Monday, 8 October 2012

Guest post: "Serving the arts - Surviving the crisis", by Ira-Iliana Papadopoulou (Greece)

When one meets Ira Papadopoulou one can hardly guess the strength and passion that lie beneath an apparent calm, reserved and rather quiet character. She´s so strong and passionate that when she was informed that her annual budget would be cut down to…0, she thought: “OK, back to work now”. It´s not business as usual though. Ira and many other culture professionals in Greece are facing extremely hard conditions, not only related to cuts in the cultural sector, but related to measures that have led to the destruction of the country´s economy. Ira is giving us a brief account of a sector that remains alive, that resists and that is still able to offer a social antidote to a bitter economic reality. mv

Part of the installation EIGHT (ΟΚΤΩ), Nr.6, by George Tserionis, 2011 (drawing  on paper, 120x100). (Photo: george Tserionis) 

“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
George Bernard Shaw 

The suggested topic was clear: Greek culture in a time of crisis. I couldn’t resist. It was definitely something I could talk about. Few weeks ago, when Maria Vlachou kindly asked me to contribute with a guest post to her blog, I was more than willing to share my professional views and my sincere anguish about the current situation of the cultural institutions in Greece. And then, just before starting writing my text, I read one of Maria’s enlightening, older posts about the Greek crisis and the cultural sector and I realized that almost nothing has changed since 2010…  Or maybe not? Maybe there are a few changes, but I’ll leave it to the readers to make the final judgment whether these changes are for better or for worse.

Starting with the Greek Ministry of Culture, which is not one of the most important of the country any more (as the Greeks had been told back in 2004), but rather a sub-ministry of a magical combination: Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, Culture and Sports.  Yes! The ultra-ministry in which everything, education, religion, culture and sports can be combined and managed accordingly. Not far from the famous greek salad, a bit of tomato, a bit of olives, a bit of onion, a bit of feta cheese…

People working for public cultural institutions - or institutions publicly supervised and funded - are literally crying out for help. The money is not enough to cover even the electricity bills. They now know that they have to find alternative resources, but no one ever tried to give them some directions on how to go about it. What’s more, the State’s incentive strategy for encouraging private sponsorships is almost non-existent.    

The Attikon Cinema, the oldest cinema in downtown Athens, almost a year after  being burnt during the protests against the austerity measures. (Photo: Ira Papadopoulou)
Even the private cultural initiatives are now in the eye of the storm. Since there’s not such a thing as a financial or cultural vacuum, the private domain is struggling to keep their staff, the standards of their services, their sponsors and, at the same time, maintain an interesting cultural programming. This is a difficult equation to solve.  Some are standing still, some are falling and some seem determined to move on to a new kind of creativity and open up to ‘unknown words’, such as collaboration, volunteerism, membership schemes, crowdfunding. Nobody can assure them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but if they don’t try there’s no way to ever find out.     

And all this is taking place in a period when followers of the neo-nazi party of the Golden Dawn publicly threaten festival directors, authors and artists for presenting works that, according to their opinion, insult the “national ideals”.  It looks as if art is once again the perfect alibi for nationalistic hysteria and conspiracy theories of all sorts. At the end of the day, all economic crises go along with the ultimacy of social values…

But talking about “the economic, social and moral crisis of our times” became a tedious repetition and those working for the arts tried to step back and find their way out of this depressing discourse. Without underestimating the psychological and all other effects of the crisis, the artists seem to find the courage to resist and claim their right to discuss, create and suggest alternatives for presenting their work to the public. New cultural initiatives, new cultural productions, new art groups (like the cultural venue about:, the project space Ommu, the Contemporary Art Meeting Point, the artistic team Athens Art Network, to mention only a few)but most of all, a new spirit of getting together and try to get the audience’s attention out of the everyday misery.

Celebrating the annual comics festival Comicdom Con Athens. Main entrance of Hellenic American Union, March 2012. (Photo: Antonia Houvarda)

This is not to say that crises and hardship are beneficial to art. This is not about an art blossoming. There’s no such thing as magic. But if we believe in the arts and we keep up serving them the best way we can, there is a serious chance to survive and even flourish.

We owe Greek artists a lot. It is with their courage and the cultural managers’ persistence that the cultural beat of the country is still alive. And although hard to believe, there are more than a dozen visual art exhibitions openings every month, more people to theaters than all previous years and more public (and free of charge) events than ever. Lectures, concerts, festivals, performances, happenings, and so on…. A night out in Athens proves that there is a vivid cultural life out there, and if anything else, culture can still be the social antidote to our bitter economic reality.

Ira – Iliana Papadopoulou studied Sociology, Communications Policy and Arts Management in UK. Since 2004 is the Director of Cultural Affairs at the Hellenic American Union, a public-service cultural and educational institution based in Athens, Greece. Prior to joining the HAU, she worked as Director of Public Relations and Communications Manager at other cultural and educational organizations in Greece, such as the British Hellenic College and the Center for Neo-Hellenic Studies (official home of The Cavafy Archive). From 2010 to 2012 she was an International Fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

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