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Bos/Hrv/Srp 05 Jun 12

Slack Trade in Art Leaves Serbian Painters Struggling

With no real market in art in Serbia, few artists can expect ever to survive from their trade.

Dimitrije Bukvic
BIRN Belgrade

Three years have passed after Serbia adopted a Law on Culture, which among other things was supposed to boost the country’s flagging art market.

But today, artists and gallery owners agree that little has changed so far for the nation’s legion of impoverished and struggling artists.

Some complain that the Ministry of Culture has no clear plan on how to establish a flourishing art market, although it is mentioned as a strategic principle in the Law on Culture. 

In the meantime young painters and sculptors find it hard to exhibit works in galleries, which tend to work exclusively with established, prominent artists whose names guarantee quick sales.

Because of this, when young artists do sell their work, they often do so at rock-bottom prices, which in turn undermines the development of a functioning art market.

The Law on Culture, adopted in 2009, lists support for the art market in general, and for sponsorship and donorship, as one of the general cultural goals that should receive financial aid from the state budget.

But the law does not say precisely what exact measures should be taken to encourage this trade.

Another problem is lack of cooperation between the culture, economy and finance ministries in the field of art sales.

The Ministry on Culture describes the Law on Culture as only a first step towards the development of an art market.

It also point out that real market growth depends on a host of factors, other than government action.

«The Law on Culture is not the most important document for development of art market. More significant is legislation in terms of economic and fiscal policy, » the ministry told Balkan Insight.

Serbian artists previously complained about the tax policy. Unlike other European countries that have tax allowances for artwork, especially when bought directly from the artist, there is no lower tax rate for artwork in Serbia.

At the same time, the Ministry noted that the Law on Culture aims to relieve the state budget when it comes to financing culture by encouraging sponsorships and donors.

Cut-price sales:

In the meantime the absence of a real art market stifles young painters and sculptors whose names and works are not well known, which makes them uninteresting for most galleries.

An exception is the private Zvono gallery from Belgrade, which, since it was established in 1993, has worked exclusively with young unknown artists. This makes it unique in Serbia.

With the help of the Culture Ministry the gallery sells and exhibits young artists at its site near Studentski trg in the centre of Belgrade.

Ljiljana Tadic, the director of gallery Zvono | Photo courtesy of Zvono

Ljiljana Tadic, the director, says money from the ministry covers about a third of the gallery’s financial needs.

In her opinion this investment is as much as can be expected, taking Serbia’s tough economic and political situation into consideration.

“Our gallery has always had the support of the ministry for exhibits of our artists outside Serbia in Vienna, Moscow, Miami and other cities where we presented their work,” Tadic says.

She says the core issue in Serbia’s disorganized art market is the cheap price at which artists often have to sell their work to get buyers and collectors interested in them.

“Those artists make big compromises just to being mentioned as a part of some collection - but it’s the wrong approach,” she maintains.

Nikola Pesic, a painter and a sculptor

Nikola Pesic, 39, a painter and sculptor from Belgrade, agrees, adding that selling work far below its real value undermines the chances of Serbia forming a serious art market.

“It is better for young authors to fill their wallets by doing additional jobs instead of cutting their [artworks’] value and price,” he says.

Procurement no solution:

Although several cities such as Belgrade or Pancevo organize public procurement of artworks, there is no longer any state procurement of artistic works from the national budget.

However, many figures on the art scene don’t think this would help matters significantly.  

Nikola Pesic and Ljiljana Tadic agree that re-establishing state procurement would not develop the art market.

Pesic says such procurement is not undesirable, but one-time purchases of arts can only act as a temporary boost.

Tadic goes further, saying the system was corrupt and distorted the market in favour of a few well-placed individuals with the right political connections.

She recalls that years ago, when state procurement existed, many artists made up to ten times more from such sales than they could ever have expected from sales abroad.

“It was possible due to their private deals and acquaintances with members of procurement commission,” Tadic explains.

Tadic says artists should be able to expect similar prices for paintings of similar quality, whether they are sold in her gallery, through procurement or sold abroad, “and that is the way to make a sustainable market”.

Art as a part-time job:

For now, only a lucky few Serbian painters and sculptors can live from their artwork.

Most have to find alternative sources of income, says Nikola Pesic, who also works as a journalist and a translator.

One possible contribution to their situation, Tadic says, would be financial help from successful commercial companies, as is common in many European countries.

Until that time, supporting young artists and helping them in presenting their work still seems like “mission impossible”.

“You’d have to have a brain disease – in a positive sense – to be engaged in a business like mine,” jests Tadic.

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

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