Cultural Capital Urged to Bring Arts to People

Cultural Capital Urged to Bring Arts to People

Published: June 27, 2012 (Issue # 1715)

Alexander Belenky / spt

St. Petersburg is often criticized for living off its cultural heritage and not actively organizing cultural events open to everyone.

The term “cultural capital” is one that some view to be a kind of consolation prize for impressive cities that do not hold the title of real capitals. Others see them as cities recognized for their bustling artistic life. The idea of cultural capitals was the focus of a special discussion at the 16th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum held in the city from June 21 through 23.

While every state can technically have only one official capital, there is virtually no limit to how many cultural capitals a country can have.

What does a city need to have to deserve such a flattering status? This question is a sensitive one for St. Petersburg, Russia’s self-proclaimed and internationally recognized cultural capital. The city is often criticized for its absence of cultural events that demonstrate the city’s vitality, and is accused of comfortably living off its priceless cultural heritage.

Although, according to sociological polls, St. Petersburg holds a firm spot on the list of places travelers most want to visit, many people put off their trip to Russia’s northern capital, preferring to first visit places that host exciting events people feel they cannot miss, whereas the Hermitage will still be around in years to come.

Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, believes that smaller European towns and cities like Germany’s Bayreuth and Austria’s Salzburg, which play host to world-renowned classical music events, deserve the title of cultural capital for these efforts alone.

“Bayreuth’s Wagner Festival is known around the globe, and this is a beautiful example of how contemporary creative spirit can make the most of an artistic legacy,” she said. “Today a cultural capital is one that can make its art — whether it be experimental pieces or priceless masterpieces — relate to people’s lives today.”

For filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, winner of the Golden Lion, the Grand Prix of the prestigious international Venice Film Festival, the term “cultural capital” is sooner a warning sign than praise. In the director’s opinion, it speaks of inequality.

“What really holds a state together is its cultural diversity and preserved cultural heritage,” Sokurov said. “It is alarming that the artistic and cultural resources of such a vast country as Russia are concentrated in two big cities. What about the provinces? There is no state policy that involves theaters and museums partaking in government-sponsored tours across Russia. People crave this. The current situation is shameful and dangerous because it leaves most people deprived of the arts in a country that possesses an immense cultural legacy.”

Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater and founder of the International Stars of the White Nights festival, believes that to really deserve the title “cultural capital,” a city needs to first and foremost make the arts accessible to all residents. Even in Moscow and St. Petersburg where such events can be found, not everyone can afford to attend them.

Mariinsky Theater artists give free performances at St. Petersburg State University and Moscow’s Lomonosov University, as well as organizing charitable concerts — always at the company’s own initiative.

One of Gergiev’s ideas is that the local government should consider co-sponsoring events during which children could visit city theaters and museums.

“In St. Petersburg we could easily make it possible for every child to see, for example, ‘The Nutcracker,’ one of the most beautiful ballets ever created,” he said. “It is very simple. Why do so many St. Petersburgers have to wait until they grow up and start earning money to go to the Mariinsky Theater when, if the city joined forces with theaters and created a culture-friendly policy, children could see the shows when they are six or seven years old? I really want this to happen, but the authorities need to share this vision.”

Vladimir Medinsky, the newly appointed Culture Minister, in turn, would like to change the role of his institution from sponsor to strategist.

“We are working on creating a legal framework that would make it attractive for businesses to become patrons of the arts,” the minister said, although he stopped short of explaining what specific advantages the legal amendments would involve and how soon they could be introduced. Still, the minister said he is finalizing a proposal to the government to relieve the country’s state-funded arts and culture institutions of income and land taxes.

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, president of the Onexim Group, has called for the government to help businesses out if the state expects them to contribute.

“The state has to simplify the process of donations and sponsorship for private companies,” he said. “Also, federal law no. 83 [which allows public schools to charge students for things such as special courses and other services like security and maintenance work] and law no. 94 on state tenders must be repealed,” Prokhorov said.

Alexei Kudrin, former finance minister and the dean of the liberal arts and sciences department at St. Petersburg State University, said he always begins his exploration of a town or city with a visit to one of its galleries or theaters.

“It gives me a sense of the place, a taste of it — and an original taste at that,” he said. “Yet a gallery that is a mere collection of artifacts does not give a town spirit. There needs to be nourished soil, creative ground for new works of art to emerge and an atmosphere that encourages experimentation.”

Kudrin used a creative analogy between an iPhone and a theater company to explain the importance of education in developing a thriving arts scene.

“An iPhone is a product; it took its current shape owing to the work of a number of innovative scientific laboratories, big and small. Similarly, say, the Mariinsky Theater is also a product, and for this company to be able to function as efficiently as an iPhone — and produce moving works of art — it needs to employ talented and skilled musicians, directors, dancers, singers and costume designers, who all grew up in a place that nurtures the arts.”

Under Kudrin as finance minister, Russia saw a staggering increase in its culture spending from less than 10 billion rubles ($300 million) per year when he accepted the position in 2001 to the 100 billion rubles ($3 billion) earmarked for culture in 2012.

Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales, director of the Bureau International des Expositions, stressed the importance of large-scale events for city development.

“Hosting a World Expo can transform a city; I’m not exaggerating,” he said. “The city of Seville is the setting for so many operas, yet the city did not have its own opera house until it received the Expo. Ever since, the theater has been packed every single night. This is a stunning example of how an event can accelerate the cultural process in a city. Do not underestimate it.”

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