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Polish Art Community Rebuffs Ministry of Culture’s Controversial Choice for a Museum Director

After ousting the previous director, the ministry plans to hire a new director without the customary open call process. The nominee, Piotr Bernatowicz, has been accused of misogyny and anti-Semitism.

Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (via Wikimedia Commons)

The art community in Poland is up in arms after an unprecedented decision by the Ministry of Culture to nominate a new director for the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (CCA) in Warsaw, without the customary open call process. The Ministry has nominated Piotr Bernatowicz, who is currently a public sector employee working in Poznan and has been accused of platforming artworks that target social groups, including the exhibiting of misogynistic and anti-Semitic artworks.

Those in the Polish art community are now upset that a curator who has given platform to racist and misogynistic projects in the past is now poised to head one of the country’s foremost institutions of contemporary art.

In August, the CCA’s outgoing director Małgorzata Ludwisiak received a letter signed by the Minister of Culture stating that her contract would not be renewed. Now, the Minister of Culture and Heritage Piotr Gliński, a member of the rightwing ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, will nominate and replace the outgoing director of the CCA without a public competition. In a letter, he publicly stated his preference for Bernatowicz. With Ludwisiak’s five-year contract expiring this December, Bernatowicz’s appointment appears nearly certain.

Fresh off the heels of a federal election this past October that gave the ruling party, PiS, a new mandate, homophobia and xenophobia have become the new lingua franca in Polish politics. Two weeks before the federal election, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the de facto head of the ruling party, said the LGBTQ community and refugees threatened Polish freedom.

Last weekend, an online petition gathered over 2,500 signatures supporting calls for the Ministry to return to its normal tender process of an open-call. A version in English, published on change.org, gathered over 1,200 signatures.

So far, several prominent museums and directors have signed on to the petition supporting a more open and transparent nominations, including Krist Gruijthuijsen, director of KW in Berlin; Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven; Ferran Barenblit, director of MACBA in Barcelona; art critics Lucy Lippard and Hal Foster; artists Martha Rosler and Anselm Franke; and Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, alongside thousands of others.

This month, an exhibition by one of Poland’s most well known queer artists, Karol Radziszewski — who has had his work censored and targeted by homophobic forces in Poland in the past — will open a major solo exhibition at the CCA Ujazdowski Castle. The exhibition is set to last until January and will include a comprehensive display of Radziszewski’s Queer Zine Archive.

Now, two major unions representing a total of 44 curatorial and administrative staff at the CCA — Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers Initiative) and Solidarność (Solidarity) — have submitted to the Ministry an official opposition to the selection process, stating that according to Polish law they are legally required to offer an opinion about the selection of a new director.

Though it is likely Bernatowicz will be announced as the CCA’s new director, the legal issues surrounding his appointment between the unions and the Ministry are likely to continue into December.

The petition reads in full:

Leading a large-scale institution such as the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art requires not only specialized knowledge but also managerial expertise. One of the key skills in administration and supervision is a sense for diplomacy, as well as the ability to represent Poland in international contexts. Piotr Bernatowicz has no relevant experience. He has never worked closely with foreign curators nor planned an exhibition abroad. Nor is he able to demonstrate any qualifications in managing international projects, creating strategic partnerships with institutions abroad, and obtaining grants or other types of funding. Such experience should have been deemed essential in a candidate for a position this prestigious and of this importance.

The newly appointed candidate is not a successful negotiator. During his tenure as the director of the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznań his actions caused a serious conflict with the curatorial section of his team and profund alienation of the local artistic community that resulted in an open letter of 76 young artists who were opposed to the renewal of his contract. A series of his disastrous decisions caused serious damage to the reputation of the gallery he was responsible for.

As a journalist and director of a public institution, Piotr Bernatowicz has on numerous occasions condoned and supported statements that can be considered hate speech. There is no room in the public sector for the artworks which target singled out social groups, misogynistic artwork (the exhibitions Strategies of Rebellion, Arsenal Municipal Gallery, 2015), or songs filled with anti-Semitic stereotyping (“Arsenał Kultury” (Arsenal of Culture) – a radio broadcast in Radio Poznań, 2017). Any artistic institution that promotes such messages risks losing its national and international audience, and perhaps a boycott.

We call upon the Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński not to appoint Piotr Bernatowicz to the position of the director of the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, and to carry out an open competition procedure in accordance with the appropriate standards of transparency and probity. Only an open competition will enable the candidates to demonstrate their qualifications and ability and present their programs for the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art that would do justice to this renowned institution and allow it to maintain its international status.

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