Artists on salary? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. But one young Warsaw-based company, Abbey House, has an unorthodox business model. It “sponsors” and promotes a select group of up to 12 artists who are contracted for five years to supply a certain number of art works each year. If their prices rise, they will be further rewarded.
This scheme, says Abbey’s chairman Jakub Kokoszka, “gives people confidence that the young artists they buy will not be giving up”. More important, this financial security is welcomed by Abbey’s stable of artists. In her airy purpose-built studio block in central Warsaw, Anna Szprynger – whose work is also on show this week at London’s Saatchi Gallery in Polish Art Now – describes the arrangement as “much, much better” than the traditional gallery model, and relishes the opportunity to focus on her work.
Not everyone is sanguine about this radical system, however: some Warsaw gallerists are scathing about the recent hike in prices achieved for Abbey’s contracted artists, fearing a bubble effect.
Abbey House’s aim is to boost Poland’s fledgling art market. Founded in 2010 by entrepreneur Pawel Makowski, it is a listed joint-stock company backed by two Cyprus-based private equity funds, Argovest Holdings and Serius, and it operates not only as an auction house and gallery but also offers art advisory, art leasing and art education services. In 2011, it also founded Poland’s first art investment fund, the Abbey Art Fund.
The previous year, it acquired a controlling share of the country’s biggest art magazine, Art & Business, founded in 1989 at the dawn of Poland’s post-communist economy. Now expanded to embrace music, theatre, fashion and luxury goods, the magazine is a potent educational and promotional tool, with nearly 50,000 online users. A digital archive of auction results since 1989, plus daily updates, provides a database with which to track the growth of Poland’s art market.
And the statistics are encouraging. Earlier this year, New York-based Skate’s Art Market Research published a report entitled Poland’s Art Market: The Rising Star of Central Europe. Meanwhile, the country’s art market was profiled for the first time in Deloitte’s Art & Finance Report 2013. All this helps to raise international (and, no less crucially, national) awareness of the Polish contemporary art scene. There are a dozen auction houses conducting regular sales in Poland and a handful of commercial galleries known to the international market, with Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery Foundation and the Raster gallery both showing at Frieze London last year.
Deloitte values the market for Polish art at 300m-350m zloty (about $100m). That figure includes artists whose works are internationally recognised – from Russian-born Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902) and Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) to contemporary talents such as Piotr Uklanski. Sales here increased 16.6 per cent in 2011, and by more than 90 per cent in 2012.
The scale is different on the domestic market. Siemiradzki’s “Castaway” (1878) remains the most expensive work sold in Poland after fetching 2.13m zloty (about $660,000) in 2000. In 2011, sales on the Polish auction market totalled 48m zloty ($15m); by 2012, the figure was 60m zloty ($18.5m), an increase of 25 per cent. Deloitte describes this market as underdeveloped and largely undervalued.
Traditionally, Polish “Old Masters” accounted for almost 90 per cent of this national market in terms of auction lots. Since the start of this century, however, there has been a dramatic shift in interest towards the growing number of young artists graduating from Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts. Work by artists under 40, mostly paintings and drawings, now accounts for 43 per cent of sales.
Those figures reflect a younger generation’s interest in buying art – and lower prices for contemporary material. Yet progress, even in recession-free Poland, is evidently uphill work. “It is not obvious how to make Polish people need art,” Kokoszka admits. “Most just don’t think about it.” He adds: “The language of investment is one that potential clients understand.” Abbey Art Fund has delivered a gain of 16.6 per cent for its investors, while Abbey House, given its significant one-off investments, is not yet in profit.
Advising Abbey is a team of specialists and collectors that includes critic Boguslaw Deptula, now editor of Art & Business, and Wojciech Fibak, whose success on the international tennis circuit allowed him to amass a vast collection of Polish School of Paris artists during the 1970s and 1980s. Now, after a collecting career that has included Basquiats and Warhols, he focuses on Polish contemporary art – and, he jovially assures me, is telling potential investors that there is no guarantee of making a profit from art.
Solidarity co-founder and former president Lech Walesa also strikes a cautionary note. “We have over 1,000 years of culture in Poland, and many of these traditions remain in the minds of the Polish people,” he told me. “During the communist period, we were told what we had to believe in and what we had to like. With democracy, we are now free to decide what we are interested in.” He saw the Polish buying of art as “a natural course of development”, adding that “we need to go 10 times faster than everyone else”.
In the Saatchi Gallery in London, meanwhile, the British curator Sacha Craddock has mixed young and mid-career talents who work in Poland and overseas, and highlights their debt to the avant-garde work of earlier decades by Henryk Stazewski, Stefan Gierowski and Wojciech Fangor. Some, like Szymon Urbanski and Andrzej Cisowski, have already gained recognition in central and eastern Europe, while recent graduates Maciej Wieczerzak and Jakub Slomkowski are seen as rising stars at home. Perhaps most striking of all is the hope that these young Polish artists and the young art world entrepreneurs have for their future in Poland.