Cookies on this website

We use cookies to make our website work properly. We'd also like your consent to use analytics cookies to collect anonymous data such as the number of visitors to the site and most popular pages.

I'm OK with analytics cookies

Don't use analytics cookies

Home / Resources / News / “Nobody wants to watch”. Struggles for the cultural sector in Poland

“Nobody wants to watch”. Struggles for the cultural sector in Poland

Article by Alicja Borkowska, Tomasz Gromadka

The artistic and cultural sector in Poland is currently facing two serious problems –a lack of money and the incompetence of politicians, government and local officials, who do not understand the specificity of artistic activity. Some voices among public debate suggest that artists should join the free market and discontinue the use of public funds for the production of films, performances or video-art that “nobody wants to watch”.  Engaged in a sort of ideological war, many local politicians are trying to influence artistic work, especially in theatre. For example, in Walbrzych, theatre directors Legnica and Bydgoszcz have to cope with attacks from conservative officials and politicians. After a performance about famous Polish priest Jerzy Popie?uszko, which premiered June 9th, right-wing Bydgoszcz city hall politicians demanded the dismissal of Teatr Polski director Bydgoszcz for having offended religious feelings At the same time in Warsaw, local officials exercised their power to influence the cultural sector, with actions that fell outside the law – for example forgoing public competitions to select theatre directors, appointing them directly without any independent control. These are the conditions that the most important Warsaw stages find themselves in, in the new season (Studio Theater, Dramatyczny Theater and Powszechny Theater). 

Still, the worst problem for the cultural sector remains a constant lack of money. Instead of focusing on culture, Poland spent billions on organising the European Football Championship, Euro 2012, with almost €2 billion spent only on the construction of the national stadium in Warsaw. In comparison, in 2012 Warsaw spent approximately €18 million (77 millions z?oty) to finance the 19 theatres based in the capital city. Compared to other years the 2012 budget for culture in Warsaw was three times smaller and the funds cut from culture were used to cover costs for the Euro 2012, such as the “Fan Zone” – an area with live screenings of the matches for the public in the centre of the city. Such a big sporting event and the international visibility it placed on the country, could have been the occasion to promote Warsaw, presenting the prestigious Polish artistic performances (similar to what happened in London during the Olympics), but this didn’t appeal to the Polish Municipalities.

Budgets of cultural institutions are shrinking and only the biggest can survive, others are destined to make something from nothing or to close. For example, regional funding for the Warsaw Cameral Opera, a prestigious institution with 50 years of tradition, was cut in a way that jeopardized its survival. In order to raise awareness and gain support, the 130 artists of the institution organised a big concert in front of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, which became a strong symbol of the struggle of culture due to the financial crisis for the past months.

In this seemingly hopeless situation, many cultural institutions try the third sector way, looking for support from foundations or associations with which they can apply for other public, national and European grants. The ones which suffer most are the small cultural and artistic organisations which end up spending more time filling in application boxes than in real cultural work or artistic research. Important and internationally renowned institutions often struggle to exist too.

The recent story of the projects involving the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is especially representative of the current institutional attitude towards cultural projects. In 2006 new plans started to build the new seat of the museum in an innovative building, to be erected in the very centre of the city, in front of the Palace of Culture and Science. Since the project was handed to Swiss architect Christian Kerez, who proposed an avant-garde project for the museum, a series of polemics started, with attacks on the projects by different officials, requests to change it, delays, etc., until the contract with the architect was cancelled in May this year. In the meanwhile, the museum has been opened temporarily in a former furniture shop in the centre of the city, without a clear strategy for its future – and with no significant developments since, considering that the municipality hasn’t bought the lots necessary to start construction.

Another discouraging vicissitude regards two of the best and internationally claimed Polish theatre directors, Krzysztof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna. The two directors don't have the place to host their performances, because the costs are considered too high, and their last productions, financed by French and German theatres, have been put on throuhgout Europe except for in Poland. Jarzyna will soon be forced to leave his stage and the new theatre of Warlikowski which was supposed to be constructed two years ago and serve as both a theatre and cultural centre dedicated to contemporary culture and art has not been started yet. The first project has already been changed many times to cut the costs of the construction. The directors raised a public debate in hopes of bringing about change, particularly because they would like to continue working in Poland and display their work to the Polish public above all.

There are also positive aspects for the cultural and artistic sector in Poland, with ambitious audiences, artists and activists joining forces to fight for their rights. During the last season, there was a big protest of public-civil society during the biggest theatre festival “Warsaw Theatre Meetings”, which presents the most successful performances of the year. The protest was a grassroots initiative to demonstrate against cuts in culture and decisions made by politicians regarding theatre directors that were replaced by managers, because culture “finally has to start earning money”. The main slogan of the protest was that “Theatre is not a product”; it’s not something to be sold, rather, it is a common good that everybody can have an access to, and therefore should not be forced to earn money itself (read here the text of the petition). This was a key point to start a discussion among the cultural actors, whether the cultural and artistic sector should earn money for itself? Is it such a bad idea per se? Is it possible? Is it possible for independent artistic and cultural research to continue while introducing the element of earning a profit?

There are many important grassroots initiatives that have been organised by cultural institutions in past years, which have been exploring solutions to problems within the cultural and artistic sector, entering into dialogue with politicians and proposing alternatives. One example is the important civil movement Warszawscy Obywatele Kultury (the Warsaw Citizens of Culture), formed by about 100 people from different cultural associations from Warsaw, aiming to look for alternative answers to wrongful cultural politics. The result of this citizens’ movement is the programme for the Development of Culture 2020, titled “The city of culture and citizens” created together with municipality officials, experts and practitioners, collaborating in a special Consulting Team. This document, unique because of its national scale, was created in 2008 and after many discussions, in March of 2012 was established by the Board of Warsaw receiving the status of a local law. Until the end of 2012 concrete proposals can be made, on issues such as: what can be done to attract more Warsaw citizens to culture and give them open access to it? How can the public space be developed and improved? What can be done with the old cultural institutions and how can cultural organisations be helped? How can those who create art in Warsaw be supported? How can money for culture  be spent in an appropriate way? How can the city be made more interesting for tourists?

Recently protests of visual artists, art centres and museums were organized, having as one of their postulates the regulation of the retirement and medical care for the artistic and cultural professions. The artists – 80 participating art institutions – met with the Minister of Culture and agreed on the beginning of the institutional process to regulate these problems. Many of the artists protests and cultural initiatives, in dialogue with the representatives of the public bodies aim to improve the artistic and cultural sector in Poland by changing the way of thinking of the government and officials – if they don’t understand that art is important, they should at least see that it has prestige and promotional significance and as a result should consider the artist and cultural operator as genuine professions (so that needed to be regulated in terms of medical care, retirement etc.) and not merely as a hobby for those who create it.