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Why a Polish Billionaire Built a Museum in the Swiss Alps

Polish investor, art collector, and philanthropist Grażyna Kulczyk says the goal of Museum Susch is to platform “new voices and positions that are often left outside the canon of male-dominated art history.”

The sprawling Muzeum Susch from above (© Claudio Von Planta courtesy Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH)

Susch, Switzerland — It’s hard these days to stand out as a new museum. One way is to build a cultural outpost in a pristine natural environment, creating a unique synergy by appealing to tourists eager to experience both culture and nature. Another way is to add unique architectural features — like a bat cave that doubles as an exhibition space, for example. Welcome to Muzeum Susch, the newest in a long line of private museums that are becoming increasingly more prevalent the world over. But what’s at stake with the recent upsurge of private museums? That’s a question I endeavored to answer on a recent visit to the newly-constructed Muzeum Susch in Switzerland.

It is here, in the Engadin Valley, that Polish investor, art collector, and billionaire philanthropist Grażyna Kulczyk, has decided to open a new multidisciplinary institution this past January. Platforming what she told me on a recent visit as “new voices and positions that are often left outside the canon of male-dominated art history,” it signals a third-way to stand out as an emerging cultural institution: by creating an historically viable alternative to the status quo, a canon-correcting endeavor that functions partly as exhibition space, partly as research institute, which in this case is focused on underrepresented post-war artists from Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom are women.

The cavernous interior of the museum (© Studio Stefano Graziani courtesy Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH)

Yet, the social space that museums tend to embody have traditionally, at least in Europe, been public, however, in the United States, private museums that are publicly accessible remain standard. And while the emergence of glitzy new private museums that are publicly accessible is certainly nothing new, particularly in the United States and Switzerland, the move towards privatizing culture is something that, I thought at least, warrants a closer look today. While the schism between public (state-funded) and private (patron-funded) institutions remains a talking point in Europe, so too comes the need for challenging the empire-building patrons who construct them. The conundrum begs the question: what on earth brought Kulczyk here?

Kulczyk’s longstanding patronage of the arts began in the 1970s while a student in Poznań. There, she started buying posters, one of the commonly available and readily accessible forms of art under communism. Back then, “it was difficult to collect, much less exhibit art,” she told me during my visit to Susch last month, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she found new ways to collect and exhibit art, often in unexpected places.

The experimental nature of the museum is surprising in comparison to its picture-perfect exterior (© Studio Stefano Graziani courtesy Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH)

In the early 1990s, along with her late husband Jan Kulczyk, the two opened several of the first car dealerships in Poland. It was here, she told me, where she would often organize pop-up art exhibitions of artists she admired. “Back then, people were more interested in cars than in art,” she said, but as her interest in exhibiting and collecting art grew, so too did she need to find new venues and ways of exhibiting artists she admired.

In 1998, she broke ground on what was then her most ambitious project to date — the reconstruction of a dilapidated brewery in the center of Poznań, a massive complex amplifying her “50/50” approach to merging art and commerce, dedicating one half of it to commercial use, the other half to cultural use. In 2003, the Stary Browar opened, housing Kulczyk’s Art Stations Foundation and Stary Browar Nowy Taniec (Old Brewery New Dance) center. As a patron of the arts, Kulczyk remains today, as she has for decades, one of the most prolific and deep-pocketed, visionary and respected collectors in Poland. Erecting a museum in Switzerland, however, came after numerous failed attempts to erect one Poland. After negotiations fell through first in Kulczyk’s home of Poznań, and later in Warsaw, she turned her sights elsewhere.

When I asked Kulczyk about the reasons why she decided to abandon her plans — years in the making — to open a museum in Poland, she referenced the challenging situation in the country, without getting into specifics. Accordingly, one can only speculate on the reasons why Kulczyk decided to decamp from her native Poland, abandoning her plans to build a museum for her collection (valued at $100 million USD), elsewhere.

The museum’s interior hybridizes nature, art, and industry (© Studio Stefano Graziani courtesy Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH)

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has waged a near-incessant war on arts and culture, along with progressive causes including LGBTQ rights, the rights of refugees and minorities, and anything that falls outside party’s narrow view of Polish history and identity from within.

On the surface, the construction of Kulczyk’s museum seems to run counter to many of the ideologies supported by PiS — a supporter of progressive causes and oft-forgotten histories including feminist narratives and those supporting of minorities.

The Muzeum Susch is housed in a repurposed 12th-century monastery and brewery, located in a remote Swiss Village about 100 miles south-east of Zurich. The building has been re-designed by an architect duo, Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy, containing 26 sprawling rooms for exhibitions and art, including one noteworthy cavernous dwelling made by micro-blasting 9,000 tons of rock from an adjacent mountain.

In Susch, Kulczyk has assembled a progressive-thinking team led by Director Mareike Dittmer (former associate publisher of frieze d/e), alongside managing curator Krzysztof Kościuczuk, together with project manager Sonia Jakimczyk. A total of 11 permanent artworks have also been installed in the museum, eight of which have been made by women, including one mind-bending and unique, non-functional staircase, constructed by Monika Sosnowska situated in the museum’s main artery.

The museum will also host two or three temporary rotating exhibitions per year, the first of which is being curated by Kasia Redzisz, senior curator at the Tate Liverpool, whom Kulczyk has known for several years. Kulczyk says that while her intentions are not to use the museum as a showcase for her own private collection, she’s more interested in focusing on broader thematic art historical subjects, henceforth she plans on working with outside curators and art historians on a project-by-project basis.

Muzeum Susch’s first temporary exhibition, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, nevertheless contains about 40 percent of work taken from Kulczyk’s  personal collection. It contains a number of well-known names like Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas, and Maria Lassnig, displayed alongside lesser-known artists like Ida Applebroog, Iris Von Roten, and Sylvia Sleigh — many of whom Redzisz rightfully contends remain severely under-represented within 20th-century, post-war art history. Accordingly, the exhibition functions like a cenotaph, slashing into art history from below, a canon correcting project that feels both timely and necessary.

The exhibition’s title references a collection of insightful essays by novelist Siri Hustvedt, describing how the omission of female voices occurs from one culture to the next. Hustvedt states matter-of-factly in her opening essay that “a work of art has no sex.” This does not mean that the spiritual and material traces of art remain unchanged or monolithic, quite to the contrary, Hustvedt says, it takes to task the social and political conditions in which art is made, deconstructing how gender is engulfed in an imminent state of permanent becoming.

The museum’s concrete interior reveals its past as a monastery (© Studio Stefano Graziani courtesy Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH)

One work I saw as referencing this idea was Alina Szapocznikow‘s “Headless Torso” (1968), which spoke to me on the conditions of embodied erasure so many women artists often face. The sculpture takes the shape of a bare-chested woman set against a darkly ominous polyurethane and plaster resin background, her voluptuous, anonymous figure, looming as if it was about to enter a timeless, immutable cultural abyss.

Appropriation also serves here as a canon correcting endeavor. Case in point being Hannah Wilke’s “Through the Large Glass” (1976), a work in which artist inserts herself performing an iconic striptease in and around Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” (1915-1923) at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. In doing so, she appropriates the Dada masterpiece as if it were some piece of kitsch on the site of her own personal burlesque set. I chuckled in amusement, voyeuristically captivated by Wilke’s naked, coiling body. In the black and white, grainy video, Wilke’s movements seemed to gesturally reference Hustvedt’s thesis, and by extension Redzisz and Kulczyk’s too, inviting us to look at contemporary art as a destabilizing force that has the power to reconcile art history from below.

Notwithstanding these and other canon busting artworks, private museums seem to be all the rage these days. One cannot disassociate the rise of private museums with the plundering of public resources and social programs under neoliberalism. As Claire Bishop notes in her critique of The Shed published in Artforum last year: “The construction of yet another enormous venue for culture feels like the harbinger of a horrible new world in which all public services are drained of resources but every High Net Worth Individual can evade taxes by pouring a fraction of their profits into a cultural project that enhances their social status.”

Indeed, the enigma of spectacularly constructed cultural safaris underpins a world in which financial prowess is more important than ever, of which the Muzeum Susch is just the latest example. Less than 30 miles north-west of Susch, the annual World Economic Forum takes place every year, in the Swiss alpine resort town of Davos. There, the global elite gathers — as they have every year since 1971 — to discuss everything not being discussed by movements like the Yellow Vests.

Leaving Susch felt like an LSD epiphany, both literally and figuratively — an ego-busting, canon-melting experience par excellence. Gathering my composure, I boarded the bus back to Zurich full of mixed feelings. “Buy art, build a museum, put your name on it. That’s as close as you can get to immortality,” the British artist Damien Hirst once said. As the swarm of banks once again came into view, UBS, Credit Suisse, etc., I was reminded of art’s inevitable social and financial entanglement. I thought about the Medicis, the Guggenheims, but also the Vogels, once described by Judd Tully as the most “proletarian” of “art collectors.” In the long history of art, from ancient Mesopotamia to New York City, the necessity of private financial patronage has never been stronger nor more important. I’m just not exactly sure whether that’s a good thing. Nor, I reasoned, has there ever really been a viable alternative.

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