Investigation 25 May 15

Serbian Art Purchases Leave Artists Short-Changed

The Ministry of Culture has opened a new call for the purchase of art works - but some of the artists who sold their work a year ago say they still have not been paid.

Dragana Nikoletic
Photographer Aleksandrija Ajdukovic's work. | Photo courtesy of Aleksandrija Ajdukovic

Serbia’s Culture Ministry launched a call for the purchase of art works from artists on May 14 to “encourage the development of the visual arts through the modernization of art collections in cultural institutions.”

The purpose of the competition is to “significantly contribute to the functioning of the art market and the formation of prices”, the ministry wrote in a statement.

Public art collections are in a poor state in Serbia and Ana Subotic, from the Ministry of culture, told BIRN that the competition aimed to give them a lift.

“We wanted to give a boost to the whole system and to stop [art] institutions from languishing,” she said. “We wanted to help them in the process of modernising collections.”

However, while the ministry is seeking fresh offers for contemporary art work, some artists who sold their works to public institutions in the same competition funded by the ministry last year still have not been unpaid.

Seventeen artists who sold their works the the Cultural Centre of Belgrade, KCB, and two artists who sold pieces to the City Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments and the Museum of African Art still await payment.

“The agreement with the KCB, which bought my photographs, stated that the deadline for payment was end of December 2014,” Aleksandrija Ajdukovic, a photographer, noted. “I have not received the money to this day.”

While the ministry says it sent the funds for the art works last December, the city’s secretariat for culture - which should have forwarded the cash to these three institutions - blames the delay on administrative procedures. 

The time-consuming payment procedure has been additionally complicated by the fact that the ministry awarded less money than the artists has sought for some artworks.

As the ministry reduced the prices without negotiating with the artists, some of them withdraw their offers to sell their works.

Complex procedures cause delays

The ministry issued an open call for the acquisition of artworks last April. In the first competition of its kind in 13 years, the artists could not apply directly to the ministry, however.

Instead, the ministry offered to come up with the cash for local cultural, education and health institutions to buy the works.

The show goes on regardless

In line with schedule, early this April the KCB organized an exhibition entitled “Etiquette: Good Maintenance and Polite Behaviour” to showcase artworks bought at the competition along with other pieces.

However, artists Aleksandrija Ajdukovic, Aleksandar Jestrovic, Vladimir Nikolic and Mladen Bizumic refused to take part, complaining about the KCB’s own behaviour.

“I thought it unacceptable to give my work for an exhibition of acquired art works when there was actually no acquisition,” Ajdukovic said.

“I took part in founding the collection by means of a donation, seeing it as a gesture of good will, in spite of my personal belief that it was a bit rude for them to ask us to give our work for free,” Ajdukovic added.

Like Jestrovic and Krstic, she was angered by the lack of information on the purchase by the KCB and by the curator’s refusal to postpone the exhibition until the money had been paid.

The curator, Aleksandra Estela Bjelica Mladenovic, insists that she informed all the interested artists via email about the course of the payments in line with the information she received from the city’s culture secretariat.

“Maybe I should have informed them on a daily basis about each and every phone call that kept raising our hopes that the money would be paid soon, or postponed the date [of the show] until the budget revision in June 2015,” she said.

The exhibition “was planned, based on the expectations that the funds for the purchases would arrive from the ministry at the KCB in a timely manner,” she added.

“Most of the artists agreed [to take part] in spite of the delayed payment deadline, so the Managing Board decided that the exhibition should go ahead,” she concluded.

These institutions, not the artists, thus applied to the ministry, after either approaching artists whose works they wanted to acquire or after being approached by the artists who wanted to sell them their works.

The culture ministry’s competition commission then decided which institutions would win the money and for which artworks.

It was finally agreed to buy 248 works of art worth 71 million dinars [€595,000] for institutions across the country.

But the payment procedure was complex, as it was regulated by the Budget System Law and the Law on Local Government Finance.

In the case of Belgrade-run institutions, the ministry was supposed to forward the money to the city, which would send it on to the city council’s secretariat for culture.

The secretariat would then transfer the money to the institutions that bought the works, which would then pay the artists.

The city’s culture secretariat told BIRN that the procedure should have taken about a month to complete. Some institutions had indeed received the money by last November.

But about 5,500,000 dinars [€45,500], intended for the KCB, the City Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments and the Museum of African Art, remains unpaid.

Violeta Andjelkovic, from the secretariat, told BIRN that the secretariat did not receive the culture ministry’s decision - allowing it to transfer the money to the three institutions - on time for the budget.

“The city budget closes on December 31 and does not include payments for which the ministry has not delivered decisions on time,” she said.

Artists still awaiting payment would have to wait for a budget revision, expected this June, she added.

The ministry decision, which the secretariat needed, came late because of additional paperwork that the KCB, the City Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments and the Museum of African Art had to complete.

All three institutions had to re-work the documentation because the ministry had in the meantime approved different prices for some artworks than those the artists requested.

Some of the artists, dissatisfied with cash that the ministry was now offering, then withdraw their offers, creating more paperwork.

“We had to inform the Ministry in writing about their decisions to withdraw their works because the requested price was dropped,” Aleksandra Estela Bjelica Mladenovic, from KCB,  said.

This postponed the signing of agreements between the KCB and the remaining 17 artists until last December.

By the time the KCB had submitted all the documentation to the ministry and the ministry had sent a payment order to the city secretariat, the city of Belgrade had closed the budget for 2014.

Not consulted about changed prices

Sculptor Rados Antonijevic, who wanted to sell his work to the KCB, withdraw his offer. | Photo courtesy of Rados Antonijevic

Some of the artists have accused the ministry of cutting the agreed prices for their work without consulting them.

Ana Adamovic, Dejan Kaludjerovic and Rados Antonijevic, who wanted to sell their works to the KCB, then withdraw their offers to sell their art.

Sculptor Rados Antonijevic, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Fine Arts, said the ministry’s commission dropped the price to 400,000 dinars [€3,300].

“They never called to discuss this and reach an agreement. I couldn’t accept the approved price because this figure was only slightly higher than the production costs,” he said.

“I had also already sold a similar piece of work for a higher price than the one I requested to the KoçFoundation in Istanbul,“ he noted.

The ministry told BIRN that, when determining the prices, its commission took into account the sum that the artists requested - but also the relevant prices on the art market in Serbia. The commission also took into account its own view of the quality of the work.

Process not designed for artists

Some artists say the whole way in which the ministry conducted the purchase was unsuitable for artists.

The application form resembled a public procurement bid, meaning that artists were obliged to submit the same kind documentation required for companies, they said.

“I blame the messy conduct of the competition on the ministry, which was short-sighted, cared little for the artists and paid little attention to the difficulties that we face,” visual artist Nina Todorovic told BIRN.

“I see this as a discouragement to any kind of initiative and as a form of passive-aggressive intimidation. It would never even cross my minds to wish for such an acquisition again,” she added.

Todorovic said the ministry should also have kept an eye on the flow of the allocated funds and on the procedures that every institution needed to carry out.

“No thought was given to the obstacles that artists face, especially freelancers, in their effort to meet all the requirements of the competition,” she continued. “It was adapted to suit entrepreneurs rather than our profession,” she concluded.

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