Decentralisation: The Polish Art Institution Experience

We continue the series of publications devoted to the creative industries of the European Union. This time the team 'Ukrainska Pravda' (Culture) with the assistance of the EU-EaP 'Culture and Creativity Programme' discovered how some cultural centres look in today’s towns across Poland


Unfortunately, our city has only two Nobel Laureates, and just one of them has to do with art,” sincerely complains the curator at Gdansk City Gallery Marta Wróblewska. She was referring to Lech Wałęsa, the colourful hero of Gdansk’s souvenir magnets, and the writer Günter Grass. As I was about to feel sympathy for Gdansk’s lot, I remembered Gdansk’s millions of tourists, its famous port, the history of the Solidarity movement, and realised that it was just typical Polish display of excess modesty on the part of Ms. Wróblewska.

Cultural sector professionals in Poland complain in front of me out of habit about the lack of funds, good publications and educational project funding and about insidious colleagues. Yet as they realise they are talking to a Ukrainian, they quickly add: "OK, maybe it’s not all that bad, but you do understand how important it is to have a contemporary art museum in a city like Gdansk?" Yes, I do understand: in our country it’s practically impossible, whereas Gdansk is planning to have one in four years.

The “GGGG” gallery, where Marta Wróblewska is showing us around, is dedicated to the work of Günter Grass, Nobel Laureate in literature. However, Grass is first and foremost celebrated as an artist, illustrator and sculptor in this gallery. Grass was born in Gdansk and had offered his native city a significant number of his drawings, graphic works and sculptures that formed the main gallery collection. The city grabbed the idea of expanding the archives and acquired 51 of the artist’s graphic works for the gallery. "The mayor allows us to do anything we wish. We also have the support of the Department of Culture. There was an outrageous incident only once when a naked artist climbed on the roof. But it was quickly forgotten," says Wróblewska.

The gallery is always full of young people, as experimental media projects are usually presented in the temporary exhibitions hall in dialogue with the figurative and quite traditional works of Grass. While visitors carefully examine the whimsical fish and penises – Grass’ main leitmotif in his graphic works and sculptures in this gallery – I notice a group of people working with pottery behind glass doors. These are mainly people with special needs, adults as well as young people. It seems to be the best possible company for a great artist.

Overall, there are three similar galleries to be found on Gdansk’s tourist map. They have been established and are funded by the municipality with the aim of promoting local artists. Their main clients are wealthy German tourists. So, by showing Grass to the world, the city is actually actively promoting the work of its contemporary artists. Günter Grass died this spring, but he used to frequently drop in here – he genuinely liked what the gallery was doing and how it was doing it.

Nowy Sącz: The Case of European Funds

Now imagine PinchukArtCentre in the middle of Kolomyia. That’s exactly how some cultural centres look in today’s towns across Poland – they are beautiful, expensive and somewhat odd. For example, in the mountainous town of Nowy Sącz that has a population of 80 thousand, you suddenly come upon the ultracontemporary four-storey contemporary art gallery “Sokol”, which includes an exhibition area of 2,000 square metres, a film theatre for 225 viewers and a lecture hall for 60 persons.

The gallery was built with the support of the European Regional Development Fund in 2010. Nowy Sącz is a relatively prosperous town, but it does not have much tourism potential. It is more of a transit city where people do not stay for long. Obviously, this fact was exactly what gave its officials the idea: “Why not build something special here?” This is one of the interesting consequences of decentralisation in the cultural sphere, which increased with the inclusion of Poland to the EU financial programmes. After 2004, contemporary culture centres began to emerge in many small towns and were widely financed by various programmes. In addition to a new building, “Sokol” gallery received funding for the insitution’s development over the following 5 years. However, curators have to find funds for exhibition projects by themselves by applying for various grants. The average budget for one project at the gallery is 5,000 euros.

The only problem is that there is no one to go to such a wonderful institution. The biggest competitor to exhibitions is the church that stands across from the gallery. The town’s population is quite conservative and several high-profile projects have managed to scare away the grannies from contemporary art for a while. When I ask about local media that could support the gallery, I get the following reply: "The main source of information for three million Poles is the radio station “Maria”. Keep in mind that “Maria” is an odious Catholic radio of an extreme right character, which has always supported the party “Law and Justice” (PiS). In the last parliamentary elections in Poland, the PiS won a majority in parliament.

Currently, a gloomy mood is settling around the PiS cultural policy, and above all the power of city councils: if a city has a weak network of cultural activists, the interests of artistic communities can easily remain in the private sphere.

Our great grant is coming to an end, and we cannot quite imagine what awaits us after the elections. We decided once to engage local residents. We started with the most active community – pigeons fan club. They gladly collaborated with us, advised us. So we brought in 100 pigeons right into our gallery, and placed them in a glass space on the stairway landing. It was meant to be a spectacular artistic statement. But the fact that pigeons were leaving droppings in a cultural place was perceived by people as a personal insult," says gallery curator Anna Smoliak. She admits that when building the contemporary gallery with EU funds, no one gave a second thought to how it will work in the local context. But Anna sees these setbacks as a challenge: "With every failed project I have learned something about the people. For me there is no other way of exploring a city; I can only do it through art. But every year it becomes an even more expensive pleasure.”

However, Anna continues to organise quality art projects with international artists and co-curators, invites experts to work with the audience. Nowadays, a few dozen elderly women come for the exhibition openings and have created their “café” in the gallery where they knit blouses. “They are still far from contemporary art, but at least they come by and show interest in what we do,” says Anna.

Tarnów: The City of Kantor

You can tell what real decentralisation is by looking at the employees and workers of cultural institutions in Poland. The best specialists travel to work in those cities where conditions for the implementation of their projects are present, where they can fulfill their creative ambitions. They do not perceive moving from a big city to a smaller one as a career setback, since funding of cultural institutions is often better in small towns than it is in bigger cities.

Curator Anna Smoliak is from Krakow but travels to Nowy Sącz on a weekly basis for two to three days to work. As the director of a gallery in the southern town of Tarnow, Ewa Laczynska-Widz came here from Krakow six years ago and actually created the institution from scratch. The gallery’s name is “BWA Tarnów” meaning " Tarnów agency for art exhibitions”. This is an interesting example of how the former national agency that had operated across Poland since 1976 has survived in name only and has been reborn as a quality institutions network. There are institutions under the acronym BWA in Katowice, Olsztyn, Zielona Góra, Nowy Sącz, Rzeszów, etc. They do not have common budgets or a main office, but rather operate as a horizontal professional community that meets annually to discuss partnership projects and shares expertise. After the collapse of the old network in 1999, all the galleries created local budgets. Such a move was something of a positive change for the gallery directors – they no longer had to travel to Warsaw for reporting and could start the history of independent institutions with a blank page.

The gallery in Tarnów has a different history of its relations with the community from the gallery in Nowy Sącz. The team had changed several locations before settling in an old space in the park area. Of course, residents of Tarnów were not too happy – they were planning to use the palace for weddings. However, no one wanted to carry out restoration works of the space, so the city invested in repairs and transferred the space to the gallery. In a few years the “BWA Tarnów” gallery has become one of the most successful cultural institutions in Poland.

The director and artist Tadeusz Kantor, an iconic figure in Polish culture, was born and lived in Tarnów. So the gallery’s first project after opening in the new location was associated with him in the context of the city’s history. Tarnów’s residents reacted quite favourably to the gallery’s work and continue to strongly support it. One of the gallery’s main “agents” became the city’s respected historian and ethnographer Adam Bartosz, who has become the link between the institution and the city.

We did not reject all local artists and did not tell them: “You are not cool or contemporary enough”. We tried to find the best among them and to engage them collaborations,” says Eva.

The gallery in Tarnów receives funding from the municipality, but also regularly applies for Ministry of Culture grants. “Although we are a gallery that is supposed to deal exclusively with contemporary art, in our town we have to develop an audience and for that reason deal with other topics such as fashion, music, education,” says the director. And it has worked: the average number of visitors to the gallery has reached a hundred people.

Within Warsaw’s Gravitational Field

Top journalists come to Tarnów from Warsaw for each new project opening. As the directors admit, articles in national publications and glossy magazines have great influence on further interaction between the gallery and the city council. The curator and co-owner of the Krakow gallery “F.A.I.T” Magdalena Kownacka talks about the same positive effect: “We always feel more confident when journalists from Warsaw visit our exhibitions. Then we do not feel neglected and provincial”. To my surprise, this is what Magdalena had to say about Krakow’s provincialism: “Krakow is an old tourist city with universities and an art academy, but unfortunately young artists have nothing to do here. Once they’ve reached a certain level, they just go to Warsaw. Just because there is something of an art market there. In Krakow artists can develop, learn, create wonderful exhibitions, but they cannot sell”.

An underground gallery in Krakow such as “F.A.I.T.” provides another opportunity to retain creative youth in the city. The gallery has been open for 10 years and gives unknown artists a chance to get out their works to the public, to develop the city themselves.

Of course, the level of prosperity of each city is a separate issue. For example, the city of Sopot (which is included in Trojmiasto or “Tricity”) holds a visual and media arts festival. The festival is organised by the municipality, the national gallery and the Akuku association. Cultural events are organised over 4 days and the festival’s budget is 100,000 euros. I have to keep my poker face when I listen to the organisers complaining about the festival’s modest budget that has not been revised for several years.

Today decentralisation in Poland primarily means financing and decision-making at the level of municipal budgets. For example, the city of Bydgoszcz, a powerful cultural centre in the north of the country, is one of the first cities in Poland to sign in 2011 an agreement on cooperation between local authorities and cultural activists, representatives of more than 80 cultural institutions. One of the tactical goals of such a cooperation is to increase spending on culture up to at least 1 million zlotys a year (235,000 euros). Similar agreements between the city council and cultural figures have been signed in Warsaw, Łódź and Kraków.

It is also worth mentioning the “Citizens of Culture” initiative, which in 2009 “put pressure” on then Prime Minister Donald Tusk that lead to a cooperation agreement between the government and cultural activists to be signed. Tusk called the agreement “a triumph of culture over power”. Since then the theme of “1% of the state budget for culture” has always appeared on the agenda, and the budget for culture really began to grow.

However, the “citizens of culture” are now primarily focusing on city control – how they distribute funds for culture. The initiative is called “Monitoring of Polish Cities’ Culture”. The established cultural activists movement gives hope that they will be able to defend the interests of the cultural community in face of the newcomers of the majority party PiS for which culture is a tool for preserving the Polish society. Perhaps the strange contemporary art galleries are not the best thing that happened to Polish towns over the past decade. But if they have nothing but radio “Maria” then definitely nothing interesting would happen. Actually, perhaps someday something interesting might happen. For in Nowy Sącz 10% of the population is Roma. People are not happy with them, either, just like with the doves in the local gallery.

The text was prepared by Ukrainska Pravda with the assistance of the EU-EaP Culture and Creativity Programme.


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