The European museum governance system is flawed. Art is meant to be a source of culture and relay themes an artist deems to be important or worthy of portrayal. The messages embedded within art may be related to social issues, religion, history, politics, or even a combination of subjects. Museums, by their very definition, are spaces that exhibit art, yet their function is being threatened in Europe due to the overextended reach governments have over their collections.
In Europe, museums rely on public funding and therefore have administrations that are appointed by the government. Usually, these appointments are conducted by each country’s ministry of culture and heritage, a governmental body overseen by each political administration. The governmental nature of the appointments leaves museums, and consequently their collections, incredibly vulnerable to change during cycles of shifting political administrations. While public financial support may seem like a beneficial system, because museums do not have to rely on possibly unreliable private funding to stay afloat, public appointments to museum leadership ultimately leave museums subject to the specific ideological desires of political leadership.
In Poland, the detrimental effects of changing political leadership are being actualized in the art sphere. In 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) won the parliamentary election (effectively securing 235 out of 460 seats in the parliament) and PiS candidate, Andrzej Duda, won the presidential election. With both the electoral and presidential win came PiS’ ability to reconfigure Poland’s previous museum leadership established by the Civic Platform party. In December 2021, Janusz Janowski was appointed as the director of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. His appointment by PiS specifically demonstrates the monumental impact public appointments have on domestic art communities, as his political partiality and inexperience in the art world are causes for concern.
Janowski’s appointment by the current Polish Minister of Culture and Heritage, Piotr Gliński, has sparked a flurry of controversy amongst the Polish art community, as his resume shows he is truly unqualified to hold the position. An open letter was written and signed by 1,000 Polish artists detailing their opposition to the dismissal of internationally recognized director Hanna Wróblewska (Janowski’s predecessor). The Polish contemporary art community is incredibly concerned about Janowski’s appointment because his only relevant credential is that he served as the leader of the Gdańsk Branch of the Association of Polish Painters and Designers. Janowski has never led the administrative team of an art museum, let alone an art museum as influential as the Zachęta National Gallery of Art.
Janowski’s lack of qualifications put the museum at risk of being mismanaged and its collection at risk of becoming substandard. A previous director of Zachęta explained in a Polish publication of Vogue that the museum “is in danger of switching to a program from the time of the Polish People’s Republic, without the avant-garde”. Art historian, Magdalena Moskalewicz, also commented that “Janowski demonstrates no expertise in contemporary art, which is critical to be able to serve Zachęta’s mission and maintain its active program of acquiring work and producing new projects”. PiS’ ability to appoint Janowski as director, despite public outcry against his lack of expertise in the museum management field, highlights the flawed nature of the European museum governance system.
In addition to Janowski’s concerningly unqualified background, his potential political bias also serves as a major area of concern for Polish art connoisseurs. Because appointees are selected by political administrations, they frequently advocate for the presence of exhibitions within their museums that are ideologically aligned with the administration. This is problematic because it limits the range of themes and messages that are present in collections within a museum. Janowski, similarly to many members of the PiS administration, has a strong affinity for European nationalism, conservatism, and Catholicism. Many fear that his traditional values may interfere with the contemporary museum which has been described as “the art scene’s most important, progressive breaking borders exhibition space”.
It is important to note that outside of Europe the system is flawed as well. In the United States, museum governance is led by individual boards, each of which is reliant on funding from private sources. While these boards of trustees are free from government oversight, they are far from unbiased. Because the boards are privately funded, they often find themselves trapped within the scope of what the donors want to see included in the museum. Because they rely on private donors, the pieces boards choose to exhibit in the museums as administrators may not be considered the most fitting for a museum’s collection or most desirable in terms of public demand.
It is clear that both funding systems, both private and public, disseminate bias from their respective sources. Governmental administrations pose threats to museums as cultural institutions because they select appointees who are ideologically aligned with themselves, whereas private funders expect to see their individual preferences shown in collections. While neither system is perfect, it is vital to remember the importance of art as a free form of expression and protect it as much as possible.