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QUESTION MARK HANGS OVER THE NEW NATIONAL THEATRE BUILDING

To sell or not to sell?

EIGHTEEN YEARS since the construction of a new National Theatre (SND) building was started under communism, and billions of taxpayers' crowns later, an investor is wanted to enter and complete the construction venture with the Slovak state.
Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš angered many theatre lovers and actors with his recent proposal that the costly and still unfinished SND building, standing in a lucrative part of the country's capital city, should be sold because the state could not afford further investments in the construction.
After numerous protests from actors, artists, and local authorities from various spheres of public life, Mikloš conceded that the building does not need to be sold if an investor is found to enter a joint stock firm with the Slovak state and finance the completion of the construction.

EIGHTEEN YEARS since the construction of a new National Theatre (SND) building was started under communism, and billions of taxpayers' crowns later, an investor is wanted to enter and complete the construction venture with the Slovak state.

Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš angered many theatre lovers and actors with his recent proposal that the costly and still unfinished SND building, standing in a lucrative part of the country's capital city, should be sold because the state could not afford further investments in the construction.

After numerous protests from actors, artists, and local authorities from various spheres of public life, Mikloš conceded that the building does not need to be sold if an investor is found to enter a joint stock firm with the Slovak state and finance the completion of the construction.

Since 1985, Slovakia has invested about Sk3.4 billion (€83 million) in the construction, and it is estimated that another Sk820 million (€19.5 million) is needed.

Currently, the country's national theatre (SND) is located in the city centre on Bratislava's Hviezdoslavovo námestie square, but investments reaching about Sk620 million (€14.7 million) in the reconstruction of two of its parts, the ballet and the drama stages, are also needed.

Protests against the sale of the unfinished SND came shortly after Mikloš announced his plan in mid October.

"We categorically protest the cabinet's plan to sell the nearly finished SND building," stated a letter signed by dozens of local artists and personalities of Slovak public life.

"National culture is one of the attributes of identity for every EU member state. The issue of completing the new SND is not only a matter concerning Slovak stagecraft but also an issue of Slovak culture and the Slovak nation as a whole," stated the letter.

Natália Rolková, one of the protest's organizers, said to The Slovak Spectator that their initiative found a wide resonance among public figures.

"About 99 percent of people we approached supported our call," Rolková said.

There were, however, also voices in favour of the sale of the building, mainly at the Finance Ministry, who argued that Slovakia could not afford to spend more on the construction. Even the Culture Ministry produced a study this past spring that talked about the financial aspects of the current SND and the new financial commitments that the completion of the new SND would bring.

Even if the new SND were completed with state funding, maintenance of the new theatre alone would cost Sk400 million (€9.68 million) a year, said Peter Papanek, Finance Ministry spokesman.

In addition to doubts about the financial affordability of the project, some observers also questioned whether the nation's appetite for theatre needed the new SND, which would provide the capital's spectators with about 1,500 new seats.

As a compromise, Mikloš later suggested the creation of the joint stock firm, and currently the finance and culture ministries are waiting for possible investors.

Andrej Zmeček, head of the Culture Ministry's arts section, said that possible investors had already contacted his ministry inquiring about the details of the potential formation of the joint stock venture.

He would not, however, reveal the names of the firms, stating only that they were domestic as well as foreign companies.

"We are not holding any talks yet, not until the details of the possible project are set. A special operational group is working on the conditions of the possible project and these conditions should be finalized by the end of November or the beginning of December," Zmeček said.

An October 29 cabinet resolution bound Culture Minister Rudolf Chmel to present the cabinet with a plan for the new SND building by December 31, including a time schedule.

In his initial reaction to Mikloš' proposal, Chmel, however, was not very hopeful that the joint venture idea would work.

Papanek indirectly blamed Chmel of insincerity, stating that he had only made it his goal to defend the completion of the theatre when the initial public protests came against the planned sale of the building.

"The minister did not define the completion of the theatre as his priority [ahead of the preparation of the 2004 state budget]," said Papanek.

Reacting to the often emotional comments on the initial plan to sell the site, which suggested that no nation should sell its national theatre, the spokesman said that it was "necessary to stress that we would not be selling the SND as an institution but rather as an unfinished building that was supposed to house the SND".

Rolková from the protest initiative said she had no objections to any solution that would help complete the SND building and keep the institution for the fulfilment of its original purpose - promoting the performing arts.

"It was our priority to stop the sale of the building. All other solutions that will contribute to keeping the building for its original purpose are welcome," Rolková said.

The Finance Ministry's priorities, meanwhile, remain firm with respect to the SND project.

"Our goal remains to prevent further growth of the public finance deficit in general. In the cultural sphere this means that cultural projects are to be supported, but in a way that the money is used effectively and does not lead to further indebtedness in the sector," said Papanek.

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