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Hiding your philharmonic under a bushel – Ukrainian Culture Policy

April 13, 2016

In the next 24 hours or so, the never-ending shuffling behind the Ukrainian political curtain will announce a new Prime Minister, Cabinet of Ministers and (wafer thin) majority coalition.

Following the unveiling, it will not come as any surprise, should Vyacheslav Kyrylenko be removed from his office as Minsiter of Culture, being replaced by somebody like Evgene Nyschuk.

Ministry_of_Culture_(Ukraine)

Indeed those within the Ukrainian cultural sphere subjected to the whims of Mr Kyrylenko will undoubtedly raise a glass (or two) at his departure – particularly those State financed entities that saw budgets cut by 10% for reasons unknown and unexplained.  There is surely no public record of such cuts being a Cabinet of Ministers decision, nor subject to Verkhovna Rada debate.  The cuts therefore, prima facie, the arbitrary decision of the Ministry of Culture for reasons undisclosed.

A reader may therefore ponder, as no doubt many State financed cultural entities do, what happened to that 10% of their budget?

Not even so much as “there’s a war on” was offered as a reason, despite many an inquiry.  There was simply no response, not to those within the world of Ukrainian culture, nor to parliamentarians such as Alexie Goncharenko that wrote officially asking on behalf of the Ukrainian cultural world.  The State budget for  culture is not enormous, but it is not so small that the apparent disappearance of 10% of funding to State financed cultural entities is an insignificant sum either.

It is actually quite difficult to find a State policy for culture.

One exists on paper undoubtedly, but where it manifests elsewhere is actually very difficult to define.  Quite what the policy is actually meant to achieve, how those achievements are measured, and over what time frame, is something of an enigma.

Indeed over the past 25 years, the only real noticeable change in cultural policy came under former President Yushenko, when culture became “folksy”.  There is nothing wrong with that, for it was at least a policy, but as much as the vyshyvanka is a beautiful garment, and valenki keep your feet warm, there is much more to culture and cultural reach than that – particularly if culture is to be used to both inwardly promote nationhood, and simultaneously externally to promote the nation.

In short, it is a cultural policy mistake to hide something like a world class philharmonic orchestra under a bushel (to tease the English idiom), or under-promote artists of truly world class acclaim.

Morris dancing is very quaint, of particular cultural heritage, seen as a little eccentric perhaps, and certainly reaches those that pass by, but does little to promote the national culture outside the local village green, summer fete (or Supermarket car park).  Other cultural events however have a far greater promotional impact both domestically and internationally – so much so fields fill with people to participate in all weathers.

And when it is done well, audience participation and fun with culture occurs – and more to the point it is forever remembered!

How many cellos does it take to sell out a stadium?  2 (if they are performing AC/DC it seems).

Now there is nothing wrong with the Morris dancers above, a part of cultural heritage undoubtedly, but a world class cultural entity (indeed institution) attracts not only world class performers, but a worldwide participation in a nation’s culture.  There is both domestic pride and international PR.

Indeed the little event above in Odessa has not been forgotten, and is actually to be shown at a cultural festival in France this summer as part of a large cultural event – not that the Ukrainian political class will know, nor that the Ukrainian Ambassador to France will attend (without prompting) and not that the Odessa Philharmonic that created this little gem will be attending to play it “live”.

More of live performance issues a few paragraphs from now, suffice to say the Odessa Philharmonic has played the USA, UK, Israel, Hungary, Australia, Spain, Austria and many more.  It would still be doing so now if there were the funds to actually send it and allow it to promote Odessa and Ukraine.

Before leaving the classical music giddy heights of the UK Proms, the Odessa Philharmonic has twice been encouraged to play at The Proms and has not done so because the airfare for 100 people (it is a full philharmonic) and the shipping of 30 cubic meters of instruments could not – or more precisely would not – be funded by Ukraine, or any exceptionally wealthy Ukrainians wishing to try and cleanse their otherwise grubby public personas.

(A reader may find it somewhat unbelievable that Ukraine cannot find $100,000(ish) to project itself at a global cultural pinnacle through what the UK Proms people clearly believe to be a philharmonic orchestra worthy of gracing its stage – especially so when that amount of money is stolen from the budget every other day.  No doubt such invitations will continue – as will the budgetary theft preventing the national promotion at the highest levels.)

Whatever the case, a reader might reasonably expect the promotion of an internationally acknowledged (if entirely domestically dismissed) cultural gem, especially when fighting a war on many fronts with The Kremlin – a war that includes culture.

Instead, in the case of the Odessa Philharmonic, aside from slashed State funding,  it relies on donations and the occasional philanthropic donation (which unsurprisingly is not tax deductible in Ukraine) to put on an annual “Black Sea Music Fest” for the local constituency and tourists present at the time.

A reader may ponder rightly, if such philanthropy is not tax deductible for the Ukrainian oligarchy and odiously/stupidly wealthy, what the motivation for any support actually is.

Kyiv, Lviv, Dnepropetrovsk have similar issues, but Odessa takes centre stage in this entry because it is the home of this blog and thus it knows the “what”, “why” and “wherefores” more intimately.

Perhaps what also makes the Odessa Philharmonic unique is that for as long as this blog has been running (and prior) it shares the Odessa Philharmonic Hall with an entirely illegal casino, remains partially refurbished (having had $50 million stolen from the refurbishment budget some years ago), and was given a gratis refurbishment programme by Russell Johnson, a world famous acoustics expert that described the Odessa Philharmonic Hall as a top class performing venue – notwithstanding it is is conducted by Hobart Earle, a People’s Artist of Ukraine, who as the name suggests is not a Ukrainian.

(There have naturally been numerous promises to complete the refurbishment, the last made by Igor Palitsa when he was Governor, but when a politician’s lips are moving, more often than not the truth is not forthcoming.)

In summer a reader may per chance be walking past the Philharmonic Hall when windows are open (as this blog does), and overhear the Hall Director complain that the Odessa Philharmonic rehearsing from 1000 – 1300 daily means it cannot be hired out to others for money during that time.  It must be quite a bore to run a State funded philharmonic hall, and have a State funded philharmonic orchestra want to rehearse there daily preventing external monetary flows for 3 hours a day.

Needless to say, with such a large amount of refurbishment funds stolen, the refurbishment is half completed – and has remained that way for years, to the point where the refurbishment now requires refurbishment..

Yet it is not only Ukraine that fails to promote its living and breathing international class cultural entities – neither Odessa Oblast nor Odessa City do so either.  It is an issue not unique to Odessa, an example from Dnepropetrovsk a little later.

Indeed, so shocking is the failure to promote the cultural gems within Odessa, it took this blog to get two old friends to do the simplest of things – because the idea had never occurred to them before.

A simple case of asking a regular dining chum Konstantin Rzhepishevsky, Head of the Odessa Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide as gifts a DVD of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra to the regular visiting dignitaries, and almost 30 resident consulates on the one hand, and asking a far more irregular dining chum, Hobart Earle, the Conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic to give this blog a few dozen copies of the DVD to MFA Odessa to hand out.

These gifts after all, fall far below the financial threshold of refusing or handing over to others per diplomatic guidelines, yet promote the city and the Philharmonic.  Such gifts are very likely to stay with those that received them for many years.

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Before readers email asking to be sent copies of the DVDs, cheap as they are to produce, the shipping cost anywhere outside of Ukraine is entirely prohibitive – although for those in Odessa, for a donation to the Odessa Philharmonic NFP fund, undoubtedly copies can reach you.

For any of those external of Ukraine seeking to support the Odessa Philharmonic, undoubtedly they would receive any and all donations humbly and with sincere gratitude.  The NFP charitable account details as follows:

Beneficiary: Charitable Fund “Muzikant”
Account: 260073221236
Bank: Bank Pivdenny 
Odessa, Ukraine
SWIFT Code: PIVDUA22

Correspondent Bank: The Bank of New York
New York, NY
SWIFT Code: IRVTUS3N
Correspondent account: 890-0319-313

Thus, the MFA Odessa now does its bit to promote Odessa and the cultural icon that is the Philharmonic.  There are naturally other local cultural gems that should also be promoted that won’t be – albeit they are perhaps not as easy to hire, or sell out a concert hall, perform an entirely Polish repertoire in Poland or entirely Jewish repertoire in Israel.

Nothing however comes from the Odessa Oblast Administration, nor from Odessa City Hall when it comes to promoting a cultural asset that can hold its own across Europe and beyond – and a reader has to ask why that is?  They too can have a bag full of DVDs to hand out to visiting dignitaries.  They can have a list of hiring rates too, lest a nation wants to employ the philharmonic when holding the “Day’s off…….” cultural promotions in Odessa.

Just because Ukraine seems to have no identifiable cultural policy or national projection goals through the use of its quality cultural assets, that does not mean Odessa Oblast nor the City is excused from using its finest cultural assets from promoting itself.  It is something that is surely not dependent upon “decentralisation” legislation, but is entirely dependent upon realising the quality PR that is available from the assets held – even if the decision makers are little more than philistines and cultural Luddites.

In sum, there is an internationally recognised, domestically ignored, poorly accommodated, underfunded cultural gem that is not being used to promote the nation or the city to its full ability – which raises questions over cultural policy – local, regional, national and international.

Having previously mentioned Dnepropetrovsk, and for the sake of “theme” sticking to music rather than the other cultural arts, it too suffers from a Philharmonic Hall that requires refurbishment and would otherwise be a very good concert hall.  Despite having more than a few oligarchs hailing from the city, no refurbishment is on the horizon.

Yet Dnepropetrovsk, with a refurbished hall, would draw international artists and international attention if it were to rename it after what is surely its most famous classical music son.  Famous that is worldwide – but not in Dnepropetrovsk.

One of the greatest cellists ever to draw a bow, an internationally renowned son of Dnepropetrovsk, is (or rather was)  Gregor Piatigorsky.  Simply by refurbishing the hall and renaming it after Piatigorsky would bring it to global cultural attention and have a queue of acclaimed cellists wanting to play there by way of intellectual/musical homage.  International PR for Dnepropetrovsk awaits – and will probably continue to wait in the absence of meaningful cultural policy when it comes to international projection.

In the meantime, without an external cultural projection policy that maximises what the nation has that can stand shoulder to shoulder on a global stage, presumably Ukraine will be left to hoping that derivatives of the vyshyvanka remain fashionable in the shops of Europe, that Borscht recipe variations dominate in a niche market in cyberspace, and Ukrainian sportsmen and women continue to do well and Eurovision retains its excruciating but addictive nature.

Such hope is neither policy nor strategy.

(For those seeking a far more cultured peak behind the curtain at the Odessa Philharmonic, there is a piece in the Odessa Review – this blog doesn’t “do” culture as must be obvious! )

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