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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Notes on Tate Modern’s collection and the mechanisms of acquisition

confrontations28 August 2022

By Magdalena Ziółkowska

The meeting with Tate Modern curators: Juliet Bingham (Curator of International Art), Natalia Sidlina (Adjunct Curator for Russian Art) and Dina Akhmedeeva (Assistant Curator) concerned the strategy of expanding the Tate collection with artists originating from Central and Eastern Europe, the presentation of new acquisitions within the framework of existing exhibition modules and the mechanisms of selection or valorization of artistic propositions.

Walking in the collection’s display organized according to notions such as “in the studio”, “media networks” or “performer and participant”, the visitors do not know the history of individual objects, neither the history of their appearance in the collection. This is often a long process based on many years of research with the participation of specialists from individual countries, following the art market, as well as gathering financial resources for a specific purchase. The expansion of the Tate Modern collection is structured according to the geographical sections and the line of committees dedicated to them. Their members provide not only the finances for particular acquisitions but have also an advisory voice and make decisions. Symbolic and artistic capital are here married with financial capability. In the case of such significant collections like Tate Modern or Centre Pompidou, it is always worth taking up the subject not only of the criteria of selecting individual artists (geography, presence in the canon), but of the particular vision and idea that defines the chosen directions of its development. There are few desirable names for many European collecting institutions such as Mirosław Bałka, and we heard it being recalled more than a few times. But what does it mean to have an installation or a sculpture by Bałka in the collection today? And what did it mean 20 or 30 years ago? Should the biggest institutions have a complete range of the most outstanding artists in their collections? Wouldn’t that unify them or end in mimicry, and take away their uniqueness?

On the one hand, the extraordinary installation of Romanian artist Ana Lupas – The Solemn Process from 1964/2008 – is finally appreciated on the worldwide scale and is exhibited in the collection. On the other hand, however, we can repeatedly say “it is definitely very late”. Western institutions are laboriously doing their basic art history homework in relation to artists from behind the Iron Curtain. In this regard, it is true to say that smaller art centres have an advantage over multi-venue institutions in terms of timing of action, decision making processes, and perceptiveness to the challenges of today’s world as reflected in artists’ works and attitudes. When we used to look at great museums we looked to them for the canon, appreciation and timeless values. Is that true today as well? The experiment about which Jerzy Ludwinski wrote in the mid-1960s – that institutions should collect attitudes or actions, acting as “sensitive seismographs” to catch the most interesting phenomena – seems highly desirable today. The question is whether the funders/sponsors of individual works in the collection such as Tate Modern would find a continued desire to support them if the symbolic capital changed its location to a less canonical position.

The Logic of Collecting

confrontations28 August 2022

By Pavlína Morganová

Christine Macel’s presentation was one of the public events of Confrontations sessions in London. This well attended guest lecture at UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies was a great opportunity to meet the chief curator of the Centre George Pompidou and director of 2017 Venice Biennale. Macel talked openly about the museum’s collections and the works which represent art from Eastern and Central Europe. She revealed some of the strategies, but also frustrations, connected to the acquisitions process. She even showed a list of artists, which the museum is targeting. One could read names, such as Milan Grygar, Karel Malich, Václav Boštík, Vjencislav Richter, Goran Trbuljak, Stano Filko, Milan Knížák, Katalin Ladik, Anna Kutera, Ewa Partum, Jarosław Kozłowski, Endre Tót, Tamás Szentjoby, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Mirosław Bałka, Katarzyna Kozyra, Milica Tomić or IRWIN. (Pavlína Morganová)

Responding to Macel, Professor Briony Fer from UCL questioned the role and agency of art museums in a cultural sphere that is ultimately shaped by geopolitics and market forces. Although the collecting strategies towards Eastern Europe of the two institutions were not directly confronted during the presentations, there was a sense that Tate Modern pursues a more systematic and rigorous approach, relying on an infrastructure of advisory committees, while the Pompidou is more ad hoc but potentially faster moving in responding to the changing art historical landscape of the region.

Contributions from the floor also raised issues around the implications of the war in Ukraine for curatorial and collecting policies towards a region that is undergoing geopolitical redefinition. Members of the Confrontations group tested the boundaries of the expansion of institutional collecting by asking whether there is or would ever be room for works of socialist realism in the collection displays of the history of modern art. The discussion broached further questions around the comparison of the general state of research into East European art in the United Kingdom and France, and the extent to which academic and museological structures are conducive to research into the art of the region.  (Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

Non-Public Collection Paradox

editorial3 March 2020

Ieva Astahovska

Our visit to Starak Family Foundation was both a direct continuation and quite sharp contrast to the previous meeting with founders of Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation: from a voluntary run institution that dedicatedly takes care of Wróblewski’s creative legacy, but doesn’t possess any art works and even doesn’t have its own office space, we came to a semi-public art collection venue, run by private collectors Anna and Jerzy Starak, who own one of Poland’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

In its public part, entitled Spectra Art Space, we visited the exhibition by painters Maria Jarema (1908–1958) and Andrzej Wróblewski (1927–1957) Substantial Realism. Both artists, living and working at the same time and place, in their final years had very different relations to the political regime and its demands in art, socialist realism, and finally the shift to much freer expression. Yet in this exhibition that is structured in thematic flows “Maternity, Modern Woman, Love, War” Jarema’s mostly abstract, associative and ambiguous compositions that were not shown during the 1950s and Wróblewski’s realist paintings – some of them surreal, others poignant, but all very intimate –, form not a juxtaposition but a parallel view of the after-war epoch that bears both war traumas, and also a longing for humanity.

We had also an exclusive possibility to see the non-public part of Starak Foundation’s art collection that is partly displayed in its office building and includes classics of Polish postwar modernism. Quite paradoxically – or maybe it’s not so strange in today’s neoliberal times? – it was the only place during our program in Warsaw where we could see the original works by such significant Polish modernist authors as Władysław Strzemiński, Henryk Stażewski, Erna Rosenstein, Wojciech Fangor and others. This permanent display left rather an odd impression – art works arranged between stylish designer furniture, indoor plant beds, glass walls and on the most different flat surfaces – seemed to serve for its owners and viewers for something between decoration and fetish. One can observe increasing role of private collectors also in many other East European art scenes, and inevitably it brings also subjective tastes and different understandings of art and its displays.