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Greece/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Costis Dallas

Central elements of contemporary Greek cultural policy and practice can be better understood in the light of its heritage, as well as its recent history. Greece emerged as a nation state in the early 19th century, endowed with a formidable Classical heritage, as well as with strong community bonds based on the Christian Orthodox tradition.

After the War of Independence against the OView on Athensttoman Empire, the country was formally established in 1827. Under the predominant influence of the Enlightenment, the Greek state adopted educational and cultural heritage preservation policies which resulted in a national programme and stringent legislation on the protection of the archaeological heritage, which persisted through most of the 19th and 20th century. Institutions such as the Greek Archaeological Service, a National Archaeological Museum, a National Library, the University of Athens and a National Theatre were created gradually during the course of a century. Developments in literature and the arts in Greece mirrored contemporary movements in Western Europe, with which Greek intellectuals and artists had developed strong links.

The Second World War, and the bloody Civil War that followed it, left Greece – its politics, economy and society – in shatters. Deep divisions between the victorious right and the defeated left, reinforced by political clientelism and prolonged measures of political censure, had a marked effect on cultural life. Anti-establishment writers and artists were excluded from state programmes of support, and some were forced to live in exile in more hospitable western European countries, notably France. Associations of artists and writers, cultural and media organisations remained, as a rule, sectarian and divided.

Gradually improved standards of living allowed, during the 1950s and 1960s, the flourishing of strong popular music recording and cinema industries. The Greek Radio Foundation (EIR) expanded its network of regional radio stations, and its Third Programme became a focus for cultivated music (classical, jazz, traditional-folk) and programmes on literature and the arts. The Athens Festival, hosted every summer in the restored Theatre of Herodes Atticus, became a venue for international music, ballet and drama performances accessible to Greek audiences, while the Thessaloniki Film Festival became a focus for both Greek cinema and international productions. Writers such as Nobel laureates Georges Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, composers such as Manos Hatzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis, and theatre companies such as Theatro Technis transcended political boundaries and provided much-needed bearings to a society in transformation. Journals such as Epitheorissi Technis, Nea Hestia, Epoches, Theatro, and Zygos, became the focus for expression and debate in literature and the arts.

In the 1960s, a significant number of archaeological museums were built in major cities or near important archaeological sites, housing the expanding numbers of artefacts found in systematic and rescue excavations. The Greek Archaeological Service operated through a decentralised structure of regional ephorates of antiquities – as well as the Archaeological Society of Athens and foreign archaeological schools and institutes active in Greece. In addition, Athens was endowed with a National Gallery, to house a representative collection of 19th and 20th century Greek painting and sculpture.

Initially, responsibility for culture and cultural policy was divided between different government ministries. A separate Ministry of Culture and Sciences was created in 1971, when Greece was ruled by a military junta. After the restoration of democratic rule and normal cultural life in 1974, the Ministry gained authority. New Ministers were appointed who, apart from career politicians, included some notable artists and intellectuals, such as actress Melina Mercouri whose long-standing position as Minister (1981-89, and again 1993-95) informed major elements of the current cultural policy.

Challenges facing the Ministry to date include:

  • the preservation and valorisation of the archaeological heritage of Athens and other large cities, threatened by rapid urbanisation;
  • the need to support an expanding cultural sector and a more active participation in cultural life not only in Athens, but also in the increasingly developed regions;
  • the international dimension of Greek cultural policies, accentuated by Greece's re-admittance as a full member of the Council of Europe after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974, and, notably, by its accession to the European Union in 1981;
  • hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, concomitant opportunities in developing cultural infrastructure and events, and the challenge of placing Athens in the limelight of international attention, and
  • facing the harrowing challenge of fiscal crisis which has led, since 2009, to growing economic depression and large scale unemployment, especially among the young.

The budget of the Ministry of Culture represents historically a small fraction of the state budget. Some public investments relevant to the arts or heritage are provided by other Ministries (Public Administration, Public Works, Press and Media). In recent years, culture has increasingly depended for funding on the EU Community Support Framework, cultural attraction visitor and sales revenues, and, since the mid-1990s, on the Lottery Fund, administered by the Ministry of Culture. Major programmes, such as the Athens (1985), Thessaloniki (1997) and Patras (2006) European Capital of Culture events, the Cultural Olympiad events linked with the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics, and investments in cultural infrastructure, such as the Athens and Thessaloniki Concert Halls, could not have taken place without these sources.

The increased need for archaeological heritage protection and valorisation was recognised by the inception of major restoration initiatives such as the Restoration of the Acropolis Monuments programme, and the launching of an international campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles in conjunction with the creation of a new Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009. A master plan for the reunification of the archaeological sites of Athens was adopted in the early 1990s and pursued actively to the mid-2000s, restoring monuments, establishing visitor facilities, creating pedestrian ways and regulating traffic so that visitors can have seamless access to Athenian archaeological attractions.

A shift towards decentralisation in the early 1980s resulted in the creation of regional theatre organisations and other local arts infrastructures. In the mid-1990s, the National Cultural Network of Cities was created, including regional centres for performing or visual arts. The selection of Thessaloniki as European Cultural Capital of the Year in 1997 provided the grounds for a major expansion of the city's cultural infrastructure. A nation-wide programme, "Domain of Culture", was based on ten geographically distributed thematic networks, ranging from cinema, dance and photography to arts management and popular culture, and local and regional government bodies undertook an increasing range of activities, governed by rolling multi-year programme agreements with the Ministry of Culture. Other cultural administration activities were transferred from the Ministry of Culture to arms-length organisations such as the Greek Film Centre, National Book Centre, and the short-lived National Centre for Theatre and Dance, abolished in 2010. A new organisation plan for the Ministry of Culture was put in place in 2003, and current policies focus on rebalancing the role of central authority vis-à-vis the local and regional level, encouraging private sponsorship for the arts, expanding measures for the economic exploitation of cultural goods, and strengthening international cooperation for the return of illegally exported antiquities.

The recent financial crisis and measures of increasing austerity that were taken from 2009 onwards has had obvious consequences on cultural policy, mainly related with substantial cuts of funds allocated to culture. A trend towards re-centralisation is manifested in the abolition or marginalisation of arms-length organisations (with the exception of the National Book Centre and the Greek Film Centre), combined, at the same time, with an attempt to democratise and rebalance the role of central government versus culture and the arts.

The Ministry issued for the first time in 2010 two online public consultations, one for a legal framework for Cinema based on a draft of a new law proposal; and another one for establishing a framework for Theatre funding. Moreover, a White Paper for further re-shaping of the policy priorities and structures of cultural policy and the contemporary arts, prepared by a commission of experts established by the Minister of Culture and aiming at increased transparency, rational allocation of funds and independence from political intervention in the arts, was published in March 2012.  

Chapter published: 14-08-2015

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