Dr Marta de Zuniga on The Polish Cultural Institute in London. Navigating the Post-pandemic World
The Polish Cultural Institute is based in the heart of London with beautiful views of the Temple from the 4th floor of the Bravura building at 10 Bouverie Street. Its creative team of experts in the visual arts, music, theatre, film, literature and PR are passionate about building bridges between people. As it does not own an auditorium or a gallery space of its own, it works in partnership with British cultural institutions interested in engaging with Polish art and culture. It offers support to artists, curators and organisations, assisting them throughout their creative journey and the adventure of each project. Our team believes that Polish culture does not need promoting, but is rather a gem we enjoy sharing and celebrating.
The role of culture has been both questioned and highlighted once the world stopped and went into various forms of lockdown. Suddenly theatres and concert halls no longer competed for audiences, museums and galleries didn’t work to attract visitors, and most importantly, creatives lost traditional ways of showcasing their work. The Polish Cultural Institute cancelled the annual film festival Kinoteka just 3 days before the Opening Gala; two major exhibitions, which we had worked on delivering with partners, had to be postponed – not once but twice.
The Arts and Culture sector is an interesting environment to explore in the context of the global pandemic emergency. It has always been a unique microcosm with internal structures and mechanisms functioning on the verge of the public and private sectors. In some ways it is a form of a cultural market, and indeed it too often resembles economic competition. However, while naturally highly competitive and sometimes criticized for being an ivory tower, the world of arts and culture cannot exist without cooperation, creative cross-fertilisation and the sharing of inspirations. Its ability to build connections, reflect critically on the current state of affairs, and develop better understanding of where we stand as humanity, makes it an indispensable part of every resilient society.
The unprecedented limitations which affected the world of Arts and Culture could have potentially been a catastrophe. And in many ways it sadly was – closed theaters, gigantic unemployment of the creative sector, mental health issues and general anxiety. However, at the same time, this new situation allowed people from different backgrounds, institutions, areas of expertise and points of view, to use art to express themselves and connect with others – especially the local communities – while in isolation.
People from the creative industries, art, culture and humanities did what they do best – got creative and thought about how to overcome this situation. Galleries like Tate Modern prepared arts and crafts kits to download and experiment with, artists like Antony Gormley encouraged people to turn their front windows into mini-galleries. All of those activities – together with simple moments of expressing one’s feelings of anxiety through different forms of art – have brought people closer to what art originally was about – a way of communicating ideas, experiences and feelings.
The most obvious answer to the crisis was going digital; some adapted this strategy almost instantly, some hesitated, but quickly most events switched to the online format. The film festival that I mentioned before, Kinoteka, had its first ever online-only edition. We produced musical events streamed to internet users everywhere and began producing many webinars and conferences. However, forging strong key partnerships turned out to be a game changer for us.
The Copernicus exhibition at the National Gallery opened the day after the lockdown had finished. With severe restrictions in place, most of the accompanying events took place virtually. And though the queues in front of the room where Matejko’s masterpiece was exhibited were tiring, the exhibition actually managed to reach hundreds of thousands of people around the world thanks to online productions like The Sunday Times art Critic Waldemar Januszczak’s Copernicus film.
Another very interesting trend observed across the board was that while people in the arts and culture sector were pushed towards uniting to face the crisis, arts consumers seem to have had a revelation of their own. Even in the wake of mostly free artistic content, available at your fingertips, people craved being out there – experiencing art, music, theatre and film with other people. People not only missed the places which allowed them to feed their senses and challenge their thoughts, but were also ravenous to share this experience with others.
A good example of this would be our collaboration with the local government in Newark-on-Trent, partners in Poland and the artist-sculptor Andrew Lilley on unveiling the first statue of Irena Sendler in the UK.
Irena Sendler was a World War II hero who was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations honour for saving countless children’s lives from the Holocaust.
Her universally positive example and noble actions served local communities in Newark as an inspiration and opportunity to meet and celebrate her heroism. The statue was very warmly received by the media, including the BBC, and built many bridges between British and Polish communities. It is possible that the reason why it resonated so well at this particular time of the pandemic, was because it showed the importance of solidarity and the ability of human beings to do good, even in times endlessly more challenging than our own.
Another project that answered this emerging trend for exploring connections between cultures, was the William Morris Gallery’s Young Poland exhibition, brilliantly curated by Julia Griffin, Andrzej Szczerski and Roisin Inglesby.
Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement (1890 – 1918) was the first major exhibition in the UK to explore the decorative arts and architecture of Young Poland, an extraordinary cultural movement that flourished in the 19th century. For the first time ever, Young Poland was presented as part of an Arts & Crafts Movement, revealing strong stylistic and philosophical affinities with the work of William Morris and John Ruskin.
Bringing Young Poland and Arts & Crafts movements together showed us and audiences how interconnected our world is, even if at times it appears to be fragmented and disintegrated.
Lastly, the exhibition Lost Treasures of Revolution, that took place in Oxford last year,
explored the role that graphics played in building the Solidarity movement and sustaining it during the difficult days of government repression and martial law. It brought together 25 Solidarity poster designs reproduced from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, alongside a selection of original badges and rarely seen underground stamps that bear witness to the grassroots creative spirit of the movement in the 1980s. But the exhibition concluded with a separate display of posters and graphics from current global social movements and community projects, again, showcasing this important perspective of being interconnected, which is equally important today, as it was in the 1980’s.
To conclude, the post-pandemic world of arts and culture might be economically more limited but it strives even stronger than before to push against the boundaries, look for new meanings and include new or marginalised voices into the conversation. Art has always been great at striving to transform the world – it is enough to think about the power of such artworks as Picasso’s Guernika, Rodin’s deliberately fragmented sculptures, Hannah Hoch’s collages, which were commentaries on the decomposition of the Weimar Republik. Shortly after the lockdown, the Whitechapel Gallery commissioned a work of art and a small workshop by Yoko Ono. It consisted of mending pieces of broken fragments of ceramic cups and plates using repair materials like rope or tape. The message it conveyed was brilliant –it’s time to mend – ourselves, our relationships, environment and communities by using the simplest means.
Today as we head into a post-Covid time with new challenges like the war in Ukraine or the energy crisis mounting in front of us, culture will have an even greater role to play in generating constructive dialogue and shining a light on the situation of those most in need. We discovered the incredibly healing power of music in talking about the unspeakable while organizing the charity concert Solace at Wigmore Hall.
The concert sold over 500 tickets in just a few days, and more than 20 artists from all over Europe performed for free to collect funds for Ukrainian children in need. We also accompanied Waldemar Januszczak to Lviv and supported the making of his film about safeguarding art at the time of war, which became hugely popular on Sky Arts and the Sunday Times website. We’ve also been proud to support Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Tate Modern exhibition and the Christine Granville Anglo-Polish Cultural Exchange. All of these events not only celebrate the best of Polish contributions to global Culture but more importantly create a platform of trust-based partnership and sustainable dialogue about the most burning issues and current debates. And we look forward to creating even bigger and even more exciting events engaging with the world around us in the coming years.
Dr Marta de Zuniga is Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London. She studied in Warsaw, Munich, Moscow and London and lectured at the Department of Journalism and Political Science at University of Warsaw. During her five years as Director of the PCI, Marta’s work has focussed on developing partnerships and projects that highlight close cultural links between Poland and the UK.