The NonProfit Sector Livia Pancu, Raluca Voinea
The European art scene has been divided up and reconstructed many times as a direct consequence of political decisions. European cultural policies have most often been driven by the geopolitical and economic interests of the European Union. Due to a completely different understanding of former and current ideologies, the eastern part of Europe is still trying—after 20 years of transition—to negotiate a position of equality within the borders of Europe with the conditional help of its Western counterpart. Its recent history and ideological foundations have been interpreted mostly through lenses borrowed from the West, setting off a collective struggle to rewrite memory.
Contemporary art practices, which should have focused on psychoanalyzing a problematic social space characterized by the refusal of responsibility in dealing with the recent past, saw themselves in a position where they no longer had the patronage of the state, but had to submit to already existing agendas. Most often these practices functioned within newly established non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The NGO sector is considered to be the third sector in these societies, with civil society thus relegated to being a complement to the first sector, the state, and the second sector, the market. Unlike similar institutions with a political or social scope, which receive counsel and financial backing from European institutions, cultural NGOs have had to acquire their know-how and learn how to survive and operate at the same time. In the field of visual arts, with state institutions adapting slowly to their role as administrators and not commissars, and with a market which did not interest investors until recently due to the region’s great economic and political instability, NGOs came not only to complement the other two sectors, but in many cases to replace them as the only institutions producing, showcasing, and promoting contemporary art. All was well, but there was one essential problem: as nonprofit institutions, they had to constantly find ways to guarantee their continuing existence, for their professionalism or success with one project did not guarantee their survival for the next one. As it happens, this survival was only possible thanks to the countless efforts, sacrifices, and the dedication of the individuals who established them. This led to a sort of emotional functioning, which in many cases made their ambition and their struggle for legitimacy prioritize their very existence over content. Thus, they became (or they were from the beginning) vulnerable to letting the content and purpose of their activities be directed by someone else.
With “peripheral,” “turbo,” or “wild” capitalism well installed almost in all the countries of the former Eastern bloc—which is, however, still under pressure from the “center” to align itself completely with the rest of the neoliberal world—one could say that Western Europe is starting to lose its significance as a mental construct; indeed, it is becoming, as Maria Hlavajova put it, the “former West.”1 However, communication both between cultural institutions and the contexts in which they operate and between these institutions and their funders, still takes place according to the old logic and relations of domination, on the two levels described by Peter Sloterdijk: a horizontal level, where there is an internal need to see one’s own image reflected and transfigured, and a vertical level, where the main elements of the equation are the emancipator and the emancipated.
In that sense, Branka Ćurčić, a Serbian curator who works with Kuda.org, Novi Sad, is exposing an attitude common among Eastern European NGOs which claim to act chiefly in the interest of civil society while they end up representing the interests of different multinational companies and supranational bodies under the neoliberal hegemony. Such representation is normally achieved through the translation of financial capital and its ideology. This process of translation is made easy by the view, commonly accepted on both sides, that these countries need to catch up and establish relations with the international art scene. NGOs are trying to respond to this need by paying attention to their own conditions, which they sometimes reflect in their projects, through an inherent self-criticism that unveils that layer of horizontal communication. However, even when they manage to create a subversive discourse, they use it at best to predict what the funding bodies need to hear in order to continue providing them with their necessary grants—and in this case they fall again into the vertical relationship.
One example of this kind of institutional behavior is the Vector Association based in Iaşi (NGO), Romania, the organizer of the Periferic International Biennial for Contemporary Art. The institution was created and functions within multiple center-periphery relations, which is readily evident in the institution’s very name and the titles of some of their projects. The first edition of the biennial,2 in 2003, was curated by Anders Kreuger and was titled “Periferic 6: Prophetic Corners” while the second edition, in 2006, had as its main title “Periferic 7: Focusing Iaşi.” The 2006 edition had three curators and therefore three directions within the main framework: “Strategies of Learning” by Florence Derieux, “Social Processes” by Marius Babias, and “Why Children?” by Attila Tordai. “Periferic 8: Art as a Gift” was curated by Dora Hegyi and took place in 2008. Basically, all these titles illustrate the curators’ understanding of that specific context as a result of a mediation in which the hosting institution is the mediator. Indeed, Vector is the only institution in Iaşi which not only presents contemporary art but also understands its role in representing it for the artistic community within which it operates, and to the broader public. However, in its dependence on external funds, it finds itself, as do many other NGOs, having to focus on developing certain programs and exchanges in order to survive and ensure institutional development. Eventually, this is also reflected in its own internal functioning and its relationship with local partners. This situation is similar to that which Dušan Grljia and Jelena Vesić from the Prelom Kolektiv describe as an NGO economy, in which the institution “has to obey all the rules for conducting a business,”3 a hierarchical mode of functioning among others. In addition, administrative tasks are leaving progressively less and less space to conceptualize programs properly and reflect on them critically.
This leads us to formulate the following questions: To what extent can an autonomous art institution bear financial pressure in order to protect its hard anti-neoliberal core? What consequences do its relations with funding bodies have on its internal structure, functionality and programming? To what extent do external advisers, who are also in positions where they can decide whether an NGO is granted certain funds, shape the content and strategy of that institution? Is it problematic at all for an NGO to structure its activities based on the financial opportunities it can rely on?
More generally, has the fact that most of the independent institutions in countries of Eastern Europe have received funding mainly from Western sources4 influenced the way in which they have written and contextualized their history over the past 20 years? Would this history look different today if they had not been in such a hurry to “catch up”? Are they now finally in a position to assume their “belatedness,”5 and step into this very perspective, reconsidering their past and their present as assets?
This can be achieved once these organizations start to deconstruct the meaning of their “nonprofit” status and wonder whose profit they are actually working for.
1 / Branka Ćurčić, “Autonomous Spaces of Deregulation and Critique: Is a Cooperation with Neoliberal Art Institutions Possible?” http://eipcp.net/transversal/0407/curcic/en.
2 / Periferic was initiated in 1997 as a contemporary art festival and in 2003 it became, as Periferic 6, a biennial.
3 / Dušan Grlja, Jelena Vesić, “The Neoliberal Institution of Culture and the Critique of Culturalization,” http://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/0208/prelom/en.
4 / From the Soros Foundation and foreign cultural institutes to the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the European Cultural Foundation, and the Erste Foundation.
5 / In the sense in which Boris Buden talks about Habermas’ notion of “belated Revolution.” Boris Buden, “The Revolution of 1989: The Past of Yet Another Illusion,” The Manifesta Decade, ed. Barbara Vanderlinden, Elena Filipovic, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2005.