The Year in Review: With the Right Defeated, What’s Next for Poland’s Artists?

Members of the Polish art world on whether change can come quickly to a long-suffering cultural sector

BY Adam Mazur, Natalia Sielewicz, Piotr Drewko, Taras Gembik AND Joanna Mytkowska in Opinion | 15 DEC 23

PIOTR DREWKO, Wschód Gallery 

The change – in some form – is already here. After eight years of domineering governance by the radical right-wing Law and Justice Party, Poland held an election with one of the highest voter turnouts in many years, and the people chose a new liberal coalition. Though the relief was undeniable, our confidence in real and systematic change could be premature. The vicissitudes of international politics, legal interference by Law and Justice Party-appointed judges, stubbornly conservative cultural institutions and the abuse of government powers for personal gain are possible with any government. Restoring trust, shifting the public debate, strengthening our international position or simply steering people to a more caring and sympathetic way of looking at the world are difficult tasks. For years, we have witnessed a divided centre and left; this new political formation has many fundamental issues to discuss and agree upon before any future vision of change can be articulated. As for the cultural agenda of the new government, we will have to wait a very long time for any substantial change. The country has been continuously spinning its wheels for the last eight years; to re-model it, you must start with more pragmatic, pressing issues. Am I optimistic? Always. I believe we will get to the point where my generation and the next will be able to implement valuable change in the core sectors – cultural, educational, international. Because that’s how we evolve, that’s what makes us better.

The leader of Civic Coalition (KO), Donald Tusk celebrates the exit poll results during Poland's Parliamentary elections, 2023. Courtesy: Omar Marques / Getty Images

TARAS GEMBIK, poet, writer and programmer

I migrated to Poland from Ukraine 10 years ago; eight of those years have been under the Law and Justice Party. You can read in ‘progressive’ media in Poland about how bad they have been. However, I would like to contrast power and politics with the strong bonds and solidarity that can be observed among activists, migrants, refugees and people who have had enough. It is important to highlight and make public the notion of solidarity that has emerged during this time. Real people and their stories have been behind the protests and demonstrations, not the abstraction of certain concepts and ideas. I would like to end with a wish for the post-Law and Justice era, which is a wish for dignity, free institutions, rights, tolerance, and that we do not fuck up any more of what has already been fucked up. 

ADAM MAZUR, writer

I am convinced that change will come. This is inevitable because the right-wing populist vision of culture has neither found an audience nor gained broad support in artistic circles. The culture and art promoted by those national institutions that were heavily politicized by party loyalists has been lacklustre. It quickly turned out that the king was without clothes. The Law and Justice government respected the contracts of institutional directors employed under the Liberals, so a similar situation will probably take place now. It seems that the real change will occur first through the restoration of transparent rules for awarding grants, then, in two to four years, through changes in the positions of the directors at national institutions. But the budget hole and the need for cuts in the public sector may undermine the trust of the artistic community in the government, as may the liberals’ departure from the pro-social policy of Law and Justice. The greatest threat may be the risk that the liberals choose to return to the old, undemocratic and untransparent system and its corrupt cultural policies. Am I optimistic? Mildly.

Supporters of the leader of Civic Coalition (KO), Donald Tusk celebrate the exit poll results during Poland's Parliamentary elections, 2023. Courtesy: Omar Marques / Getty Images

JOANNA MYTKOWSKA, director, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

A political miracle happened in Poland. Populism has been rolled back. All the threats we know still exist and may even get worse. But we won one political battle. Maybe it's just a short window for clear weather. The only thing we can do now is try as hard as we can to make it last as long as possible!

NATALIA SIELEWICZ, Head of Programming, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

In the last eight years the Law and Justice Party has attempted to turn cultural institutions into an ideological weapon and resource for its apparatchiks and allies. It is hard to foresee how long it will take to undo the damage. After all, when the leadership positions are staffed with people without the legitimization of the social and artistic milieu, when teams are dismantled and the management becomes autocratic, these things don’t heal miraculously overnight. But there’s definitely been a collective sigh of relief, and the hope to build a healthier ecosystem based on a sense of mutual trust, security and transparency. So that these hopes don’t turn into wishful thinking, we need to protect the sense of political agency and empowerment that people got after the elections, and use it towards further social goals.

Main image: Poland's new prime minister Donald Tusk presents his cabinet to parliament, 2023. Courtesy: Omar Marques / Getty Images

Adam Mazur is a critic, editor and professor at the Magdalena Abakanowicz University of the Arts, Poznań, Poland.

Natalia Sielewicz is an art historian and curator. She is Head of Programming at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Piotr Drewko is a curator and critic. He founded Wschód Gallery in 2017.

Taras Gembik is a poet, writer and programmer.

Joanna Mytkowska is a curator, art historian and critic. Since 2007 she has been the Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.