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Open Letter to the Directors of the National Museum in Krakow


To: Andrzej Betlej and Andrzej Szczerski, Directors, National Museum in Krakow

Dear Sirs,

In response to the rising tide of nationalist, fascist, and even Nazi sympathies that we are seeing in our country, as representatives of the world of culture and academia, but above all as citizens, we wish to present you with our proposal: to organize a major international exhibition of art that stands in opposition to such attitudes.

In the modern age, artists have manifested their opposition to acts of violence, unjustified aggression, and usurpation of power in a range of ways. Goya, Delacroix, and later classical modernists such as Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Pablo Picasso, Władysław Strzemiński, and Andrzej Wróblewski, to name but a few—many of whom had first-hand experience of the horrors of war—addressed the issues of xenophobia and race-based violence. The majority of them were aware that by no means all fascists and their sympathizers paraded around in brown shirts. This is not an ideology that stops at flaunting Nazi uniforms and symbols. In the past it has also donned top hats, while here and now, in present-day Poland, it often appears dressed up in suits as it fans the flames of belligerent, chauvinistic moods.

The corollaries of this are all too clear: witch-hunts and incitement to lynchings. Tadeusz Borowski, a victim of and consummate expert on fascism, pinpointed this astutely. “As seen through the eyes of the fox, world history begins to retrogress: the times are increasingly bloody, life is increasingly hard, so many foes, so few friends,” he wrote. These words are taken from his short story “Fox Hunting,” which he set in post-war England—to convey his conviction that fascism was not a problem confined to the victims of the Third Reich. Any state that passes laws facilitating witch-hunts will ultimately become a fascist state.

The threat of advancing fascism also looms in another guise: popular culture, which shapes the attitudes of young people via electronic and social media. It is time for a critical analysis of the reactionary radicalization of movements such as hip hop and street art. We need to show the genesis of this radicalization of counter-culture scenes which started out by offering emancipation but today serve as vehicles for the aestheticization and commercialization of authoritarian currents. The same is true of the appropriation of patriotic symbols and entire traditions connected with Polish culture—we cannot allow our Polish heritage to become the property of populists with fascist leanings.

Do we in present-day Poland have any awareness of these threats? If we do, it is insufficient. It is thus vital that our public institutions—the shared assets of all our citizens—draw our attention to these urgent needs. Spokespeople for the National Museum in Krakow have so many times before stressed its unique role in the process of shaping the Polish consciousness. Now again—in the face of growing antipathy towards the Other and increasingly frequent attacks on people with different colors of skin, in the context of the brutal contempt demonstrated towards minorities (whether ethnic, political, ideological, or sexual), and with the creeping spread of the low-level insensitivity to violence inculcated by this xenophobia and nationalism—the National Museum in Krakow has an important mission to fulfill. It has a chance to play an important role in educating Polish society. The exhibition we are proposing should do just this: educate our society in a spirit of anti-fascist openness and cooperation across conventional divides. To this end we would suggest inviting an international team of curators to design an exhibition that would showcase a broad canon of contemporary art in an interdisciplinary historical and geopolitical context.

The ostensible neutrality adopted by Polish museums and universities is in fact deeply political—by remaining silent they are actually supporting these dangerous trends, or at the very least avoiding taking an unequivocal stance against them. This has to stop; we have to say a resounding “No!” in situations which require principled opposition. The exhibition which we would like to organize would be one such opportunity for Polish conservatism—it should stand shoulder to shoulder with those whose desire is to ensure the preservation of Poland’s great modern-day heritage: the tradition of Human and Citizens’ Rights. “The basest conservatives prefer to confess the only wise religion—fox-hunting,” Borowski wrote scathingly.

We the undersigned still believe that Polish conservatism has no desire to be a “hunting religion.” Gentlemen, we call on you to prove that our hopes do not have to be in vain.


Paweł Brożyński – art historian
Tomasz Kozak – artist
Michał Zawada – artist
Mateusz Kula – artist
Stach Szabłowski – curator
Dominik Kuryłek – art historian, curator
Anna Taszycka – film critic
Jakub Majmurek – critic, columnist
Michał Kuziak – literary historian
Ziemowit Szczerek – writer
Małgorzata Kowalska – philosopher
Bogna Świątkowska – promoter of culture
Monika Grodzka – literary historian
Paulina Reiter – journalist, Wysokie Obcasy
Katarzyna Słoboda – curator
Agata Bielik-Robson – philosopher
Anna Baranowa – art historian
Alicja Rogalska – artist
Katarzyna Wąs – curator
Marcin Polak – artist, community activist
Olimpia Maciejewska-Gijbels – gallery owner
Kamila Twardowska – art historian
Katarzyna Wojtczak – art historian
Aleksandra Jakubczak – theatre director
Liliana Piskorska – artist
Agnieszka Szewczyk – art historian, curator
Roma Sendyka – scholar of memory cultures
Przemysław Czapliński – research fellow, Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznań)
Jakub Kornhauser – literary critic, writer
Maria Kobielska – cultural studies and literature scholar
Emilia Olszewska – sociologist
Kamil Kuskowski – artist
Paulina Olszewska – curator
Ewa Gorządek – curator
Joanna Hołda – lawyer
Paweł Sadowski – lawyer
Joanna Sokołowska – curator
Barbara Bielawska – politician, social activist
Karolina Czerska – literary critic
Jakub Ciężki – artist
Joanna Mytkowska – art historian, curator
Sebastian Cichocki – curator
Maria Poprzęcka – art historian
Jan Trzupek – art historian, curator

Translated by Jessica Taylor-Kucia

Image: National Museum in Krakow


In the face of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia in Poland as well as in surrounding countries - Hungary, Czech Republic, with a recent and praiseworthy exception of Slovakia - a group of artists and curators filed a petition to the directors of National Museum in Kraków, asking for arrangement of a ”major international exhibition of art that stands in opposition to such attitudes”. Below I publish a short interview with Paweł Brożyński, an independent curator, critic and an instigator of the petition.

The group runs facebook pages in both [polish]( do-Dyrekcji- Muzeum- Narodowego-w- Krakowie-278816405983815/) and [english]( to-the- Directors-of- National-Museum- in-Krakow- 153496995362889/).

Why did you come up with this initiative? Why do you think that Kraków, or perhaps more precisely - the National Museum in Kraków is the right place to organize such an exhibition?

The idea of sending an open letter to the management of the National Museum in Kraków was born as a counter to the nationalist and even fascist tendencies that have been developing in recent years in Poland. I carried out a kind of inner counting for my own needs - I am talking about private experience, which, however, seems symptomatic and probably many of the signatories of the letter took similar considerations - what can a humanist, scientist or representative of the art world do to overcome this terrible tendency? Of course, you can give a very "local" answer - convince people in your surroundings, set an example, etc. But this is not enough in the present circumstances. We operate in a rather closed environment, which - apart from a few extreme examples - is leftist, open, anti-fascist. The National Museum has a completely different clout. In principle, it is intended for every Pole and for every Pole. Because of its tradition, reputation, collections and location it attracts very different people - a cross-section of society. This gives opportunities for a real impact in the social field that is simply necessary to stop xenophobia.

**How would this initiative fit into the history or tradition of the Museum?**

Starting from a completely mundane issue, NMK is the only institution in Kraków, and one of the few in Poland, that have both financial and housing facilities necessary to organize large monographic exhibitions. The Museum in Kraków is obviously neither the Louvre nor the MoMA, but objectively speaking, at least once in a few years a large survey exhibition on a European level is presented here. Such an exhibition was once Images of Death, and in recent years, even the presentation of the art of Magdalena Abakanowicz. The exhibition whose organization we postulate, would, therefore, aspire to the best traditions of large international shows that could be seen at the NMK. We also do not hide that it would remain to some extent in a critical dialogue with #Heritage, a recent exhibition - in my opinion - full of mild patriotism. However, I would not like us to focus primarily on creating the pendant for #Heritage. With all due respect to NMK and Andrzej Sczerski, the curator of that exhibition, its level did not deserve to provoke the entire new exhibition only as its antithesis.

**I have heard that in the first, informal reaction, the Director of NMK suggested that you prepare an exemplary scenario of the exhibition as you imagine it. Why do you think he is asking for it and what kind of reaction do you expect?**

Yes, it's true. We are currently working on the official response to NMK. I think the reasons are basically twofold: the first may testify to the goodwill of the management, the other not necessarily. Let's start optimistically. I think that Andrzej Betlej took the voice of several hundred signatories seriously and wants to give us, as representatives of this group, a chance to present their own concept. It is an attitude based on a partnership that promises well for the future. On the other hand, the museum, by assigning to us the effort to develop the concept of the exhibition, perhaps silently counts, that we will not be able to compile it and the exhibition - and therefore the potential political tension around NMK - will never happen. Let me remind you again that we are talking here about a large international exhibition, prepared in accordance with the rules of curatorial art and museology, at the highest possible level. The intellectual contribution to the scenario itself is a minimum of one year of hard work for a few to a dozen people, which can be valued on tens or hundreds of thousands of zlotys on the open market. One can not simply patch it together. And in any case, we certainly will not do it. In this sense, if the management really expects us to prepare the whole project, from the outside and for free, but expects a completely successful, “ready” product in the form of an exhibition scenario, it is a sign that it is hoping that the exhibition will never come true. We will try not to be maneuvered into this situation.

**If the project was to be implemented - how would you think the curatorial body should be selected in order to satisfy both the Museum's management and the signatories of the petition?**

This question concerns the practice and art of negotiation. At this stage, I cannot predict it. However, the boundaries of our negotiating skills will surely be determined by the goal - to prepare a substantively excellent exhibition that will play a role in the education of Polish society through art. We certainly want to invite experts - museum workers and scientists. We do not have the feeling that we already know perfectly well how this exhibition would look in every detail. On the contrary. We want to listen to the voice of the people who know more than us about the world of the museum – both in Kraków and that with capital M. We are aware of the great responsibility that lies upon us. That is why we are now acting slowly and cautiously.

**And how do you think what traditions should be included in the project comes to life?**

Certainly, it will be important to show the Enlightenment and Romantic art, which for the first time in history raised the problems of war violence, cruelty and civil rights. It was these patterns formed at the turn of the 18th and the 19th centuries that served the artists of the interwar period, who illustrated and analyzed the birth of fascism. That is why, without a doubt, there should be appearances in this exhibition such as George Grosz and John Heartfield. The third key tradition is art after the Second World War, after the Holocaust. Here, in turn, for the sake of local tradition and collections of the NMK, one should show primarily the works of Andrzej Wróblewski, Władysław Strzemiński, but also Maja Berezowska and Erna Rosenstein.

**What has the Museum been involved in since the Law and Justice party took power in autumn 2015?**

In short: in various museum activities, part of which - because it would be unfair to say that the whole - was subordinated to the party's goals. This function was fulfilled by the exhibition #Heritage. It was supposed to be the flagship of the Law and Justice cultural policy. And it was, as clumsy as the politics of this party. However, I want to emphasize clearly that NMK is several hundred people, dozens of buildings and thousands of works of art. Many people who work in it do not identify with the political attitude of Andrzej Szczerski. As a powerful institution, the Museum can never fully take on one story. Also ours - and very well.

**What is the current situation of the Museum? Has its current board elected during the new government's term of office? What about other institutions such as the National Museum in Warsaw, the Art Museum in Łódź, the National Museum in Wrocław or Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw?**

Not so long ago, deputy director Andrzej Szczerski handed in his resignation from the post. This gives hope for a certain - let's use this meaningful play of words - thaw. The position of director Andrzej Betlej does not seem to be at risk, quite the contrary. And good. That's all I know about it at the moment.

**I have heard that the governmental funding of the above-mentioned institutions has been radically cut after the shift of power in autumn of 2015. Do you think that this happened as a part of some major campaign to eradicate contemporary art as an element that is culturally alien to the government or that threatens its interests?**

Without a doubt. In one of the public statements, Jarosław Selin, the deputy minister of culture, suggested that the Law and Justice would not go through censorship: art and culture that does not fit into government's liking will simply not be subsidized. So Selin said rather that the government will not use legal censorship, related to irreverence or insult of religious or patriotic feelings, but economic censorship instead. This method is definitely more effective and easier to use.