Poland’s Malta Festival has won its legal battle after a district court in Warsaw awarded Malta Foundation a sum of PLN300,000 (plus interest) (around €70,000) to be paid by the National Treasury, (the Minister of Culture and National Heritage), in response to action against the department’s failure to pay grant-in-aid for the organisational purposes of Malta Festival Poznań 2017.
At the first hearing, which took place on 25 March 2019 at District Court in Warsaw, Malta Foundation’s representative pointed out that although the trial primarily concerned the issue of the Ministry’s failure to meet their contractual provisions, it had also potentially violated the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of artistic expression through exertion of ‘so-called soft pressure’.
Countering the argument, the legal advisor from the General Counsel to the Treasury who represented the Ministry moved for immediate and complete dismissal of the court case, claiming the Ministry had the full right to not award the foundation a grant-in-aid for the festival’s organisation in 2017. Having heard the statements of all sides involved, the Court finally decided to close the case in favour of Malta Foundation.
The dispute relates back to 2016, when Malta Foundation and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage signed a three-year contract which obligated the Ministry to annually subsidise the festival with grants-in-aid for organisation purposes. However, in 2017, the Ministry refused to pay the grant, because one of the exhibition’s curator was to be Olivier Frljić, a play director and the creator of a performance act entitled The Curse – a work which sparked controversy in some communities and was accused of ‘deeply hurting’ the feelings of religious people.
Said Michał Merczyński, the festival’s director and the head of Malta Foundation: “The trial is about the 300 thousand zlotys which Malta Foundation failed to receive in 2017. But generally, it is about making clear that no minister, driven by any ideological reasons, can fundamentally decide about the shape of a cultural institution or its repertoire.
“It was the festival’s biggest allies – the audience and the artists – who proved to be its critically important element in 2017. It all began with an auction suggested by Mariusz Wilczynski, but another amazing gesture was the ‘Become the Minister of Culture’ crowdfunding campaign. Over 1,000 people participated, donating the necessary 300 thousand zlotys to support the festival. However, money is not everything, so we’ve decided to appeal to the Ministry’s decision through the court of law. As Malta Foundation, we only want law and justice.”
The court ruled that the obligation to pay the grant was purely contractual, and the contractual provisions regarding the reimbursement of Malta Festival’s organisation costs as grants-in-aid in years 2016-2018 were unquestionable – the court also pointed to the fact that the Ministry knew back in 2015 that Oliver Friljić would curate the 2017 festival, which is why as a person he could not have caused the Foundation’s not being granted the subsidy. The decision is still subject to appeal.
The trial was conducted as part of Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights’s Strategic Litigation Programme with pro bono support by lawyers from Hogan Lovells.