With petitions and protests, nonprofit arts groups struggle to stay alive
Desperate for action in the wake of municipal funding cuts, the city’s nonprofit arts groups are intensifying their fight for grant money. On April 28, the Prague organization Initiative for Culture met to identify upcoming strategies, including the continuation of a petition, and the planning of a May 29 demonstration to further raise awareness about the the dire status of the arts in Prague.
The meeting followed an April 24 rally in front of the City Hall building on Marianské náměstí, during which demonstrators first delivered their petition calling for the creation of a cultural advisory board and the resignation of Milan Richter, city councilor responsible for culture.
The rally coincided with City Hall’s monthly assembly meeting, and drew an estimated 400 demonstrators, who started arriving with signs and banners at 8:30 a.m.
“It was a very clear statement of our argument,” said Šárka Havlíčková, artistic director of the Alfred ve dvoře theater, and an Initiative for Culture board member. “We had to loudly say what was true because there is such a damaged picture of the situation in the media.”
Last August, City Hall temporarily suspended arts funding in response to a lawsuit by a commercial theater owner — a move that caused panic among local arts organizers. In November, a revised funding system was adopted that included a new grants committee charged with reviewing applications and allocating money. The grant decisions were announced March 27 and created a general outcry among local theaters and festivals, some of which suffered funding cuts of up to 80 percent, while others received no money at all. Suspicions of preferential treatment toward for-profit groups were reinforced when approximately a quarter of funding went to commercial theaters. Nonprofit arts groups began mobilizing immediately, and last week’s demonstration and petition was their largest effort to date.
The petition, which collected 13,500 signatures since it was started April 9, made five basic demands, including the creation of separate funding systems for nonprofit and commercial theaters, the formation of a cultural advisory board and the resignation of Richter as well as grant committee chairman Ondřej Pecha, whose collective actions were believed to have “endangered” culture in Prague.
Town hall meeting
City Hall immediately responded to Thursday’s rally by putting a discussion of arts funding on that morning’s agenda, and demonstrators entered the building en masse to participate, packing the meeting room and corridors.
Richter’s opening comments regarding the culture and grant system were punctuated by jeers and whistles that erupted into a chant of “Step down!” at the conclusion of his remarks.
“I saw Richter, for about 10 seconds, looking really lost, like he didn’t know what to do,” Havlíčková said.
Richter, who did not respond to a request for comment by press time, turned the podium over to Mayor Pavel Bém, who invited the audience to participate in an open discussion.
Demonstrators took turns at the microphone, as well as officials such as city assembly member Jana Ryšlinková, who spoke strongly in support of the nonprofits’ concerns.
“The city is making very wrong decisions in managing the Prague cultural scene through its financial policy,” she said, adding that city officials in charge of culture are openly disinterested in the arts.
Roughly four hours after entering the hall, demonstrators exited with only modest success. City Hall rejected all points of the petition save one; it voted to consider the formation of a cultural advisory board.
“The petition, demonstration and open discussion undoubtedly raised awareness of the situation, which can only be a good thing,” said Steve Gove, founder and director of the Fringe Festival Praha. However, he added, “it seems they are not open to any discussion.”
Havlíčková was clear that this is only the beginning.
“If 13,500 signatures aren’t enough, we’ll collect more,” she said. “We will not stop; we’ll start a bigger push.”
It is hoped that new plans to continue the petition and stage another demonstration during City Hall’s May 29 assembly meeting will prove unnecessary.
“Of course, we hope something will happen before then to change their mind,” said Archa Theater Director Ondřej Hrab, who attended this week’s strategy meeting. “If not, we will remind them that they have to act.”