Bielska Jesień has been promoting contemporary art and setting trends in the art market for more than 60 years. This year, a record number of artists have submitted pieces for the competition. PURO Hotel is the proud patron of the event and we’re talking to Ada Piekarska, curator of the Bielska Jesień 2023 Painting Biennale, about the competition, but also about the state of painting in the art world.
Bielska Jesień – interview with Ada Piekarska, curator of poland's premier painting competition
Tell us a little about the history of Bielska Jesień.
Bielska Jesień dates back to 1962, when a nationwide review of painting, printmaking and sculpture was organised in Bielsko-Biała for the first time. In 1965 the event became a competition. And in 1968 the Bielska Jesień competition started focusing exclusively on painting. Over the years the event has adapted to both structural changes and transformations in the field of art. At the turn of the millennium, we started a supplementary event – every two years, alternating with the biennial, we curate Bielska Jesień exhibitions. From the very beginning Bielska Jesień never imposed a theme or age restrictions. And since 2013 people without a diploma from an art college have also been able to enter.
Why is this leading art competition and painting exhibition held in Bielsko-Biała?
The event started from a local art community initiative – at that time centred around the Association of Polish Artists. The Bielsko-Biała art community was proud of its newly built Exhibition Pavilion, the first in the voivodship. The local community had big ambitions. The name of the event was a reference to another high-profile event, the Warszawska Jesień contemporary music festival. The competition grew more important year by year. Although Bielska Jesień focuses exclusively on painting, we also often see works that go far beyond the traditional framework of painting.
Is this related to expanding boundaries in different artistic mediums?
Yes, but also boundaries in general. The art world deals with this quite adeptly – constantly testing and challenging established ideas. At the final exhibition, for example, we’ll show pieces by Karolina Jarzębak, who creates objects made of wood decorated with intarsia. Those involved in art very often take the path of experimentation. But for me it’s just as interesting to see the audience’s reaction. How much are audiences attached to certain conventions? What do they consider inappropriate and why? Do we need clear boundaries and attachment to structures in art? Is it the job of art to provide a sense of comfort? I expect a lively discussion around the exhibition.
Are you seeing an increase in interest in painting as an artistic discipline?
The popularity is primarily linked to the art market, which is quite pragmatic. People who buy art have to think about how they can display it at home. And paintings are quite easy to store; you can simply hang them on the wall. Of course, painting is also a well-established and familiar medium, so it’s less likely to confuse viewers in their relationship to it. This is one of the reasons why non-commercial institutions like ours get involved in grassroots work – especially education. We show a wide cross-section of pieces; contrary to appearances, we don’t only focus on painting. In 2023, sculpture dominates our programme. We’re pushing the boundaries.
I’m curious about the competition’s selection process. How strong is the field of artists who enter Bielska Jesień?
Just taking part in the final is a great honour. Only a handful get to the exhibition; this year it’s about 5 per cent of the 1,006 artists. It’s a very intense selection process and we’re bound to overlook many interesting artists. That’s why we show all the entries on the competition page, so the public can judge the jury's choice.
How does the selection process work?
The first meeting of the five-member committee is frenzied – they jury has only two days to make a crucial selection looking at digital reproductions of the pieces. The jury decides which images will be submitted to the gallery. At the next meeting, they discuss and judge all the original pieces in person. But choosing the jury itself is just as important. Each time, it’s made up of painters who've often been awarded prizes in previous editions of the competition, as well as people involved in art criticism or curating exhibitions. They all have specific criteria for evaluating art. It’s not only the form that’s important – the artistic strategy and content also play a huge part in the decision-making process.
How many of the people taking part in the exhibition don’t have an art degree?
Usually there are a few, but this year there’s only one. There are also a few people studying who don’t have a degree yet. As a participant in the deliberations, I can assure you that the participants’ educational background has little influence on the jury's judgements.
How is the exhibition organised?
Each of the qualifiers presents one, two, sometimes three pieces. The exhibition takes place in the main premises of the Bielska BWA Gallery, the same place as over 60 years ago. The Bielska Jesień competition takes place every two years. Thousands of people visit the exhibition – from all over Poland and from abroad. The exhibition attracts the entire artistic community, and draws in collectors, curators and commercial galleries. Many see it as an indicator of trends or an opportunity to discover new artists. We often buy pieces from the Bielska Jesień exhibitions for our collections. We show some of them in our second location, the historic Willa Sixta.
It's also a great chance to see this beautiful city.
It’s interesting that two big art competitions that no longer exist – Artystyczna Podróż Hestii and Spojrzenia – were held in Warsaw. At the moment, art centres outside the capital seem to offer more creative freedom. There’s been a shift.
Wasn’t that why Bielsko-Biała initially flourished, because it was easier to have creative freedom there than under the watchful eye of the authorities in the capital?
I have the impression that the soil in this city is exceptionally fertile. It’s relatively easy to create new things here, many people have an infectious enthusiasm. I suppose I’m one of those people. We have a hunger for cultural activity, as you can see with the news that Bielsko-Biała is one of the final four cities competing for the title of European Capital of Culture 2029.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed! Tell us more about the competition itself.
Over the years, the competition has changed quite a bit. We’re trying to develop it, and we’re always analysing what’s been done so far. Recently, we’ve been devoting a lot of time to inclusiveness, but also to the need to democratise the formula. This year we launched a new website that’s more user-friendly and accessible. We have more plans, of course. The only problem is financial constraints.
We heard the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage refused to finance the main prize of the Bielska Jesień.
As usual, we asked the Minister to patronise and fund the Grand Prix. TThe Minister agreed to take the honorary patronage, but without financial support. They gave . With no explanation and we had no chance to no possibility of appeal. We were surprised, but, although, given the political atmosphere, thisI guess it was to be expected.
How much is the prize?
It’s 30,000 zlotys. I shared the news about the Minister withdrawing financial support on Instagram and it quickly went viral. It got a great response from the art community, and from many people outside it. Everyone said it was a scandal. After all, from the ministry's perspective, it's not a lot of money.
And that's when you heard from Zuzanna Zakaryan from PURO.
Yes! Zuza Zakaryan’s developing the art collection at PURO and she reacted very quickly. I knew the very next day that we were going to collaborate. The more I think about it, the more I see it as a wonderful coincidence. It's a natural partnership for us, ideologically and image-wise. Not many hotel chains employ a curator and fervently promote design and contemporary art. Of course, I still think important artistic events of national stature should get help from the ministry. But when that’s not possible, a good patron is crucial.
Ada Piekarska – Curator of the 46th Painting Biennial Bielska Jesień 2023, curator of exhibitions and projects at the Bielska Galeria BWA, graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and art history at the Polish Academy of Sciences. She’s an author, educator and activist. In her curatorial practice, she looks at, among other things, non-artistic functions of art.
Text: Agata Napiórska
Photos: Piotr Czyż
Presented art works by:
1. Karolina Jarzębak
2. Bartek Flis
3. Helena Minginowicz
4. Zuzanna Borek
5. Samuel Kłoda