Interview with Marta Kołakowska, founder of the gallery Leto in Warsaw
In a very candid interview, Marta Kołakowska – who has been described by Los Angeles curator Martha Kirzenbaum in The New York Times as “one of the most generous and unmissable forces in the Polish art world” – told us about what it’s like to run a gallery in Poland in these troubled times. But she hasn’t lost hope.
What is your background and when did you decide to found a gallery?
I finished my studies in History of Art and then Cultural Management in Krakow at Jagiellonian University before moving to Warsaw. I started working in the education department at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, but I realized I was too old to work in an institution! Students in Warsaw start their practice much earlier. So I began working with auction houses, for the next five years I traveled all over the world bringing lost Polish masterpieces back to the country to sell to Polish collectors. In the end, though it was not my passion, I was more interested in contemporary art. In 2007 I found a place in Warsaw and I rented it from the city, an interesting place among the buildings that had been destroyed during the Second World War so all the other floors were totally empty. It was 100m2, which is quite a big space for a young gallery.
How would you describe your program, and how is it different from other Warsaw galleries?
You might say that my gallery is a private institution, financed through independent means, whose goal is to build up the image of our artists both locally and internationally. We also produce an international program, inviting artists from abroad to debut their works in Poland. Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with artists and institutions from across Europe, including Holland’s Marius Lut, Gorrila, and Showroom Mama, France’s Florian and Michael Quistrebert, Miks Mitrevics of Lithuania, Czech Republic’s Black Hole Generation, and Slovenia’s Svätopluk Mikyta.
Most of all, LETO serves as a home base for artists affiliated with the gallery – artists with Polish roots who are living abroad, such as Angelika Markul (France), Konrad Smoleński (Switzerland), Marcin Dudek (Belgium), Maurycy Gomulicki (Mexico), Radek Szlaga (a globetrotter mainly stationed in Detroit, who’s headed for Kenya at the moment). We partner up with publishers, production houses, we contribute to the production of independent projects, providing exhibition spaces for artistic actions that I feel deserve our support. Over the past few years, LETO has been carrying on a “romance” with fashion, which has brought the FASHHHART by LETO series to life, meshing art and fashion in performative actions that are far from your typical fashion show. We’ve also collaborated with talented Polish designers and collectives like Joanna Hawrot, SURPLUS and NEIGE.
What kind of space and location have you chosen for your gallery?
Over the past ten years, my gallery has changed locations more times than I can count. The real estate situation in Warsaw is rather tough. On the other hand, this has allowed me to experience different sides of the city. From the very center to the other side of the river. Our gallery has been housed in a post-industrial production facility, the headquarters of a chimney sweeps association, a landmark pre-war townhouse. Today, we’re located in a former laboratory for psychological testing. Hmm, this list reads like a curated art project in itself. We’ll have to see where we end up next… With each move, the size of our space determines the scale of our projects. The current space is optimal, compact. An exhibition space, office, and warehouse. You don’t need 400 qm2 to host a good show.
There is a lot of talk about the crisis of small and mid-size gallery. What is your opinion? And your strategies?
When it comes to the subject of galleries in crisis, I could say a lot since I’ve been in crisis practically from the start. It’s second nature to me. What it does is pushes us to work harder. We’re from Poland, where there’s no tradition of art collecting. Add the ugly stamp that communism impressed upon society, which still lingers. The art market as a whole is no more than 10-20 years old. It’s hard to compare with the rest of Europe. This is where we can link hands with other galleries from the Eastern Bloc. The galleries that caught the first wave of interest following Poland’s joining the EU are still riding it. That was 2004, my gallery wouldn’t have been able to exist, much like many others active today. There’s constantly a new “trend,” it takes a lot of work to hold up interest in the artists who’ve put their faith in you. You can’t change your roster just because there’s a fashion for “matchsticks.” Good art will always hold itself up. But collectors are always looking for something new. Galleries fall into ruin because they invest so much in mega-productions for their booths to satisfy the greedy eyes of the art world. This leaves them in debt, much of it owed to their artists, and eventually they have to admit to failure. It’s a miserable situation. For a few years, I also fell prey to the mirage. But now, for the past few years, I’ve followed the rule of “less is more.” Building relationships between galleries and reciprocal strategies of action is our priority.
Is there someone who inspired you in your career as a gallerist?
When I was a student, there wasn’t much said about the big players on the international market. We knew more about the Denise René Gallery than about Barbara Gladstone. That’s why, when I decided to open LETO, I had to accept that it was going to be a drawn-out process of trial and error. I didn’t have anyone to ask for advice. It was all too fresh.
A positive and a negative memory of you career as a gallerist?
Every one of the memories I have associated with LETO brings on a specific image or emotion. Our history is pretty stormy. Parting ways with artists, having to find a new space on short notice, but as they say, what doesn’t kill you make you stronger. And that’s just how it is. Over time, I achieved enough perspective to accept setbacks with a good measure of calm, it’s no longer the end of the world. I’m glad I can keep doing what I’m doing. I have a wonderful group of artists, many of whom, like Angelika, Honza, and Maurycy, are also my friends. We know we can count on one another. My former employees are also quite emotionally attached to LETO. These relationships endure. Sebastian Gawłowski, LETO’s artistic director is my lifeline and we continue to work, with the faith that one day, all this energy that we’re giving out is going to come back to us.
If you could choose to exhibit any artist, even from another era, who would you pick?
If I could go wild and put on the exhibition of my dreams, it would be a group show, titled Aleksandra Waliszewska and the Quattrocento Masters. At The Uffizi, of course. I don’t see why not.
How is the art scene in Poland currently developing?
What we’re dealing with today is an attack on artistic freedom of expression. It’s an attempt to marginalize the current world of art and push it into a dark corner by cutting grants and funds, withdrawing financial support for extended art projects, for public institutions, and art publications. There are the dismissals of directors of public institutions, such as the case of Dorota Monkieiwcz, director of the National Museum in Wroclaw. Ironically, she was fired the same year that Wroclaw was serving as the European Capital of Culture. The nomination of a new director, carried out by a commission of members who were not impartial and entirely unversed in the specific workings of the institution, is an expample of actions that are blatantly beyond the museum’s interest. A wave of “cleansing” engulfed Polish Cultural Institutes all over the world when their respective directors were systematically dismissed. For trivial reasons… or sometimes no reason at all. Then there is the thrusting of a very particular programming concept onto these institutions, which is evidently geared at popularizing national art, centered around national holidays and memorials. And there are the attempts to force galleries to adapt to the ideological standards of the “good change” across the country.
What’s happening under PiS isn’t only an attack on the visual arts. Its scale is much greater. It’s an attack on Polish contemporary theater, by way of the dismissal of directors, performances, the persecution of actors. It’s the degrading of their previous accomplishments, the discrediting of artists and their works. There’s no room for debate. Everything happens in the corridors of the ministry without broader consultations, conversations. An evident meddling in the media – television and radio.
I was born in the 1970s. In poor and troubled times. I grew up in communist Poland and as a child I bore witness to groundbreaking historical events that took place in my country. In 1981, I wasn’t really aware what martial law was about, but in 1989, I was acutely aware of what the round table meetings were all about. Democracy and the free market were born in Poland right before my eyes. In 2004 Poland became part of the European Union. We became a full-fledged member of Europe. This changed many of our lives in a major way. That’s why it’s so difficult for me and many of my peers to understand the current situation. As if we were living in two parallel universes. Because, after all, this new government was elected in a democratic vote, which means that half of us voted for it. I’m concerned about the lack of understanding, not even an ounce of good will on the part of the authorities to listen to us. The only form of communication we have left is protests and petitions. I have a quiet hope this won’t last much longer. And that instead of two steps back, we’ll take a great leap forward!
ul. Dzielna 5
00-162 Warsaw, Poland