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Donations Sound the New Note

BELGRADE, Jul 2 2013 (IPS) - The global economic crisis has not hit Serbia for the first time, but this year it has bitten into Serbian culture. State subsidies for theatres, festivals, films and exhibitions have almost hit the bottom. State support for films is down to zero.

The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra has under the circumstances made an unprecedented move. Since last month it has been organising donation concerts and dinners in an aim to collect the 1.5 million dollars it needs for a planned first tour of the United States next year.

“The result was spectacular,” director of the philharmonic Ivan Tasovac told IPS in an interview. “We collected 599,860 dollars from major Serbian private companies, international companies with offices here, hundreds of friends abroad and at home, foreign diplomats, as well as ordinary people – students, pensioners. No matter how big or small the sums, they are all so worthy for us.”

The national 11.4-billion-dollar budget provisioned only 0.62 percent this year for some 10,650 institutions of culture.

Culture has traditionally been co-financed by many sponsors such as public enterprises, large companies, big businesses and individual investors. But such investments have been declining over the past few years.

The Belgrade Philharmonic faced cuts in state funds in its 90th year of existence. The ensemble includes 98 musicians, with an average age of 35.

“We then ‘found’ a dusty book on the shelf called ‘Serbian philanthropy’ and used it,” Tasovac said, referring to an old tradition of donations.

A concert on Jun. 7 was conducted by the celebrated Zubin Mehta (77). The Belgrade Philharmonic was one of the first Mehta played with, back in 1956. Mehta helped the philharmonic establish a foundation in the U.S. that will co-finance the tour in 2014, with support also from contributors outside the Balkans.

The concert and another that followed a week later were followed by donors’ dinners in a posh Belgrade restaurant, at 325 dollars a guest. Guests were also invited to make further donations.

“This is the first time in the region that anyone has taken to this form of financing,” Tasovac said. “Most of serious institutions of culture all over the Balkans are in the same situation as we are. We hope we can inspire them to do the same.”

The Serbian Ministry of Culture has faced harsh criticism for weeks now, after it announced its final budgetary allocations.

All funding was withdrawn for the Nishville international jazz festival in the southern Serbian town Nis. The festival has hosted some of the most famous jazz artists for years. The October Salon of Painting dating from early 1960s also failed to get any funding. The international Belgrade theatre festival Bitef saw its funds sliced to half.

“We’ll see theatres closing down, as we saw cinemas die, we’ll have exhibitions in the dark, our museums are on the road to death,” theatre director Milica Kralj told IPS. “We must ask ourselves what our country will look like for our children tomorrow.”

October Salon manager Mia David objected to the criterion the Ministry of Culture adopted for cuts. “Modern creativity is not a priority in Serbia,” she said. “My guess is that the so-called ‘patriotic projects’ have eaten the funds.”

Expensive projects are under way to mark a thousand years of the historic Edict of Milan, when Roman Emperor Constantine I endorsed Christianity as the official religion of the state. The emperor was born in Naissus, today’s city of Nis in Serbia.

“We are a poor country, but we’ll become a country without culture if things continue like this,” film critic Milan Vlajcic told IPS. “Our ministers – except for a handful of them – are completely uncivilised people and go to theatres only if the TV cameras will catch them. Culture means nothing to them.”

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