The cultural sector knows how to fight for its beliefs | kulturpunkt

English Interview


The cultural sector knows how to fight for its beliefs

Researcher, activist, journalist and artist Igor Stokfiszewski speaks about management of socio-cultural infrastructure in Warsaw and Poland.

by: Katarina Pavić and Hrvoje Pašalić

FOTO: Jakub Szafrański

  • A
  • +
  • -

Igor Stokfiszewski is a researcher, activist, journalist and artist working in Warsaw. He's a co-founder of Krytyka Polityczna, an organization active in the field of media culture, publishing, cultural policies and civic engagement since 2002. During the last two decades, Krytyka Polityczna has become one of the most important organizations in the noninstitutional cultural and artistic scene in Poland, while achieving remarkable international collaborations. Progressive models of participative governance in regard to public resources is one of the important focuses of their work. Since 2020., Krytyka Polityczna joined four other organizations in managing the socio-cultural centre Jasna 10 in Warsaw. Starting with the shared experience of the postsocialist transition and the conservative turn which started in 2015. in Poland, this conversation brings insights into mechanisms and strategies of resistance against dominant culture founded in patriotism and national identity.


In our informal chat preceding this conversation, you mentioned the changing political climate in Poland, but also a new generation of activists and organisations, which pushes Krytyka Polityczna to rethink its position after two decades of operation. So, maybe we can start with that – how do you perceive your role in the current context, when compared to previous decades?

In the early 2000s, we belonged to the generation of organisations that were trying to re-establish the leftist agenda in Poland after the collapse of communism and the delegitimization of leftist approaches in our society. When we first started, we were mostly concerned with introducing discourses relating to progressive socio-political solutions that did not exist in Poland through publishing books in our publishing house, through quarterly Krytyka Polityczna, and through being active in the mainstream media as a new leftist voice. We were also active in the streets, being a part of different social movements born in Poland after 2000. As many of us had an academic background, we were involved in research and tried to influence politics through knowledge-production instruments. However, strategically speaking, our aim was to establish a new political leftist power in Poland, and we worked for nearly two decades before achieving this in 2019, together with other progressive forces. It was in 2019 that activists from our environment became Polish parliament deputies. At the same time, we started a strategic reflection after 2015, when the Law and Justice party came to power in Poland and a new generation of activists became active in the streets, starting to self-organise and establish collectives and civil society entities. In order to wisely reposition Krytyka Polityczna against this new backdrop, we decided to devote some of our energy to becoming an organisation that provides support to the new generation of activists in terms of know-how, infrastructure, finances, and any other form of support they may need. Lastly, since 2020, we have been running a new socio-cultural centre in Warsaw, where we’re experimenting with combining our approach to activism, politics, and culture with the tendencies brought by this new generation of activists and culture makers.

When speaking of sociocultural activities in Poland, which types of institutions would you include in this domain?

Unfortunately, Poland lags far behind when it comes to the recognition of different types of cultural and social institutions. Our regulations were set up in 1991 with the intention of simply adapting what was already in place following the communist period – a large number of public institutions – to the new reality of a democratic and capitalist state. As a result, all public cultural institutions, ranging from district-level culture houses to national theatres, totalling around 15 thousand, are regulated by a single, archaic law, which doesn’t recognise differences in their social foundations or roles they should play in Polish cultural flows. All of them, for example, have the same single-person decision-making governing structure.

With regards to non-governmental organisations dealing with cultural activities – the number of such associations and foundations is estimated to be around 12 thousand – all of them are governed by a separate law that is related to civil society regulations and has nothing to do with culture. So, from the legal point of view, there is no distinction between NGOs that work on social issues, fighting economic and cultural forms of discrimination, and those that work on cultural production. However, when it comes to governance models, for instance, civil society actors have the legal ability to experiment with collective forms of decision-making. Krytyka Polityczna, for instance, is an association whose highest authority is the general assembly of members. It depends on the internal democratic culture of each organisation whether or not it will work to deepen internal democracy. In addition, we have a large number of private art institutions, the majority of which are in some way related to the cultural industries. Finally, I must mention the Catholic Church, which is a large cultural system doing a lot of cultural work in our country. There are nearly 10 thousand parishes in Poland, each serving as a small cultural and community centre. So, in total, there are four different cultural systems that orchestrate Polish culture, each governed by its own set of laws, and there is a real challenge on how to find ways to intertwine them. For example, how to create a platform for partner collaboration between public cultural institutions and NGOs. 

Sticking with the district culture houses that you mentioned, can you tell us a bit more about how they are managed?

Regarding the legal regulations, they are managed in the same way that public theatres, museums, or galleries are managed – there is single-person management everywhere. However, between 2005 and 2015, these were the places where the most interesting experiments regarding public institutions took place thanks to a programme launched by the then-liberal government aimed at reforming cultural houses. This programme not only helped cultural houses renovate their buildings and modernize their infrastructure, but it also encouraged them to experiment a bit with new governance and audience development models. There were some culture houses that experimented with participatory budgeting and community management, or at least consulted their communities about programming. Unfortunately, as no legal changes followed, these experiments did not last long.

Every five years, the General Research Institute provides knowledge about culture in Poland, and they recently published a study about participation in culture from 2015 to 2019, which shows that the percentage of people who participate in culture houses programmes has dropped significantly. The reasoning behind this, as explained by the Institute, is twofold: on the one hand, their programmes in the last five years have focused more on children and very young people than on adult audiences. The second reason lies in the cultural politics of our government. Do you know which cultural institutions have received most visitors in the last five years? Museums. Law and Justice, the right-wing government, invested a lot of funds in museums, but they also properly understood how to develop the museum audience. In the late 2000s, there was a segment of the Polish audience interested in patriotic and historic content that wasn’t available at that time in museums, which were strongly attached to historical critical discourse, typical for the 1990s. So, there was a large segment of the audience who did not attend public museums but were active in culture houses because there they could express their ideas and interests. After Law and Justice legitimized those contents in the museums, the increase in museum audience was absolutely amazing and a large number of people left culture houses. 

Just one more thing prior to moving towards the legal and regulatory framework: who gets to participate in the decision-making processes? Is it possible to exert meaningful pressure from the NGO sector or is it necessary to get close to the party politics to influence and participate in decision-making?

One thing I can say about the people working in the cultural sector in Poland: we are well-integrated and we really know how to fight for what we believe in. In fact, some of the recent campaigns have been quite successful. Some years ago, there was a famous campaign by the movement called Citizens of Culture, and it resulted in an agreement with the government of the liberal Civic Platform party that one percent of the state budget would be dedicated to culture. Making such an agreement with the central government ten years ago was an amazing achievement. We also had and still have a strong workers’ movement in culture, and although it was primarily focused on financial and social security, it included a struggle for institutional democratization as well. There is a famous example of a successful campaign in which workers managed to get rid of the director of the Zamek Ujazdowski Castle Gallery in Warsaw, who did not respect the voices of the workers and curators.

Another interesting example is a campaign I was a part of two years ago to transform Teatr Powszechny, one of the biggest public theatres in Warsaw, into a feminist culture institution. Together with Agata Adamiecka-Sitek and Marta Keil, we began a one-year process of collaboration with the workers, which also included the directors of the theatre, but also the community around it, as well as NGOs and artists who collaborate with the theatre. It was a long process where we tried to negotiate different aspects of co-governing, and we managed to establish a programme-artistic council, which currently co-governs the theatre and is chosen through a vote. Such a consultative body does legally exist in every cultural institution, but it is usually the director who appoints the members, who are often his or her colleagues. What we managed to achieve was that the director of the institution agreed to appoint all the members of the council who had gone through the election process. Basically, we were trying to think of a way to legally frame a more bottom-up situation, and our inspiration came from Ugo Mattei and the debate about the bottom-up production of law.

Perhaps we can talk about the issue of government jurisdiction over cultural matters and cultural institutions in Poland for a little longer. Which levels of government jurisdiction do you recognize in your country? You were talking a bit about the local government. Do any of these institutions fall under the national government’s jurisdiction?

In principle, let’s say that 80 percent, if not more, of Poland’s cultural institutions are run at the local level, by cities, towns, or districts. Quite a large number of institutions are run by the state, such as national theatres or national museums, and there are also institutions run by the regions. It’s a very strange and disorderly mix, and it’s the result of an administrative reform from the late 1990s, when the question of who should be in charge of cultural institutions arose. The idea was that most cultural institutions should be under local control, with national theatres, museums, or philharmonics falling under the Ministry of Culture, but there were a few exceptions where a typical struggle or negotiation occurred. The National Theatre in Krakow, for example, has always been a local theatre, and no one knows why it is now a national theatre. However, because of the ambition of the City of Krakow to have a national theatre, the Ministry decided that there would be one in Warsaw and one in Krakow. The Law and Justice government attempted to bring some order to this chaos, and they tried – as it is extremely difficult to overtake public cultural institutions – to build a network of new national institutions and have their own, alternative cultural circulation. The majority of it is made up of museums, but it is not limited to that.

Would you say that the way in which these institutions are governed influences or directs their profile in some manner?

Yes. A city like Warsaw can influence the content of the cultural production by creating institution statutes and contracting directors. When you sign a contract as a theatre director, you list what you want to do – what types of artists you want to invite, etc. In addition, there is an issue of each cultural institution’s statute, and it is the city authorities who acknowledge the statute, from the legal point of view. So, a few years ago, the City of Warsaw wanted to diversify the artistic production of the theatres by rewriting their statutes and by being more concrete when it came to contracts with the directors. Previously, all public theatres in Warsaw had the same statutes, and the City tried to rewrite them in a participatory manner, in collaboration with the audiences. Unfortunately, they managed to rewrite only two statutes, but I think that this experiment aimed at influencing the map of Warsaw’s theatrical production was really interesting. So, all levels of authorities can influence the programmes of the institutions they govern. 

What can you tell us about the sources of funding for these institutions? Can you relate this to the previously mentioned levels of government jurisdiction?

Most money comes from public funding. I don’t think that there is a social consensus on public funding for culture, as we are currently witnessing many discussions regarding this issue. But, in principle, there was broad consensus among the cultural community and all the governments that public funding should be the base. In the last 20 years, there have been attempts to integrate more market-oriented regulations into culture, but they didn’t work, they have remained at the level of discussion because the proposals were met with immediate opposition by the cultural community. As I have mentioned, despite our diversity, we are a strong political player. The public cultural sector employs 300 thousand people. In comparison, Poland has some 100 thousand policemen. So, I would say that we are quite influential.

Are there any other funding sources worth mentioning, such as local community donations or private sponsorships?

So, with regards to public-private partnerships, we are only talking about two or three examples of public cultural institutions managed by private companies. It’s a really small number of institutions, plus typical sponsorships tied to specific events – for example, performances of the Polish National Opera are often sponsored by large companies. So, when it comes to public cultural institutions, this is essentially how they are funded. When it comes to civil society organisations, on the other hand, we are far more receptive to individual donators. For example, Krytyka Polityczna is one of the organisations that has established a new department for fundraising among individual donators. The interesting thing is that, before doing it, we didn’t understand that, in fact, it is a process of building a community around the organisation.

We’ve had a department working with donators in a community-oriented manner for the past two years; it’s really interesting because donators really identify with our organisation and want to support us. So, I would say that crowdfunding and individual donators are the most important sources of funding for civil society organisations, because, as you probably know, since 2015, our government has reduced practically all funding for progressive civil society organisations. In 2016, Krytyka Polityczna lost 30 percent of its annual budget because of the change in government, which posed an existential threat to many of us. 

Earlier, you mentioned that cultural institutions are usually led by one person. Can you tell us a bit more about the aspects of their governance and management? Would you say that these institutions are innovative and daring when it comes to participation and democracy?

No, not at all. I predict that, as the civil society sector grows in strength, we will abandon all efforts to interact with the public cultural institutions and transform them into more democratic decision-making structures. I think we will simply abandon them and focus on the power of the autonomous civil society sector because we are much more innovative. Krytyka Polityczna is a good example, because, as I previously stated, legally speaking, we are an association, which enables us to develop democratic governance through a general assemble structure. All other governing bodies must follow what the general assembly decides. So, we have a much more democratic structure and are far more capable of introducing participatory modes of governance and interaction with communities and society as a whole.

In addition, with the economic crisis that will follow the pandemic, it is clear that public cultural institutions will not support the civil society sector, but rather fight for funding. We can already see it on the level of Warsaw; Warsaw’s budget for the coming year will be a third smaller than it used to be – with culture being the biggest victim – and we will have to fight for funds. Public cultural institutions will not support the civil society sector, and this will be the point at which we will say, “okay, you’re archaic, you are absolutely useless from a cultural and political point of view, we’re the ones who should be enforced and empowered.” As for innovation, I can give you an example of the theatres in Warsaw, where the majority of directors are men over 50 years old. We are talking about a generation of directors who began their careers in the early 2000s, and – at the time – they were a lovely group of young artists and managers. However, they have never done anything else besides being theatre directors, and now that they’re in their fifties, they’re not as creative as they once were. At the same time, they are about 10 years away from retirement, and they certainly will not step down from their positions, but will fight to keep them. Of course, many of them are our colleagues and friends, but I’m referring to a general trend: those institutions will progress very slowly in terms of intellectual, artistic, and political advancement over the next ten years. From that point of view, the civil society sector will not have a proper opportunity to infiltrate these institutions, so we should concentrate on ourselves, especially since the sector’s financial position is currently very good thanks to new funding sources.

Croatia is no exception when it comes to these ossified structures; our cultural institutions are often led by the same directors for several mandates in a row, without any accountability mechanisms throughout the system.

Just to be clear, the majority of Warsaw’s public cultural institutions are really progressive; that’s not the issue, the issue is one of creative decline. They’re neither transformative nor innovative now, nor will they be in ten years.

How do you perceive the role of the local community when it comes to these institutions? Is it involved in the daily management, and does it have the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes?

When it comes to the culture houses on the district levels, yes, many of them do involve their communities. In those cases, the communities are more than just the audience, but, at the same time, the level of their involvement in the programming of the institutions is really low. However, with regards to interaction – for example, providing spaces for local communities to organise something, express their local identity, or host district social movements – culture houses show an intention to include their local community. On the other hand, when it comes to artistic institutions, it’s a disaster. The problem is that most public institutions still treat their audience like an audience, following the paradigm of presenting something to the audience. They make no attempt to comprehend the audience as a community. This is funny, as recent research has shown that people in Poland usually visit a single cultural institution – for example, they have their beloved theatre or gallery, which they visit on a regular basis. There is little movement or exchange between the audiences, and public cultural institutions in cities like Warsaw should recognize that they are dealing with a very specific community of people, not an anonymous audience who shows up and buys tickets. It also means that public cultural institutions should change their modus operandi, which they don’t. When we speak of audience development, a typical approach is to have one little department within a public cultural institution, usually under the moniker of an educational department or something similar, that is solely responsible for interacting with the audience.

Going back to the very beginning of our conversation  you mentioned that Krytyka Polityczna is, as of recently, running a new cultural space in Warsaw. Can you give us some insight into some of the specificities of its work?

First of all, some three years ago, the City of Warsaw decided to open a new program for NGOs called the Social-Cultural Institution. This program aims to support organisations for three years by providing resources for their programs, as well as taking care of any infrastructural and administrative needs. In order to experiment with that, we immediately created a consortium of five organisations and opened the Jasn10 sociocultural centre, which we have been operating in the heart of Warsaw on Jasna Street for the past two years. The majority of these organisations use artistic tools, but they dedicate their activities to specific communities – for example, some are oriented towards migrant or LGBTQ+ community issues. We are trying to find a mode of co-management of a sociocultural centre by five organisations, which is both interesting and demanding. We are also experimenting with the idea of being a safe space for the minorities, as the situation in Poland is really difficult. It’s a switch in our approach, as we used to be more confrontational and enjoyed being in the middle of a fight, but now we understand that the concept of a safe space where values, ideas, and practices can be developed is extremely relevant, especially for the younger generation of activists.

What we’re witnessing is the transformation of the audience into a community – there’s such a large cultural offer in Warsaw that the only thing that made sense was to try and create a community around the institution and  operate in a participative manner in order to meet the needs of this community. This leads us to very specific topics and issues. We understood that if you want to be an organisation based on concrete values and try to make social transformation to reflect those values, you no longer have to think about providing a cultural offer to a wide range of people. You can work with your community, with the segment of the society you are oriented towards, and I think that this is something that really makes a difference when compared to what public cultural institutions are doing.


Objavio/la hana [at] 30.10.2021