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Poland’s Ministry of Culture Accused of Attempting to Control an Important Cultural Institution

Poland’s current rightwing Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, is accused of attempting to take control of the museum in an effort to curtail its programming and replace its director with a ministry-appointed one.

European Solidarity Centre (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Ministry of Culture in Poland has been accused of attempting to seize control from some of the country’s most visible cultural institutions and museums. Last week, the Art Newspaper reported on a dispute brewing within the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk. In the aftermath of the killing of the city’s left-leaning mayor, Paweł Adamowicz (who was closely connected to the museum), the Art Newspaper states that disputes over the center’s programming are becoming highly politicized.

Poland’s current Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, a leading member of the rightwing governing Law and Justice party (PiS), is accused of attempting to take control of the museum in an effort to curtail its programming and replace its director with a ministry-appointed one.

The European Solidarity Center, or ECS, is one of Poland’s largest and most celebrated museums. Opened in 2015, it is devoted to a period of Poland’s history known as “Solidarność” (“Solidarity”), commemorating the country’s transition from communist rule in the 1980s under then-union leader Lech Wałęsa. ECS is now stationed in Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyard, where the movement started, and is devoted to Poland’s anti-Soviet resistance. The massive complex is home to a permanent exhibition of around 2,000 items, a library with around 100,000 books, a research and academic center that conducts educational activities, as well as a space for conferences and temporary exhibitions. It was completed at a total cost of 229 million złoty (~$60.1 million USD); 113 million złoty (~ $29.6 million USD) of these funds were provided by the European Union, with the rest of the money raised locally.

Shipyard helmets hung in a room at the European Solidarity Centre

The provenance of the institutional funds and its impacting on programming has risen questions. The ECS’s annual budget is currently co-funded by the Ministry of Culture, the City of Gdańsk, and the Pomerania Province. Last October, the Ministry of Culture announced it would be reducing its annual funding from just over 7 million złoty (~$1.8 million USD) in 2018 to 4 million złoty (~$1 million USD) in 2019. In addition to the diminished funding, the Art Newspaper is also reporting that Gliński, who is also Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and a member of the ruling PiS party, is proposing a series of changes to the structure of the ECS that would give the ministry the right to appoint a deputy director of its own choosing, which critics say would bring the institution into the orbit of PiS ideology.

Also on the ministry’s proposed agenda is the earmark of funds for the creation of a new department named after one of Solidarity’s co-founders, Anna Walentynowicz, who was aboard a 2010 plane crash that killed several of Poland’s leading political figures, including then-president, Lech Kaczynski.

A spokeswoman for the ministry was quoted last week in the Art Newspaper report saying that the ECS is failing to represent “all the heirs to the Solidarity idea.” The spokeswoman admitted that while the City of Gdańsk is the “main organizer” of the museum, despite providing “a subsidy almost two times lower than the ministry,” she claims that the ECS “should not — and cannot — be used instrumentally for day-to-day political and party activities.”

The City of Gdańsk, whose mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, was killed in a violent knife attack earlier this year, is a hotbed for the liberal-conservative opposition Civic Platform party. Though the spokeswoman claimed that the recent changes proposed by the ministry were not intended to interfere with ECS’s programming, “but only supplement it with elements that we believe to be missing.” Critics of the plan say it is being used as a pretext to curtail the independence of the institution.

ECS’s deputy director for research, Jacek Koltan, said in an email to Hyperallergic that he believes the ministry is attempting to clandestinely influence programming. He says the ministry is attempting to use the legal mechanisms at its disposal to impact and threaten the independence of the ECS. He further claims that the proposed changes to the ECS threatens the institution’s current operational structure, including its current director, Basil Kerski, whose job will be under threat if the ministry’s changes are accepted. “The Ministry opted for an open conflict without any diplomatic facade,” he says. “It’s definitely worth describing the situation and to understand this movement in the wider political culture within Europe. To put it very simply: It is a dangerous moment. Let’s talk about it as loud as we can.”

Despite the ministry’s attempts to wrest control of the ECS, Koltan said he remains optimistic the institution will remain independent. He cites a crowdfunding initiative that has been launched in support of the ECS that, to date, has raised over 7 million złoty ($1.8 million USD). He also says the ECS is exploring possibilities that would allow them to access additional long-term funding from regional sources, thereby eliminating future dependence on funds from the ministry, while also citing the EU as a potential source for additional funds.

The latest situation mimics a similar set of patterns deployed by the ministry in their attempt to control other Polish cultural institutions. Notable cases include a controversial merger proposed in 2017 with respect to Poland’s Second World War Museum (also located in Gdańsk) with another institution funded and set up by the ministry, a move critics said would grant the government the right to sack the director and alter the displays.

According to Natalia Kopytruk, writing in the Foreign Policy Research Institute blog Geopoliticus, “the Poland of today seems increasingly like an ideologically feudal outpost, its politics once again ridden with the legacy of communism, conspiracy theories, and exclusionary discourse towards opponents.”

Other notable examples include the Stary Theatre and Bunkier Sztuki in Krakow, the Polski Theatre in Wrocław, the Theatre Institute in Warsaw, the Polish Film Institute, and the Dialog Festival and Malta in Poznań, all of which have come into the spotlight for replacing their directors or having their subsidies either cut entirely or slashed significantly by the Ministry of Culture or local city governments.

At issue, according to Kuba Szreder, a leading independent curator and critic, is a general pattern of disregard for institutional autonomy. He says that while “historical policy” is generally used as a “euphemism for the nationalistic rewriting of history,” that also “not all the blame should be shouldered by the right-wingers, it derives from the general disregard to the autonomy of institutions, and a lack of interest in their programmes.”

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