free zone / NGO zone

Gdańsk: Culture is pricey


Institute of Reportage

It only goes two ways: you either generate movement that fits the people and you’re successful or you screw up, make some mistake and you die – says Lena Dula, chief of the A Kuku Sztuka Association in the article by Kamil Kaczmarski (Polish School of Reportage).

When I showed up at the “Loves of a Blonde” Film Discussion Group and said that I wanted to organize a 4-day interdisciplinary movie festival in alternative artistic spaces, like the Gdańsk Shipyard, everyone was dumbfounded. The first project I did on my own was called “Coctail Magnifique: Surrealism – Avant-garde – Švankmajer.” Aside from Švankmajer, we screened movies by the Quay brothers and some examples of French avant-garde flicks from the 1920s. We had a “feast of the cannibals” with a naked model on the table, we dressed up as different characters, movies were playing in the background. The festival consumed a quarter of the Group’s budget for that year, no event has ever done that in the Group’s history.

The covers of the festival’s program booklets I prepared with my own hands. I once drove a car filled to the roof with costumes over 150 kilometers per hour with a journalist friend only to deliver them to actors who were participating in our project.

We had to cut costs. It was then that I learned creative problem solving, we always had to barter or get stuff at minimal possible costs. Even today I’m still using the experience I gained in times of lesser financial security and smaller-scale work.


A Kuku Sztuka is a creative collective formed by artists and animators. We met in 2006 and it was already evident back then that this was going to be a wonderful union of truly passionate people. We wanted our initiatives to introduce some movement into the Tricity cultural world.

Initially, we barely had any funding, around 1500 zloty. But nevertheless, we dove headfirst into our projects. In our first year of operations, we organized two events: an open-air film festival called “Seaborne Movies” and “Blood of the Poet,” which was a retrospective of Lech Majewski’s work.

Back then there weren’t really any organizations like ours in the Tricity area, unless we’re talking about giants like the Gdańsk Foundation or the Wyspa Progress Foundation. We found our niche.

Gdynia was the first city to trust us. We proved our mettle as event organizers. We received two Sztorm statuettes, the Sztorm is a prize awarded by the Gdańsk branch of Gazeta Wyborcza, and we got noticed by the national media. At first they treated us well, but that went away pretty quickly. We constantly had to convince them of our value. It only goes two ways: you either generate movement that fits the people and you’re successful or you screw up, make some mistake and you die.


In A Kuku, we only do our own projects – I’m not interested in transplanting events from other cities into Tricity. Consistency is our strongest asset. We don’t start any project that isn’t in line with the goals of our organizations. From the outset we wanted to promote modern alternative culture, the less and the better known artists, and to create some new project every year. We’ve been succeeding on all three counts to this day. We’ve organized an even called Transvizualia – International Festival of Multimedia Forms, CudaWianki in Gdynia – which is a celebration of the summer solstice, or St. John’s Night as it’s known in Poland, featuring live shows by the likes of Morcheeba, Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra, Raz Dwa TRzy, Czesław Śpiewa, Novika, and many others. These are all annual events. We’re also busy with film projects, like the Animation Now! Festival, Cremaster on Tour, and Seaborne Movies. In the five years that we’ve been operational, we have organized or co-organized over thirty projects. That’s quite the result, don’t you think?

We’ve invited lots of people to work with us, we care for their image and they feel it. We’re very pissed off with people who organize events just for the money. Of course, running events is a business, but you also need to be emotionally attached to that, to work it with all you’ve got.

I can walk into an office, slam my fist on the table and shout: “What the f**k is going on here?” People respect that, even though you’re not supposed to let emotions get in the way of doing business.

I live for my organization and that’s the source of its success. I am emotionally involved in every event I organize. When someone evaluates it, it’s like I’m being evaluated personally. There are emotional ups and downs, there’s frustration, especially when our project is rejected.

When I say “CudaWianki,” what I mean is “I spent six months of my life on that project.”

We try to change something around us, to make our dreams come true. I know that sounds cliché, but nothing great happens without passion and commitment.

We carefully choose our artists and our program to create a desired effect. For example, we want to see what people get out of the workshops that are held in conjunction with CudaWianki. There’s no cold calculation or risk assessment. After every event, we read the comments posted around various forums on the Internet (there were posts like “Wasn’t it better to fix up the roads rather than waste money on an event like that?”) We’re constantly thinking of ways to improve our process.

We also have a strong visual identification and a good website. When we started our operation, the national media were literally afraid of our press kits, they were so professionally done. We didn’t have to spend years on building our brand.


Our success is based on having proper people in proper places. We’re all freelancers and that’s not the norm in these types of institutions. If they want to be effective, the modern-day freelancing culture operators have to be able to take risks, work on the move and in constantly changing environments. I often work from 7am until 11pm, and sometimes I happen to work from 7pm to 5am. But I’d still take that lack of constancy over a full-time job any day. Some people need the dynamics, others prefer a safe cocoon – and the latter get out of the business.


One of our most important events is called “Parking.” Its goal is to reach the average person who goes to the park to feed the ducks, and while there is confronted with art and culture. We organized concerts, yoga classes, and breakfasts in the park, once we even had an ornithologist over, who you could talk to about birds during a stroll. For a few days, the park is a space filled with installations and performances.

We can organize a big even in a way that benefits both artists and the audience.

Thanks to that, through our presence in the public space we can reach a wider group of people. Only the Transvizualia event is a little hermetic, but they’re also very educational and affordable. The ticket for the entire festival costs only 35 zlotys, equal to one visit at the movies with popcorn.

We’re not afraid that someone’s going to steal a piece of our pie. We’re working together with Kultura Miejska (City Culture), The Political Critique, and the Artists Colony. I respect what Sylwester Gałuszka and Mikołaj Jurkowski from the Colony are trying to do with education and workshops. They also put serious effort into modern art and audiovisual work.

We’re focused on interdisciplinarity, hybrid events, but there’s one caveat: they all have to be multicultural.


Culture on the national level is a costly enterprise, there’s no way to make it less so. But it’s also marginalized, because it doesn’t fit the needs of the masses. I’m not talking about some two-bit show by Doda or Beata Kozidrak. It’s about something more than entertainment. You know what is considered to be one of the most important cultural events in Gdańsk? Saint Dominic’s Fair. This type of thinking is a common mistake in our country – unless we’re talking about beer and fair booth culture.

The government should organized a better system of promoting culture and art, because it’s the cherry on top that represents our identity. You can’t have a nation without culture.

Culture is a product, and as such is subject to the merciless rules of the free market. I don’t understand the approach of some people, who claim that you can create culture and promote it for free. It takes a lot of organizational skills to run it, and the infighting is as hard as it is in the construction services market. It’s a business, where there’s planning and transactions. To stage an important event, you need to have money. You need passion, too, of course. No doubt about that.

There are some people who claim that running a non-profit is unwise, others say that they don’t understand – or worse, don’t respect – the work we’re trying to do here. If we’re not making any profit, why do it? It’s a simple question, one I’m usually unable to answer, because it leaves me dumbfounded. I have a completely different understanding of profit, I suppose. I also love hearing these questions in the banks, like: “What kind of accounting do you employ?” As you see, the NGO business is a big unknown for many, many people.

I believe in NGOs – in people taking the initiative. Unfortunately, in Poland they still are not treated seriously. They are usually considered socially-oriented organizations who want to organize a fundraiser.

Meanwhile, NGOs more often that not function more effectively and professionally than other companies. There’s no trace of hubris or vested interest in their actions. They aren’t just some after-school activity, they’re a fulltime job and one you can’t do without being passionate about it. Just look at the Era New Horizons Festival, the OFF Festival, the Malta Festival or the Gdynia Film Festival – they’re all organized by various associations and foundations.

Kamil Kaczmarski

The article (and the accompanying questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.

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TAGS: Polish School of Reportage, Institute of Reportage, Lena Dula

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