Elena Zelentsova on the prejudices against cultural centres.
A new course entitled “How to Open a Cultural Centre” has been launched by the web school for urban entrepreneurs Vector. The course lecturers explain how to develop interesting and profitable programming for such a centre, and how to promote it city-wide. The course also offers case studies of good practice collected from all around Russia, from the “House with the Lion” in the village of Pokrovka, to the creative cluster Tayga in St. Petersburg.
Cultural centres are usually treated with prejudice in Russia. It is often assumed that they are either no different from the old Soviet houses of culture (“doma kultury” or simply “DK” in Russian — ed. note), or that they are simply combining the functions of libraries and museums, but suffer in comparison with either. Strelka Magazine talked to former director of the Moscow cultural centre ZIL and current vice-president of the “Skolkovo” foundation Elena Zelentsova in order to dispel these and other myths and find out what cultural centres have to offer a contemporary audience.
MYTH 1: A cultural centre simply duplicates the functions of museums, libraries and theatres.
If we look at this from the point of view of critical theory, the widespread popularity of cultural centres is a response to the post-industrial situation in cities: the boundaries between types of institutions and art genres are being erased. Just look at the Gogol Center theatre, which has a bookshop, a cafeteria, and a lecture hall. This trend to diversify the functions of certain institutions is undoubtedly prompted by the changing demands of city dwellers. Today, they expect multifunctional, integrated offerings, be they basic leisure activities or cultural recreation.
A similar trend is evident in tourism: mono-leisure is not as popular as it used to be. These days, even a traditional beach holiday is accompanied by visits to cultural and natural sights. If it’s a city visit, travelers expect a choice of both active and passive leisure, as well as recreational activities for their children. So every progressive institution today is becoming a cultural centre. Shopping is also in on the game: it’s never just retail; it’s entertainment, too.
These days, people have more free time and an inclination to spend it as intensively as possible. In addition to this, there’s a growing demand to learn and acquire new skills. One of my fellow urbanists argued that today, people treat cities as luxury hotels: we want everything and we want it now. In the case of ZIL Cultural Centre, its success can be partially attributed to its spatial advantages: the complex that it occupies has enough room to fit a variety of leisurely pursuits. Like many similar institutions, ZIL aspires to become a place where one can spend the whole day, or at least half of it.
MYTH 2: Cultural centres are outlets for neo-liberal ideology
The first houses of culture emerged in the UK in the industrial era as a means for familiarizing workers with the cultural standards of urban living, and to balance their social life and life outside of work. The first Russian houses of culture appeared before the revolution, and were aimed at battling alcoholism and inculcating the wider population with new standards of everyday life, while also educating it. Like all cultural institutions, they had a prominent ideological function. However, this legacy has not proven to be definitive for contemporary culture centres. The houses of culture that we are dealing with today are unique institutions, which, despite being products of the era of industrialisation, have managed to survive and adapt.
First of all, due to their multidisciplinary nature, they have never been targeted at a particular art genre or audience type. Contrary to our stereotypes of the Soviet era, since its foundation in the 1930s, the ZIL House of Culture hosted everything from fashion shows to craft fairs. Children, young engineers, and factory workers all gathered here. Dances were held. It has always been a powerful hub for different ages and interests. That is why, when cities started to change during Perestroika, houses of culture didn’t have to go through radical transformations. 25 years ago, Russian museums had serious prejudices concerning cafes, interactive formats, and working with diverse audiences. But houses of culture never shared those concerns, and were themselves treated condescendingly, as outlets for amateurism.
And this is the second factor. In our contemporary society, we no longer want a lecture on morality, as our most cherished value is self-expression. We don’t always feel comfortable in a museum where nothing can be touched, loud noises are banned and special slippers must be worn. Houses of culture, on the other hand, always proclaimed: come on, join us, let’s create something together. This interactivity was at their very foundation. That is why, provided they have a clear understanding of their mission, these centres can become really successful. They have to also have an identity and a speciality. If a cultural centre is located on the densely-populated outskirts of the city, then it should have more programming for children; if it’s in an industrial area, then elderly people become its target audience, a demographic that few people here know how to work with.
MYTH 3. Contemporary cultural centres were born out of the old “houses of culture”
This direct parallel with the houses of culture is far too schematic. The diverse, interactive format of the dom kultury can be considered only as a model for the contemporary cultural centre, an institution that should constantly evolve in its content making, and maintain a high level of quality. Many cultural centres suffer from a lack of variety in their programming: the same repertoire remains unchanged for years, and subsequently becomes irrelevant and unappealing.
For example, at DK ZIL, the science and technology workshops had disappeared completely, and we had to re-launch them from scratch, with the help of Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum.Initially, our attempts were met with resistance by the older generation of staff. They had all forgotten that this was actually a return to the initial mission: ZIL was conceived as a centre for factory workers, a place where engineer’s children would be taught the basics of science and technology.
MYTH 4: Cultural centres satisfy only the most basic demands of citizens
With the lifting of governmental support after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all houses of culture had to find ways of earning money. Commercial concerns have become more pressing than concerns about quality. First of all, are you profitable? Secondly, what are your visitor figures? Profitability and visitor figures have become the most objective performance indicators. High artistic quality is no longer the prime goal. But, if the next step, or even better, the next two or three steps are planned ahead, then there is room for experimentation. That’s what allowed us to introduce contemporary dance and performance art at DK ZIL four years ago. The level of experimentation can also be an indicator of success, but how to measure it exactly? Critical reviews? The number of tickets sold? Customer reviews? Visitor figures? Any city, be it Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Tula, wants to produce high quality works of art, but its most basic cultural offering is still just a variety of services. And that is exactly how cultural centres are treated when government funding is allocated: as services providers.
If we consider it purely hypothetically, what will the budget reform lead to? Our government’s dream is to quit funding its own institutions and to start buying services instead. Imagine a situation where there are ten privately-funded cultural centres in a city, and the government complies a list of services for kids that they are willing to fund (based on social surveys and expert opinions). All they need to do is allocate the number of budget places they can fund, just like they do with universities: no need to fund the whole institution. Additional stuff is allowed, but the money must come from donations, benefactors, sponsors, or directly from visitors who pay for the services provided.
There are other effects, too. If the government is funding a kids’ dancing school, they are also supporting a kids’ dancing collective that could represent the city at prestigious competitions and festivals, both in Russia and abroad. So, it becomes an investment in the image of the city, its reputation, cultural capital, and tourist infrastructure. It’s a multidimensional issue, so cities will never stop funding this sphere.
MYTH 5: Cultural centres are primarily community-oriented
First of all, I don’t believe in the existence of “local communities”. Communities the way they are perceived in the Anglo-Saxon world or in Europe cannot be found in Russia. Take, for example, the area around ZIL and the Moskvich factory; I live there, so I know this district pretty well. Who could be considered “a community” there? ZIL veterans and workers are one category. A large number of migrants are another. And the well-to-do, educated people who have moved into the recently built new housing, due to the area’s close proximity to the city centre — they are an altogether different audience.
Secondly, there are various age groups. Kids, the elderly, and the middle aged — they all have different needs; all require a specific approach. Activities for children, especially the very young, will always be the most in-demand services in this area. This becomes obvious if you take a look at the birth rate statistics.
I don’t like the term “for everyone”, because to me it’s synonymous with “for no one”. But yes, the audiences are very diverse. A centre like this is like an enterprise, a factory for cultural production, and so its equipment requires constant modernisation. Some of the programming may not instantly become popular, but you expect the audiences to grow into it eventually. One of our first initiatives at ZIL was the “Art Residencies” project, which attracted a lot of attention from young creatives struggling to find affordable studio space in Moscow. But alongside this, we also worked closely with another important target group: war veterans. A club called “Podvig” (Russian for “act of bravery” — ed. note), whose members are both former factory employees and local people of senior age, has been gathering at ZIL every three months for many decades. We really wanted to improve the programming for them. Senior citizens are a tough audience to please — you have to have an understanding of their mentality — but also the most loyal. For many years, these people were offered a regular programme of amateur musical performances. These concerts were of appallingly bad quality: the artists weren’t even trying to do their job well. Once I invited my friend, a choreographer, to one of those shows, and afterward, she told me that she had never been so embarrassed in her entire life. The veterans, on the other hand, were happy and grateful — at least they were invited somewhere. Gradually, we started to increase the quality of those performances. It took some time for the audience to accept the new format — they are very careful in their choices and often lack the necessary understanding — but in the end, our efforts paid off.
Offering a unique kind of programming allows you to widen the target audience; it becomes not just local community members, but people from all over Moscow. This was the case with our scientific lab for children, developed jointly with the Polytechnic Museum, and our contemporary dance programme. The “Car Plant” ballet piece, which premiered at ZIL, was attended by many avid theatre-goers — the kind of people who usually go to see performances by the Theatre Ballet Moscow and other contemporary companies.
It’s different for smaller venues. I like to provide as an example of good practice the cultural centre in Mitino: they’ve always managed to earn three times their government funding. It’s the only venue in this densely-populated area that offers a variety of extracurricular activities. They’ve also extended their working hours: the doors open at 8 am and close at 11 pm. Every centimeter of their space is used in some way. But, because of the demographic status of this area, their offerings are almost exclusively children-oriented. The staff at the DK understand that even if they introduce something unique and experimental, it’s unlikely that many will travel to Mitino in order to sample it. Their main objective is to answer the needs of the local population of the district. DK Moskvich, another good example, has a different profile: it boasts a top-quality performance hall, and is currently remodelling itself into a theatre-oriented cultural centre.
MYTH 6 Cultural centre staff do nothing but creative work
Cultural workers often take offense when I say this to them: “Just because you work at a museum, that doesn’t automatically make you a creative person”. It’s not your employment history that makes you a cultured person: it’s your interests, education, work, and initiative. Those two things often get mixed up. Cultural institutions are proper enterprises that need to work efficiently. So, there’s no need to feel insulted.