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Respect for the art

by Herwig Lewy


St. Petersburg, 3rd December 2013. For the second time was held the International Cultural Forum of the Russian Federation in St. Petersburg. Theatre was at the top of its agenda, followed by museums, music, literature, libraries, cinema, traditional culture and folk arts and crafts, among others. The catalogue gives a quick overview and the division of disciplines looks appealing to the eye. High-ranking representatives of the Russian Federation friendly express their greetings, among them Olga Golodets, Deputy Prime Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, Minister of Culture, and also Georgy Poltavchenko, the Governor of Saint Petersburg.

The Forum is held on the occasion of next year, which is announced as year of Culture in Russia. Notwithstanding, the announced purpose of the forum perplex. It consists of protecting and promoting culture in Russia, of supporting cultural initiatives on a regional, federal and international level as well as of further developing international cooperation.

Under international law, sovereign cultural policy may only be guaranteed by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which has not been ratified by Russia yet. You may assume that one wanted to get to know beforehand the situation in Europe, the cultural effects caused on the one hand by the policy of austerity and on the other hand by the pressure of the WTO.


Inventory

The Round Table convened by the international theatre network Union des Théâtres de l’Europe (UTE) as open General Assembly upon the proposal of Lev Dodin, the Artistic Director of the Maly Theatre and Honorary President of the UTE, made clear how existential the fight of theatre for its recognition already is.

Apart from 17 theatre makers from the Russian Federation, from Voronezh, Perm and Yekaterinburg among others, 46 people in total met at the conference table in order to discuss the responsibility of the public sector towards theatre. A constructive exchange about the different models of support in the various countries could be observed. Nevertheless, each statement was limited to a 5 minute lasting report about the current situation and the actual discussion remained informal.

In a staccato-like rhythm, the two hours passed rather emotionless. One report followed another in a rather sober way, inventory-like.


Only 30 per cent subventions

The case of Israel is representative. Ilan Ronen, the current President of the UTE, came from Tel Aviv also in order to represent the Habima National Theatre, which, by the way, was founded in Moscow in 1917. Apart from financial cuts, he observes the loss of entire theatre groups in Israel. According to Ilan Ronen, compared to its number of inhabitants, the amount of sold theatre tickets in Israel is one of the highest in the world. At the same time, the support from the Israeli government as well as the understanding of the theatre’s tasks remains very low.

Only 30% of the financial needs are covered by public funds, meaning that 50% of the programme is allotted to entertainment, and each show is calculated to run 150 times. The space for artistic risk-taking remains very little.

For this reason, Ilan Ronen observes the future of our up-growing theatre creators and spectators with apprehension. Instead of adapting the European model which still existed 10 years ago, alongside all its excellent and engaged forms, is rather being pushed ahead the current development. The financial situation makes the relations with the Establishment more fragile, since as soon as a production is criticising political acts, one is receiving allusions of being disadvantaged in the next subvention period. However, this is never communicated officially. In this regard, the fact of being attested artistic freedom by the Supreme Court did not help. This is a perspective he generally states in the recent development of European cultural policy, which is about to approach the tensions in Israel.


Dialogue with power

For the Russian side, the situation is no less ambivalent, even though it lies in another dimension. The fact that Vladimir Medinsky as well as Olga Golodets were present, encouraged Valery Fokin, the Artistic Director of the Alexandrinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, to talk about it in a rather open way. According to Fokin, the situation of drama theatre is dependent on the dialogue with power. As soon as power is involved in the dialogue, even though it may have a different opinion, the situation is improving.

Michael Bychkov, the Artistic Director of the International Platonov Festival in Voronezh could but confirm this complex situation. Since Voronezh got a new Governor interested in theatre, Bychkov would see some sun at the horizon. With the predecessors, nothing ever happened. The theatre makers from Western and Southern Europe reported similar experiences, although in different shapes.


Quarterly accountability

Everyone noticed that the subvention cuts came along with new measures and administrative rules. An especially glaring case emerged in Portugal, where theatre directors are now forced to give quarterly justifications about their repertoire. Characteristically, the administration would e.g. ask why Beckett is part of the repertoire.

What was also clearly discussed is the loss of attention from the media. A few years ago from now could be found full pages about actors and productions in daily newspapers, whereas today, the reports rather focus on stars in the world of glamour. Obviously, I was looking for clues regarding a statement about the recent events that occurred with the guest performances of Thomas Ostermeier. I found it on the way to the Round Table: those who wanted to reach it had to pass a Jewish exhibition. Its scenery was at the Museum of Ethnography, whose halls contain cultural diversity in analogy to the Convention of the UNESCO.


Free speech

Jan Hein, the Head Dramaturg of the Staatsschauspiel Stuttgart under the direction of Armin Petras, soon lost his initial scepticism regarding an alibi function for the Russian cultural policy. When asked about his impressions, Hein said he was positively surprised that Lev Dodin opened the floor at the beginning, thus creating a space where everyone could speak relatively freely. Even though each contribution dealt quite a lot about the financial situation in the different countries, everyone basically formulated the necessity of a utopia for theatre in our present time.

In a personal talk, Lev Dodin clearly pointed out how his utopia looked like. Since in the past years all theatres in Europe are reduced on the position of beggars, theatre makers gave up making demands. But it is not so, the demand for public support has to be made offensively. One should not face a beggar. Instead, what should be said is “Work! Help us! Make a good show!“. It appears as a first achievement when Vladimir Medinsky clearly expresses during his final speech at the Cultural Forum, that the government is interested in strong theatres full of talents and that it does not intend to influence the contents.


Support the system

A letter has been written, which is sent to the governments and cultural ministries of all countries, as well as to the European Parliament. The request that is pointed out therein is also maintained by Thomas Engel, the Director of the International Theatre Institute in Germany. According to Engel, this letter clearly expresses the demand of supporting the freedom of artistic expression, the theatre system and not to allow political or economic censorship.