Culture minister: It's a long-distance run

LITERARY historian Rudolf Chmel never wanted to enter politics and never liked administrative work. Now he occupies the chair of the culture minister and administers what is considered to be one of the most neglected spheres in the country - culture.
"After the elections [last September], representatives from all parties of the current coalition put pressure on me to accept the post. The position fell to our party because other parties were not too interested in it," he said.
After half a year in the job, during which time he got to know the workings of the ministry's machinery, Chmel realised how heterogeneous, fragmented, and, above all, underfinanced the Slovak cultural sphere is.

photo: photo: TASR

LITERARY historian Rudolf Chmel never wanted to enter politics and never liked administrative work. Now he occupies the chair of the culture minister and administers what is considered to be one of the most neglected spheres in the country - culture.

"After the elections [last September], representatives from all parties of the current coalition put pressure on me to accept the post. The position fell to our party because other parties were not too interested in it," he said.

After half a year in the job, during which time he got to know the workings of the ministry's machinery, Chmel realised how heterogeneous, fragmented, and, above all, underfinanced the Slovak cultural sphere is.

Still considering himself an independent intellectual despite his position, the nominee of the party run by TV Markíza founder Pavol Rusko is making it a priority to free culture from political and ideological influences, and to increase interest for it at home and abroad.

"Looking back over the last six months, I have to say that it is very hard to make any resolute changes. They are all conceptual issues, demanding a year or two minimum before results are seen. It's a long-distance run," the new minister said.

THE CURRENT culture minister, Chmel, with his predecessor, Milan Kňažko.
photo: TASR

The Slovak Spectator interviewed Chmel about his experiences running the ministry, and his plans for the future of culture in Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You have always said you did not want to be a politician, yet now you are a member of the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) party, which appointed you culture minister. What did it mean for you?

Rudolf Chmel (RCh): Because I used to be shadow foreign affairs minister, I was discussed as one of the people who would not sit in parliament. Personally, I could imagine myself in parliament, which I consider to be a freer place than in the executive branch. Apart from that, I have never favoured either ministries or offices. I have always considered clerks to be rather a burden in my life.

TSS: When you took up your post at the ministry after the elections, was there anything that shocked you?

RCh: As I went into the position, I assumed that the funding would be much higher, and that I wouldn't have to constantly worry about how to provide money. But the longer I work here, the less I am satisfied, because my field is very underfunded and there is no evidence to suggest that the situation will get better.

The cultural community, which it concerns, seems to me to be too apathetic, almost resigned. It does not know how to fight for its rights, for culture, which concerns society as a whole. It is one of the most essential parts of life, and to pretend that it will work on its own is too simplistic.

"THERE'S still a tendency to rely on the state."
photo: Zuzana Habšudová

TSS: It has been six months since you were appointed minister. What changes have you managed to enforce?

RCh: When I came, I understood that the ministry had its own established rhythm and its own infrastructure, which ensures at least the basic existence of culture and arts in society. I tried to find some systematic approach to the bureaucratic machine that ran the ministry.

This ministry stands on three pillars. The first is cultural heritage, or so-called non-live culture, meaning monuments and museums. The second is "live art" [art created by living Slovak artists - ed. note], and the third is the media-audiovisual field. I took over all three of them from the starting point, because they were not in a finished state.

In my view there is a need to create a stable legislative environment, mainly in the field of media, which we plan to prepare by the end of this year. So at the beginning of next year, the laws on Slovak Television and Slovak Radio could be in effect.

TSS: What are your plans for the cultural-heritage sphere?

RCh: Concerning cultural heritage, there is a concept in the government's programme called "Renovate your house", which is aimed at restoring historical monuments. The money is supposed to come from the big privatisations, because the restoration of monuments is a question of millions, even billions [of Slovak crowns]. In this sense, we want to prepare the project by the end of the year so that we can start work on it next year.

We need to reconstruct historical buildings such as Reduta [home of the Slovak Philharmonic], the Slovak National Gallery, and the University Library in Bratislava. Many similar smaller historical monuments are all over Slovakia, and we are monitoring their condition. But all this will be not possible to achieve without sufficient finances.

Apart from that, we need to strengthen the position of libraries. This is a very sensitive issue because there has been little invested into them, as well as into the purchase of books. For that reason, libraries are becoming less usable. I would say that in this area today, we are dragging behind all European countries.

TSS: What about "live art"?

RCh: In this field, we have to create the best possible conditions for new artistic work, whether in literature or in other areas. We plan to create the best possible legislative environment for people who create the art, as well as for those who receive it.

The realm of audiovisual media includes the film industry, where we have been solving things with occasional injections of cash and not systematically. Slovak film became a completely marginal issue, even though it had a certain reputation in the past. Comparing this country's film industry, for instance, with those in neighbouring countries, we come last of all - not only in the countries of the Visegrad Four [Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia] but also Europe.

The other thing is that culture and art have to be free from any ideology. They need to be separated from political parties and basically independent. In this way, the concept of the ministry links with my status as a so-called independent intellectual, which I still consider myself to be, even in this chair.

TSS: How successful is Slovakia in exporting its culture abroad?

RCh: The presentation of culture abroad is another pillar supporting Slovak culture. Thus far, there has been absolute improvisation in this field, and again we have to work out a concept and define priorities. We have to focus on the conceptual as well as the financial aspects, because if we don't invest money into it, we won't have anything to present. Culture is one of the few exports we have, and if we don't invest in it, we should not be surprised if people outside the country don't know anything about us.

The amount of money we have to present Slovak culture abroad is the same as what Hungary had for PR and marketing of the cultural season it recently mounted in Great Britain for a few months.

TSS: How much money does the ministry have to present Slovak culture abroad?

RCh: It has about Sk6.5 million [158,000 euro]. The Czech Republic spent 150 million Czech crowns [4.7 million euro] to present the country in France last year. The same amount of money was contributed by French cities, which means 350 or 400 million Czech crowns was invested in total, that is Sk600 million [1.5 million euro]. And that was to mount a presentation in just one country.

The presentation of culture and art abroad is what creates our trademark, the image of Slovakia abroad. That's why it is a complex issue, and should not be a task assigned to one ministry only.

TSS: If there were enough money for the presentation of Slovakia abroad, what would be your concept and which countries would you focus on?

RCh: The priorities are set according to Slovakia's foreign policy. One of our priorities is to have good relations with our neighbours. It is happening, to a certain extent, with the Czech Republic, less with Hungary, and very little with Poland, not to mention the Ukraine.

The second focus should be EU and NATO member countries. The third group consists of selected countries such as Russia, the US, Canada, and some countries in South America and Asia, e.g. Japan, China, and others.

Some of the activities that are already happening are organised by the Slovak cultural institutes that are in eight countries - mostly in neighbouring states and in Germany. Then in some countries, one person at the Slovak embassy is responsible for culture in addition to his regular agenda.

TSS: Are Slovak communities abroad involved in the activities?

RCh: Cooperation with ethnic Slovaks abroad is sometimes good and sometimes it's nonexistent. Slovaks abroad are usually only consumers of products or events that are brought to them, and they do not participate in organising or financing these activities. But there are differences between the various communities, so a deeper analysis of the situation would probably be necessary. Of course, there are enthusiasts among them who dedicate their time [to organising cultural events] but most of them have probably already assimilated. So there is no significant cooperation with ethnic Slovaks abroad.

TSS: How do you plan to present culture at home, to raise public interest in culture? When culture does not have a prominent position at home, there is no money available for it, and then there is no funding to present it abroad. How do you escape from this vicious circle?

RCh: It's true that when you don't pour [money] into one area, there won't be anything in the other. When the relationship to culture at home is the way it is - nobody cares about the lack of money, about the fact that there are no books in libraries, etc. - it is difficult to imagine that somebody would be upset that Slovakia's culture is not being presented abroad. What does not bother you at home, will not bother you abroad.

We have launched a market-driven approach in culture, and it seems that many things [in culture] don't work on a market basis. Commercial art can work based on market rules, but then it often turns into "art" rather than art.

TSS: How is the government dealing with the planned transfer of responsibility for cultural institutions to regional governments?

RCh: The decentralisation of culture is one of the key problems we want to solve because there are still many institutions under the ministry's responsibility that could easily be under the [responsibility of] regional governments, or towns.

The reforms still have to be finished, though, because many institutions that were transferred complain that the towns or regions do not care about them, and that the money does not flow the way it did from the ministry. It is as if there is little understanding for culture [in the provinces]. The towns and regions have to realise that they are responsible for culture and that they have to provide money for it. Paternalism, meaning that the state or a ministry would always help, got too heavily developed in Slovakia.

One such example is when Trenčín Castle wall fell down [in March]. Everybody turned to the ministry, the president, and the prime minister for help, but even if we were able to help, because in this case it was an emergency situation, the castle is now the responsibility of Trenčín region. Towns and regions have to take care of their properties with their own resources. We advocate that financing comes from several sources - meaning the state, regions, and towns - and the third sector and business sector should also participate. This should all become clear in the near future, but as yet, there is still a tendency to rely on the state.

TSS: In the field of culture, there are often discussions about the unjust division of money for state-run and independent cultural institutions. What is the ministry's policy on this?

RCh: State-run institutions are the ones that every developed country has to have. State-run cultural institutions are the national gallery, the national theatre, the national library etc. Without them, a cultural nation can call itself neither cultural nor a nation.

Independent culture is underfinanced but so are the state-run cultural institutions, so they are connected vessels. The distribution of money is not unfair. The commissions are put together from top experts, the best we have, and if we don't rely on them - if we don't trust them - then we can give up on the entire idea of democracy. Artists decide about [grants for] artists, architects decided about [grants for] architects; there is no fairer way to distribute the money.

You cannot put the Slovak National Theatre and [independent theatre] Stoka together in the same category. It doesn't work like that. There are certain institutions in culture that the state has to look after, if it wants to or not. The Slovak National Theatre is one of them. However, whether Stoka exists or not is the theatre's own business; it has to look after itself, it has to apply for grants and find its own way around the system of [cultural] sponsorship.

TSS: As the author of several anthologies of 19th and 20th century Slovak literature, how do you view the penetration of Slovak literature on the international market? What are the ministry's plans in this area?

RCh: This issue has not been solved conceptually. Slovak literature has the worst position among all the creative arts when it comes to penetration abroad. This is because it is written in the language of a small nation. But it cannot be a question of language only because I know Norwegian, Albanian, and Slovenian writers, who were trapped by even smaller languages and yet they managed to reach out to the world. Firstly, it has to do with the value of the artefact, and secondly, it's a question of marketing, which is worked out in many countries. So far, we have only improvised.

For example, Sweden has a relatively small ministry of maybe 80 or 90 employees, but it has the Swedish Institute, with around 100 people, which is responsible for disseminating Swedish culture abroad. For example, it organises for translators to go on scholarship programmes [to Sweden].

We also have to support translators, and not only that, we have to support the publishing of the books themselves, because there is strong competition in literature. Nobody is going to read a Slovak writer just because they like our minister of culture, for example.

TSS: There have been foreign initiatives to publish Slovak books abroad but they have usually broken down on the Slovak side.

RCh: I don't know anything about such initiatives. I haven't heard of ethnic Slovaks abroad planning to translate and publish Slovak books abroad. I think this has to be coordinated from Bratislava, but you have to follow the situation abroad, to know which author would be successful where.

It is also necessary for the quality of literature to go hand in hand with professional marketing, which we have completely neglected. Literature is not perceived as an attribute of our country abroad. In fact, I don't think anybody would identify us by our literature - maybe by our hockey players or opera singers.

TSS: With all your duties as a minister, do you still find time to write yourself?

RCh: There is a very simple answer to that: no. The only genre I am involved in is the interview.

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