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Cultural Milestones
August 2, 2014   
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Bogdan Zdrojewski, outgoing Minister of Culture, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski

What were the milestones of your seven years as minister of culture?

There were three: a vast change in infrastructure; progress in arts and culture education, including the introduction of music and art classes in elementary schools; and the fact that the ministry’s budget has almost doubled.

There has been a qualitative change in Poland’s situation in terms of infrastructure in the culture sector. The scale of this change, planned for years, is truly impressive not only from the polish but also European perspective. Poland, as I often say, has become the leader in absorbing European Union funds earmarked for culture. Italy, second on the list, is only half as successful in terms of spending EU funds. To use a sports metaphor, we are ahead of the next countries on the list by a whole length. Of course, Poland is not the only EU country with big investment in cultural infrastructure, but these are complete projects geographically as well as in terms of different areas of culture. Looking at this infrastructure it is hard to believe that it comprises more than 200 completed projects, almost half of them financed with European funds. These include such diverse projects as the Podlasie Opera in Białystok, the European solidarity center in Gdańsk, the Copernicus science center in Warsaw, the forest opera in Sopot, the Shakespeare Theater in Gdańsk, the Opole Amphitheater, the Częstochowa Philharmonic, the Kielce Philharmonic, the Galician market in Sanok, the European Numismatics Center in Cracow, the Raczyński library in Poznań, the Warsaw Praga Museum, two projects in Warsaw’s Wilanów district, and three projects at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

How many of these are completely new projects rather than just modernization of existing facilities?

Completely new projects include the Podlasie opera, the old Praga museum and the Shakespeare theater. Others involved either reconstruction or wide-ranging renovation. Such was the case, for example, with the renovation of the cistercian abbey complex in Krzeszów in lower Silesia province, one of the most beautiful examples of baroque architecture in Poland. The work that was done there is an example of restoration of the highest standard with the greatest level of difficulty. Another similar example is the numismatics center established at the practically derelict Czapski Palace.

I am particularly pleased with the diversity of the projects on which we spent substantial European funds. As far as theater is concerned, examples include the Stefan Jaracz theater in Olsztyn, the Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz theater in Zakopane, and the Stary theater in Lublin. We have also launched a project involving the Krzysztof Warlikowski theater in Warsaw and the renovation of the Kwadrat Theater [in Warsaw]. If we look at the world of music, we have new venues in Wrocław, Katowice, Radom, Bielsko-Biała, Częstochowa and Kielce, for example.

I think the second great achievement of my term as minister is arts education. Almost 200 first- and second-degree music schools were covered by all kinds of investment projects, and the curricula were changed as well. Changes were also made in practically all the university-level schools overseen by the ministry. The fine arts academies in ŁódĽ, Poznań, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Cracow and Warsaw were either provided with new buildings or their headquarters were thoroughly renovated or expanded to include new buildings. Music universities, such as those in ŁódĽ and Wrocław, were also provided with completely new work conditions. Investment projects were also carried out at the ŁódĽ film school and at the Cracow theater school, which has a branch in Wrocław. The scale of these projects is absolutely unique looking from the perspective of Europe not only as it is today but also the way it has been in the past two decades. Over the past 20 to 25 years no other EU country has invested in arts education on such a large scale.

The next thing is improving the competence of the youngest audiences. My greatest personal satisfaction here is that obligatory music and art classes have been restored in elementary schools after a hiatus of more than a decade. This is very important because i think our greatest neglect as a country was in education, in the competence of the young generation in the field of culture. Increasing the cultural education budget sixfold brought visible results after seven years.

The next milestone is the changed approach of museum workers. Polish museums no longer look like they used to, with the ubiquitous mandatory slippers and the omnipresent smell of wood-floor cleaning detergents. When we look at the national museum in Cracow, the national museum in Warsaw or the national museum in Wrocław, we see that these are completely different places than just a decade ago—modern and brimming with innovation. Warsaw’s museum of the history of polish jews is ready for its official opening, and the Fryderyk Chopin museum, the most modern biographical museum in Poland, has seven times more child visitors than five years ago. This, too, marks the biggest leap in Europe in this area.

The list of milestones also includes promoting polish culture abroad. Polish artists and bands finally began performing on the world’s leading stages, in what is a lasting and not coincidental trend. Looking at the success of baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, tenor Piotr Beczała, and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, we see venues such as the metropolitan opera in New York, Milan’s la Scala and London’s Covent Garden. For the first time in history, the national philharmonic gave a full concert at the royal Albert hall in London. Sculptor Mirosław Bałka had an exhibition at London’s Tate modern gallery and Alina Szapocznikow showed her work at New York’s museum of modern art. Culture also became the most important area for promoting Poland during the six-month polish presidency of the European union in the second half of 2011. Over the past 20 years no other country, not even France, has managed to produce such a powerful message as this.

I also feel satisfaction at another milestone, namely the dialogue between the ministry and Poland’s cultural community. This dialogue deepened in terms of quality after the congress of polish culture in Cracow in 2009, an event designed to sum up national culture after 20 years of political reforms in Poland. That was when we took on many new topics, and the ministry changed its attitude toward ngos, which today feel far more comfortable in the world of the arts than five years ago.

The next thing is the changed model of how the ministry works. The Ministry of Culture and national heritage’s departments have been reformed; complete transparency has been introduced, and there is a point system in all the programs so that everyone knows why someone wins and someone else loses in the race for ministry funding. The ministry’s position on the institutional map of Europe has also changed completely; our brand is far more recognizable, and we have managed to build our authority for many years to come.

In summary, i think that by working in a calm, evolutionary way, during my seven years as culture minister i have managed to bring about truly revolutionary changes in polish culture.

What is your assessment of relations between the government administration and the culture and arts community in Poland?

From the point of view of my personal experience, we have three main arts communities in Poland: Warsaw, Cracow and the rest. Of course, this is a simplification, just a simple illustration for the purpose of this interview. The toughest in terms of communicating with is the Cracow community. They are wonderful at celebrating their successes, taking care to maintain their distinct local Cracow character, while being phenomenally skilled at dumping problems on Krakowskie Przedmie¶cie [the street in Warsaw where the ministry is located]. I was able to deal with this special situation and i think both sides of the debate gained quite a lot of satisfaction from it.

The Warsaw community, on the other hand, is great to communicate with, does excellent work, but—to put it briefly—is “very costly.” meeting its needs takes quite a lot of money. Often, though, which needs saying, this is justified, if only because of the size of Warsaw’s cultural institutions and the scale of talent among Warsaw artists. Looking back over the years, i see my cooperation with this community as having been very good.

Speaking about the other arts communities, i have to emphasize that i receive very positive signals on a daily basis. For these people, the number one problem for many decades was for the government simply to notice their creative and organizational work. I feel genuinely proud to have been present through my work practically all over Poland. With my investments, initiatives, dialogue with people in the arts, i went to places where no other culture minister had been before, in fact had never been expected. Each year 2,700 localities received some kind of financial support, for artistic events, festivals, cultural institutions, libraries etc. That, too, was a breakthrough.

How much money did you spend during those years?

That’s easy to calculate. I started with a budget of just under zl. 2.5 billion; today it’s almost zl. 4 billion. Six full years in office equals more or less zl. 24-25 billion from long-term government programs, but the actual figure is much higher because we need to add EU funding that we obtained, 1.2 billion euros, and—also important—external funding from private sponsors. In all, we spent more than zl. 30 billion.

With some difficulty, i managed to launch what you could call a stream of sensitivity among polish businesspeople. Jan Kulczyk [the wealthiest man in Poland according to world ranking lists] has assigned sizable amounts for subsidies for cultural institutions in recent years—the biggest was more than zl. 20 million for an exhibition at the museum of the history of polish jews. The ceos of large corporations, insurance companies and banks are also very active. We also have events such as pop music festivals that are commercially sponsored—financial support for them is linked, for example, to a specific business (e.g. a mobile phone network) or even a given beer brand. It’s not the details that are important, though, but the full sponsorship picture—zl. 800 million annually.

Which areas of polish culture have secured a lasting place in the system of European and global culture?

The biggest beneficiary of my last few years of work is the world of music, in both financial and infrastructure terms. The increase in spending on music was the highest and the growth rate was unheard-of in the history of recent decades in Europe. Looking at philharmonic concert halls, we have the Podlasie opera, the national music forum in Wrocław still under construction, the philharmonic hall in Katowice—these are giants. To this add medium-sized venues in Radom, Bielsko-Biała, Suwałki, Kielce, and Częstochowa. These halls, it’s worth noting, are being filled with audiences. We also managed to save all the major festivals that were on the brink of collapsing just recently. The music world has also benefited from the return of mandatory music classes at elementary schools. A huge number of musically educated people found jobs: just calculate how many music teachers are needed; people with different degrees of music education who were unable to find fulfillment in a solo career found employment—and with steadily growing salaries, too.

Now look at our music stars, their reception around the world. Those who passed away in recent years, like Witold Lutosławski, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and Wojciech Kilar, are still recognized around the world, enjoying great respect, with an excellent position on the music market. These composers’ music is played at the greatest venues by the best orchestras. The same applies to older classics. It’s enough to see what happened with Karol Szymanowski and his king roger lately—it was a real explosion. The same goes for the latest stage in the world’s fascination with Fryderyk Chopin’s music. We can see how Krzysztof Penderecki and Paweł Mykietyn are received around the world; this is, i don’t hesitate to say, a global success for polish music. Further confirmation is provided by the successes of polish performers, such as the very experienced pianist Krystian Zimerman and the young pianist Rafał Blechacz. They play concerts at the most prestigious concert halls around the world, record albums for the biggest labels, and get rave reviews.

According to international ranking lists, the polish music market—for both classical and contemporary as well as popular music—now ranks among the top 15 in the world, while just a short time ago we were below 30th place. However, there’s still a lot to be done as far as taking advantage commercially of the polish music brand is concerned.

You are ending your term as culture minister after being elected to the European Parliament on may 25, with one of the best results in Poland. What will be your advice to your successor? Should the new minister be a politician, a financier, manager or a man or woman of the arts?

In culture, i’m against an excessive focus on any single area. The ministry will only be successful if the minister doesn’t try to arrange everything all over again according to their personal narrow ideas. It’s true that it’s easy for a minister who focuses exclusively on books, opera or theater, for example, to make history. People from the favored segment will have fond memories of such a person. But it’s no special feat to work like that. When you have what are still limited budgetary means and enormous needs stemming from long years of neglect, your responsibility is based on taking care of every area of culture and not wasting any opportunity to achieve progress. Apart from managerial skills, respect for money, an ability to communicate with the community and assertiveness, my successor has to remember that this will be one of the finest [financial] perspectives for a government official. I am leaving to them another 1.2 billion euros obtained with difficulty in Brussels for the 2014-2020 period. Of this, 700 million euros will be at the disposal of local governments and 500 million euros will be directly handled by the ministry. This will be funding mainly for modernization, for saving the most valuable parts of national heritage, and also for completing the changes in arts education and school curricula. Cultural education requires continuity; when we once took a break during a population boom, the results were disastrous.

The one thing i’m leaving unfinished—though a draft law has already been developed—is strengthening public radio and television. There is no more important and effective instrument of education than the public mass media.

My final message is this: the culture minister has to stand by people in the arts. This is of fundamental importance. I am well aware that creative people are a very difficult group to work with. They are often egocentric, but these are extremely talented people. They form a group that is a national treasure and should be supported. Every minister also has to remember that an artist’s success is his or her success, while an artist’s failure is the ministry’s failure. And there is no reason to be offended at this state of affairs.
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