Centralising culture: competition for the Serbian Capital of Culture 2023

To what extent do state priority projects such as the Serbian Capital of Culture really succeed in advancing and developing local cultural policies, and to what extent are they only a "decorative practice for government policies"?

Ministry of Culture and Information recently announced a competition for the Serbian Capital of Culture 2023. The goal of the initiative, as stated in the call, is “raising the quality of cultural life of the local self-government unit; initiating cultural, artistic and tourism development through activation of existing and conceptualization of new art programs, both traditional and modern in form; revival of existing cultural institutions, but also launching new and contemporary institutions.”

According to the representatives of the Ministry of Culture, an elected local self-government unit will be awarded the title of the Serbian Capital of Culture 2023, which will enable it to be recognized as a relevant national centre for cultural development and thus “become more visible on the cultural map of Serbia and Europe”.

We asked experts in the field of culture and art: Milena Dragićević-Šešić, Ana Vilenica, Branislav Dimitrijević and Mariana Cvetković, to comment on the initiative itself, the cultural policy behind it, as well as the goals of the announced Serbian Capital of Culture 2023 competition.

Decentralization or additional centralization of cultural production?

In contrast to the announcements and promises coming from the Ministry’s headquarters – which state the key intentions of the project to be providing local governments with support to improve their cultural capacity, production and offer in cooperation with various institutions and actors in culture – experts Mašina talked to agree that the crucial problem of such cultural policy are its strong centralist tendencies, which outweigh the declarative commitment to decentralization.

Milena Dragićević-Šešić, founder of the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy and Management at the University of Arts in Belgrade, said that decentralization of culture should be a true priority of cultural policy. However, as she explains, the instruments and methods by which this is achieved have so far been inadequate.

Referring to a research of cultural policy and cultural participation in 15 Serbian cities, conducted in 2018 by the team of the Institute for Studying Cultural Development and the Institute for Theatre, Film, Radio and Television of the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, professor Dragićević-Šešić said that Serbian cities lack concept and vision of cultural development, settle for routine activities of institutions and cultural events and that there is no true inter-sectoral or inter-ministerial cooperation:

“This tendency to make an ‘annual event’ which mirrors the ones in Europe – but hastily – is a sign of a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of cultural development. European cities invest years in developing their concept, after which they enter a wider selection, followed by a narrower one, and then spend a few more years developing their programs before ‘their’ year as the capital begins. Not to mention that they have years of urban cultural policies build upon, while we can count on the fingers on one hand the cities that tried and occasionally managed to make strategic development plans in culture (at which point usually a change of local government would happen and everything would fall apart).”

Ana Vilenica, a researcher and theorist of urban change, housing and art, also talked to Mašina about the influence of governing structures on local cultural policy. She believes that decentralization of culture in terms of greater local autonomy cannot be expected to take place as an effect of putting individual cities in focus by awarding them the title of the Serbian Capital of Culture while the entire institutional system is centralized and “a hostage of the ruling political party”.

Art historian Branislav Dimitrijević emphasized that the decentralization of culture in Serbia primarily implies political decentralization. However, in his opinion, decentralization of culture “is out of the question in a centralized, even highly dictatorial system, in a state that allocates less budgetary resources to support culture than any other European country, and where artists and professionals in the field of culture are reduced to degrading working conditions and pushed to the margins of society”.

The competition Serbian Capital of Culture 2023 is a clumsy attempt to decentralize culture which shows a complete lack of understanding of the concepts of democratization and decentralization in culture, points out Mariana Cvetković, president of the Station – Service for contemporary dance, and a cultural worker with many years’ presence in the field of independent and experimental performing arts.

According to her, the competition is announced pompously, but all the while skipping a whole series of steps that the Ministry needed to do and instruments it needed to apply previously: such as the affirmation of the principles of cooperation and inclusion of all cultural actors, affirmation of contemporary art (that hardly exists outside major cities), establishing domestic policies of support to new artistic practices (that have not been new in the art world for a long time) and, finally, providing education for cultural administration. Even, as Marijana Cvetković emphasizes, establishing cultural administration first – since there is no such administration in the field of culture in most parts of Serbia at all:

“Without all this, this competition is just another contribution to the provincialization and festivalization of culture, which can result in production of kitsch, in cobbling programs that will be cultural in name only, but most likely steeped in corruption facilitated by associations close to the ruling party and ‘party experts'”.

Annual assembly of the Cooperative – Regional Platform for Culture, LUMBARDHI cinema, Prizren, 2019. Photo: Luka Knežević-Strika

The centre announces, the centre decides

In accordance with other similar regional and European projects, primarily the European Capital of Culture, the Serbian Capital of Culture promotes, as stated in the Ministry’s statement: “predictable and consistent cultural policies that include contemporary creativity, creative and cultural industries, protection and promotion of cultural heritage, innovative use of public spaces, as well as the promotion of regional and international cooperation.”

However, what this means in practice and to what extent such projects of “national importance” actually succeed in improving and developing local cultural policies depends on a number of factors. One of the deciding factors is the mechanism and criteria for the selection of the Capital of Culture, but what also matters are material conditions and financial and infrastructural opportunities that can act stimulating, but also create problems – especially if they are instructed by non-transparent policies of production and distribution of cultural and artistic content.

Professor Dragicević-Šešić mentioned Cities in Focus, a project which the Ministry of Culture implemented several years ago, as a good idea, but one that in practice didn’t reach its goals because the project didn’t get funding to invest in cultural development, but into particular elements of cultural infrastructure. Referring on that, she commented that it clear that the announced Serbian Capital of Culture project, which is led by a team from Belgrade and Novi Sad, is a part of the politics of systemic centralization.

Speculating about which practices will be supported by this project at the local level, Ana Vilenica stated that she believes that “occupied” municipal and city government structures will decide on that together with the heads of cultural institutions who act as party puppets, and who already produce official local culture:

“In context of such local cultural politics, there is no room for artistic approaches that critically question social reality and aim at producing an alternative to a world ruled by profit, violence, fear and hopelessness from an activist standpoint, but only for practices that agree to humbly serve as an ornamental practice for the state politics.”

Branislav Dimitrijević also draws attention to the fact that the Ministry announced a competition to which only local self-governments that are already under full control of the central government can apply:

“Also, the competition is announced without the budget for this project being adopted, which opens space for abuse and non-transparency. So, this is not a competition, this is more likely a kind of an internal document of the ruling party and its publication is just an act of political marketing.”

Dimitrijević commented on the statement of the Minister of Culture that she regularly “visits local self-governing units and discusses their particular needs so that everyone in our country realizes how important culture is in order for a state to be a modern, developed and catch up with the world”, stating that it sounds like something which should be the Minister’s job’s description. Still, as he emphasizes, “if we take into account that almost all local governments in Serbia are under the control of one party, this statement is also filled with cynicism and nonsense”.

According to Mariana Cvetković, the Ministry of Culture should understand that it itself functions in a highly centralized manner, that it rejects any dialogue with relevant actors of contemporary culture and that, as such, “it is not able to recognize and understand what has already been decentralized and where democratization in culture has been established, which is clear from this call.”

Serbia doesn’t need new pompous projects, but an active cultural and political practice

What is especially striking in the competition, Branislav Dimitrijević notes, is that the main goal of its subject is stated to be the “creation of unique cultural identity”. Dimitrijević believes that this clearly shows that the Ministry of Culture’ intention “is to exclusively create a mono-cultural identity in which there is no place for differences and diversity, no place for diversity of cultural expression, no place for culture that nurtures experiment and critical thinking.”

Stating her conclusions on the long-term and continuous trends in local cultural policies, Milena Dragićevic-Šešić advises that it would be better if the idea of Cities in Focus was redefined instead, and that incentives were given to programs, artists and art projects, cultural workers, NGOs to help them develop innovative and participatory cultural projects in partnership and dialogue with the local population: 

“This does not require pompous programs and announcements, but active cultural and political practice.”

When it comes to structural alternatives of the state’s approach to the decentralization of culture, Marijana Cvetković says that its best alternative would be to invest serious and long-term work in understanding the field of cultural production in Serbia as a whole, with all its actors and all existing knowledge and resources, and to engage all of them in a joint endeavour:

“Such alternative approach would result in a change in the system of management in culture and changes in the existing cultural policies that have so far brought only destruction of culture (especially at the local level), rejection of existing institutions and a systematic purge of all expertise and ideas of cooperativeness from the institutions.”

The call to local governments to participate in the project Serbian Capital of Culture 2023 has been announced, and applications are to be submitted from August 2 to September 2, 2021 by filling in the competition questionnaire, and submitted in printed and electronic form to the Ministry of Culture and Information.

According to the announcement of the Ministry, the competition is open for local self-government units in the Republic of Serbia, except for the cities of Belgrade and Novi Sad, and the amount of allocated funds will be determined by the Serbian 2021 Budget Law.

Translation: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on May 10, 2020.


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