Women in the Arts: Anda Rottenberg

‘The way I see it, the #metoo movement is as much about bringing down certain figures as it is about reconsidering how law is exercised’

For this series celebrating women in the arts, Warsaw-based curator and writer Anda Rottenberg discusses her experiences in Poland's art world and the difficulties faced by women in subordinate positions of power.

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

The year was 1969, and I was about to receive my degree in art history at the University of Warsaw. I joined Zachęta, then the Central Bureau of Art Exhibitions (now the National Gallery of Art). The woman that had led the institution since 1954 had just left the post. She was replaced by a male figurehead. The bulk of work at Zachęta was shouldered by the four caryatides, as thought of them: four women running the education department, the technical department, the production team and publications. The responsibility for the institution’s operations rested on those four. The new director did not need to bother himself too much. He sat in his office and read the newspaper.

Back in the day, curators – or ‘exhibition commissars’ as they were then called in Poland – were 90% men. Among them were titans such as Aleksander Wojciechowski, Ryszard Stanisławski, Mieczysław Porębski, Marek Rostworowski and Janusz Bogucki. They not only steered exhibition programmes within Poland but also helped determine what went outward, to biennials such as Venice. Zachęta had external curators, including some of the above, who’d come in and simply hand over an exhibition checklist. There was little chance for me to learn from them by seeing how they work, not to mention a master-student relationship. Much rather a superior and their subordinate.


What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?

I once had a conversation with my mother, and showed her a small book I was working on, I think about Wassily Kandinsky. She picked it up with two fingers, asking: ‘how long did it take you to make this little thing?’ ‘About three months’, I replied. ‘And how much were you paid?’ When she heard the sum, she said: ‘That’s what my assistant makes in a week helping paint fine china’. She tried to convince me to quit fooling around with fine arts and take up painting porcelain. Because I had the skill. I retorted: ‘This is what I like to do’. And I decided I’ll do what I can to live by what I like to do. 

Later on, I don’t think I faced many hurdles being a woman, perhaps due to the fact that, in professional situations, I chose to behave like the men do. This changed drastically the moment I began making efforts towards establishing a museum of modern art in Warsaw. It was immediately clear that nobody treated me seriously. People thought: ‘there’s this woman going around, saying things, like a broken record; just let her speak.’ This was the first time I was confronted with serious misogyny. But this attitude also included some women in power structures: the then Minister of Culture, Izabella Cywińska, was a woman. People dismissed the idea as a pipe dream. (The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw was established in 2005.)

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Anda Rottenberg. Courtesy: Celestyna Król 


What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts? Or was there a shifting point in your work?

When I was director of Zachęta, Katarzyna Kozyra made a video installation, Men’s Bathhouse, for the Polish Pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennale. (Polish representation is organized by Zachęta.) The artist, disguised as male, entered a men’s bathhouse in Budapest and filmed them with a hidden camera. Even though no one in Poland had seen the work at that point, the newspapers had to write something before it was sent to Venice. That’s when it started in the media. You should read the unbelievable things they wrote.

Then, in 2000, the young curator Adam Szymczyk, whom I had known for several years, curated a show by Piotr Uklański titled ‘The Nazis’. The work was a series of film stills of actors playing the role of Nazis. The idea behind this show was crystal-clear to me. I didn’t expect a controversy that time, but I was accused of propagating Nazi ideology. When, later, I invited Harald Szeemann to prepare an exhibition celebrating Zachęta’s 100th anniversary, he informed me that he intended to include Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (1999), featuring a life-sized effigy of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteor. After Uklański’s show I knew this would cost me the job. He didn’t believe it. After being decried as a Nazi, I was called a ‘Jew’. There was a working assumption I had made: visitors of Zachęta were equipped with a certain knowledge and expectations, and they are there because they’re curious to learn more – not to feel offended.

What has changed today?

I don’t think you can attack art in order to advance your political career in the same way as before.  In Warsaw, a large proportion of art institutions, including museums and galleries, are helmed by women (including the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, National Museum and Museum of Sculpture in Warsaw, the National Gallery of Art and the Centre for Contemporary Art). However, it goes hand in hand with something else: there are women in the cultural sector because the cultural sector pays less, on average, than other fields. Having said this, one can see bold and outgoing women, many with better skills than men. Poland also has a certain tradition of female artists and thinkers that includes Irena Krzywicka and Zofia Nałkowska. And Rosa Luxemburg. In her native city of Zamośc, in Poland, a plate commemorating her birth was recently removed as part of a sweeping action meant to counter the propagation of communism. I’m speaking of Rosa Luxemburg! The plate described her as ‘distinguished activist of the international workers’ movement’. Those people who now step up against communism do not know who she was.

What are your thoughts about #Metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

We’re dealing with two issues here. One is sexual harassment and taking advantage of women who are in subordinate positions of power. This is disgusting and should be fought on every possible level. Another issue is the kind of behaviour we’re inclined to follow as individuals of certain gender. It’s a cultural phenomenon – but it boils down to how this is done. If we assume that we are on equal footing at the outset, then potential gestures of invitation need not be interpreted as offensive. I mean, women do the same: women can also abuse their superior position towards their subordinates, so I would be careful here.

However, I hope that this current wave resonates with and translate into other kind of structure, including how a woman is treated, for instance, when she files a rape claim with the police. This is still an area dominated by misogynist behaviour. Police officers are often not held responsible for the way they proceed with the case and how it is then handled in court. This is the truly dangerous ground. Because penalizing rape and treating it seriously would have direct consequences. But as long as there are questions in workplace environments, say – ‘are you sure you didn’t want this?’ and comments about mini-skirts – there is a lot to do. The way I see it, the #metoo movement is as much about bringing down certain figures as it is about reconsidering how law is exercised and, even more importantly, the different kinds of action and behaviour that accompany the process of justice.

as told to Krzysztof Kosciuczuk

Anda Rottenberg is a curator and writer based in Warsaw, Poland. In 1986, she launched Egit, one of the first foundations for art in Poland. In 1991–1992 she was the director of the Department of Art at the Ministry of Culture and Art. She directed gallery Mazowiecka in Warsaw (1991–1993) and the George Soros Center for Contemporary Art (1992–1993). From 1993 to 2001 she was the director of the National Gallery of Art, Zachęta, in Warsaw, and curated presentations of Polish artists in Venice and São Paulo.

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