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Kraków's Revolution

Over the next few days, I realize how easy it is for anyone to come into contact with young nobles. Michal Bisping, a smiling 25-year-old, runs a bicycle-rental shop from the entrance to his family's apartment building in the Old City. Jan Rostworowski's cousin Dominik has a leading contemporary art gallery tucked away in Swietego Jana street. Other cousins run a fashionable Corsican restaurant, called Paese, on Poselska street. On another corner, I come to the Czartoryski Museum, set up in a mansion recently given back to the Czartoryski family's descendants and best known for housing Lady with an Ermine, a portrait of a beautiful young woman holding a white ferret, painted in 1496 by Leonardo da Vinci.

Judging from the vibrancy of the Old City and Kazimierz, Kraków is recovering steadily from the deep freeze of Communism; a vital new energy is infusing its ancient streets. Guidebooks list over 300 places to raise a glass or sip a coffee in the Old City alone, where bookshops are almost as numerous as shoe stores and clothing boutiques. Business is clearly thriving, but artists, writers, and musicians—who retained some degree of intellectual freedom in the decades that followed the war by carefully sidestepping the censors—are still finding it difficult to make a living. I'm left wondering how long the city can maintain the precarious balance between luring in outsiders and supporting its own authentic culture. Prague, swamped by tourists, has seen its languorous beauty transformed in many districts into high kitsch, the result of efforts to please visitors who want Olde Worlde charm, cheap beer, and Mozart quartets.

Looking for an answer to what the city's future will be, I stop in at Kraków's museum of contemporary art, Bunkier Sztuki ("Art Bunker"), a 1970's architectural catastrophe in poured concrete that sits near the Old City. I meet the director, Masza Potocka, who lets on that she is related, through her ex-husband, to the other Potockis I've met. In the museum's café, she explains that Kraków is on the edge of a cultural precipice, fighting what she describes as its provincial snobbishness, left over from its 19th-century café society days as a "little Vienna."

The tendency, she says, is for Krakówers to ignore the changes happening in the outside world. Unlike their forebears, most of the country's rich business owners do nothing to help the arts. Even Kraków's cultural leaders—the older generation of artists and the bureaucrats who fund them—pretend to themselves that their work will always be in fashion and that the dwindling tide of state funds will continue to flow. "This is Kraków: we don't speak with Warsaw; the Planty is our border," Potocka says, disdainfully waving a cigarette. Almost daily, she adds, she battles Kraków's provincial officials, who stifle her efforts to bring foreign artists and contemporary, conceptual pieces to the gallery. With its art schools and huge student population, she notes, Kraków ought to be far more involved in the avant-garde than it is. Just over a decade out of Communism, Poland still has few private patrons willing to fund the more experimental arts, and artists must instead win the approval of the small-minded state administrators who dispense meager grants.

None of the aristocrats I've met are currently in a position to become the Medicis of their era; they are still too busy fixing the roofs of their leaky palaces. And the thousands of newly minted post-Communist millionaires are still too busy grubbing for money to consider the world beyond their cashboxes. That bothers some of Kraków's more innovative artists. I caught up with Malgorzata Markiewicz, a diminutive woman who is one of Masza Potocka's rising stars in Kraków's current art scene. Markiewicz's conceptual hallmark is clothing: for a recent exhibition, she wrapped used garments around the balustrade of the Goethe Institut (set in a palace belonging to yet another branch of the Potocki family).

Kraków, Markiewicz agrees, is slowly being strangled by its own laid-back lifestyle. The city's rents are far lower than those in Warsaw, and the slow pace makes it easy to stretch a zloty—for artists and aristocrats. But, she says, the lack of concern for new art is encouraging many of her colleagues to leave for the capital or abroad. "I feel this claustrophobia in Kraków," Markiewicz explains. Her hope, she says, is to work in New York or Japan.

Art isn't the only thing at stake. The commercial energy unleashed by Poland's competitive capitalism threatens to overrun the quiet provincial charm that brings so many visitors to Kraków. Already, city planning officials feel powerless to halt the arrival of international chains, the homogenizing storefronts that are spoiling the character of the Old City's historic façades. But the people with more ambitious taste—artists, aristocrats, and the small but growing professional class—do not have the means to achieve a balance between these forces. Unless the local government, and Krakówers themselves, try harder to ease the tension between art and commerce, Potocka warns, Kraków may become stuck in time. "Kraków has two choices," she says, "To be a rich cultural city or remain an open-air museum of restaurants for people to visit from Warsaw."

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