In-depth | COVID-19

Independent artists left without support

By - 09.10.2020

Where has the support for the arts community gone?

In March, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport (MCYS) publicly announced the launch of an emergency package for the sports, arts and culture sectors. The intention was clear: Government money would be used to support these areas financially because all of their events, activities and performances were canceled because of the pandemic. 

Now eight months have passed without support. Meanwhile, many independent artists, curators, researchers and other freelancers are still out of work.

The ministry was due to set up working groups consisting of representatives from the sports, arts and culture sectors in order to set the criteria on how the promised 5 million euro emergency package would be distributed. After reading in the official announcement about the planning stages of forming working groups, independent artists, researchers and curators — led by Donjeta Murati, Dardan Zhegerova and others, came together to take action. 

“Realizing that the process was opening up and working groups were being formed that will set the criteria, we knew that it was essential to include two representatives of the independent scene for the policies to be responsively designed,” says Donjeta Murati, who has been active in the contemporary art and visual culture scene as a project manager and independent curator for years. 

Independent creative workers and artists, joined forces to get vital funds from the government to deal with the effects of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Donjetë Murati.

Together with a group of freelance artists and creative workers who devote their careers to the independent cultural scene, Murati feared that their voices would be left unheard, and as usual sidelined.

After speaking with other advocates from the scene, Murati together with independent, contemporary artist Dardan Zhegrova, who has exhibited throughout Europe, and Lola Sylaj, a member of the HAVE-IT collective, organized numerous Zoom meetings with independent creators all across the country. 

The group composed a memorandum as an official request to invite at least two representatives of the independent sector into the arts working group. A list with over 200 names of independent cultural workers and creators affected by the pandemic was collected

“We were talking to independent artists and basically checking out what kind of issues they were going through. So when we sent the memorandum and the open letter on May 6, we had a prepared request that took all these responses into consideration,” Murati says.

The ministry invited representatives of the independent group one week after the group sent their memo and made a public declaration. Within twenty-four hours they were called in for a preliminary discussion with the minister of culture, Vlora Dumoshi and, then, vice-minister Yll Rugova.

On May 14, Blerta Ismaili, manager of the heritage space at CHwB, Genc Kadriu, independent curator/artist, Hana Zeqa, independent costume designer and Donjeta Murati, met with the ministry who approved their request for at least two chairs in the working group to discuss policy regulations in regards to the fund distribution. 

The ministry showed understanding and promised to allocate two seats for the independent scene, but, according to the artists group, the ministry was vague about the next steps. The group says they were told by the ministry yet another vote in parliament was needed to trigger the disbursement. 

However, though the 2020 budget was passed apparently a second review and vote was needed to disburse the funds later in the summer.

“When we understood that there still needed to be a vote on the emergency package in the parliament, we were confused and shocked,” says Murati. 

The creative workers waited weeks for a date for the first meeting of the working group. In the meantime, Murati, Sylaj and Zhegrova continued to hold online meetings with independent creators and municipalities to prepare the proposed criteria. 

The group found themselves confused by the delay in disbursement and the lack of communication from the government.

They asked each artist how they made their living, how suspension affected their financial situation and what they would need to continue working. At first, things seemed to work well, but after this single meeting the working groups were never properly established and the whole process was frozen, according to the artists.

The group then held a news conference, in June, to encourage public pressure, when the ministry repeatedly failed to answer their requests after the first meeting. 

To the disappointment of the group leaders and others, the ministry did not respond. Even after several attempts to relaunch talks by the independent representatives, no answer was given. 

The ‘Economic Recovery Fund’

On September 28, the government announced a “Recovery Fund.” The 5 million euros are allocated to be distributed in two halves: 2.5 million will be spent now. The rest of the 2.5 million allocation will be dispersed over the upcoming months, according to the MCYS in a statement emailed to K2.0.

Murati, Zhegrova and the rest of the group were not notified of the new decision, but saw an announcement from Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, where he specified that 2.5 million euros would go to culture, youth and sports. 

The group found themselves confused by the delay in disbursement and the lack of communication from the government. But the key to this confusion may lie in the change of government in June.

The series of meetings with independent groups from the arts scene was, according to Yll Rugova — the former vice-minister of MCYS from the Vetevendosje party (the current minister Vlora Dumoshi both then and now is from the LDK party that overthrew Vetevendosje) — taken into consideration when they designed a plan that would help freelancers.

“Those citizens that are not employed in formal public cultural institutions are ignored. The work they do is continuously ignored.”

Florent Mehmeti, Manager and Artistic Director, Teatri ODA

By May, Rugova says, everything was prepared, ready and just about to be published in an open call, but then, “the government changed, and I do not know what happened next.” 

The MCYS says, “given that independent artists are most affected by the effects of the pandemic, and that many of them may not have benefited from the 2020 subsidy program, MCYS is working to find the most appropriate form for the rest of the 2.5 million euros to be dedicated to independent artists.”

Continuing frustration 

Manager and artistic director of the independent theater Teatri ODA, Florent Mehmeti, took part in the provisional meetings in March when the coalition ministry initially discussed the distribution to the independent scene. 

Mehmeti often works with artists who make their living out of performances and their own artistic endeavors. He, himself, wanted to speak on behalf of independent individuals whose labor is formalized only on a temporary contract-to-contract basis. 

That no agreement could be reached frustrated Mehmeti deeply, “it is as if for the current government, people do not really exist. Those citizens that are not employed in formal public cultural institutions are ignored. The work they do is continuously ignored.”

Now in October, Mehmeti cannot believe that decisions are still stuck at the first stage. 

Beyond the conflict around the emergency fund, Mehmeti says he did not get any of those grants he would usually have to cover rent and to sustain the costs of Teatri ODA escalating the crisis to another level. 

“The independent cultural scene has seen heavy destruction, lost much of its vitality, and is not what it was once,” says Mehemti, who urges the institutional authorities and the municipality of Prishtina, to stop making declarations in the name of the independent scene; without any actual support their statements are useless, serving only their own publicity and nothing else. 

Art is not a luxury

All across the world the pandemic exposed existing problems, including in Kosovo. Emergencies bring to the fore sectors that already suffer from vulnerability and a lack of social protection by the state. Artists are often not registered as formalized labor, their contribution to society only becoming visible through exhibitions or when they perform. 

To respond to the seemingly invisible resources artists and researchers invest in their work, social policies across many countries have at least provided a minimum of welfare protection. During the pandemic countries like Germany, provided extensive assistance to its independent artists of up to 5,000 euros a month in crisis pay. However, in other countries like the U.K. artists are now being told they may need to retrain and find other jobs.

Murati, who has worked at the Stacion Centre of Contemporary Art in Prishtina, currently is collaborating with Lumbardhi  as a Research and Programs Associate and graduated from New School University in New York in sociology, believes that there is a profound misunderstanding of what it takes to produce an art work.

“It is October and artists cannot produce anything. They cannot have exhibitions and develop themselves because they are not thought of as workers.“

Dardan Zhegrova, Contemporary Artist

She notes that many people believe that art and making art is simply a luxury that people do in their spare time. However, while it does not fit itself into traditional office hours or working patterns, it is in fact work. 

“Many see art as a hobby, as something people do in their free time and they do it because they love to do it and therefore it is not real work. So, it is perceived as a form of luxury.“ Murati says.

Independent artists are in a very precarious state right now because very few performances, exhibitions or shows are able to take place. Even with the slow reopening — like many others in Kosovo — the damage may be permanent for these creative workers. 

These artists are the ones that act on stage and TV, play music in orchestras and bands and make contemporary art that feeds into movies and books. The very art people depended on to consume when they were under lockdown.

Zhegerova says that contemporary art is the least appreciated art form for the Kosovar institutions. The faculty of art does not even have a separate department for it.a“So it is a lack of education that brings us to this situation, but also education and institutions are closely tied, and you can see the unwillingness to think beyond.” Zhegerova says.

However, when an artist like Zhegerova is exhibited in Germany or elsewhere in Europe then the government proudly takes notice.

For Zhegrova this shows how little people in positions of power know about art and how little they value it, “I believe that especially arts and culture is the strongest lobbying force for Kosovo; making it valued internationally and continuously acclaimed,” says Zhegrova, who then says that in return little is done to support creative minds in Kosovo. 

“It is October and artists cannot produce anything. They cannot have exhibitions and develop themselves because they are not thought of as workers,“ Zhegerova says.

The MCYS says it is working to help the independent art scene and will begin to work with them directly, “In the coming weeks, meetings and consultations will be held with independent artists, independent operators, as well as with representatives of municipalities to identify and find the best forms for drafting the action plan, specific measures and criteria for implementation of the plan and to benefit from the fund.”K

Feature image: Taken from the independent artist declaration reworked for the article by K2.0.