PRINT Summer 2010

Joanna Mytkowska

MY EXPERIENCE AS THE DIRECTOR of an emerging art museum suggests that the institution can play the role of agent of change in the public sphere. The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is the first art museum to be built in that city since 1938. The building, which is scheduled to open by 2014, will stand in front of Poland’s most emblematic structure, the Palace of Culture and Science. Erected in 1955, the Moscow-style skyscraper is regarded by some as a symbol of Soviet domination, by others as simply a Warsaw landmark. The palace thus serves as a literal backdrop or foil, emphasizing the new museum’s contextualization within a fundamental cultural shift that has been taking place in Poland. Emancipated from historical encumbrances and gathering momentum from the process of democratization that has been accelerating since the collapse of Communism, contemporary culture here—and visual art in particular—has only recently found an internationally comprehensible language for describing the nation’s political transformation and the new social phenomena accompanying it. The critical methods developed by artists throughout the late 1980s and ’90s—themselves strongly linked to the participatory practices of the ’60s and ’70s, as articulated by, for example, the work of Polish theoretician and architect Oskar Hansen—can now be used to test social taboos, examine social frustrations, and create a climate of openness for critical discourse.

The outcome of the 2007 international architectural competition for the museum project—the jury chose the proposal of Zurich-based architect Christian Kerez—inaugurated a wide-ranging debate about the built environment and public space. In part, the emotional quality of this national conversation stemmed from the fact that the issue had been dormant for so long: Poland had just emerged from a long period during which the purpose and the role of public buildings in cities weren’t negotiated at all. The controversy was particularly intense due to the building’s location, so near the Palace of Culture and Science, and to the fact that Kerez’s design emphasized monumental scale but was also pared down and restrained. The design became the most polarizing construction project in post-1989 Poland, with many people feeling that expressionistic architecture (e.g., something along the lines of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao) would have been preferable. The reasoning in this case was that the building should not be merely a platform for artistic and public events but an event in itself—that it should communicate political and symbolic values as unambiguously as the Palace of Culture and Science did. Yet although it’s true that Kerez’s building represents nothing, it doesn’t exclude anything either. As such, it perhaps expresses a civic openness, a willingness to negotiate the parameters of the Polish transformation.

This is not to imply that openness precludes friction. The lingering questions raised by the design controversy reveal a conflict between different visions of the country’s modernization. What exactly is social modernization? What is our attitude toward historical symbols and the Communist past? How should we express and represent our common goals? In other words, the debate around the museum building reflects the fact that Polish society is in a state of flux, with hopes for change and elements of the premodern symbolic sphere coexisting.

There are profound implications for our institutional practice, implications that have become ever clearer since the museum’s modest beginnings in the spring of 2008, when we inaugurated our regular museum operations in a temporary location in central Warsaw. The museum team perceives its role as being first and foremost that of a facilitator of public participation in national debates. We try to provide tools for the discussion and study of a changing social reality. The museum’s program has been conceived with this overarching goal in mind. Whether we examine the history of modernity, analyze the history of urban ideas, or trace the meanderings of Eastern Europe’s art history, we always try to communicate how each exhibition is related to the here and now of Warsaw, how it might affect our understanding of the present.

It seems that we aren’t exceptional in this respect. The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, for instance, puts a lot of effort into its critical study of Spain’s painful history. Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum instigates discourses that are critical of the European tradition and that can prove relevant in the contemporary Netherlands. It’s possible that in recent years, particularly in Europe, there has been a growing acceptance of the idea that the museum is always and inevitably a figure of the public sphere, and that museums should acknowledge this fact and shape their programs accordingly. This notion often seems peripheral to institutional discussions, but certainly, the circumstances around the Warsaw museum’s emergence would seem to reflect the inherent embeddedness of the museum in public discourse. Perhaps our model could become relevant to newly emancipated places of the world, where societies have a dynamic attitude toward modernization and, often, create their present in an atmosphere of ideological conflict—critical art could play an important role there. Or perhaps this dynamism is becoming a universal condition, and the model can be deployed anywhere in the world.