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“Culture in Warsaw needs to become more social” [Interview]

An interview with the Director of the Culture Department of the City of Warsaw – Tomasz Thun-Janowski, City of Warsaw

Igor Stokfiszewski:  The Culture Department of the City of Warsaw requested two teams – one led by Professor Jerzy Hausner and the second headed by Edwin Bendyk – for the preparation of roadmaps for the reform of Warsaw’s culture. The work of the first team was concluded with the publication of a document entitled Improving the cultural policy in Warsaw – area: cultural institutions. The other team published a document entitled The development of creative potential and support for creators. Their publication in April of this year, as well as the process of social consultations, were accompanied by somewhat controversial reactions. Two main accusations were made against the Culture Department – that the department was trying to impose cultural reform and that it was attempting to commercialise certain institutions.

Tomasz Thun-Janowski: The reform of the cultural governance of Warsaw, the implementation of which the two studies are part, is not a new idea, but resulted directly from the document The city of culture and citizens. The Culture Development Programme in Warsaw until 2020. The document was consulted on by a social group, the authorities of the capital city, and creative circles, and then adopted under a resolution of the City Council in March 2012. It has been in force for four years now! We, the Steering Committee, assumed that while roadmaps for changes to Warsaw culture are not ready, the Programme will be a dead document. The studies by teams headed by Hausner and Bendyk will act as such roadmaps.

I have to admit that I am a big supporter of the Programme, although I was watching its preparations only as a spectator. It is not a coincidence that it was prepared around 2010. I recall the social agitation following the Congress of Culture in 2009, the democratic agitation in the cities that resulted in urban movements…

I sensed a similar atmosphere. It is worth saying that the Culture Department did not recognise the Programme as its “constitution” right from the beginning. When, as a result of the contest for the post of Director of the Department, proposed in the Programme, I came to work for the City of Warsaw in 2013, that document was treated rather as something from the outside, not “ours”. The quite common perception that the Programme is the basis of thinking about Warsaw culture is a quite recent phenomenon. It cost us a great deal of effort.

Tomasz Thun-Janowski
is the Director of the Culture Department of the City of Warsaw. He completed Polish studies, theatrical sciences and philosophy at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and the University of Warsaw. Professionally, he is associated with theatre and culture as manager and producer.

I have the impression that we do not appreciate how innovative this document is in terms of the participation of social groups in the decision-making processes. The adoption of the Programme resulted in the establishment of the Social Cultural Council, the second term of office of which has been started recently, and the role of which is to issue opinions on the main principles of cultural policy. The Council and the Steering Committee operate at the Culture Department and serve as a body making joint decisions regarding social culture. Our collaboration is definitely not a success story only, but this is also the first systemic attempt to establish relations among official structures and the circles of the people of culture. This is a serious and systemic attempt to implement creativity in the structure of decision-making processes. We are still in the process of learning – “we” being the office and society.

And what progress has been made?

It depends. To some extent, the quality of this dialogue definitely reflects the quality of the public political debate, and, frankly speaking, it is also a lot to do with our involvement. For example, immediately after the first term of office of the Social Cultural Council, in agreement with its representatives, we conducted the reform. We also requested an analysis of the quality system for collaboration with all social bodies affiliated with the office. We want to develop in these areas too. Social dialogue is not something to be taken for granted.

This document makes us aware of the huge creative resources that Warsaw owns, and that a lot of them are still utilised only to a limited extent.

This is a joint responsibility which you have to work out. We need responsibility, huge energy reserves, mutual trust and patience. I believe it is worth perceiving and appreciating these efforts, especially in the environment of the threats to democracy which are starting to appear in Poland…

Let’s go back to the studies prepared by the teams headed by Professor Hausner and Edwin Bendyk. What story did they tell to the Culture Department in terms of cultural governance in the capital city and the direction of their manoeuvring to fulfil the guidelines of the Programme?

Most of all, these documents show the metropolitan complexity of Warsaw – the chances and threats corresponding to this complexity. On one hand, the capital city attracts artists and the attention of whole cultural environments, and its openness and dynamics create a circulation of a unique nature on the scale of Poland and Europe. On the other hand, this complexity makes the opportunity for shaping the cultural environment very difficult, and it also hugely increases competition in terms of access to resources. Therefore, we are dealing with huge potential and dispersed centres forming its shape and dynamics. In my opinion, there are two most general conclusions to be drawn from these two studies. First of all, we should test various and innovative instruments for impacting on culture. This means the necessity of trying out various solutions in the form of pilot projects, analysing the results and testing further instruments.

Second, we should do this while taking care over the participation of all stakeholders, not giving up on the efforts of social dialogue. These documents gather information that was unordered before. And we do need rationality and knowledge in actions for culture.

The Programme obliged the city to create an adequate environment for differentiated creations and building a wide participation in culture …

The study prepared by the team of Edwin Bendyk achieves the first of the goals that I named. This document makes us aware of the huge creative resources that Warsaw owns, and that a lot of them are still utilised only to a limited extent.

What resources?

Each year, nearly 12 thousand creators from various fields graduate from Warsaw universities. Moreover, the capital city attracts other graduates from other centres – Łódź, Katowice, Kraków… All of them hope to gain a job utilising their creative talents. The question is, how do you create the optimum conditions to let them all stay in Warsaw and grow? Is it possible on this scale of this phenomenon? Research shows that the most attractive work opportunities in Warsaw are created not by cultural institutions but by the creative industry – advertising, architecture, design, the film-making industry – financial instruments being at the disposal of City, e.g. scholarships for creators are somewhere near the bottom of the list. The assets of the Culture Department are only around 25% of all the resources involved in the market for Warsaw’s culture. As a result, it is hard to effectively send impulses that would stimulate activities beneficial to the circles of creators and the performance of the public mission.

We have to obtain larger assets for culture, and also engage non-financial resources at the disposal of the city in an innovative way.

Therefore, we have to obtain larger assets for culture, and also engage non-financial resources at the disposal of the city in an innovative way.

We should develop residency programmes, utilise the accommodation resources of the city, create platforms for communication, facilitate environmental networking and building individual relations. We should also improve the quality of the management of public assets. Building the prestige of creators, stressing the role played by them in the modern metropolis, development and the democratic debate, should be stressed.

Improving the cultural policy in Warsaw – area: cultural institutions is the document prepared by the team under supervision of Professor Hausner. I assume it was prepared as an attempt to achieve the second goal defined in the Programme?

The need for the reform of Warsaw’s cultural institutions is the subject of common consensus. Definitely, various circles visualise reform in different ways, but its sense is perceived by nearly everyone. The cultural institutions of Warsaw are the most important players in the area of culture for which we are the host, because we are able to influence them directly. Additionally, they create work posts for creators, own resources and know-how, and, finally, connect artists with audiences. Therefore, cooperation with artistic institutions is also a method for building wider participation in culture.

The main statement of the document prepared by the team of Professor Hausner is that Warsaw’s cultural institutions should be de-hermetised and more open. Yes – they are home for artists, but it should be also home for the citizens of the city of Warsaw. They should be aware of the goals of their activities, define its social goals more clearly, refer to the community for which and in which they exist.

Is the accusation of the hermetism of cultural institutions not justified? Their resistance to reforms was – for many years – real resistance to commercialisation. Quite often, hermetism was a result of a defensive attitude serving as a tool for the protection of the public and the experimental dimension of artistic creativity.

I am aware of the fact that cultural institutions have been subject to extremely ruthless market mechanisms for years. They have been financed insufficiently, so sometimes they are based in inadequately equipped buildings, and they have to compete for the attention of audiences with commercial entities, etc. I know this because I worked in one of those institutions long enough to be acquainted with these problems down to the slightest detail. At the same time, the potential presented by these institutions for the citizens of Warsaw is huge. We cannot throw it away. Warsaw institutions have to be reformed in order to fully utilise their potential, and, later, to make them the engines of the city’s development, open to all citizens of Warsaw. We have to support them in their missions, ensure permanent and reliable support, and also encourage their self-reflection, evaluation and development.

Definitely there are dynamically changing institutions in Warsaw that are willing to redefine themselves all the time, and better manage their resources, better understand and respond to the needs of their audiences. We are interested in supporting and propagating such processes and attitudes. Public cultural institutions should search for answers to the question for whom do we exist? What are the goals of our activity? What is the way to develop an open, tolerant and wise society? I see numerous reflections of such acts in the institutions of Warsaw: just let me mention the programme of support for debuts in the Ochota Theatre, the programme of Warsaw Praga District Museum for local craftspersons, the cooperation of the Studio Theatre with the third sector and the involvement in the revitalisation of the Praga District on the part of the Powszechny Theatre. I also appreciate opening to the young artists of TR Warsaw and the creative utilisation of the new HQ and the international fame of the Nowy Theatre.

What recommendations are specified in the study prepared by the team of Prof Hausner to make Warsaw institutions function in a similar way?

First of all, the document recommends the implementation of the process of defining the social mission of each and every institution with the participation of the representatives of the institution itself, the Culture Department, experts and society, as well as including the missions in the statutes of cultural institutions. Second, we want to oblige the institutions to establish their own developmental strategies and adjust the reporting system to them. We are trying to do so while signing agreements with directors of institutions, i.e. we want the programme’s attachments to agreements concluded with directors to be a proof of really deep thinking about how the institutions should function, and what role they should be playing. Third, the “roadmap …” focuses on the consequent observance of contests for directors and limiting the option of prolonging an agreement only to two terms of office. The second recommendation provoked tense debates, so we will calm the reactions in the steering committee, in order, on the one hand, not to lose the abilities of managers with experience and seniority, on the other, to include in the game new people with a fresh and often non-obvious perception.

I agree with the basic outlines of the diagnoses presented in both documents and with the directions towards which they suggest the development of Warsaw’s culture. I believe that the mechanisms for the utilisation of the available public resources should be subjected to a thorough review in order for them to have a higher impact on the creative potential of Warsaw. I also agree that the public mission of cultural institutions is performed not only by means of supporting high-end culture or, specifically, showing plays, exhibitions, etc.; that it has to be accompanied by clearer thinking about social placement and the impact of culture. I also believe that the transformation of culture must confront the processes of the democratisation of attitudes and the expectations of the citizens, I agree that politics at central level forces us to accelerate the intense efforts for the benefit of the development of the participating models of the presence of society in decision-making processes at the municipal level, but also at the level of the co-management of cultural institutions.

But until this very moment, in this interview we have not talked about the area that, in my opinion, has become particularly important in recent years. I mean non-governmental organisations and social movements. A lot of issues mentioned by us, such as co-management, criticism of the hermetic nature of institutions, social participation and missions are based on knowledge practised de facto in the non-institutional area. In recent years, this area was largely developed, got more professional, and created individual tools of creative activity and cultural production. What role in the reflection on the reform of culture of Warsaw is occupied by the third sector and other more or less organised forms of social activity?

There is no shred of doubt in my mind that the non-governmental and non-institutionalised sector is a very important value in the field of culture. The borderlines within culture and everything that is non-institutionalised are only conventional in these days. The creative processes function in many areas, culture-forming phenomena appear in non-obvious places, and, very often, in the centre of the debate, we still see those created outside the official, institutionalised environment. We should mention that Warsaw is the city with the most developed network of non-governmental institutions. Recommendations concerning strengthening this area can be found in both documents, but I would say that they support the justification of actions already taken.

What are these actions?

We have implemented long-term contests for non-governmental institutions – three years long and one and a half years long – with a positive impact on the financial stability of organisations and facilitates the better planning of their activities. We attempt to simplify and improve procedures of applying for local-government resources. This year we hope to agree a totally new formula for the contest tasks, already adjusted to the logic recommended in the Programme. We are working on an electronic generator of applications, which will serve as a tool for the collection of knowledge and data concerning non-governmental institutions in Warsaw. We want to work out a new, more efficient expert system, because the previous one was not substantially sufficient, and, moreover, it made the grant awarding procedure longer. In the multiannual Programme for the Development of Cooperation with non-governmental institutions, we have obliged ourselves to increase the resources assigned to non-governmental institutions each year. Today, we spend nearly 10% of the Department’s budget. I also have to stress that none of the decisions concerning the third sector is made without the participation of its representatives. There is no doubt that, concerning the phenomena occurring today in Poland, strong non-governmental organisations are among the key elements in a healthy social ecosystem.

Does the de-hermetisation of public cultural institutions mean involving commercial players in their co-management? For example, part of the circle of theatre people interpreted the recommendations of the team supervised by Professor Hausner in this way.

I am and will be the guardian of the presence of social patronage in culture. In the previous years, the State and local governments did not appreciate the role of culture for social development as well as development as such to a sufficient extent. Our goal is to show the key function of culture in building the capital of trust necessary to develop the cultural competences of citizens and the quality of the public debate. Culture is an area of building senses and values, and therefore it has nothing in common with commercialism. The wise and effective management of resources in this field is a totally different issue, and we have to rationally utilise all opportunities for supporting and developing artistic institutions.

The de-hermetisation of institutions that we were talking about is not a matter of paving the way towards their commercialisation. It is the other way round – while preserving artistic identity, we rather want to direct them to the path of a social mission.

For the last three years, we have increased the budget of the Culture Department from around PLN 180 million to over 220 million. We are increasing expenditures for cultural education, theatres for children and experimental theatres. We are invest money in the construction of prestigious locations of the Museum of Modern Art and TR Warsaw, The Museum of Warsaw and the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra. We have upgraded the building of the Roma, Kwadrat, Ochota and Nowy Theatres. We are preparing to invest in the Baj Theatre, and many cultural centres. In 25%. of the budget of the Integrated Programme for Revitalisation prepared for the Praga District refers to cultural tasks.

The de-hermetisation of institutions that we were talking about is not a matter of paving the way towards their commercialisation. It is the other way round – while preserving artistic identity, we rather want to direct them to the path of a social mission. Open the opportunities for the better utilisation of their resources, building various models of management.

What statement from social consultations regarding both documents do you remember best?

The remarks that we obtained during consultations to a large extent referred to very specific matters, yet the statement regarding the limitation of directors’ terms of offices in institutions to two was controversial, a lot of discussions referred to social welfare issues. We have also received some comments concerning diagnoses prepared by teams of experts. I do not neglect any of those signals. Consultations were the forum for expressing fears and also mentioning issues not related to the subject matter of both documents. It turned out that the most significant problems in the field of culture are “down to earth”, current matters, and they pose a real barrier to strategic planning. Once again we had the occasion to see how important and real they are for the people of culture. There are no simple recipes for complex problems, but I believe that we can jointly appeal to creators and culture in Warsaw.

Igor Stokfiszewski
Igor Stokfiszewski is a researcher, activist, journalist, and artist. He’s a member of the Krytyka Polityczna organization team. He is active in the board of trustees of European Alternatives organisation and the coordinating collective of DiEM25 social movement. He is a lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

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