Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 17 Sep 15 Royals and Outcasts on Montenegro’s Art Scene

Now as ever, politics plays a role on the Montenegrin art scene, creating opportunities for those in favour but leaving others feeling shunned.

Dusica Tomovic
Montenegrin painter Zoran Petrusic | Photo by Dusica Tomovic

An existential crisis, unwillingness to accept the current state of the art scene and the fact that he is not the favourite artist of the new Montenegrin elite has prompted the well-known painter Zoran Petrusic to move from the capital, Podgorica, to Risan, a small place near Kotor. 

In the capital he was unable to sell his works or pay his rent and could not expect any state support because of his publicly expressed opinion that artists should not serve political interests. 

In his small village that lives off fishing and tourism, he now shares good times and bad with Risan’s 3,000 locals.  

Here in the Bay of Kotor he has no state support, either, but he says he is glad to get away from all the “political combinations and speculation” of the art scene in Montenegro. 

He says he wishes to live by the motto that art always has been and will be the privilege of a minority.

“I’m an artist by education and by conviction, and have decided very consciously to save my energy for other, cleaner objectives that have nothing to do with politics,” Petrusic said.


The 50-year-old painter who has received numerous international awards and exhibited across the region, is one of many talented artists in Montenegro who are struggling to live from their work.

Living in the century-old stone house in the hills that once belonged to his grandfather, Petrusic spends his days in a tiny studio working on paintings that may now never be shown or sold in Montenegro. On his rare breaks, he goes fishing with the local fishermen.

The only compromise he makes when it comes to art is to do some commissions for the wealthy Russians who frequent the Montenegrin coast.


 Political loyalty gets you far:

In the sharp contrast to Petrusic, other artists and writers are all to close to the ruling elite and the Democratic Party of Socialist,led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

Their publishing houses thrive and their paintings sell for significant sums, often to state institutions.

Joining politics with art is a pathway to success and recognition. In April, the famous writer, Pavle Goranovic, became the new Culture Minister, after spending eight years as adviser to Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic.

During that period, he won two of the top state literary awards, the Miroslav’s Gospel award (Miroslavljavo jevandjelje) and the Risto Ratkovic award.

In a country of only 600,000 people, where the poems of former Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Igor Lukisc are a best-seller, political loyalty is almost mandatory as a condition for winning state support, says writer Balsa Brkovic.

Those not close to the hearts of those in power have no access to state funding for their projects or space to exhibit. Nor do they have their works commissioned. 

Writer Balsa Brkovic

Political loyalty is often the main criterion for success and recognition, just as it is in business, education and science, Brkovic claims.

Brkovic, who is also a human rights activist, says this approach is often justified by the claim that Montenegro's national identity, nine years after independence, remains threatened by external factors.

“But the struggle [for national identity] has nothing to do with Montenegro's culture and legacy, it’s all about the survival of the [ruling] party and its leader,” Brkovic said.

Criticism of the Ministry of Culture and allocation of state funds, he said, is seen as an attack on the state itself.

The most recent controversy over the arts concerned parliament’s purchase in April of an oil painting about the proclamation of the independence in 2006.

The painting is now in the main hall of the parliament and depicts only the ruling party.

Popadic's painting at the Montenegrin parliament  
Popadic's painting at the Montenegrin parliament  

Questions followed over the amount of money it cost and why there was no public tender. The political connections of the author were raised.

Parliament has also paid 30,000 euro in April for a painting by a little-known artist from Tivat, Ljubomir Popadic. 

Such sums are only a dream for most artists and can be reached only occasionally by some of the most prominent Balkan painters, such as Vojo Stanic and Dado Djuric.

The quality and value of Popadic's work was assessed by Montenegro's Property Administration, a state body that manages state-owned movable property and has nothing to do with art.

Popadic has declined to comment for BIRN, while parliament, where the ruling coalition has a comfortable majority, insists that everything was done by the books.

Favoured artists get most cash:

Politicians seek fame in art

Trying to following in the footsteps of the great prince and writer Njegos, politicians in Montenegro are flooding the bookstores with their literary and poetic musings - of variable quality. The former Prime Minister, Igor Luksic, is a published poet.

The current Foreign Minister published two volumes of poetry in 2011, the “Book of Fear” and the “Book of Laughs”.  Whether or not it was because of the author's political profile, both love poem collections were the most wanted books last year at City Bookstore, the main bookstore in the capital, which is unusual for a poetry collection. Like most books written by Montenegrin poet-politicians, the poems were published by one of the largest publishing houses in the country, New Book, which also received funds from the Culture Ministry’s competition this year. 

The most prolific of the crop of politician-writers is the former Minister of Culture and Tourism and a current parliamentarian, Predrag Sekulic. Over the past ten years he has published five novels. The last, “Mating Swans” (“Parenje labudova”) was controversial on account of its explicit language. Sekulic, a former journalist, published the novel in 2013 but it has been marked with the sign "18+" -meaning adults only - owing to the raunchy sex scenes and violence. While some critics judged the novel easy to read and enjoyable, others slated it as trite and talentless. 

Montenegro's chief negotiator with the EU, Aleksandar Andrija Pejovic, is also a published author, while one of the leaders of the pro-Serbian opposition, the parliamentarian Goran Danilovic, released a collection of poems, “Words and Words”.

Following a public competition announced earlier this year, the Ministry of Culture in April released a list of 162 projects that will be supported by state funds.

The approved funds were about 1.2 million euros, well up on last year’s 670,000 euros.

Boris Raonic, from the local watchdog Civic Alliance, said that nearly two-thirds of the funds have since been distributed to only four persons, all close to the political elite and Djukanovic, while the rest was split among 128 projects.

Raonic said that of the available 1,145,795 euro, three film and theatre directors, Marija Perovic, Branko Baletic and Sehad Cekic received a total of 550,000 euro.

The publisher and political activist Milorad Mijo Popovic received twice as much as all other publishers together, 63,000 euro.

“Therefore, four people got 613,000 euro, leaving 530,000 euro for the remaining 128 projects and zero for some valuable young people who are the future of our cultural scene,” Raonic told BIRN.

The decision drew criticism from the largest association of publishers in the country. In a letter to the Culture Ministry sent in April, the organization said that the persistent favour shown to “several ideologically recognizable authors” was “inappropriate”.

“The Ministry encourages and supports literary projects extremely selectively and not in accordance with the criteria of quality,” the association claimed.

It said the Ministry of Culture also favoured just a few publishing houses, which had all received state money for decades, even though the country has over 50 registered publishing houses.

“In addition to publishing houses, it [the ministry] persistently favours several similar ideologically identifiable authors,” the association added.

Publisher Miodrag Mijo Popovic denies receiving funds from the Ministry of Culture due to his political ties, adding that work of his company is of “essential importance” to the state.

Boris Raonic from the local watchdog Civic Aliance

“That money was not for me, the authors got it to promote their work. Also, the funds go for publishing the only specialized magazine in the country, whose contributors are the most important contemporary authors in Montenegro,” Popovic told BIRN.

He said that criticism on his account had a background to it because his publishing house was in competition with

Director Marija Perovic declined to comment on why she was granted more than 100,000 euros for the production of her new film, stating only that Raonic’s allegations contained inaccuracies.others operating in Montenegro but headquartered in Serbia and Bosnia.

“If someone organises a public debate, I'm ready to explain that I did not receive any money personally,” she said.

The two other filmmakers, Branko Baletic and Sehad Cekic, whose projects also obtained the highest sums in the state contest in April, could not be reached for comment.

The Culture Ministry denies that politics have any impact on funding cultural institutions.

It says the criteria for selecting state-supported projects are public: artistic quality and the importance of the project or program for the development of Montenegrin culture.

“When selecting… national institutions of culture [for funding], we seek and respect professional, not political references,” the ministry told BIRN.

The work of the ministry in financing projects from the state budget is transparent and decisions are taken by an experts’ commission, the ministry added.

Recognised abroad but not at home:

For years, independent media and arts associations have used the term “royal artists” to describe painters, writers, musicians, and especially theatre directors who are close to the government.

Their work is regularly covered by the pro-government media, they have the best exhibition spaces, they perform at the national theatres, and their paintings, often sold for tens of thousands of euros, hang on the walls of the government institutions.

“Those who do not have access to the ‘court’ face huge obstacles to achieving even minimum working conditions,” Brkovic stated.

Some have been recognized outside Montenegro on the art scene in Europe and the United States but still get no help in their own country.

While artists who do not trade their art for political opportunities can expect to be blacklisted, Brkovic said, “Their less scrupulous colleagues can be counted on to be forever loyal to the government to whom they owe their careers”.

One striking example of an artist who achieved more recognition abroad than at home is the “queen of performance art”, Marina Abramovic.

She was been banned by Montenegro from representing the former Yugoslavia at the Venice Biennale in 1997.

Fourteen years later, when she had become globally recognized, the Montenegrin government tried to correct that mistake and made an official apology, asking Abramovic to represent the country at the 2011 Biennale.

“The painter Jelena Tomasevic regularly exhibits in major galleries in New York, but you cannot see her in Podgorica as she is not on their list of the loyal,” Brakovic said.

Personal and political ties also dictate the prices of artworks, critic and art historian Alexander Cilkov claims.

“Absurd things happen in the art market in Montenegro. A piece by the extraordinary painter Jovan Zonjic, a pioneer of modern Montenegrin art, can be purchased for 800 euros. And then some young painter appears with political connections and sells his work for 15,000 euros,” Cilikov recently told the media.

Several gallery owners in Podgorica, asked by BIRN about the situation in the art market, said the problem was that real art lovers can rarely afford to purchase. Those who have the money, mostly close to the elite, are only interested in “approved” painters.

“At one point the state administration was the biggest buyer. A lot of paintings by contemporary artists hang on the walls of state institutions,” one gallery owner who insisted on remaining anonymous said.

Back in the small town of Risan, Petrusic is not pessimist. 

“If you're really good at what you do and believe in it, sooner or later the results will come to light. But for that to happen, you must, however impractical it is, remove the word POLITICS from your vocabulary,” he concluded.

This article is funded under the Invisible Art project, supported by the Prince Claus Fund.

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