By Vladimir Paunovic
PhD student in Culture and Media Management, Faculty of Dramatic Arts, University of Arts in Belgrade, Serbia
Sustainability of the independent cultural scene of Serbia
The importance of non-institutional participants in culture, in the context of achieving sustainability, has long been recognized in the theory of European cultural policy. As one of the key topics in achieving the sustainability of modern cities, some authors see the need not only for cooperation, but also for public-civil partnerships. Partners in that relationship are participants and movements of civil society on the one hand, and local self-government on the other hand, and through it the public values of culture are redefined and re-emphasized. This type of partnership is for cities –the most important approach if they want both– an innovative working methodology and a guarantee of a better life for citizens, which should be the purpose of local communities (Hristova, Dragicevic Sesic & Duxbury, 2015). The idea of the importance of culture as an integral element of sustainable development has appeared on the international political scene since the 1990s, which has been legitimized and documented in numerous strategic documents and conventions, and the intertwining of these two subjects is difficult according to some authors due to the various interpretations of sustainability and culture. They map cultural sustainability through: cultural heritage, cultural vitality, economic sustainability through culture, cultural diversity and ecological-cultural resilience (Rogac Mijatovic, 2014).
If we were to implement these external determinants of cultural sustainability on the very independent cultural scene of Serbia, then the most adequate would be – cultural diversity. And not only through a broader understanding in terms of diversity of values, perceptions and attitudes and cultural artifacts associated with them, but also in terms of its diversity of approaches to culture in relation to the institutional, which is also threatened by globalization, and which are most manifested in Serbia through unargued budget support of the creative sector, with the identification of culture with entrepreneurship, in some form of quasi-neoliberal approach.
Cultural management theory of sustainability
Does the theory recognize strategies for achieving cultural sustainability that can be applied to an independent cultural scene?
We assess the current social reality in Serbia as a post-transition turbulent environment with characteristics such as hidden and real poverty, high unemployment, disturbed value system, systemic corruption, partocracy, potential crisis hotspots in terms of conflict and unresolved regional relations. In the environment that is described, for an independent cultural sector, the key strategy becomes mere survival by adapting to existing conditions (Dragicevic Sesic & Dragojevic, 2005).
The theory states that the first strategy of cultural work in turbulent, crisis conditions is the “strategy of minimal self-sustainability” (Ibidem), which represents survival in extremely unfavorable circumstances, which in our opinion is a constant strategy of the Serbian independent cultural scene. The description of the strategy is also a description of the everyday life of the mentioned actors, because it “implies reducing activities to what can be preserved with the help of free, volunteer work, using existing, previously acquired resources and their maximum exploitation” (Ibidem). In other words, work for the future, but as periods of crisis in Serbia last far longer than apparent stability, questions about the capacity of activism arise.
The next proposed strategy, as well as the first mentioned, comes from the public sector, but in our opinion it can also be applied to the civil sector in culture. It is a “strategy of merging with another organization” (Ibidem), which refers to the assessment that independent development is impossible or that unification will bring faster development, with the importance of maintaining credibility. In the mental culture of individual interests on the Serbian scene, such an endeavor is risky due to the danger of assimilation of smaller organizations into larger ones, but a good example is the successful project-manifestation merger of the festival platform “Mixer House / Fest” in Belgrade, created by several related smaller festivals.
Here is another strategy from the theory, which is applicable to the sustainability of the civil sector in the culture of Serbia. It is a strategy of relocation, which is used “when political or economic conditions do not allow the survival or further development of the organization” (Dragicevic Sesic & Dragojevic, 2005: 114). As an example, we present the dislocation of the Cultural Club “Zeleno Zvono” from Zrenjanin to Novi Sad, conditioned by economic reasons, although without much effect.
The theory states that the criteria for evaluating the degree of achieved self-sustainability are different for all three sectors in culture: public, for-profit and civil sector (Ibidem: 209). The main element in this regard for the private sector will be financial success, the public sector will define it as “financial diversification of resources”, and the civil as “the degree of independent income” (Ibidem: 210). Why is the sustainability of culture predominantly viewed through an economic prism? Some authors believe that assessing culture only from the aspect of economic and profit has its roots in the one-sided interpretation of progress by economic growth, mostly by corporations and politicians, and that this theory is subject to criticism, especially in today’s crisis, because it proved unsustainable (Djuric, 2014).
There are other criteria for evaluating the successful sustainability of the cultural sector: intersectoral connectivity; reputation achieved in public; degree of staff qualification; degree of achieved media attractiveness; audience loyalty; rapid change of the focus of action in accordance with the requirements of the environment (Dragicevic Sesic & Dragojevic, 2005). According to us, they are far more important, because without quality human resources, loyal audience and, above all, reputation in the public, cultural sector –and especially the independent scene– the financial aspect will not mean much, because there will be no one to implement, monitor and evaluate programs. On the other hand, the achieved self-sustainability in today’s turbulent times in Serbia is “key element of credibility of the organisation in the eyes of potential donors and sponsors” (Ibidem: 172). When, as it is the case today, the very survival of organizations is called into question, only “those who have managed to redefine and reorganize” remain and survive (Ibidem).
The state’s attitude towards the independent cultural sector of Serbia
According to last year’s analysis of the independent cultural scene, the budget of Serbia is the second largest in the region, and at the same time the allocation for culture per capita is the lowest, with a percentage of the budget for culture of 0.74% in relation to the total budget. The independent cultural scene, state support that should be dominant by European standards, was mainly won through the annual competition for contemporary art, which in 2019 amounted to only 4% of the total budget for Serbian culture. Such a budget for the competition was distributed by the Ministry of Culture of Serbia in 2019 as follows: only 1.19% was intended for NGOs in culture, including members of pro-government (GONGO) organizations, and members of the Association of Independent Cultural Scene of Serbia, which gathers about 80 representatives from all over Serbia, received 0.16% of the budget.
The current situation caused by the pandemic has shown a double discrimination: the state of Serbia towards the cultural sector and the Ministry of Culture towards the independent sector in culture. According to the “Nova.rs” portal, “The Serbian government has revised 5.1 billion euros in the name of economic aid for the remediation of coronavirus consequences, but not only did it not allocate a dinar for the cultural sector, it also reduced the budget of the relevant ministry by 2.7 billion dinars in relation to the beginning of the year” (Jovandić, 2020). In that way, the budget for the Ministry’s competitions was reduced, and their only help so far was a one-time payment of around 770 euros for just over 2,000 independent artists from representative associations, while in our estimation, twice as many representatives of the independent cultural scene were left without any support.
Participants of the independent cultural scene of Serbia about their sustainability
For the purpose of this article, we interviewed three representatives of the independent cultural scene of Serbia: Sladjana Petrovic Varagic, from the Independent Film Center “Filmart”, from Pozega (province); Darka Radosavljevic, from the Independent Art Association “Remont”, from Belgrade (capital); and Zoran Pantelic, from the Center for New Media “Kuda.org”, from Novi Sad (shire).
For Sladjana Petrovic Varagic, the sustainability of the independent sector in Serbian culture is an unattainable desired state, which includes the following elements: defined directions of cultural policy, established system of rules and procedures that determine the financing of all actors’ programs, independence of the cultural sector from politics, as well as political and economic stability. She assesses the current sustainability as a barely passing grade, because there is no stable financing, as well as directions for the development of culture, and that the possibilities for applying to large European funds are limited due to the uncertainty of ensuring financial participation. She believes that we should influence the awareness of decision makers and the general public about the importance of culture as a general public good, but also that we should literally fight for a better position of the independent cultural scene with all available means such as negotiations, letters, petitions, but also subversive actions, protests…
Darka Radosavljević believes that the sustainability of non-institutional cultural actors in Serbia is primarily based on satisfying personal needs, although there are those whose activities are limited in time (e.g. unsustainable in the long run, because they survive for a short time until they complete one or two projects with current donor requests). This recognizes the importance of teaming up in promoting sustainability.
In the proposed measures for achieving sustainability, Zoran Pantelić refers to world experiences, which indicate that the path to achieving sustainability is a matter of negotiation, pressure, articulation of demands and active participation, and that through such a process the regulation of the cultural field itself changes. He emphasizes that such a form of negotiation requires will, time, energy and dedication to the goal, but that the current situation does not encourage or motivate participants from the independent cultural scene to persevere in that fight.
For two decades, the European Union has recognized the importance of civil sector participation, both for the development of culture, sustainable development (the “fourth pillar”), and society in general. But not Serbia. The independent cultural scene of Serbia is on the brink of survival, because it does not have satisfactory sustainability in relation to the role that should belong to it by world standards in the development of society. From the arguments, we point out that there is a small number of international donors who support contemporary art, and that the Ministry of Culture and Local Self-Government only maintains the appearance of cooperation.
The independent cultural scene of Serbia, under the key factor of sustainability, determines financial sustainability. Within its development measures, project financing is mostly used, because the realization of own revenues is hindered by legislation that equates the non-profit and profit sector with taxes, corporate philanthropy is rare, and the civil class is impoverished to provide personal donations.
An independent cultural scene in such conditions should ask the state for better conditions for achieving sustainability. This means a real partnership with the public sector and asking the authorities an open question: do they want an independent cultural sector at all? If the answer is positive, then one should seek confirmation of the same in the highest documents, such as the National Strategy for the Development of Culture. Also the use of public spaces, equal treatment in relation to other sectors in culture, longer-term models of support to organizations whose work is assessed in the highest public interest, and the application of real decentralization in the territorial sense.
To the state we should clearly present the benefits of partnership with the civil sector in the work within international projects, because in addition to promoting culture, it will also promote itself as democratic and European in the true sense of the word.
Questions for further discussion
- If the independent cultural scene of Serbia does not have the conditions for achieving sustainability, and the state itself is not interested in it in a satisfactory way, how can they get involved in creating general sustainability (city or state)?
- In your opinion, what are the strategies for the sustainability of cultural management that can be applied to the independent cultural scene in post-transition countries such as Serbia?
- Why is the sustainability of the cultural scene predominantly linked to the economic factor?
- How much has the current pandemic affected the sustainability of the independent cultural sector?
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DRAGICEVIC SESIC, M. and DRAGOJEVIC, S. (2005). Art Management in turbulent circumstances. Amsterdam, European Cultural Foundation.
HRISTOVA, S.; DRAGICEVIC SESIC, M. and DUXBURY, N. (2015). Culture and Sustainability in European Cities Imagining Europolis. London and New York: Routlege Taylor & Francis Group, pp 04-05.
JOVANDIĆ, M. (2020). Vlada nije pomogla kulturi, nego joj i uzela 2,7 milijardi. Nova.rs. Available at: https://nova.rs/kultura/vlada-nije-pomogla-kulturi-nego-joj-i-uzela-27-milijardi/ [Accessed 26.05.2020]
ROGAC MIJATOVIC, L. J. (2014). Exploring cultural sustainability in times of uncertainty. Proceedings of the International Scientific Conference Culture and Sustainable Development in Times of Crisis. Belgrade, Faculty of Dramatic Arts, pp. 54.58.
Vladimir Paunović is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, University of Arts in Belgrade at the Department of Culture and Media Management, with research work on the decentralization of culture. His scientific areas of interest are: cultural policy, culture and media management, media ethics, theater management, civil society in culture, popular culture and culture of memory. He publishes papers in professional and scientific journals in Serbia and the region of former Yugoslavia. He has been a civil society activist, lecturer, journalist and cultural manager for many years. As an author, he deals with documentaries, journalism and screenplays for theater plays.