Give Me Everythin

28 February 2024

We talk to Maria Anna Potocka about galleries and collections of contemporary art in Poland and about Teresa and Andrzej Starmach's great donation to Kraków's museums.

Dorota Dziunikowska: We are talking about the exhibition Give Me Everything marking the forthcoming return of the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery to its renovated site on Planty Park. Would you agree that the exhibition brings together several threads from your professional career?

Maria Anna Potocka: That’s true, although rather than describing them as threads, I’d call them elements of my mission. I’ve always believed that art is important for freedom, beauty and the right to opinion. That’s why I have always founded galleries and built up a collection, which I eventually handed it over to MOCAK. Teresa and Andrzej Starmach’s donation is a far, far more important gesture – after Feliks Jasieński, it is the largest and most significant collection of contemporary art bequeathed to the nation. As I have said in other places, no-one can really comprehend the incredible generosity of donating a collection worth tens of millions of zlotys to a public museum. The Starmachs deserve all admiration and public gratitude.

Let’s go back to the start: how did you manage to create a private art gallery under communism?

I just don’t get it. Had I been a sensible person back in 1972, there is no way I’d have gone to the Kraków City Office with such a ridiculous request. Fortunately I wasn’t a sensible person! Luck would have it that the man I spoke to was either bold or as daft as I; he was deputy director of the Cultural Department, and he allowed me, a student of Polish studies, to run a private gallery from my bedroom. I still have the permit! I’ve been guarding it with my life ever since. When the Ministry of Culture heard that Kraków issued such a permit, the practice was immediately forbidden.

Another important stage was Galeria Potocka, which you developed in free Poland. In 2010, you donated your collection of contemporary art to MOCAK.

The gallery was founded in 1986 – still under communism, so there were still severe restrictions. For example, you couldn’t import artworks from Czechoslovakia. Milan Knížák sent his exhibition bit by bit, and assembled his large compositions in Kraków himself. But there was no more state censorship.

I’ve been gathering my collection since 1973, always with the intention of eventually donating it to a contemporary art museum. Legally I was the owner, but I never felt that way mentally.

Is this the most natural way for private collectors in Poland today?

There aren’t really any natural ways, or rather they vary – from leaving collections to children, donating them to public museums or even founding private museums. The last option is purely for billionaires.

The Starmach Gallery has been running an extensive programme since its foundation in 1989, making it one of the most important places on Poland’s cultural map. How did Andrzej and Teresa Starmach start working with Kraków’s public institutions, and what led them to donate part of their own collections to MOCAK and the Museum of Photography?

Andrzej Starmach is an incredible man, principled and generous. Friends can count on him in every situation and format. We have been friends since the 1970s and we’re as thick as thieves. He helped me out many times. And he was incredibly dedicated to supporting Jerzy Nowosielski. Andrzej has a very broad approach to art, and a great talent on the market. Marek Świca [present director of the Museum of Photography in Kraków – ed.] who once worked with Andrzej is also a good friend. It could be said that the Starmach collection is being handed over to public institutions via friends.

What will we see at Bunkier Sztuki in January? Which items, or perhaps themes, would you describe as the most interesting and key to the donated collection?

Oh, there are plenty! Andrzej doesn’t really want to use the word “exhibition”. Bunkier Sztuki will hold so many artworks it will be more like visiting a warehouse. I am absolutely thrilled that MOCAK will receive large collections of artworks by Tadeusz Kantor and Hasior. The Museum of Photography is getting acclaimed works by Tomek Ciecierski, history of art in Kraków in photographs by Jacek M. Stokłosa and much, much more.

How has Bunkier Sztuki itself changed? Following the renovations of the pavilion at Planty Park, can you say it is up to the standards of the 21st century?

It will easily last until the 22nd! There aren’t many changes to the exterior, but the interiors have been extensively adapted. The basement will become an exhibition space, and all the offices have been moved to the granary. And there’s air conditioning!

The founders of the Starmach Gallery, as well as authors of its programme, are Cracovian art historians Teresa and Andrzej Starmach. Their passion for art collecting, dating back to the second half of the 1970, led them to launching one of the first private contemporary art galleries in Kraków in 1989.

The Starmach Gallery was located in a cellar by the Main Market Square, and it immediately became the space presenting the most important Polish post-war art. The programme, developed consistently over the last three decades, mainly focuses on artists from the Krakow Group. It also presents works representing abstract geometry and acclaimed younger artists. Since 1997, the gallery has been located in Podgórze, in a restored former prayer house at Węgierska Street. Today it’s one of the largest and most important private galleries in Poland, successfully combining high quality art with commercial success. The gallery also hosts exhibitions at other venues at home and abroad.

In 2023 Andrzej and Teresa Starmach donated part of their collection, acquired over many years, to the City of Kraków. When asked for his reasons, Andrzej Starmach explains that museums all over the globe rely on donation from gallery owners and collectors and private donations of funds to acquire new artworks. “This doesn’t really happen in Poland when it comes to contemporary art. Since the donation of Nero’s Torches to the future National Museum, we have only really seen one major donation: that made by Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński in the 1920s. As we have worked and collected art over the years, we have had access to many museum-standard pieces which we have shown at exhibitions in Poland and abroad, and which we simply couldn’t let go, even though some of them are awkward to store due to their size,” he explains. “They are also items which simply can’t be purchased. We were asking ourselves, what shall we do with these artworks? One day, my wife and I decided to donate them to the city, since we feel very strongly attached to Kraków.”

Following the decision, the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Photography received priceless works by Polish avantgarde artists, including Tadeusz Kantor’s Everything is Hanging by a Thread, Magdalena Abakanowicz’s sculptures from the cycles War Games and Embryology, the full 1990s exhibition of Concept-Shapes. Concrete Poetry by Stanisław Drożdż from the Foksal Gallery (2005), Labyrinth and a few items by Edward Krasiński, a selection of works from Władysław Hasior’s peak period, works by Mirosław Bałka and a collection of several hundred photos by artists including Jacek M. Stokłosa, Mikołaj Smoczyński, Marek Piasecki, Andrzej Wełmiński, Marta Deskur… Andrzej Starmach stresses that art of this quality simply should be kept in a museum, adding, “We hope that our donation will mark the start of following this practice among Poland’s collectors.”

The donors and directors of the institutions receiving the gifts decided to present a wide selection of the artworks at an exhibition launched at the start of 2024 marking the reopening the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery following renovation work. According Andrzej Starmach, curator of the exhibition, due to the sheer extent and diversity of the donated collections, the presentation titled Give Me Everything (recalling Jadwiga Sawicka’s painting of the same name) will have something of a “warehouse” style. We are likely to see many of the artworks at thematic exhibitions and in different configurations in the future.

Text published in the 4/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.




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