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//Let’s Talk Education, Let’s Talk Art// – Elżbieta Sala, MOCAK education department manager, talks with Agata Tecl, a Kronika educator from Bytom

Let’s Talk Education, Let’s Talk Art – Elżbieta Sala, MOCAK education department manager, talks with Agata Tecl, a Kronika educator from Bytom

ELŻBIETA SALA: The book Dzieci smutne, dzieci wesołe (Sad Children, Merry Children), which discusses educational projects run at Kronika in Bytom, claims that poverty is connected with a loss of dignity.

AGATA TECL: Poverty in Bytom has become a hereditary problem. This inheritance comes not only with a certain economic status but also with access to culture. In everyday life, it looks like this: we live in the same environment and we do the same things as our parents. We have no aspirations other than those that can be born in this familiar circle. The lack of dignity and low self-esteem make it impossible to dream. Most of the children living in Bytom cannot afford tickets to the opera or the cinema. They cannot go shopping at the mall situated in the main market square in the city...

...the one that is called Agora.

Children visit it to go for a walk, not to do shopping.

For many, Bytom is a ‘vanishing city’. Its unemployment rate is among the highest in Poland. As an educator, you present art to people who sometimes actually need a crisis intervention.

We are aware of the kind of social environment we have to deal with. Only long-term programmes can actually achieve anything in places like Bytom. We are in constant touch with our audience. We organise exhibitions together with children and artist and run workshops to discuss important issues, so we need to be prepared that the participants will sometimes tell us difficult things about their daily life.

At a workshop organised by MOCAK and one of our co-operating NGOs, we invited children to design a friendly city. One of the girls built a model of a house of her dreams and surrounded it with a very high wall. What she really needed was safety. In your book, you present Kronika as an alternative place that allows children from various backgrounds to meet in spite of the social divisions created by their parents’ differing income. To what extent should an art institution help solve social problems?

Art institutions cannot be treated as a substitute for social assistance. I don’t, however, see any reason as to why various organisations could not co-operate with each other, as each and every one of them concentrates on a different area. Our educational strategy is implemented in co-operation with schools, children shelters, for several years we also conducted classes in the refugee centre in Bytom. Culture fosters civil society, enables development, and the potential we thus gain may be used in various areas of life.

Can valuable educational projects be organised without financial resources? And what happens when we start lacking enthusiasm?

In Poland, many valuable educational projects are organised without any budget or with little money. We have the enthusiasm, someone knows someone else, someone can arrange something, borrow from somewhere, and when something goes wrong, you call your friends. But you can only do this for so long. You get tired. The projects start growing, your audience start having their demands and expectations and you want something more. When people live in poverty – and by that I also mean intellectual poverty, not only the financial aspect – they don’t feel the need to participate in culture. But once they start feeling it, they want to go further, and then, because of lack of funds, they reach a wall. The value that was created requires more work, and people no longer have the money or energy. Enthusiasm-based efforts are a privilege of the young or those that have some additional source of financial support. People working in culture and state institutions, not to mention NGOs, earn very little money. Cultural institutions have very small budgets as such, which leads to the question of what to do with ‘this amount of money’ or rather with a lack thereof.

One of the ways in which they cope with that is applying for grants.

Jan Sowa coined a good term for it: grant art. Acquiring funds requires additional skills and a good deal of cunning. Even organising own contribution is a huge challenge. Another thing is writing the grant application. We cannot propose experimental, innovative, high-risk, value-generating projects, because usually no one wants to support such initiatives. We are therefore confronted with a choice of whether to run a project for which we will get money or organise a seemingly very risky event. The trap of the Polish grant system also consists in the fact that it is much easier to receive support for a new project than for the continuation of one that is already up and running.

Although grants are usually awarded to new ideas, the projects are quite often unoriginal, non-risky and lack creativity. They are also short-term.

Our current grant system fails to promote long-term thinking. Grants are allocated for a given financial year, so you have to write the application at the end of the year and you get the money in March or April. Until then, you just need to do your best. It is impossible to run any valuable, long-term educational projects in such conditions. The way that NGOs are financed is also a crucial issue. Very often, their projects are financed from programmes that set top-down priorities. Grants then depend on whether you are able to meet a certain vision that the given programme has adopted. In this way, non-governmental organisations lose their critical position and start reproducing an ideology.

Do you think that the government should allocate some permanent, bigger fund to education?

We definitely need more money for education and culture. At least the famous one percent of the state budget. But first of all the money that we already have should be reasonably distributed and accounted for.

Why does Poland lack money for education?

Because there are other priorities. Poland is not a rich country and every sector has a budget hole. At the same time, the existing funds that could be directed towards appropriate initiatives are not well distributed. The very same budget supports big, vulgar events and less ‘spectacular’ projects that are quite often much more valuable. Money is allocated to big, one-off city events, to the enormous administration and bureaucracy, and thus there is always a shortage of funds for experimental, long-term projects.

Working with people brings a lot of satisfaction. Various organisations implement valuable projects, although educators and artists receive very little or no remuneration. This covers up the problem of the inadequate salaries in the culture sector.

It is true that very often the people behind some of the most valuable projects receive a minimum remuneration or none whatsoever. This is just obscene. They should be rewarded for the projects they run, for their work, their effort and the value they generate. I don’t want us to be regarded as employees of institutions that only invite and give nothing in return. Artists often lack any social assistance, they have no right to benefits such as access to health care services. And these people create new value.

Can we actually provide assistance to our audience if we cannot do the same for artists and other people working in culture? How do we care for ourselves and the people who work on our projects?

Does anyone even care for culture? In our times, it has been degraded in all of its aspects. From the earliest age, children are taught to fill in tests, not to think creatively. Cultural institutions are subject to budget cuts and there is no appropriate system of evaluating their projects. Usually the assessment is based on statistics or the simple economics of costs and revenues. The complicated reality in which we operate is not taken into consideration.

There is no reasonable way of verifying how organisations spend their funds.

One of the best programmes that I received a grant from (Orange Foundation, Project: Journey) did its evaluation by coming to Bytom and participating in our event. It was the only organisation that actually believed that a risky project may succeed and accepted our report even though we were unable to close it as planned. The idea was to get together with children and construct a boat. The artists we co-operated with were supposed to sail on it up to the sea, while the children were to hop on a train and welcome the boat on its arrival to Gdańsk. The project attracted a wonderful group of children, parents, teachers and organisers. However, we couldn’t keep up with the schedule and our co-operation with artists started going downhill. Suddenly it turned out that we only talked about how we would settle our grant. We were running out of money. We collected materials and items from supermarkets, the fund ran dry, the weather was awful. We could not sail. Fortunately the people from the Foundation cheered us on and forgave us for the fact that the boat eventually did not leave Bytom. On the other hand, for a while these problems caused a rift between us and the artists.

Have you been able to overcome this rift?

Yes. The thing was that at that time we had a conflict of interest. Our project was a huge success in terms of our educational strategy. For the artists, however, it just failed. Actually we still hope that the boat will sail one day.

Educational projects come with substantial financial risk. It is an emotionally difficult situation for all that work on them. Is there any sort of cushioning?

What we need is a patron that cheers people on in a project and provides financial aid in difficult situations, for instance when organisers need some additional resources to finalise the event. We need someone to count on.

Do you try to do something for yourself when you work for others?

I always try to be a thoughtful person and I like feeling that my work makes a difference. There was however a moment when I was absolutely tired – it was a year when all our projects received grants...

Did you get any additional remuneration for these projects?

No. I was responsible for several projects with a budget of a little more than ten thousand zlotys. At the final concert I was very happy that everything turned out well, but at the same time I felt exhausted. When you work intensively for several years with a lot of emotional commitment, you need to do something else, something for yourself.

How long have you worked as an educator?

I started working in Kronika in 2007.

Was it worth it?

Definitely.

 

Elżbieta Sala (b. 1984) – graduate of political sciences at the University of Rzeszow and philosophy at the Jagiellonian University, where she is currently a PhD student. Manages MOCAK’s education department.

Agata Tecl (b. 1981) – graduate of cultural studies and Polish philology at the Silesian University. Since 2007, an educator at the Kronika Centre for Contemporary Culture and curator of contemporary art exhibitions for younger viewers, created by artists and children together. Together with Martyna Tecl-Reibel, who is responsible for pedagogy, she runs the educational project Art Youth Club (pl. Świetlica Sztuki).