The last session of the conference was structured as an open debate, where the present participants were invited to propose any of the issues they considered most relevant. It opened up more concrete questions on how to open public institutions and tackled more structural issues relevant to the cultural sector in particular and the public sphere in general. As noted at the beginning, the participants of the session were mainly from South East European countries, proving these practitioners’ need and interest for more detailed discussions on open institutions and the potential changes they can bring to cultural systems in their respective countries. The participants in general agreed that fundamental changes within the cultural sector must be made. Several directions and focal points emerged during the discussion and could be subsumed into two general questions: What is the change we need? and How to bring about that change?
Change is necessary
Participants, both from independent associations and public institutions, agreed that organizational and structural changes within institutions and reforms in the overall cultural system must be introduced. Moreover, they agreed that this should be a process based on partnership between both sectors and that representatives of public institutions should be as visible, responding to that demand, as the independent sector.
What to change?
Cooperation between the sectors on the level of programming is welcomed, but only in such a manner preventing the bigger players from solely abusing NGOs’ programs. The cooperation should be based on equal partnership and should be stimulated on a structural level. Participants suggested that criteria should be introduced for labeling a particular institution as open. Moreover, the lack of resources for producing and presenting NGOs’ programs cannot be solved on that level alone. New structures should therefore be established, such as: hybrid institutions that directly include NGOs in decision-making, production centers with a clear mission to support independent production, and service centers for presentation of their programs. Participants reminded the conference that several such examples had been presented in the Exploring Openness sessions, such as POGON, Factory of Art, and Art Center BUDA.
The main challenges in the management of public institutions were recognized as employment inflexibility and the low level of governance autonomy. Participants suggested that changes must tend towards organizational redesigns that would give more responsibility to everyone involved in public sector management (directors, employees and public administration), altering relationships within the system. When arguing for changes in the cultural system, we should be aware that arguments based on efficiency, flexibility and excellence could be used for the marketization of the entire sector. On the other hand, economic arguments and non-profit-oriented efficiency criteria could be used in a way that would not feed that neoliberal ideology.
Participants noted that public institutions’ role is not only to produce their program but to look after their entire respective artistic field. However, this requires further discussion taking into account that artistic fields have expanded and overlapped in recent decades, mostly thanks to the activities of independent actors.
When it came to the overall cultural system and cultural policy, participants remarked that expertise, production and artistic / cultural content should be re-introduced into evaluation and decision-making. At the same time, current policies were criticized for their strong orientation towards visibility and hyper-production, accompanied by a lack of quality assessment. Clientelism was recognized to be a fundamental, overall problem of the system and of the sector and, alongside self-interest, is exactly what weakens the sector as it attempts to fight for changes. These are also the main reasons for the failure of certain projects connected to venues that had been conceived as resources for independent actors (particular examples of this in Croatia and Slovenia were discussed). The problem with those examples did not lie in intentions, which were generally good, but in how the process was run and to whom the venues were given. Firstly, the processes were not transparent and therefore positioned the operators of these new venues closer to politics and farther from the scene itself. Secondly, these venues are run by organizations with particular interests in the field for which they should be providing services, putting them in a direct conflict of interest. Participants suggested making a recommendation against clientelism within the scene. Furthermore, they claimed that a hybrid institutional type where many different actors are involved in governance and control is a solid way to ward off clientelism at a structural level. POGON, an institution responsible both to local government and to many different NGOs assembled in the network, was presented as an example of good practice.
How to bring about change?
The demand for changes in cultural sector must be political, that is, it needs to gain political importance. Some participants still think that this could be done in a polite manner, acting only within the cultural sector, otherwise nothing else remains but revolution. Others disagreed, saying that demands and methods could be radical but not revolutionary. They claimed that culture as such, and especially the independent sector, are of very low political relevance. Participants repeated many times that the cultural sector needs to get out of the practice of complaining and fighting only for its own interests. Instead, it should be engaged in a wider political and civil struggle for the common good aimed at re-claiming the public sphere as such. This should be done in partnership with others involved in the same struggle, such as environmental organizations, unions, student initiatives, those trying to protect the public media sphere or health system, and the like. Participants also stressed that it is a mistake to perceive the political system as a static, solid, rational and unbreakable structure. On the contrary, this system is in a constant dynamics of change, full of ruptures and accidental situations that should be used for interaction and intervention. Repeating the same things over the years has not produced any effect. On the contrary, struggles must be based on discontinuity and a strategy of surprise (coming from the back.
Pursuing this debate further, some participants claimed that the system as such is constructed to be powerless. Others disagreed, claiming that this discourse is used by power structures to prevent social and political activity and that on the level of the system nothing that prevents any of us, including representatives of public institutions, reacting to certain important issues in society. As the political system is not totally fixed, Zagreb’s (or any other) independent scene, perceived by many people from other countries in the region as strong and united, is not stable as such. It depends on particular activities and a particular degree of involvement by people.
Participants frequently stressed that clientelism within the scene is the main obstacle to going any further with the political struggle necessary for introducing any political change. This clientelism should be publicly discussed – as the prevailing mode of interaction both within the system and within the scene. Participants stressed that a clash or struggle should be provoked not only with decision-makers but also within the scene itself.
Most of the participants agreed that it is naïve to expect essential changes in the overall cultural system to be made just because the independents have good rational arguments. Firstly, measures that will empower that sector should be realized: measures made to bridge the gap between the public and civil sector, such as production and service centers, special funding schemes, and bodies to work on strengthening the independent scene. Only then, when the scene has basic means of stability, will it be feasible to pose demands for core changes in the system. This struggle, participants concluded, must be seen in a long-term perspective.
The representatives of the project partners, Katja Praznik (Asocijacija, Ljubljana) and Iskra Geshoska (Kontrapunkt, Skopje), announced further project activities: workshops and public debates in their cities that should result in more detailed conclusions on particular issues. The project will produce a printed publication and a website presenting these results.
Participants expressed confidence in an international, regional forum dealing with these issues and felt a need to continue similar debates in the future. At the same time, they stressed that action on a local level is fundamental.
Some participants suggested that conclusions should be sent to decision-makers, while others preferred to wait until the conclusions were firmer and clearer. Participants also stressed that the aim of the conference was not to find immediate solutions (achieving this will require further analysis and debates on a local level), but to start asking questions and to begin the process.
We all want change
The most important aspect of the discussion was that it brought up a clear demand for change from the institutional as well as the independent sector. Dubravka Vrgoč put it succinctly: “I don’t think I’m the only person from the institutions who thinks the institutions should be changed. And we need to do it together, both we from the institutions and the independent organizations. We need to struggle together to involve people who make decisions, to let them know that there are people in institutions who also want the change. Because there is the opinion that only the independents and artists want some change but that is not true.” To which Emina Višnić, the moderator of the session, added “the independent scene has for years now been visible with that demand, but people from the institutions haven’t.”
Being abused by a stronger player
Katja Praznik proposed thinking about “how we could connect programs of institutions and NGOs. For instance, the market of cultural services, how can it become more flexible, so that institutions could be more flexible and leave a part of the program to be done by NGOs.”
Iskra Geshoska warned against falling into the trap of offering programming and nothing more to public institutions, “because they are abusing that kind of collaboration and they announce themselves as open ones if they use the program from us”, and suggested change on a structural level. Vida Knežević from Kontekst Gallery in Belgrade agreed with this opinion and gave the example of a political party that had attempted to instrumentalize the gallery.
Flexibility, efficiency, dynamism … the trap of neoliberal discourse?
Dubravka Vrgoč was quite open when it comes to structural change: “Considering the change in the institutions, I think there are two levels of change. One is really the big one, on structural level which depends on political will. And it means that they have to change the law and have to decide what to do with hundreds of employees in the theater whom, I can honestly say, we don’t need. And there is something that we can do by ourselves. The relationship between the institutions and the independents must be equal.”
Katja Praznik pointed out the issue of law “which makes all the people employed in institutions public servants”, making institutions inflexible. In response to this, Petar Milat posed the question: “How to think change differently? Is it possible to think change differently, out of neoliberal discourse of dynamism, excellence and efficiency? Then for most of intellectuals like us, or for artists, the discourse is revolution. But what does it mean? Can we think change differently, in a way that doesn’t invoke these neoliberal things?”
In this vein, Davor Mišković talked about two levels on which institutions might be changed: organizational and institutional, the institutional being stabilization of a certain artistic practice. “From organizational level we should find out the model. We are all aware that institutions need organizational redesign, but from which perspective we will redesign it? If it’s going to be efficiency or anything related to flexibility I’m not sure it’s the right direction. When we are talking about organizational or system redesign, it could be done by giving responsibilities. And this is the biggest issue in our case, to give responsibility to directors and employees and to cultural administrators. Organizational redesign, that doesn’t mean to change the people, it means to change the relationships.”
Tomislav Medak presented a less rigid approach to the matter of discourse: “I don’t think that every kind of economic argument is a neoliberal argument and that every kind of argument about rationality and utility is a neoliberal argument. Every kind of argument about reform in culture is ultimately an argument about utility or maximizing utility. I think we should be careful what kind of political legitimation we provide, but we shouldn’t castigate ourselves every time we mention economic arguments that we are feeding into neoliberal tendencies.”
Snježana Abramović Milković stressed that “to be efficient doesn’t mean to make entertainment program but also to valorize aesthetic work and not only how big audience will come. To set other efficiency criteria and not only those profit-based.”
What changes to introduce?
Tomislav Medak stressed the importance of assessment of expertise and production. “The assessment of quality is out of the system. It has been eviscerated by the politics. And it should be brought back into the game.” He also came up with concrete suggestions as to what shape that change might take: “Maybe we should start engaging public institutions instead of talking among ourselves and try to think of criteria that will allow us to judge the openness of a particular institution, and enable us to pin the label and produce public pressure around it. Criteria such as: mandatory time slots in venues, access to production resources, etc.” The other important issues that Medak addressed were: decentralization and access to culture in non-central neighborhoods, establishing servicing infrastructure such as POGON, special incentives to support collaboration between institutions and independents, special funds for new and emerging initiatives, etc.
Snježana Abramović said: “It’s a pity that in the 21st century we didn’t open any production center which doesn’t need a lot of employees and that could serve independent companies, independent artists for production.” She added that cultural policies push nothing except visibility (new production and presentations), and that this results in hyper-production, in both theater and dance. “So it’s difficult for them who have certain obligations to the City Art Council to open institutions to independent companies because they need to have one hundred performances of their own.”
Davor Mišković said that he saw the “role of institutions as not only something which is producing its own program, but which is taking care for the field of practice in which they are working. If it’s a theater then it’s not thinking only of its own program and production but also of its broader responsibility of theater as such. And that has a lot of very practical consequences. That means that they will enter co-productions, they will produce discourse about what is going on, they will act actively and be subject in the public discussion on culture in that specific field of art.”
Tomislav Medak did not agree: “If we think about thirty years ago then the artistic field around institutions was very small. But now this is not the case. If you take a look at the Museum of Contemporary Art they are much less involved in the contemporary production, but there are also other different galleries or curatorial collectives etc. The field has enormously expanded and it will expand even more because there is more and more people studying in the arts and the field will also expand in the terms of labor. This is a general transformation that is going on which public institutions might need to deal with.”
Emina Višnić pointed out that directors and boards of public institution have a very limited space of governance since in practice they are able to manage only a small part of the total budget. This is because policies on salaries and other related matters do not fall within the domain of decision-making within the institution but within the domain of political decisions.
How to bring about change? How to make it political?
Dejan Ubović shared his experience of a process initiated by 80 independent organizations from Serbia, which resulted in the signing of a protocol with the national Ministry of Culture defining 15 points of vital interest for the independent scene. Drawing from this experience, he stressed that we should first define what we want from open institutions and then enter the process of negotiating. He added that “this crisis is a perfect time to rethink and reform and start with those changes. But first of all it has to be seen as a political change because public cultural institutions in all these countries, and it’s been like that since socialist times, are only comfortable chairs for political parties.”
When discussing how to bring change about, Emina Višnić asked: “Is it enough to do advocacy only in the cultural field to bring the change within the cultural system?” Katja Praznik said that “if we discuss the problems within the sector only among us, we lose the power to act.”
Teodor Celakoski warned about the predominant discourse of complaint when the cultural sector discusses structural change. Remembering certain past examples, he warned participants to “be aware that our argumentation could be very well used in the transformation of the cultural sector that in the end weakens not only public institutions but independent sector too. This is really a threat. We have to figure out in marketing terms what is the added value of the independent voice in the overall social process and if we don’t find it we will not succeed. When they will want to change the sector they will not do this because of us or because there are many of those who are weak who should be improved. No one will give you the power if you don’t produce this power for yourself.” He suggested “that we have to see other options of involving in the process of change of the framework. I am asking what are the other fields where our knowledge, our capacity of organizing things, our understanding of wider social interactions, where these fields of interventions exist to enter the public arena and to really influence the real core of political business. Otherwise our complaints will be, within the political type of dynamics, the argument for neoliberalization of the whole cultural sector.”
Attention-seeking or entering the public / political arena
Snježana Abramović talked about her discouraging experience with the national and local authorities during an attempt to improve the position of the dance scene in Croatia, saying: “They don’t answer papers. They don’t want any change.” She asked, “What will be the instrument to make them hear us?”
Teodor Celakoski offered a possible answer: “We should avoid this static understanding of the system with public institutions, the independents and political parties as the third party. We have to see the possibilities within the contingency and accidental situations. That means that we have to understand overall political and social process in terms of finding the chances to interact and intervene.” Celakoski remembered that when the Zagreb scene was running a campaign to establish hybrid institution (now POGON), decision-makers’ initial reaction had been that they could not understand, then that it was not possible. “But when we entered the real field of their core business dealing with resources worth millions of euros then they decided to understand. So understanding is connected to power and to interest. We have to find these ruptures and possibilities within this contingent system. We shouldn’t understand this system as a huge unbreakable machine. Struggles should be based on discontinuity. If you put pressure for ten years, even more and more pressure, this doesn’t mean that you will succeed. But at some point you will succeed if you go other way around. If you come from their back”. And, answering Abramović’s question, he said, “We should avoid clientelistic relationships with any type of government. This is the first step to avoid this type of their discourse of handling the situation. The other thing is really to find these fields because there is not a sector in the society that will target a wider social base beside their immediate interests of the specific group. So we as the independent scene and those who are interested in the public institutions could make alliances with those other active groups or actors in the domain dealing with public, with common goods. If we go there I’m sure we will challenge not one percent of their budget, we will challenge the whole budget. We will delegitimize the logic of governing the whole process of the whole society and all the resources. We have to go to unions, to students and make these alliances because we have capacities of organizing stuff that they don’t have. We have understanding of excellence that could be recognized by the media, we could provide logic of cooperation that is behind the immediate interest of specific groups. We have to make these alliances on certain occasions that we recognize as the breaking point to enter the system. We have to make a break through into real social environment because we’re not part of it.” He cited one such possibility of which the cultural sector had not taken advantage: the amendment of the law on public television and negative changes in its programming and scheduling. “We could be all standing up to this. But nobody reacted except for those directly interested.” Emina Višnić followed this up, pointing out: “it’s the problem within cultural sector to be so self-concentrated and so governed by its own interest and of course it’s not politically interesting.”
Deconstructing myths of systematic powerlessness and stability of the Zagreb scene
Davor Mišković said that the “system in Croatia, and maybe in other countries, is set up to be powerless. The power is negatively defined: how not to achieve something, how not to do something, what is restricted. This is kind of a normal set-up and in it we have normal institutions or normal organizations that are powerless and they are not doing much. But we can find out organizations or institutions that are working exceptionally. But this is not normal situation. Those who are working exceptionally are exceptions.” Meta Štular confirmed that the situation in Slovenia was similar. “I think that not taking responsibility for what you do is just everywhere. Due to this kind of mentality, we come to where I can’t do everything because I’m powerless, but who can do it then? In this sense I would come to Teo’s proposal that we should not focus on changing the whole system but to see where the opportunities are, the people that are structurally different that are not those afraid of responsibility and to work with these elements.”
Branka Čurčić said that the Zagreb independent scene is strong and united when compared to the independents in Novi Sad who have divided interests, resulting in everything being left to the level of the individual.
However, Teodor Celakoski disagreed, saying that both theses, that of the system of powerlessness and that of the strong independent scene in Zagreb, were myths. “Things are accidental and individual. The myth is that cultural sector is structured so that everybody is weak. We buy this. People sell this because this is their core business, because they don’t do anything with the future. People from institutions are saying we are powerless. This is totally untrue. There are a lot of constraints and barriers to do certain things, but who makes you not to do anything about, for example, national television? We don’t have critical public intellectuals. That’s the problem. And this is an opportunity to enter the public sphere with our campaigns. The myth is that in Croatia there is a kind of static, strong independent scene. This is not true. There are a lot of activities, but stability of this sector in two years will not be here anymore because maybe if we don’t proceed with certain activities everything could fall apart.”
How to make a political impact?
Snježana Abramović insisted that she “still believes that we can influence in a polite and efficient way with papers, suggestions, ideas and we should make dialogue with those people, otherwise we will have revolution.” Emina Višnić replied that polite and structured dialogue in Croatia and in many other countries simply does not work. “Let’s face it, culture and art is not politically important. You can’t change it by just saying it is.”
Teodor Celakoski reacted by saying, “It’s radical and not revolutionary. That is not getting rid of the whole system in the sense of revolution. This participatory bottom-up approach in cultural policy is something I agree is necessary, but I was just saying that it will not be influential if there will not be other doors to enter the political and social arena.” He added that “the dynamic between the political powers is such that it could be influenced. We have to provide platforms so that they will understand all of us as responsible and relevant public actors.”
Vida Knežević stressed the importance of going public while explaining the struggle for their space, “What is important is that some cultural workers were really supportive. I think that some kind of solidarity was made. What is also important is that people understood that what’s going on with the space was not only our problem.”
Clientelism and conflict of interest within the sector
Emina Višnić pointed out the widespread problem of clientelism and said, “If you do things under the table then you end up being even weaker.”
The discussion then turned to three cases in Zagreb: Dance Center, Kino Europa, and Histrionski dom. Snježana Abramović explained that Zagreb Dance Center is wrongly organized: “one artistic organization got to run center without any transparent competition (open call). So it was just given and it’s almost private. It means that the city doesn’t have to pay running costs which is very funny.”
Tomislav Medak said “that there is a clear problem in all of those three cases and that’s that servicing infrastructure was given to organizations that are doing program themselves. So they have split interest or rather they have their own interest that is the first they will advocate in any case. Some of these people were saying when the scene was rising against the city government: ‘well, we had our struggles before, we are not participating’. So it’s clear that they are in a special position in comparison to those who are users of the given infrastructure.”
Teodor Celakoski added, “These three institutions are really an example of local government’s interest in going in development of service-based institutions. But they are an example of how clientelistic personal relations really function, and still everything is argued with the interest of the scene. This process is totally obscure. Because there is no support from the scene, this kind of actors couldn’t fight for the better position of these venues because they are in clientelistic connection. So they can’t fight when they don’t have enough money for heating because they are partners to the side against which they should stand. Even though there was a good intention and investment, they have totally ruined the possibility of having the scene around these spaces. So clientelism is the core of the business in culture environment that we have. And that is the real problem of the scene because people and organizations that run these venues are dependent on the government and they can’t provide enough pressure to have better situation. The scene is also in a kind of clientelistic position because these actors can’t make a lot of noise because they have to use these spaces. This is a total disaster of new open infrastructure for the independents.”
Katja Praznik confirmed that the Slovenian cultural sector faces the same problem. She stressed that people from the sector are afraid to speak about these issues publicly and commented: “If you make a special deal with the authority then you lose all your colleagues who fight for the same thing. And you are in this weird checkmate position when you can’t do anything. You have to have the infrastructure, you don’t have the money, all your colleagues envy you but on the other hand they are happy because you don’t have money to pay the costs and it’s a vicious circle. I’m wondering if we could make recommendations on the clientelism on the scene. What would be a good strategy? How to raise awareness that this is really not good?”
Emina Višnić answered from POGON’s perspective: “As long as the best successful model in our countries will be corruption and clientelism, it will be hard to do it. One way to do it, of course, is to talk about it publicly and be brave about it, at least a part of the scene. Furthermore, governance and management of the venue must be organized differently, as we did with this space here. We have problems with sustainability, money, technical equipment, but we don’t have a general problem with our scene which sees this infrastructure as built for the scene. It sees it now as its own. In the formal structure of the institution we are responsible both to the City of Zagreb and to the associations. There’s no way that only politicians will decide who will be the director, for instance. From this kind of institutional relation you also build all the other relations. For instance, Sergej Pristaš said in one of the debates that we had recently that this is the only place where they as BADco. are seen as an investment into the institution and not as mere additional expense. I think the only way is to be critical and go into the open fight not only with politicians but also with those who are running particular institutions. Maybe this kind of a clash on the scene could also be productive.”
Demanding change – step by step
Teodor Celakoski concluded, “I think a real change could appear if influence can be made. This change won’t happen in a manner of changing the overall framework. The first step that we have to demand is producing new institutions as well as changing already existing service based centers. So to organize on the hybrid level or independent level to support and to establish stronger position of these actors. We have to find a way how to make hybrid institutions, how to make production centers, service centers, how to establish good grounds for the next step. This demand is to change overall cultural system.”
Celakoski gave an example of a gap-bridging solution where the financing of culture is concerned: “For instance, for the last few years there has been at Ministry of Culture a proposal to establish a foundation for independent culture. There is even a special law prepared and it should be passed in a month or two.” He explained that the main purpose of the foundation is to secure “added value” for the independent sector by providing support for operational costs and special schemes for collaboration programs and platforms. He stressed it should be an addition to existing public funding schemes, not a replacement for them. “Within this foundation, if it will happen, we have to develop also a think tank that will measure, propose and elaborate, when the scene will be stronger, the need for overall change. And when we will get this independent and partly hybrid scene settled, well, then we could demand changing of the overall cultural framework.”
Emina Višnić said “that dialogue and fights with decision-makers are needed because without it no change will happen,” and pointed out: “But before that, the scene needs to be established firmly, and not only in the sense of position and visibility in society and ability to affect but also from inside.” She warned that complicity in clientelism on the part of particular actors on the scene is the biggest threat that could cause the scene to fall apart. She also pointed out that “the matter of content, art or cultural content, the matter of what you produce in the society is absolutely not the subject with decision-makers. For us to be able to introduce all these new criteria, the shift, we need to turn again on the production.” She argued that there should be parallel processes: the establishment of new, hybrid institutions alongside the introduction of incentives that will cause a shift away from “this status quo situation of how money is distributed.” She added “What I want to stress most is: it’s really not the time frame of one or two years, it’s the time frame of five, ten, fifteen years.”
Katja Praznik from Asociacija, Ljubljana, and Iskra Geshoska from Kontrapunkt, Skopje, two partner organizations on the project, informed the participants of further activities following on from the conference, namely workshops and debates in Ljubljana (February 2011) and Skopje (April 2011). These activities are aimed at bringing together representatives of culture ministries, local authorities, experts, public institutions, and NGOs from Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia to further develop firm steps and measures based on the conference’s conclusions.
Meta Štular said, “I find this kind of gathering that we have now useful also because when we are in our own countries this question of clientelism or other slippery questions are never addressed because they are small societies and you are afraid that somebody will then be offended. I think it’s very good that we can use these similar situations in this region because when I say something in Croatia I am not afraid that something will fall on my head. I go into discussion with much less inhibition. I was just thinking that maybe we should already think of the time after this project also, because I don’t believe that with this project we will really change institutions. However, we could establish a tool to slowly introduce some changes, an international tool made of participants that are gathered in this conference.” Emina Višnić agreed, but also warned, “No international platforms would work if there won’t be some basic force and group of people and organizations locally. There were on European level such tools, but if you don’t have capacity or will and braveness locally to address this question, then nothing will happen just out of this.”
Snježana Abramović suggested that conclusions should be written and sent to decision-makers. Dejan Ubović pointed out that “the most important is to clarify the objectives of the open institution. Why are we doing this? For more partnership between NGOs and institutions, for a larger audience, more activism or whatever? When those aims will be clear then it should be put on the paper.” Emina Višnić explained, “From the beginning the intention of the conference wasn’t to have strict conclusions, recommendations, because I think it would be manipulation to say that the issue we are touching here will be solved with one conference conclusions. And then we will write down conclusions and send them to decision makers but this doesn’t work even in Brussels so why would it work here? However, I agree definitely with the direction that dialogue and more fights with decision-makers are needed because without it no change will happen.”
Edited by Miljenka Buljević, Tom Medak and Emina Višnić
English proofreading by Catherine Baker
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