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Bos/Hrv/Srp 12 Dec 12

Serbian Culture Pays Price For ‘Fire Fighting’ Strategy

The government’s policy of tackling only the most urgent crises in the field of culture helps explain why the arts in general are steadily sinking into oblivion.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade
Fire at the National Theatre in Belgrade in December | Photo by Beta

It wouldn’t be that amazing if a future Serbian government glued the culture ministry onto a joint ministry with the Department for Emergencies inside the Serbian Interior Ministry.

After all, in previous years, they merged culture with media and even telecommunications. Why not merge it with emergencies, instead?

Such a merger would at least accurately reflect country’s true policy when it comes to culture: a policy of extinguishing fires.

By this, one doesn’t mean only actual fires like the one in Vranje’s Bora Stankovic Theatre this July, or the one in the National Theatre in Belgrade in December.

I mean also the other theatrical sparks and flames such as the conflicts between actors and theatre management in Belgrade’s Atelje 212 and the similar situation in the Theatre on Terazije.

One might include here all the other wildfires that were swiftly extinguished in the cultural sector this year, without establishing a true system of fire prevention.

In the same way that the National Theatre didn’t get a new roof and electric installations on time, Serbia didn’t get its long awaited National Strategy of Cultural Development either.

In both cases, it seems the authorities just sat there, waiting for fire to break out.

The national strategy document, delayed since 2009, clearly will not be adopted this December, despite government promises.

Any other outcome would be astonishing, since one has to realize how hard it must be for the changeable team in charge of writing the strategy to give birth to such a document.

This is partly because of the conflicting interests of the various players in culture, and partly also because at a time of economic crisis, many don’t think cultural development even deserves mention.

Could it be different? Numerous experts have declared in past years that there is money for culture, but that the key to it lies in proper distribution.

They say that more money for programmes is needed, while too much is spent on public institutions, which use the money to cover wages for staffers who in turn provide little or no service in return for their salaries.

Let’s rephrase this. Research shows that every citizen of Serbia through his or her taxes gives 15 euro a year for culture.

This money then has to support all of Serbia’s cultural institutions, the movie industry, book purchases for state libraries, cultural policy research as well as all other possible kinds of art.

The same money has to cover all the pay of employees and the monthly costs of maintaining the buildings of cultural institutions. A minute fraction of this 15 euro also is invested in the production of new cultural content.

This fact fully explains the overall trend of culture of Serbia, which is downward and heading in the direction of oblivion.

With all its efforts, the state is apparently incapable of finding more than 0.62 per cent of its annual budget for culture - and even that presents an enormous problem.

With the 55 million euro that Serbian culture has at its disposal, not even all the worst fires can be tackled and put out, either. There can hardly be serious talk of any kind of development in that context.

It is evident that besides reshuffling the available money, the cultural budget needs to expand to at least 2 per cent of the total budget, in which case those 15 euro would increase to about 50 euro.

In that case, Serbia would be on the same level as neighbouring countries such as Romania and Bulgaria but still far away from Slovenia, which spends about a 100 euro per capita - let alone The Netherlands, which spends 170 euro.

Of course, voices would then complain that the state should not be the only body investing in culture, that art institutions need to turn a profit, and that culture needs the involvement of the private sector as well as the public sector.

The disproportionately low involvement of the private and civic sectors, compared to the state sector, does indeed present one of the most immediate problems, as this is preventing culture from becoming at least partly sustainable.

But the Ministry of Culture as well as the rest of the government have done little to create a more favourable environment for the establishment of a market in art works and services.

State art schools cannot even provide basic conditions for their students, and culture and arts entrepreneurs must pay the same taxes as any other businessmen.

Meanwhile, most of Serbia’s major cultural institutions remain closed, such as the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Arts.

For more than a decade, Serbian art has thus lacked public arenas to display its past and its present.

There is not a single area of culture that currently generates real profit, and in an artistic sense it also fails to create much that is either new or original.

In these conditions, it cannot be surprising that audiences have found other amusements and that culture has been increasingly excluded from wider society.

At the same time, the juries of many book and theatre awards have refused to award first prizes, stating that it isn’t worth it!

Is it possible that the stakeholders fail to understand that the reason for the poor state of culture lies in the policy of restricting cultural policy to fire fighting? Even that is selectively implemented, as not all the fires are being extinguished.

In this context it is depressing on the part of the new government to try and poor some “patriotic oil“ on the cultural stove and encourage populist trends once again in society.

The current authorities must demonstrate their moderate skills when it comes to “playing with fire”.

If they can do nothing more useful in the world of Serbian culture, they should at least leave alive the hope that all these sputtering flames and sparks won’t unite into a single devastating blaze.

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

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