Solidarity, our weapon? COVID-19 and the cultural field in Poland

Jonas Vanderschueren

Poland was one of the first countries to impose a strict lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This early decision of the Polish government to shut down prevented the situation from spiralling out of control, but it has also proven to be a heavy blow to a cultural field that was already under pressure before the pandemic struck. Has the Polish government prepared a set of measures to support the field, how do young artists experience the ideology behind the government’s cultural policies, and how could the future look like for the arts in Poland?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life across the world, it looks like the cultural field in Poland was in a particularly precarious position to deal with an additional external shock. For years now, cultural workers in Poland have been structurally underpaid. The average wage of a full-time worker at a cultural institution in the Polish capital of Warsaw is only 3.200 zł (€700), meaning that in a city in which the average rent hovers around 1.900 zł (€410), many of them were already struggling to survive. Important to note, is that if a cultural worker is employed in a smaller city like Cracow, Poznań or Wrocław, the average wage is even lower.

However, the above scenario does not reflect the reality of a significant group of cultural workers, who do not have full-time contracts but instead work on a ‘umowa śmieciowa’, a Polish variant on zero-hour contracts which can be roughly translated as ‘trash contracts’. The various types of contracts that fall under this denominator have in common the fact that the worker does not have basic social rights like paid sick leave, paid holidays, or a state pension, and often the pay these contracts provide is at minimum wage or even lower. Often workers who are employed in this way do not have access to the NFZ, the Polish National Health Service, which is supposed to operate on the principle of free care at the point of need. Most of the cultural workers who are employed in this way are young people in their 20s and 30s who are not fortunate enough to have a full-time work contract, and often these people are working as freelance actors, dramaturgs, curators, choreographers and dancers.

Visibly struggling

One of these workers is Ago Tragarz, a performer who had their debut at the Warsaw-based Teatr Studio, one of the most important cultural institutions in the country. ‘Already before the crisis, the situation was very precarious’, Tragarz says. ‘Within the theatre field everything is centred around big names and big institutions, and it are these names and institutions who get the lion share of funding. If you are not fortunate enough to be one of the ‘chosen ones’, your whole life revolves around trying to become a part of one of these larger projects. Often this means going from underpaid – often even unpaid – project to unpaid project. We are supposed to be grateful for the exposure attached to those projects, and to be ‘creative’ enough to turn that exposure into money. It is difficult to get funding for your own project: without a famous name attached to it, it is almost impossible to get any funding from the Ministry. As a result, the whole field is built around who you befriend and who is in your network: if you manage to become friendly with a more famous artists, director or curator, suddenly you are swamped with work’.

Adrian Grycuk, Teatr Studio w Warszawie, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL

The queer artist Paweł Świerczek describes a similar situation: ‘The city-owned cultural institutions have ever smaller budgets, and the gap between young creators and ‘the masters’ has turned into a chasm. There are a whole bunch host of interesting grassroots and underground art initiatives, but these are almost never picked up by the ‘official’ field.’
Despite the strong homophobia in Poland, which recently had the sad honour to be crowned the least LGBTQ-friendly country in the EU, it is precisely the underground queer art scene that is one of the most lively spaces for experimental artistic practices.

‘In the past few years, the queer art scene has grown exponentially. More spaces and more institutions are opening their doors to queer initiatives and perspectives, and more recently critics have begun taking ‘queer’ seriously as an artistic strategy. However, there is still no official recognition.’ For two years already Świerczek has been one of the driving forces between Śląsk Przegięty (Effeminate Silesia), an interdisciplinaire arts project that combines local Silesian traditions (like the mineworker’s tradition) with drag culture. Currently he is working on a new project, Trust Truth Project, in which he documents his bodily experiences with HIV.

The heavy competition within the institutional art field has resulted in a clear demarcation between haves and have-not’s, more specifically through the defining of who is and isn’t an artist. Świerczek: ‘In Poland, you are officially an artist when you graduate from an art school or pass an artistic exam. Without these forms of recognition, most doors will remain closed. At the same time the whole field is drowning in a sea of ‘open calls’, ‘bursaries’ and ‘competitions’, where you know in advance that the chances of achieving any form of financial support are 0 if you do not know anyone behind the scenes. What makes the situation truly cynical, is the fact that once you do manage to get money, you are suddenly swamped with work. However, this does not mean that you are suddenly swimming in money, because often the financial resources provided are not sufficient compensation for all the work and all the costs incurred. In my mind, cultural institutions function like other types of institution under Capitalism, in which profit accumulation through exploitation is central.’

Already before the pandemic hit, Świerczek had his main source of income somewhere else, performing non-artistic work, which has given him a limited breathing space which most other artists are not fortunate to have. Many of his projects have been put on hold, but thanks to his other work he feels that the pandemic has opened up a host of possibilities he had not seen before: ‘I have stopped thinking that my artistic practice needs to take place in a special place or under special circumstances. It can happen anywhere and break through the boundaries between life and the artistic field.’

Financial wasteland

The tendency to move away from the official artistic field is also present in the growing world of Polish club culture. Aleksander Sobiczewski, graphic artist and DJ within the technocollective piesapol, summarizes the situation: ‘In recent years, club culture has seen a boom in Poland. Even after performing piesapol for over two years, I am still astonished by the fact that we can make our work and survive mostly through social media, without any government subsidy. I have the feeling that a lot of collectives within the music- and club world have similar experiences, so that within their niche they could organize parties nearly every week.’

However, similarly to the theatre- and performance world, there are structural problems. Crowdfunding and social media have made it possible to organize concerts and parties without government subsidies, but the limited income this generates is not enough for everyone to live off. This raises the question whether the recent boom in club culture will be able to survive the pandemic.

In the case of Ago Tragarz, they were lucky enough that their debut project, Więcej niż jedno zwięrze (More Than An Animal, made collectively with Robert Wasiwiecz, Vira Hres, Marcin Miętus, Błażej Stencel and Sonia Roszczuk), had its premiere late last year. This has enabled Tragarz to apply for state support from the Ministry of Culture in the form of a one-off grant, because their connection to Teatr Studio has given them official recognition as an artist. This grant is worth 1.800 zł (€400), but over two months after the initial grant application they have still not seen any money.

Yet Tragarz sees themselves as luck compared to most other cultural workers: ‘I make my main income through selling tickets at Teatr Studio, which has enabled me to apply for an additional 2.000 zł (€440) of government support. And because I am still studying at the Warsaw Theatre Academy, I could also apply for social support from the academy itself. Sadly, that support entails only 400 zł (€88), and is provided entirely through voluntary contributions from academic staff and other workers at the academy. If they do not donate, there is no budget for social support.’

The dramaturg Anka Herbut tells a similar story: ‘For years I have been working as a freelance dramaturg both on theatre and dance productions. The dance scene in Poland is more independent than the theatre scene, but this has also meant that it pays less and has less stable work opportunities. To survive I have to constantly run from project to project, while at the same time organizing another project in the background. As the mother of a two-year old child, I have the feeling I am stuck in a vicious cycle, where every possible option will mean a loss of income.’

The pandemic has resulted in a financial wasteland for Herbut: ‘For two months already, my income has been reduced to 500 zł (€110) per month. The payment for two projects I was already working on has been frozen, and the contracts for those projects had not even been signed yet. In general, the situation is difficult, because the child day care facility where my child normally stays has been closed, but I am still receiving bills. It is unclear whether these still have to paid.’

Just like Tragarz and Świerczek, Herbut points towards the structural underfinancing of the cultural field: ‘In Poland we do not have any real dance institutions, only national or city-run theatre institutions.’ She has been less fortunate than Tragarz when it comes to government funding: ‘Because none of my contracts were signed before the pandemic hit, I cannot apply for any state support. As an artist I can apply for a one-off grant [the same one given to Tragarz – 1.800 zł], but this grant has been delayed for months now.’ Similar to the other people interviewed, at the moment of writing [May 18th 2020], Herbut has not heard of anyone actually receiving the promised support onto their bank account.

Field under fire

These problems are not new, as the cultural field in Poland has been a political battlefield for years. Far more than is the case in Western Europe, culture is seen as crucial to the strength of the nation-state, and most political currents in Poland see it is a crucial way to secure Polish national identity. This means that debates on the cultural field and cultural policy are never merely about culture in and of itself, but are instead always (and often quite explicitly) driven by particular stances on what it means to be Polish and what Poland’s future should be.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, the political consensus in Poland has been centred around the ‘Westernization’ of Poland: a neoliberal market economy was introduced, the country joined NATO and the European Union, and its cultural policy would become pluralistic and autonomous. In this way, Polish culture would integrate with Western European culture, and Poland would once again claim its rightful place as an indispensable and crucial partner to the rest of Europe.

These policies of Westernization did not go as smoothly as initially planned or hoped for, and while they have yielded measurable success, they have also caused significant economic, social and political disruption. Perhaps the space in which the transition has progressed the furthest, has been the cultural field, where in the past two decades a network developed of independent arts institutions who made autonomous decisions, collaborated with Western European partners, and slowly but surely began to open up to artists operating in the margins of the official cultural field.

The political support to these developments has, however, not been unconditional. Already in 2013, under the liberal government of Donald Tusk, the arts festival Malta had to cancel the theatre performance Golgota Picnic under heavy political pressure, as the piece was seen as insulting to Roman Catholics. That pressure has only increased since the arrival of the current right-wing conservative government in 2015, which has been trying to instigate real conservative cultural revolution which has the aim to change the parameters in which the field is operating.

The ambition of these new cultural policies has been to propagate a different, more patriotic conception of Polish national identity, in which the Polish nation is strongly interconnected with the Roman Catholic faith. These ambitions are also reflected in the attempt to create a new, far more conservative canon. In practice, these policies translate themselves into attempts to regain direct political control over the cultural field, especially through political appointments at state media and arts institutions like theatres and museums.

Anka Herbut, whose research project Ruchy Oporu (‘Resistance Movements’) has been investigating how choreography can be a form of resistance, has poignantly described the impact of these policies on the field: ‘Before the pandemic hit, there were a whole host of experimental grassroots initiatives within the arts. But because almost all institutional art in Poland depends in one way or another on politics, the situation was gradually becoming worst. And while within city-run arts institutions there has been the development of a progressive movement trying to open up the arts, they have been actively undermined by the Ministry. An example of this is what happened at the Teatr Polski in Wrocław.’ Artistic directions are forced to leave their positions early and are then replaced with explicitly conservative figures, whose political opinions are often more important than their skills and experience within the field.

Paradigm shift

Despite these challenges, art remains an important site of protest in Poland. On May 16th, 2020 a group of Polish artists delivered a long open letter to the Sejm, the Polish parliament, with the message ‘Żyć nie, umierać’ (‘Do not live, die’). This re-enactment of Tadeusz Kantor’s legendary 1967 List protest was conducted to criticize the fact that the government was trying to hold presidential elections at the original scheduled date despite the dangers of holding an election at the height of a pandemic. Actions like these are more frequently targeted with repressive measures: almost immediately the participants were given a fine of 10.000 zł (€2.200) per person for ‘reckless behaviour’ and ‘violating the COVID-19 measures’. This even though the protest was entirely legal, took all necessary precautions and was guided by the local police.

The new ideological focus of cultural policy is also reflected in the support measures developed by the Ministry of Culture in the wake of the pandemic. As the above accounts illustrate, there is not only a significant delay between the granting of support and the actual payment, but it also seems like the government is trying to use the crisis to speed up the pace of change within the cultural field. The current Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, has decided to increase the amount of support from 20 million zł (€4.3 million) to 80 million zł (€17.5 million), a fourfold increase in financial support for the cultural field.

However, one of the most important mechanisms for distributing this aid is via the ‘Kultura w sieci’ (Culture Online) project, which only provides financing for new online projects. Those which were cancelled due to the pandemic, receive absolutely nothing, which means that a lot of cultural institutions and independent makers are felt to fend for themselves. It also looks like the conditions applied to receive funding and the short time frame in which to prepare applications, have once again benefitted mostly large institutions. It is exactly these places which the Ministry holds most sway over, not only financially, but also programmatically, as opposed to the more autonomous way of working of independent makers.

That these changes are not merely a change in accent, but a paradigm shift, was best expressed by Minister Gliński himself in 2017: ‘something which was built in 26 years, cannot be changed in only a year and a half. […] We are building new institutions. We are making a clear correction.’ That correction is clearly visible when we look at the big winners of ‘Kultura w Sieci’, which benefit mostly high art and institutions that propagate Polish national identity, such as the Cracow Opera, the Świętokrzyska Philharmonic Orchestra, the Gdańsk Museum and the Home Army Museum.

To fill the gaps in official policy, a range of grassroots initiatives have sprung up providing bottom-up solidarity. The most important of these are local Widzialna Ręka (Visible Hand) groups, in which tens of thousands of people have organized themselves via social media to provide each other help, goods and money based on need. At the same time city-run arts institutions like Biennale Warszawa have provided limited financial support for artists in need. While these initiatives provide a ray of hope for a lot of people, they also illustrate the limits of voluntary solidarity: the initiative of Biennale Warszawa could only provide a one-off lump sum of 3.000 zł (€650) to ten artists. Just like the voluntary solidarity at the Warsaw Theatre Academy, it provides a good illustration of the desperate need for a structural approach.

Which future?

The fact that there have been so many grassroots initiatives the past few years, and the fact that they have been able to organize mutual aid in response to the pandemic, makes curator and art critic Dominika Tylcz optimistic about the future: ‘I think that a whole range of new institutional and artistic practices will rise from the ashes of the pandemic. There is a big chance that there will be less government support, but I am trying to see this as an opportunity for grassroots projects to plug institutional gaps and start a process of reform of institutions to more sustainable, community-driven centres.’ However, amongst those interviewed for this article, Tylcz seems to be the only one espousing such optimism: all other interviewees expressed a desire to move abroad, and either have plans to do so or are considering making plans.

This does not mean that young artists in Poland are not organizing. While they do not feel represented by any political party, there is a strong desire to unite and effect radical change within the cultural field. Herbut: ‘One of the most important strategies to move forward is through the manifestation of our presence, to protest as physical bodies – and not only through social media as is currently the case. We have to be more radical. We need to unite different professions in a common act of resistance, because so far, we have been demonstrating in isolation. I strongly believe in the importance of civic protest.’

Świerczek echoes the same idea: ‘I want more cooperation and less competition within the field. People in positions of power need to relinquish it and enable real change, for example by providing a platform for those who are currently invisible. I want equal distribution of wealth within cultural institutions and the creation of real equal opportunities.’

With this cry for radical change and unity, both within the field and outside of it, these young artists are placing themselves, whether it is conscious or not, within a long Polish tradition of resistance against authority and abuse of power. A previous generation fought against an authoritarian Communism under the slogan of Solidarność, naszą bronią – Solidarity, our weapon. It looks like these words are once again forming a battle cry for the many who want to bring about change within the Polish cultural field.

Jonas Vanderschueren is a PhD Candidate at KU Leuven and the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he specializes in contemporary Polish theatre. He is the former editor of the literary magazine Kluger Hans and was previously working at Ghent University.