How the State of Emergency impacted the Independent Cultural and Artistic Scene in Serbia: A Report


The art and culture scene in Serbia is an important part of the cultural sector, which is predominantly precariously organized. That is why it is crucial to acknowledge the situation the scene found itself in and to understand the reasons of its particular actions, which are aimed at fighting for more safe and stable working and living environments. 

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Since a state of emergency was declared on March 15th, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most of those employed in the cultural sector without permanent employment contracts with one of the public cultural institutions, (still) haven’t gotten any kind of aid or support from the state. At the time of writing this report, news of payments being made to independent artists has come in, which is a measure of non-refundable financial aid adopted by the Government of the Republic of Serbia more than three months ago. However, this encompasses only a small fraction of those who still need financial support. 

Having in mind the fact that the art and culture scene in Serbia is an important part of the cultural sector, while at the same time being predominantly precariously organized, it is crucial to acknowledge the situation the scene has found itself in, which is undergoing a moment of crisis, and to understand the reasons of its particular actions which were aimed at fighting for more safe and stable working and living environments. 


The Position of Independent Cultural Workers

After the state of emergency was declared, many of those employed within the cultural sector found themselves in an unsustainable living situation overnight. The Coronavirus pandemic has rendered thousands of artists and cultural workers in Serbia jobless. If we take into account the fact that the situation with the cultural sector hadn’t been good even before the crisis, the outlines of the difficult material situation and living conditions of many cultural workers become even clearer. 

Unlike many other countries in the region and Europe that promptly took measures of urgent aid in the field of culture, which is the case in the city of Berlin for example, Serbia failed to provide such support.


As soon as the coronavirus epidemic was declared, the authorities in the cultural sector, instead of trying to find ways to mitigate the damage done by canceling programs and withdrawing many projects, made the situation even worse. On March 20th, the Secretariat of Culture posted on its website that the public open call for artistic and professional projects, as well as for scientific research in culture, scheduled for 2020 will not be held, causing very strong reactions within the professional/expert public

Although the employees of the City Secretariat had numerous possibilities to modify the programs and adapt them to the crisis, which was supposed to be the priority of the cultural sector, the city management didn’t think so, according to the report by the Independent Culture Scene of Serbia (ICSS). Namely, a policy of postponement – as we were able to conclude from the examples that followed – became the dominant pattern of not just this administrative body, but also of the Ministry of Culture. The City of Belgrade and the Secretariat of Culture justified their decision by the fact that at the same time they canceled other programs and events, such as Belgrade City Feast Day, International Jeunesses Musicales Competition Belgrade and Belgrade Summer Festival BELEF, and by explaining that the only possible time for specific support measures is after the danger of the pandemic has passed. 

What had already been brewing at that time, and what the independent cultural and artistic scene had persistently pointed out, and soon proved with its research, is that the coronavirus epidemic left thousands of artists and cultural workers in Serbia without jobs and income. Furthermore, the trend that had been noticed years ago, and only now exposed, is the trend of drastic reshaping and reducing of public budgets in favor of the privileged few, entrepreneurially and commercially oriented organizations and projects, while for the non-profit, critical, innovative, experimental and avant-garde artistic practice close to the independent scene, public funds are being increasingly denied.

Crisis Committee – Connecting the Fronts of Struggle

Right after the first hints of passivity of the authorities at all levels of the cultural sector, the independent cultural and artistic scene, led by the ICSS Association, articulated the first requests publicly addressed to the competent institutions at all levels of governance. In addition to the already mentioned request to withdraw the decision on canceling the annual open calls for financing and co-financing of cultural projects, as well as projects of artistic, i.e. professional and scientific research in culture, it was requested that the authorities establish an emergency fund for the most socially vulnerable categories of workers in culture, and to approve new models of program implementation that include digital dissemination and communication with the public in order to implement existing approved programs. Furthermore, the ICSS also requested that the results of the announced open calls of the Ministry of Culture and local self-governments be published as soon as possible and that the contracts be signed urgently,  funds  for the implementation of approved projects for the current year be disbursed, and that republic funds and local self-government funds bear the costs of contributions for all self-employed artists, workers and cultural workers during the danger from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While other professional art associations, such as UDUS, mostly went public individually, appealing to the authorities to react faster, a broader front of pressure composed of several representative organizations spontaneously formed on the independent cultural and artistic scene. Alongside the ICSS Association, the front was also formed by the representatives of the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS), Association of Fine Artists of Vojvodina (SULUV), Station – Service for contemporary dance and the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) – Serbia section, as well as the Serbian Archeological Society and the Association of Fine Artists of Applied Arts and Designers of Serbia (ULUPUDS) that also later joined the formation of the Solidarity Fund.

The  front, spontaneously named the ‘crisis response team’ of the independent scene during the state of emergency, is in fact self-organized and it arose from the need to act urgently and put pressure on decision-makers, but also to organize the necessary yet basic solidarity aid for the most vulnerable members in a situation when the authorities obliged to do so by the Law on Culture, as well as other provisions, have failed at every level.

One of the first activities of the ‘crisis response team’ was initiating and carrying out a survey among artists and culture workers in order to gain insight into realistic consequences of the state of emergency caused by the coronavirus in the sector of culture. Data processed by the Center for Empirical Studies of Culture, an organization that is part of the ICSS, only confirmed the difficult situation that the independent scene had previously pointed out. According to research results, almost 70% of artists and cultural workers have already suffered financial losses in the first month of the state of emergency. For about 40% of respondents, all their income in this period was lost, while in the case of more than 60% of respondents, their families were directly dependent on their income. Finally, a significant number of respondents expressed great concern about securing income, getting future jobs, respecting contracts by the other party, and being able to cover daily expenses if the situation does not change. 

Meanwhile, the news that the funds allocated for the cultural sector for 2020 were reduced in Serbia’s yearly budget amendment (the total budget of the Ministry of Culture and Information was reduced by about a fifth, more precisely, by more than 2,7 billion dinars), and that the proposed emergency measures for independent artists and cultural workers have been postponed until further notice broke at the end of April. Namely, although the Ministry of Culture, pressured by the professional community, sent a proposal for specific aid measures for temporary alleviation of the crisis effects to the Government of Serbia on 15th of April, which would include aid to independent artists in the amount of 30,000 dinars per month, these proposals were postponed by the Government of Serbia for the next phase of negotiations.

The extent to which this topic has occupied the professional public and the media space is evidenced by the fact that president Vučić himself felt the ‘need’ to refer, in a show on national television on 29th of April, to the violent reactions caused by the news that many in the cultural sector were deprived of the announced state aid. Reflecting an essential misunderstanding of complex forms of employment in cultural and artistic jobs, reiterating the deep misunderstanding of the authorities themselves about the necessity of distinguishing the status of "independent" from "free artist", and other forms of engagement, the president himself contributed to structural confusion when it comes to various forms of employment in the cultural sector. The statement that Serbia has had the highest economic growth in the region in the last two years, "with the best financial system", and the fact that the urgent measures for those most vulnerable cultural workers were absent, except for the "mandatory program of allocating 100 euros", says a lot more about the attitude of the state towards the cultural and artistic field than any previous measure of the Ministry of Culture. 

Reacting to all of these concerns, many representative artistic associations, art associations and organizations, primarily gathered by the aforementioned wider cultural front called "Crisis response team", emphasized their key demand in a joint statement on International Labor Day, which is - dignified work for all. 

The intentions of the initiative are explained in a joint statement signed by: the Association of the Independent Cultural Scene of Serbia (ICSS), the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS), Association of Fine Artists of Vojvodina (SULUV), Station – Service for contemporary dance, the international Association of Art Critics (AICA) – Serbia section, Remont – Independent association of artists, as well as the City Union of Culture, Arts and Media "Independence" and others. 

‘After more than 40 days since the state of emergency in Serbia began, on  International Labour Day, organizations and individuals working in the field of art and culture in Serbia came together to once again point to a dysfunctional and unjust system, which in the crisis brutally humiliated and excluded all workers in the field of arts and culture, as well as all others who were the first to be hit by the global pandemic - workers in health care, service industries and all those whose lives depend on the will of the owners of factories, companies and retail chains." 

Under the slogan "Culture for all! Decent work for all! ”, this joint initiative articulated a series of demands aimed at mitigating the consequences of the crisis that befell many artists, cultural workers and their families. One of the key requests was the one on urgent realization of financial aid in the amount of 30,000 dinars net to all independent artists and independent experts in culture who work through professional and representative associations, self-organized associations, informal groups and other forms of non-institutional association. On that occasion, the initiative demanded the realization of all annual open calls for projects under expedited procedures in the Ministry of Culture, the Secretariat of the City of Belgrade and other city and provincial secretariats. 

However, as no one should be left without urgent aid measures in the state of emergency, including those who do not fall into any of these categories, and who work in the most precarious conditions, informally, without signed copyright and other honoraria contracts - this joint initiative also articulated a request for the realization of a guaranteed minimum wage payment to all those who are not subject to the aforementioned measures.

Forming a Joint Solidarity Fund of Culture Workers in Serbia 

Meanwhile, many of the urgent measures were initiated by artists and culture workers themselves, organizing themselves at their own initiative within their own organizations in order to help those who are in the most difficult situation and share basic available resources. 

At the very beginning of the state of emergency, the ICSS Association formed a Solidarity Fund for its members, while ULUS initiated an action for helping its older members who are under total isolation, called ULUS65+. Many of those employed in the public sector of culture and education initiated mini actions of solidarity with colleagues from the independent sector.

The organizations gathered in the 'crisis response team' which showed by example that there are ways to help in times of need drew attention by publicly addressing the fact that aid must not remain outside of state mechanisms and that the ruling political elite cannot choose the 'privileged' few on its own.

Furthermore, since most signatory organizations act within the non-institutional sector, the statement was also a call for all employees within the cultural sector to raise their voices against “reckless risk-taking in the workplace that comes as just the latest instance in many years of destruction of all professional and socially-responsible work” in most public cultural institutions. 

As the situation in the cultural sector deteriorated and the material situation became more uncertain for precarious artists and cultural workers in the independent sector, the need for more organized and urgent action to provide even more serious help and support to the most vulnerable became necessary. That's how the idea for establishing a joint Solidarity Fund of cultural workers of Serbia was launched, which would be intended for all artists and cultural workers who are socially vulnerable. 

Along with a joint effort to collect initial funds from donors, the drafting of the Rulebook for the implementation of a call for the allocation of one-time aid to those vulnerable who were left out of the Government’s measures began, to overcome financial difficulties caused by the COVID 19 epidemic

The Rulebook of the joint Solidarity Fund defines that the funds are intended for members of the co-founders of the Fund, members of other associations whose credibility is guaranteed by some of the co-founders of the Solidarity Fund, artists who are not members of any association, however, a certificate of cooperation was received and it can be issued by co-founder associations of the Solidarity Fund, cultural institutions, as well as associations whose credibility is guaranteed by the co-founders of the Solidarity Fund, as well as other workers whose direct employment depends on the production of cultural and artistic events, and whose labor rights are not contractually guaranteed or protected in any other way. Finally, the Rulebook defines that individuals can receive the same amount of one-time aid up to 30,000 dinars gross as part of the public call. 

As defined by the Rulebook, the funds are allocated by priority to the most vulnerable individuals, single parents of minors who have lost all sources of income, and individuals who pay rent and have lost all sources of income. Households with children left without income are also covered by this solidarity fund, as well as individuals left without all or most of the income in the household.

Conclusion: what next?

Although all of the activities organized in solidarity by cultural workers - that began immediately after the state of emergency was declared - undoubtedly put the authorities under pressure, the fact that barely any progress was made after three whole months of the crisis remains. After a long period of prolonging financial aid measures, the Government of the Republic of Serbia, at a cabinet meeting held on May 7th, finally adopted a decision on non-refundable financial aid in the total amount of 211.7 million RSD. This amount has since been reduced, seeing as though artists who received payments as part-time associates of cultural institutions in Belgrade do not fall under these support measures. So, it comes down to only a little more than two thousand independent artists and the final amount of about 180 million RSD, which is the value of one major festival. It is also the only measure of support that the Ministry has proposed and implemented. 

The approved amount was distributed exclusively to independent artists in the net amount of 30,000 dinars for three months, which will affect, as it was said, all persons who independently perform artistic or other activities in the field of culture, and that status is determined by decisions of representative art associations. 

While the promises of the Ministry are changing every day, organizations of independent cultural and artistic scene gathered in a wider front continue to articulate further demands not only to support all those left out of the announced measures who need support in these months, but also to redefine a whole series of unregulated and harmful legal decisions made in the last few decades.

Regulating the relationship of cultural work in the direction of defining a cultural worker as a social actor, which would include changing the legal framework, as well as the rules for obtaining the status of independent artist and independent expert in the field of culture, is just one of the long-term goals of the common front. However, there are other accompanying issues, from creating adequate fees for the invested work and providing adequate working space, to advocating for a larger total budget for culture, as well as for a transparent framework of public cultural policies and especially public open calls. These are precisely the burning topics that the independent cultural and artistic scene has been pointing out for years, in a period of "normalcy", and which the emergency situation transformed into common fields of struggle of many organizations and individuals.