Why State Funding of Theaters Doesn’t Work

The state is like a dog in the manger: it does not let theaters develop independently, but conducts censorship

Most theaters in Russia are a state property. This means that the state determines their rules and to whom and to what extent money is given for staging performances. State agents swear they do not interfere in theatrical affairs, pointing to the article in the Constitution forbidding of censorship. But it exists in an informal way, as the official has all the tools to easily put the theater in a difficult situation if it decides to do something "objectionable." Theatrical critic Viktor Vilisov descibes how the Russian state funding system for theaters is set up and what problems stem from this.

How are theaters financed?

On October 19 director and artistic manager of the Satyricon, Konstantin Raikin, stated at a press conference that his theater, due to a critical lack of funding and high rental costs was on the verge of closure. On October 24, Raikin spoke at the Seventh Congress of the Union of Theater Workers of Russia, where he delivered an emotional speech about how he felt how the "raids" on free art were amplified and the government's interference in the affairs of cultural institutions was rapidly increasing.

This speech by the popularly recognized director (and not at all a dissident) led to a new level of discussion about sprawling informal censorship, cementing Russian theater in the news of socio-political publications.

Between these two loud statements there was one event that few people remember. Literally a few days after the press conference, Raikin met with the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. During the closed meeting, which became known only on October 29, the parties "apologized for being too emotional" and settled "technical issues." That is, the Ministry of Culture donated "Satyricon" a certain amount.

This story has nothing to do with the individuals who participated in it; Raikin hardly made concessions, as can be seen from his numerous interviews after the incident. But this situation clearly showed how the mechanism of financing theaters in Russia works.

In May 2017, the 83rd Federal Law came into force. It provides funding for theaters depending on the effectiveness of their work, which will be determined by united standards. This law has fallen the same fate of many similar ones; it just does not work, and theaters continue to be financed according to the old scheme.

What is this previous scheme? Federal and municipal theaters receive money from the state in three different ways: through grants to carry out state assignments (the primary way), receiving a presidential / governor's grant or concluding state contracts for performing any work or providing services on a competitive basis.

Grants and state contracts are random. A competition can be won by some new person (although this is a rare case). However, only regional leaders who already have some kind of contact and a history of relations with the authorities receive regional and federal grants. As for subsidies, the same principle works: those who were given them before, recieve them now. Large amounts of money are give to those who "ask well," that is, those who have an administrative resource which can influence the decision.

Problem № 1 — what is relevance?

The approach, in which money is given only to old acquaintances, allows for relative stability to be maintained in the industry. But the main problem of this mechanism is the lack of clear and transparent criteria for granting subsidies. The Ministry of Culture notes that the amount of funding is calculated on the basis of funds earned by the theater itself, which it can earn by selling tickets and non-core activities. For example, a cafe in the theater or selling branded products. Out of this amount, a decision is made about the relevance of the institution.

In this method it is completely unclear what the "relevance of the institution" is, how this is calculated, and in what proportion from this "demand" subsidies sizes are formed. From here it is possible to deduce only the strange equation based on undercover principles, theater funding is equal to the will of the official, plus last year's earnings of the theater, multiplied by the director's ability to influence this official.

The awful instability of this principle was clearly demonstrated by the example of the Gogol Center; while Sergey Kapkov was head of the Moscow Department of Culture the theater received solid funding. Using this money, as well as the support of the theater’s partner, Alfa Bank, the theater released 24 premieres for two years (starting in 2013 - ed. note) and took loans for some of them. After Kapkov left his position in the Department of Culture, the government stopped to treat the modern theater in a warm way, and the staff of the presidential administration recommended that Alfa Bank refrain from helping Gogol Center. As a result, by the spring of 2015, the institution turned out to have a debt of 80 million rubles and suspended production of new performances.

We must understand that this is not a problem of the director and artistic director of the Gogol Center, but of the current system of state financing, in which there is no transparent system that determines the size of subsidies, depending on the way and quality of an institution's work.

Problem № 2 — who to support?

On average, theaters are forced to earn only 20-30% of their own budget - yet such an existence is in a comfort zone. Another thing is that the distribution of funds within the system is extremely inefficient. The state continues to support theaters that live in the century before last and release one and a half premieres in two seasons that no one visits. Instead of twenty-four, you can release five performances in two years and nothing will change. This is how many many Moscow theaters with half-empty auditoriums exist. In financial terms, they continue to feel stable.

It seems that the story of the St. Petersburg theater "Russian Entreprise named after Andrei Mironov," which is known to decent critics only by the fact that every year it invariably receives a subsidy from the St. Petersburg Department of Culture, has become iconic. This subsidy is ten times greater than that of any other private theater in the city.
In 2012, the artistic director of the theater, Rudolf Furmanov, who supported Vladimir Putin in the presidential elections, received 15 million rubles.

In March 2014, he signed the appeal of cultural figures in support of the president's policy in Ukraine and the Crimea and received 9.5 million rubles, while the rest of the theaters (some of which are much superior to Entreprise from the point of view of artistic achievements) hardly ever received 500,000 rubles. It’s important to note that Furmanov leads a private, non-state theater. However, having good relationships with the authorities means he receives help from the state.

Some theaters, of course, can not be closed or completely unfinanced. If necessary, the management is changed. As in the case of the Vakhtangov Theater, in 2013 Rimas Tuminas became its art director. He turned a provincial theater, directorate of which sold tickets through its own commercial firm with a huge commission and received state subsidies, into a box-office hit and a popular venue in a short period of time.

Problem number 3 - Dictates from the Ministry of Culture

Even if you agree that there is enough money for theaters, there remains another problem, the total lack of directors' trust by the founder (federal or regional mincult). In recent years, control over every penny has turned into an almost censorship dictate, when the authorities demand that the course of the country be taken into account in the production of plays in the past.

Distrust lies in the monstrous documentation of the work of the theater's director, as well as in the existence of a state assignment that goes as a packaged subsidy. In many theaters in Western Europe, where the format of the state's relationship with cultural institutions is as paternalistic as ours, state orders do not apply to subsidies. The theater director or artistic director is elected by a board of trustees together with the founder and he is entrusted with the choice of the theater's artistic strategy. If the activity of the director does not suit the board of trustees or the public, it is simply changed, of course, with broad public discussion.

In Russia, theater directors don't have such freedoms. Most recently, directors and artists throughout the country agreed to go out on June 28 if front of the audience and make a statement in support of the persons involved in the case of "The Seventh Studio." On the morning of this day, according to sources, theaters began recieve calls from local ministries and cultural departments, to inform the directors about the termination of the contract with him. When asked if the cooperation could be prolonged, they answered: "Come, you will find out everything yourself. We hope you did not intend to do anything this evening?"

Perhaps the situation could be remedied by the influx of private money. But their absence stipulates an absolutely comic law on patronage, which does not imply any tax relief for benefactors. All that a philanthropist can receive under this law is a charter for socially useful activities.

Secondly, private money alone in Russia cannot seriously support culture, big business is concentrated in state-controlled industries, which means that money goes  to projects of national importance, something like the Perm "Merry Mullein" festival for throwing cow patties.

How can this problem be solved? Discussion of theater reform has been ongoing since the mid-1990s. For two decades, various legislative attempts have been made to consolidate rational ideas or even formulate a separate law on the theater. However, each time the reforms have met opposition from theatrical managers who prefer to work by inertia and want "everything to remain as before." From the impossibility of injecting additional funds into the modernization of the industry, to the unwillingness or inability of the regional authorities to perform their assigned tasks (due, among other things, to illogically compiled laws or by-laws), to the passivity of the initiators of reforms, who are not able to bring the matter to an end.

As such, theaters in Russia exist in an absurd situation: they cannot receive extra money from the state and they cannot make up for the imbalance extra-budgetarily. And if you show disloyalty, you will retire. If you're lucky.

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