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Controversial Polish director forced to step down

After one year in charge art historian leaves national museum having lost vote of confidence

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Warsaw

The director of Warsaw’s National Museum, Piotr Piotrowski, resigned last month after a series of rows with his trustees and staff. The museum is in crisis and urgent steps are being taken to appoint his successor.

Jack Lohman, chairman of the trustees, issued a tough statement about the affair last month, admitting that the museum is in “desperate need of a clear vision”. Referring to Piotrowski, he also said: “You can’t build a strategy on a deficit budget.”

His statement on behalf of the trustees added: “The road of reform has to be clear, realistic within the financial constraints and focused enough to give clear direction.” Lohman, who is of Polish descent, lives in the UK and is director of the Museum of London.

In August 2009 Piotrowski took over as director of the National Museum, which holds Poland’s major art collection, as well as antiquities. Formerly head of the art history department at Poznań University, he was considered a bold choice, since the Warsaw museum remained an old-fashioned institution which had developed little since the fall of communism in 1989. Piotrowski is a radical academic, with a “critical” view of art history and the role of museums.

But problems quickly developed. His vision for the museum won little support, with others feeling that efforts should be focused more positively on modernisation, and on increasing commercial sponsorship.

Piotrowski ended up alienating his staff, both the old guard who had worked there for decades and those who wanted a modern museum. These tensions manifested themselves over his controversial exhibition, “Ars Homo Erotica”, a survey of homoeroticism in art (June-September 2010).

During the summer he also provoked anger by ignoring the advice of his chief conservator, Dorota Ignatowicz-Wozniakowska, against lending a painting, Battle of Grünwald, 1874, by Jan Matejko, on the grounds that it was too fragile to travel. Piotrowski then tried to sack her for her “public declaration of insubordination”.

Matters came to a head in September when Piotrowski submitted a 140-page strategic plan for the coming decade, which was a theoretical document containing little detail on financial matters. This angered the trustees, as well as minister of culture, Bogdan Zdrojewski, who funds the museum to the tune of E7m a year. Had Piotrowski not resigned on 7 October, he would probably have been sacked.

Looking back, Jack Lohman says the board’s mistake was to select “an art historian with insufficient managerial experience”.

The trustees were due to meet on 28 October (as we went to press), and are expected to consider an initial handful of names of possible directors.

The minister has proposed Agnieszka Morawińska, head of Warsaw’s Zacheta Gallery of modern Polish art. Because of the shortage of time an open competition is not being held. The trustees and minister will make the appointment, which should be announced by the end of December.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 218 November 2010