We have talked to Goran Tomka, a member of the research team working on the Cultural Strategy of the city of Novi Sad, about creating the strategy, current situation and the possibilities of this strategic document
- How did it happen for you to be involved in the creation of such an important document for the city?
When the city announced that it wants to run for the European Capital of Culture in 2011, I organized and participated in several panel discussions on the subject (one of them was called Novi Sad European Capital of Culture before European Capital of Culture), and started researching experiences of other cities. In 2014 I was part of the team along with Natali Beljanski and Darko Polić, who wrote the draft program for application itself, but it was clear that without a strategy and research we will not get far, so we came out of that. Then we have pointed the need to do thorough research before strategy and when we received an invitation from the City to bid for a research, we accepted the invitation. I think the opportunities for research and strategic planning in the culture are very rare and they should not be missed. Just to remind you neither the Republic nor City of Belgrade have a strategy in the field of culture. Strategies bind, call for responsibility and are often not popular among decision makers. What we have started in Novi Sad is great news for anyone who wants a change. Of course, many are satisfied with the current situation.
- What was the first thing you did when you started working on the Cultural Strategy of the city?
In our practice, strategies are usually done in two ways – better and worse. Worse means that a team of experts sits inside one room, and more or less write strategy on the basis of their experience and knowledge. This approach often includes re-writing of other strategies. What you get at the end is the document which, thanks to subjectivity and limited knowledge of the real conditions, is not appropriate to the context it seeks to transform. Better way means that experts invite participants of cultural life to workshops and roundtables and together with them they write strategy. Strategies in Zrenjanin and Pančevo, and before that in Niš, were done in this way. We will follow the second option, but it has its shortcomings, too. In fact, people who find themselves around the table may be people who at that point had time, interest or for some reason are close with experts, which means favoritism and potentially excludes the voices that are not found in the room. That is why, Peđa Cvetičanin, Ivana Volić and I, as a team, will organize pre- workshops that will take place during April and May, and do extensive research in the most important aspects of the cultural system of the city – the cultural participation of citizens, the functioning of cultural organizations and institutions and the work of the City Department of Culture. In this way, we think that more voices can be heard, and that is very important for every process that tends to call itself democratic
- Are the results of the questionnaire one of the key issues in developing a strategy?
Through research we will get a kind of diagnosis of the current situation. We will be able to look at what are the key problems, how they occurred and whether there are some often repeated myths that prevent us to see at the real picture. This is very important and recently became a common practice of European cultural policy – and therefore there is a concept of cultural policy based on facts (source: evidence based policy). However, the data itself does not bring the solution to the problem, such as blood test does not suggest what medicine to take – it is up to the doctor to assess. For that reason it is planned to invite all participants of the cultural scene – that is, one medical review board – to propose possible solutions based on their experiences and the experiences of other cities like Novi Sad. Our role is to assemble these proposals into a coherent whole.
- What do citizens, as final consumers of culture, can expect after the adoption of Strategy?
Some of the key barriers to participation in cultural life have been created for decades and ca not be solved neither easy nor quickly. For example many citizens who we call to answers the questions regarding their participation in cultural life, they tell us – I do not know anything about culture, it is not for me. When you know that these people are often poor, they did not have, for various reasons, the opportunity to be educated and to live in uptown, then you get a picture of the unequal society and idea of culture as an elite activity which is by definition exclusive. It is a sad picture that cannot be solved overnight.
What can be resolved and will affect the citizens, is that cultural organizations become more sensitive to their needs and ways of participation in cultural events. People rebel against this statement often – do we need to flatter the audience?! It does not mean that programs are created by the citizens and their vote for what they find most beautiful or fun (like it is done in Hollywood). Art and other cultural facilities must be free to come out of the frame in every sense, and for that freedom it is worth fighting. However, any content can be presented in many different ways, in different places, at different times and accompanied by a variety of teaching, animation and promotional programs, which make the content more or less attractive. Even if you want to shock someone or take him out of his comfort zone, if the content is not accessible and responsive, you will have an empty hall. Unfortunately we are very late behind the European environment. There are some exceptions, but programs are often designed according to the taste and habits of the educated elite, and the audience rarely get involved in a meaningful way.
- How and in what way will creating Cultural Strategy affect the cultural life of the city?
Firstly, for creation of a cultural strategy the result is equally important – strategic document itself- the process and the way we reached the document. At this point, we strive to make the process as open as possible, participatory and meaningful. That is why we have been for weeks tirelessly sending invitations, reminders and requests to participate in the study. Because we know that the quality of the process equals the amount of key stakeholders participation. Only then we can have meaningful and important discussions from which we will result not only a quality document, but a document supported by the growing number of participants. This brings me to another important thing. The adoption of the Strategy is only the beginning. Its implementation, evaluation and short-term action plans are much more important. We know of many examples of strategies that are held in the drawers. But no strategy is fully implemented, and even less if it is conducted among stakeholders and the public in general with no agreement that it should be implemented and the willingness to take responsibility for the implementation. The rest of the story is the same with the law, the constitution…
- What city, according to your opinion, has a good cultural strategy and is it possible to be re -written from another city?
Probably the worst thing we can do is re-write. This is a recipe for disaster. I believe that every city has the capacity to design quality and a genuine strategy, the only question is who will be entrusted with the job. Of course, we are familiar with the strategies of different cities, and as the European Capital of Culture Project affects growing number of cities, therefore there is a growing number of strategies in our environment. Unfortunately, a large number of them were written in the short term, by people who are complete strangers to the scene and with the low participation of stakeholders.
- When you think about cultural life in Novi Sad, what do you see as good and what as bad things?
Let me start with the bad. I think that a large number of workers in culture are discouraged by various unsuccessful battles they fought in previous years. They feel humiliated and marginalized, and often hopeless. They live in difficult conditions, do not have means for work … Their confidence in the possibility of change is very low and it is not hard to understand. This type of emotional burden and fatigue is a major obstacle in anyone’s work. At the same time, the scene is divided, everyone is working within its small circle. We distrust each other and often get the impression that the failure of a „team“ is the success of others. I do not think that we should all agree and be in love with all, on the contrary. Disagreement is very important. But it is one thing to disagree in dialogue, and the other is not to communicate at all, and that is what we have now. I think it is important that debates on culture, including disagreements, resume their important place in public discourse – that means the culture is not self-interest of a few threatened groups, but a common interest of a greater number of citizens.
On the other hand, it gives me great satisfaction to see some new force on the scene beside some tireless old players. Review is not complete, but for example Pozorište Promena (Theater of Change) led by young actors and actresses, which celebrated its first birthday weeks ago by brilliant performance in front of a full audience, was really great refreshment. Dorm B-612, which was launched last year by a group of students of art, architecture and social sciences, collecting their allowance to cover the costs, is something that always inspires me. Today, when you go into their new space behind the Synagogue (the first had been in Chinatown under poor conditions), you have the opportunity to see a full team of young people who talk about the legacy of Sixty-eighth or listen to music night or exhibit their work … These are the scenes which are rarely seen. I also think it is very positive that public institutions of culture increasingly show that they have something to offer to the new public and know how to do it like the Gallery of Matica Srpska and Museum of Vojvodina, to cooperate with the independent production (MSUV or SNP for example) to win international projects, to mingle in European circles. I would say that it is becoming more common picture and I would like it to become quite common.
- When can we expect the first effects on the cultural life of the city after the adoption of the strategy?
I think the first effects can be seen even before the strategy is adopted. For us, the fact that our city is doing the most comprehensive study of the cultural system, probably the biggest in the country, that a large number of people responded to the survey, as well as a significant number of organizations, is a noticeable improvement. If we have a large number of participants in the workshops who constructively and critically suggest solutions, then I think we can say that we are on the right track. Of course, the next try-on for culture will be an important moment. If it is, as a key instrument of cultural policy, changed and modernized then this means that we, as a sector, have succeeded.
- How do you see Novi Sad in 2021?
It depends on whether I am being optimistic or pessimistic … Novi Sad in 2021 can be divided, odds, and ashamed city. On the other hand, it can be a city which has received attention, which is strengthened, which has improved the capacity of cultural participants, may have discovered its new look, made new friends inside and outside. Actually, I think the chances are equal for both scenarios. It all depends on how we position ourselves and how we contribute to persistent changes we long for. If we are imprisoned in our small balloons, we will find the culprit to spend the day. If we organize and associate, I can imagine a city that will justify its name – to be a nursery of new ideas, a meeting place and initiator of some new changes.