’m ready to take that project on.”

Jan Svetlik, a wealthy Czech industrialist and art collector, is also making his collection accessible to the public. In his factory in Ostrava, Svetlik has created a vast cultural complex with a gallery and theatre. He runs a residency programme for young artists in the city and organises the Jan Svetlik Art Prize every year. In 2011, Svetlik took over the Milan Dobes Museum in Bratislava. Devoted to the career of Slovakia’s best-known kinetic artist, the institution was east central Europe’s first private museum when it opened in 2001. When the institution fell into financial difficulties, Svetlik bought it and now exhibits part of his collection at the venue.

Indeed, much private support in the region goes beyond buying art. The collectors Zsolt Somlói, the director of a Hungarian media agency, and his wife, Katalin Spengler, an editor and arts journalist, were a driving force behind the inaugural Off Biennale Budapest this year (24 April-31 May). 

The biennial was launched as a protest against “the rampant political interference in the current Hungarian cultural infrastructure”, the organisers stated. The series of shows took place in around 130 galleries, artists’ studios, bars, cafés, apartments and back gardens, pointedly avoiding state-owned sites and institutions. Financial support came from private and corporate sponsors, including the billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. 

By the third week, the Off Biennale had attracted 24,000 visitors, a huge number (Somlói says the city’s Ludwig Museum receives around 60,000 visitors a year). “The biennial showed that there is a strong alternative and progressive art scene in Budapest besides what is happening on the official level.”

The couple have been buying art since 1992. The focus of their collection, which now amounts to around 600 items, moved from Transylvanian post-Impressionism to contemporary art by Hungarian and international artists in the early 2000s. But their particular interest lies in Hungarian photo-Conceptualism from the 1970s, which Somlói describes as a “very free artistic movement”. In the Soviet era, “artists didn’t have state support. There were no galleries, no collectors, and so whatever you produced was for yourself and your friends. You didn’t have the constraints of money or the burden of exhibiting to deal with.”

Somlói and Spengler organise a monthly “salon” for collectors in Budapest, now in its seventh year. They invite curators, art historians and artists to speak to around 20 local collectors on various topics, which are then discussed over dinner. “It’s a way of educating local collectors about the important issues of the art market and how to make the first step onto the international art circuit,” Somlói says. The salon also raised funds so that the Hungarian artist István Csákány could participate in the latest edition of Documenta.

In April, Somlói, also a member of the Tate’s Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee, donated a work by the Hungarian artist Tamás Kaszás to the London institution. This was a feat for Somloi as “the important thing was that the Tate accepted the donation, not that we donated it”. But he warns that, as institutions such as the Tate, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art start becoming more interested in Hungary’s artists, the country’s canon will be determined from abroad. “In Hungary it’s very hard to find a book in English explaining the top five artists of the 60s, for instance. But when the Tate acquires works by Dora Maurer, as they did last year, she is now understood to be an important artist.”

The West looks East

Western institutions’ growing interest in art from former Soviet countries has in part grown as a result of the trend to enlarge the Western canon. “We are at a threshold,” says Paulina Kolczynska, an art historian who is organising a conversation with east central European collectors at Art Basel this week. “The dialogue is getting wider but also much deeper.”

Although most east central European collectors still choose to collect quietly, their collections are a vital source for research, according to
Kolczynska. “Because of the force of the collectors, we can find very interesting works, which will hopefully lead to discussions and new interpretations on these artists’ contributions to international movements.”

As the market for contemporary art booms, there is a motivation to discover works that have been locked away in political isolation. Sotheby’s has just appointed its first representative for Poland, Krystyna Zelenka. “Polish art, particularly that of the 20th and 21st century, is very exciting but still undervalued. Interest is growing, especially now that prices for contemporary art are reaching stratospheric levels.” Zelenka is assembling works by Polish artists for a planned second edition of A Different Perspective sale at Sotheby’s in November, which focuses on art from Eastern Europe. She hopes to present works by better-known artists such as Wojciech Fangor, Alina Szapocznikow and Tamara de Lempicka, in addition to “very high quality” emerging artists.

East central Europe’s art scene may be fledgling, but in a market full of Old Masters, its youth may be its asset. 

• Key Collections from Eastern Central Europe: the New Era, Auditorium, Hall 1, Thursday 18 June, 2pm



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