Amateur arts and folk culture
There is a tradition of non-professional (amateur) arts in the Czech Republic that stretches back several centuries. Given the country’s demographic picture (settlements with populations up to 5 000 predominate) local culture plays an essential role and positively influences the quality of life and is part of the image of places and regions. Some branches of the arts have no or only a marginal professional segment (e.g. vocal music, brass music, folk dance). Non-professional arts groups act as important representatives of the Czech Republic abroad and have been praised for their artistic quality (e.g. children’s choirs, amateur theatre). Every level of public administration is involved in supporting the presentation of amateur groups. Such arts activities are practised as leisure-time activities and are not the primary livelihood for those who participate in them. They can take the form of an individual pursuit or a collective activity practised in groups and clubs. Current cultural anthropology recognises the important role the arts play in the development of the individual in terms of contributing to a person’s cultural capital.
The non-professional arts are currently enjoying a surge, in part owing to tradition and intergenerational transfer, and in part owing to the rising standard of living and to the existing system of assistance by the state, regions and local areas. The state and the regions support a unique system of what are called “competitive talent shows”. Most arts fields have a nationwide talent show that is built on regional (rounds of) talent shows, and if a company or individual wishes to take part in the national talent show in their field they must first take part in one of these regional shows, and the national show is made up of nominations or recommendations from regional juries appointed by the programme council. This system has been gradually built up since the 1920s and after 1990 amateurs had to decide whether it should continue. At that time the network of cultural education facilities (district and regional cultural centres) that had overseen the system ceased to exist. Given that the grant system of public administration was still only emerging, amateurs in individual fields of the arts had to decide whether they wanted this system to continue and whether they knew how to make it work. Their decision in favour of continuing this system means that it reflects a publicly declared cultural need.
Non-professional arts shows (the number of which increased significantly after 1990 as municipalities sought to revive or establish such a tradition) are organised by cultural facilities, leisure-time facilities for children and young people, associations and charitable trusts, physical persons and businesses. They use multiple-source funding based on public grants. As well as the newly established shows there are also festivals that have a continuous history dating back many years (Jirásek’s Hronov amateur theatre festival founded in 1931, Chrudim puppetry festival established in 1951, the Festival of International Choral Art in Jihlava, established in 1957, Strážnice International Folklore Festival, established in 1957).
Unlike other European countries that were not part of the communist bloc, where the main non-professional arts organisations are non-state, non-profit organisations that operate nationwide (their activities receive material support for the relevant state body (e.g. Germany, France, Belgium, Austria), there are no majority nationwide associations (that represent individual fields of the arts) in the Czech Republic. In some fields there are no associations at all (e.g. stage dance, recitation), while in others there are several associations (e.g. amateur theatre, non-professional film), and in others there are associations striving to represent the majority (e.g. the Union of Czech Photographers, the Union of Czech Choirs). This situation is the result of the break in tradition that was caused by the communist period, when such associations were not allowed to exist, and by the ongoing aversion people have to being grouped in associations. Associations that do not have the resources to hire professional employees and have to rely on volunteers will have difficulty functioning. On the other hand, a state service centre has existed since 1925 (Masaryk Institute of Public Education, established in 1925). Today this agenda is taken up by two state budgetary organisations: the National Information and Consulting Centre for Culture based in Prague (which covers most fields and oversees the talent show system) and the National Institute of Folk Culture in Strážnice (overseeing traditional folk culture including folk dance and music). It works with all umbrella organisations on a conceptual and organisational level and respected experts and artists sit on its advisory boards.
In terms of tradition, it is not surprising to find that the largest fields are amateur theatres with approximately 3 000 companies and choirs with approximately 1700 groups. Each year 200 children’s choirs, with a total of around 6 000 singers, take part in the talent shows. Approximately 300 dance groups and a total of 2 500 children take part in the talent shows in dance. A new field is children’s film making, for which a national show has been organised in Blansko since 2015. New technologies also influence the experimental work of adult film makers and photographers. Complete information on some fields is provided on national websites. For example, www.amaterskedivadlo.cz is a website that has been developing since the mid-1990s (with the financial support of EHS/Norway) and it offers more than 180 000 items of data stored in five database categories (location, companies, people, shows, literature). The web is administered by NIPOS. There are also some good non-state websites such as FILMDAT.cz (a voluntary association initiative) and a portal for choirs created by one individual.
A characteristic feature of the non-professional arts is their varying prominence from one region to the next. This is the result of tradition, demographic development, especially after the Second World War, and developments since November 1989. The Hradec Králové Region is a matrix of activity in all the arts, which thrive exceptionally well there, thanks in part to cooperation between the regional budgetary organisation IMPULS and civic associations (e.g. the Association of Amateur Theatre Artists in Eastern Bohemia); this universality is moreover apparent in the number of companies and individuals who take part in national talent shows. The Pardubice Region has a strong tradition in the fields of puppetry theatre and drama, folk dance, and choir. In the Moravian regions, brass music, dance, folk music, stage dance, and vocal music do especially well. The Olomouc Region is a traditional centre of non-professional chamber and symphonic music and amateur film. In Western Bohemia, folklore, theatre, and dance are particularly strong. This same is true of Southern Bohemia, where there is also a strong tradition of brass music and puppetry theatre. In the Central Bohemia Region and in Prague every field of the arts are represented. Although as the largest population settlement in the Czech Republic, Prague also has the largest numbers of groups in every field, these activities do not play as important a role in local culture as they do in other regions in the Czech Republic. Northern Bohemia continues to lag in this area because it suffers from high unemployment and also because post-war development had the effect of interrupting cultural traditions. Nevertheless, in the Liberec Region positive development has begun to be seen in some fields (e.g. stage dance, choirs, amateur theatre – thanks to the work of individuals and groups).
Since 2013 the Week of Arts Education and Amateur Work has been held each year in the Czech Republic in response to a challenge from UNESCO (education) and MNO AMATEO. It takes place in the last week in May. Arts schools, cultural institutions, associations and individuals apply with their activities. Projects include festivals, shows, concerts, performances, exhibitions, and open doors days of arts and cultural institutions. Since 2014 the Week has featured a famous face from the arts world and is launched by a concert in Prague.
Cultural houses and community cultural clubs
Through its budgetary organisation NIPOS, the MC has begun to conduct statistical data collection (completed for the first time for 2007) on the activities of cultural institutions such as cultural houses, municipal cultural centres, extracurricular centres, and so on. Statistical surveys are conducted on a sample of (selected) organisations.
In the CR, there was a period in the late 19th and early 20th century when club life bloomed and during that time various kinds of clubs were founded – national houses, community clubs, and sporting associations (Sokol) etc., where people went not just for entertainment but also to get together. They evolved naturally, linked to community life, until the Communist regime seized power. The regime severed these links, nationalised property, quashed civil society, and seized control of entertainment. The old buildings used for these activities fell into decline; some were refurbished, but usually suffered from insensitive structural modifications. They were replaced by the mass construction of megalomaniacal cultural houses, which were also used by the political authorities for their own visibility. After 1989 some municipalities tried to get rid of these buildings by selling them, because they were expensive to operate and to maintain. But even in the 1990s municipal representatives already began to realise that without cultural houses and centres quality local community life would suffer, and there was a return to a naturally evolving process – see the NIPOS survey. Cultural houses and centres are run by various subjects: municipalities, municipal districts, and even civic associations and public benefit companies, joint-stock and limited-liability companies, and private subjects; none, however, are run by the state. The activities they offer can be divided into basic groups: artistic, non-artistic and educational activities, and other cultural services.
Civic activities (associations, charitable trusts) have primarily surfaced in the area of public cultural services. Their activities relate mainly to arts and education. These include centres mediating access to contemporary art. One example is MeetFactory in Prague, which is based in a former industrial space. The centre offers cultural education, productions, studio space and arts residencies and features exhibitions, a video library, a book store, a café, and a dance club. It also rents out 5000 m2 of multifunctional studios and halls. This charitable trust is a self-declared non-profit international contemporary arts centre whose mission is to initiate dialogue between individual genres and mediate for the public the latest developments in the contemporary art scene. In addition to a theatre and music programme and exhibitions in three galleries, it also hosts an international arts residency programme. MeetFactory was founded in 2001 by well-known artist David Černý.
Another example is provided by the clubs and cafés run by associations and alternative cultural-education centres that combine a cultural programme with meditation and courses in dance and singing. The Sokol Community is another civic initiative, the individual units of which manage individual Sokol Centres, places that often also serve as local community centres for the wider community. This is the case in the Central Bohemian spa town of Toušeň, not far from Prague, where the local theatre association that has been re-established also organises concerts, exhibitions, dances, and theatre shows at the local Sokol Centre. Based on a contract with the municipality, various associations form the cultural programme hosted at Sokol Centres, which do not have their own professional employees. Another version of this form of arrangement is the work of Johan, an association in Pilsen, which secured funding for the reconstruction of a former train station building that functions as a multicultural and production centre. These examples are evidence of the principle of cooperation between the public and private sectors at work, which is something that is called for in key government concepts.
There are a great number of centres of theatre education that operate entirely as civic initiatives. For example, in Olomouc one basic school of the arts was initially set up as a project and has since functioned as an autonomous association called Association D, which offers courses in drama for schools and also provides training to teachers and heads of children’s theatre companies. Currently these centres are working to obtain a permanent education licence.
Although nationwide arts associations are not the norm, most amateur (theatre) companies have the legal status of an association, as this allows them to apply for public funding. This status is also found among professional and semi-professional arts groups (they try to operate in the market in the arts, but often their members have other employment), especially among theatre groups (e.g. Continuo Vodňany, Kašpar Praha), but also in other fields (e.g. Jihlava Chamber Philharmonic).
Associations representing official minorities of the Czech Republic also carry out their work through civic initiatives. They publish magazines, operate cultural centres, and assist arts groups. These activities are supported by the Ministry of Culture through a separate grant programme.
An important characteristic of civic initiatives (many of which emerge for this purpose) is that they are a response to what is currently going on in society in the field of culture. One of the most prominent ones is the informal initiative called For a Cultural Czech Republic, which strives to draw attention to the lack of any conceptual approach to how bodies of public administration address certain issues and calls for 1% of the state budget to be earmarked for culture. In Prague, similar associations include, for instance, 4 Points for Prague, For a Cultural Prague, and the Old Prague Club, which respond to issues relating to the conservation and protection of cultural heritage.