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East: The Arts Suffer From Fatigue

  • Ben Partridge



London, 8 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading theater expert Dragan Klaic says the cultural and artistic infrastructure of the Central and East European countries is suffering from institutional fatigue, reflecting its failure to change since the fall of communism.

Klaic, director of the Theater Institute Netherlands, says the government-backed arts suffer from inertia, a failure to take risks, a refusal to innovate, and the determination of those on official incomes, however small, to hang onto their jobs.

In particular, he says, there is a tendency to treat some cultural institutions as "untouchable", particularly state-funded theaters, many of which have gained the status of "sacred cows."

Klaic, a former professor of Theater Studies at the University of Arts in Belgrade, says a two-year research study discovered that there are 1,200 communist-era repertory theater companies (drama, opera, ballet) still in operation in 20 countries across the region. Some 465 are in Russia, 63 in Romania and 54 in Bulgaria.

By a conservative estimate, they still provide steady employment for at least 150,000 people including artists, administrators and technicians. Many get regular salaries and, while some salaries are purely symbolic (i.e. tiny) at least they are in steady employment. Klaic says the most talented artists are leaving to join the new and dynamic independent arts sector, but others won't take risks.

"The most talented, the most diligent, they leave, and they take the risk of pursuing their own professional career without having these regular salaries. But a lot of people won't leave. And they'll just stick to this meager but secure existence and won't take risks. And some of these people are, of course, formally on the job, but they are moonlighting, and making incomes that are not taxable."

Klaic says there is a huge infrastructure of museums across the region, many in disarray and incapable of consolidating themselves, and many cultural centers, most reliant on political sponsors.

But, encouragingly, the past decade has brought the growth of a new independent arts sector, made up of fresh initiatives, small venues, new festivals, galleries, publishers. This sector appeals mostly to the young and has shown dynamism, innovation, and sharp survival skills. But it gets little or no support from governments, which, through inertia, continue to support the older institutions, regardless of the quality and quantity of their output.

He says cultural policies in the post-communist societies have altered little, and any changes have been modest and cosmetic. Governments policies have been directed at safeguarding the status quo, rather than creating something new. This is particularly true of countries where nationalist ideologies have influenced government policies. Nationalist parties have emphasized the preservation of the national culture, linguistic identity, and the national heritage -- on the "defense" and not the opening of the cultural sector.

Klaic says ministers of culture across the region have changed rapidly, but their bureaucratic "apparatus" remains unchanged. Thus both Romania and Bulgaria retain the same number of repertory theaters, because these institutions are "untouchable". Klaic says the defense of the status quo has little to do with communism, but everything to do with the role of theaters in the second half of the 19th century when they were seen as vital to affirming the national culture, language, and cultural identity.

He says audiences have remained rather loyal to the theater, despite squeezed family budgets, partly because there is still some kind of "knee jerk respect" for the high status of culture. But the Central and East European countries all face a dilemma: their "anachronistic cultural infrastructure" cannot respond to the new needs of younger audiences, or to cater for the differentiation of taste and the new dilemmas in post-communist societies.
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