With the Serbian Progressive Party growing as the most powerful political option in 2014, many important changes occurred in the field of cultural policy. We can observe both some new developments as well as many latent trends from the previous Governments becoming explicit. Now, with the process of making and publicly discussing the long-term cultural policy planning document, as well as the ongoing synchronization of national laws with the ones of the EU, much of Serbia’s cultural policy plans and priorities have become more explicit in the recent years. Adding the fact that the current Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has been claiming culture, education and creative industries as one of the foundations of her policy of recovering Serbia’s economy and society, one could say that it is clearer than before where the Government is heading with its cultural policy.
Ideologically, it is a combination of economic liberalism and cultural conservativism, aiming at the same time to boost the stagnating economy in neoliberal fashion, while promoting national unity and proudness through the cultural department. Binding the two are the anti-democratic policy instruments, a lack of transparency and populist discourses of inner greatness and external threats.
On the nationalist front, the Ministry together with the Government has made big, bold steps in fortifying institutional grand culture. After its main galleries were closed for audience for 15 years (due to political inefficiency, scandals, economic crisis and disregard to culture), the National Museum reopened with a fanfare on the 28th of June 2018. The date has been selected conspicuously – it is a national holiday commemorating the Kosovo battle of 1389, often used to show the simultaneously victimhood and heroism of the Serbian nation as being always under the threat of big global forces. With an opening ceremony of unprecedented glamour and undisclosed worth, the Government has sent a clear message that the Temple of Culture will serve to glorify national greatness and unity against all odds. At the opening ceremony, the Minister of Culture stated that the opening of the museum represents an “historical and cultural injustice undone”. For weeks on end, a spectacular sight of thousands of citizens queuing to enter the museum served well to obscure the fact that the exhibitions that are shown, in terms of collection and interpretation, are the same old exhibitions from 2003. The exhibitions are lacking any kind of contemporary mediation technologies, inspiring and accessible interpretation techniques or inviting educational programmes. Although the National Museum is the most glaring example, the Museum of Contemporary Arts, the Gallery of Matica Srpska and other big museums have also reopened or are awaiting refurbishment under the same Government. However, the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Belgrade had succeeded in preserving its Yugoslav heritage by symbolically presenting the first selected painting in the permanent exhibition: Nadežda Petrović’s “The Funeral in Sićevo” that was created during international art residency for South Slavic artists in Sićevo (South Serbia). This art residency was the first politically motivated art residency in the world that since 1905 was inviting artists from Austro-Hungarian empire (Slovenes and Croats), Ottoman empire, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria. The Museum of Contemporary Arts in Belgrade, as the only museum of this kind in former Yugoslavia, had created an extensive collection of the work of arts coming from the whole territory of Yugoslavia since its opening in 1965.
The grandiose and the heroic are the desired attributes of the Serbian culture that are also present in the National strategy of cultural development, which claims that the “Kosovo oath” – in which Serbian leaders of the Middle Ages have sacrificed the earthly Serbian Kingdom to gain the Kingdom of Heaven and become martyrs – stands as a continuous dimension of Serbian culture. Although they awkwardly and contradictorily stand next to the “Enlighted-European” and “Democratic” dimension in the text, such openly ethno-centric and religious proclamations have not been part of the official and explicit cultural policy previously.
However, such proclamations are not only discursive. The distinction between Serbian culture and the rest has been strengthened through various policy documents and measures. The Ministry has increased funds and opened new funding schemes for the Serbian diaspora, the promotion of Serbian national heritage abroad and projects of the Serbian Orthodox church. Most notoriously, the Ministry has been very active in advocating for a new legislative that would increase and promote the use of Serbian Cyrillic script. This has been an ongoing debate for decades now.
While analysing the present state of the arts in this domain, the Ministry underlined the necessity to implement measures to protect the Cyrillic alphabet and the Serbian language in the Strategy (see chapter 1.1). The action “Nurture the Serbian language” was introduced and suggestions to change the Law regarding the alphabet should be presented to public debate soon. The Strategy proclaims the Serbian literary language as the communication language of the population of Serbia that is using different dialects and that it should represent one of the key cohesive factors in society. At the same time, the Strategy proclaims a necessity to the Republic of Serbia to confirm use of all languages and cultures that are spoken by different nations living in Serbia. However, the Strategy underlines that in contemporary global communication the Serbian language and Cyrillic alphabet in public space are suppressed, thus new measures are needed like supporting comprehensive project of the Dictionary of Serbian language (Serbian academy of science and arts) as well as numerous other projects of handy dictionaries (one volume dictionaries), syntax and spelling handbooks (see chapter 2.5.4).
In parallel to these events, the Government, more than the Ministry of Culture itself, has reignited its interest in creative industries. In a series of moves reminiscent of Tony Blair’s creative policy of the nineties: the Prime Minister has founded a special Council for Creative Industries, engaged a consultant from the United Kingdom for advising on creative industries policy, organised a high-profile conference to promote its new creative policies and issued a series of statements which relate Serbia’s future with the development of creative industries. There are many facts that explain such orientation. Over the last years, Serbia’s IT, design and gaming industries have boomed. In an economy defined by high unemployment, the wider IT sector is continuously facing the shortage of employees, despite the fact that studying and learning to code has become one of the most popular educational choices, understood as the only progressive and future-proof profession by many. Many local companies have become global leaders in their market niches (like gaming giants Nordeus, Cofa Games and Eipix or smart grid company DMS) and net export of IT goods have become one of three best export branches (next to agriculture).
Such policies have been opposed by many. The independent arts scene, which has been a stronghold for oppositional politics for decades, has opposed the right-wing direction of the Ministry and the Government and the fact that many measures and procedures are lacking transparency. As a result, the Ministry has cancelled cooperation with the Association of Independent Arts Scene of Serbia and decreased funding for its members on open calls.
However, private actors have also criticized some government measures. Weeks after the Prime Minister announced support for strengthening creative industries, news broke out that the Government subsidized German IT giant Continental with 9,5 million EUR to employ local IT staff in Novi Sad (a city with the highest per capita IT exports which is already lacking staff). It was a breaking point for the local IT industry and they understood it as a support to unfair competition and giving clear advantage to foreign companies, thus doubting the intentions of the Government.
Apart from these main policy streams, other significant events in the field of culture occurred. One of the biggest developments in the field of culture in past 5 years is related to the city of Novi Sad becoming a European Capital of Culture in 2021. After years of preparation and advocating for the Europeanisation of cultural policies, the city has been awarded the title along with a series of commitments. Watched by the evaluation committee from Brussels, the city administration had to make its decision making more transparent, participatory and democratic, culminating with the set of participatory policy-making instruments such as the Forum for culture – an open debate format between city officials and cultural actors. At the same time, the city wanted to maintain its policy and prevent any serious disruption of the political order. These contradictory trends continued during the preparation of the title year, which is imbued by on the one hand, democratic and participatory events that outpace any other city administration in Serbia by a wide margin and on the other, top-down measures and spectacle events. These tensions have fuelled many heated debates – online (on social media) and offline. The case of NS2021 is an experiment in actual cultural democracy that might influence broader cultural policy to some extent (see more in Tomka & Kisić 2018).
There has also been an increased interest in audience development and cultural participation. There are more and more voices arguing for the wider access to cultural institutions. Workshops and conferences on audience development, collaboration of museums and theatres with schools and similar have become more common (by KC Grad in 2015, Nova Iskra and Creative Europe Desk in 2017, Museum association of Serbia in 2017 and Baza art in 2018 and many more). Numerous publications followed: a research on festival goers by the Institute for cultural development (Jokić, Mrđa, 2014); a collection of good practices in audience development by Creative Europe Desk (Mihaljinac & Tadić, 2015); a research on audience development efforts of the civil cultural scene by the Association of Independent Arts Scene (Tomka, Dodovski, Vezić, 2016); and special research on the participation of children by Foundation Point (Tomka, Matić, 2017). Finally, the Foundation NS2021 European Capital of Culture has organized the “Audience in Focus” programme involving training followed by a special call for projects aimed at audience development for cultural institutions, which represents the largest policy effort in audience development so far. Although audience development is an undisputed policy direction, there is still a lack of real systemic devotion in analysing, evaluating, awarding and supporting structural changes in cultural participation.
The Swiss agency for the development and cooperation with Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and University in Fribourg had suggested to the Serbian government that its Secretariat for public policies could help in developing evidence based public policies by linking researchers with information needed from different ministries. Thus, several calls for research projects had been announced in different disciplines according to the needs of public authorities. In the domain of culture, the Ministry asked for research about the models of local (city) cultural policies, wanting to increase the level of cultural participation of the population. The Institute for theatre, film, radio and television of the Faculty of Drama Arts and the Institute for cultural development had submitted the proposal that was accepted, which included researching cultural policies and practices in fifteen major Serbian cities (Subotica, Sombor, Zrenjanin, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Užice, Kraljevo, Čačak, Kruševac, Niš, Leskovac, Pančevo, Smederevo, Vranje and Zaječar). The research successfully raised the level of local debates about culture and cultural policies as the dominant method was focus group debate (at least two in each city): a) with cultural professionals from public institutions and authorities, b) with civil society and media representatives. After the research, serial presentations were held in the Ministry of Culture but also in respective cities.
The major criticism of cultural professionals and civil society relates to the lack of funds for substantial investments in cultural infrastructure, but even more to the lack of democratic procedures in organizing the distribution of public funds. In most of the cities there is a cultural committee that proposesto the city council on how to distribute programme funds. Usually, the chair of the committee is the person in charge of culture within city government and other members are nominated by city council without transparency on who was selected and why. Criteria are rarely defined, even for grant distribution. Public calls come too late and cultural managers and artists cannot organize any event in the first half of a year. Together with the fact that there is no possibility for multiple year funding, this shows an essential need for Serbian cultural policies on all levels: to introduce an open method of consultation, but to implement and change work methods that are obviously having negative effects for the sector.