Garages, shopping windows, vacant urban spaces are just a few examples of alternative exhibition and art spaces that have been popular in Berlin for several dozen years now, and recently have begun to spring up in Warsaw. The versatility of art spaces and artistic initiatives in Berlin is due mostly to the activity of Berlin-based artistic millieus following the fall of Berlin Wall. Back then, in the climate of political chaos, uninhabited flats were occupied regardless of legal regulations and transformed into new culture centres and galleries.

The new order which began penetrating Berlin’s urban structure has not constrained the development of an independent organizations’ network. Currently they are all affiliated with ‘Haben und Brauchen’ and ‘Netzwerk freier Berliner Projekträume und –initiative’ groups. The groups consociate several dozen galleries and art spaces acting towards the advancement and development of independent scene in Berlin. They act by way of organizing regular meetings, attempting to enter in a dialogue with public institutions and city authorities. The work groups active within the ‘Netzwerk freier Berliner Projekträume und –initiative’ framework cooperate with the Berlin Senate, an instiution responsible for the policy on culture and spatial urban development. Their long term operations were granted an award for project spaces.

In 2012, 30,000 euro were appropriated for seven project spaces to help them further develop. Each organization was encouraged to apply (by way of submitting a presentation on its operational formula, experience and realised projects). This year, as many as twenty art spaces had a chance to win the award. The other possible solution (so far available only in the form of an act of law) is a system of mediation between independent organizations and the city, and the institutions responsible for uninhabited, vacant spaces. Owing to this, independent organizations, foundations and galleries looking for a space to run their activities from can seek rental of such spaces on concessional terms (several euro per m2). Additionally, they can apply – via open municipal and nationwide contests – for funds to finance specific projects (as opposed to the aforementioned award, which is granted for regular running of a given initiative). As a result, these organizations – ‘endowed’ and networked – carry out their own projects and encourage participation in festivals and projects pertaining to the whole city or a particular district of a city, such as: ‘Project Space Festival Berlin’, ‘48 Stunden Neukolln’, or ‘Kulturfestival Wedding-Moabit’.

In Warsaw, cooperation amongst organizations is happening at a much smaller scale. Similarly to Berlin, independent cultural and artistic actions are unfolding at a speed of light. The changing character of Warsaw districts such as Muranów, Powiśle or Mokotów is the best proof for that. The districts are becoming entities in their own right, attracting residents from the furthest corners of the capital owing to the organizations and initiatives run in the area (from cafes which offer cultural program, newly established NGOs, galleries and other institutions). In Muranów, there is ‘Stacja Muranów’ (Station: Muranów), ‘Fundacja i Stowarzyszenie: Projekt Polska’ (Foundation and Association: Project Poland) and Centrum Architektury (Architecture Centre). In Mokotów, project space ‘XS’ and ‘STROBOSKOP’ – mini gallery initiated by the artist Norbert Delman. ‘XS’ is located in a former shopping window, ‘STROBOSKOP’ is located in a garage. Both spaces were made available by city authorities for cultural purposes.

In Warsaw, there are several programs facilitating acquiring space for various activities, one of them being: ‘Lokal na kulturę’ (Space for Culture) – the contest open to organizations which have prepared a long-term plan of action in a given space (the places put on offer in this contest are usually places which had not attracted any commercial tenants). Non-governmental organizations which acquire a space pay lower rent than companies but have to cover the cost of utilities. The program has been implemented only in some districts.

‘Warszawa Lokalna’ (Local Warsaw) which supports local independent cultural and social initiatives is yet another option. Within this scheme, NGOs and groups may apply for a space for their activities lasting from several days to several months, covering the cost of utilities only. ‘MAL’ (Miejsca Aktywności Lokalnej – Local Activity Spots) as well as foundations and associations can operate by way of mini-grants and municipal or ministerial open contests for project offers. Meanwhile, independent Warsaw galleries are financed mainly from private funds, unless an affiliated foundation is established which allows them to apply for additional funding. This applies for institutions such as “Lokal 30’; ‘Raster Gallery’, ‘BWA Warsaw’, ‘Le Guern Gallery’, ‘Leto’ or one of the youngest – ‘Czułość’ (Tenderness) Gallery which exhibits experimental photography or the recently opened ‘Kasia Michalski Gallery’. Once a year, Warsaw galleries open their doors to public during the Warsaw Gallery Weekend – a collective celebration, organized also in other European capitals, including Berlin.

Funds acquired from public subsidies exert a direct influence on the way both galleries and NGOs (dependant on these subsidies) operate. It is due to the following facts: financing programs may last up to two years maximum; there is very little time between contests and deadlines for project realisation; and, finally, lack of financial means to offer full-time employment to the team members. Thus, organizations are incapable of long-term planning. On top of it all, there is a widespread phenomenon (also in Berlin) colloquially referred to as grantosis, namely the need to adjust the line of action to the priorities indicated in the grant’s guidelines. It often happens that these are far removed from the initial plans and targets of the organizers and curators. As a result, the projects lack in quality but they can be realised, owing to the funds acquired.

It sometimes happens that big private investment funds wish to influence the realisation of artistic and cultural initiatives, examples being: Soho Factory – a complex of lofts and buildings housing companies, boutiques, restaurants and art galleries; and Skanska – construction company known for supporting projects of foundations acting towards improving urban public spaces. The number of newly established organizations that seek sources of financing keeps growing. According to the report published on the nationwide portal of non-governmental organizations ( out of 20 thousand of organizations registered in the Mazowsze Province, 13%, i.e. over 2 thousand, engages in activities related to culture and art (data from December 2014).

Today, there are several dozen galleries in Warsaw. In Berlin, there are approximately 400 – approximately 20 thousand artists from all over the globe exhibit their work there (data from the official city portal from 2016). About 150 independent project spaces are active in the field of contemporary art in Berlin alone (data taken from an academic work by Severine Marguin, available also as an interactive map at:, as well as thousands of NGOs and other cultural-social initiatives springing up in the German capital.

Aside from galleries and NGOs, large institutions also seek new ways of operation. The Zachęta National Art Gallery project “Miejsce projektów Zachęty” (Zachęta’s Project Space) or CSW (Centre for Contemporary Art at the Ujazdowski Castle) summer program of events titled “Zielony Jazdów” (Green Jazdów) are the proof for that. In Berlin, Kunstraum-Kreuzberg Bethanien, urban centre for contemporary art within the Kreuzberg municipal council, invites both local communities and artists affiliated with commercial and non-commercial  galleries, academics, researchers and HAU and Gorki Theatre (two institutions operating in a similar, open fashion) to cooperate. As Stéphane Bauer, director of Bethanien, pointed out – the subsequent step in the development in the realm of culture and art should be entering in a dialogue, as both institutions and independent organizations first and foremost need people who can cooperate.

*Stéphane Bauer’s statement is taken from an interview conducted by the author for the book entitled The Edge of It, published by the Propaganda Foundation with support of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw.

**Detailed information on the affiliated independent project spaces in Berlin can be found, i.a. at ‘Netzwerk freier Berliner Projektraume und –initiative”; book entitled Off Spaces and Sites (Julia Brodauf, Lena Hartmann, Ulrich J. C. Harz, Alexandra Wendorf & Stefanie Zobel) is a perfect documentation on the activities of such spaces, often located in former supermarkets or other odd locations.

Joanna Turek

Cultural anthropologist, coordinator and curator

Joanna Turek – graduate of Warsaw University and the Graduate School for Social Research at PAN (Polish Academy of Sciences), Joanna has been cooperating with several foundations and public institutions in Warsaw and Berlin. Author of articles and interviews, head of TU Foundation for Research on Public Spaces and initiator and curator of the program dedicated to artistic exchange between Warsaw and Berlin – WRSW BRLN www.wrsw-brln. Coordinator of the Mokotów-based ‘XS’ gallery.