“SURVIVING IN NYC AS A CREATIVE
WITHOUT EUROPEAN SAFETY NET IS NOT EASY”
In this series of interviews, we ask art professionals about their jobs and career after graduation. No matter where you live, to find a job after a humanities degree is not an easy thing. We try to find out what the term “perfect job” means to the people we talk to. This time we speak to Bartek Remisko – an independent cultural worker based in New York whose interests lie in Visual Arts, Multiculturalism, Ecology & Sustainability and Polish-Jewish relations. Remisko (co-) organized and (co-) curated several solo and group exhibitions, projects, and events in Europe and in the U.S. where he resides now. Currently, he is Artistic Director of Kosciuszko Projects, a new initiative presenting prominent Polish artists to audiences in New York City. He is also a consultant with Residency Unlimited, an art residency program in the city for American and International artists and curators and co-runs Beach64retreat, an independent non-profit grass-root and free of charge residency project for creatives on NYC seaside. He also recently cooperated with: The Armory Show, Frieze New York, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs among others.
Bartek Remisko has been working successfully as an independent cultural worker for the past five years, after leaving his last full-time position as a Head of the Polish Cultural Institute New York where he realized and oversaw several Polish contemporary arts and culture related projects with major American cultural institutions. Among his tips are: have always a plan B. Have an external support for both resources and emotions. Be flexible and a creative problem solver. Be curious and be ready to learn. Believe in yourself and have some chutzpah. Do not forget about yourself and your needs when working for and with others.
Photo: Weronika Kwiatkowska
Position: Independent Cultural Worker
Sylwia Krasoń: Could you describe your position, duties and responsibilities?
Bartek Remisko: Having been an independent cultural worker for the past five years and living in New York City makes me a Jack of All Trades, like most people working in the cultural industries in the city. I am a consultant at Residency Unlimited in Brooklyn, where I was previously a Board Member and now I provide some strategic advice for developing new partnerships and also co-organize public events with artists and curators like for instance on Polish Exhibition Design with Aleksandra Jach and Krzysztof Skoczylas, Meditation with Guadalupe Garcia, Monuments with Daniel Malone and Stanislaw Welbel, Uncertainty and Evasion with Kenneth Pietrobono, or Queer art scene in Vietnam with Thanh Quoc Nguyen. I am Artistic Director at Kosciuszko Projects in Manhattan, where I organize exhibitions of masters of Polish art. Finally I am co-director at Beach64retreat in Queens located on the NYC, currently in hiatus due to Covid-19, where I am responsible for all aspects of running the place offering free of charge so much needed space to rest and think for American and International creators, be it established like artists Martha Wilson and Jaroslaw Kozakiewicz or curators like Hitomi Iwasaki, Rachel Gugelberger, and Sara Reisman, or not quite yet established like artists Amy Khoshbin, Zorka Wollny, Monika Mamzeta, Justyna Gorowska, and Jessica Segall or curators like Daniel Bird, Andrew Ingall and Rachael Rakes. Every year I work for Frieze New York as well as The Armory Show in their VIP Department to make some additional money out of these huge commercial contemporary art world operations that I am so critical of otherwise (laughter). I am also a member of different juries, for the past three years for The Rubin Foundation for their Art and Social Justice grant program, and for the Queens Council on the Arts grant program earlier. I advise, write, edit, and do also some ghostwriting. I also often happen to be an art handler, publicist, curator, artists’ assistant, fundraiser, producer, you name it. For now, as you can see I am pretty much “independent” everything (laughter). Until recently I co-ran Green Point Projects, where we presented works by Polish artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jozef Czapski or Stanislaw Fijalkowski in the city. In my career of an independent cultural worker here I also had assignments that had not much to do with the arts and culture sector as an interpreter, translator, or even in the hospitality industry. Making money in NYC is a real game for all of us working in the nonprofit sector here. Saying that neo-liberal economy with markets defining everything is just a major challenge for cultural sector would be a big understatement…
SK: What were your beginnings like?
BR: In the arts? Independent, grass root and low key, which in hindsight was the best way to approach arts and culture without the bias the commercial art world has. The experience I had in Warsaw, Paris and Brussels, when I produced cultural projects and organized events with relatively little means was formative for me. I learnt a lot by doing, I observed others and learnt from them. My background is in business, and I realized quite early on that I am not interested in the commercial aspect of art, as I have quite clear views on the arts industry from an insider’s look. Instead I wanted to work with artists, curators, and other actors in this domain either to collaborate with them or support them.
SK: What pushed you to become a cultural worker?
BR: Personal interests mostly. I come from Lower Silesia in Poland, where different cultures and histories met after WW2. I am also bicultural, influenced by French culture from an early age, which opened me to ideas underrepresented in Polish public discourse when I was growing up. Polish romantic and martyrologic perspectives in my case got mixed up with French structure and rationality. I believe that this cartesian thought, and above all critical thinking were crucial for me in shaping the ways I analyze the reality around me, especially now when I live in the USA, where everything is so great, fantastic, fabulous and awesome (laughter).
I have a lot of interest in multiculturalism and ethnic issues. Having lived in Paris and in Brussels for a couple of years greatly exposed me to, among many other things, to Africa and African cultures. Now NYC is exposing me every day to Latin America with its diverse cultures, which I could not be more grateful for. I feel that after 10 years in NYC I am becoming a bit American now in the way I think or act, meaning I value more and more the American pragmatism, making things clear, therefore simpler and more accessible. What is still bothering me here though is this political correctness that often is simply too much for a European, extreme individualism, and hypocrisy, often accompanied with this bold white American smile (laughter). Ultimately you must just get used to these I believe…
SK: How long have you been preparing for this job?
BR: I had quite a varied professional experience before: I was an interpreter, translator, foreign languages teacher in Warsaw, later when I left Poland to Paris, I worked among others in Pompidou Center in education and services for the public. After this I left for Brussels where I worked both for the European Commission and European Parliament in education and culture, then I came back to Warsaw to work for a couple of years for Orange Poland in Corporate Social Responsibility where I had a chance to introduce Diversity & Inclusion in the company as well as to work on cultural programs with Orange Foundation. Working for one of the biggest companies in the country, part of global Orange telecom giant, gave me a chance to be a part of an important change happening in Poland back then as for various CSR related issues like among many others recycling or work-life balance. I am particularly proud of introducing in Poland together with Responsible Business Forum The Diversity Charter signed now by dozens, and counting, Polish corporations, local authorities, and institutions both public and private, which is so important right now when Women’s and LGBTQAI+ rights are questioned by some in the country. After this I left for New York as a Polish diplomat and Vice-Consul to work at The Polish Cultural Institute New York because of my expertise in Visual Arts and Polish-Jewish relations, the institution that I ended up running. Besides my position in Orange Poland, it was one of the most rewarding experiences in my professional life because of the variety of projects I ran and oversaw and all partnerships with various cultural actors in the city and beyond I could be part of. Once my contract with the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs ended, I decided to stay in the city, and I do not regret it, even if it is noteasy at first.
I say this because I feel there are so many myths about NYC in Europe, mostly because of all sorts of cultural professionals coming here from Europe on quite comfortable grants and scholarships from their home countries, or developing projects in the city with funding they bring with them from European funders. USA, and NYC in particular, are really business-savvy (laughter). External money is always welcome here and the “American dream”, a total myth as we all perfectly know, surprisingly still works just fine (laughter). It is great to have dreams but taking reality into account is equally important, so we do not get disappointed. Miracles can always happen in NYC for sure, but most culture professionals here struggle to survive every day.
Surviving in this city as a creative without this European safety net is not easy, especially if you want to operate outside the commercial circulation of art, but it is possible. Those who work in the non-profit world in NYC so that they can fulfill their creative dreams either often have some additional support from their partner/spouse/ or family, especially in case of “trust fund kids” as they are commonly called here, or they simply work two or even three jobs to make ends meet and still often have to live with roommates in their 40s.. This is quite a grim NYC reality check but living here is fascinating (laughter). I often miss while living here European social democracy as well as solidarity and a sort of directness we share in Europe, but I might now idealize Europe too much, quite a common psychological syndrome with transplants like myself in a foreign land (laughter).
SK: How has your education prepared you for your career?
BR: I have studied in Warsaw, Paris and New York both in humanities and in political science and business, which I believe gave me quite a wide perspective on the realities of the cultural sector. As for the arts, a very formative experience for me was the Curatorial Studies program at the Art History Department at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and in some way Arts Administration Programs in Universite ParisVIII and in NYU for their completely different approaches to running arts and culture in European and American contexts. As for this curatorial program in Krakow I was part of its third edition , which closed after five editions I believe. The inspiring courses, presentations, and discussions we had and colleagues we’ve met there are still important for me both personally and professionally. Again, it proves in a way that, especially here in NYC, networks and networking are extremely important in the arts and culture, something that people do not often want to admit in Europe, I feel. Besides, cooperation, and even some healthy competition make us all grow, and not monopolies and duopolies, cartels and star-systems that leave too many of cultural actors out, which is particularly striking in contemporary arts where the winner takes it all. These topics are talked about more and more now when the resources for culture are shrinking virtually everywhere in the world. This is particularly true in contemporary art since the art market is acknowledged to be the least regulated market of all, not really transparent, with great financial means and with an array of formal and informal networks between public, private and non-profit sectors.
Having lived in the US for the past ten years I can clearly see now that arts and culture in Europe are operating in quite a cozy context of public financing whereas in the US basically the strongest survive, which is particularly striking during the Covid-19 pandemic right now. Since mid-March when The Armory Show ended not much could happen in the arts really. Museums and galleries closed, Frieze New York and two editions of TEFAF were cancelled. Looking at the NYC scene I think that in Europe, and especially in Poland and France, the countries I know best, we should really appreciate more what we have in terms of models of financing of culture. In general, I believe that gratitude should always be key in life anyway! (laughter) I’d rather this public financing of culture was not so politically and ideologically biased of course, but I hope in some time we’ll find ways to improve this. I think that neither model really works anyway because of its respective limitations since this is either rich people with their taste and particular interests or politicians with their biased views and opinions have a lot to say as for the cultural production. Some third way will come out after the current health crisis the cultural sector faces now; I am sure. The harsh reality of corona is that there are so many individual or non-profit cultural actors either leaving NYC now, or closing, because of the lack of revenues and funding. Or they are simply laying off or furloughing staff like all big museums in the city did it. Just as a reminder, with an exception of a few, museums in the U.S. are privately run entities unlike in Europe, where they rely mostly on public funding. I have not heard about lays-off happening in European art institutions yet, where people luckily have kept their jobs and salaries, even if the institutions were closed for the public with limited programming on-line and staff working remotely from home.
SK: What was the most important skill which led you to become a cultural worker?
BR: I believe that after all these years I am now what you would call a fixer, quite good of a negotiator and mediator. My past diplomatic experience helped me a lot in this respect for sure. I am also someone outgoing, curious about others with quite eclectic interests, which helps in the city like New York. However one important thing to mention here would be that , in the arts and culture I believe you must learn how to keep your boundaries, how to set some limits, how to protect yourself, and sometimes put your own ego aside. Myself, I am still learning these strategies… Everybody knows that artists, and creative people in general are quite needy, often with strong egos and are quite self-centered, and rightly so. Beware(laughter).
SK: What is the riskiest decision you had to take?
BR: Staying in NYC and functioning here beyond my comfort zone. I have always worked for important and influential organizations with sizable means, and suddenly I had to basically start everything from scratch. Luckily, I did this with some valuable support from family and friends as well as people I’ve professionally worked with in my previous capacity of a programmer, cultural producer and promoter of Polish culture in NYC when I was posted here as a Polish diplomat. I already knew some people, local institutions, and the industry in general, but the scene here is really big, and it was not easy at first. It still isn’t. I am no more in the position to offer any organizational or financial support for projects as before, I am now the one who needs it (laughter).
SK: What has been the most difficult task you undertook so far?
BR: Becoming an independent cultural worker in New York for sure. It is an overcompetitive city, where often arts and culture are very corporate, and the commercial side of the art is overwhelming and sometimes it is difficult to keep your priorities in the right place. I was lucky to curate my first exhibition here independently back in October 2015 titled “Cuboids” by an artist who was not new to the city because of the exhibitions and projects he took part in earlier here like in SculptureCenter, New Museum and Queens Museum: Wojciech Gilewicz at Cuchifritos Gallery, a recognized independent space in the Lower East Side. This show touching upon the value of labor, both artistic and physical and showing how art and life are interwoven and that art can still be done for the sheer pleasure of creation without any explicit plan or purpose was quite well received and ultimately gave me a good start both in terms of professional contacts and better understanding of New York audiences. It required a lot of work both in terms of curation and logistics, but I made it! (laughter). This exhibition was a second installment of the exhibition organized earlier in May by Foksal Gallery in Warsaw for the artist, which was titled Rockaway. This show in NYC helped me for sure in further collaboration with this Warsaw-based gallery on “Thoughts Isolated: The Foksal Gallery Archives, 1966–2016”, the exhibition it organized in The James Gallery here in the city, and later presented in Warsaw MoMA.
As a side note, I would like to say that New York is both an amazing and harsh working environment, especially in the arts. It can give you a lot of unexpected opportunities, interesting changes in professional career, you can gain quite varied experiences here, but it also can give you some disappointments and setbacks. You must be prepared to take it all as it comes all in one set (laughter). I was very lucky to meet here and exchange with many extraordinary artists and curators over these past few years, some of whom I can call friends now. I would probably not meet elsewhere Ursula von Rydingsvard, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Martha Wilson, Martin Puryear, or Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose work and process I truly admire. Even if the road in NYC might get bumpy at times, the most interesting as they say is the ride we get anyway (laughter).
SK: What was your biggest setback, failure, or defeat?
BR: Right now? A show that I was planning for May-June that has been pushed back for October-November due to corona, but now it is completely in the air to be frank with you as the second wave of corona is looming again for the Fall.
Another project that I care about and which was not finalized yet is The Code of Ethics that we worked on in the framework of the Civic Forum on Contemporary Art in Warsaw, Poland that I am a member of, and one of its founders. Ethics is especially important in Polish context where arts and culture are financed mostly from taxpayers’ money. Issues such as conflict of interest, wearing many hats within the industry, public/private relationship often making costs public and profits private completely in the broad light, or nepotism should be paid more attention to in the country, which has been a member of the EU since 2004. If Poland and Poles aspire to be seen like any other European country it is high time to follow some basic rules, or at least pretend… More and more artists and curators in the country have started talking again about the need of setting some standards within the Polish art industry, as the pie has turned out now to not be big enough for everybody. There is still little external funding coming in and most of the cultural sector in Poland heavily relies on public funds, unlike in the U.S.. This obliges. More fairness and transparency and fewer particular interests are definitely called for.
SK: What do you consider to be your biggest success so far?
BR: “The Many Faces of Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980)” at Kosciuszko Projects in New York without any doubt. It was the first exhibition of the artist in 60 years in the city. Quite a difficult exhibition to put together as paintings came from a couple of private collections from all over the US and had to be insured for over $20M. It was also risky because Lempicka is an artist who somewhat fascinates and is looked down upon at the same time. In my curation I argued that Lempicka would be a Queen of Instagram should she be living now as some of art historians claim that when painting other women, she painted herself really (laughter). I included in the show not only her iconic Art Deco works from the 1930’s but also from later periods, namely ‘40s and ‘50s being also of interest in my opinion. This was a real mini retrospective of Lempicka’s oeuvre as works in the exhibition spanned her childhood and late production just before her death. With this exhibition I wanted to show the public that artists have better and worse periods in their artistic production, which might be interesting to see and to know about. I presented Lempicka’s work from a camp, queer and feminist perspectives, which was seen by some as outrageous to her oeuvre at first, but in the end proved to be an interesting angle to explore the work for the younger generation of viewers.
I believe that I contributed to make the artist’s work more contemporary and relevant, inviting other curators to include her paintings in exhibitions of women’s art. We had nearly 1000 people who saw the show, a lot of curators, culture professionals, and art students, who have never seen the artist’s works in real life as they are mainly in private collections in the U.S.. My show got reviewed among others in Art Forum, which in a way proved the contrary to what I was saying before, namely that anything is possible in New York (laughter): a “no name” curator making the first exhibition in a “no name” pop-up art space presenting works by an artist who is generally known to be expensive and kitsch and whose works are rarely seen in museum exhibitions. I am extremely grateful to the collectors that I worked with who agreed to lend us over fifty of Lempicka’s works and archival materials, to The Kosciuszko Foundation and most of all to the exhibition patron Ms. Krystyna Piorkowska who supported the show no strings attached, and who all believed in my vision for this exhibition, no matter how unorthodox it might have seen to them, without trying to alter it in any way.
SK: What three tips would you give someone who wants to become an independent cultural worker?
BR: Think twice, or even better three times. (laughter) For sure, have a plan B just in case, and plan C (laughter), and preferably a day job if possible at least part-time, especially here in NYC but I am sure it goes the same way pretty much everywhere nowadays be it Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, or London. An external support system is also important, both for resources and emotions. Be flexible and a creative problem solver. Be curious and be ready to learn. Believe in yourself and have some chutzpah. Have a clear goal, if you can, but be open for surprises. And do not forget about yourself, your needs, keep a healthy work-life balance as much as possible when working independently for and with others. It is obviously easier said than done, but it is important nonetheless so that one does not have a quick burnout. This is more than three tips, but it is quite a grim reality for independent cultural workers out there now, not only because of Covid-19 but also because of the very nature of the sector, so you must be strong, and maybe ready to downsize your lifestyle if you really like what you do and sometimes even lower your expectations.
Therefore, I would like to seize this opportunity to say that it is important for people working in cultural institutions having this in mind when working with external independent partners: artists, curators, exhibition designers, handlers, installers, etc. Whereas we work for little or sometimes even no money at all but for this elusive visibility or cachet such a collaboration provides, they get their paychecks regularly, regardless if they are really busy or not like right now during corona, where the programming was put on hold, except maybe for some on-line presence.
SK: Are you satisfied with your current position? Would you like to change something in your current role?
BR: I have been independent for the past five years now. I think I would like in time to come back, at least part-time, in some sort of an institutional structure, stronger than you and where you do not have to prove your worth every day with every new project. Obviously with an institutional structure comes not only more stability and resources but also some important limitations like a slow decision-making process or red tape that one must put up with. I believe however that I proved to myself that I can do things all by myself, and since I have been working a lot by myself, I’ve missed over this time more cooperation and brainstorming with colleagues on a daily basis, which can really be stimulating. I had this both in my business and institutional settings before and I truly enjoyed it.
To be frank with you, getting more work experiences makes me think that there might be no miracle solution really for a perfect job, because working full time might get boring at times, quite repetitive, less creative, and not really challenging in the end, whereas working independently is most of the time challenging in terms of job security and ability to plan long-term, even if you have all the creative and decisional freedom you want, which is only an illusion in capitalism anyway (laughter). Changing full-time jobs every now and then, be it in new institutions and/or in new roles might be a good thing to do I think.
SK: If not a cultural worker, what would be your dream job?
BR: A gardener. Or a chef. In both positions I would still need some more training though (laughter).
Interviewed by Sylwia Krasoń
Edited by Laura Mancini