In this interview we ask the new director of National Gallery in Prague (NGP), Alicja Knast, who has started in her new position in January 2021. Alicja Knast is a museologist, cultural manager and musicologist graduated from Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, currently completing her PhD at London Metropolitan University – School of Art, Architecture and Design. Her area of specialisation is capital projects in museums, programming, policies and strategies. In 2020 Knast was laid off from the position of director of Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice because she refused to use the museum as a place for political campaigning for Law and Justice (PiS) party.
The interview led by Anežka Bartlová and Anna Remešová is mainly focused on the introduction of the new director, her previous engagements and plans for the gallery. We talked about the role of the state cultural institution in the current pandemic situation and the working conditions of the gallery’s employees as well.
This text was first published by Artalk.cz in Czech.
Anežka Bartlová and Anna Remešová: This will be a difficult year for all of us, the art scene is experiencing huge uncertainty, we can expect cuts in the sphere of culture, and so it is necessary to ask the question: What are your visions for the upcoming weeks, months and year? And what will be the main role of the NGP in the post-pandemia years in the framework of the Czech art scene as a whole?
Alicja Knast: It is not important that the NGP has a new director, what is important, though, is that as a result of the pandemic closures the institution is going to be a different place. There are many reasons for that. First I have to say that cultural institutions don’t have an easy life in the Czech Republic because they have to make money from admission fees or obtain other revenues to prepare exhibitions. Therefore we cannot really reduce the price of the tickets or the rent of the venues. I have already said a few times publicly: I am an avid advocate of dropping admission fees for permanent exhibitions but that is out of the question without the help from the government. On the other hand, society has changed and it has completely different needs than in the past. Every person is experiencing the change in their lives, rethinking, repurposing resources, reorganizing life, etc. Therefore all of us will be changed for good both on the individual and the community levels.
Secondly, it is a great opportunity to tap into issues such as the importance of art and the importance of culture after one year of using these resources while staying at home. Today I talked to the company whom we are asking to do services for us regarding the current situation and there was one woman who said: “I am well educated but I’ve never thought that I needed culture that much.” The importance of culture is something that we discovered also on the societal level and this is an excellent opportunity for the art scene. People are now more sensitive to their needs and more aware of them. Some companies are going bankrupt or are loosing a substantial part of their income, therefore dropping admission fees is even more needed. If we are to take the Constitution and the right for access to culture seriously, then we have to find a solution. We know that the price of tickets has been considered a barrier.
What are the steps that the NGP can take? For, on the one hand, we see the public’s need for culture and, on the other, we witness the part of the state budget allocated to culture as being the lowest of all the funds that go to the state sectors.
At the moment, we are negotiating with the Minister of Culture about dropping admission fees and this discussion is part of the plan to reopen the gallery after the pandemic restrictions are lifted. Whether or not this will be successful, I don’t yet know. However, we should also talk about the role of art for society’s well-being. Regarding this attention to culture, it is important to mention that we haven’t done enough as the cultural sector to show the impact of culture and its relevance for the development of society. It’s also our job to discuss the idea that we matter. And if people wish to see numbers, we will show numbers to them. In the NGP, we want to conduct research on the impact of an exhibition and the institution in general. This does not mean that it will be about attendance only. We will carry out a small survey before and after each exhibition. Then we will have the numbers. We won’t do this only to obtain numbers but also for ourselves – to get some insight as to the areas in which we can improve. Till now, there have been no tools to obtain wider feedback, just comments from the social media or reviews by professionals. The team has been doing an evaluation but now we want to include the voice of the wider public. From exhibition to exhibition, there will be this self-adjustment process.
For six years you were the director of Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice that combines historical expositions with art collections and that has also worked as a research centre. Could you elaborate on what was your main focus and priority as you look back on your directorship?
It was a different institution but what was needed there was to show that contemporary art is nothing to be afraid of. We invited artists to work in the central hall, among them, for example, Dani Karavan, Mirosław Bałka and Carole Benzaken. People gladly interacted with their installations, regardless of their lack of deep knowledge about the type of contemporary art that those artists represent. We were very successful with the installation by Dani Karavan, for instance, which was then the most popular Polish exhibition on Instagram but which at the same time was a very profound psychoanalytical project. We raised the number of visitors from 20,000 (in the former setting) to 240,000, an attendance that was also due to the high quality of the public space that was user-friendly and accessible. To make a long story short, it gave the region what it had been lacking: first, a suitable space for visual art and heritage, second, a venue where to spend free time, third, increased quality provided in various ways (infrastructure, programme, accessibility and services) that people could appreciate as catering specifically to them. We couldn’t drop the admission fees, which was the greatest drawback but such is the law in Poland. Free entry is provided only one day a week and that includes temporary exhibitions, as well.
Your professional field is museology, which means a change in the leadership of the NGP, a post that had previously been mostly held by art historians, managers or artists. Can we expect a more self-critical and self-reflective programme on the part of the institution? Do you believe that it is important for visitors to be aware of the institutional context?
Yes, it is important for visitors to see where the money goes and why it is so expensive but also why we need it as a community. All these questions are urgent, a critical view of the institution itself is part of the plan I have already talked about. It will come up every time we do the surveys. We will ask ourselves what are the results – the exhibition, the catalogue, what else? Do we matter? To whom? I don’t want to sit down and talk about the critical topics, this has to be in the DNA of the institution, not something that is imposed by its director. Being critical has to result from the need to constantly deal with the issue. We are currently conducting an internal survey about the institution and the perception of it, we have also undertaken an external study of how the institution is perceived from the outside. We will combine the two and I draw up the first version of our strategy based on the findings, then we will discuss it with the team. To write up a relevant strategy, data as well as external insights are required; intuition and personal experience are not sufficient.
This can be tough.
It will challenge many things. This is partly a way in which to approach the fact that I am not an insider, as well as a result of the situation because we don’t have funds for consultants. Then it will be much easier because the process of creating a strategy and its final outcome will be embedded in the team’s thinking and acting in the future. This will be much more efficient than simply to provide a document and ask the team members to familiarize themselves with it and act on it.
One book that is really inspirational with regard to the critical position of the cultural institution is The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon. The author is a very important leader, thinker and visionary who works at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, where she created a community-based museum of art and history. She is also widely known for her book The Participatory Museum. Relevance is something that should be our greatest concern but it has nothing to do with fulfilling expectations.
While you are doing the survey are you also considering a change inside the institution itself? Can you imagine, for example, a transformation of its structure and how different it could be?
Yes, we will have some structural changes. Simply because I can’t be a supervisor of 18 people. We have to make it more structured. Currently, we are working on this issue so I can’t share any details because I first have to discuss it with the Unions and the NGP’s Supervisory Board (Garanční rada NGP). The organizational changes should help us to advance further so that everyone has someone to be guided and mentored by. It is of key importance to receive proper feedback from everyone’s work. My colleagues from the NGP’s managerial level are very independent but they only provide and are rarely able to receive feedback. It is also a way how to make the institution more democratic because the forums for each project will become broader and will receive more decision-making power. Then the process can be more consensual.
The question of the employees and the democratic character of the institution is very much connected with that of the working conditions inside the NGP. How do you perceive the principles of labour and services outsourcing (custodians, educators, etc.) in the context of state institutions? Do you prefer to support long-term employment on the basis of contracts or do you consider it necessary to outsource services, such as security and cleaning?
There is a difference between the Czech Republic and Poland, here there is a cap on the number of employees, therefore outsourcing is the only way and I am told that I can’t change this at the moment. But we are now in the middle of a discussion about security services which are the most visible part of it. We need more employees in these positions, with whom we will have a long-standing relationship, who we will look after and who will also be more committed to the institution. Galleries and museums have a long-lasting impact on society. Working with conditions such as major outsourcing and a small number of employees is very difficult because it is quite the opposite of the type of organization we wish to be, namely one based on institutional memory. In many areas of gallery-functioning, experience at work is the only way to learn your profession, one you can’t study at the university.
Regarding the security issue, I’ve proposed to the Minister of Culture to consider a hybrid version and to secure more employees so that we could establish a long-term relationship with them and not follow the neo-liberal tendencies in art institutions. This actually even costs more and is less efficient. It is just a reminiscence of the 1990s. Today, with societies experiencing thirty years of democracy in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and elsewhere, we have to come back a little and find a middle ground between the “wild” 1990s and the current situation. We should be critical about it. In Poland, some institutions work with a hybrid model. Muzeum Śląskie has exhibition assistants, very bright and committed people, diversified in age, who include persons with disabilities. With regard to educators, it is different because some of them want to work this way. Each type of job has its own specificities and that is something that has to be taken into account.
It is more difficult here because you have a strict number of employees.
I talked about this with the NGP’s new Supervisory Board and I would really like to show that the hybrid model is more feasible. In the cultural sector, the moment we start looking after our employees is the moment they start looking after the public. For me, this is the first step to create better conditions. The relationships inside the National Gallery are the foundation for the institution’s proper functioning.
“Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”
This is the proposal of the new definition of the museum which is now being discussed within the ICOM. Could you comment on it? What do you think this change would mean for the potential transformation of the NGP?
Muzeum Śląskie was doing it even without this new definition. We were criticized for what we were trying to do. For example, we were aware that in order to create a better interpretation, we needed to be more egalitarian.
What significance, in your opinion, can the terms “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic space” have for the NGP?
This I find very important, especially when we talk about the term “polyphonic”, which I like not only as a musicologist but because personally I am aware that there is no single truth, who are we to say what is the truth and what is not? Of course there is a scientific paradigm that applies to the research aspect but that’s all. In terms of artistic polyphony of voices, in Katowice we invited galleries from the region to present their views on the principal theme, namely the exhibition on manhood, and they presented a different interpretation. The same occurred with the show on hip-hop, or the 500 years of the presence of the Lutherans in Upper Silesia. How we do it here depends on funding – perhaps we could do satellite events in different artistic circles each time to comment on the theme and be critical about our approach. Polyphony is important but it has to be done within the law, meaning no hate talk or acts against human rights.
You have most probably already been thinking about the exhibition programme of the NGP; how do you see the future of big blockbusters, for example, with respect to the problem of overtourism in Prague and the post-pandemic situation, as well?
We can see that the Mikuláš Medek exhibition could have been a blockbuster but it was not because of the pandemia. For instance, people from the UK may not have heard about Medek, but would have come if the exhibition had been well advertised. Now I think it is most necessary to pay attention to the Czech public because it is always easier to work with tourists than to convince the local community to visit the Gallery on a regular basis. Then there are Czech people wanting to attend its cultural events and we will see the potential of that from the survey. So for me now Medek or Toyen are the blockbusters we want to support; as for Picasso or Mondrian – do we really want to spend that much money on transportation and insurance? We will in the future but the themes have to be relevant for NGP, derived from its strategy.
Do you think that the NGP needs its own ecological policy to become a more sustainable institution? And what would this mean? Are there any ongoing negotiations between the National Gallery and the Ministry of Culture in this regard?
Being born in a coal-mining region with the industry’s huge impact on the communities, I am acutely aware of the importance of taking action here and now. This might not be so apparent in the city of Prague where such an awareness is already high. We will be tackling this point on the programming level and the internal organization of our institution that can always be more sustainable. The discussion on how we should build our exhibitions and how we should be reusing materials will eventually take place and will form part of the “needs vs expectations” approach.
Regarding the surveys you are now conducting, the question arises as to who should be the possible partners of the NGP? Who are your advisors?
The partners are you and people who write to me and share their opinions with me. At this stage, my main partner is the team of the NGP but I hope that once we establish a better situation it will comprise the art scene as a whole. This will happen eventually but now I don’t want to speed up the process. While I don’t consider myself an expert on everything, I do have vast experience from the museums in Poland, particularly in areas of investment, building new sites and programming after reopening. In terms of working with different areas, I don’t assume I know everything and I regard dialogue to be a vital part of the process.
Cover image: Alicja Knast. Photo: Katarína Hudačinová