Populist Leaders in Central and Eastern Europe Have a New Target in Their Fight Against Liberalism: Art Museum Directors

8 February 2021

Zdenka Badovinac_photo_Andjelic.jpeg
Zdenka Badovinac. Photo by Igor Andjelić

Written by Dorian Batycka and published originally by artnet, February 8, 2021.

On a cold morning in late December last year, Zdenka Badovinac walked out of the office she had occupied for 27 years for the final time. The departure of Badovinac, who had been curator and director of the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana since 1993, left colleagues in the European cultural sector shocked, but not surprised.

During her tenure, Badovinac had helped bring the Slovenian art scene to prominence within international art circles. Media outlets and other cultural bodies quickly interpreted the Slovenian ministry of culture’s decision not to renew her contract as politically motivated. Since coming to power in March 2020, Slovenia’s ruling right-wing SDS party, led by populist prime minister Janez Janša, has been accused of eroding media and artistic freedoms, while swapping out cultural leaders at an alarming rate.

Badovinac’s dismissal swiftly prompted outcry from professional body CIMAM (the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art). In a statement issued at the end of last month, the group called the situation an example of a “subtle pandemic that has infected the museum professional and ethical criteria in the region.” It likened the current shift in the small European nation to the so-called “illiberal political model” seen in the right-wing turns of Hungary and Poland. This change, it said, is “deeply affecting cultural communities.”

Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Janša. Photo by Francisco Seco/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Pushing Back on the Left

Badovinac is not the first museum head to be replaced in Slovenia since Janša came into power. Over the past year, the government has installed new directors at the National Museum, the Museum of Contemporary History, and the Museum for Architecture and Design. It also allegedly targeted a number of cultural NGOs housed in former military barracks called Metelkova 6, slapping them with an eviction notice last year. The cultural organizations responded with a protest letter, calling their removal an attack “on civil society, independent culture, and democracy.”

The government’s attempt to control its national narrative extends beyond its borders, too. At the end of January, Slovenia’s ambassador to Rome, Tomaž Kunstelj, called out an upcoming exhibition at Rome’s MAXXI Museum unpacking the legacy of ex-Yugoslavia, the socialist non-aligned state founded by Josip Broz Tito to which Slovenia belonged until it gained independence in 1991.

Entitled “Bigger than Myself. Voices of Heroes from Ex-Yugoslavia,” the show is co-organized by none other than Badovinac and funded entirely by MAXXI. The exhibition, opening March 30, brings together more than 50 contemporary artists from across the Balkans and Mediterranean.

Graffiti and shoes hanging from wires, Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural and Social Center, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Europe. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

In an email from the Slovenian ambassador to the foreign ministry that was leaked to the Slovenian magazine Mladina, Kunstelj asks for guidance on how to respond to the exhibition. He was instructed to “not promote or organize exhibitions from Slovenia on the topic of ex-Yugoslavia, in particular during [Slovenia’s] 30th anniversary period.” (After the story surfaced in the press, Slovenian authorities emphasized that the ambassador did not demand for the exhibition to be banned, but “only expressed his opinion.”)

For its part, the Slovenian government maintains that it is well within its rights to intervene with its own cultural institutions as it sees fit. “The system [of appointing museum heads] is inherently political, yet the left-wing governments never took issues with it in the past,” a spokesperson from the cultural ministry said in a statement to Artnet News. He wondered “if CIMAM also wrote to [former French president] François Hollande years ago when he personally dismissed a director of Louvre Museum and picked a new one.”

In Slovenia, the law previously required candidates for large public tenures to be selected by a council of experts through a transparent open call. Now, however, the ministry of culture headed by Vasko Simoniti, a close ally to Janša, has all but scrapped this three-decades-old approach. The ministry submits candidates to public directorships based solely on the minister’s recommendation, no longer asking the council of experts to assemble a short list. 

The government maintains that CIMAM’s criticism is simply an expression of radical leftism. “Accusations of political interference only surface once a right-wing government is in power and never during a quarter of a century when left-wing governments have governed,” the ministry responded in a letter to CIMAM, adding that “claiming that the decision to name a new director was done arbitrarily and inexplicably is an outrage coming from an esteemed organization like yours.” The government went on to state that CIMAM “makes a mockery not only out of our government, but also out of our country as a whole.” 

In an email to Artnet News, the EU Commission said that “it regards the safeguarding and management of all forms of cultural heritage, including the museums and cultural institutions of the European Union, with utmost importance,” but that ultimately the management and human resources ought to be left to individual member states.

Wall mosaic and patio at Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural Center squat at former Yugoslav National Army military barracks in Ljubljana Slovenia. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A Turn Towards Illiberalism in Europe

Curator Badovinac notes that the changes in the cultural sector are part of a larger shift in Europe. “The question that we are grappling with today is a question of society, about how society is being defined and by whom,” she said.

Last month, an article in the New York Times noted that nations including Hungary, Poland, and now Slovenia are assembling and executing a “playbook” to shift cultural institutions to the right. Often, the rhetoric around this has blended fears of anti-communism with populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant, and, in some cases, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

In the process, political memory has become a flashpoint in Europe’s so-called culture war. Malgorzata Ludwisiak, former director of the CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw and a member of the CIMAM committee that penned the letter to Slovenia, was pushed out of CCA at the end of 2019 in a manner similar to Badovinac. Ludwisiak told Artnet News that the right wing’s push into the cultural field has a “special shade” in central and Eastern Europe due to the old blueprints from Soviet regimes that remain in living memory and the emotions they can conjure up.

Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. ©Adrian Grycuk via Wikimedia Commons.

At a virtual event called “Europe Uncensored” last July, this new class of ultra-nationalist leadership took the stage. Among those in attendance were the Slovenian prime minister; Hungary’s right-wing leader Viktor Orbán; and Serbian leader Aleksandar Vučić. Janša identified “cultural Marxism” as the “main threat” to the European Union moving forward, describing in tandem a “battle for Western civilization.” He signaled to his colleagues that Europe needed tactical responses to handle what they regard as a threat to European identity. 

In Poland in recent years, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has also sought greater control over prominent institutional purses, allocating funding for nationalistic war and commemorative museums while eliminating funding for projects dedicated to women and the LGBTQ+ community. The Polish government has gone so far as to classify some cities as so-called “LGBTQ-free zones,” which just this month caused one region to lose €1.7 million in cultural funds earmarked from Norway-based grants.

Hungary’s tightening grip on culture has, in some ways, been the strongest of all. According to Barnabás Bencsik, the former director of Budapest’s Ludwig Museum, the aim of Orban’s allies is to eliminate the power of the cultural sphere, “first by crippling the public financial resources and ideologically controlling the program policy of institutions, second by existentially intimidating and depriving professionals in the museum field from public servant status.”

Ludwisiak, from Warsaw, fears that these newly selected cultural leaders could “de-professionalize” institutions, causing them to “disappear from the map.” In the meantime, she said, CIMAM other international organizations are working on a special project to find new ways to protect museums from what she calls “irresponsible” politicians.

“We hope that if they learn that by enforcing ‘their’ museum directors, they break from international standards, it might change some of their decisions,” she told Artnet News. “Even if it does so in a small percentage, it’s worth fighting for.”