When you find yourself in an unsustainable position out of the blue: the appeal of workers in culture to the authorities

Foto: Danilo Prnjat

Many organizations and arts associations belonging to the cultural sector have recently appealed to the Ministry of Culture and Information of the Republic of Serbia, the Belgrade City Secretariat of Culture and other relevant institutions, as well as to the expert community, requesting urgent adoption of concrete measures of support for artists, cultural workers and the self-employed sector in culture. They face economic hardship caused by the state of emergency in Serbia, which was declared due to the corona virus pandemic.

Last Friday, March 20th, The Belgrade City Secretariat of Culture announced that a public competition for artistic and professional projects, as well as scientific research in the field of culture (scheduled for 2020) will not be implemented. This provoked strong reactions from the expert community. Following the announcement, Association Independent Culture Scene of Serbia (NKSS) issued a statement for the authorities on Monday, March 23rd :

We consider the decision to cancel the competition for financing and co-financing cultural projects, made by the Belgrade City Secretariat of Culture, to be unacceptable and extremely inadequate given the circumstances! The city government Secretariat for Culture should have made the myriad available options for program modification and crisis adaptation their priority. The abolition of competition is a sign of blatant disregard for the cultural sector. The repercussions of this decision directly endanger lives and are an open indicator of the Secretariat of Culture’s destructive policy, which threatens not only organizations belonging to the independent cultural scene but also individuals, independent artists and all other actors in the field of culture.

NKSS further states that the corona virus pandemic has left thousands of artists in Serbia jobless, putting them in difficult economic circumstances overnight”. They stressed that “artists and cultural workers had already been in a difficult situation, but are now being pushed to the verge of survival, for an indefinite time”.

The competent institutions at all levels of governance were addressed with requests relating to short and long-term measures needed to help the most vulnerable in the cultural sector. Firstly, to urgently withdraw the decision to cancel the annual competition for funding and co-financing projects in the field of culture, announced by the Belgrade City Secretariat of Culture.

Those engaged in the cultural sector without full-time agreements also demanded that the results of calls for applications issued by the Ministry of Culture and local self-governments be announced as soon as possible and that contracts and payments for the implementation of approved projects for the current year be urgently provided. They also requested that compensation at the level of minimum wage be urgently provided for freelance artists, who are prevented from earning during the state of emergency, even though they continue their work with previous intensity.

They asked that new models of program execution, which would include digital dissemination and communication with an audience, be approved, in order to implement the already approved programs.

Finally, one of the requirements was that the republican and local government funds bear the cost of social security contributions for all self-employed artists and cultural workers during the corona virus pandemic, and that an emergency fund for the socially most vulnerable categories of cultural workers be established.

In a statement issued by the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS), sent to the same addresses on the same day, attention was drawn to the alarming situation among workers in the field of culture:

We would like to emphasize that a large number of independent artists continue to contribute to the general social and humanitarian interests in new circumstances and during the global health crisis. Extensive organizational structure of ULUS (the largest professional association in the country, with over 2,700 members, of which 574 are freelance artists), which provides services to various categories of artistic creators and in regular circumstances executes its program in two representative spaces, is impossible to maintain without substantial financial support of the relevant institutions of local self-government and the Republic.

Kondenz festival 2019. Foto: Luka Knežević-Strika

The appeal is joined by other representative professional associations in culture

These appeals were joined by other representative professional associations in the field of culture in Serbia, which in their statement called for the relevant state authorities’ responsibility. As emphasized in the statement, in accordance with the Law on Culture and the RS Strategy for Culture the authorities have a legal duty and obligation to take care of the well-being of every artist and cultural worker who in their professional work contributes to the overall cultural development.

In their letter to the Ministry of Culture and Information, the Serbian Association of Ballet Artists (UBUS) points out that the state of emergency completely stopped the work of a large number of independent artists:

In that respect, we are worried about the survival of this category of artists, who will not be able to perform their work and therefore will be left without income in the coming period. Self-employed artists aren’t eligible to apply for bank loans in order to eventually overcome this situation.

They, however, have to cover communal expenses, electricity, telephone, rent and more. Independent artists need to support and provide for their families during this period (independent artists are often married couples with no alternative sources of income). We also draw attention to the fact that the current situation has arisen in the final months of the theatre season, that is, the school year, and that after their completion, there will be a break of two months when a large number of independent artists regularly have no income.

The UBUS appeal further warns that freelance artists are potentially left without any income for the next 6 months, noting that they are most burdened with the cost of renting a work space, “charged by landlords even when their work is suspended”.

United and solidary

The NKSS Association, as well as other aforementioned arts associations, agree that it is necessary for the Belgrade City Secretariat of Culture to revise its decision to cancel the annual competition for 2020, and that those in charge of the cultural sector can and must do much more immediately, and not only when the state of emergency is abolished, since currently no one can predict how long it will last.

In the meantime, NKSS also issued an appeal of solidarity with all social categories affected by the new situation:

We hereby call for solidarity with the most vulnerable, with all those who have been most affected by this situation, workers without basic labour and social rights, the unemployed, refugees and all those who have or will be left without work and ways to live in dignity because of this crisis.

Concerning concrete support measures, the Crisis Team of the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS) has invited artists over 65 who need assistance with the purchase of basic supplies, art supplies or medicines, or with walking pets, to call the following telephone number: 063 – 558 – 038 for assistance.

V.K.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Mar 23, 2020.

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