WARSAW — The Ministry of Culture has revealed plans to remove the head of one of Poland’s most progressive contemporary art institutions, prompting outcry from the Polish art community who say that the ministry is exercising unjust cultural overreach.
In June 2019, the director of the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (CCA) in Warsaw, Małgorzata Ludwisiak, received a letter from the Ministry of Culture stating that her contract would not be renewed.
In no short order, this prompted speculation that the Ministry of Culture, led by a member of the right-wing ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), was attempting to wrest control of one of Poland’s most respected institutions.
Ludwisiak, who holds a PhD in humanities and previously worked at the Museum of Art in Łódź, replaced Fabio Cavalucci as director of the CCA in 2014.
Under her tenure, Ludwisiak presided over major exhibitions by the likes of Slavs and Tatars, Forensic Architecture, Janek Simon, and Karol Radziszewski. In April and May of this year, the CCA hosted the Queer to Peer Zine Club led by the Werker Collective, and this month it welcomed residents from Ramallah, Palestine. (Disclaimer: I was a resident of the CCA’s Curatorial Residency, the Re-Directing East Programme in 2016, but did not have direct contact with Ludwisiak.)
With no prior warning, nor financial mismanagement nor scandals to report, the decision to not renew Ludwisiak’s contract came as a surprise to many. Upon receiving the letter, Ludwisiak undertook an appeals process, which remains ongoing. Due to the sensitivity of that appeals process, Ludwisiak was not able to comment on the ongoing situation, in the hopes that it may still be resolved amicably.
In response, the ministry said in an email to Hyperallergic that it is operating in accordance with Polish law and that it is within the ministry’s rights to not renew Ludwisiak’s contract:
A five-year term of office of the Head Małgorzata Ludwisiak shall terminate on 31st December 2019. Heads of cultural establishments are appointed for 3 to 7 years long terms of office while in artistic establishments – from 3 to 5 artistic seasons. Should a contest for a candidate for the post of the head of CCA be announced, in accordance with the effective laws, then the notice about the contest shall be made available to the public. In the event of the appointment of the head with no contest procedure, the Trade Unions operating by the establishment, association and artists’ societies shall be sent a letter asking for their opinion. The new head shall be appointed from 1st January 2020. Should the contest be announced, then Małgorzata Ludwisiak shall have the right to participate in it.
However, according to Warsaw-based lawyer Kamila Ferenc, while the ministry’s decision may be valid and legal, whether or not it is justified is another matter entirely. “I am not sure if it is justified on political and functional grounds,” she said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Although it is the prerogative of the Minister to not prolong a director’s contract, Polish law stipulates the Ministry’s role is to promote art, creativity, and cultural initiatives, and so the decision by Gliński to not prolong Ludwisiak’s contract enters into a legal grey area because it shows that the Minister’s decisions are based not on merit, but rather on the narrow interests of his political party.”
This sentiment is echoed by Karol Radziszewski, one of Poland’s most well-known artists and an outspoken queer activist, who has had his work censored in various Polish institutions in the past. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Radziszewski, who is set to have a major solo exhibition at the CCA in November, wonders whether this is the new normal.
“Since there were no known conflicts or complaints, the decision by the Ministry to not renew Ludwisiak’s contract seems politically motivated,” he said. “Whoever takes over will certainly be more willing to tow the government line, which I fear may end up harming the institution’s credibility and stability moving forward,” he stressed.
In response, a letter from CCA employees supporting Ludwisiak was sent in September to Piotr Gliński, the current Minister of Culture, reading in part: “We [CCA employees] are concerned that the change in the managerial position will disrupt the institution’s reform plan and destroy the just created stability of work and the integration of the CCA team, which is the basis of fruitful work on the program.”
Crucially, this is not the first time in recent years the ministry has taken a heavy hand in replacing the directors of prominent Polish institutions. The move mimics tactics used by the ministry to silence other cultural workers and heads of institutions deemed outside the orbit of right-wing, ruling-party ideology.
In 2018, for example, the recognized curator, art historian, and author of several books Piotr Rypson was replaced as director of the National Gallery in Warsaw, after having spent seven years helming the institution.
Earlier this year, the Ministry was accused of attempting to wrest control of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk; while also in 2019, the contract of the director of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews was also serendipitously not renewed under similar circumstances.
Other recent cases of ministerial overreach 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 and Malta Festivals in Poznań, all of which have either had their subsidies cut — either entirely or partially — or have had their directors replaced by ministry-appointed ones.
Ludwisiak’s notice of departure comes ominously before a general election in Poland this October in which the ruling party PiS is expected to win a strong majority, thereby bolstering the ministry’s ability to replace directors of leading Polish cultural institutions with near impunity.
According to Max Cegielski, a Warsaw-based writer, curator, researcher, and member of Kultura Niepodległa, an independent culture association, “it is by now no secret that PIS is renewing focus on nationalist and religious cultural discourses and is seeking to replace ‘Christian values’ within the cultural mainstream by silencing institutions like the CCA. This is something we should all be afraid of.”
“Removing Ludwisiak is a clear indication of what is to come in Poland where, in the event of PIS’s election victory this October, we should expect more right-wing ‘specialists’ in the field of culture,” he said. “This is something many of us in the cultural sector have been fearing for quite some time.”