Making the Most of Our Potential

6 May 2021

We talk to Robert Piaskowski about local and international significance of Kraków’s culture.

Grzegorz Słącz: Has Kraków got a guaranteed position as a global cultural centre?
Robert Piaskowski:
I have no doubt at all that many see it as a city which has made the most of having been named European Capital of Culture 2000. When I take part in various international meetings, whenever I talk about Kraków at formal and informal forums, whenever I present the solutions we have developed during the pandemic alongside our earlier achievements, I am met with really positive reactions and admiration. A city which dedicates over 4% of its annual budget to culture is a rarity on a global scale. But it’s not just about funds – it’s about having a vision, being consistent and investing long-term in audiences and the cultural capital of local residents. The sheer number and diversity of events show how utterly fascinating Kraków’s culture is. We are creating new centres for the cultural and creative sectors, frequently by repurposing derelict and abandoned sites, thus bringing them back to the city and local communities.

Which cities would you compare Kraków to in terms of culture?
Singapore, Edinburgh, Adelaide, Barcelona, Aix-en-Provence, Ghent, Bergen and Rotterdam are just the first that spring to mind. We work alongside them through international networks and we share views about culture and its role and significance for cities. We are brought together by shared cultural heritage and literary and festival networks; we are a city sensitive to human rights and the place of art and culture in our everyday lives. We are about local and global thinking about myriad phenomena and about diversity.
Kraków is a member of the European Festival Cities Network and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), and the Mayor of the City of Kraków is the President of the Board of Directors of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, all of which goes to show that Kraków is widely seen as a leader and model.

What does culture mean in today’s Kraków?
It’s certainly an important element of how we see ourselves; Cracovians are active participants in culture. The cultural sector is also an important industry in the city and a key element of its brand. Kraków’s international success is directly linked to its strong image as a city of culture and universities, which cultivates the image of Kraków as a great historic city. This view could potentially be problematic for Kraków by turning it into a hermetic museum, so it is essential that we also maintain a healthy clash between the generations, support cultural niches and seek and showcase the city’s deepest layers of identity. Culture must allow conflict to arise to nourish growth and fresh interpretations. Cities as complex as Kraków need their bohemian circles. Although Kraków is frequently seen as conservative and traditionalist, conforming to official and even institutional boundaries, it makes the need to undermine staid customs all the more important. In this sense, culture drives the growth and development of the city, as shown through some of the latest creative developments: the former Wesoła district and how the city sees its future, the concept of the Kraków Fortress being converted into a contemporary cultural centre, the emerging “Planet Lem” Literature and Language Centre and Łaźnia Nowa Theatre’s Utopia House, the social space being carved out by the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre…

Kraków Culture aims to bring together the most important events in the city and to make sense of elements such as heritage, multiculturalism, music, fine arts, crafts, traditions, cuisine…
I think the idea of Kraków Culture has always existed in our city. Kraków is a part of a major European circuit of thought, culture and artists, and the most important artistic and intellectual trends of the eras have always been represented here. Kraków has an almost magical power of attracting talent from all spheres, from the arts and sciences to business and trade. Growing numbers of people from all over the globe come and go, and many decide to make it their home.
Kraków Culture is also a return to the idea of the European Month of Culture and the Kraków 2000 programme which expressed our aspirations to join the echelons of Europe’s cultural centres. Today, three decades later, we can be proud to say that we are in the same league as many leading European cities. I always use this is as an opportunity to quote Greg Clark’s theory of city development, according to which cities with aspirations to join the global league first see a boom in events and investment in marketing and promotion. It is only during the following stages that they start forming long-term plans, searching for a clear identity and creating specialised agencies dedicated to sustainable development to eventually become leaders in their chosen field.
Kraków Culture is an important element of this mature stage when it is time to come together. It is also a signal of sustainable management of quality – something which cannot be overlooked. Kraków Culture is the result of an evolution in how we think, shifting from the world of information to sustainable management of reputation and developing quality; a world in which the local becomes an important resource because it is positioned on a global scale.

Does that mean that by coming together to present a selection of the most important cultural events and phenomena in Kraków we are bolstering the city’s prestige?
It does, but we are also opening up to new audiences. Kraków has no insecurities and it can talk about all cultural spheres at the highest level. However, Charles Landry once said that if Kraków has one problem, it is its inability to make the most of its existing, recognised potential. This is why Kraków Culture doesn’t make a distinction between high and low culture; it serves as a guide and portal to this potential. It explores the vast resources to find specific elements to sample and explore.
This is all the more remarkable since we are talking about guests and events acclaimed by artists and critics worldwide. All performers of early music accept their invitation to the Misteria Paschalia Festival; all film music composers dream of their work being performed at the FMF; all electronic artists want to perform at Unsound; all European authors would be delighted to participate in the Conrad Festival… All these artists are responsible for creating the atmosphere of these events, and in doing so they become ambassadors of Kraków.

And they can be certain that they will find engaged, enthusiastic audiences.
The level to which Cracovians are involved in the city’s cultural life is unprecedented on the national scale. The average local resident attends two to three festivals every year, visits the theatre once a year and the cinema three times, and reads far more than the Polish average. This level of participation means that, as locals, we can easily find our way among this cornucopia of events. The problem is that this wealth of culture is less accessible to recent arrivals from Poland and abroad, never mind tourists. For example, between 25 and 60% of people attending major festivals in Edinburgh and Adelaide come from abroad. In contrast, for many of our international events the figure is just 2%, and this is something we really need to catch up on. Prior to the pandemic, Kraków regularly welcomed around fourteen and a half million visitors every year; however, if major events are only attended by up to a few tens of thousands of guests from abroad, we are nowhere near finding a solution. Kraków Culture aims to help all visitors, from home and abroad, find their way around the city and all its events.

What is your role as the plenipotentiary of the Mayor of the City of Kraków responsible for culture?
It’s essential that I note the links between culture, heritage, tourism and promotion. My role is to cultivate everything we have achieved in recent years – a process which requires a constant search for balance. I dream of a system of perfect collaboration; a space in which cultural circles don’t see one another as competition. Projects developed during the pandemic which frequently reach for the virtual world, such as the VOD platform PLAY KRAKÓW, show that our potential audiences are even larger than we realised. Paradoxically, the pandemic brought the power of Kraków as a brand to the fore, and confirmed its status as a city which can be successful with the most demanding, cosmopolitan audiences. But all this is under one condition: that we work together. The success of Kraków’s culture is a collective success.
The ongoing crisis faced by the tourist industry and the desire to see the back of the recession means that cities are more likely to compete in terms of price and availability of products and services, attractions of varying quality and any subsidies. Although until recently Kraków has frequently been perceived through the prism of a few heavily promoted tourist products, it has everything it needs to become a leader among cities where culture will make it stand out from others and one of its greatest driving forces.
We continue to find new stimuli in Kraków’s seemingly bottomless resources and niches. We are marking the Year of Stanisław Lem, and we can use motifs from his writings to write a story of a modern city looking to the future. And late, great Cracovians such as Wyspiański, Penderecki and Miłosz would certainly have been enthusiastic participants in such a creative, interdisciplinary vision. All these stories are waiting to be written. It was for good reason that these giants of culture chose Kraków as their home. The city’s unique atmosphere and magnetism are rooted in tolerance, openness and a high “Bohemian index”, as proposed by Richard Florida.

And of course the locals themselves…
Cracovians are highly engaged in their cultural heritage, from environmental to ideological issues to protecting small businesses and discussing all spheres of their lives. It goes to show that the city’s inhabitants and their visions, dreams and creativity are its greatest resource and driving force. Kraków Culture is a set of tools helping others navigate around this fascinating world shaped by culture, and to find links with other spheres. I believe that culture will be an important element of Kraków’s policies of regeneration after the pandemic.

Robert Piaskowski – the Representative of the Mayor of the City of Kraków for Culture and founder of Kraków Culture

The text published in the 1/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.



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