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Part I

Culturelink review, Special Issue 1995 - imprint - archive

Changes in the Status and Functioning of Cultural Centres in Central and Eastern European Countries in Transition

Introduction

In addition to awakening the hopes of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe for greater freedom, better quality of life and greater opportunities for action in every sphere of human existence, the collapse of the real-socialist political system marked also a definitive break with a particular model of management and organization of social life.

When the ancien regime collapsed, gradual (in many cases immediate) changes were initiated to demonstrate the desire for a complete and irrevocable break with the past. Some institutions changed their names, others reoriented their programmes and activities, and some others simply closed down. Thus, a large number of cultural and scholarly institutions assumed new, westernized and 'non-ideological', names and - almost overnight - designed new programmes for their activities. The old Marxist-Leninist centres, Houses of Culture, and Workers' Universities disappeared, to be replaced by institutes for European Studies, institutes for applied social research, cultural service centres, open universities, etc. Of course, most of the new names and programming concepts were more often expressions of the wish on the part of the staff to see the change happen (or, pragmatically, to enable the institutions to survive in the new social and political conditions), rather than marking a real and effective change.

Radical and substantive changes, obviously, require much longer periods of time. This is particularly true of the Central and Eastern European countries in transition, where the restructuring will necessarily affect all spheres of social life (political, economic, social, cultural).

Taking the year 1989 as the breakdown of socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, the year 1994 marks five years of post-socialism in that part of the world. Though five years is a relatively short period, we believe that it is long enough to enable us to take stock of the results achieved so far and of the present situation and to make predictions about possible future trends and developments.

The complex nature and historical uniqueness of the phenomenon of transition gives ample scope to social scientists and 'designers of social living' for their projections; at the same time, however, the complex new problems that transition brings could all but paralyze any practical action.

The most frequent questions that people pose are the following: Where to start, given the multitude of problems facing us? How does one tackle today the mistakes made over fifty years ago? Which sphere(s) of social life should receive priority treatment in the process of transition?

For some people, the key problem is the transformation of political institutions, the establishment of stable and recognizable political parties and mechanisms of political control, the tripartite division of powers in the state to prevent the overconcentration of political power, etc. Others hold the view that no real improvement can be expected without economic transition, meaning the establishment of well-rooted market mechanisms, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and stimulation of an entrepreneurial climate. The third group believes that there can be no transformation without the respect for the rule of law, individual privacy, private property, independent judiciary, human and minority rights. The fourth group stresses the importance of changes in the system of values and, subsequently, in the way of life as a key precondition of any radical change.

Saying that all four groups are right in their claims, given the urgent need for change in all these spheres, does not really help, but it does point to a multidimensional and gradual approach to processes of transition.

The desire to build a functioning social community, a parliamentary and economically stable state, with an autonomous judiciary, rule of law and other ingredients of a viable legal and political framework of social life, has no special historic or revolutionary quality about it. Successful and satisfactory societies do not appear 'overnight', as a result of a change and are therefore not burdened by history, revolutionary fervour or 'mission'. Such societies do not focus on some distant future (communism) or an equally distant past (traditionalism, nationalism); rather, they prefer to live in their successful and long-built present.

While recognizing the complexity of the phenomenon of transition, we have chosen only one segment of social life, namely, culture, as the subject of this study. Within that segment, our attention has been more narrowly focused on the status and functioning of cultural centres. Of course, it is impossible to isolate a single segment and view it out of context of changes taking place in other spheres of social life. Therefore, our analysis will occasionally necessarily touch upon the social, political and economic aspects of the transition process.

The notion of culture and the cultural centre

The term 'culture' as used today (in everyday language, in scholarly, artistic, administrative, technical, and political parlance) is so broad that it covers practically all areas of human activity and creation of ideas. In everyday language, 'culture' is usually used as a synonym for 'proper conduct', 'moral action', 'good upbringing', etc. Natural sciences speak about 'agriculture' and 'bacterial or viral culture' (where culture is synonymous with 'organism', and a cultural system is a synonym for an organic system). Social sciences see culture as 'the overall mode of living' (cultural anthropology), 'one of the spheres of social life' (sociology), 'personal response to environmental pressures' (psychology), etc. Naturally, there are different theoretical orientations within these disciplines, each with its own, often mutually exclusive, definition of culture (e.g., functionalism, interactionism, marxism, cyclic theories of culture, diffusionism, phenomenology, consistentialism, etc.). Important conceptual differences in the treatment of culture can be observed in different national traditions. Thus, 'in the Anglo-French tradition, the concept of culture is often used synonymously with 'civilization'... In Germany, however, under the Romantic tradition, culture was held to be the repository of human excellence, artistic achievement and individual perfection, while civilisation was regarded as the process of material development which threatened individual culture by creating an urban mass society... In American and British sociology, the concept of culture does not have this critical ambience. While Anglo-American sociologists do refer to the culture of social groups as the total set of beliefs, customs or way of life of particular groups, they more commonly employ more differentiated concepts such as 'belief system', 'system of values', or even 'ideology'.' (Abercrombie, Hill, Turner, 1988: 59)

Artists use the concept of culture mostly as a synonym for art; cultural administrators link, and often equate, culture with cultural institutions, while when politicians speak about culture they usually have in mind the culture of particular interest groups which they represent or whose votes they seek.

In our analysis, we start from the assumption that all definitions of culture (over a thousand currently in circulation) are legitimate, each within its own theoretical position and disciplinary framework, but that each time that one of them is used in communication, research or theoretical discourse the author should make his/her standpoint vis-a-vis the definition and concept of culture quite clear.

Since the primary 'object' of our analysis is an institution (cultural centre), that is, the institutional programming orientation, and only indirectly the human activity, way of life, or set of beliefs, we were obliged to accept the definition which views culture in an institutional perspective, that is, the way it is viewed in discussing cultural policies. For this reason, the emphasis is on the institutional and organizational aspects of cultural life, on cultural production, on the relations between culture and politics, or between culture and the administrative apparatus. Our analysis tries to cover all the elements of culture (cultural system) listed in Weiss's definition. For him, culture is a material system consisting of sets of material components (human and non-human), sets of modifications (neural and physical), and sets of organizational relations (social and technical), whose sum total is the cultural phenomenon in the cultural system at a given time (Weiss, 1973: 1397).

On the other hand, we also faced the problem of definition of the cultural centre. In ordinary usage, any institution whose subject of activity is culture (in the institutional sense) is referred to as a cultural centre.

In technical literature, however, the term 'cultural centre' is employed in a number of different ways, and there is no single, all-embracing and generally accepted definition of the cultural centre.

In selecting the institutions to be included in our analysis, we sought to follow the definition which sees an ideal cultural centre as an institution with permanent but polyvalent socio-cultural and artistic activities which are open to different groups of the public. Its actions are flexible and developed according to the changing cultural needs and demands in the centre's environment through the promotion of local cultural activities and through cooperation and exchanges at a national and international level.

Of course, most of the existing cultural centres fail to meet some or most of these criteria. Therefore, while applying this rather broad definition, we carefully noted the present discrepancy between the ideally conceived cultural centre and the actual cultural centres as they exist at present. In selecting the institutions to be designated as cultural centres, we were guided by the idea that 'cultural centres are always intended to be multi-purpose' (Fache, 1992: 146). If our definition of the cultural centre is seen as the maximum institutional requirement, then Fache's definition is the minimum requirement for an institution to be identified as a cultural centre.

The scope of activity of cultural centres extends over all the phases of the 'culture circle' - production-dissemination-consumption and education-participation-creativity. The professional production is not of primary significance, although a cultural centre might host artistic performances, exhibitions, etc. Dissemination/mediation is one of the more important functions of a cultural centre, while consumption often includes a feedback initiative from the public, thus making the public an active participant as well. A cultural centre may be local/community, regional, national or international in scope and thus have different target audiences and cater to distinct cultural needs. For this reason, the outputs/activities of different cultural centres are diverse and may prove to be completely different.

Assumptions for the study of the problem of cultural centres in Central and Eastern Europe

Cultural centres are institutions that emerged in the seventies as new cultural organizations in almost all developed countries of the world (Fache, 1992: 145), but there was always a huge difference between the Western and the Eastern model of cultural centres. While the Western cultural centres were primarily market-oriented, non-governmental and more or less independent in programming terms, the Eastern cultural centres were built as organizations whose tasks were not only educational, cultural and recreational, but also political. They were used as a means of ideological education influence and political socialization of adults. Almost all of them were governmental, non-independent and centralized institutions, reflecting the dominant social organization and structure.

Since the ending of the cold war and the change of the political system in Central and Eastern Europe, processes of transformation and transition have been very much in evidence, not least in the cultural sphere, where they also affect the fate of cultural centres. In so far as the cultural centres are concerned, the transition process now follows the line of the general social crisis. The Central and Eastern European cultural centres are experiencing considerable difficulties in functioning and are particularly hard hit by the lack of funding. However, there are some structural characteristics (i.e., elements of the market-oriented approach and experience with the commercialization of cultural products and services) that could facilitate their future functioning and restructuring, as well as their integration into an effective networking system.

The profile and operation of cultural centres are mainly determined by cultural policy objectives, measures and tools. Decentralization, market-oriented funding, and programming autonomy are proclaimed cultural policy goals of most Central and Eastern European countries. There is also a tendency (in the West) of changing and shaping a new model of cultural centres - moving away from the educational and library activities (which were the primary purpose of these centres in both West and East in the seventies) towards modern consulting and information services.

In designing this research project to study the position and status of cultural centres in Central and Eastern Europe, we took into consideration all the above facts.

In studying the status and operation of such centres in the period of transition, we were able to examine not only the position of cultural centres but also the present role of cultural policies in the region of Central and Eastern Europe.

Analyzing the position of cultural centres in new cultural and political circumstances, which is a relatively small and limited problem, we have managed, we believe, to reveal the full complexity of the process of restructuring and transformation of cultural policies in the post-socialist European countries. In this sense, cultural centres can be seen as indicators and - it is to be believed - representative specimens of the overall cultural situation in these countries.

In the light of all the previously mentioned assumptions for the study of the phenomenon of cultural centres in Central and Eastern Europe, the present study has tried to answer some of the following questions: What has happened (and what is happening now) with the cultural institutions in the Central and Eastern European countries in the wake of the great political upheavals that took place several years ago? What is the position of cultural institutions and how do they operate in a changed social, political and cultural environment? What differences can be observed in the position of cultural centres in different Central and Eastern European countries? How do managers of cultural centres perceive the position of cultural institutions, and culture generally, in their countries and societies? How do they visualize an ideal cultural centre? What social and political problems do they notice in the period of transition?

Methodology and sample

The main source of data for the study was a questionnaire (see Annex I.) mailed to 262 cultural centres in Central and Eastern Europe. The questionnaire included 170 variables, including eight instruments presented as Likert-type scales (field of activity - 9 variables, regular activities - 7 variables, art performances - 6 variables, audiences visiting the centre - 4 variables, target groups - 5 variables, opinion about the position of cultural centres and culture generally in the respondent's country - 20 variables, opinion about the respondent's own society in transition - 23 variables, perception of an ideal cultural centre - 21 variables).

In trying to define the sample for our study, we faced the problem of establishing the total number of cultural centres operating in the post-socialist European countries. Since a huge number of institutions was involved, with new ones being created and existing ones winding up from one day to the next, it proved practically impossible to establish their total number. On the other hand, the definition of the cultural centre that we opted for was so broad (necessarily so, as was explained earlier) that it certainly covered a certain number of institutions that may not be regarded as cultural centres in the classical sense.

For these reasons, we found it technically unfeasible to satisfy all the methodological requirements of classical random sampling.

In addition to 'classical' cultural centres, the sample deliberately included also a certain number of national cultural centres abroad, as we wanted to examine how they operated in the new circumstances and, more particularly, what their managers thought about the position of cultural centres in Central and Eastern Europe and the problems of transition.

According to François Roche, the position of these institutions (Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Soviet, and other Eastern European cultural centres) did not essentially differ from that of the 'classical' cultural centres. They, too, were 'under the strong ideological pressure of the 1950s and 1960s that these cultural centres developed, while making reference to 'friendship between peoples' and fitting into a specific community (the Union of Soviet Associations for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) that was in fact strictly controlled by the Communist Party' (Roche, 1993: 26).

The uneven geographical distribution of such national cultural centres abroad (maximum concentration in countries with a similar political system, and minimal presence in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia) spoke enough about the nature and objectives of their activities. 'This artificial equilibrium was rudely upset in 1990. Eastern Europe's cultural institutes in the West, subjected to suspicion by immigrant intellectuals, served at best as 'acceptable facades' during the precarious equilibrium that existed during the Cold War, and at worst as fronts for informational activities having little to do with art.' (Roche, 1993: 26)

Our research also covered a certain number of Western national cultural centres abroad, because their position also changed with the great political changes. The political barrier that had earlier restricted international cultural cooperation, caused mistrust in Western cultural representatives, and stimulated political/ideological instead of cultural competition was now removed.

In the course of 1994, we received 77 completed questionnaires1 from the following countries: Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. (See Annex II.) 2

The structure of the sample was as follows:

Table 1

Country

f

%

Albania

1

1.3

Bulgaria

5

6.5

Croatia

5

6.5

Czech Republic

7

9.1

Hungary

18

23.4

Estonia

3

3.9

Lithuania

3

3.9

Latvia

3

3.9

Romania

2

2.6

Russia

10

12.9

Slovakia

7

9.1

Slovenia

1

1.3

Macedonia

1

1.3

Ukraine

2

2.6

Belarus

3

3.9

Poland

6

7.8

TOTAL

77

100.0

Table 2

Years of establishment of institutions

f

%

pre-1940

10

12.9

1940

6

7.8

1950

2

2.6

1960s

4

5.2

1970s

13

16.9

1980s

13

16.9

1990s

19

24.8

no answer

10

12.9

TOTAL

77

100.0

Table 3

Type of institution

f

%

cultural centre

56

72.7

national cultural institute/centre abroad

21

27.3

TOTAL

77

100.0

Table 4

Number of received questionnaires

Type of institution

sent

received

response %

cultural centre

157

56

35.7

national cultural institute / centre abroad

105

21

20.0

TOTAL

262

77

29.4

As can be seen, the sample is somewhat biassed in terms of geographical distribution: the number of responses from Hungary was quite large (18) 3, while that from Slovenia, Macedonia and Albania was quite small (1).

Since the sample is relatively small and incomplete (owing to technical difficulties or the lack of interest on the part of some cultural centres to participate in this research), we were very careful in drawing any conclusions that might be valid globally (that is, for all of the Central and Eastern European countries).

In view of the fact that on the one hand the sample was not structural, stratified and random, and that, on the other hand, we are operating with a small number of cultural centres from some countries, it would have been senseless, and methodologically incorrect, to apply any statistical analysis between centres based on the countries where they are situated.

It should be noted also that this research was preceded by a pilot survey in 1992/93, using a sample that was half the size of the present sample (N = 38) and that covered only some of the segments covered by the present study.

The received raw data were processed and analyzed using the SPSSPC+ 4.0 statistical package and Quatro Pro 5.0 for Windows (for the graphics). Operating with univariate statistical procedures, we were able to identify the distribution of frequencies, as well as means, variances and other statistical measures for each item.

In order to identify the latent dimensions for instruments regarding the opinions about the position of cultural centres and culture in general in the respondent's country, opinions about the respondent's own society in transition, and the respondent's perception of the ideal cultural centre, we used multivariate statistical procedures (factor analysis under the GK (Guttman - Kaiser) criterion for the extraction of latent dimensions and multiple regression analysis). The obtained basic solutions, for each instrument, were then transformed into oblimin oblique latent positions from which some more or less consistent views were discernible. The criterion for the interpretation of individual variables in the oblimin oblique positions was the correlation coefficient of 0.40 and higher.

Siniša Malešević
Culturelink Network, Croatia

Footnotes

  1. The relatively poor response was partly due to the fact that out of the 262 cultural centres to which the questionnaire was sent, 105 were national cultural centres abroad, which showed only scant interest in this research. Another and no less important reason was the fact that many of the centres had changed their names, programmes of activity, addresses, or had simply ceased to exist. Some of the centres that we approached thought they did not fit our definition of a cultural centre, while some (especially local cultural centres) may not have answered the questionnaire because it was not written in their native language. This is born out by the case of Hungary, where the questionnaire was distributed in Hungarian (with the help of Gabor Koncz) and the response was more than satisfactory.
  2. The number of institutions that have sent the filled in questionnaire in the Annex II. is larger because some questionnaires were received after the end of the survey.
  3. The large number of responses from Hungary does not really disturb the sample structure, as it is well-known (see G. Koncz's contribution in this volume) that Hungary had one of the most developed institutional systems of cultural life, first in the form of the so-called Halls of Culture and later in the form of cultural centres. For this reason, in designing the sample, we reserved a special place for Hungary.