To the consternation of much of the country’s contemporary art scene, Poland’s minister of culture and national heritage, Piotr Gliński, announced his intention this week to appoint the painter and trade union leader Janusz Janowski as the new director of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw.
Specialising in contemporary art, Zacheta holds a collection of over 3,500 works from the 20th century to the present day and is viewed as one the country’s top artistic institutions. Described by the artist Zuzanna Janin as the art scene’s “most important, progressive, breaking borders exhibition space”, it is also responsible for organising Poland’s participation at the Venice Biennale.
Despite the fact that over 1,000 Polish arts professionals signed an open letter in July opposed to the dismissal of Zacheta’s current director, Hanna Wróblewska, the ministry of culture has now followed through in directly selecting her successor, without recourse to an open competition.
Viewed by the government’s critics as one more step in an agenda of placing ideologically conservative appointees in control of Poland’s leading cultural institutions, commentators have been particularly pointed in questioning Janowski’s suitability for the role. President of the main board of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers trade union since 2014, Janowski has a background in regional arts, but is not closely associated with Poland’s leading contemporary artists.
Responding to a request for comment from The Art Newspaper, Wróblewska went as far as to suggest that her proposed successor has, “no programme, no managerial experience, no knowledge of the operation of public institutions and no knowledge of the Polish or global art scene.” Wróblewska says that while she accepts the minister of culture’s right to bring her own term to an end, she proposed that the new director should be selected via a “transparent” competition process. Such a process, Wróblewska argues, would have provided “the most appropriate and fullest verification” of Janowski’s credentials.
Writing in the weekly Polish news magazine Polityka, the critic and commentator Piotr Sarzyński argued that Janowski’s selection follows similar conservative appointments made by the governing Law and Justice party (PiS), such as the recent installation of Piotr Bernatowicz as director of Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.
Sarzyński also expressed the widely shared view that Janowski is an opponent of contemporary art, and that his arrival would entail a "demolition" of Zacheta’s current programme.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Jakub Dąbrowski, an academic working at the department of visual culture at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, says that while the visual art community should not be surprised by Janowski’s arbitrary appointment, “what truly did startle us was the choice of such a conservative and naïve ignorant. I am deeply concerned that Janowski will ruin one of the most significant cultural institutions in Poland and take Polish contemporary art back to the 1950s.”
Janin is equally pessimistic, saying: “Zacheta may fall out of international circulation, with a huge, gigantic loss for Polish art and the artists who built the international position of Polish art after the [political] transformation in 1989.”
Wróblewska’s term as director of Zachęta is due to end on 31 December, with Janowski expected to take charge from 1 January 2022 until 31 December 2025. Prior to his formal apportionment, Polish trade unions and creative associations will now have the opportunity to voice their opinion.
Janowski was unavailable for comment.