In the late 1990s, as Poland was finding its way back to capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union, the twenty-something Warsaw art journalists Łukasz Gorczyca and Michal Kaczyński started a small magazine called Raster to chronicle the country’s nascent art scene. Coming out in print, the magazine also published online, giving the two friends an unprecedentedly responsive platform to cover what Poland’s artists and dealers were doing, and they used it to broadcast punchy, conversational reports that often had an acid edge.
“It was beautiful—it was such a romantic time, when you could write such annoying stories and piss people off,” recalls Kaczyński. “Back then, everything else was very academic, and nobody understood anything. It was too hard. We had a totally different approach and wanted to created a new form that was like the tabloids.” For one first series, the two traveled all over the country to describe what was taking place in “these small forgotten galleries” in the hinterlands. “Everybody was excited to see what would be in the next issue because they thought there would be something nasty about them. People hated us. We were very popular immediately.”
At the same time, Kaczyński and Gorczyca kept their day jobs at a state TV channel, which was well paid enough to give them a measure of freedom. After a few years of operating the magazine, they began discussing how they could use these resources to help take Warsaw’s art scene to the next level, says Kaczyński. “Maybe we should open an art gallery, so we are not just making jokes about everything and instead support artists who otherwise would disappear?”
In 2001, they rented an apartment in the city’s center and began using it to put on some small, informal shows and concerts with the young artists of their generation, aiming to create a salon where like-minded people could gather, drink coffee and beer, and discuss art. For the first three years the two ran the space essentially as a nonprofit, keeping their TV posts to pay the bills, but gradually the gallery started to become more successful—so they quit to become full-time art dealers.
“We didn't have any experience about how to run an art gallery, and all galleries that existed then were more like shops,” Kaczyński says. “We had to learn everything step-by-step, and not knowing what we were doing built a very strong bond between the gallery and the artists. It was very satisfying that we could develop something entirely on our own.” They also stopped working on the magazine, and carried its title over to the gallery. Taken from the term for the pixellated dots that were used to create primitive computer images, the name Raster takes on a poetic quality at the gallery. “We took it as a metaphor: we are all small dots, but together we form an image.”
While the gallery at first focused on creating a market for Polish artists, it grew to include international figures as well, importing their viewpoints to Warsaw. Today, its roster includes such celebrated names as Wilhelm Sasnal, Slavs and Tatars, and the painter Rafał Bujnowski, who is collected by the Rubells. (At this year’s NADA Miami Beach, half of the booth was comprised of foreign artists, like Michelle Rawlings and Mika Tajima.) Raster has long ago outgrown its modest apartment-gallery origins, and now occupies a beautiful and spacious ground-floor gallery in central Warsaw distinguished by its wall of high windows facing the street. The gallery also features a publishing program for both books and affordable prints in an effort to cultivate beginner collectors. They are also known for holding an annual “cheap art expo,” where to people can buy an array of lower-priced works—some of which go up in value rather quickly.
Warsaw’s collector community remains a work in progress, the gallery’s Magdalena Kobus explains. “It's like a rookie art market—there are a lot of wealthy people who don't realize you can invest in art, and would rather buy a Porsche than a painting,” she says. Now that’s starting to change however, in part through Raster’s efforts to galvanize these collectors with a yearly Warsaw Gallery Weekend, pulling together some two dozen galleries around the city for a festival of simultaneous art shows. “It used to be that most of our income came from fairs and collectors abroad, but now it’s growing in Poland too because people are starting to see collecting as real thing to do.” It helps that the city, though now in the grips of a rightward government, is growing economically.
As for Kaczyński and Gorczyca’s own irreverent, piquant writing, that fell by the wayside. Kaczyński says it come with the territory. “Working with artists for 15 years now means we really need to be careful—we have to be responsible for their careers,” he says. “It means you can’t say anything from your heart. You have to visit your colleagues and say nice things. I hate it.”