In-depth | COVID-19

Art and culture hit by the virus

By - 07.04.2020

How the lockdown is affecting the arts & culture sector.

Kosovo is entering the fourth week of its lockdown with many nourishing their quarantine with music, art, books and films. Yet the financial consequences of the pandemic on the local arts and culture sector are still to be seen. 

Although health care is the priority, artists are particularly vulnerable right now as well. Across Europe, countries and cities have released economic aid packages with support for the arts and cultural sector included.

Kosovo’s outgoing government’s deputy minister for culture, youth and sport, Yll Rugova, issued a public statement about the emergency financial measures proposed to support the sector. As part of a support plan created by the Ministry of Finance and Transfers to help citizens overcome the financial difficulties caused by COVID-19, an additional 5 million euros will be added to the budget of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports (MCYS) to be distributed as grants to cultural institutions and sports clubs. 

Independent artists and organizers of cultural events lack protections that would secure their livelihood during emergency situations. An enduring lockdown without support could have devastating consequences for the independent Kosovo art scene, a sector already under economic stress.

While it is unclear how the emergency fund will be redistributed, the need for financial support from the government will be vital.

“Apart from grants given by municipalities, ministries and a few other state institutions, I am not aware of any specific laws regulating financial state aid for artists and other freelancers. This is why state grants are indispensable to further freelance artistic work,” lawyer Rina Kika says.

Where does the music go?

For performing artists, when life comes to a halt their income comes to a halt too. Concerts and performances depend on large crowds here or elsewhere, and cancellations come with a heavy financial impact for artists. 

“We as freelance or self-employed musicians in Kosovo and the whole Balkan region are not sufficiently protected by any law or action that could help us face this situation.”

Bajram Kafu Kinolli, Gipsy Groove

Independent DJ Oda Haliti, was planning to start her long-awaited “Europe Tour 2020” in March. But ever since the lockdown 15 of her shows have had to be cancelled as a precautionary measure. 

“Honestly, I feel quite panicked about my finances, but I will hang on to see how the situation will develop,” Haliti says. “I am aware that most of us can’t afford to not have any income for a while … but our health is more important.”  

Haliti adds that “art is always the first affected,” and hopes that the government seriously considers this and will find ways to support artistic and cultural venues. 

The band Gipsy Groove has had more than 10 concerts cancelled already, which means losing two months income for six band members. Bajram Kafu Kinolli says that “we as freelance or self-employed musicians in Kosovo and the whole Balkan region are not sufficiently protected by any law or action that could help us face this situation.” 

He added that “the future remains uncertain, unless perhaps we as musicians team up and create a group to request provisional support from the responsible institutions.” 

Many musicians, like DJ Oda Haliti, have to come up with alternative ways to continue performing under the lockdown. Photo courtesy of ODA.

Kinolli sees a major threat particularly in the uncertainty on how to bail out the past weeks’ losses. His independence is at stake too, since apart from playing music he works on musical and cultural activities, particularly the organization of the annual Erdhlezeti festival currently planned for early June. 

Oda Haliti and Kafu Kinolli have both considered using online concerts to reach their audiences.

The Museum Villa Stuck in Munich organized one for Haliti to replace a previously scheduled show that was cancelled. She performed a one hour live set against a green screen, with the venue she had originally been invited to play in edited into the background.

Kinolli is also considering organizing an online concert where the audience contributes a small fee so that people can enjoy Gipsy Groove’s live music from home. 

The cinema and festival scene

Kosovo’s capital has a rich group of festivals organizing all sorts of activities throughout the year.

The six-day FemArt festival was due to have it’s eighth edition in Prishtina in May, but now has been postponed to October 2020. The festival is organized by ArtPolis and usually brings together over 220 artists and activists from around Kosovo and the world with the aim of empowering women and human rights. 

"The lost link with audiences is as damaging as economic losses; the live component of the performing arts must remain alive, even and especially today.”

Zana Hoxha, ArtPolis

All workers and artists involved are affected by the COVID-19 crisis, according to executive director Zana Hoxha, who adds that they had already prepared 70% of the program with the necessary funds yet to be secured. To get some time to ensure that the workers are paid and the festival will not lose quality, postponing the festival was the only option. 

“In order to reduce the [financial] impact of this situation, we share the same beliefs as our fellow international colleagues, the government and donors need to take supporting measures to rescue the entire performing arts sector,” Hoxha says. “The lost link with audiences is as damaging as economic losses, the live component of the performing arts must remain alive, even and especially today.”

Film festivals are also a vital resource for arts workers and local and international audiences. The internationally known film festival Pri-Fest, organized by Vjosa Berisha, brings filmmakers from all over the world into the city of Prishtina to pitch and premier their films. 

Originally planned for June, Berisha is considering postponement or even cancellation should the reshuffling of the financial aspects not work out. The organizers are requesting applications for grants and are in close contact with donors. However they are still waiting for clear responses while constantly consulting with foreign partners. 

“For the moment we are working as if the festival will take place in July,” Berisha says. “But we will not reserve hotels and sell tickets until we are sure that the pandemic is over.”

The main donors are Raiffeisen Bank, MCYS, and the Municipality of Prishtina. Except for Raiffeisen Bank, who have assured their support, Berisha has not gotten any clear information from MCYS nor from the Municipality of Prishtina. She is still waiting for the publication of this year’s beneficiaries list from the Ministry. 

“Should the lockdown stretch beyond April and into the summer months, there will certainly be financial implications to DokuFest and DokuKino."

Veton Nurkollari, DokuFest

The annual DokuFest festival usually takes place in August in Prizren. The DokuKino cinema in Prizren is one of the oldest independent cinemas in Kosovo that is run year round by the festival.

Executive director Veton Nurkollari says that the pandemic is clearly affecting the independent cultural scene of Kosovo with cinema being no exception. 

“Should the lockdown stretch beyond April and into the summer months, there will certainly be financial implications to DokuFest and DokuKino,” Nurkollari says. “We will have to seek solutions, be it in the form of subsidies or alternative programming schemes and redesigning DokuFest activities.”

For now, the organizers are hopeful that it will happen in August, but are preparing for alternatives such as online editions or postponement should the situation not ease. 

In the meantime, DokuFest has partnered with KTV in airing short films produced by the DokuFest production center. They are also screening the “Sweet and Short Quarantine,” online festival with short films produced out of DokuFest’s Documentary Film Production Center as well as partnering with several other international short film festivals for the “My Darling Quarantine Short Film Festival”; this offers a curated online program of short films daily and the audience can vote for their favorite film.  

DokuKino has suspended all public screenings but will face financial difficulties if the lockdown continues beyond April. 

In Prishtina, Kinema ABC and Kino Armata are both subsidized by the state.

Bajram Shala who manages Kinema ABC, Prishtina’s oldest cinema located in the heart of the city for the past 20 years, leads a team of six staff members. Until now he has not received any information on whether the suspended program will have implications for the payment and contracts of his employees. April’s salary has already been delayed. Shala is worried about what will happen over the next weeks while he keeps his employees busy with maintenance work in the cinema.

Alush Gashi, executive director of Kino Armata says that there will be no screenings in March and no concerts in April, rescheduling the program toward summer and early fall in close cooperation with the main donor, the Municipality of Prishtina. Although the financial losses here are small, Armata runs the whole program with a linear budget, depending on collaborations and bar sales.

During the quarantine, Kosovar film institutions have also had to come up with alternative ways to provide cinematic experiences. “Even if the streets are empty cultural activities find their alternative ways to flourish,” says deputy minister Rugova, who points out the collaboration between Kosovo’s Cinematography Center (QKK) with the national public broadcaster, RTK,  to broadcast the latest Kosovar films as well as streaming them online.

Theater life

The suspension of public gatherings in mid-March coupled with the political instability has also affected the theater scene. Upon the recommendation of the National Institute of Health and the MCYS, all theaters suspended their programs until further notice, yet it is unlikely that their programs will kick off as soon as the lockdown is lifted. 

While the National Theater of Kosovo is entirely funded by the MCYS, it’s artistic director, Adrian Morina, is concerned about the financial damage to all institutions, including his own.

“We are subordinated to the MCYS. I still do not know what the budget will be for 2020,” Morina says. “This is not only due to the lockdown but also due to the unstable political environment. This isn’t the first time cultural life has been hardest hit by budget cuts.”

“Without permission [from donors] we had to reallocate the budget planned for projects to pay our staff, as it is a moral obligation not to leave them without salaries."

Florent Mehmeti, Teatri Oda

The National Theater has suspended performances for the next three months but hopes to be able to bring performances back as soon as possible. If they cannot, then Morina says, “we have lost the first part of the artistic season.”

This means postponing co-productions with seven other European theatrical groups, including the Volksbühne Theatre in Berlin. For April, Morina has planned a livestream of previous performances on their Facebook page. Every weekend, throughout the month, a play will be streamed beginning with “The Wicked One” and “The Merchant of Venice” to keep the audience engaged. 

Morina says that the independent cultural scene will be the most affected by the lockdown. He hopes that support from the government will be allocated properly to prevent a further crisis.

Unlike the National Theater, postponing the program is not an option for Kosovo’s most well-known independent theater, Teatri Oda.

Located in the heart of Prishtina, the completely self-sustaining theater has operated for 17 years. It is facing severe financial damage. “We have to take care of our expenses on our own, always starting from zero and since there is no structural or operational support system for the independent scene in place, we have already hit the crisis,” says artistic director Florent Mehmeti. 

Normality for Teatri Oda is unlikely to kick in once the lockdown is lifted.

“We will be the last ones to recover, as we’ll be unable to deliver right after the ban,” Mehmeti says. “Residencies that should have taken place now would have led to productions to be presented during July’s Hapu Festival, but we already know that we’ll not be able to deliver.” 

Canceling 20 events during the lockdown for Teatri Oda means not having sufficient income to pay rent, employees and artistic staff.

“Without permission [from donors] we had to reallocate the budget planned for projects to pay our staff, as it is a moral obligation not to leave them without salaries and if we lose them the theater will be even less capable to return to normal,” he says. 

Mehmeti says that postponing is not a solution for the independent scene due to the ongoing costs that need to be covered. On the contrary, it causes more financial problems as the operational costs need to be maintained for a longer period of time without any income. For many independent venues the annual budget is already exhausted.

Institutions team up

In a public announcement on social media, Ares Shporta, co-founding director of the Lumbardhi Foundation, an independent cultural space in Prizren, said that after overcoming the pandemic, recreating the initiatives and structures of culture in civil society will require the human and financial commitments of many.

“Losing these organizations would mean losing the social commitment of years, it would severely damage Kosovar society, in terms of cultural diversity, social democracy, free expression and general social cohesion,” he wrote. 

“Performance artists, actors and musicians are the most unprotected because they work from one short contract to another.”

Florent Mehmeti, Teatri Oda

Major independent arts institutions — 7 Arte, Anibar, Artpolis – Art and Community, Autostrada Biennale, Cultural Heritage Without Borders Kosova, DokuFest, Shtatëmbëdhjetë, Kino ARMATA, LUMBARDHI, Oral History Kosovo, Qendra Multimedia, Teatri Oda and Termokiss  have created a working group to lobby the MCYS on the distribution of the emergency funds and support to the sector.  

The Minister, Vlora Dumoshi, asked the group to initiate a consultation of their needs and to identify the financial and organizational consequences of cancelling public events. The working group will discuss the strategic implementation of the grant as well as the bureaucratic process. 

In a separate group, encompassing all stakeholders from the Culture, Youth and Sport sector, the budget and implementation of the emergency grant will be discussed under the lead of the Ministry. Shporta and Mehmeti have been appointed to represent all independent arts and cultural organizations and venues in this second group, speaking for the needs of the scene nationally.  

“Most of these collaborative measures between the institutions and the independent sector have not been in place before,” Mehmeti says. “Figuring out new mechanisms will be something new, which we’ll need to work out now.”

Helping the independent artist

Mehmeti points out that “performance artists, actors and musicians are the most unprotected because they work from one short contract to another.”

One example is independent artist and actress Daniela Markaj, for whom it is already always challenging to find a job.

“Now even the projects you’ve worked hard to get are on standby,” she says. “Several projects that I’ve been working on and projects that were scheduled for the following months are all suspended.” 

Markaj works as a theater trainer at Teatri Oda and for Artpolis teaching drama to youngsters all across the country. She is currently beginning to teach an online drama course with Artpolis. 

She sees it as reasonable to finance independent artists specifically because the organizations and venues depend on them. 

Independent artists like actors, musicians and performance artists help keep the arts institutions alive, but have little protection themselves. Photo: Theo Cote.

It is this codependency that Mehmeti will try to bring up in the formal meetings with other heads in the Culture, Youth and Sport group, standing up not only for his staff but for all those making a living out of their artistic endeavors and who make a vital contribution to the Kosovar cultural scene.

Most freelance artists are paid upon completion of a project, but since this is not possible at the moment, Mehmeti wants to negotiate for more flexibility when funding is monitored. 

“We are looking for more understanding and recommend that the Ministry and the municipalities be more flexible with contractual requirements,” Mehmeti says. “Even giving funding if we did not complete what we had in mind to complete.”

Teatri Oda plans to stream rehearsals that will then count as delivered work for payment, hoping to ease the financial burden independent artists feel at the moment. 

“At the moment the Ministry of Culture is consulting with the Ministry of Finance on how to structure the funds, because this is something that is not usually implemented, so there are a lot of question marks on the process,” Mehmeti says.

He hopes that the process will not be too bureaucratic as this would risk not responding to the needs of many.K

Feature image: Edona Kryeziu / K2.0.