The Evolving Cultural Ecosystem of Cluj
I met Miki Braniște, a curator for performing arts and cultural manager in Cluj, over a decade ago while volunteering at the Paintbrush Factory, the artistic space she co-founded that has brought together independent contemporary artists for exhibitions, performances, discussions, and workshops. Miki has been active in the independent cultural sector in Cluj since 2005—for years also running the Temps D’Images Festival, which had its last edition in 2017—and knows the city’s cultural policies well.
In this conversation, we talk about how these policies manifest and have shifted over time, and how they have affected the independent and private artistic scene in the city.
Széker Jetta: You have years of experience in the cultural sector in Cluj. How would you say it has transformed over time?
Miki Braniște: The Great Recession was felt in Romania in 2009, causing, among other things, a fall in the value of real estate. It was exactly this decrease in real estate prices and the subsequent disinterest in property investment that enabled me to co-found, that same year, the Paintbrush Factory (PbF). PbF is an independent cultural project, unprecedented in the country, which had a major role in boosting the cultural sector.
In the first year of PbF, we didn’t get any funding from City Hall. A year later, we received about €500, and the sum has grown over time. A 2012 study, “Carta pentru cultura vie” (“In defense of an alive culture”), as well as statements made by the Administration of the National Cultural Fund (AFCN) indicate that while Cluj itself had a low cultural budget, the city has always been able to attract national funds—second only to Bucharest—which has greatly helped the development of new organizations.
My colleagues Rarița Zbranca and István Szakáts, together with others, have been active in advocating and lobbying City Hall, and they succeeded in convincing the local authorities to substantially raise the budget for independent culture. This was done in an effort to support the city’s application for the title of European Capital of Culture (ECOC) 2021, a potentially major program for the city; the application needed to show a growth in the local artistic scene.
Compared to other city halls, Cluj’s has increased their cultural budget five times over, which is admirable. But the way the budget is split is just as important. At the moment, unfortunately, when it comes to receiving funding, it is less important for an organization to fully meet the criteria of the city’s cultural strategy and more relevant that they leave a good impression with the people reviewing the applications, so they are remembered over the other three hundred or so applicants. This goes to show that the way things are run is unprofessional.
It is interesting to see how this spectacular growth in the budget has resulted in a preference for certain categories of applicants. Initially it was not possible for organizations to get money in installments; the organizations needed instead to pay for everything upfront and the refund from City Hall would come after. This meant that financing was suitable for those who were able either to advance the money or to borrow it, so funding went to those who already had an advantage over others. This did not necessarily help organizations still in the early phase of their development.
Financing was suitable for those who were able either to advance the money or to borrow it, so funding went to those who already had an advantage.
Széker: What were the effects of this?
Miki: Before the city was preparing its application for ECOC 2021—which it lost—it did so for the title of European Youth Capital (EYC) 2015. At that point, the cultural focus was on arts and culture that participate in the emancipation of citizens. After the EYC 2015 application was successful, the discourse changed: City Hall began to be more receptive to large festival-type events, due to the economic returns they brought the city, rather than smaller ones that worked toward social development. Many events were funded, including the Untold Festival—the largest electronic music festival held in Romania—which changed the ethos of Cluj.
Many local curators, producers, and artists in the independent scene do not endorse the city’s new focus on festivals and concerts, nor do they identify with a city that encourages entertainment consumption and is also proud of it. For City Hall, it seemed cost effective for their objectives to be linked to events that generate income. There is this idea—long present in the international cultural sector—that due to the number of people a big event brings out, including visitors from out of town, a city’s revenue will increase. Even cultural actors regularly try to convince politicians of the importance of investing in festivals, because they bring in money.
But there is also a trap here. Organizers have to be careful how they create their festivals and who they do it for, asking the questions: “What role does it play in the life of the locals?” and “Why is it being created in that exact city?” Cluj-Napoca’s City Hall is obsessed with positive visibility, and for them it is more important that these mega events—with an uncertain but seductive identity—exist than it is for them to invest in developing an organic art scene.
They are uncomfortable with PbF because PbF criticizes the social inequalities maintained by City Hall, and authorities generally do not want criticism—they prefer convenient organizations that know how to behave. In these conditions, then, it seems logical that any investment in the independent zone is made with strict control, to enable only the existence and not the progress and growth of a critical voice in the public space.
City Hall began to be more receptive to large festival-type events, due to the economic returns they brought the city, rather than smaller ones that worked toward social development.
Széker: When it comes to cultural events, to what extent do you think the actions of City Hall are premeditated?
Miki: It seems that no matter if they have an agenda or not, their actions—or lack thereof—have consequences; the absence of policies, too, can shape a cultural scene. If you are a government official, any decision you make will affect the local scene. In that sense, deciding to fund or not fund certain projects is political. But they call all the shots: all their gestures are symbolic and influence everyone, which allows for a cultural policy to exist even if there is no strategically written document that the local council formally employs. In Cluj, although there exists a cultural strategy, written in 2015—which seems promising and in theory reflects very well the needs of the cultural sector—in reality, apart from the increase in budget, nothing much has been followed from the recommendations mentioned in that document.
In actuality, the local cultural policies are nothing but forms without substance. For the independent, public sector, there is a strategy that is not implemented and regulations that are not put into practice. Where mainly big events with a greater visibility are funded, smaller organizations are left with little to no space to develop. For example, the independent theatre Reactor received about €10,480 for all of their activities in 2019 from City Hall, whereas the one-night event Gala Uniter received ten times as much, about €104,800.
The cultural sector’s ecosystem in Cluj is comprised of small, medium, and big organizations. These need to exist all together for the sector to be able to grow organically and to innovate. Each one has its role and, while small organizations might seem unimportant, it is worth noting that the innovative ideas usually come from them, since they are the ones who are willing to take risks and experiment.
On the other hand, big events, organizations, and institutions usually take the road more often traveled, because they do not want to risk their relationship with their audience. But, at a certain point, these places with the resources will need new ideas, and they will turn to smaller groups for inspiration—provided, of course, that those are still around.
While small organizations might seem unimportant, it is worth noting that the innovative ideas usually come from them.
Széker: Has anything changed in the discourse on cultural policies?
Miki: I am still trying to understand how this transformation from one dominant discourse to the other in the arts and culture sector—from a focus on independent organizations that work towards social development to a focus on big events—has happened. In the ECOC 2021 application, the focus was oriented towards culture as a means for social development, but that has changed. Now culture is seen as a vehicle for economic growth.
I have wondered why City Hall ever adopted a social perspective regarding the arts if they do not identify with the concept. The answer is easy: they probably were not able to commission other experts to write the strategy and the ECOC 2021 project. When applying for ECOC 2021, City Hall found the social vision regarding the arts and culture inconvenient, so they changed some of the text. For example, if the word “social” appeared too many times, it was cut out and replaced with “cultural.”
In their current vision, City Hall seems to support the idea that festivals are the way for the city to grow their cultural sector. But their absence of a long-term vision is striking: if someone decides to fund big events that last only five days and there is no continuity between two yearly editions, they will end up building nothing. The needs of the sector are different: it needs continuity and stability.
It is interesting, in this regard, to follow what the Cluj Cultural Centre (CCC) proposes. Representatives of the cultural sector see them as a liaison between City Hall and the local scene, but I am not sure if this coincides with their mission today. From where I stand, it seems that part of their purpose is to be a producer, centralize the sector, and obtain a critical mass—but they do not represent our needs. The scene is perfectly capable of expressing itself; if it has any urgent need, it is for a mediator to foster a relationship with City Hall, not for a centralizing organization to speak in its name.
Széker: Are you referring to the visions of culture for the society versus culture for profit?
Miki: Yes, and these are two colliding visions. Although the dominant public discourse regarding the arts was, until 2015, that it served as a vehicle for social development, the entrepreneurial vision of culture, built around the creative industries, already existed. Since the city lost the race for the ECOC 2021 title, PbF has become less and less present in the public space—though this has also been due to the schism of the organization in 2016 and to internal traumas. The social discourse regarding the arts has also dissipated, and the field has become preoccupied with voices that represent new successful models in culture, with ideas borrowed from the business sector.
City Hall feels strongly about Cluj maintaining its image as an attractive, competitive, magnetic city. It implemented a new narrative for itself, moving from a post-industrial town to one of the creative city. They needed the support of the cultural sector.
Beside the strategy adopted in 2015, the facts now speak clearly about the direction City Hall has taken: the audience that matters is the one that brings income. This is the trap of our sector because it means the only people who matter are those who can afford to consume anything—including culture. You can imagine the next inequalities. If the argument of economic returns from cultural activities had not been desperately reiterated by international cultural actors, this approach would not be as strong as it is today. It is clear that the urban regeneration policies the city has undertaken have resulted in massive gentrification.
The only way to recover is to re-concentrate the initiatives that promote art as a vehicle for social development. Gentrification and social inequalities are shared problems and our voices would be stronger if we—PbF, Reactor, and other organizations like ZUG.zone, Tranzit House, and tranzit.ro—join forces and work together.