Experts question culture minister's additional 2023 theater funding

Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE).
Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE). Source: Dmitri Fedotkin/ERR

Culture experts have criticized the handling of funding for theaters in Estonia after the Ministry of Culture opted to provide additional money to some venues for this year.

A new funding system was put in place, which also led to funding levels not even being clear until this month, rather than at the tail end of 2022.

The issue relates to smaller "city theaters" and to privately-owned theaters, rather than the big state-run institutions such as the Estonia Theater and the Estonian Drama Theater (Eesti Draamateater), both in Tallinn, or the Vainemuine Theater in Tartu.

Theater critic Meelis Oidsalu says Culture Minister Piret Hartman's (SDE) actions have been both curious and understandable, all at the same time, pointing to the fact that a revised funding system was set up, but then in any case extra funding was provided to some theaters, when it became clearer in January that they might have a tough time of it this year.

"That said I also understand Hartman's actions; if you essentially tell a theater, at the end of January, that their budget for this year will be hundreds of thousands less [than expected], then at a purely human level, some kind of transitional phase is needed there," he continued.

"I am however somewhat disturbed by the fact that in her comments, the minister has criticized the expert committee that made these decisions, while some of the managers of private theaters are also harassing these committee members but they should be kept away from this. They were simply doing their job. The question of how to ensure the timeliness of such decisions, and the foresight that a theater can also take this into account, is a question for the Minister of Culture and the [Ministry] Secretary General, rather than the committee," Oidsalu went on.

Oidsalu could not say how well the committee, which assigned scores to theaters based on artistic aspects, conducted itself on that task, but said media reports that funding for Tallinn City Theater (Tallinna Linnateater) would be cut had come as no surprise.

Changes might be timely at that organization, he said, which could include its being run by the City of Tallinn, rather than by the state, and adding that the latter has already provided millions of euros towards the theater's new building construction.

Tallinn City Theater. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Another critic, Valle-Sten Maiste, of cultural newspaper Sirp, says he assumed that two theaters, VAT Teater and Von Krahl, both in the capital would have been unfairly caught up in the gears of the reforms – which assigned operating subsidies to theaters - put in place. "Especially VAT Teater, Von Krahl, and to a lesser extent, the Tallinn City Theater."

"If we consider the theater funding reform goals, we tried to move from routine funding that had been established long ago to funding that takes into account quality. If we look at the Tallinn City Theater, there is no shortage of such a theater – no matter how beloved it was – on offer, VAT Theater is very lacking," Maiste said .

Valle-Sten Maiste. Autor/allikas: TMK

"I wouldn't venture to say that the reform [assigning operating subsidies to theaters] was completely useless, but rather that it culminate in a completely paradoxical solution - first, it didn't work out, but those aspects which didn't work out they started patching up based on the position of ministerial power," he went on.

More broadly, granting additional funding to theaters makes sense, however, he said.

Paul Aguraiuja, the head of the Tallinn Art Hall Gallery (Tallinna Kunstihoone), also expressed concern – not so much about the principle of the culture minister doling out extra money to theaters as about the field of visual arts being treated differently from theaters.

"If €20,000 is not found for our requests but €850,000 is still found for the theaters, then people in the art field will simply be agog about this."

The building housing the Tallinn Art Hall Gallery has long been facing serious structural issues.

"Naturally, funding need not be taken away from theaters, but the Ministry of Culture must also stop ignoring the field of visual arts. We have not been talked to for years," Aguraiuja went on.

The Ministry of Culture itself says the funding decision for city and private theaters is expected to be approved within a few weeks, based on the decision of the artistic expert committee.

Minister Hartman said the issue arose over the new regulation which shifted the application round for operating subsidies for theaters to the beginning of December, which meant sums for 2023 could not be announced until after the new year had started.

Hartman said: "The ministry's error was that we promised performance institutions that we would announce the numbers at the end of last year, but up to now the completion of that protocol and its explanations has been delayed, as the application round was postponed too far."

Eight institutions will get reduced funding this year, she added.

"A total of 23 performance institutions submitted an application for operating funds, of which eight would have lost out, compared with last year. These eight institutions will receive additional coverage for their losses, in terms of the transition period," Hartman continued.

Granting any extra money would constitute an exceptional decision, but he certainly wants to review the regulation which formed the basis of determining subsidies to theaters.

"The debate has been very heated, and I want to sit down with the sector again, to ascertain if it makes sense to go forward with the regulation as it is," Hartman went on.

Speaking later to ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Tuesday, Valle-Sten Maiste said the issues to be resolved should have been clarified before the reforms noted above, while he also questioned what their overall purpose was, rather than leaning on "some kind of miracle algorithm", while the minister could be portrayed as somehow rescuing the sector with any later funding – an inaccurate picture of the situation, he said.

Meelis Oidsalu meanwhile later told ETV morning show "Terevisioon" that the new, revised funding system was intended to be inclusive, but was implemented too rapidly and without being thought through, in terms of larger state-owned rep theaters compared with smaller, private and sometimes experimental theaters.

"It is always like this, that if the power or the basis of funding changes, then outcry follows; it's like that with every system," he went on.

Despite "drama queens" who had misunderstood the expert committee's role in the funding allocation, the new system is much fairer than its predecessor, which had even led to a court case in respect of the Old Baskin's Theater (Vana Baskini Teater), Oidsalu added.

Meelis Oidsalu. Source: ERR

The culture minister added that the decision to provide additional sums of money to selected theaters followed negotiations held at the ministry building and involving experts and theater managers, and after it had become apparent that some theaters would be seriously in the red in 2023.

Plans to distribute €3.7 million to city and private theaters in 2023 saw this figure revised upwards by €850,000, covered by funding set aside for experimental performance art projects and by the ministry's reserve for extraordinary expenses, in a a roughly 50-50 split.

Twenty-three applications were received, totaling €9,332,422.

Last year, the state granted €3,466,426 to city and private theaters.

Daily Postimees reported Tuesday (link in Estonian) that the expert committee's decision would hit three theaters: Von Krahl, VAT Theater and the Tallinn City Theater.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera', interviewer Johannes Tralla, 'Terevisioon', interviewer Katrin Viirpalu.

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