A Polish Collector’s Passion for Art and Design

POZNAN, POLAND — The reception area of Grazyna Kulczyk’s private office looks a bit bare because many items have already been packed away.

But the view is intact: the rooftops of Poznan, a city of brick buildings in west-central Poland.

“It is a lovely view,” she said, smiling and looking out over the green park.

Ms. Kulczyk, one of Poland’s richest women and one of its most prominent art collectors and patrons, is moving her private cultural foundation out of the Stary Browar, or Old Brewery, an abandoned factory complex she bought in 1998 and renovated into an art and performance space.

The red-brick buildings, which also house a shopping mall, restaurants and a cinema, now belong to Deutsche Asset and Wealth Management. Ms. Kulczyk sold Stary Browar for €290 million, or $326 million, in November. The dance program she funded there, Stary Browar Nowy Taniec (Old Brewery New Dance), will stay, but the foundation and her art collection — one of the most important in Poland focusing on modern works from the 1960s and 1970s — will be moving out.

But while Ms. Kulczyk, 65, may be wistful about what she has created in her hometown, she is determined to press forward.

By early 2018, her Muzeum Schuss is expected to open in the Engadine Valley of the Swiss Alps. The museum will house site-specific projects by Polish and international artists including Piotr Uklanski, Monika Sosnowska and Rosemarie Trockel. The museum will also host a residency program and include an exhibition space.

The money she raised from the sale of Stary Browar will go toward a new museum of contemporary art and dance in Warsaw. Ms. Kulczyk’s foundation, Art Stations Foundation by Grazyna Kulczyk, has focused much of its work on promoting contemporary dance and choreography as well as organizing gallery exhibitions around works from her collection.
She is currently in negotiations with the city government to work out a public/private partnership deal, which would be a permanent space for her vast collection of over 500 Polish and international modern and contemporary works, and would be the first private collection open to the public in Poland.

Ms. Kulczyk, who has sold Stary Browar and is negotiating with the city of Warsaw for a new home for her art collection, one of the most important in Poland focusing on modern works from the 1960s and 1970s. Credit Adam Plucinski/Stary Browar

Ms. Kulczyk last year was included in the list of the world’s top 200 collectors by Art News magazine. She is a member of London’s Tate Modern acquisitions committee for Russia and Eastern Europe, and last year she became a member of the Modern Women’s Fund at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“She is not jumping at each art fair and buying everything she likes — she is really profiling,” said Anda Rottenberg, the former director of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw and one of Poland’s most renowned art historians. “This is the difference between just having the art and having a collection.”

The daughter of a dentist and a Polish pilot who flew with Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II, Ms. Kulczyk was raised in postwar Communist Poland. By the time she entered university to study law in the 1970s, she was hanging out with poets, writers and artists, and had also started collecting Polish film posters.

After what she calls her “bohemian fun” of university life, she married Jan Kulczyk, a businessman who built his fortune in postwar Poland in energy, telecommunications and car dealerships. The couple had two children before divorcing in 2005; Mr. Kulczyk died last year.

grazyna 2As their wealth grew, so did Ms. Kulczyk’s interest in buying art — which, she acknowledges, was initially purchased more for aesthetic reasons than for long-term collecting goals.

“Even if it looks like the choices at the time were obvious and purely visual,” she said, partially in Polish and partially in English, “now coming back 30 years later, I get something more out of it.”

“Art gathering and art collecting, there is a distinction,” she continued, sitting on the couch dressed in knee-high black leather boots, leather trousers and a gray blazer. “It is a linguistic thing but it is really a philosophy.”

Early on she focused her collecting on modern Polish art, with a particular interest in female artists. That brought her into contact with influential gallerists like Monika Sprüth, whose galleries in London, Berlin and Los Angeles represent Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman.

“She was very interested in buying art by women,” Ms. Sprüth said. “This approach is very interesting, it is very genuine, not because it is fashionable right now to do.”
Ms. Kulczyk also became increasingly interested in how Polish art, in many senses cut off from Western artistic practice during the Communist years, could be placed in context alongside international artists.

“What is really interesting is the way in which she displays her collection in relation to works she has acquired by modern and contemporary artists from further afield, including Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Andy Warhol, opening up the regional focus to a broader international context,” Frances Morris, the new director of London’s Tate Modern, wrote in an email.

Works from her collection are often lent out to shows across the globe, and in 2014 the first exhibition of her collection outside Poland was shown at the Santander Art Gallery in Madrid; the show, “Everybody is Nobody for Somebody,” showed works by Polish artists including Miroslaw Balka and Zofia Kulik along with international names like Olafur Eliasson and Antoni Tàpies.

“We always tell people, if you collect, you need to collect what you like because it is the only way you will have a cohesive and interesting personal collection,” said Isabelle Paagman, Sotheby’s European head of private sales, who first worked with Ms. Kulczyk in 2002 when she bought two Warhol silkscreens over the telephone. “We completely skipped that chapter with her,” Ms. Paagman said. “We talked about the content and visual outcome and so she never needed to think about that. It was inherent before she started to collect.”

Ms. Kulczyk has long promoted a 50/50 split between art and commerce; the commercial side of a venture like Stary Browar financed the artistic side. She wants to bring that same philosophy to Warsaw, a city that has a vibrant art scene of commercial and public galleries and spaces, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Center for Contemporary Art.

“There is a strong art scene in Warsaw, quite dynamic in terms of institutions,” said Andrzej Przywara, the director of the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw, “but there are no examples of a big private collection with investment in architecture.”

Ms. Kulczyk also hopes to bring a strong focus on contemporary dance to her Warsaw endeavor. Stary Browar Nowy Taniec is currently the only place in Poland that presents and develops modern choreography year round. “When I met her, one thing I loved about her was she was coming in with a big interest in performing arts and she supports a lot of contemporary dance, which is something that is totally meritorious,” said Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a Mexican-Canadian artist whose works Ms. Kulczyk has collected over the years.

“I often say my work is closer to performing arts than visual arts. So that kind of precedent made me feel really close to her,” he added. “I like the idea of people who understand that collections are something living and something that is performing and something that has a certain theatricality and practicality.”

Until an agreement is drawn up between Ms. Kulczyk and Warsaw officials, the focus for now is on the museum in Switzerland, where Ms. Kulczyk has a home. Located near St. Moritz and less than two hours from the Swiss art centers of Geneva, Zurich and Basel, the museum — part of which is a former brewery — is being renovated by two young Swiss architects, and two young curators, Niels Olsen and Fredi Fischli, are in charge of coming up with the exhibition programming.

“She trusts young people, which I think is really important as a collector,” Mr. Olsen said. “I think this makes her unique because often collectors and institutions follow one track but she goes differently, she goes to unexpected routes.”

This piece originally was published in the International New York Times

photos by Wolfgang Stahr and gala.pl