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Bos/Hrv/Srp 18 Oct 12

Culture Minister Unveils Action Plan by Year’s End

Adoption of a national cultural strategy, reopening museums, inter-ministerial cooperation and exempting culture from taxes are Bratislav Petkovic’s top priorities, he tells Balkan Insight.

Dimitrije Bukvic
BIRN Belgrade
Minister Bratislav Petkovic in a visit to Zica monastery | Photo by Beta

The shift of cultural ministers that has taken place since the May general elections has left Serbia’s cultural sector with numerous open issues and problems demanding immediate solutions.

Many important cultural institutions in Belgrade are closed, people working in culture are dissatisfied with the implementation of the 2009 Law on Culture and the state budget is short when it comes to financing all the intended projects.

One immediate task is adopting an important strategic document that outlines the priorities in Serbian cultural policy for the next ten years.

This document was envisaged by the Law on Culture and the predicted deadline - six months after the Law became legally binding - is now two years behind schedule.

Speaking to Balkan Insight, new Culture Minister Bratislav Petkovic explains the ministry’s plans to reconstruct closed cultural institutions and open new ones by the end of the year.

He also announces changes in cultural policy legislation and outlines his plans to tackle corruption in culture.

“By the end of the year, Serbia will get a national strategy of cultural development and three museums will open,” he promises.

Petkovic, a theatre director by profession, assumed his new post on July 30 on the proposal of the Serbian Progressive Party of which he is a member.

Before being named minister he was briefly culture advisor to Tomislav Nikolic who was elected President of Serbia in May.

During his short term at the Serbian presidency Petkovic was embroiled in controversy. 

Minister’s Patisserie:

Before you assumed duties your patisserie was on a list of debtors owing tax. You said that you would pay the debt before taking on your new post. What happened?

I have taken care of the debt. The debt accumulated because it is difficult to manage a patisserie whose customers were the middle class that no longer exists. A few years ago I took out a loan and invested 100,000 euro in its renovation, thinking that the middle class won’t vanish. Now this place is more of a museum that painters, actors, artists once used to visit...

I often had to spend my own money on fees for actors who took part in plays in the private theatre that I own and which I founded. As I lose about 300 euro from each play, there was no other way for me to cover the fees, since the state never subsidized me, and we’re talking about our best actors.

 

He stirred a furore with statements that art “needs to be patriotic,“ following which information was released that his own patisserie in Belgrade was on a list of businesses that hadn’t paid their taxes.

When Petkovic became minister he toned down his statements. Asked if he stuck by his words on patriotic art, mostly referring to his criticism of the play Zoran Djindjic by Croatian director Oliver Frljic, Petkovic said that as a minister he would be “a minister of all theatre trends” rather than just of one.

Petkovic has a lot of work ahead as there are open issues in almost every area of culture.

The National Museum has remained closed since 2003 owing to reconstruction that never started. The reconstruction of the Museum of Contemporary Arts, which started in 2008, stopped two years ago because of a lack of funds.

According to the minister, the Museum of Yugoslav Film Archive, the Museum of Vuk Dositej and the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church will open by the end of the year, while the reconstruction of the other institutions will have to wait a bit.

He said that a construction committee is about to be formed, which will provide a professional assessment of what can be done with the financial resources available to the ministry.

“We will make a decision once we get a report from the expert committee,” Petkovic said, adding that this will happen in the near future because “the eleventh hour has long past for the National Museum”.

Asked if he will stick to the project of Vladimir Lojanica, estimated to cost some 20 million euro, which was chosen in a public competition in 2010, the minister said finances would dictate the solution.

Not enough money:

What have you defined as the biggest priorities in your work?

"The state doesn’t have enough money so we will have to apply for foreign funding for our projects. For example, rooms from the times of the Nemanjić Dynasty have been discovered at the Studenica Monastery as well as chambers for the reception of guests by Stefan the First-Crowned. As Studenica has been under UNESCO protection since 1986, we will apply for foreign funding to preserve this edifice. The state will not be able to provide all the funds needed for culture, so we will have to apply for funding with the European Union, UNESCO and other organisations."

 

“The financial situation will bring our ideas down to a reasonable level,” Petkovic warned.

However, he noted that the project by architect Milan Rakocevic in 2007, which was then cancelled and replaced by Lojanica’s in 2010, also offered good solutions.

Petkovic said that reconstruction of the Museum of Contemporary Arts would be easier to finish, as much of the work has already ended.

“The Museum of Contemporary Art will be less of a problem because its reconstruction began with the store rooms,” he recalled.

“In Europe there are standards for storing exhibits in galleries. If you fail to apply those standards foreign exhibitions will simply refuse to visit. I think storage in this museum is now adapted to a European level, though exhibiting facilities need to be restored,” Petkovic explained.

Speaking about the disputed reconstruction of the National Library, which included buying expensive chairs and carpets while the underground storage was left in a poor condition without temperature regulation and a proper fire-protection system, Petkovic has announced a comprehensive revision of the whole recently finished work, which lasted some five years and cost 4 million euro.

“We will have to carry out a revision and see what these enormous funds were spent on,” Petkovic announced.

The situation in the Library was “quite bad”, he assessed.

“They opted for visible restoration effects. Chairs were replaced. The new ones look like thrones and weigh almost 200 kilos each. If our Miroslav Gospels burn in a storeroom that doesn’t even have fire protection the chairs won’t be of much use,” he added.

“It’s as if it was done deliberately,” he continued.

Minister Bratislav Petkovic before a governement session | Photo by Beta/Emil Vas

Petkovic has also stood up for the fight against corruption in culture, especially when it comes to the transparency of public competitions for state funding of cultural projects.

“This summer, auditors inspected the reports of participants in Culture Ministry projects. Our intention is to check whether these funds were spent on what they were earmarked for,” he said.

“We will make the terms for approval of budget funds more stringent, we will reinforce the committees, we will ask for project elaborations before and after their implementation and we will establish to what extent these reports were faulty,” he added.

Asked if he will stick to the cultural part of the Progressive Party programme, which envisages changes in laws and by-laws dealing with culture, the minister answered that decisions will be based on the real needs of culture, and not on party programmes.

“Assessments and evaluations need to be expert-based and we need to act with caution,” he said.

“Real needs will be given priority, even if they contradict the party platform in whose drafting I also took part,” he explained.

He continued that experts will decide what legal changes should be introduced, as the “umbrella“ 2009 law on culture, which is not bad in his opinion, doesn’t deliver results in some areas because of the lack of by-laws to implement it.

“Three years after its adoption, it [the culture law] isn’t producing results in some segments – theatre is a good example,” he said.

“As far as I know, though I’m no legal expert, the umbrella law isn’t bad but needs enriching with by-laws and new laws,“ he suggested.

He added that better cooperation was needed between the culture ministry and other ministries to secure implementation of legislation on culture.

“We will insist on cooperation between ministries, which we need precisely so that we can implement laws governing culture and because of the absurdity of some regulations, such as fiscal regulations,” Petkovic said.

Serbia needs better regulation in the field of sponsorship and donorship, copying solutions from British and American law, he maintains.

“In these countries, when you invest in culture the state adds another 50 per cent to your investment and exempts you from taxes,” he recalled. “This is why there has to be inter-ministerial co-operation,” Petkovic concluded.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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