Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź is one of the oldest museums of modern art in the world. The Museum’s connections with the avant-garde date back to the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, when a group of radical artists from the “a.r.” group began gathering works of the most important artists of the day for the Museum. The action met with great interest of European avant-garde, making many outstanding artists, such as Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters to donate their works to the collection. The fact made the collection of the “a.r.” group a unique symbol of solidarity and cooperation of the avant-garde. The International Modern Art. Collection of the “a.r.” group, representing the main directions of art. such as Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Purism, Neoplasticism and Surrealism was open to public on 15th February 1931. The collection has since been consistently expanded by including international modern and contemporary artworks. Due to this fact Muzeum Sztuki is now the only museum in Poland with such extensive collection of world art of the 20th and 21st century.
The creation of the Łódź collection is a worldwide phenomenon for several reasons. Firstly, it was initiated by artists themselves: the unique collection was gathered thanks to the enthusiasm and devotion of as few as five members of the “a.r.” group – Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, Henryk Stażewski (the artists) and Julian Przyboś and Jan Brzękowski (the poets). Their activities and contacts, stretching from Moscow to Paris, made it possible to create an outstanding international collection of their contemporary art. Secondly, the collection included the works of the most progressive representative of European avant-garde of the day whose names would only later be included in the canon of modern art. Finally, the attitude of the then-authorities of Łódź proved surprisingly open: in spite of certain misgivings the authorities decided to allow the revolutionary collection to be exhibited at the Julian and Kazimierz Bartoszewicz Museum of History and Art located at 1 Liberty Square, opened in 1930.
After the Second World War, in 1948, the Museum was re-located to one of the Poznański family palaces at 36 Więckowskiego Street, which still is one of its seats. In 1950 the Museum, taken over by the state was re-named to Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź – a name it still holds today.
Close relationship between the artists and the Museum resulted in multiple donations after the war. In 1945 Karol Hiller’s widow donated his legacy to the Museum. In that same year Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro bestowed their oeuvre on the Museum. In 1957 due to the efforts of the Paris-based artists such as Denise René, Michel Seuphor, Jan Brzękowski, Edouard Jaguer and Jerzy Kujawski it was possible to obtain works representing various artistic directions (e.g. Surrealism) and international avant-garde art. In 1975 Mateusz Grabowski, the owner of a London gallery, donated 230 artworks of the most prominent artists of the young British art to the Museum. The most important event of 1981 was Joseph Beuys’ visit, during which he gave the museum a significant part of his Archives containing over a thousand works as a part of the Polentransport 1981 action. In that same year the Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity” donated the collection of works created by the participants of an international action Construction in Process to be a permanent deposit of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. In 1983 American artists bestowed a collection of their works gathered during the artists’ exchange Échange entre artistes 1931–1982, Pologne-USA, initiated by Henryk Stażewski, Anka Ptaszkowska, Pontus Hulten and Foksal gallery in Warsaw celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “a.r.” group.
The collection is now housed at ms² – a modernised seat of a 19th century weaving plant opened for public on 20th November 2008. Since then Muzeum Sztuki has presented its collection in a completely new way. The changes refer to the place itself as well as to the way in which the artworks are exhibited. The Museum resigns from chronological order of presenting the works in favour of four themes, which are important both for contemporary culture and strongly present in the collection of the “a.r.” group. The themes, arranged in four notional triads, are the basis of organising the exhibition space. They are: “body, trauma, prosthesis”, “construction, utopia, politicization”, “eye, image, reality” and “object, fetish, phantasm”. Due to this kind of organisation the works presented at ms² not only illustrate specific directions in art. but also communicate vital issues for visitors here and now. The objective of the permanent exhibition is constant renewal of the potential of the collected artworks, making the visitors able to deepen their experience and understanding of the reality that surrounds them today by means of communing with the works, creating an “event”, a moment when an artwork is brought to life again resounding with the thoughts and emotions of the visitors. The seat of Muzeum Sztuki, which used to hous the Collection for 50 year, is now, as ms¹, a place of experimenting with the phenomena of contemporary art. The space is used to present temporary exhibitions, presenting performance art, organising workshops and film screenings. The element connecting this place with the tradition of Muzeum Sztuki is the Neoplastic Room, designed in 1948 by Władysław Strzemiński as a space for presenting the activities of the “a.r.” group and of Constructivist artists. Now the Neoplastic Room is a point of departure for new projects closely connected with its idea, created by such artists as Daniel Buren and Liam Gillick. This way the avant-garde tradition remains the subject of discussions, new interpretations and thus is still alive.