Among the well-established galleries from New York, Paris, and London showing works at Art Basel Switzerland last month, a smattering of galleries from Central and Eastern Europe stood out, showing video installations, photographs, and huge landscape paintings: Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery Foundation; Ljubljana, Slovenia’s Galerija Gregor Podnar; and the Hunt Kastner Gallery from Prague. They are among those from the former East bloc fast gaining a reputation as important players on the international contemporary-art scene. And it wasn’t just at the main art fair that the Eastern European galleries promoted their wares; across town at the Liste Young Art Fair, which highlights up-and-coming artists, galleries from Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania showcased pieces by such artists as Janek Simon of Poland, who displayed vials of holy water next to laboratory-analysis of its chemical composition, and Bulgaria’s Kamen Stoyanov, whose Plaster Me installation featured a talking stuffed tiger.
Certainly there is an argument to be made—as a recent piece in the German edition of Artnet did—that given that it’s been 21 years since the Berlin Wall fell, Eastern Europe’s galleries should be much better represented at big art fairs. Still, while the number of galleries from Eastern Europe at Basel this year was hardly a groundswell, it was a noticeable improvement. “When we first started coming to Basel about five years ago, there was one gallery from Poland, one from Romania, and that was about it,” says Katcha Kastner, the American cofounder of the Hunt Kastner Gallery. “Now there are many more galleries coming [from Eastern Europe], and that is a new phenomenon.”
It’s no accident that the rise corresponds to an increase in private backing. In cities like Warsaw, Sarajevo, and Sofia, Bulgaria, younger artists—tired of the lack of support from cash-strapped ministries and museums—are curating and promoting their own shows and hosting exhibitions in everything from small studios to abandoned nuclear bunkers. “Across the region there is not a lot of governmental support for contemporary art,” says Jonas Zakaitis of Vilnius, Lithuania’s Tulips & Roses Gallery. “So the art scene is driven by personal initiatives, or by some crazy guy who has an idea.”
Meanwhile, commercial galleries are increasingly present not only at art fairs like Basel and London’s Frieze, but also in cities throughout Western Europe. The gallery Plan B in Cluj, Romania, has an outpost in Berlin, as does Ljubljana’s Galerija Gregor Podnar. Warsaw’s Lokal_30 opened a gallery in London’s East End last autumn, and Tulips & Roses is relocating to Brussels in September. Galleries from Eastern Europe are also working together to create projects like Villa Reykjavik—organized by Warsaw’s Raster Gallery—where 14 Western and Eastern European galleries have set up an international art district in Iceland’s capital for the month of July. “It is very important to develop a regional exchange of ideas,” says Lukasz Gorczyca, the cofounder of Raster Gallery. “We understand each other well because of the black hole of communism that we all went through.”
When that “black hole” closed in 1989, no one focused on transitioning cultural institutions from a communist to a capitalist system, says Boris Marte, managing director of the Vienna-based Erste Foundation, which helps fund cultural projects across Eastern Europe. “So you find many institutions like museums still run like communist times,” he says. “I hope local governments are beginning to understand that having a [strong] art scene is important for a vibrant democracy.”
While most capitals in Eastern Europe have contemporary-art museums, there is still a debilitating shortage of public money available. Slowly, that’s changing. During the recent presidential election in Poland, a group calling itself Citizens for Culture collected more than 100,000 signatures and got all the presidential candidates to promise that if elected, they would support a budget increase for cultural funding. There is also a burgeoning local market. Initially, international collectors saw the value in Eastern Europe’s contemporary-art scene and drove up prices, but lately local collectors have begun snapping up contemporary pieces. Web sites like Poland’s ArtBazaar.blogspot.com offer enthusiasts advice on collecting, and private collectors in places like Belgrade, Prague, and Zagreb have begun sharing their collections with the public. There is, it seems, a considerable shift east.