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Feature 02 Aug 16

Albania Opera Chief Quits Over Tiny Budget

The resignation of the director of the National Opera and Ballet highlights the challenges facing Albanian artists as a result of the paltry budgets they are expected to operate on.

Fatjona Mejdini
A performance at TOB. Photo: Facebook/H.Petrela

Ilir Kerni was appointed director of Albania's National Theatre of Opera and Ballet in October 2013, a month after the centre-left government of Prime Minister Edi Rama took power.

Back then, his debut in Albania was seen as a major event. Kerni was a distinguished Albanian dancer who had forged an international career, winning a dozen or so awards in both Europe and Asia.

A lead dancer for years at the National Theatre in Zagreb, Croatia, Rama described his return home as a necessity "for raising the quality of artistic institution in the country".

On Saturday, the public was surprised to hear Kerni had resigned from his position. Very few had noticed that on June 22, on Facebook, Kerni had expressed his deep frustration over the lack of funds for the institution that he was directing.

"I have used these 28 months to transform everything with hard work and with the lowest budget in history ... the average budget for a show didn't exceed 600 euros, so we are ready to enter the Guinness Book of Records," he wrote.

Kerni added that even impoverished Kosovo, which has an even smaller population than Albania, has a bigger budget for artistic programs than Albania's, while the Tirana Opera is the only such body in all Albanian-speaking territories in the region.

The resignation turned also into a political matter after the chair of parliament's commission of economy and finance, Erjon Brace, said on Facebook status on Sunday that he regretted the resignation. "I have never seen the opera in such a good state as now," he noted.

On Monday, the Ministry of Culture described Kerni's resignation as a personal act that it could not comment on - while promising that the normal artistic schedule would continue in the institution he once led.

"After a year of intensive work, the project for the reconstruction of the National Theatre of Opera is going to start in the second artistic season of this year [in atumn]," the press release reads without giving any further information about the budget.

The total budget of Albania's Ministry of Culture for 2016 has been set at just over 9 million euros - but only some of this is allocated for the country's main cultural institutions.

The National Theatre of Opera and Ballet gets about 2 million euros but the institution hosts the biggest artistic troupe in the country and also contains within it the national symphonic orchestra and the folk ensemble.

Other major cultural institutions in Albania, like the National Theatre and the Art Gallery, also struggle with tight budgets.

The National Theatre for 2016 had a total fund - including investments - of 525,711 euros, while the Art Gallery had a budget of 256,475 euros.

Alda Bardhyli, a culture editor at "Shqip" newspaper sees a real problem when it comes to the ministerial budgets for artistic programs.

But she emphasizes that the Ministry of Culture itself has always had the lowest budget compared with the other ministries in the last 25 years. "We have the lowest budget for culture in the whole region, lower than Kosovo and Macedonia as well," she said.

"I believe that the budget is key when it comes to culture. The lack of reforms, the lack of efficiency in our cultural institutions - and our artists' absence from important international events - all come as a result of insufficient budgets," she added.

Ema Andrea, a well-known actress in Albania and a professor at the Academy of Arts in Tirana, told BIRN that culture and art institutions have been ignored for a long time.

Andrea said the artistic community in Albania had believed that things would change for the better once Rama took power, as  he was an artist himself and a former professor at the academy.

"Unfortunately, art and culture are at the bottom of the list of priorities in Albanian politics," she emphasized.

Andrea said that artists in the country are treated as mere bureaucrats, work on low salaies are end up totally dependent on institutions for their survival.

"Art cannot flourish on institutional dependence - to support artists means to let them be independent," she noted.

"The chain of problems in the arts doesn't begin or end solely with financial conditions though it is a very important issue," she said.

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