Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw: On the role of museums and art institutions in times of war with curator Kuba Depczyński
The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, established in 2005, is a public cultural institution and one of the most important centres for modern and contemporary art in Poland.
Merging various media, academic analysis and journalistic integrity, the Museum will initiate a weekly bulletin with the support of European Cultural Foundation’s Culture of Solidarity Fund. ‘The Soniakh Digest’ will merge a variety of media with academic analysis, popular language and journalistic integrity to break filter bubbles and have a broad outreach. The online publication will be issued in English to appeal to international audiences.
In what has been called the ‘Sunflower’ initiative, the Museum also gathers a network of international artists, curators, journalists, editors, media experts and academics to establish a think-tank and editorial collective. They work to organise public talks, debates and discussion panels. All events are streamed, recorded and shared online.
We have interviewed Kuba Depczyński regarding their most recent public programme. Kuba is an educator, researcher and curator of public programmes at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.
Could you tell us about the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and some notable past activities?
The Museum is made up of people: the artists, the team and the public. We want to be useful. We treat art as a means of communication, of discovering and understanding the world. The Museum’s involvement in the contemporary world is expressed through exhibitions, publications, and educational and research programmes.
Our expanding art collection records dynamic phenomena and developments occurring locally and globally. We create a space for meetings, mutual inspiration and reflection. We move beyond art but are always inspired by it.
Since 2005, the Museum has organised many individual and group exhibitions, presented both in Poland and in international institutions. We have carried out dozens of research, education and public programmes, organised hundreds of events, gathered multiple resources on art and culture as well as published numerous books.
We look after the Bródno Sculpture Park in Warsaw, and since 2009, we have been hosting the ‘Warsaw Under Construction’ city design festival. We are a member of L’Internationale – a confederation of modern and contemporary art institutions and cultural organisations focused on non-hierarchical and decentralised internationalism.
What is the role of museums and other art institutions in times of war? Relatedly, what are some challenges for such large institutions when responding to fraught political and humanitarian crises?
This is precisely the question that we have been asking ourselves since February 24th 2022. We are still seeking an answer and testing different modes of action that art institutions such as ours could implement in response to war conditions.
Already two days after the launch of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Museum has offered its space, resources and infrastructure to activists, artists and cultural workers, who immediately started numerous aid activities in response to the war crisis. For weeks the institution functioned as an emergency support centre. We raised funds, collected medicines and humanitarian aid, shared information, helped people find accommodation, and prepared and distributed meals. What started as an activist stir soon has become the Sunflower Solidarity Community Centre— an open, supportive, multilingual and multicultural space and collective which has become a pillar of the Museum’s public programme.
In the Sunflower, we learn Ukrainian and Polish languages and explore Ukrainian history, culture and art. We organise workshops for children, educational activities, film screenings, poetry readings, lectures, concerts, and meetings with artists and activists. The Sunflower community connects dozens of different people who share stories, experiences and skills, just trying to be together and support each other in times of war.
What we have learned in recent months is that art institutions do have resources, infrastructure, workforce, skills, knowledge and experience that can be useful when trying to respond to a military conflict or a humanitarian crisis. Establishing a community centre such as the Sunflower is just one possible path of action. Other institutions reacted by organising emergency residencies or turning their exhibition premises into temporary hostels for refugees.
Perhaps, when faced with a crisis such as a war, the role of institutions is to be vigilant, alert, open and supportive, as well as ready to change the mode of action and go far beyond what they usually do.
Of course, this kind of engagement poses a number of challenges for an art institution. There is always a tension between activist swiftness, dedication and passion and the slowness, procedures and hierarchies of a big organisation. Providing immediate, direct aid and support interferes with the everyday work in the institution, and balancing as well as mediating between them is a delicate and important task.
There is also the issue of sustainability – how to healthily maintain these kinds of activities in the long run? We believe that with rising economic inequalities, the climate crisis, migrations and growing social and political instability, art institutions will have to operate in those crisis and emergency modes more and more often. While it is a challenge, it is definitely possible.
What kinds of content will the bulletin feature? Will the focus be on arts and culture?
The Soniakh Digest will feature diverse types of content – we will be publishing essays, analytic pieces, short academic texts and translations of important articles circulated and discussed in Ukraine but haven’t been available in English yet.
We will be also sharing quite a lot of artworks from contemporary Ukrainian artists – images, videos, sound and textual pieces – in which they react to the conditions of war and/or present their stance on current debates spurred by the invasion. The platform will also feature profiles of organisations, initiatives and collectives that support the Ukrainian cause and provide humanitarian aid as well audio recordings of people describing the dreams they are having while living under constant threat.
Arts and culture will be prominent on the website; but in general, the content will focus on the full-scale Russian of Ukraine and its consequences, as well as international debates on topics such as life under condition of war and the social and political situation in Ukraine, Russian imperialism, the complexity of contemporary global geopolitics, the issue of ‘westsplaining’, the role of fossil fuels in the conflict, decolonisation in Central and Eastern Europe and the history of the region etc. tackling them from different perspectives and with the use of various media.
Help us picture the workings of the think-tank: How does it convene? Who participates? What does the internal dynamic of such a collective look like?
The think-tank has been operating since March 2022. It was established as a result of a plenary meeting of artists and cultural workers on the war, co-organised by the Museum and the Office for Postartistic Services. During the meeting a working group emerged consisting of over 20 Ukrainian, Polish and international artists, cultural workers, academics, journalists and researchers, who decided to collectively establish a think-tank and an online bulletin to counter misinformation, negative stereotypes and propaganda that relativises and undermines the efforts of Ukrainians to defend themselves against the Russian invasion.
Since then, the group has been holding regular online meetings every two weeks. Also, smaller sub-groups were created that work closely on specific aspects of the project, such as funding, curatorial and editorial direction, finding artists and authors, designing the website, dissemination of content etc.
The internal dynamics of the group are very intense, as this is a complicated, international endeavour that addresses very important and widely discussed issues. Still, we are united by a set of shared goals and values, and thus far, we were always able to reach a mutual understanding and create space for different voices and opinions.
And finally, what does a ‘culture of solidarity’ mean to you?
For us, a ‘culture of solidarity’ means building sustainable relationships, acknowledging the variety of different perspectives and being ready to think and act outside of one’s comfort zone. Real solidarity is not easy. It sometimes requires reevaluating one’s own position, values and goals and even giving something up. ‘Culture of solidarity’ would mean acknowledging and embracing these difficulties for the sake of incredible support and resilience that comes with true solidarity.
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