Excerps from interviews with Zachęta employees conducted by Magdalena Komornicka and Jacek Świdziński in preparation for the Plac Małachowskiego 3 exhibition. Published in a form of a visual essay in the Zachęta Magazine. May, June, July, August 2018.
AR — Anda Rottenberg, Zachęta director in 1993–2001, in 1969–1973 she worked in the exhibition production department of the Central Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions
AS — Anna Stepnowska, curator, worked at Zachęta in 1971–2005
BD — Barbara Dąbrowska, years-long manager of the education department of the Central Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions, then at the Zachęta education department, currently leads meetings in the Contemporary Art and Seniors series, has worked at Zachęta since 1972
DB — Dariusz Bochenek, assembly team, has worked at Zachęta since 1991
IP — Inez Piechucka, documentation department, has worked at Zachęta since 1985
JŚ — Jacek Świdziński, in 2014–2016, worked in the Zachęta exhibition production department
MD — Maria Domurat, years-long manager of the field department of the Central Office of Artistic Exhibitions, then at the Zachęta documentation department, worked at Zachęta in 1966–2000
MK — Magdalena Komornicka, curator team, has worked at Zachęta since 2006
MP — Monika Popiołek, manager of the administration department, has worked at Zachęta since 1980
DB: I have a window opening pole in room 16, I kept it. I don’t even know who made it. There’s this metal clamp at the top. Back when the girls had their offices in the Mały Salon — the windows there are very high and they had to use this halberd. It was like that in two or three rooms, but there was only one, maybe two poles, you had to bring them when you needed one.
MP: Old windows with bars. There were centimetre-wide gaps in them; in the winter, snow would get blown inside. And nobody complained. I remember how I struggled, because as soon as I came in, they told me right away: you’re going to close the windows. That pole still remembers those times. Getting that warped window closed, that was hardcore.
MK: Basia, do you remember the Blicharski-type pole for opening windows? Your windows in the offices in the lower rooms were very high up.
BD: They had these iron frames, and you couldn’t open them with anything, only a special pole.
J: It’s still there, with Mrs Monika Popiołek. She still uses it, because her windows are high up, too. There’s another one in the bookbinding room; they can’t reach the windows there, because they have too many papers.
MP: There used to be staff and guest toilets where there is now a passage between the ticket office and the workshop room. We didn’t have any more toilets downstairs. Then there was a kitchenette there. And a small café later. The space was rebuilt several times.
DB: Do you know how much you have to walk when you’re putting on an exhibition? When Anda was in charge, I wanted her to buy us roller skates. You know, so you don’t walk, just slide along and move quickly. Anda also thought that we could buy something like that, since we had so many rooms to go around. And you knew that when Anda took off her shoes at an exhibition and put on tennis shoes, then there’d be sooo much walking! Back then, we worked fourteen to sixteen hours. First the set up, then carrying, hanging and all that rigmarole with the paintings.
DB: In 1991, we were in room 13, which was multi-functional. And the cinema room was an assembly room and the photo workshop. Later, they put the head of HR there. Next, they moved us to where the management is today. We were in the room where Hanka Wróblewska is now. Then we were in the basement, at the end of the hall, where there is the large public procurement room, but there was a whole team of us. And finally here, where we are today.
BD: When the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts was reactivated, we were where Hania Wróblewska is today. In that same room, there were stairs you went up to this windowless room, I don’t know what it was. And that’s where Paweł Susid, the secretary of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts had a desk.
IP: The girls from the editorial room told me that they’d stayed after hours and then they heard someone walk up the stairs. They ran out to look, but there was nobody there. They were so stressed out that they never worked after hours again. Remember, before the war, there was a custodian watching over Zachęta, there was no security. He opened and closed Zachęta, like a steward. In the room where we worked before the expansion, there was an old stove and a toilet, so it was probably his flat. It’s hard to say whether it was the ghost of the custodian, or the ghost of president Narutowicz. Probably the custodian, because Narutowicz didn’t take these stairs.
J: Do I have this right, that during martial law, you distributed independent press at Zachęta?
BD: Yes, the distribution went full steam. Books, leaflets. It used to be that I sat in the Mały Salon and next to me was a wardrobe to hide me. There was a sign on the wardrobe: ‘Basia is sitting behind the wardrobe’. Behind it was a rail and a recess, that’s where we kept the underground publications. But that was nothing. We had the famous oscilloscope that one of the members of the underground structures brought to us for storage. The oscilloscope was something that Radio Solidarity could have used. The authorities were searching for Radio Solidarity; nothing was as important to them as getting to the people who were producing it. And we were in contact with them. The oscilloscope was this monstrous, huge wardrobe, so where did we put it? In the education department storage.
J: As a work of art?
BD: If someone were to find it, they would realise what it was right away. And at one point, on the occasion of some military exhibition, General Jaruzelski was going to pay an unannounced surprise visit to Zachęta. The military searched the gallery using a metal detector. They threw us all out, sent us home. We were walking down Czerniakowska Street and vowing to pray the rosary every day, because we were so terrified that they would find the oscilloscope. But it turned out that the general would be in a different part of the building, so they didn’t search there. Then we dragged the oscilloscope on a blanket to the education department. We hid it in the middle of an empty cubicle case, set a heavy ceramic bowl on the case and Teresa planted flowers there. And there it stood in the Small Salon, until the end of martial law, or maybe Stasiek took it away?
AS: In our time, it was like that with the Gladiator. During Roman Cieślewicz’s exhibition, it was covered up. Just a white box and a sign: ‘Bon Jour / Good Morning’.
MK: I have a photo with Jaruzelski, because the director told me to give him a tour. He didn’t say a word. It was him and Mirosław Hermaszewski, who only said one sentence. He stood in front of a poster by Ania Jelonek and said, ‘This is what it’s like in space’.
DB: I remember the A Crack in the Space exhibition, there was red lava on the stairs and the Gladiator. Someone brought in real lava in bags. We built this structure out of plywood and covered it with the lava. It was real, I don’t know where it came from. Some red volcano I guess.
IP: The editorial offices and the documentation department were in the old part of Zachęta on the fourth floor, where the guest rooms are now. We came in to work through the main entrance and then through the room where the education department is now, and took the wooden stairs up to the offices. We often used this improvised wire lift with a metal box that we used to send documents and catalogues to people who didn’t feel like walking up to the fourth floor.
AS: Back when President Kwaśniewski would visit Zachęta, I think it was Marek Sobczyk who had the idea of putting a row of guys who did martial arts on the stairs. But the Government Protection Bureau wouldn’t agree, because these guys had horrible weapons. Nunchucks or something worse. But we almost got there.
MP: Our firefighter went mad with Leon Tarasewicz’s stairs. We were walking around the exhibition rooms, the stairs were three-quarters painted. We come out of the room and suddenly the firefighter looks at it and asks what kind of material it was. Is it approved? It wasn’t approved. And he just went ballistic. It was the only time I’d seen him that upset. He says, ‘People! This is the main evacuation route and you’re covering it with flammable material?!’ It turned out that the material was actually flame-retardant.
MP: I’m really glad that when I was manager of the administration department, I had some influence on the renovations. I am very, very happy that the building was made accessible to people with disabilities. Right now, a wheelchair user can independently, without asking for help, come into Zachęta, have a coffee, eat some cake, use the toilets, buy tickets and get to every exhibition floor and to the library. I’m really proud that the route was marked and built. And that it happened during my time.
AR: We had Krzyś Wodiczko’s screening. At the animal exhibition, there were ravens in the front, and Paweł Althamer had a barbecue in the back of Zachęta. In the spot where Hanka’s parking space is. When I told him, ‘Paweł, we’re doing an exhibition about animals’, he said, ‘Great, I’ll set up a barbecue. We’ll grill some meat’. It was very perverse.
MP: It would be nice if the square was an open space, for walking, recreation. With some sort of flowing water, I think. Water attracts people. There’s just something about it, people like to be near it.
BD: We had sculptures on the lawn all the time. It was horrible and awful, trying to get rid of them afterwards. Artists wouldn’t claim them, because what would they do with them? They would have to provide transport, set them up somewhere. But where? They simply didn’t claim them.
DB: The square sucks, to put it plainly. There was always just a flower bed there. There was no life, nothing artistic, just nothing. I don’t know whose it is. It’s just pigeon shit, not even a bench. But there’s plenty to look at. I would take a good quality photo, enlarge it and hang it there, or make some sort of photo wallpaper from the cloakroom on those bare walls, with a sign: ‘If you look up, you’ll see’. Because people just go in, grab the door and go downstairs. They almost never look up. One day, a friend and I brought in a bench, and when there was no pressure, we’d go out to relax while working. You’d look up at the sky, look at the ‘Artibus’ and then go back to work. It was a way to take a break, and it’s not there anymore, and that’s rubbish.
DB: Before the cargo lift was put in, there was only a small lift there, it’s covered up today. When you come into room 7 from the concrete rooms, it’s on the right side, if you knock on the wall, you can hear that there was a panel put in. The lift came up directly into room 7. Except that the most you could put in there was a painting, 220 by 180 centimetres at most. Janeczek was the only one who knew how to use it, and the fuses often blew. So, when 200 paintings came in, we had to do it on foot anyway, up — down, up — down, like ants. In the past, the main transit was through the stairs, paintings and crates all went up there.
MK: The changing people who were doing the projects for the expansion of Zachęta, that’s a whole story. During Czesław Bielecki’s time, we had some real horrifying moments. There was supposed to be an inner patio. And only the light from the patio would come inside.
BD: A field office without daylight! But that was nothing, he had the idea to create this viewing–walking passage on Burschego Street, from the Evangelical church to Królewska Street, disregarding the fact that that’s where the lorry ramp and the storage are. He wanted to remove the steps that go down into the cinema room how, and put up stairs on a platform, and beside it would be a cascade with water flowing along the whole length of Zachęta. Where the stream would go after that, I have no idea. There was going to be a pergola, and at the back of Zachęta — caryatids. He just kept coming up with these ideas.
DB: Would I change anything? I would make the walls magnetic, so that paintings would get hung up on their own, and moving walkways, so we wouldn’t have to walk so much. And that semi-trucks could come inside the assembly hall.
AR: They decided to do renovations during martial law. There were several competitions, Hansen participated in one of them. There was a problem with designing one of the quoins. Someone said back then, ‘Whoever solves the problem of this quoin is be the world champion.’
AS: The construction of Zachęta took two years, and the renovation and adding one quarter of it took twenty.
AR: The concrete room designs had radiators on the walls. I said, ‘No radiators. We’ll do heating like in the Matejko room, in the floor’. They told me, ‘It can’t be done’. ‘So put in a hot-air curtain’. ‘It can’t be done’. I didn’t give them much of a choice: ‘Either or’. And so they put in heated floors. You’d have this long row of radiators along two exhibition walls. I also came up with the sliding doors and a few other things in terms of exhibitions. Then we started walking around the attic. The architect says to me: ‘We’re going to have to pour concrete here, because we have to change the stairs’. I ask her, ‘But why concrete?’ ‘Because they’re wooden, and they have to be fireproof’. So I ask her again, ‘Have you heard of metal grating? Light construction?’ I could just see it, tonnes of concrete being poured into the building to make six steps . . . So, you know, not to brag, but those metal steps that didn’t require reinforcing the ceiling and pouring concrete, that’s my doing.
MP: When I came to work in 1980, the Small Salon was adapted as the office of the Poster Biennale and the education department. The other two rooms were the exhibition space. Back then, there was no new section of Zachęta in the back. But there was this addition where you had storage downstairs, cars, and the kingdom of the production department. A level higher, above the addition, so on the level of the offices, was the deputy director’s office. Before the war, there was a townhouse there, it was demolished later; after the war, the addition was put up. So ugly. Where we have the workshop room and the stairs today, on the level of the collection department office, that was the end of old Zachęta, but there was also the passage to the addition where the services department was, the office of the deputy director, the production department and HR. The expansion started in 1981 and the first decision was to take out the addition. The lower rooms were excluded from the exhibition and filled with these two-metre cubicles. On the side with the windows were the offices moved from the addition, and on the other side were storage spaces. The divider walls were set up so that every office space had a window. The cubicles were where the administration department, the production department, the service department and the deputy director had their offices. And then due to the renovation, the publication department was moved down here from where the guest rooms are now. The new parts were commissioned in stages. In the 1990s, we moved into the new office spaces. That’s when the lower exhibition spaces and the Mały Salon were commissioned.
MK: I started work at Zachęta in 1966, and I started full time work in 1967. My office was in the basement then, on the levels where the administration department is right now, only at the very end. There was this tiny room. When you went all the way up, there was a small corridor, on the left you went into the publication department (it took up two rooms) and the tiny room of the field department. And then another corridor and the library. Later, we also had offices where the lower exhibition rooms are.
BD: When the expansion started in the 1980s, the lower exhibition rooms were divided into these small cubicles, with a corridor in the middle.
AS: This was the central planning department. This, where the ticket office is today, was the deputy director’s office, where the education department is, that was the director’s office and a passage to a wooden stairwell. In the cinema room was the assembly room and the photo workshop. And here, at the end of the boxes was my tiny room in 1991. I remember, because I was working on a Jan Lebenstein exhibition then.
MK: I remember back when the production department and the assembly room was where the new offices are now. All the way downstairs.
BD: Marysia, when I came to work here, the addition was still there.
M: But there was supposedly a passage and there were offices where they are today, too.
BD: There was a passage, it was the services department and production. I remember that Mrs Lebenstein would come here.
MK: There also used to be Włodek’s bookbinding room, where we went for soup.
AS: And the photography workshop, that’s where I cut Wieśka’s hair.
M: You cut hair?
BD: The gentlemen from assembly loved to cook. When someone brought potatoes, the assembly guys would make potato pancakes right away. The entire hall would smell like food, because there was poor ventilation.
AS: When we had the cubicle offices, we had this idea that someone different should cook soup every day. One day, it was my turn and I brought the ingredients. I left the cabbage and other things on the desk of my boss from the central planning department and went somewhere. She just happened to come by with a Japanese delegation, and there’s cabbage on her desk. She was very upset with me later.
BD: Oh please, she could have just said it was an installation.
AS: There were no installations yet back then.
18.06 – 30.09.2018Plac Małachowskiego 3
How does a building work? What are the first impressions it makes? What do we see in subsequent visits? What is the impact of the building on the employees? And finally, what is it as a declaration of a company? Going beyond the questions asked in the abovementioned study, one may ask about the meaning of the senses, in experiencing, in feeling architecture, and analyse buildings from the perspective of the body.Zachęta – National Gallery of ArtZachęta
- folders / TextsZachęta. May, June, July, August 2018Magazine
- postersPlac Małachowskiego 3
- postersPlac Małachowskiego 3
- photo galleryPlac Małachowskiego 3Zuza Golińska. Left, Right, Center
- Polish Sign LanguagePlac Małachowskiego 3Information in Polish Sign Language
- video-documentationPlac Małachowskiego 3Video documentation