WARSAW, Poland — As with so many really good and really bad ideas, this one was conceived over a few beers.
Marta Kolakowska was sitting one evening in the upstairs office of her Warsaw art gallery, Leto, with two of her artists, Radek Szlaga and Honza Zamojski, talking half-seriously about applying to the Frieze Art Fair’s inaugural New York show in May 2012.
“We thought we do not to want to be a gallery who is going to show just work,” Ms. Kolakowska recalled. “We needed to find a reason, not just because it was New York Frieze.”
They quickly settled on immigration, a hot topic in Europe, and especially in Poland, from which millions have emigrated around the world over the past century. Mr. Szlaga’s parents had moved to suburban Detroit several years before, and Mr. Zamojski had always loved Witold Gombrowicz’s semiautobiographical book “Trans-Atlantyk,” which tells the story of a Polish writer who embarks on an ocean voyage and gets stranded in Argentina when World War II breaks out in Europe.
Marta Kolakowska, owner of the Leto Gallery, says the new generation of Polish artists “grew up in a different time from the Polish artists people knew.” Credit Radek Polak
They applied to Frieze with a hugely conceptual idea: The two artists would take a cargo ship to New York and document their trip — contemplating issues of isolation, immigration and interaction between the two men — in words, photos, paintings and sculpture.
To the great surprise of all three, the project was accepted and the men soon set off for their 10-day journey across the Atlantic. Once at Frieze, the Leto Gallery project was much talked about because the backstory of the art works was so intriguing. “Absolutely, it was a really memorable,” said Joanna Stella-Sawicka, Frieze’s deputy director. “Marta took a risk to allow her two artists to collaborate with a very unexpected outcome. And the outcome was an installation at the fair but it was also the enterprise of the two artists playing through historic tropes of different immigration.”
Taking risks but also having a bit of fun along the way has become the hallmark of the Leto gallery and has helped make Ms. Kolakowska, 41, a force on the Polish art scene. From moving her white cube gallery (something unique in Warsaw in 2011) out of the center of the city into the Soho Factory development in the Praga district to promoting and focusing her attention on younger and often unproven artists, she has gained not only respect and attention on the Polish art scene but has also been steadily growing an international profile and clientele.
“She is one of the most generous and unmissable forces in the Polish art world,” said Martha Kirszenbaum, the curator and director of the Los Angeles art space Fahrenheit, who first met Ms. Kolakowska when Wojciech Bakowski, an artist she used to represent, was featured in a New York show in 2009.
Many of Ms. Kolakowska’s artists are at the forefront of Poland’s millennial generation, those who mostly came of age after the fall of communism in 1989. They include Angelika Markul, whose solo show “Terre de départ” was at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo this year, and Mr. Zamojski, who this year had shows at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York and at Drei gallery in Cologne.
But the biggest feather in Ms. Kolakowska’s cap was when Konrad Smolenski, an artist represented by Leto, was chosen last year to represent the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale with his sound and video installation “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.” A variation of that project has been exhibited at the Center PasquArt in Biel, Switzerland, and is now at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw.
“I think it is important what Marta is doing in terms of Polish art but it is also a bit of fun,” Mr. Smolenski said. “With her, it is not about selling but building strong connections to people and being honest with what we are doing. That is something that I really appreciate and I cannot imagine a different kind of relationship with a gallerist.”
Those who know Ms. Kolakowska say she has always had the balance of being driven, passionate, but also very nice. Hanna Wroblewska, the director of Zacheta, where Ms. Kolakowska had her first job in the Warsaw art world back in 1998, remembered that she was “always an energetic and very positive thinking person. It is so nice to work with her and we always kept our fingers crossed for her because it is not so easy, this private gallery business in Warsaw.”
After working at the education department of Zacheta for a year and half while commuting to Krakow to do a second university degree in management and culture at her alma mater, Jagiellonian University (her first was in art history), she went to work at the Polswiss Art auction house in Warsaw.
It was there she learned to value art, traveling the globe to find works and convince owners to sell their pieces at auctions in Poland. She also organized Poland’s first-ever auction of photography in 2003, which included Polish and international photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson. During her seven years at the auction house she also started collecting pieces of contemporary Polish artists, including Dominik Lejman and Marcin Maciejowski.
She said she “desperately” wanted to own her own gallery and after finding a prime location in a former chimney sweep company in the center of the city (in Poland it is good luck, when you pass a chimney sweep, to rub one of the buttons on your clothing), she opened her space in June 2007.
It was a good omen for Leto — named using a combination of the first syllables of the names of Ms. Kolakowska’s young children, Lenka and Tobiasz — and she went about finding artists in whom other galleries, including the Warsaw stalwarts Raster and the Foksal Gallery Foundation, were not interested.
While F.G.F. and Raster have over the years been hugely influential in promoting Polish contemporary art on the international scene — between them they have represented artists including Wilhelm Sasnal, Miroslaw Balka, Monika Sosnowska and Pawel Althamer — Ms. Kolakowska decided to take a different track.
“This new generation grew up in a different time from the Polish artists people knew,” she said. “Their art was very brutal, very expressive, very introverted and it was not social art. All these artists tried to find galleries in Warsaw but they got no results because there was no place like Leto.”
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Joanna Mytkowska, the director of Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art and a co-founder of the Foksal Gallery Foundation, agreed. “She broke this circle of the art milieu, this tradition of the avant-garde and how the art scene in Warsaw was constructed,” she said. “Of course you have different artists but basically that is the point of reference. She is probably one of the first who in a very clear way broke that line.”
When a colleague approached her in 2010 about moving her gallery over to the other side of the Vistula River into Praga, she was hesitant at first. The district was being gentrified and Soho Factory had big plans to house galleries, restaurants, theaters and apartments, but it was a huge mental block for Ms. Kolakowska (and her fellow Varsovians), as that part of the city had long been seen as dangerous and lacking much cultural activity. However, after much convincing — and a promise of heated concrete floors like the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York — she decided to jump.
“Her move was a bold gesture,” said Ms. Kirszenbaum. “It changed the topography of the contemporary art scene in Warsaw. Her energy really helped to shift the center of the art scene toward Praga, which is very interesting and very admirable.”
Leto’s bigger space has meant she has more room to experiment with exhibitions, including inviting young international artists to exhibit in her gallery. Last year she ran a large show by the Dutch graphic design collective Gorilla and this year she did a show with the French brothers Florian and Michaël Quistrebert, who have been nominated for France’s prestigious Marcel Duchamp award, to be announced on Oct. 25.
“The more established galleries in Warsaw were a bit tidy and object-orientated for my taste,” said Ariadne Urlus, the director of Showroom MAMA, an art space in Rotterdam. “Marta’s way of working with artists resembled ours, based on cooperation and involvement with the artists.”
By continually internationalizing her shows, as well as by participating in European fairs like the Brussels Art Fair and Berlin Art Week, Ms. Kolakowska has helped solidify her reputation as a major player on the Polish contemporary art scene.
“When I go to Raster or F.G.F., more or less I know what to expect,” Ms. Wroblewska said. “But when I am going to Leto, I know it will be something interesting. I am never sure what it will be because her choices are unique and not so obvious.”
1st photo, visitors to Zacheta’s show on Konrad Smolenski; 2nd photo, Marta Kolakowska