A year of testing, of profound exploration, of resilience, and growth – this is how Ralitsa Gerasimova, Margarita Dorovska, Galin Popov, and Yanina Taneva characterize the past year in a recent conversation. During our discussion earlier this month, the leaders of some of Bulgaria's most dynamic organizations shared their experiences, expectations, and perspectives. We delved into topics such as the imminent cultural developments beyond the capital, explored alternatives to the traditional center-periphery model, pondered the emergence of new networks, and examined the trajectories of European collaborations. The questions were asked by Viktoria Draganova, editor-in-chief of the Journal for Social Vision.
If there is one word you could use to describe what you think 2023 was like, what would it be?
Margarita Dorovska In short, I would say – a year of testing nerves. That can be positive sometimes, but the political environment is definitely nerve-wracking and frustrating, and that is quite tiring. The whole country is listening to where things are going and it is very difficult to work in such a situation in the public sector. It is probably part of the long crisis that we have to get used to living in, we just have to have a different attitude and motivation.
Galin Popov For us, the word is 'sustainability'. In Veliko Tarnovo, for the second year, the Varusha South festival took place, which involved not only the team of TAM, but also many other people from the neighbourhood, so we see it as common. If it were not for the good dialogue and perseverance of all participants, the festival would not be able to be realized with such ease and scale. Moreover, more and more artists from other cities and countries are visiting and working in the city, more and more locals are participating in national and international formats. There were no drastic changes in Veliko Tarnovo at the local elections. We hope that the dialogue with institutions, in which we have been involved for several years, will lead to even bolder and more structural solutions for the development of the contemporary cultural scene in 2024.
Janina Taneva I will link things because for us the year was an attempt to start such an institutional dialogue in general, because we usually work locally. My word is 'deepening' – it was important to have data and figures to legitimise our truth in the context of accepted institutional discourse. In this context, we conducted a study within the Right to Culture Lab, funded by the National Culture Fund, which showed how public funding for culture is allocated and how efficient it is. Of course, there is a contradiction in quantitative and qualitative measures, which makes the topic difficult and ambiguous. Unfortunately, however, this data did not provoke the dialogue with the Ministry of Culture that we had hoped for. The data that the Ministry of Finance brought forward towards the end of the year to justify the lack of truly needed investment in culture confirms the urgency – after all, we as a sector need to prioritise collecting such data, using it for the common good and creating opportunities to justify our otherwise intuitive directions.
On international level, I was inspired by the Swiss model of Suisseculture, an organisation set up alongside Kovid to bring together all cultural actors in Switzerland and lobby for all of them, including the independent sector. According to this model, 10% of the larger organisations are allocated to advocacy work. It's incredible that we do not yet have such a self-organisation. For me, that is important – how to be more sustainable as a sector and as an environment and how to keep an informed eye on what public resources are available or missing.
Ralitsa Gerasimova We also went through the fears of whether we would survive without funding, what we would do to continue the development of ReBonkers in Varna and beyond. We made it, so the word for us is certainly 'growth'. It has many dimensions – building on perspective, expanding the range of activities, increasing the team, bringing in volunteers, new people, young and enthusiastic. We are not the only ones moving along such a growth axis - the whole city of Varna is on the rise, new actors are emerging, new small spaces are sprouting, there are changes, including politically.
Could you talk about how you assess the local cultural policy, what is happening there, with a view from above, tell us where the city or the region where you work is at the moment?
Yanina Taneva As far as the Northwest is concerned, it would be bold to say that there are cultural policies at the municipal level, but it is evident that there is cultural diversity – from a primary quantum broth different players are beginning to define themselves. For Vidin, where we are working in the villages of Koshava, Deleina, Negovanovtsi and with Vidin Community Centres Fund, for example, there are organisations like Setetika and a few informal groups – they are finding it very difficult, but they are the reason many people are coming back to the city. In the villages of Pavolche and Chelopek, where we are working with Baba Residence, the scene is also diversifying - there is an urban architecture festival, as well as several new festivals, one in the Dabnika district (Vratsa's Lyulin), another in Vratsa Balkan. In Mezdra (in the villages of Lyk and Oslen Krivodol we held residencies and renovated spaces together with the local people) local initiative groups have ambitions for the next year in the field of culture, and this year they hosted an international festival. Surely these islands of cultural initiative need to be consciously supported by both local and central government.
A conscious toolkit for local cultural policy is lacking because of the major problems with regionalisation in general – many cultural events are not linked to municipal and state budgets , they are often run 'on muscles' - by enthusiasts paying the price for the overconcentration of resources in the capital.
Galin Popov For us, the work in the villages is not a clear priority, as for the Ideas Factory association. From the experience we have, I have noticed that community centres and people in small settlements need young energy, new enthusiasm and knowledge about contemporary cultural processes. Very few of those working in these places have any idea who they can turn to for organising a screening, a performance, an exhibition, curating a programme, PR for events, advice on how to compensate for lack of financial resources and technical support. These are also the things we very often assist with. Community centres are perceived as places primarily dealing with traditional arts, folklore, crafts, but in reality in many places there is also a desire to present contemporary forms. In order to realise such events, there is a need for mentors or, as Janina accurately mentioned, "cultural mediators". People living in rural areas want their villages to be attractive to new and young people, and culture brings life back to small settlements.
Otherwise, there are a lot of interesting rural initiatives around Tarnovo – for example, in the village of Stefan Stambolovo, the locals, mostly people of other nationalities (we have many), but also Bulgarians, organized themselves and bought through a crowdfunding campaign a house in the center of the village and turned it into a community center "The Garden". Currently, with the help of volunteers and donations, renovations are being made and soon they will start organizing events. For years there have been interesting examples in the villages of Gabrovtsi, Dolna Lipnitsa, Vetrintsi, Runya, Mindya, around the ARV.International residency program in Visovgrad, some of the residents return with their friends and also buy properties. It is no longer a big challenge to live in a village.
Yanina Taneva If I may, I would like to comment about the work in the villages - we should not imagine only missing local people, neither we should associate modernity only with cool young people. For me, contemporary includes all ages and our role is to reflect that, not judge it. Maybe that's why we don't work in Tarnovo. We are interested in how the generations meet, not how one displaces the other.
Margarita Dorovska Let me also join this conversation about regions and the place of culture in them – for this year the regional profiles of the Institute for Market Economics stated that each municipality and region has its own appearance and on the map Gabrovo was placed with a profile "culture". I found it interesting that the city was recognised with this profile, even in terms of its economic development. The work of a considerable number of people stays behind this. For me, this marks the year in terms of Gabrovo and at the same time there is a very clear sense of a journey and a reckoning. Gabrovo's cultural strategy expires this year, it has to be reviewed next year, a new player has emerged - the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Centre. There is a lot of investment in infrastructure, there is a tangible need to bring in new actors and new talent to use this infrastructure. To go back to the first question of our conversation, the year has been marked by a recognition of work well done and I realise that this work needs to go to the next level - we can't do more of the same, we need to change and rethink something.
Ralitsa Gerasimova I have the opportunity to observe the cultural sphere from diametric points – from the independent sector and from the position of a cultural policy maker in Varna. Both perspectives have been extremely useful – they have given me the conviction that the development of culture is almost entirely in the hands of the independent sector. And what a municipality can do is to support worthwhile initiatives, to develop an enabling environment for the development of the independent sector. The municipality itself should not be in the role of a cultural producer.
I don't believe in a cultural strategy so much as I believe in horizontal priorities. The municipality cannot be a driver, it can be a foundation and a facilitator, and the creative force depends entirely on the independent sector. Municipal cultural institutions such as galleries and museums can also make a good contribution, but in Varna the ball is entirely in the independent sector's court. Innovation and upgrading, the kind of surprise that culture should evoke in the public, is not found in state institutions, but in the unbridled independent sector. We need to fight for the sustainability and visibility of this independent sector and demonstrate how it really is a source of development in the cultural ecosystem.
Margarita Dorovska Regarding the independent sector and active civic participation – Gabrovo is characterized by a highly institutionalized environment, we do not have many independent organizations. On the other hand, in a much more dispersed form, cultural organizations are reaching out to citizens, especially after Kovid the rhythm changed, it took time for people to come back to cultural life. I see an open policy in both the theatre and in our work to diverse audiences and curiosity of people who are not the usual event visitors. There is this concern for diversifying and engaging different communities.
Most of the national funding goes to Sofia, and the rest of the country is chronically underfunded. What positive policies could be laid down from now on for a more balanced regional development and overcoming the centre-periphery model?
Margarita Dorovska The interior of the country remains highly invisible and still logistically difficult to access – at least in the North. It doesn't even seem to me to be a problem of funding, but of logistics at this stage. Of course, the more support the better, but now we have to contend with elementary accessibility issues. Not access to culture, but physical accessibility. Three buses a day travel to Gabrovo from the capital, with the first one arriving at two in the afternoon - clearly the city is not thought of as a destination for either business or tourism. And we won't even mention the train.
Ralitsa Gerasimova One of the biggest problems we see in Varna is the lack of communication with national media. The local media shares our information instantly and constantly, but much less often do we reach the national airwaves and this is a sign. Until recently, BNT was the only TV station with a duty programme in the summer, and this in view of the Black Sea coast (because the season here is from June to September), at other times there is not a single programme. But even BNT no longer has a team, there are attempts in the Municipality to regain the team, but for the moment we rely on individual decisions and the initiative of specific people.
Yanina Taneva Recently I liked the idea of the polycentric model, which is embedded in many European visions for regional development. An interesting report has come out on asymmetric regional development and this is not just a Bulgarian problem. We have an administrative division into six regions, which is not reflected at either political or administrative level. That is why this overconcentration of resources in the centre is obvious. This deficit is very often absorbed by the independent sector and private organisations. We do not follow this model and decide, for example, to make a gallery in a village rather than in the centre of Sofia. On the other hand, we cannot ignore this because culture is politics and 80% of the funding through the National Culture Fund stays in Sofia. Culture should be a very important part of the national development strategy, and so far the budget for culture in small towns has mostly been seen only as a salary for the mayor's PR in these settlements. The movement in smaller towns, as in Tarnovo, Varna and Gabrovo, is linked to a vision that cannot be driven by external forces alone.
Galin Popov Speaking of decentralisation of culture, we must admit, however, that no matter how many good things happen in a village, it cannot be measured on the scales with Sofia.
When we talk about decentralisation, we have to think about how clusters are made regionally, how initiatives, neighbouring settlements start to work together to create large cultural volumes that can be put in a common context with Sofia and other European cultural centres.
The informal cultural exchange between Tarnovo and Gabrovo would give much better results if there is also a will on behalf of the mayoral administrations to develop these cultural interactions by devoting human and financial resources to the creation of regional cultural projects. This common intention could be developed and could combine the capacity and expertise that the two cities already have. Large bodies have much greater gravity. I give the example of these two cities because they are really very close to each other.
The state policy for financing the decentralisation process, about which so much has been said for decades, is also a complete mystery to me. Regarding the judging of projects by the National Culture Fund and the Ministry of Culture, I personally do not see there to be a clear trend towards promoting decentralisation. I like what the Bulgarian Fund for Women has done with its donor programmes. They have decided to support structurally organisations that are "lacking something", that do not yet have a well-established administrative capacity, that have not won previous projects, that work in less populated areas, that need yet to develop their vision. In this way, they are really investing in developing organisations and individuals to work locally in small settlements and create active communities that have access to culture. If we only support the pioneers, we cannot talk about decentralisation because the people with experience and the established cultural operators are usually in the capital and other big cities.
What are the networks in which your organisations work?
Galin Popov We network very visibly at the local level. Of course, to make our cultural programme, which includes events of such a diverse nature, we rely on a large network of sometimes invisible threads connecting people from all over the world.
Yanina Taneva We have been much more involved in international networks, but this is starting to change and we are getting more and more involved in local networks - local community centres, local artists, local people, local government, media. And yet, we are missing a middle level, our DNA is strange – supposedly a Sofia-based organization that works in a network of 40 villages. Artists are most important to us as a community network, and in Sofia we don't work with many organizations except the Center for Social Vision.
Ralitsa Gerasimova Our focus over the past year and a half has been the local network. However, I think the inward-focused stage is passing. We are moving forward with the moods of the local community, which is just starting to get excited about the international aspects of the cultural scene in the city, so we are looking around for international bridges. Regionally, with Dobrich for example, we have some touch points, but we don't have any models for working with the region. We fail to identify projects and partners. Also with Shumen. Varna appears urbanistically detached from the region, which is a big problem.
Margarita Dorovska We work actively with international, national and regional partners. The biggest challenge so far seems to be the mastodons in academia; we speak the same language with cultural operators.
The role of international cooperation was mentioned several times. What exactly is it?
Margarita Dorovska This is one of our big priorities – strong international cooperation. The other is developing talent and discovering a whole new generation of curators, which is needed not only by us but by virtually every museum, gallery and project space in the country. For international collaboration, specifically, there is a need for serious funding to be able to have real, equal collaboration, both with partners and artists. And this is a national task, not a task for the city of Gabrovo.
Galin Popov In Tarnovo there are many people of different European, and not only, nationalities. In the last 20 years the city and the region have become an attractive place to live and work, mainly for older Britons to begin with, and now for people between 25 and 45 of all nationalities. Eric from France makes lovely natural sparkling wine, Matt from the UK has a recording studio for gramophone records, Paul from Munich does really good graphic design. In 2024. TaM, together with Gabrovo and Varna, will host the satellite programme of the IETM (Europe's largest performing arts network) which will take place in Sofia in June. We believe that during this event we will have the opportunity to present the local scene to a professional audience and will find many more friends and colleagues.
In 2021 and 2022 we had the opportunity to be part of an Erasmus+ project for the first time, which was also the catalyst for our work in the neighbourhood and the emergence of the 48 Hours Varusha South festival. Through it we were able to take some of the most active and enthusiastic people from our neighbourhood working groups to other European cities. There they saw on spot community initiatives similar to ours and this was very useful and inspiring for the work we rallied around and did later in Veliko Tarnovo. This exchange is very important. Through it you can see how the challenges in the work are fundamentally similar, whether you are trying to make art and engage communities in Tarnovo, Milan or Hamburg. Even the adequate solutions are often very similar. The keys to implementing them are right timing, persistence and enthusiasm.
Janina Taneva Along similar projects, we have managed to invite Icelanders to Vidin. So we found that it is easier to bring people from Berlin, Iceland or Switzerland than to reach Bulgarian partners. It was also very valuable for them and inspiring to hear how the policies for culture and regionalisation have happened there. Iceland is a small country, which seems to allow for a real representative democracy. This is a key theme - the democratisation of resources. There is a lot of public resource and it is scandalous how this sector, because of lack of consolidation and internal fighting, cannot stand together with a common unified voice for these resources. We need to come together, beyond the local and the drive for survival, beyond forms and genres, and stand for the least common multiple – more resources for culture and a strategy on how to use them effectively.
Ralitsa Gerasimova Many things can be said about this, but personally, although we suffer from a lack of decentralisation, I think we have been very successful in using this remoteness as an advantage. We have turned the tone of all funding towards the social impact of projects on the city. The problematic can always be turned around. The fact that we are in dead zones can be turned in a positive direction and be a reason to find more support. A kind of opportunism to the crisis.
What are you planning for 2024?
Galin Popov In January and February we will take advantage of the cold weather and close the space of TAM until the beginning of March. Our team will use the time to take stock of what has been accomplished in 2023 and make a plan of priorities and tasks for the months ahead. Dreaming, accurate planning, meetings with partners and SPA. At some point I will contact Margie (Margarita Dorovska – ed.) to think about how we can encourage the mayors of Tarnovo and Gabrovo to shake hands. 2024 would be a very good year for this.
Margarita Dorovska I have already shared the two most important priorities for us - talent development and the internationalisation of the work of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Centre. In parallel, educational projects with all communities, groups and ages and of course, the preparation of an architectural project for the Centre.
Janina Taneva We are at a crossroads – we want to totally change the model because financially we are struggling immensely, we are no longer small but a medium sized organisation, which is a blind spot in funding, let's say about 200 thousand budget per year. It's time to grow or close. We certainly want to run the open source model of Baba's Residence, we are thinking about how to let it live without us. We are making a manual for our residency model. Outside of all that, we're also starting Right to Culture discussions, which we want to be more inclusive, and some operational proposals for the sector's place in public finance to follow them. And we have a dream - for an alternative funding mechanism, so that we are not all dependent on the National Culture Fund. We think it is important for our Bulgarian projects to have a new instrument that evaluates the contribution of culture in a different way. There needs to be a more conscious kind of investment that understands the role of organisations in culture, wants to really support them, knows their needs and compiles data on their contribution.
Ralitsa Gerasimova In terms of the artistic program, we will have a dynamic year both in Talyana Association and ReBonkers. We are starting a residency in Paris, we are working on it and we will announce it alongside the second edition of BUNA. We are also starting to do more activism – surrounded now by an audience, we will focus on issues of gay communities, gender-based violence. ReBonkers is now headed by Kalina Zhecheva, and this is exactly her focus. The "community" element is coming in, and in that sense there's some new wave that's community-oriented, and we've always been looking for that. We will soon publish Talyana and BUNA's programme for 2024, which is quite dynamic, we are again preparing for "fighting".