About the State, the State-owned
and the Non-state Owned Cultural
Sector in Bulgaria
Drawing a line between "state" and "non-state" cultural organisations may be viewed by many as a rather artificial and formalistic exercise. As far as audiences are concerned, the only meaningful division is the one between good and bad theatres, popular and not so crowded galleries, virtuoso and not so virtuoso orchestras... Every time we talk about cultural policy in Bulgaria however, we are forced to think along the "state" - "non-state" axis. The reason is that when deciding upon financing cultural organisations, politicians in Bulgaria view them in exactly that way - the type of property of the organisation turns out to be the crucial factor. They are not interested to know what would make more people go to the theatre; they do not want to know which company contributes most to the innovation of the theatrical language. They are not interested in what audiences admire, nor in what the critics value - they are interested whether the company is state owned or not. If it is state owned - the politicians judge - then it is a duty of the state to support it, if it is not - 'let them survive as they can'. A decision making process underlined by such a philosophy can hardly be the most effective one, as it can only stimulate the dominance of one type of cultural organisation over the other, but not the development of art.
There are plenty of non-state cultural organisations in Bulgaria today which have the status of a 'foundation' or 'association', and are not-for-profit. There are also some that are registered as for-profit legal persons (such as Ltd., Sole traders, etc). The common ground between them is that they exist with little or no support from the state, and that (if they are not in the business of one of the cultural industries) they cannot rely on commercial success. In a similar situation to the state cultural organisations someone has to finance their work in order to be able to work. Unlike the state cultural organisations though, under the current policy they cannot apply for a core institutional grant, but only for realising their projects. The non-state cultural organisations are financed mainly by non-state sources - funds and foundations, cultural institutes of various European countries, and again they cannot ask for core funding there. Thus comes the first characteristic of the non-state cultural sector - it is extremely fragile; these organisations are under constant threat of not being able to continue working, which leads to an unstable and frustrated development of the sector. Many would argue here that non-state cultural organisations are much more flexible and efficient, better motivated and able to survive. This is certainly true. But with the little resources that they have access to, and with the unstable future they see, they cannot unfold their full potential. The state does not show any interest in providing the minimum needed for a stable development even to those of them that are acknowledged as excellent and needed for the flourishing of our culture.
ÀÒÀ Centre for Contemporary Art, "ÒÅD" gallery in Varna, "La Strada" theatre, "Varna Summer" Theatre festival, all one can think of in the field of contemporary dance (except of Arabesque) XXL gallery, Sofia Film Fest, Bulgarian Photographic Association, "Theatre in a suitcase" festival, the Institute for Contemporary Art, the Art Hostel, independent groups that perform in venues like "Tear and Laughter" theatre... - it might be worth mentioning at least one hundredth part of the private cultural organisations, so that we see which part of our contemporary culture is being left out in the cold, to "survive as they can"... As for the state cultural organisations (such as most theatres, museums, operas and orchestras today) they have the advantage of a longer biography of work, a better acquaintance of the audience with their presence in the cultural landscape, and the stability of state funding for both core institutional costs and projects. The topic of the state and the non-state cultural sector usually divides those discussing it into two clearly defined groups, however united they may be in their criticism towards the state cultural policy. Each of the two groups has its own reasons to insist that the state does not do what it is supposed to do in order to create the conditions for the development of culture. On the one side of the dividing line the state cultural organisations complain that they are left with a miserable level of state support, which does not allow them to work. On the other, the non-state cultural organisations do not have the right to apply for infrastructural subsidy to cover their core costs, and thus suffer from the lack of stability in their development.
Both sides are right: the state cultural organisations when they ask for a more adequate state subsidy for their needs and for more freedom in operating with it, and the non-state cultural organisations when they ask for equal treatment by the state bodies and funds for culture (which are accumulating and distributing tax-payers' money). The problem lies within the state, which still perceives the first category as a sacred cow (although one that might soon die of malnutrition!), and the latter - as the newly appeared necessary evil. It is obvious that the question of what type of art does the contemporary Bulgarian need cannot find its answer along this axis.
It is sad that in the last twelve years the state cultural policy has been determined by the pressure of two opposing forces: on one hand the wish to preserve the status quo and on the other the pressure of the new conditions - most often a synonym for the lack of money. One can hardly expect impressive achievements from a cultural policy determined by passive and negativistic considerations. What our cultural policy is dramatically lacking is positive vision, a positive motivation of reforms. Instead of betting on a visionary strategy for the development of culture, our governments keep complaining abut the lack of money and have preferred to give up one by one what was inherited from the past period, without being able to articulate a vision of what could replace it.
The problem of the state cultural policy is that the wrong questions are asked, which never bring the right answers. The new economic and social situation is perceived as outright hostile, without any attempt of analysing its potential. Let's take an example from the field of theatre: in recent years efforts were made mainly to preserve the existing state infrastructure and property, while the human resource engaged in the theatres were seen mainly from the perspective of the number of people employed. It is only natural that when the main pathos of the reforms is to preserve what we have had, the newly emerging non-state theatre companies, which insist on the recognition of their place in the theatrical landscape and on their right to state subsidy, appear as an unwanted intruder. They wish to create the new, rather than preserving the old, and on top of it insist on their right of having a share from the subsidy that is currently going to the state theatres. The fund for support of theatre projects, including those of independent companies, created in 1995 was a positive step in the context of the reform, but was not enough, as it does not create conditions for sustainable development of the non-state companies. This step was not a result of a thorough vision on the development of the non-state sector in theatre. It was rather a step which solves the problem of today, without thinking about the development of the theatre system as a whole tomorrow.
But problems are not limited to the theatre sector only. In the agenda on culture of the current government words like "quality of the artistic work", "access of marginalized groups to culture", "artistic innovation" and so on are not to be found. The question of how the type of property of the cultural organisations affects the possibility to finance the cultural products is also not problematized. This is why we can hardly expect that the complexity of problems affecting the state and non-state cultural organisations will soon start to be solved. One positive step was the recently established Citizen's Forum "Culture" - a non-state organisation uniting all cultural sectors, which aims at bringing on the agenda of the state the real and important issues in culture. The forum however still needs to prove its efficiency.
It is only in the dialogue between the state, the state-owned and non-state cultural organisations that the solution of the currently existing problems could be found.
Dessy Gavrilova is one of the two founding directors of The Red House - Centre for Culture and Debate. She started in 1997 and managed until 2000 the Open Society Institute performing arts programme. Dessy has an MA in theatre studies from Sofia Theatre Academy and did a research into the cultural policy of Great Britain after WWII at the University of Oxford.