Egyptian Interlude: a lesson for Poland

The young and not only the young of Egypt have taken to the streets and overthrown a dictatorship which had failed to live up to its promises of reform and empowerment. It failed to address the problem of a high-aspiring, well-educated youth who faced only the prospect of unemployment. It failed to reform an intransigent, obstructive bureaucracy. It failed to curb the small, self serving oligarchy that surrounded the government honey pot. Remind you of anywhere? It should, if you know Poland.


Over the last week I have met an art gallery owner, a film director and a group of musicians. Their stories and laments are similar.


“I won’t get anyone to buy a picture from me unless the artist has been exhibited in one of the state controlled contemporary art galleries”, lamented the gallery owner. The state appointed gallery directors have their own group of artists whom they promote. No one else can get a look in. If the buying public knew more about art, this would not matter. But in a young society like this, buyers lack confidence. They look to the top for guidance. They look to their high priest for answers. The state sponsored high priests control the market and its fine by everyone at the top table.


Film making is in the same boat. A very small group of elderly distinguished directors, whose surnames are formed by the omega letters of the alphabet, are seen to control the reins of patronage. Without the endorsement of one of them you don’t have a chance of funding a film from the core state budget. State money then attracts other investors. Without the state money, no film.


Musicians. Well, there is almost no work outside the state institutions. The funding is controlled by the same people who have been running the state organisations for years. The ministry relies on advice from these state appointed high priests of music management. Projects sent to the ministry are assessed in the order of friends first and then the others (if there is any money left over). Otherwise the bin without being read.

People don’t care about classical music. Why should they? Most young musicians are giving up. They are desperate and no one is listening to them.


In the case of musicians Poland is in a privileged position compared to, say, Britain. The explosion of music academies after the war has meant that far too many post graduate students enter the market. Whilst there is a world dominating music industry in Britain, even that has its limits for absorbing young and aspiring musicians. However, the standard of training is, without doubt, considerably higher in Britain than in Poland, thanks to reactionary teaching methods in Poland. This means that British musicians find it far easier to adapt their skills to other ways of earning a living.

In Poland, the prospects for musicians are narrow and depressing. They will remain that way until the bosses wake up to the fact that they are public servants. They do not sit on their chairs by divine right. They do not have any right to dispense public funds without accountability to the public. However, they do have an obligation to educate and create employment. Given the relatively small number of musicians who graduate in Poland and, who after the mind cramping music schools still have an interest in music, this task should not be beyond the limits of their imagination.


Questions need to be asked and answers given. The Chopin and Beethoven Festivals employ a pitiful number of Polish musicians. Whilst the decent semi-independent Sinfonia Varsovia made a number of appearances in both festivals last season, the appointment of the French Marc Minkowski as chief conductor has raised eyebrows in international music circles. Furthermore, the ever present self-interested hand of the Pendereckis does nothing to build confidence. At this point in Poland’s development, shouldn’t international, money exporting festivals be set aside for infrastructural development?


The confirmation of Antoni Wit yet again as chief conductor of the National Philharmonic is as depressing for public and players as it was predictable. And the Opera continues to have no education programme of substance.


Time passes and the old men (and the odd woman) will die. But, as in the case of Egypt, if there are no heirs, if the opposition has been silenced, who will run the country?  Stefan Sutkowski`s heir at the Opera Kameralna is only half the man his master is. Hardly surprising. Appoint a better man and the old and still entrenched boss would be seen in a true light. Wit has been reappointed to keep others out. At the Opera, well, Waldemar Dabrowski is probably as good as you’ll get but even he has his limitations.


The problem is the public. Until the public is educated enough to understand what is happening, it will continue its bovine response to the mediocrity that this tired, unimaginative oligarchy dishes up. As it is, this conspiracy of dunces ensures that the public will not be educated for quite some time.  With no arts education in schools, with no outreach programme in any of the state institutions (uniquely so in Europe and America…see what the Royal Opera, London or Sofia National Opera manage to do for society) what chance has the public of understanding the value of the arts? What chance has the struggling gallery owner of selling a picture of an unrecognised artist, the un-friended filmmaker of making a film or the unemployed cello player of finding a job?

Isn’t it time for the people of Poland to look to Egypt for more than a cheap holiday in the sun? The writing is on the wall. The balance is waiting to be used.


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