Borders in Flux: The Art Market in Central and Eastern Europe

With new initiatives, galleries and collectors are reshaping the art market in Central and Eastern Europe to make the region more visible on the global art map.

Having been separated by the Iron Curtain for decades, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are gaining an increased footing on the global cultural map. As they fight to overcome the challenges of economic and political transformation—some with the EU integration—arts and culture might not be the first things that spring to mind.

But when it comes to contemporary art in the region, one might think of Marina Abramović, Adrian Ghenie or Anri Sala. Moving past blue-chip artists who circulate the international market free of their national identifiers, however, it must be asked: Is there a contemporary art market in the New East? Certainly, there is. But comparing the region to markets in the west, where one might see works by Abramović, Ghenie, or Sala, is like “comparing apples and oranges,” as Camille Hunt, a co-founder of the Prague gallery hunt kastner, says.

Sigurdur Gudmundsson's A Journey of Being at hunt kastner © Ondrej Polak

Other gallerists and collectors from the region echo this sentiment, but what is even more important to establish is that “Central and Eastern Europe” is too vast a region to generalize. Under communism, the countries were grouped together in the Eastern Bloc, and throughout history the region’s borders have been in constant flux, with Poland and other countries as we now know them having disappeared from maps for periods of over 100 years. Particularly since the dissolution of the Iron Curtain in 1989, Eastern countries were eager to re-establish distinct identities in response to their respective histories, with each one emphasizing their own unique thought processes, habits and cultural values. This, of course, also affects the art market.

“There is an art market in the region, but every country has its own, national art market,” collectors Katalin Spengler and Zsolt Somlói say. Spengler and Somloi live in Budapest and collect a range of both regional and international artists, but “there are few of us in the region,” they explain. “Normally we experience Polish collectors collecting Polish art, Czech collectors collecting Czech art, Hungarian collectors collecting Hungarian art, or collectors only collecting big-name international art.”

A tour at Prague's SUMO © SUMO
Budapest, Warsaw, and Prague, however, are three cities in the region whose contemporary art ecosystems are well on their way towards resembling what one might expect in Vienna or even Berlin. Galleries in these cities are active on international levels; institutions are recognizing the value of contemporary art and exhibit accordingly (even if acquisition budgets are low); and the number of collectors who are knowledgeable about the global contemporary art market is continuously growing.

Galleries from all three cities participate in some of the biggest art fairs, introducing their artists to an international platform. But in addition to entering into the so-called “Western market,” they also invite galleries, curators and critics to their cities via initiatives like SUMO and Friend of a Friend—two gallery-sharing programs in Prague and Warsaw, respectively. This year, however—given the precarious state of the world—such initiatives are more locally focused.

In Warsaw, for example, the NOT FAIR art fair—organized by Marta Kołakowska of Galeria Leto and Michał Woliński of Piktogram—is not only hosting exclusively Polish galleries, but is also inaugurating a new partnership with Poland’s leading auction house, DESA Unicum.

“In Poland, it’s a very fresh market; auction houses have existed for maybe 25-30 years and galleries like mine for 15-20 years,” Kołakowska says, “and there is very little knowledge about the difference between the primary and secondary markets. Collectors who buy on the secondary market have no idea why the artist is so important, why the prices are so high. They have no idea that we even exist as a gallery.” So, in partnering with DESA Unicum, this year’s edition of NOT FAIR aims to help educate local collectors—an effort that will, hopefully, strengthen the primary market in the long run as well as promote a better understanding of contemporary art in the region.

An artwork by Teresa Tyszkiewicz at this year's NOT FAIR © NOT FAIR

Hans Knoll, who has maintained galleries in both Vienna and Budapest since the 1980s, stresses the importance of such an understanding. “In many countries, people are still hesitant when it comes to contemporary art because of the past, when art had certain political roles,” he says. “So galleries must work to give people, and even institutions, a better appreciation of contemporary art and more acceptance in society.”

In addition to contemporary art gaining social value, the need for educated collectors is equally important. “The role of collectors for contemporary art is very, very, very important in these countries,” Knoll continues. “The public institutions have very little budget; the best collections of contemporary art are private. In most cases, the private collectors have become more connected to the international scene than people from public museums.”

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Galleries’ presences at international art fairs and dealings with international collectors reflect this regional deficit. Hunt Kastner, for example, has had a very international focus and attends high-profile fairs like Art Basel, because when the gallery opened in 2006, the Czech Republic was “a complete desert,” Katherine Kastner said. But with initiatives like SUMO, Prague gallerists aim at bridging the gap between the international and regional; between the private and the public. By inviting other European galleries to exhibit within Prague’s galleries and by inviting curators and critics from outside of Prague to the opening weekend, they hope to spark dialogue with and interest from neighboring countries’ institutions, as well as English-language media.
Exhibtion view at viennacontemporary's Marx Halle © viennacontemporary

While Warsaw, Prague and Budapest might be paving the road in terms of contemporary art market infrastructures, a close eye should also be kept on other areas in the region, where additional scenes are abuzz. For example, take the Baltics, where the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art was founded in in 2018; where the fair ArtVilnius has been operating for 11 years; and where galleries like Māksla XO, Alma and Temnikova & Kasela have begun to establish international reputations. Other promising and emergent centers include Zagreb, Tbilisi and Belgrade, viennacontemporary Artistic Director Johanna Chromik says. Overseeing viennacontemporary, Chromik has the expertise to make such a claim; the fair is the only event on the artworld calendar whose sole focus is to create a space of convergence for the region’s different hubs.

Looking forward, especially in the context of COVID-19, galleries’ current efforts in the region all point towards the same thing: increased regional collaboration and education, and in turn, growth. As Kołakowska says, “Our gallery was previously focused on the United States and Latin America because we participate in art fairs there, but at this moment Europe is our home. In our region, we should be more focused on exchanging ideas and doing something with these ideas. We all love to talk, but it’s nice to actually see the results of this talk.”

View at Michal Borowik's collection © Michal Borowik

Polish collector Michał Borowik sums it up when he says, “The existence of the art market in Central and Eastern Europe is undeniable, but it is ready for additional discoveries and developments.”

Emily McDermott writes about art and culture for publications like ArtReview, Frieze, New York Magazine’s Vulture, W Magazine and Wallpaper*, among others. She also worked on editorial projects with institutions like Spike Art Magazine, David Chipperfield Architects or SAVVY Contemporary.