A nation's culture running out of steam

  • 2001-02-01
  • Elina Cerpa
As purse strings tighten, the arts are suffering financially and there is no one to take Latvian culture back to the people. Elina Cerpa looks at why Latvia badly needs a well coordinated system of arts management.

Latvia has experienced dramatic changes since it regained independence 10 years ago. Latvians have realized that art and culture are fragile areas vulnerable to every economic and political push and shove. Foundations exist to fund the arts, but at nowhere near pre-independence levels.

Karina Petersone took the post of minister of culture two years ago. She is proud of what her country has to offer in terms of the arts.

"The major thing of value that Latvia has to offer the world is its culture. This is our only currency. We don't have anything to offer other than our people's intelligence and culture."

But culture is not possible without sponsorship, and sources of finance for the arts in Latvia are few. A system for managing the arts is needed to coordinate funding.

Latvia has not even begun to consider following the example of Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France, each of which exemplify state support for the arts at its best.

Latvia is opting for the American way of supporting culture, to free the state from the duty of subsidizing culture and to load much of the responsibility onto the shoulders of municipalities.

The major difference here, of course, is that the United States is a far richer country, and more people can afford to patronize the arts. Long-established funds help to ensure that artists in the United States can get a decent income without upsetting the federal budget.

Cultural management has existed in Europe for 30 years, and even longer in America. But for Latvia it is a completely new area.

Leonarda Kestere is a talented and outspoken lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Culture. She is one of those rare people here who actually boast a qualification in arts management. She is afraid that the significance of the arts in Latvia may simply vanish.

"This situation may become dangerous. Under present conditions, the state fails to take responsibility about continuing and retaining the cultural values that existed before. It doesn't care about the development of creativity. The cultural sector could slowly crash, become amateurish, and lose its professionalism and significance for social development."

Kestere thinks there is not the slightest comprehension of what arts management is and how it could turn the fortunes of culture in Latvia around. This is especially the case since it is based on a democratic way of thinking yet to take root in the artistic community.

In her early 30s, Kestere has a Master's degree in arts management from the City University of London. She was head of the international relations and development department at Latvia's National Opera, where she organized impressive productions with stars like ballet dancer Mikhail Barishnikov, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and violinist Gidion Cremer.

One of her biggest projects so far has been to lead a project for Latvia at the European Cultural Capital Ô99 in Weimar.

"I love international projects," she says, "because I have to work with a slow side Ð the Latvian side Ð and do everything I can to make it act more sensibly by using Western knowledge and experience. Art management is an area in which people learn how to lead and improve their cultural organizations. Right now this isn't happening."

Cultural management did exist in the period of socialism, she adds. Everyone involved in the arts, from big stadium show directors to the heads of small collective organizations, were educated at technical schools of culture. This was subsidized by the state and the money was guaranteed.

Thespian Juris Lavins studied at the Technical School of Culture in Riga between 1959 and 1961. His education has little relevance in today's Latvia. He bemoans the passing of popular cultural traditions under the old system, such as performing theater in towns around Latvia.

"I studied the direction of amateur performance. For a while, it was easy to get a job in provincial culture clubs and make a little show. It was all paid for by the local municipalities, although the pay was not that good. No one does this job anymore," says Lavins.

Today, culture is virtually non-existent in many areas outside Riga, something a nationwide system of arts management could address. No matter how interesting its culture, Latvia is a small market. It is always beneficial if there is some coordination with other cultures, with exchanges and chances to study. Getting outside one's own limited environment is vital for any artist.

The state-supported Cultural Capital Foundation is an institution that does seek to support and enhance culture. It also promotes research related to cultural heritage.

The foundation announces four project competitions a year. Last year, 2,939 projects were submitted, of which 1,498 were backed to the tune of more than 2 million lats ($3.28 million).

But the Cultural Capital Foundation has its critics. Sometimes awarded projects have brilliant ideas, but lack a well thought out financial plan. Meanwhile, many critics say the foundation has become bogged down with predictable choices for allocating cash.

"The foundation was established with the idea of supporting creative work," says Leonarda Kestere. "But now it just gives money to state projects, presents famous cultural personalities with lifelong scholarships, and supports book printing and national heritage. It can't work this way.

"We don't have any foundations that support creative work. All the money goes toward the recognition of yesterday rather than the talent of today.

"And where can professional projects appear from? Often people have no idea how to map out their finances. How many heads of cultural institutions know how to work with a budget? Only a few people I know are familiar with the term Ôdepreciation.'"

Aigars Bikse is the head of the council of photography and visual arts at the CCF. He admits that the organization needs assistance in some areas.

"Sometimes good ideas are not perfectly formulated," he says. "We still have to study. The market in Latvia is small and we need contacts abroad to advise us."

In a situation where the state is unable to support the arts and municipalities refuse to take responsibility, a third way is through corporate sponsorship and individual donations. It is estimated that in Latvia 30 percent of the funds given to the arts are invested in this way.

One of the most enthusiastic corporate sponsors in the country is the largest beer producer in Latvia, Aldaris. The company sees itself as a leading light in the cultural arena, because it helps improve communication between potential corporate sponsors of the arts, each of which wants to see a real benefit coming from the assets they invest.

Aldaris President Vitalijs Gavrilovs explains that the company has a special marketing project for supporting different ideas, and not only in the arts.

"In the arts we mainly support opera and ballet. As a large Latvian company, we are responsible for the development of society," he said.

Last year, Aldaris supported new actors from the Academy of Culture.

"Every year we try to find something new," says Gavrilovs. "We collaborate with educational institutions and delve into new processes. Maybe this year we'll support new conductors."

As for what he thinks about the state's attitude toward culture, Gavrilovs sighs and says, "This is too big a topic to talk about, but it is important for the state to define their mission."

Leonarda Kestere has noticed that in Latvia the opinion prevails that sponsorship is simply a donation. But normally, corporate sponsorship is a business deal. Education can help to redress this deficit in local knowledge.

At the Academy of Culture, a department of cultural management has been up and running for two years. There is strong competition for places in the only arts management course in the country. Among other things, students learn basic business management, personnel management and the art of marketing.

Daiga Berzina, 24, is a second-year student there. She feels satisfied with her choice.

"I simply couldn't choose anywhere else," says Berzina. "This is the only place were I can get a professional, academic education in art management. The program offers both theoretical and practical experience. I have gained some good contacts."

Daiga is supplementing her experience, as well as her meager student finances, by working part-time for Igo Music Management, a company set up by a famous Latvian singer that organizes concerts and manages singers' careers.

Time is needed to construct a national strategy for the effective promotion and management of the arts in Latvia. But the state seems reluctant to organize it. It is shoring up resources, worried about tomorrow's recessions. Where there is no guarantee for future economic growth, those in the arts fear, there is no guarantee for the future of culture.