What Does the Artworld Really Want From an Art Fair?

The Polish government’s grip on culture is tightening daily but are a group of women at Hotel Warszawa Art Fair about to give it space to breathe?

Cofounders of Hotel Warszawa Art Fair, from left to right: Marta Kołakowska of Galeria Leto; Marika Zamojska of Polana Institute; Amanda Likus of Likus Hotels and Restaurants Group; Justyna Wesołowska of Polana Institute; Gunia Nowik of Gunia Nowik Gallery. Photo: Justyna Chrobot. Courtesy Hotel Warszawa Art Fair

During the pandemic, the more ostensibly radical divisions of the artworld were awash with online discourse on ‘care’, ‘horizontality’ or equivalent propositions that tempered an obvious solution – ‘the redistribution of wealth’ – into something more expansive. With cultural arbiters hailing our global awakening to social and environmental breakdown, many sighed with relief when international art fairs – with their carbon footprints, exploited workers, soulless booths and dirty money – had to cancel. After all, fairs – and polite ambivalence to their problematic aspects – would return when we got ‘back to normal’; always a surreal concept, now particularly felt in the West as war rages in Europe, inflation soars alongside temperatures, Roe v Wade is repealed and governments subject refugees (who aren’t white) to unimaginable suffering. And, indeed, some fairs have positively come back swinging! “Like watching big insects fight,” an artist friend said of this year’s bombshell that Art Basel had ousted FIAC from the Grand Palais exhibition hall in Paris after 47 years: all grist to the mill for said artist’s practice about the entropic collapse of meaning under late-stage capitalism.

So, how will a new fair that has been announced in Warsaw, Poland – that border country of the EU, now hosting millions of refugees from neighbouring Ukraine – respond to the current mood? The Hotel Warszawa Art Fair takes place this September, organised by the forward-thinking gallerists behind Polana Institute, Leto Gallery and Gunia Nowik Gallery, who all happen to be women. When asked if this is significant (in a country where reproductive rights barely exist), they collectively reply that “it helps get stuff done”. Having gauged the satisfaction of their artists and collectors, who interestingly become more female – and queer – the younger the gallery, it is apparent that these gallerists indeed get stuff done. They acknowledge that they still have to negotiate the implications of their ‘Eastern European’ context – inherited wealth is a pretty new concept, for instance, while it has swelled the coffers of many Western galleries for decades – but ‘disadvantages’ can bring wisdom and mettle; essential when the goal is to “create an impactful and cyclical event that will inscribe itself in the fabric of international art fairs”.

Hotel Warszawa, site of a new fair in Poland’s capital. Courtesy Hotel Warszawa Art Fair

Entrance to the fair is commendably free, and there’s a canny understanding of how the beautifully renovated art deco Hotel Warszawa building is itself a draw. One of Warsaw’s first skyscrapers, it became an icon of resistance during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 as it withstood German bombardment. Its Jewish architect, Marcin Weinfeld, was incarcerated in Dachau. The particularities of choosing the Hotel Warszawa accordingly resound beyond the ambience and intimacy that the hotel art-fair model – pioneered in 1994 by the Gramercy International Art Fair in New York, now the much larger Armory Show – brings to trading art.

Driving the first iteration of the fair is the boom in Polish-art collecting by Polish collectors, with the 20 participating galleries all hailing from Poland. Concordantly, over 50 percent of the five-star Hotel Warszawa’s guests are Polish, demonstrating the wealth that was made during the transformacja period of the 1990s; an era increasingly referenced in the work of younger artists such as choreographer and performer Isa Szostak, whose skaj is the limit (2019) – ‘skaj’ is the Polish word for artificial leather, an aesthetic touchstone of transformacja – wowed audiences with its attentive elevation of an often ridiculed vernacular. With plenty of free attractions offered during the fair – important contemporary Polish artworks (not for sale!) from the Starak Family Foundation will be exhibited at the hotel, while the Friends of Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art (largely comprising collectors) showcase the museum’s Filmoteka archive in rolling screenings – would it then also be astute to programme performance, for which Poland is so respected?

Amanda Likus, who manages the hotel with her sister, is refreshingly candid about the hotel’s mixed history, revealing how the lobby was frequented by sex workers in the nineties, and how the occasional elderly person still comes in search of the money exchange that used to be housed there. She is adamant that despite its international, luxury status, it is “open for all Varsovians”, and it has housed families of its staff escaping the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But is there room within the rooms, and the confines of commerce, for a genuinely porous relationship between the artists, the architecture and the public, one that could trouble what the artworld really wants from a fair? The gallerists hope the fair will “make Warsaw sexy”, but what constitutes ‘sexy’ is perhaps the major issue for culture in this moment. What remains to be seen is how boldly the galleries seize this opportunity. With the rightwing government’s commandeering of Polish culture showing little reprieve, is it sobering or exciting that a luxury hotel could now accommodate some of the most interesting art being made in Poland today?

Hotel Warszawa Art Fair, 9–11 September 2022.

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