The Crisis in Poland’s Museums

When it comes to museum governance, no system is foolproof. In the United States, where most museums are controlled by boards of trustees without any government supervision, institutions are subject to the myriad biases that come with private funding. In Europe, on the other hand, most collecting institutions have public funding and administration, which renders them defenseless against political appointments and—at worst—ideological takeovers.

Sadly, that scenario is now playing out in Poland. Since the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) took power in November 2015, the limits of parliamentary democracy with a tripartite division of powers have been tested in many areas of society. In the field of arts and culture, a series of new appointments as directors of the country’s most prominent museums has been progressing with alarming speed over the last three years, indicating an impending implosion of public art institutions. The most recent: Janusz Janowski’s nomination to serve as director of Zachęta National Gallery of Art, replacing Hanna Wróblewska, institution director since 2010.

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

There have been few worse pairings in the history of cultural matchmaking. Janowski is a no-name figure from Gdansk: an artist and musician with little managerial experience who has climbed the ranks of the Association of Polish Artists (ZPAP) to be lifted, under the current government, from his local context and given a platform in the rightist media, where he tends to share his traditionalist views on art and proclaim the righteousness of the official party line in the ongoing culture wars. Zachęta is a major art collecting institution that cares for more than 3,500 artworks, employs some sixty people (plus contractors), oversees three buildings (including the Polish Pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale in Venice), and organizes about thirty exhibitions annually, each with robust educational programming, which receive twenty- to forty-thousand visitors each, at a conservative estimate. Founded in 1860 as the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts—zachęta literally means “encouragement”—it makes sense that, in addition to acquiring and exhibiting, Zachęta has been actively producing cutting-edge projects by both Polish and international artists. Commissions for the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale have included new works by Krzysztof Wodiczko (2009), Yael Bartana (2011), and Sharon Lockhart (2017), to name just a few.

two men in suits standing at microphones in front of three framed paintings on the wall behind them

Janusz Janowski (left) at the opening of his retrospective at the State Gallery of Art in Sopot, Poland, 2016.

The selection of Janowski to run Zachęta is therefore an affront to the Polish art scene. He is a truly terrible painter, but bad artists can still, theoretically, be successful administrators. However, he has never run an institution of this scale, and he demonstrates no expertise in contemporary art, which is critical to be able to serve Zachęta’s mission and maintain its active program of acquiring work and producing new projects. Case in point: When interviewed in 2018 about the history and current workings of ZPAP by Szum, Poland’s leading contemporary art magazine, Janowski admitted that he had never before heard of the periodical. In his public appearances, Janowski states his respect for the historical great masters (whose iconography and style he attempts to follow in his own practice but fails miserably) and adherence to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The latter point tends to be crucial to European nationalists: an affirmation of Catholicism at best, and, at worst, a semi-veiled shorthand for Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism. In the art context, this emphasis on religious tradition serves as an effective double weapon against the criticality of contemporary art: it effaces both new formats and modern-day topics that may be deemed “profane.”

installation shot showing a bronze sculpture in a vitrine in the foreground, and in the background three framed wall pieces with various photos and clippings

View of the exhibition “Strike,” featuring work by Käthe Kollwitz, Hito Steyerl, and Keren Donde, at Zachęta in 2019.

If Janowski takes over Zachęta National Gallery of Art on January 1 as expected, it will be the end of an era. In the three decades since the political transformation of 1989, the gallery has had four incredible woman directors: Barbara Majewska (1990–93), who transitioned the institution out of the Communist-era system; Anda Rottenberg (1993–2001), whose unwavering support for critical and potentially controversial art made her the Polish archetype of a contemporary curator; Agnieszka Morawińska (2001–10), an art historian and professional diplomat who solidified the Gallery’s standing on the international scene; and Hanna Wróblewska, under whom Zachęta became a model of openness, inclusivity, and accessibility. Regularly visited by families, seniors, and those with disabilities, Zachęta has been a much-loved powerhouse of cultural production, whose impact extends far beyond professional art circles.

Theoretically, things may still change: the nomination is not yet an appointment. There was an outburst of support for Hanna Wróblewska in July 2021, when it was announced that her contract, set to expire at the end of the year, would not be renewed; and various professional bodies from which the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage requested opinions, such as the Polish chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), gave Janowski negative assessments. (According to Polish law, their opinion is non-binding.) An online petition from Zachęta’s audience has garnered more than four thousand signatures. Artists and cultural workers are now consolidating and voicing their objections through a number of actions, both in public and online. On December 16, Zachęta’s employees and friends gathered around the 1900 neoclassical edifice to hold it in a collective embrace.

Still, the Culture Minister, Piotr Gliński, like the rest of the current government, has blatantly ignored similar outcries in the past. Janowski’s nomination comes on the heels of earlier changes in directorial positions establishing a pattern in which experts are replaced by individuals loyal to the ruling party. It is also telling that, in four recent ministerial appointments—the Warsaw National Museum (directed by Agnieszka Morawińska until mid-2018), Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (directed by Małgorzata Ludwisiak until late 2019), the Polish Sculpture Center in Orońsko (directed by Eulalia Domanowska until late 2019), and now, the National Gallery—men replaced women. In early December, information leaked to the press that the contract of Jarosław Suchan, the director of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź—one of the first public collections of avant-garde art in the world—had not been renewed; he is now the interim director of the museum he has led since 2006, and a new director is to be appointed within twelve months. It has become clear that we are dealing with an ideological takeover of public museums aimed at subordinating their programs to the government’s official cultural politics.

FILE-In this July 16, 2019 file photo a woman passes the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Two co-founders of the museum urged the third partner — the Polish government — to comply with an agreement to re-appoint the museum's former director, saying a failure to do so is incomprehensible and is damaging to Polish-Jewish relations. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland.

In Poland, the Minister of Culture and National Heritage appoints directors of state-funded cultural institutions after consultation with professional organizations. In that sense, there is nothing unlawful about all these recent nominations. But that doesn’t make them right. For years now, members of Poland’s cultural circles have been lobbying for open competitions that would allow the most qualified and visionary candidate for a given position to emerge through a transparent process. Previous culture ministers have sometimes accepted the idea; the current Minister, Law and Justice’s Gliński, has not. In the most striking case, he rejected the results of such a competition: after the end of Dariusz Stola’s first five-year term as director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in 2019, a fifteen-person committee chose to reappoint him, but Gliński, who initially agreed to the competition, refused to sign off. The divergence was grounded in Stola’s program for the museum, reflecting historical relations between Polish Jews and non-Jewish Poles, which PiS would prefer to present in a more exculpatory light. After almost a yearlong stalemate, the minister appointed POLIN’s previous deputy director, Zygmunt Stępiński, to run the museum. In a similar move a few years earlier, Gliński refused to appoint his own predecessor, Małgorzata Omilanowska, to direct the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

The nomination of Janowski as director of Zachęta reflects two possible rationales. Either the Ministry of Culture is running out of party loyalists who might be at least semi-competent candidates for Poland’s art institutions—after all, expertise in contemporary art and support for fascism rarely go hand in hand—or it seeks simultaneously to control and punish the contemporary art circles that the ruling, extreme-right authorities consider the nest of the “rotten left.” While much can be said about Janowski’s incompetence, his record of party-line adherence is impeccable. As an example, he has publicly voiced contempt for the “LGBT ideology”—shorthand for any position on gender and sexuality differing from that dictated by Catholic morality, widely used by the right in Poland’s ongoing culture wars—and demonstrated his eagerness by stating that the party’s promised changes in the field of culture “do not proceed fast enough.”

Most alarmingly, this is a sign of a new turn in Poland’s post-1989 cultural politics. Is this going to be a return to the Communist-era system, where Zachęta was the official exhibition hall of the Association of Polish Artists, ZPAP? In the People’s Republic of Poland, Zachęta—then called the Central Bureau of Art Exhibitions (CBWA)—was the head institution in a centralized network of local galleries situated in smaller cities, all managed by ZPAP, that was, in turn, the only professional artist organization. ZPAP was responsible for everything from administering art supplies to distributing official state commissions. This system attracted and supported mediocrity: every member was eligible for an occasional solo exhibition, regardless of the quality of their work. Detaching CBWA Zachęta from that network in 1989 and releasing the local Bureaus of Art Exhibitions to the city authorities was a major part of Poland’s post-Communist transformation in the field of culture. Reconnecting those two bodies by appointing ZPAP’s president to run Zachęta can only result in a terrible cost to the quality of programming.

Today, some local chapters of ZPAP still have their galleries—most of Janowski’s curatorial experience comes from the one in Gdańsk—but the Association has been steadily losing significance and reputation, degrading to an empty shell of an institution with a few entrenched conservatives keeping their positions. Though its official membership numbers in the range of 5,000, ZPAP has only about 300 active members, according to a recent report by the magazine NN6T. Very few new graduates join. It is precisely the kind of marginal group harboring resentment against the so-called cultural elites whom the current ruling party is mobilizing in order to enforce their new Polish order. In the absence of an alternative professional organization, ZPAP still operates as a professional consulting body, which already gives these few hundred people a disproportionate influence over the country’s art institutions. The association has been the perfect addressee for the government’s political motto—the “good change”—that promises to lift the self-proclaimed “marginalized” to new positions of power.

The future of Zachęta under Janowski can be deduced from recent precedents. The directorship could become a spectacle of incompetence and chaos, as happened with the National Museum in Warsaw (MNW): Jerzy Miziołek was appointed museum director in November 2018, after the well-respected Agnieszka Morawińska resigned, citing communication problems with the Ministry. Miziołek, a professor of archaeology with minimal managerial experience, caused a public outrage after censoring works by Natalia LL and Katarzyna Kozyra in the permanent exhibition (they “distracted the youth”) and subsequently closing down the whole gallery of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art. Miziołek further faced protests from his own staff after he fired several established curators and installed an exhibition that included digital prints of works by Leonardo da Vinci. He lasted a year.

In an alternative scenario, Janowski’s tenure could dissolve in right-wing extremism grounded in hate speech, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia, as is now occurring at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, where the current director—appointed in January 2020 without a competition—has run such program. The last two years at Ujazdowski included a seminar/book launch warning against “gender ideology,” a display of offensive works by an artist previously found guilty of inciting racism in his native Sweden, and a blackface performance mocking the death of George Floyd—a full nationalist playbook, all executed in the name of fighting “political correctness” and pursuing the “freedom of art.” (I will not dignify the actions of this director by mentioning either his or the artists’ names, specifically because these shameful events are calculated for publicity.)

There is also a third possibility—sadly, the most likely of the three: the gradual slide of Zachęta National Gallery of Art into the margins of Polish cultural life with irrelevant shows, substandard acquisitions, declining research projects, and ideologized educational programs; a Zachęta that slowly loses its hard-won respect on the international scene, and loses touch with contemporary artists—the Gallery’s current lifeblood—as well as its public. We must not let this happen.

Magdalena Moskalewicz is a Warsaw-born art historian, curator, and editor specializing in art from the former Eastern Europe, and Assistant Professor, Adj. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Zachęta Director Hanna Wróblewska commissioned her to curate the Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, in 2015, and Moskalewicz guest curated the 2016 exhibition “The Travellers: Voyage and Migration in New Art from Central and Eastern Europe” at Zachęta.


No votes yet.
Please wait...