After Election, Poland’s Art World Calls for Change

Just weeks after becoming Poland’s culture minister, in 2015, Piotr Glinski began a yearslong effort to shift his country’s cultural life toward the political right.

He ousted liberal museum directors, replacing them with conservatives. He created new institutions to celebrate traditional culture and nationalist heroes. And along with other lawmakers from his party, Law and Justice, he launched broadsides against movies, plays and pop stars that criticized the Roman Catholic Church or the government’s policies on issues including immigration.

Many artists and cultural leaders opposed Glinski’s actions, and there were protests throughout his term, including outside Poland’s National Museum after a leader he had appointed removed sexually suggestive artworks from the walls.

Pawel Sztarbowski, the deputy director at the Powszechny Theater, in Warsaw, said that Glinski had tried to “return Poland to an imaginary past.”

Now, that project may be coming to an end. After opposition parties won a majority of parliamentary seats in the recent general election, Polish cultural figures are calling on what is expected to be a coalition government dominated by centrist parties to reverse Glinski’s agenda. But they are split over how to do that without entrenching political interference in the arts, which they have spent nearly a decade protesting.

Jaroslaw Suchan, a former director of the Museum of Art in Lodz whose contract was not renewed by the Law and Justice government, said that the party had “treated culture as an ideological weapon.” But if a new government simply fired Glinski’s appointees, “they’d be repeating the last government’s behaviors.”

“We have to think of the long term,” Suchan said, instead of seeking revenge.

More than three weeks since the Oct. 15 election, it is still uncertain when Law and Justice will leave office. Under the country’s Constitution, President Andrzej Duda, a Law and Justice ally, has 30 days to ask a party to form a new government, though he has not done it yet. In the power vacuum, Law and Justice supporters have been trying to derail the decision by questioning the legitimacy of the vote.

Observers of Polish politics expect that Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Coalition, the largest opposition party, will eventually be asked to lead a new government in alliance with several other groups.

Before the vote, Civic Coalition said in a manifesto that it would abolish the “censorship of Polish culture” and ensure that institutions that presented controversial work kept their grants. The party also promised that it would not appoint political figures to run cultural organizations, though the manifesto gave no further details. A spokesman for Civic Coalition did not respond to an interview request.

Current and former museum and theater leaders said in interviews that they were hoping for more significant change.

The most pressing issue, according to Piotr Rypson, the chairman of the Polish branch of the International Council of Museums, is the leadership of three important museums, which he said had been handed over to Law and Justice sympathizers: the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art and the Zacheta National Gallery of Art, both in Warsaw, as well as the Museum of Art in Lodz.

Rypson said two of those leaders were “incompetent,” and that the third, the Ujazdowski Castle’s director, Piotr Bernatowicz, had displayed artworks out of step with his institution’s traditions. Bernatowicz, whose contract runs through 2027, has staged several exhibitions featuring artists whose work focuses on conservative political hobbyhorses. He did not respond to emailed interview requests.

Malgorzata Omilanowska, who was culture minister in a center-right government before Law and Justice took office, said that the three appointees were a “real embarrassment” and had marginalized their museums within Poland.

They had also had an impact on Poland’s reputation abroad, she added, not least because they had just helped choose the country’s representative for next year’s Venice Biennale. Their pick, announced on Oct. 31, was the painter Ignacy Czwartos, with a show focused on Polish victims of German and Russian aggression, events often highlighted by Law and Justice. One of the works he proposes showing in Venice, for example, will depict Angela Merkel and Vladimir V. Putin on either side of a burning swastika.

In an email exchange, Andrzej Biernacki, the current director of the Museum of Art in Lodz, said that Poland’s art world was intolerant of artists with conservative views and its institutions had favored Western artists to the detriment of the country’s own. That’s why, he said, he refocused the museum’s budget to acquire works by Polish, rather than international, artists, buying or securing as donations nearly 1,000 pieces.

Janusz Janowski, the director of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art, said in an email that he has also shifted his museum’s focus toward contemporary Polish art, including through “collaborating with eminent artists, even those who might not necessarily align with the artistic ‘mainstream.’”

Janowski and Biernacki both said that they would be staying in their posts, and that their contracts ran until the end of 2025. Biernacki added that if the new government tried to remove him early, it would be breaking the law.

In an emailed statement, Glinski, the culture minister, said that he had simply replaced museum directors when their contracts expired. “Polish culture was dramatically underinvested” when he came to office, he said, and he had refocused the country’s institutions to foster a sense of national identity and patriotism — something “all wise and responsible states” do. Ukraine would have been quickly defeated by Russia without its “strong Ukrainian patriotism,” Glinski added.

The bullish statement summed up the past eight years with pride: “The scale of our achievements — of this great institutional change in Polish culture — has no precedent either in contemporary Polish politics or in contemporary culture.”

His critics see it differently, yet even among those who desire a cultural reset, there are some aspects of Glinski’s tenure that few want to lose. Suchan, the ousted Lodz museum director, said that under Glinski culture was “at the center of politics” — a position it never held under liberal governments, for whom it was often an afterthought. The culture ministry’s budget doubled during Law and Justice’s eight years in office, Suchan added, and Glinski secured funding to set up a host of new institutions — including museums, an opera company and various grant-making bodies.

The new coalition government should maintain that funding, Suchan added. If nothing else, Law and Justice had showed that “culture isn’t a waste of money,” he said, adding that “it plays an important role in creating citizens, and shaping society.” That, he said, was “one lesson” everyone in Poland, liberal or conservative, could take from the past eight years.

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