In-depth | Serbia

Contemporary culture struggling to survive in Subotica

By - 22.12.2017

Local government and cultural institutions in conflict in Vojvodina.

Subotica is a significant cultural point in Vojvodina, once referred to as the “gate of Europe.” The city was distinguished by its diversity and multiculturalism, while numerous guests came to visit big festivals like the Palic European Film Festival (FEF), Trenchtown, Desire Central Station, Jazzire, Jazzik, Etnofest, Interetno, Summer3p, and many others. However, the survival of most of these festivals is now in question due to funding cuts.

Subotica is a city where more than 10 ethnic groups live, the most represented being Serbs, Hungarians, Croats, and Bunjevci. It is administered by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM).

According to many of the city’s workers in the cultural field, the administration is denigrating Subotica’s cultural values, and has ruined the foundations of culture that date back to Yugoslavia. In part, this is said to be down to appointing unskilled members of political parties to leading positions in cultural institutions.

But there are also accusations that existing cultural policies focus on the cultivation of the traditional values of the majority nations, rather than providing space for diversity — a large focal point are national days, celebrated with traditional food and drink.

Lack of communication between cultural institutions and local authorities

Afew decades ago, giants of culture worked and lived in Subotica, including actor Rade Serbedzija and director Ljubisa Ristic, while the “Omladina” festival served to affirm everything that forms the rock ‘n’ roll legacy of the former Yugoslavia.

Now, music on offer tends to be concerts from Bora Drljaca and Baja Mali Knindza — “folk” artists whose creativity often flirts with kitsch, not to mention the ultra-nationalism of the nineties. Streets are now named after, or they are awarded with highest honors, writers who promoted this same nationalism, like Branislav Crncevic or Matija Beckovic. All of this is funded by the city budget.

Simultaneously, money has been restricted for recognized festivals and civic cultural institutions that nurture contemporary culture, while the city’s strategy for culture has not been clearly defined for more than two years, a task of the local authorities.

Dejan Vujinovic has worked in the cultural sector of the city for a long time and is the organizer of three recognized Subotica festivals. He reminds K2.0 that, when it comes to art, Subotica was always a mix — it didn’t belong to either Belgrade or Budapest — and that the city’s artists were always more into avant-garde artistic movements, than populist ones.

Dejan Vujinovic, a long-time cultural worker, is the initiator of the idea of cooperation between the civil sector and city authorities, in order for Subotica to preserve its cultural legacy. Photo: Natalija Jakovljevic.

“There was always some insurgence — through fine arts of the sixties and seventies, and later through music,” Vujinovic explains. He believes that arts in the city have now lost their ability to critique. “In the last 20 years, everything is somehow being ‘cleansed’ so that it ‘goes with the flow’ of those who consume it,” he adds. “We started talking about culture as consumerism, something that should be sold, and artists at some point attempt to find space for survival.”

Vujinovic feels that the city’s key cultural outposts are slowly being shut down and are disappearing due to the relationship between the city’s authorities and cultural institutions. He said that the final straw was when job cuts happened at a number of different institutions.

The Danilo Kis Foundation, for example, has now been left with only its director and a newly appointed project manager, while three people were let go. Until just a few years ago, this Foundation was the leading institution of culture, and the center of youth creativity for the region, not only Subotica.

“I speak of this with a certain dose of horror and sense of disgust about the way in which we treat culture,” Vujinovic says. “We have come to a point where university educated people who were founders of institutions are left jobless, whereas other, unsuitable people are appointed to their spots.”

He added that every segment of the city budget dedicated to culture is seen as potentially available for some other department to take over if it needs to reach a target.

Civic initiative set in motion

Vujinovic has submitted a formal request to the City Council, outlining six points of an initiative to start a dialogue between NGOs and the authorities, signed by around 20 Subotica civic organizations and artists.

“We, as the civic sector in the field of culture, want to go to city governors and request the possibility for talks,” he explains. “[We want] to protect the position of contemporary culture in this city by finding solutions.”

Vujinovic reveals that opinions within these 20 civic institutions of culture are diverse and that most of them believe that hardly anything can be changed, but everybody wants change.

The director of the Contemporary Gallery in Subotica, Nela Tonkovic, believes that the solution is strategic cooperation between institutions and the local government. Photo: Natalija Jakovljevic.

The former selector of the Palic European Film Festival, Petar Mitric, tells K2.0 that is clear what is happening the current cultural policy in Subotica — culture is being administered by managers, national communities, associations, keepers of tradition, and political parties. Whereas, as he adds ironically, the greatest danger to culture is seemingly thought to be from the artists themselves, as well as, curators, art historians, critics, intellectuals, and the audience.

He mentions the Vinko Percic Gallery as an example. The gallery is funded by the city budget, where it is foreseen that one employee “cleans, hangs up pictures, fixes bathroom cisterns, leads the administration… and that one person is also the curator!,” Mitric points out. “The City Assembly has also shamelessly suggested shortening the working hours of the City Library by half.”

The director of the Contemporary Gallery of Subotica, Nela Tonkovic, tells K2.0 that there are no ideas about the need for strategic cooperation between different establishments and the local government, nor on defining key developmental goals for culture in the city and the ways to achieve those goals.

“Only [when a strategy is developed] can we discuss cultural needs, programming policy, infrastructure, financing… We could, but we aren’t doing that. Dilemmas aren’t discussed, problems aren’t being solved,” Tonkovic says.

Petar Mitric, former selector for the Palic European Film Festival, says that culture is being administered by managers, whereas artists are left behind. Photo: Natalija Jakovljevic.

Tonkovic states that the Contemporary Gallery of Subotica has a fairly good relationship with the local government, especially the Secretary for Social Affairs and the Secretary of Finance, but they, regardless of their effectiveness, are not in charge of discussing strategic issues.

“There is a real lack of discussion with the local government. It has been like this for a few years now,” Tonkovic said. “This is why I really can’t only focus my criticism towards the past year and a half, I would have to expand it to all the years when a ‘top-down’ approach sovereignly ruled, based only upon the strength of public position, often without a real basis in knowledge of the given matter.”

The Serbian Progressive Party, with support from its coalition partners, appointed Miroslava Babic as member of the City Council for the field of culture. Babic is an economics graduate whose resume doesn’t contain any references from the field of culture. K2.0 contacted Babic to discuss a range of issues on culture in Subotica but received no response.

However, perhaps councilor Josipa Ivankovic (SNS) described best the attitude of the local authorities towards culture, when she spoke from the local assembly booth in late April this year, and said that for dealing with culture, one doesn’t need to have particular educational background. K

Feature image: Natalija Jakovljevic.