New on Festival Bytes: Lingering limbo: the festival scene in Belgrade

10 April 2013

In her first blog post on Festival Bytes, Inge Ceustermans, Manager of EFA’s Atelier for Young Festival Managers, shares her impressions of the Belgrade festival scene after a visit of the city in March. Her blog post was inspired by the question “What would you do if I told you that you have zero Euro for your festival?” of Katarina Zivanovic, City of Belgrade Secretary for Culture, addressing an international audience at the opening of the European Festivals Association’s (EFA) meeting of its 2013 Collective and Affiliate Members at the City Hall in Belgrade. This statement was actually made a few months earlier during a meeting the Secretary for Culture held with all festival directors of Belgrade on the cultural budget; Ms. Zivanovic not only said this as a provocation! Authorities see this as a tool for innovation and are actually implementing it. Until today, Belgrade’s festivals don’t know precisely what their budget will be for this year. The Belgrade Music Festival – BEMUS (founded in 1969) is the oldest and the most prominent music festival in Serbia and one of the most distinctive classical music festivals in Southeastern Europe. They don’t know what will happen this year. They have engaged to host EFA’s conference but they still have not seen any of the money that was allocated to them for organising it. Soon they will become specialists in debt management. People responsible for Bitef, one of the most renowned theatre festivals in Belgrade and Europe, which has developed an exquisite national and international programme over its 46 years of existence, tell me that they have a programme for their next festival taking place in September, but no budget. They cannot sign the contracts. How can you run an international festival and make agreements with artists, especially international ones, if you don’t know what your budget will be? Embarrassed they tell me that they were planning to present a piece of a legendary Belgian theatre company, but that they don’t know if they have the budget for it. In 1999 for instance, Bitef was awarded the Special Prize by "Premio Europa per il teatro" for its continuity and quality. Different times… Dear Secretary for Culture, what are you doing? Do you have any idea what the consequences of your ad hoc decisions are? Do you really think this is a joke? A game? This strategy will not generate innovative actions. Artists have been and will always be innovative; they don’t need to be thrown into the lion’s den without any defence and only for the amusement of the public. And, they will not wait for a merciful hand to be innovative… This policy (if you can call it a policy!) would only result in further isolating Serbia in the East of Europe. Serbian artists would move to other parts of the world where they are being respected, international artists would go elsewhere – what a loss this would be for Belgrade’s rich festival life, as well as for the region and for Serbia, which has been developed by so many passionate people with little means over the past years. At the same time, as always in the arts, hopeful things are happening. While some politicians seem to be trying to close borders again, the No Borders Orchestra (NBO) has started a remarkable initiative together with the Belgrade Music Festival (BEMUS), the Serbian Festivals Association (SEFA), EFA and partners from about 12 countries who have joined forces to share their artistic dreams and create a project which unites musicians from former Yugoslavia and aims to overcome nationalism, racism, xenophobia etc. The NBO has been inspired by the West-East Divan Orchestra, founded by the conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, where Israeli and Palestinian musicians play side by side. “The No Borders Orchestra is about making a decision that art should represent the change that we wish to see in the world,” says Premil Petrovic, the project’s guru. Their political and social plan is one I would vote for! Of course, the example of Belgrade is not unique. We cannot ignore that we are facing rapidly changing and financially challenging times. EU Commissioner for Culture Androulla Vassiliou asked the cultural sector to find new narratives; it is key for us to reformulate why it is important that we exist. This approach seems more fruitful and has been the guideline of one of the EFA meetings in Belgrade entitled “FestLab” which brought together Belgrade’s cultural scene and EFA’s national festival associations. Alternatively, national government and municipality officials could think about triggering innovation by rising the budget percentage for new and innovative projects since the relation between the subventions for institutions and established organisations versus new projects is out of balance in a lot of countries. Jurriaan Cooiman, President of the Swiss umbrella organsisation swissfestivals, tells us that in Switzerland only 5% of the total budget for culture is spent on new works; all the rest goes to museums and established institutions, some of which are in dire need to become more flexible. The Flemish Minister of Culture Joke Schauvliege reserved (as of 2013) 10% of the available arts budget for projects to generate renewal and creative productions (more information on this in Dutch and English). Twice as much as last year – already an improvement! And finally I was happy to see my very good friend Milan Lučić who is running Dom Omladine and the Belgrade Jazz Festival. He is facing the same difficulties but his fighting, enthusiastic and passionate spirit cannot be beaten. Keep up the good work, dear people of Belgrade, this is not the first time we are facing these challenges and we will overcome them once again! The results of some EU grants, including the No Borders Orchestra, and the very meaning of such a meeting offering an international platform for exchange and support, launching and re-confirming a collaborative spirit, are important. And, Dear Ms. Zivanovic, it’s not too late to turn the tables!