Interview / GraŻyna Kulczyk
The Polish entrepreneur
GRAŻYNA KULCZYK has already won international recognition for the museum she opened in Switzerland
Flower power: The Polish art collector Grażyna Kulczyk al- ways keeps her eye on the ball in every situation. Mountain flowers such as Carline thistles are among her favourite plants
Text: Eva Karcher
Photos: Cyrill Matter
Ms Kulczyk, you opened your Muzeum Susch in January 2019. It then attracted 25,000 visitors in its very first year of opera- tion – a tremendous success for a museum located in a place that is not particularly well known, the canton of Graubünden. Did you expect that the museum would be so popular?
Yes. And I thought so even though few people actually believed at the time that a world-class institution would work out in Engadin outside St. Moritz. But I had already developed a similar model in Poznań, my hometown in Poland. In 1998, I bought the 140,000- square-metre location of a brewery that was built in 1918 and was ready for the wrecking ball. I rehabilitated the Stary Browar and turned it into a cultural and shopping centre. It is filled with restaurants, shops, galleries and rooms for dance, performance, movie screenings and theatre productions. It had a commercial and non-profit section, split right down the middle, 50-50. The idea was to use the income generated by the businesses to finance art. I opened the centre in 2003. In no time at all, the Stary Browar was simply the place to be! Two times we won an award as the best European shopping centre and one award as the best shopping centre in the world.
Why did you decide to open a new museum for the location in Switzerland?
I wanted to build a new museum in Poznań or Warsaw. But govern- ment authorities would not go along my plans to build a public- private cultural venture. This is why I decided to head out into the country – instead of selecting some European capital. At the time, I owned a house in Tschlin, a place located about 45 minutes from Susch. Two architects, who have experience in historic architec- ture and engineering, renovated it for me. I was in Susch one day
and came across a brewery from the 19th century that belonged to a cloister from the 12th century. It was a twist of fate. Just think about the good luck I had already had with one brewery! I was also fascinated with the history of the place: It was formerly a site whe-
re pilgrims and their horses rested on their way to Santiago de Compostela and Rome. It was also a commercial location because the monks brewed beer. They were acting long before the word “glocal” [a portmanteau of “global and local”] was invented. I found my perfect place of pilgrimage here, on the periphery where people can unwind and rediscover their own rhythm.
You caught the spirit of the day. Engadin has become an artis- tic hotspot with top galleries, collectors and artists.
Exactly. It was perfect timing. I designed my Muzeum Susch as
a place of contemplation, as a site for all types of experiments,
as a lab for bold ideas – basically: as a museum like no other. These ideas are reflected in the architecture by Chasper Schmidlin and his partner Lukas Voellmy. They both felt the almost mythic ener- gy of the location and transformed it into a type of place of pil- grimage for encounters with art and nature by making some subtle changes. I love to restore historic buildings. They remind us of our collective and individual memories. This is the only way to get your bearings in today’s world and gain energy for the future.
What do the visitors experience?
First of all, there is the building itself – it has 1,500 square metres – it is an experience all by itself. It has a grotto. Instead of a stair- case, the monumental steel sculpture “Stairs” by the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska rises all the way to the ceiling in the light shaft. It is a very powerful, almost brutalist installation. The Muzeum Susch holds two exhibitions a year. In addition to the exhibitions we also run several important activities focussing on performance, artist residences and research projects. The key criterion in every- thing I do is not the what, but the how. Our guests should relearn here to slowly see again. They should experience the art as well as nature and immerse themselves in the history of the location. To engage with the place and take their time. My concept is “slow art” – the exact opposite of the Instagram museum visit with its mass- es of people and split-second glances at the art work.
In this age of corona, this approach appears to be more appro- priate than ever before.
That is right. If there is any lesson we can learn from this pandem- ic crisis, it is how essential art is and how much we need places where we can physically encounter it. Virtuality is a complement, but never a substitute.
Women are the focal point of your collection and exhibitions. The current show, “Body Double”, is devoted to a female artist. It is a retrospective of the Belgium pop-surrealist Evelyne Ax- ell, who was born in 1935 and died in a traffic accident in 1972.
A tragedy. Evelyne Axell was a pioneer of pop art in Europe, daring and very feminine. She was part of the sexual revolution. She showcased and celebrated herself, her body and female eroticism in her pictures and sketches.
It is radical, virtuoso and seductive work. Did you primarily collect art by women from the beginning?
No. You know, I grew up in a communist country. My mother was
a dentist. My father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II. I began to study law in Poznań, when the young people’s revolution was catching fire around the world in 1968. We students
also took to the streets in Poland. The protests were beaten down. But they gave me a chance to meet the leaders of the movement, among them were also the artists. I understood that they are fre- quently on the front lines when it comes to fighting violence and discrimination. It was the moment that I realised that you have to fight for your freedom. Always. After all, freedom means creativity. And creativity fuels art.
Which artists did you meet back then?
In the beginning, I bought posters of the so-called Polish school of poster art. It was extremely popular. Many well-known artists worked on it because they could be less conformist here.
You began your career at the university.
My first job was at my university in Poznań. I then met the busi- nessman Jan Kulczyk. We got married and started a family. I have two children, Dominika and Sebastian. At the time, my taste in art was rather traditional. I decorated our houses with pictures and sculptures. But my main focus was my job at my husband’s holding company. At the beginning of the 1980s, we were involved in joint ventures with international investors. After the Berlin Wall fell, I set up the first sales network in Poland for the import of Volkswa- gens, Audis and Škodas. When I noticed that demand for bicycles was growing, I travelled to Taiwan and China and conducted nego- tiations and closed deals as the only woman among men.
Women were discriminated against everywhere.
The disproportionate relationship between men and women that I experienced as a businesswoman was just as real in the art world. At the time, I started to display the work of Polish artists in the
showrooms of our car dealerships and to collect art as well. I soon began to focus on the works of female artists. I did so because I wanted to help to change the obvious inequality of the times!
Have you always felt emancipated?
Always. I ran my own companies, particularly in real estate. I al- ways have my eye on a goal. I have no exit strategy, no Plan B. I simply believe that the project will succeed. I pour all of my energy into it and work very hard. But I only do the things that I really want to do.
How large is your collection today?
It is constantly growing. I do not bother to count it. It has 700, maybe 800 works by international artists.
Louise Bourgeois, Alina Szapocznikow, Agnes Martin, Rosemarie Trockel, Teresa Tyszkiewicz, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Paulina Ołowska, Zofia Kulik. Men are represented as well: from Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Andrzej Wróblewski, Victor Vasarely to Gün- ther Uecker, Antoni Tàpies, Mirosław Bałka, Wilhelm Sasnal, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Ólafur Elíasson. I would use up all of our in- terview time if I named them all.
What do you learn from artists?
Their works help me to reach unrecognised horizons. But my greatest desire is to share my passion for art with others. This is the most important gift that we can give other people.
crisis we have learned that virtuality is
a comple- ment, but never a substitute
I have no exit strategy, no Plan B.
I simply believe
that the project
The lawyer born in Poznań discovered art while at university. With her husband, the businessman Jan Kulczyk, she created a vast enterprise involved in energy, telecommunications and car sales. She herself invests in real estate and new tech- nologies. Her art collection comprises about 700 works by Polish and in- ternational artists, with a focus on the fe- male perspective. At the beginning of 2019, she opened Muzeum Susch in the canton of Graubünden. Within a year, the museum had become a hotspot for the global art community.