WARSAW — Now in its 12th edition, Warsaw Gallery Weekend is spread across 40 locations around town. According to its director, Joanna Witek-Lipka, women have become more visible as organizers, gallerists, and exhibiting artists. Since she has held the position, she has also witnessed a growing art market and collector base in the city.
Gunia Nowik, whose woman-owned/run Gunia Nowik Gallery featured work by Katarzyna Korzeniecka at its main location, has contributed to the art scene through her professionalization efforts. One such effort, which she spearheaded with three of her colleagues (Marta Kołakowska of Galeria Leto, and Marika Zamojska and Justyna Wesołowska of Polana Institute) was Warsaw’s first contemporary art fair, Hotel Warszawa Art Fair, located at an upscale hotel in the center of town (modeled after the Felix Art Fair at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles). Even though the fair experienced an influx of visitors and solid sales, Nowik expressed her wish for more international visitors to experience Warsaw’s dynamic art scene. She also emphasized her independence as a woman and gallerist as the driving factors for opening Gunia Nowik Gallery in July of 2021.
The energy Nowik noted was palpable during WGW. A steady flow of people crowded every space I visited. Warsaw has several gallery clusters, but they are strewn across the city in every direction, which requires a lot of legwork, public transport, and careful planning if you are trying to see as much as possible within a short period of time. Some works were more memorable than others. Katarzyna Korzeniecka at Gunia Nowik Gallery and Ada Zielińska’s paper works at Propaganda stood out due to their materials and processes, suspended between painting, sculpture, and installation. Karol Radziszewski’s remarkable short film, “Afterimages,” at Kino Amondo centered on a roll of film by gay activist Ryszard Kisiel — the founder of Poland’s first gay zine, Filo. As the film crosses the screen frame by frame, Kisiel describes its contents, which alternate between explicit scenes of gay intimacy and mundane shots of Sopot, a coastal resort town popular among Polish gay men in the 1980s. WGW also revealed communal networks that point to the city’s tightly-knit art communities and their practices of collaboration and exchange. In addition, I was struck by countless figurative paintings with an affinity for the mythological and surreal.
At Biuro Wystaw, a gallery space founded by the Polish Modern Art Foundation, curator Sarmen Beglarian drew attention to another aspect of Warsaw’s contemporary art: the presence of Ukrainian artists who either fled Russia’s war or who continue to work from within Ukraine. Beglarian explained the plight of Yevgen Samborsky, who left Kyiv for Bucha (site of the now infamous massacre) only to escape the capitol’s suburb by the skin of his teeth when Russian tanks started rolling in. To allow Samborsky a short respite from the war, the gallery obtained a work visa, which is valid for a few days (military-aged men like Samborsky are prohibited from leaving Ukraine). “At least he can forget for a little while,” Beglarian said. When the curator mentioned his work with Russian artists and galleries in the past, I asked if he was still in contact with them. He is, but he tells them, “I can only work with you when the war is over and until then you need to understand that we are dealing with a [Russian] fascist state.” In other words, business as usual is not an option.
For the first time in WGW’s history, a parallel effort to unite the city’s artist-run spaces under the banner of Fringe Warszawa was initiated. Taking place during the same weekend, nine spaces demonstrated that WGW is more than the sum of its official galleries and institutions. In contrast to WGW, the non-commercial nature of Fringe allowed for artist-driven exhibitions and experimental formats. Ahead of this year’s art weekend, artist-curators Katie Zazenski and Martyna Stołpiec of Stroboskop Art Space turned to the other spaces to formally announce Fringe alongside WGW. According to Zazenski, Stołpiec, and some of the Fringe Warszawa participants, the goal is to keep this format for the future in the hopes of increasing artist-run spaces and giving them a lasting presence in the city.
Due to the modest size of Warsaw’s art scene, overlaps and collaborations occur between artists and curators from both WGW and Fringe. Some artists who showed at WGW had previous exhibitions at artist-run spaces like Stroboskop. Artist Dorota Buczkowska, for example, participated at Fringe’s pop-up space Koszykowa 35 (a two-person exhibition with her mother, Anna Buczkowska) and WGW gallery Jednostka. The presence of Fringe enriches and even fills some gaps of WGW as the former allows artists and organizers to reimagine alternative exhibition models. Josh Plough of Fundacja Ziemniaki_i raised the question what a sustainable future for artists and their communities looks like. Affordability, sustainability (both ecologically and in terms of self-sufficiency), and independence are artists’ main concerns. One system alone, either the commercial gallery system or artist-run-spaces, cannot offer long-term solutions for a thriving art scene in Warsaw when skyrocketing inflation and a lack of affordable studio spaces has become the new norm.
“All will end well.” These words appeared on Ola Korbańska’s room-sized banner at Fundacja Ziemniaki i’s pop-up space. The back of her banner revealed another phrase: “If it’s not well, it’s not the end.” Korbańska’s banner warns that a positive outlook alone will not solve some of the most pressing issues of our time. Her words are open enough to allow viewers to decide what exactly is at stake (ecological disaster, war, equality, human rights). But her work also proposes a way forward by pointing to individual responsibility: if something needs betterment, act on it. Looking forward, I am hopeful that indeed all will be well when future iterations of WGW, along with Fringe, amplify Warsaw’s artistic richness and diversity.
Warsaw Gallery Weekend and Fringe Warszawa (various venues, Warsaw, Poland) took place from September 29-October 2. WGW was organized by Warsaw Gallery Weekend sp. z o.o. with Director Joanna Witek-Lipka. Fringe was organized by its participating galleries.
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