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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » November 29, 2012
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Polish Art: Young, Hip, Happening
November 29, 2012   
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Galleries are the new go-to places, Sasnal is sexy, artists are all the rage. Such is the new consensus reality. Polish art, however, has only recently commanded this sort of respect, possibly because the art market is still in its infancy when compared with that of other countries. Moreover, modern art now lords it over the classical. This is best illustrated by the fact that Poland’s all-time best-selling painter is a contemporary artist.

Wilhelm Sasnal is a Polish painter who has made his mark on the international art scene. “I sometimes feel weighed down by responsibility. My works are becoming more important now that they are public than they ever were for me personally. They’re becoming talking points. That still strikes me as being rather weird. On the other hand, the upshot of all this is that I have some sort of financial security, people want to watch what I’m up to, and I have a great feeling of freedom. Now I can do whatever I want,” he once said. Sasnal’s works are on display in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Saatchi Gallery and the Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As he says himself, his art is profitable. Not all young artists, however, can claim the same sort of financial success.

Art galleries were almost unheard of in Poland 20 years ago. They rode in on the back of the free market. Polish art has set out to conquer foreign markets but has an uphill battle ahead of it at a time of global financial crisis. “The Polish market is very small and young by world standards. It’s also highly undervalued. But the results of the economic development, progress and social improvement that followed the collapse of communism can be seen in the growth of the Polish art market, which has really started to take off recently,” says Maciej Gajewski, Chief Fine Art Market Analyst at Abbey House Auctioneers. Experts believe that art, especially new art by students and recent graduates from fine arts academies, is immune to economic ups and downs. If anything, stock market falls seem to drive prices up.

The upward trend on the Polish art market is partly due to investors getting involved. People are starting to treat works of art as assets. According to Auction House Abbey House, business and art make a perfect pair. Abbey House is the first industry player in 20 years. The house provides an innovative space for art, seeks out new talent and looks for sponsors, runs training courses, builds brand names, and works with international auction houses to promote Polish artists. As a result, Polish artists can catch up with their counterparts from around the world. “Polish modern art going to boom in the next decade. We have some outstanding artists and first-rate institutions capable of selling their talent internationally. Polish artists are now winning in the international arena and their work is fetching prices comparable to those of their Western counterparts,” said Karolina Nowak when compiling the report Warsaw Galleries 2012. Nowak advises on art investments at Wealth Solutions.

Polish artists are notching up more and more wins internationally. Mirosław Bałka, Jakub Julian Ziółkowski and Wilhelm Sasnal are some of the hottest names out there. Sasnal’s works have increased in value by 700 percent. They were fetching a meager zl.1,000-2,000 in the 1990s. “There are three factors behind the phenomenon that is Sasnal,” says art critic Anna Theiss. “First, his art works on many different levels. He appeals equally to novices, to those looking for intellectual stimulation, and to old hands.”

In addition to increasing popularity and critical acclaim, Polish artworks are commanding higher prices. Taniec z szablami (Saber Dance) by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), recently sold for over $2 million, the triptych Obrazów liczonych (Numbered Paintings) by Roman Opałka (1931-2011) sold for 750,000 pounds, and Sasnal’s paintings go for around 230,000 pounds. “Until recently, postwar artists seldom passed the zl.100,000 mark. Now, some never go below zl.200,000 and others regularly exceed zl.400,000. The Polish modern art market is now hooked into the world market. That’s because 20th-century and contemporary artists are highly successful and may well be even more so in the future. Roman Opałka, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Wilhelm Sasnal can command hundreds of thousands of dollars. The modern art market is also highly attractive to investors. “Some recognized artists have good long-term prospects,” says Gajewski.

At the moment, the Polish art market, as measured by auction and gallery turnover, is valued at zl.300 million and could go as high as zl.2 billion. Warsaw galleries have sold around 400 works for a combined total of zl.5.4 million this season. “The non-appreciation of Polish art is slowly disappearing, although our best artists still only earn a fraction of what their counterparts in other countries make. Polish people are becoming more affluent too. The middle class that will give the market the fillip it needs is coming into being, but a change in people’s awareness is obviously going to be the clincher,” says Gajewski. As many as half the artworks sold worldwide are purchased as much for their potential investment value as for their esthetic appeal, according to research conducted by Deloitte. Polish people are starting to appreciate art from this perspective more frequently too. “You have to bear in mind that an art purchase is an investment, not an expense. Art collecting is going to have to grow even more to create family and corporate collections. And a couple of stereotypes are going to have to fall by the wayside—to wit that artworks are not suitable commercial items and that it is unseemly for an artist to make money,” adds Gajewski.

The Polish art market is bigger and more varied than it was 10 years ago and it is becoming more appealing all the time. This is one reason why initiatives like the Warsaw Gallery Weekend have been set up to promote it. There are meetings with collectors, exhibitions, displays and promotions. All this rams home the potential of the market to those collectors and investors who are interested in outlaying capital in art but who at the same time appreciate its beauty and value. “You have to purchase what you like. You have to buy for yourself. If you buy to sell at a profit, you’re bound to lose. A painting has to be hung in a lounge room or bedroom and you have to live with it. If it appreciates in value, so much the better. Nothing ever comes of tramping around galleries and asking what to buy to make money,” says Wojciech Fibak, a former Polish tennis champion and well-known art collector.

Perceiving art this way and being open to it will give young artists and their work an opportunity to mature and make it in the big bad world of the international marketplace. “Young art, that is the art of students and recent art school graduates, has become a marketable commodity. You could say it’s a new trend. Buying these works combines all the attributes of the aficionado, the patron and the investor in that you’re pandering to your own taste, you’re supporting artists starting out on their careers, and you just might discover some great talent,” says Gajewski. Before you do, though, it would be well worth your while to take the plunge and invest in art. Who knows? That promising artist of today may well turn out to be a giant of the art world in a few years.

Katarzyna Kaczmarek
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