From the point of view of private institutions, Polish photography fares fairly well. At least since the year 2000. While many local or state institutions are thriving and offer ambitious visual arts programmes, photography lags behind in this early 21st century. A surprising occurrence, since Polish museums have been acquiring photographs since the 1960s, a period that saw the beginnings of the remarkable collection of the Wrocław National Museum, the birth of the photography department at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź and the establishment in Krakow in 1972 of the Museum for the History of Photography, a unique institution in the country. But these institutions have strangely simultaneously lost their vibrancy with regards to photography.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does culture. Civil society was and remains strong in Poland: remember the Solidarnosc movement. Cultural foundations blossomed as the Ministry of Culture soon admitted private institutions, on equal basis, into the race for public subsidies. And since it is inscribed in the status of non- governmental institutions to initiate action where pub- lic structures are experiencing difficulties, the develop- ment of foundations and associations in the field of photography only expanded.
There are three main types of organizations in the Polish photographic landscape: festival organizers, archive curators and authors’ collectives. The first initiative of the kind was the Łódź Fotofestiwal. Founded in 2001 from a student initiative and now managed by the Foundation of Visual Education, the festival promotes young photography. Under the helm of internationally renowned director Krzysztof Candrowicz, it brings emerging foreign signatures to Polish viewers and keeps up with trends and debates in the field of photography.
In the following year, Krakow also had its own festival. The Foundation for Visual Arts supported the creation and development of Photography Month, thanks to the combined efforts of Karol Hordziej, Tomasz Gutkowski and Piotr Lelek. The festival made a name for it- self from the start, and is now directed by Agnieszka Dwernicka. It features a central experimental exhibition usually conceived by a guest international curator (in the past Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin, Charlotte Cotton and Aaron Schuman) combining solo shows of classic photography and contemporary authors.
The two festivals are increasingly popular and contribute to the promotion of Polish photography abroad while allowing Polish viewers to discover the work of prominent international photographers. There are other such initiatives, for example the TIFF Festival in Wrocław organized by the Blik Foundation.
The first foundation aimed at the preservation and mostly the dissemination of Polish photographic heritage was the Archaeology of Photography Foundation. It was created in 2008 through the initiative of Karolina Puchała-Rojek, among others, and is managed by her- self and Marta Szymanska.
It made a place for itself in the cultural landscape through its exhibitions and publications, including strong historical work by Zofia Chomętowska, Zbigniew Dłubak and Wojciech Zamecznik, whose archives are held at the foundation, as well as projects linking historical photography to contemporary art. The project ‘Living Archives’ is an ongoing collaboration with young authors such as Karolina Breguła, Aneta Grzeszykowska and Krzysztof Pijarski. Within a few years, the Foundation has become an institution of reference for the dissemination of photographic archives, whether vernacular or fine art, as well as for preventive conservation.
The Arton Foundation, created by Marika Kuźmicz, functions similarly. It focuses on the archives of artists from the neoavantgarde of the 1960s to 1980s, most often still alive, and includes well-known authors such as Józef Robakowski and Wojciech Bruszewski, who initiated the Workshop for Filmic Form. The Foundation’s main merit is bringing to the fore somewhat for- gotten yet important contemporary artists from the vast neoavantgarde movement in Poland. Thanks to its exhibitions, publications, digitalization work and films, the Arton Foundation has significantly changed our state of knowledge regarding this artistic period and its role in photography.
The foundation model based on a single author, prevalent in the United States and common in Europe, is less popular in Poland. This can be explained by the weak- ness of private philanthropy. The first such initiativewas the Zofia Rydet Foundation, created by the photographer’s heirs. Her extensive archives are being gradually processed, and Rydet’s work is promoted in cooperation with public institutions.
A recent initiative is the Jerzy Lewczyński Institute created by Rafał Lewandowski. The project features the publication of the original notes of this great personality of Polish photography and projects with contemporary artists inspired by the work of Lewczyński. Another is the Foundation for Film and Photography in Katowice, whose purpose is to organize photographic events and to manage photographic and cinematographic archives.
In a context of the pluralist organization of culture after the year 2000, the time has come for authors’ initiatives. One of the most dynamic is the collective Sputnik. The group of Polish photographers, and a few others from Central Europe, wanted to ensure the possibility of long-term projects with total independence from the press. The structure allows them to fi- nance common or individual projects and the publish- ing of personal works, some of which have received international awards, including 7 Rooms and The Winners by Rafał Milach, Karczeby by Adam Pańczuk and the collective project Distant Place. Another similar organization, the Imago Mundi Foundation, was created by Łukasz Trzciński and Andrzej Kramarz. It finances individual photographic works and collective or thematic projects.
Private institutions cannot, however, replace the public institutions that they have come to complement. Which is why it is hoped that under the helm of recently appointed Marek Swica, the Museum for the History of Photography in Krakow will again thrive, while changes are also expected from the Warsaw National Museum and other major photographic funds.