Strengthening ethnic identity during the era of integration

  • 2004-02-19
One glance at Roma Zakaitiene leaves no doubt that she is indeed a woman of culture. Yet the culture minister, known for her trademark fur-collared business suits and elegant comportment, has in her two-and-a-half year tenure made the institution under her authority relevant both to the staid European cultural elite as well as Lithuania's rural population. Zakaitiene re-ceived Steven Paulikas in her exquisitely furnished office and spoke about her vision for the future of Lithuania's Culture Ministry.

What are the functions and priorities of the Culture Ministry?
The Culture Ministry is responsible for professional art, ethnographical culture and the expansion of folk culture, which we administer along with municipalities. We also own state museums, libraries and objects of national heritage, such as manor houses and estates, cemeteries, historical national parks, such as the parks at Trakai and Kernave. The ministry is also responsible for international cultural affairs-European norms and regulations and audio-visual politics. Another very important sphere in which we work is that of authorial rights and norms.
Western states have many different models of state intervention in culture, from the Scandinavian model of a close relationship between the two to the U.S.A., which has no high-level governmental institution that deals with culture. What is the example followed in the Lithuanian Culture Ministry?
In truth I couldn't say that we have a model identical to that of another country. However, the goals we are currently pursuing are closest to those of Culture ministries in Scandinavian countries.
In short, our model is to attempt to help realize cultural projects and to aid those who have no other source of funding. They approach us and are granted funding in a competitive process. Who wins is mostly decided by experts, not primarily by the highest officials of the ministry. I'm actually waiting for the day when the final decision of the culture minister in this process won't even be necessary.
And while we work closely with the Culture ministries of the Scandinavian countries, especially the Danes and the Swedes, the time has already come when we no longer receive direct financial support from any other country.

What are the ministry's priorities for this year?
Our priorities are to continue projects that have already begun. But among these, one of the biggest projects is to strengthen the expansion of regional and ethnic culture. As we join the European Union, many have a fear that we might lose our identity, a fear further propagated by the spread of globalization and the threat of losing what it is that makes us unique. Because of this, we have dramatically increased funding for the expansion of ethnic culture. In 2003, we funded 266 such projects in all 10 [EU candidate] counties, which was much more than the year before.
Other priorities include the renovation of cultural institutions, such as libraries, and heritage objects, which we hope to fund partially through EU tourism funds.

What types of projects do you fund in the countryside?
Much of this work is done side-by-side with municipalities. Nonetheless, we believe that municipal museums, libraries and cultural centers have a right to state funding. We have just completed a project for the acquisition of new books in rural libraries; now we are working on museums, and in the future we hope to fund the renovation of cultural centers.

So what would you tell a person living in the countryside who has no access to the theaters, operas and museums in the cities about the Culture Ministry's role in their lives?
I would say that these 266 projects to strengthen regional culture are designed specifically for them. If in the past there were accusations that money simply sat in Vilnius, now those accusations cannot be defended as the results all of our competitions and funding projects are publicized on our Web site, and one can instantly see how much money goes to each region and city.
However, I also want to emphasize that much depends on the initiative taken by individuals themselves. People in the countryside are dancing, singing, acting... There's one festival called For the Farmers held in Rokiskis, which will have its 20th anniversary this year. It's difficult to find such a long-standing festival in Vilnius or Kaunas.

Lithuania's participation as guest of honor at the 2002 Frankfurt Book Fair was hailed as a major success. Have you seen any positive effects for Lithuanian literature that build on this success?
I have to say that I have. I was very proud that such a small country with so few funds was so greatly received. Authors who were translated for the fair are being recognized. More generally, people noticed that there actually is something worth reading coming out of such a small country. Perhaps because of this we have received invitations to participate in the Les Boreales festival in France and the Goteborg Book Fair.

In your opinion, what exactly is Lithuanian culture?
That's a really good question. There's a lot, but I think the most important thing about Lithuanian culture is its language. The preserved nature of the language, our traditions, the specificities of regional differences, our ethnic treasures that have been passed on for generations. Our culture is also the way we adapt to the modern world; our modern art is often considered to be the highest quality in the region. So our culture is everything, beginning from ancient history and culminating in the present day.