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//This Will Not be a Conversation About Money// – Paulina Olszewska discusses the presentation of Polish art abroad with Monika Branicka, co-founder of the Żak Branicka Gallery

This Will Not be a Conversation About Money – Paulina Olszewska discusses the presentation of Polish art abroad with Monika Branicka, co-founder of the Żak Branicka Gallery

The programme of the Żak Branicka Gallery, founded towards the end of 2008, refers to the tradition and history of the avant-garde of Central and Eastern Europe in combination with contemporary art. The aim of the gallery is to support its artists in building their international position. A foundation bearing the same name complements the Gallery’s activities by running individual projects in art and publishing. The Gallery is headed by Monika Branicka, an art critic and historian, and Joanna Żak-Persons, an artist. It is situated at 34–35 Lindenstrasse, Berlin, between the districts of Mitte and Kreuzberg.


PAULINA OLSZEWSKA: You have run a gallery focusing on contemporary art from Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, since 2009. Why are you interested in this area?

Monika Branicka: Asia Żak and I both come from Krakow, so this choice of profile came naturally. We were in a great position when we were setting up the gallery, as we were able to acquire some renowned artists, such as Katarzyna Kozyra, Zofia Kulik, Józef Robakowski and Joanna Rajkowska. Despite being recognised by museums, they were hardly represented on the art market. It had nothing to do with the artists themselves, it was just that the art market in Poland was then practically non-existent. In Germany, where our gallery is located, a similar situation would be hard to even imagine. Most of the local galleries have been run for several generations and their owners ‘mature’ with their artists, jointly building their prestige and reputation. There are also big galleries-enterprises with huge capital, which select their artists on the basis of market analyses. If you open a gallery in Berlin without considerable funds, experience in the industry and a good network, you will not be able to acquire artists that, let’s say, represented Germany at the Venice Biennale. They already have their agents.


How did the public opinion react to such a choice of profile?

In general, people were astonished. ‘Central and Eastern European art? What kind of a profile is that supposed to be?’, they asked. One gallerist called me and said, quite indignantly, that nobody was interested in what we were trying to offer and that our ‘Polish profile is a joke’. Lately however, she has been showing more and more works of Polish artists. This sudden change of heart is a reflection of a broader trend, visible also on the example of both public and private institutions and collections. The West finally realised that it used to be very selective in its attitude towards history of art. They overlooked 80 years and half of Europe. At the same time, the countries behind the Iron Curtain developed in interesting directions and this gap in knowledge, and therefore collection, is quite huge. We need to make up for the lost time.

And now, how do people react to your actions and exhibitions?

Very positively. In order to earn its position in the circle, a gallery needs to operate for several years and prove that it can maintain a certain level. You need to know what you want to achieve and be persistent. After some time the art circles slowly start co-operating with you, even though at the beginning it may be difficult to reach them.


People come to your gallery because it presents good pieces or because they are interested in Polish art?

The art we display is not mainstream. Objectively speaking, for a commercial gallery it is a drawback, since people looking for ‘blue chips’ will be disappointed. However, we think it is our strength. We do not have any random guests, so we are not forced to discuss whether a painting will suit someone’s sofa. Our clients know what to expect from our exhibitions. To put it simply, they visit us because they know they will see some good art.


Four or five years ago, people were talking of a boom for Central and Eastern European art.

There was indeed a trend like that for a couple of years. That part of our continent was treated as a sort of curiosity. However, the situation was hardly comfortable; people really did not take the art seriously. I think that it is over now and Central and Eastern European art is no longer just a fad. And that’s better.


How do you, a gallerist with the experience of both Berlin and international art scene, perceive Polish art circles? Do you still keep in touch with the art market in Poland?

Yes, of course. I am very happy with the growing number of young, active collectors. Lately also museums have become more active, mostly because of the new institutions that need to build their collections from scratch, a unique phenomenon in Europe. Whenever I tell people in Germany that Poland has opened several new museums in the last few years and is planning to set up new institutions, everyone is impressed.


So what is the state of our art market according to you?

We still need time. The art market is going to take care of itself and there is no need to worry. Private collectors travel a lot and learn fast. I wish that public institutions, such as national museums, created such opportunities for their employees. Curators should visit the Venice Biennale, Art Basel and documenta in Kassel, otherwise it will be hard for them to excel in their profession. This is where they can learn about fresh trends, see unique works and establish new contacts. Unfortunately, not everyone in Poland has this opportunity. There is still not enough money and, first of all, good will. Curators working in Western museums may not have it easy, but sometimes the entire curators’ department gets on a plane and goes to Kassel or Basel for ‘professional training’.


What else do you think is lacking in the Polish art market?

Poland should have more professional galleries. I would like to see that the art circles don’t talk only about money. What counts for me is an educated conversation about art and its functioning, whereas in Poland art is still being reduced to prices only. I can always recognise Polish guests in my gallery – they read the price list before even taking a look at the exhibition. Prices should be no more than the last criterion on the list, and I am saying this as a commercial gallery owner.


I would like to discuss the topic of co-operation between private galleries and Polish public institutions. I think that the latter are still wary of such ideas.

Public institutions in Poland want nothing to do with private enterprises. Lately, it has started to change in some ways thanks to new contemporary art museums, however there is still a lot to be done. I think that in part they are afraid of being accused of spending public money on private initiatives, but for the most part it stems from the public/private dichotomy, imprinted in Polish mentality since the times in which entrepreneurs were referred to in rather pejorative terms. Public institutions still do not trust private undertakings, they always think that there must be an ulterior motive, that the main goal of such galleries is to earn money, even if it’s illegal. Well, there may be some people like that, but in most cases this is sheer nonsense. This weird situation applies not only to the relations between private and public institutions but also to the social perception of art as a profession.


Is this a question of history?

Yes, during 50 years of socialism Poland had no art market and artists rarely, if ever, sold their works. They earned their living from other sources, for instance public procurement, working on the side and social benefits. This was a sick situation and a sick system. Now that we are returning to normality and artists want to earn their living by making art, everyone is somehow against. Artists do not spend five years at the Academy for pleasure; they have the right to treat art as a paid profession. As for your question, the public opinion has some sort of an ethical problem with private institutions that support themselves with their own funds and no problem with public institutions fed by our taxes. Meanwhile, there is no significant difference between what public and private institutions do. We share a common goal – to support and disseminate art. The only real distinction lies in the source of financing. The public sector survives on public funding, the private sells works of art. What we earn allows artists to pay the rent for their flat or studio, and I can cover my gallery’s current expenses to organise another exhibition. I think that public and private institutions are two sides of the same coin and should respect each other. In Germany it is quite common, so it seems that there is room for co-operation.


It is true that private galleries and public institutions in Berlin co-operate to organise larger events.

There are many possible levels of such co-operation, beginning with the catalogue, through assistance in establishing certain contacts, to more substantive support in organising exhibitions. You know who praises our exhibitions the most? Museum curators and journalists. We often here that ‘this is like a museum exhibition’. German curators do visit private institutions and appreciate their activities. In Poland, we meet with a lack of trust.


What strikes me the most when I visit the UdK[1] in Berlin during open door days is the way in which first and second year students are prepared: portfolios, profiles and art web portals, price lists. They are ready to face the market. At Polish academies, such an attitude is very rare. When asked about prices, students are dumbfounded.

The attitude of Polish art students is schizophrenic. Half of them are dumbfounded because they have no experience with galleries and do not know how to behave. The other half are hungry for commercial success and quote prices off the wall, completely out of touch with reality. Both of these attitudes are extreme. They lack balance that I try to promote.


What advantages do you see when artists approach galleries prepared and aware of what the art market is?

Well, in this case I don’t need to explain the basics, for instance what it means that a gallery represents an artist. When I hear that someone ‘just wants to organise an exhibition’ with us, I take a deep breath and say that a private gallery has nothing to do with the Art Exhibition Office BWA. We get such queries because people do not understand the role of a private gallery. I have to explain that an exhibition represents approximately ten percent of the entire co-operation between the artist and the gallery and is a result of many other activities, such as writing texts, presenting the artist at art fairs, preparing documentation, creating catalogues or the magazine that we publish, talking with museums, institutions, curators etc. But how are they supposed to know all this when there are still so few institutions of this type in Poland?

[1] Universität der Künste – the biggest school in Berlin teaching fine arts, visual arts, architecture, music and design.