Let’s talk: Hanna Wróblewska, Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska & Friedhelm Hütte on the “VIEWS” Award

Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, and the Polish Institute in Berlin are taking stock of the “VIEWS” Award with the exhibition “COMMON AFFAIRS”: What is the state of young Polish art today?
Friedhelm Hütte: The Zachęta Gallery, Deutsche Bank, and its foundation launched the “VIEWS” Award in 2003. Let’s look back at the period around 2000, when people outside of Poland first discovered that there was an interesting art scene in the country. What was the situation like at that time? And looking back at the last sixteen years, what is the importance of the award today?

Hanna Wróblewska: It’s a long story. As you know, Polish people love history. So let’s go back to the 1990s, because at that time a sweeping transformation was taking place.

FH: Didn’t that occur prior to 1989?

HW: No, after 1989. The people of Poland suddenly had a lot of freedom, but they thought about it mostly in terms of the free market or personal liberties, like the freedom to travel. Politicians as well as the general public had completely forgotten about culture. People did not see culture as something having to do with their everyday lives. Culture was separated, additional, extraneous. Even people working in the cultural sector conveyed the impression that they thought the free market was of far more importance than cultural values. Given this situation, artists had to fight to gain visibility. They had to find the right tools, the right voice in order to be heard – not only by politicians, but also by large parts of society. In the 1990s, censorship ended and artists could say whatever they liked. As it turned out, artists started to say things that people didn't want to hear. Artists first had to get society and the media to listen to them, in order to remind everyone of the fact that culture isn’t something additional or extraneous, but deeply rooted in everyday life. That is the beginning of the story.

FH: Was only contemporary art caught in this conflict or were literature, theater, and filmmaking in the same boat?

Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska: For the people, the new political system meant that their lives suddenly and utterly changed. They had to adapt to a very new situation, much like the East German people in the wake of German reunification. But what is particularly important is that our old system had been state-oriented in general, so prizes tended also to be state prizes.

FH: Still today?

WS: Things have changed a little, but not very much. Some state institutions became municipal institutions. This is very important because it means they are no longer subordinate to the national ministry of culture, but to the city. In general, though, system is still based on state money, and art prizes are still awarded by state institutions. I think the Deutsche Bank prize was the first award for artists at this level to be sponsored by a private institution. It also reflects corporate social responsibility, which was a new concept in Poland.

HW: What was very important for Polish artists was that the Deutsche Bank prize offered a kind of protection. At the time, most intellectuals and the middle class in Poland believed in the free market, in institutions such as banks. But they didn't like art, especially controversial art, because such art usually attacks common sense. For example, there was a kind of cold war between the art world and society with regards to Zbigniew Libera—one of the best known Polish artists. And then the two biggest institutions in the country, one public and one private, came together and said: “Contemporary art is good and it’s worth paying attention to. Let's cooperate, let's create a prize together to tell Polish society and the government that visual art is not about beauty and entertainment, but that it constitutes an integral part of daily life, that it helps us to understand reality.” I think this was the primary contribution made by the Views competition and the Deutsche Bank prize. And that’s why we tried to get as many people as possible involved in the prize, in the nomination process, and in the discussion about contemporary art. Deutsche Bank was very open to this. The first proposal was: Let's launch the prize. We will choose the best artist, have an exhibition at the Zachęta, and publish a catalogue. We made a point of including curators and artists from cities other than Warsaw, we didn’t want to have people from Warsaw selecting an artist from Warsaw. We – together – chose seven people and asked an independent curator to organize the exhibition. From the very outset, we decided to provide money for the artist’s fee and for the production of the work, which was not common at the time. When we created the Deutsche Bank prize, we made a concerted effort to be fair to the artists, to the institution, and to society.

WS: It was very important to anchor the prize in the Polish art scene, the people who choose the artists have to be familiar with this scene. So that it did not seem as if a UFO landed in Poland and then selected the artists. It is not a colonial undertaking along the lines of: Okay, we will tell you what is good and what is not good. The selection is based on a rather grass roots method of choosing artists. Most of Poland’s top artists have been nominated in the sixteen years since the prize was first awarded, from Paweł Althamer to Monika Sosnowska, Konrad Smoleński, and now Iza Tarasewicz in the latest edition. Thus confirming the process.

FH: It is extremely admirable that you have been able to maintain this high level for sixteen years.

HW: It is a continual topic of discussion. There is a lot of debate about the prize. People complain. They ask, why are there no painters? Why not Wilhelm Sasnal or Jakub Julian Ziółkowski?

FH: Looking at all the nominees, what is really striking is that the majority work with installation and videos, as well as performances and actions. Looking at Views you get the impression there is no painting at all, but if you look at the market you get the feeling that there is a lot of painting. Is this dearth of painting due to the tastes of the curators? Is there a historical background to this?

HW: It is the result of open discussion between the people who nominate the artists. The jury changes every two years, but all of the jury members are top-level curators, artists, and art professionals. I too find it strange that they don’t nominate painters. Of course performance is quite common in Polish art, and paintings are seen to be appreciated by the art market anyway. Maybe the idea is to put an umbrella of protection over something more experimental than painting usually is, but it’s rather a question of specific decisions than an issue of strategical long-term attitude.    

FH: The exhibition COMMON AFFAIRS, which we are all bringing to Berlin together, is being shown on the 25th anniversary of the German-Polish friendship treaty, celebrating also a quarter century of city partnership between Berlin and Warsaw. What was your personal motivation for supporting this project, and why is it of interest to your institution?

WS: It was not our express intent to mount the show on the anniversary, but the title does reflect the connection. Our initial idea was to organize a Berlin exhibition to finally show what Deutsche Bank has been doing for so many years in Poland. I have known Berlin for a long time now and I love the city, but I have the feeling that for the last ten years, during which Berlin has become more and more cosmopolitan, it has lost interest in the countries that neighbor Germany. What I would like to see is a regular exhibition of Polish contemporary art in Berlin that presents its most important and interesting currents. This prize shows how important sculpture is in Polish art today, and how important video art has been. I am really happy that this exhibition is taking place in this year of commemorations, because it also shows the links between our two countries, and how strong ties are on a civic level. The treaty was a political act, but during the last 25 years our societies have grown very close too. The exhibition is a “common affair” in the truest sense. The curators are working together, discussing how to bring together what is interesting from the German point of view and what is interesting from the Polish point of view, in terms of curatorial practice. In the end, we will be able to present a wide selection of Polish artists in Berlin. This investment demonstrates how the German private sector is involved in the Polish art scene, without having any direct benefit from it.

HW: What is also very interesting is the fact that you can see many exhibitions of brilliant Polish artists here in Berlin and throughout Germany. But almost all of the artists in such exhibitions are represented by private galleries. That means that until now people have only been able to see the private part of the Polish art scene. But the “VIEWS”-Award also includes artists, who for one reason or another, are not represented by private galleries. COMMON AFFAIRS will show some of these artists in Berlin. So you have the option to see another part of the Polish art scene. In fact, the Polish art scene has a double view of the art market. As you probably know, there is an art market in Poland, to a much greater extent than in Slovakia or the Czech Republic, but it’s still quite weak. Many artists in Poland work outside the art market, which means they are not very visible to the outside world. It is quite interesting to see these artists, both represented and not represented, from a totally different perspective, in a totally different exhibition.

FH: So people visiting both parts of the show – at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle and at the Polish Institute – can expect to see something new, something they wouldn’t ordinarily be able see here in Berlin?

WS: Yes. There will be many new works. Some of the artists will also reinvent the works they presented for the prize.

HW: A funny story: A group of Polish artists called Azorro have produced many films. One of them, about the art market, was made in 2000 in Berlin. The film’s protagonists come to Berlin from Poland to look for the best gallery, simply because they would like to have an exhibition at the best gallery. They approach the Deutsche Guggenheim, and of course are not accepted. Now, however, they are part of a show in the same space, at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle.

FH: Do you think that the award is an important stepping stone for each artist’s professional career? Does it change something for an artist to be nominated for or awarded the Views prize? What is your experience?

HW: This question is not easy to answer. Let’s just say that I don’t believe that careers are launched with one show or one prize.

FH: But in terms of attracting attention…

HW: I hope so! Konrad Smoleński is a perfect example. Right after he received the prize he was nominated for the Venice Biennale. You know, I prefer to see this prize in the context of a social environment. To me the question of protection is ultimately the most important one: How can we show a Polish audience that the arts and culture are important for everyone?

WS: “Common affairs” is a term that is in the media continually, and I think we can find very different approaches to this topic in the art world. In my view, that is the most important thing.

Hanna Wróblewska is the director of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. In 2003, she played a key role in the foundation of the Deutsche Bank “VIEWS” Award. She curated retrospectives on the work of AndrzejWróblewski and KatarzynaKozyra and she is the commissioner of the Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale.

Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska has been the director of the Polish Institute in Berlin since 2013, which alongside the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle is the second exhibition venue for COMMON AFFAIRS. She was responsible for numerous projects as curator and coordinator such as Polish Year in Israel and the cultural national programme of the Polish Presidency in the EU.

Friedhelm Hütte oversees the Deutsche Bank Collection, the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, and all of Deutsche’s sponsoring and exhibition projects as the head of bank’s art department. He curated Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” exhibitions of WangechiMutu, YtoBarrada, Roman Ondák, and Imran Qureshi.