The Takeover: Karol Sienkiewicz on Recent Changes at Warsaw’s Center for Contemporary Art, and Beyond

In Autumn of 2015, when the right wing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) scored a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in Poland, the Polish artworld braced for the worst. Cultural producers expected that the “good chane”—as the PiS leaders advertised their plans—would quickly permeate all the cultural institutions and sweep most of the directors within weeks, or, in most optimistic scenario, months.

Fortunately this did not happen. Unlike public television, which soon became the tube of the governing party and where the pro-government propaganda overshadowed even communist-era TV and reached the level of absurdity and Internet memes, art institutions remained somehow unnoticed. First things first, the new Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński seemed to think. First we’ll take over the television, then we’ll produce Hollywood style movies about glorious Polish history, and lastly we will put our museums in order.

For PiS it is not so important what is being exhibited or produced; it is more important what is not being shown. That is why the first order of business for the new cultural minister was not to change the cadres but to cut the financing, especially for collection purchases. This strategy downplays the role of these institutions, which have traditionally been critical towards the authorities, even at the cost of bringing them to the brink of collapse. It seems that the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage has no cohesive plan for the museums. There is just the need to control them. If possible, institutions try to find support elsewhere, often, as is the case in Warsaw, from local authorities.

Over the last five years the directors of major art museums, such as the Museum of Art in Łódź, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw or the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, have not changed and have had their contracts extended. However, there were certain changes both in the institutions directly dependent on the cultural ministry or run by local authorities. The most resonating change was the recent firing of Alicja Knast—the director of Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice—because she refused to use the museum as a place for political campaigning. Knast, however, officially lost her post for another excuse. Earlier last year when Agnieszka Morawińska decided to cut short her contract as a director of the National Museum in Warsaw in protest against cuts in financing, the minister did not organize the competition and finally decided to appoint Jerzy Miziołek, an inexperienced but loyal director.

Jerzy Miziołek didn’t necessarily follow party lines, but he turned out to be prude and highly incompetent: over a short period of time he single-handedly caused mass protests. (In response to his censorship of the feminist work by Natalia LL featuring a woman eating banana, people repeated this gesture all over social media and during flash mobs in front of the museum.) He fired experienced specialists, showed reproductions instead of promised works by Leonardo da Vinci, and lost EU donations. Even for the minister Gliński, this was too much and had to get rid of the unpredictable director. But what seemed to be just the minister’s mistake, might actually be a strategy – to weaken the institutions, even at the cost of the ensuing mess.

Because it’s neither art nor culture that the minister and Law and Justice and minister Gliński care about. It is the history, especially the history of the 20th century, which is being currently rewritten and is especially scrutinized. The process of retouching this history and memory, ideologizing history in the process, destroys the common understanding of the past. The resulting breach in society is also a breach in the understanding our tradition. What is being eliminated is the modernist tradition. This elimination is being reflected in the official institutional policy.

New heroes are being celebrated, and the idea of great Polishness put on the pedestal, with politicians often turning a blind eye to atrocities or antisemitic views and the crimes of some anti-Communist and anti-Soviet  underground partisan groups active after the war while valorizing them and establishing their museums. In this new propaganda they are called “cursed soldiers” (żołnierze wyklęci), emphasizing the way they were previously absent from Polish histories. On the other hand, the ministry is especially sensitive when unpleasant moments in Polish history are commemorated, downplaying the Polish antisemitism before, during, and after the war.

Consequently, it is historical museums that are at the core of most public discussions and controversies, such as the closing of the main exhibition at the Museum of World War Two in Gdańsk and the appointment of the new director of Polin Museum (Museum of the History of Polish Jews) in Warsaw. The museum in Gdańsk focused more on the struggle of ordinary people that the heroic deeds of Polish partisans. Most of the new museums opened in Poland over the last few years are museums devoted to history, such as the Museum of Cursed Soldiers in Ostrołęka.

Meanwhile, the name, “cursed artists” has begun to be used in reference to the small group of artists who felt they didn’t get enough attention from art institutions because of their rightist worldview. Among them is Jerzy Kalina, the artist who made large-scale installations in churches during the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and who recently designed the monument of the Smolensk catastrophe (a plane crash in Smolensk in 2010 in which Polish president Lech Kaczyński, twin brother of Law and Justice’s head Jarosław Kaczyński, died). However, any attempt to show the works by “cursed artists” fell flat and did not get much attention. The “cursed artists” were exhibited by Piotr Bernatowicz on several occasions, which led to the exhibition of antifeminist, homophobic and antisemitic works and posters in Arsenal, the municipal gallery in Poznań, which he ran.

Bernatowicz himself is rather composed. But as a curator, radio presenter, or radio director he has repeatedly created platforms for spreading radical rightist and xenophobic views. His usual excuse for this is the call for pluralism. A few months ago Bernatowicz was appointed as the new director of Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), often called “The Castle” for its location in Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. There was no competition for the position, and he was given a surprisingly lengthy seven-year contract. Once again, this decision was met with protests of various organisations and artists. They fell, however, on the deaf ears of the minister.

Bernatowicz is much different from Miziołek. He is not just loyal to the ruling party; he is a devoted believer. In his hands, one of the largest and most important contemporary art galleries in Poland might become an experiment in new art, loyal to the government, right-wing, xenophobic. So far Bernatowicz has not tried to revolutionise the Castle overnight. He did not close, as we feared, the queer exhibition by Karol Radziszewski (which was attacked by the public television).

The new director is clever and does not reveal all his cards from the start. In official interviews he declares plans to open up the Castle for a wider audience,to  show less hermetic art, and check if the contemporary art can hold messages other than leftist one (which means he wants to show more conservative artists). This practice is not so much one of pluralism, however. He has already, before the pandemic, reduced the plans for the 2020 (the former director issued a leaflet with 2020 programme right before leaving the post), using financial excuses. And one of his first decisions was to break the collaboration between the CCA and the Anti-Fascist Year, an initiative of artists, scientists, and activists. He also sent technicians to help with Jerzy Kalina’s installation devoted to Cursed Soldiers, a project with which CCA has no previous connection. Conflict with employees is in the air, and the most experienced curators are already looking for the jobs elsewhere. I truly doubt the success of Bernatowicz’s experiment, however much support he can get from the public television or the minister. Will the audience follow? No one cares. Because it is not important what Bernatowicz will show. He knows exactly what he shouldn’t.

Karol Sienkiewicz
Karol Sienkiewicz is an art critic and author. He lives in Warsaw.