Art Market

One of Poland’s Richest Women Is Turning a Swiss Village into a Haven for Art by Women

Anna Louie Sussman
Jan 25, 2019 10:12PM

Portrait of Grażyna Kulczyk. Photo © Anush Abrar.

The people in her orbit would agree that Polish art collector Grażyna Kulczyk has what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls, in her bestselling book of the same name, “grit.” Others might call it “persistence”; Kulczyk happily describes herself as “stubborn.”

Whatever the name of the quality, it has brought Kulczyk to the highest echelons of the Polish business elite, onto lists of the top collectors in the world, and, over the past few years, pushed her to drill through rock and earth to create a jewel of an art museum half-submerged in the mountainside along a riverbed running through Switzerland’s rural Engadine Valley. It even snagged her the ideal parking lot for visitors, in a little meadow belonging to a neighbor whose home abuts the museum.

“This was a meadow in front of the house of an old man, who loves his old meadow,” said Mareike Dittmer, the director of Kulczyk’s Art Stations Foundation CH, which funds the new institution, Muzeum Susch. “But then she found a way, [and] in the end, the old man is so happy she’s doing this project here. He said, ‘I’m going to rent her my meadow.’”

Kulczyk has a history of showing art in unorthodox settings. After the opening of the Polish economy, she hung works by local artists in the car dealerships she ran with her then-husband, which she said were better venues for attracting the public than a conventional art gallery might have been.

Muzeum Susch, Switzerland. Image © Claudio Von Planta. Courtesy of Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation, CH.


“Following the political and economic transformation of 1989, people were hungry for luxury goods, and the mere fact of being able to see and touch a vehicle was something big,” she said. “My awareness and conviction of the fact that people would actually come to look at the cars led me to the similar conviction that they were able to experience art.”

Over the years, as Poles’ awareness of and appetite for art grew, so did Kulczyk’s ambitions. In 1998, she acquired a crumbling brewery in her hometown of Poznan and turned it into a center for visual and performing arts, opened in 2003, which she subsidized by renting space to shops and restaurants in the same complex.

This month, she opened perhaps her most ambitious project to date, a 35,000-square-foot museum—also in a former brewery—in the tiny village of Susch.

From start to finish, the building process took five years. Kulczyk had to seek clearances from Swiss officials at the regional, cantonal, and federal levels. She gave a new house to the people who owned the building that is now the museum’s auditorium. Although the design, which unites two separate buildings through a tunnel, left the existing structures—some of which date from the 12th century—intact, it also added 7,500 square feet of exhibition space, some of which came about from displacing 9,000 metric tons of rock to create additional space underground. The complex is the largest project to date for its two young Swiss architects, Lukas Voellmy and Chasper Schmidlin. They spent the first year of construction overseeing the use of dynamite to produce “mini-explosions” to excavate the lower levels of the museum.

Slow art

Muzeum Susch (interior views), Switzerland. Images © Studio Stefano Graziani. Courtesy of Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation, CH.

Museum staff joke about the measurable impact they are having on the town’s population, which numbers around 200. The opening of the museum’s bistro brings Susch’s total restaurant offerings to three.

While the location might seem out of the way, Kulczyk hopes its isolation engenders a slower, more contemplative experience, very different from what she might have offered visitors had an earlier plan for a Tadao Ando–designed complex in Poznań not fallen through. She has cited remote art destinations such as Naoshima island in Japan and Norway’s KaviarFactory in the Lofoten archipelago as inspirations for Muzeum Susch. Like the collectors behind Glenstone, another out-of-the-way museum outside of Washington, D.C., Kulczyk sees “slow art” as the consummate mode of viewership.

But the isolation of Kulczyk’s museum—said a Swiss friend, when I explained where it is: “Damn, that’s, like, super remote!”—also raises the question of how many people will benefit from her largesse.

Kulczyk waved off the concern.

“The world is so small and so connected that a lot of people can actually come here,” she said.

In fact, visitorship is off to a running start. In the first two weeks following its January 2nd opening, roughly 2,000 people had already visited Muzeum Susch, even though it is open just four days a week. On a sunny Thursday afternoon in the middle of January, several French-speaking visitors in hiking gear drank coffee in the bistro, their walking sticks and day packs tucked under a rough-hewn table near the entrance. Dittmer nodded discreetly in the direction of a woman in the café, whom she said was already on her fourth visit. Nevertheless, there is frequent discussion within the foundation about how best to balance the dissemination of art and information on the museum’s website and social media pages with a focus on brick-and-mortar visitors.

“It’s always a decision,” said Dittmer. “Which is the information we’re disclosing on which media? And how much do you still keep to say, like, for this, you have to come [to the museum]?”

From buying art to collecting female artists

Muzeum Susch (interior view), Switzerland. Image © Studio Stefano Graziani. Courtesy of Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation, CH.

The museum could be seen as representing a new stage in the evolution of Kulczyk’s display tactics, from car dealership décor to gallery-as-retail-companion to worshipful destination. Her collecting has also evolved. She began when she was a law student, purchasing posters because they were within her reach financially. Then, she bought from living artists by whom she was “fascinated.” Eventually, her curiosity extended to artists she wouldn’t or couldn’t meet, either because they were no longer alive or were geographically distant.

As she and her ex-husband, the late industrialist Jan Kulczyk (described by Reuters in his 2015 obituary as “Poland’s richest man”), grew their businesses, she began to acquire more ambitiously, buying works by artists such as Andy Warhol and Antoni Tàpies.

“Collecting is a process, but being a collector comes when one knows in which direction the collection is developing,” Kulczyk said, curled up on a couch in one of the museum’s wood-paneled offices. “After years and years of buying art—and I would like to stress it is buying art—I came to understand that there are two things that interest me. The first was women’s art, and the second was Conceptual art. I decided that this would be my focus.”

Installation view of “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.” Courtesy of the Art Stations Foundation, CH, and Muzeum Susch.

Those concentrations show up as holdings, either in Kulczyk’s private collection or in the foundation’s collection, of works by artists such as the Swiss sculptor Heidi Bucher, Alina Szapocznikow and Magdalena Abakanowicz of Poland, and the Americans Jenny Holzer and Hannah Wilke, among many others. In the inaugural show, “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women,” curated by Tate Liverpool’s senior curator, Kasia Redzisz, around 35 to 40 percent of the works—most of them by women—come from Kulczyk’s private collection.

The attraction to female artists was perhaps driven by Kulczyk’s acute awareness of how she was perceived as a woman in the largely male corporate world, especially throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, when she worked with her then-husband.

“Regardless of the role I actually played in the different businesses, the person who was incessantly perceived as the boss was my husband, and I was usually in the back row as a good support, but still in the back row,” Kulczyk said. Or, she would be the “only woman in a boys’ club,” she recalled, citing a bicycle business she ran in Asia, where she exclusively faced men in her dealings.

Kulczyk’s preferences are also evident in Muzeum Susch’s permanent site-specific works: Eight of the 11 installations are by women. As she walked a group of journalists and critics around the museum, Kulczyk’s pride was clearly on display, tempered only by her slight discomfort speaking in English. Her partner, a Polish architect, was even more enthusiastic, his fluent English allowing for frequent and infectious explanations of this or that architectural detail or artwork. Kulczyk, who is small and slight of build, guided journalists through the museum’s tunnels and staircases with a gentle, almost maternal touch on the arm.

Research into practice

Installation view of “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.” Courtesy of the Art Stations Foundation, CH, and Muzeum Susch.

Monika Sosnowska, Stairs, 2016–17. Photo © Studio Stefano Graziani, Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH. Courtesy of the artist and Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation,CH.

Kulczyk’s support for female artists is not limited to her patronage as a collector. Kulczyk and Art Stations Foundation CH are also co-founders of the Instituto Susch — The Women Centre for Excellency, which is being implemented at the art school Institut Kunst in Basel. The institute is described on its website as “a think tank research project” that will “accentuate priorities for education and decision-making by analysing existing sentiments and preoccupations in the past and present roles of women in arts and science.” It aims to “define an imaginative way of addressing the languages (visual and non visual) that will carry a multitude of possible futures beyond genders.”

What does that mean in practice? Chus Martínez, a Spanish curator and head of the art institute at the FHNW Academy of Arts and Design in Basel, conceived of the Instituto Susch and serves as its director. Martínez said that in 2019, its second year, it will hold two symposia, release a series of around 15 podcasts (including six from a symposium held last fall in Basel that will launch at the end of January), and publish two small books.

Martínez had been stewing over the idea for an institute dedicated to researching women in the arts for years, said Dittmer, who has known her for over a decade. After meeting Kulczyk at an opening in Poznan and learning more about her impact on the art world and her interest in gender issues (Kulczyk serves on committees and boards at the Tate Modern, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, and the Modern Women’s Fund Committee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Dittmer wanted to bring the two of them together.

Muzeum Susch (interior view), Switzerland. Courtesy of Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation, CH.

Dittmer said she hadn’t anticipated that Martínez’s long-held vision for a research institute devoted to women would find fruition with Kulczyk’s backing. She just knew, when she introduced them, that “these two wonderful women have to meet—they will have a lot to say to each other.”

Martínez, who has written extensively on gender issues in the art world, said she and Kulczyk bonded immediately over their shared concern for how women are treated as they move through their professional lives.

Although it’s not clear yet exactly how the institute’s activities will tie in with the museum’s programming, it will have use of a small documentation room within the museum to mount displays that stem from the institute’s research. For example, the Instituto is compiling a large database of reports, research, and theory, documenting women’s status around the world and representation in different industries. This will be the basis for a “mobile library” and, eventually, a report.

Martínez is keen to use the research room to present these statistics visually, and hopes they can then travel to other institutions.

“The display needs to be artistic, in a way. It needs to be readable,” she said.

Research into women’s rights around the world would reveal a growing threat in Poland in recent years, where the ruling Law and Justice party has systematically attempted to roll back women’s freedoms, particularly around reproductive autonomy. Kulczyk, who spends most of her time in Switzerland, where she has a home (also designed by Voellmy and Schmidlin) less than 25 miles from the museum, said she is not involved with political issues in Poland and does not consider herself a feminist.

“I don’t declare myself as a feminist,” she said, “but I simply fight for equal rights for women to be recognized across the board in different fields including art and business, because I believe they possess an equal amount of talent as men.”

That belief includes no shortage of pride in her own accomplishments.

“I’m glad that I managed to do this,” she said, speaking of her new museum. “That I was stubborn and self-confident enough that I did not give up this dream.”

Anna Louie Sussman

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that The Tadao Ando project was made for Warsaw; it was made for Poznań. The text has been updated to reflect this change.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019