EU National Institutes for Culture - EUNIC

Building common ground for culture managers in the Balkans

Building common ground for culture managers in the Balkans
Miki Braniște is curator the Cultural Management Academy (CMA).
Illustration: Josephine Chime
Miki Braniște recently openend ZIZ – art & social area, a community and contemporary arts centre in Cluj, Romania.
Photograph: Roland Vaczi

The Cultural Management Academy connects professionals from seven countries throughout Europe and offers space and opportunity to work together and exchange ideas. Adrian Popa, former participant of the CMA, strikes up a conversation with curator Miki Braniște.

The Balkans are pretty much like a Dubioza Kolektiv song, an uncanny blend of hip hop, dub, ska, reggae, rock, punk, electronic, and Balkan music. If you listen very carefully, you may hear some other genres as well. The region is a rich, complex cultural mix just like the best local food you have ever tasted ... dipped in any western sauce.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the former communist thick bordered region (Greece being the exception) developed a case of what some call ‘cultural hypermetropia’: ‘everything in the West is better than here’. Preserving local pride and local identity was difficult in economically precarious circumstances. However, things changed quite a bit in the past decade and the southeastern neighbouring countries started turning to each other for help and collaboration.

One such initiative is the Cultural Management Academy (CMA), a programme which started with Sofia’s bid for European Capital of Culture as early as 2014. The Goethe-Institut and other EUNIC members got on board soon thereafter. The academy is designed to connect professionals from four countries in the region: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, and has included participants from Albania, Moldova and Poland. The CMA is one of the few opportunities cultural managers in the Balkans have to work together and exchange ideas.

Communities keep heritage alive

The 2018 edition of CMA was called ‘Engaging with Heritage’, a topic linked to the European Year of Cultural Heritage. The agenda focused on the region’s particularities such as socialist modernist dissonant/dark heritage; connecting heritage to communities and vice versa; depopulation of rural areas; city developments threatening heritage; and heritage supporting or prohibiting economic development. Piet Jaspaert, Europa Nostra Vice-President, held the opening talk at CMA Romania in 2018. His speech focused on the role communities have in keeping heritage alive. “The type of restoration which starts from a dialogue between decision makers and citizens is a successful one, one that generates the most beneficial impact on the life of that community.”

Jaspaert’s idea was present in several other seminars throughout the programme. As was Caroline Fernolend’s intervention, the person who managed to revive the medieval saxon settlement of Viscri, her birthplace in central Transylvania. Viscri became a UNESCO heritage site in 1999, and Caroline has helped restore over 1,200 other heritage sites in the region since then. “I believe that community spirit is born out of a feeling of belonging and responsibility towards your culture and identity. We don’t want museum towns, we want places that are alive”, she pointed out.

The type of restoration which starts from a dialogue between decision makers and citizens is a successful one, one that generates the most beneficial impact on the life of that community.

Yet heritage is not limited to ancient ruins, medieval fortresses, wooden churches or baroque palaces. Dissonant heritage is also a major issue in the region. Southeastern Europe has its share of concrete communist architecture, which radically transformed its urban landscape. Involving communities may be regarded as best practice when fostering conservation, but because this heritage is seldom linked to pleasant memories it is interpreted and dealt with differently by various communities.

The way countries in the region cope with dissonant heritage was the topic of discussion for probably the most powerful workshop at the 2018 CMA network meeting in Sofia, where Lukasz Galusek from the International Cultural Center in Krakow gave his presentation: Why are we afraid of socialist modernism.

The 2019 meeting took place in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, European Capital of Culture. Dozens of cultural managers from the countries involved in the programme interacted and created collaborative projects. The most important development compared to previous editions was mentoring of the project teams by staff from EUNIC member organisations. These network meetings are in fact places of common ground, where cultural managers from different places and cultures learn from each other and work together.

We know so little about our neighbours

“I was amazed to see the amount of valuable resources that exist. They were inaccessible because we lacked opportunities to meet and work together. I feel we are just starting to discover how much we have been missing out on. I got involved in the CMA programme because of its regional approach. We know so little about our neighbouring countries,” says Miki Braniște, curator of CMA.

Miki studied in Paris and Lyon and teaches cultural management university classes in Cluj, Romania. Ten years ago she helped build one of the strongest culture and arts communities in Romania – the Paintbrush Factory. She is well respected in her field. “Many challenges we face in the cultural sector are similar.” One of the toughest challenges she mentions is a lack of funding alternatives, creating tough competition when trying to secure resources. The crazy rhythm of funding cycles causes fatigue among cultural workers. “Selfexploitation is unfortunately a common thing in our field of work. Our rhythm is imposed by grant funding cycles. We get on that spinning wheel and we can’t get off. I know a lot of people who burnt out.”

Aggressive business development is another challenge, which generates high rent costs, which in turn forces out many independent cultural organisations. Proof of this: the fact that the old communist Paintbrush Factory is no longer a contemporary arts centre as the owner decided to revamp the place and convert it into a modern business centre. Miki admits that they all got attached to the place and its vibe. “There were still employees from back then, the doorkeepers, we got very attached to them. We used to joke, telling them they have not got artists, but new factory workers on their hands, as we were often working three shifts, like they did in the 80s.” In her vision, the CMA is a place where cultural operators get a chance to “stop, take a breath and reflect”. As well as this, during the past few years, the programme played its part in building connections between cultural managers in the Balkans. It also offered funding up to 5,000 euros through a seed grant dedicated to collaboration between participants from different countries.

I got involved in the Cultural Management Academy because of its regional approach. We know so little about our neighbouring countries.

Miki is currently working on a grant application for this year’s CMA in Bucharest. It is the afternoon and already she spent most of her day on the phone and in online meetings. “We are writing the project, trying to access alternative funding from AFCN, Romania’s National Cultural Fund. This year we will target the challenges in the cultural sector due to the current situation … This pandemic that keeps us indoors as we speak.”

Each year of the programme CMA addressed different topics related to priorities or challenges in the cultural sector: innovation in culture (2017), cultural heritage (2018), and culture and arts in the digital age (2019). Workshops took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. The programme has counted 150 participants so far. In 2020 the scope is: ‘The role of performing arts in time of crisis’. “Performing arts, especially independent theatre and contemporary dance got a major blow due to the pandemic”, she explains, adding that financial support is already limited.

Moving everything online

Until now the Academy has brought the cultural managers together in a single place. It has provided common ground for exchanging knowledge and sharing solutions to their problems. Miki worked closely with her colleagues Argyro Barata (Greece) and Stefka Tsaneva (Bulgaria) in coordinating the workshops in each country. All of them are professionals strongly connected to the realities of the cultural sector.

In fact, Miki just opened a new community and contemporary arts centre, in a Jewish heritage space, a former synagogue. During the developments they discovered a hidden fresco representing the Ziz griffin, the Hebrew mythological creature similar to the Greek mythological phoenix. “It was an uplifting discovery for a group of artists looking for a new place,” she explains. This discovery is how the new art centre got its name. Yet Ziz got closed a few days after the opening event as the virus started its rampage.

Before the pandemic, CMA editions in Bucharest were organised in a former 19th century inn, located in the historic centre of the city. Converted into a cultural centre, the buildings’ modern amphitheatre was full of people. Participants travelled to Sofia for joint workshops and skills matching sessions with colleagues from other countries. It is obvious now for the organisers that the CMA opening gala will no longer take place in a full amphitheatre, but more likely on laptops.

“This year we will meet online.”

Co-funded by the European Union Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.