The Swiss Museum Championing Women Artists

The Swiss Museum Championing Women Artists

The brainchild of collector and philanthropist Grażyna Kulczyk, Muzeum Susch is “a laboratory of art, where women take center stage,” nestled in the Swiss Alps.
The brainchild of collector and philanthropist Grażyna Kulczyk, Muzeum Susch is “a laboratory of art, where women take center stage,” nestled in the Swiss Alps.

A rriving at Susch in the Swiss Alps, whistling out of a tunnel on an Alpine train, is a little like being hastily doodled onto a postcard. Cradled in the Engadin, one of the world’s most picturesque valleys, Susch sits between the high veneer of St. Moritz and Davos, yet feels like an echo of history. It is at the confluence of two rivers, the Flüela Pass and the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Walking down the snow-packed path from the station, I hear a flügelhorn. The scene could have been scripted by Thomas Mann.

Susch has one grocery store, one hotel and one world-class contemporary art venue, Muzeum Susch, the brainchild of Grażyna Kulczyk, the innovative Polish businesswoman, collector, philanthropist and ardent champion of women artists. Her museum is housed in a former 12th-century monastery perched on the banks of the River Inn, a quirky location for what Kulczyk calls “a laboratory of art, where women take center stage.”

Grażyna Kulczyk. Photo © Adam Pluciński

“No one believed that a woman from Poland could create something like this,” says Kulczyk as she greets me on a crisp, clear January afternoon. We sit down to tea in her office overlooking the babbling water. She is a petite, warm, elegant figure with a timely vision: Muzeum Susch promotes the work of women in danger of drifting into the footnotes of art history. Since it opened in 2019, with a show of works drawn from Kulczyk’s own extraordinary collection of contemporary art, the museum has presented monographic shows of artists such as the Colombian sculptor Feliza Bursztyn and Heidi Bucher, the Swiss experimentalist who created body “moldings” from various materials.

If the art is avant-garde, the setting is timeworn and traditional. “It’s good to bring new life to old buildings,” Kulczyk says. “With a new building, even when the architect is number one in the world, it doesn’t have history, it doesn’t have the spirit inside. I can imagine the life of the monks that created this place.” The Protestant Reformation put an end to the building’s days as a monastery, and it subsequently became a residence for generations of families, each of whom made additions and partitions. During the conversion, Kulczyk discovered that the building was layered “like an onion.”

Images © Andrea Badrutt for Muzeum Susch / Art Stations Foundation CH

In fact, the museum spans two buildings – the monastery dating from the High Middle Ages and an old brewery – separated by a village path and mountainous rock face. “I had to make the decision to explode the rock,” Kulczyk states. Some 9,000 tons of rock were moved, and the two galleries are now linked by an underground tunnel. She commissioned local architects Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy to restore the buildings and excavate additional galleries from the mountainside. Gradually and sensitively, they peeled back the onion: today artworks, some site-specific, are viewed next to period details like a water trough for pilgrim’s horses and a beer-cooling grotto.

The museum is just one thread in Kulczyk’s tapestry of cultural innovations: she also runs the Art Stations Foundation, which is involved in research into marginalized artists, and she sits on the board of the board of the Modern Women’s Fund Committee of MoMA in New York. Her aim is consistent: to delve into the matrilineal story of art and redefine the canon. “I observe the collectors around the world,” she says. “Most of the collectors are men. Who advises the collectors? Also men. What is in the collection? Pieces made by men.” Muzeum Susch is her – very beautiful – corrective to the situation.

“Most of the collectors are men. Who advises the collectors? Also men. What is in the collection? Pieces made by men.”
- Grażyna Kulczyk

Kulczyk’s journey to this Swiss valley is a storied one. She grew up in Poznań in west-central Poland. Her mother was a dentist, her father an engineer who had flown as a Polish pilot attached to the RAF during the Second World War. In the post-war years, there was little time for art. “My mum was busy from morning to evening helping people. My father worked very hard as an engineer. Art was a luxury.” It was, she recalls, a “very serious home full of love.”

While studying law and administration in the 1960s, at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, things began to change. “I fell in love with a guy who was an art historian. He was the beginning. Something opened, like the window in spring.” The local biblioteka became a haven: “It was a place where young women like me had contact with fantastic writers, poets and philosophers,” she says. Kulczyk started collecting prints by mid-century artists of the Polish School of Posters and helped stage daring exhibitions at a friend’s gallery.

With her former husband, the businessman Jan Kulczyk, she focused on family life. But, in the early 1990s, with the collapse of Communism, Grazyna began to combine her business acumen with her interest in art. The couple began importing foreign cars to Poland, which they exhibited in fantastic showrooms. “It was exciting,” she said, recalling “the contrast between the gray street and gray buildings with people still in their black dresses and a bright fantastic shop with beautiful cars.” The showrooms became impromptu galleries, exhibiting young Polish artists. “When a rich guy bought a car, I always put a piece of art in the back,” she remembers. Okay, she would tell them, “The car is for you, but the piece of art is for your wife.”

Since then, her business ventures have been extraordinarily successful. Most famously, she transformed a ruined 19th-century building in Poznań into Stary Browar, a vast shopping and art center that follows her “fifty-fifty” model of blending commerce with culture. Her other philosophy is for “slow art,” which promotes the experience of seeing art in person rather than digitally. Initially, she wanted to open a contemporary art museum in Poland but, when she couldn’t get government permission, she turned to Susch, where she keeps a home.

Left: Installation view of Lou Masduraud, Petrifying basin (kisses with the nymphs), 2022. © Moritz Schermbach. Right: Installation views of “Hannah Villiger: Amaze Me” at Muzeum Susch. Courtesy: © Muzeum Susch / Art Stations Foundation. Photograph: Federico Sette
“More and more, women artists are rightly being platformed, and it is in no small part thanks to collectors like Grażyna who have paved the way.”
- Isabelle Paagman, Senior International Specialist, Sotheby’s

Isabelle Paagman, a Senior International Specialist at Sotheby’s, has admired Kulczyk’s work for years. “Over the course of my two decades at Sotheby’s stand out a handful of visionary collectors,” says Paagman. “Reigning supreme among them is, of course, the inimitable Grażyna Kulczyk. From an early age, she made it her mission to collect not just women artists, but some of the best works from their respective outputs. From nurturing the art scene in her native Poland, Grażyna is now known in art circles across the world not only for pioneering women artists, but for founding both the Stary Browar center for arts and commerce and the incredible Muzeum Susch – both of which have played unequivocal roles in putting Poznań and the remote town of Susch firmly on the artistic map.”

The current winter-spring exhibition at Muzeum Susch is a retrospective of the late Swiss photographer Hannah Villiger, a fine example of the extraordinary but lesser-known characters that interest Kulczyk. During the 1980s and 1990s, Villiger created near-abstract square-format compositions detailing her own body – creases, freckles, elbows and hair tufts – often grouped together into grids of four or six images. The artist died in 1997, aged just 45, and as the museum notes observe, her pictures today “conjure reflections on platforms such as Instagram and her self-documentation as precursors to selfies.” Seen at Susch, these intimate works are juxtaposed by the monumental vistas of mountains framed by the museum’s windows.

Hannah Villiger, Skulptural | Sculptural, 1984/85. C-print of a polaroid, mounted on aluminium, 125 x 123 cm. © Foundation THE ESTATE OF HANNAH VILLIGER. Courtesy of MAMCO, Geneva

In recent years, Engadine has positioned itself as a destination for art lovers. Contemporary dealers – Hauser & Wirth, Vito Schnabel, Robilant+Voena – have galleries sprinkled throughout the valley, while artists including Ai Weiwei and Camille Henrot have participated in a series of talks this winter. The hills are alive with the sound of vernissage. But Susch, with its particular focus on women artists, offers something unique in the region. “More and more, women artists are rightly being platformed, and it is in no small part thanks to collectors like Grażyna who have paved the way,” observes Paagman.

The Covid pandemic caused logistical challenges – transporting works from Bogotá was a trial – but barely a blip to Muzeum Susch’s opening hours. And this summer sees it stage a retrospective of the late sculptor Wanda Czełkowska, the museum’s first Polish subject. Kulczyk’s spirit, attention to detail and problem-solving capabilities – traits that fuelled her success in business – have come to the fore as a museum founder. As has her talent for bucking a trend. “I always do something against the typical situation,” she explains, lowering her teacup. “Like the water in this river comes down, I go the other direction.”

Contemporary Art

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