Performing arts professionals criticize plan to reform funding schemes

The new Endla theatre venue.
The new Endla theatre venue. Source: Tenna Tikka

The Ministry of Culture has proposed a remedy for a new theater funding model that has caused much confusion and has not been well received by the theater sector: both Estonian Theater Union and the Association of Performing Arts Institutions have said that the draft does not promote transparent funding.

Last year, a new law on performing arts was adopted to make the funding of theaters more transparent.

The allocation of funds to theaters on the premise of points based on artistic criteria led to a change in the amounts allocated; for instance, the amount allocated to Tallinn City Theater was significantly reduced.

Critics argued that the idea behind the reform remains unclear: it is impossible to develop a single math-like formula that guarantees fair funding and that the proposed funding system will cause theaters to lose their individuality in an effort to meet ministry-set criteria.

The then-Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE) allocated an additional €855,000 to the theaters in March of this year, while work continued on the new funding model.

The Ministry of Culture submitted an amendment to the Performing Arts Institutions Act that went into effect last autumn, for approval on May 12.

The Ministry of Culture, Estonian Association of Performing Arts Institutions (EETEAL), Estonian Theater Union (Teatriliit), Estonian Dance Council (EDC), Association of Estonian Cities and Municipalities (AECM), and Estonian Union of Small Theaters and Project Theaters (EVPL) were given seven days to reflect on it and give their comments.

Unfortunately, feedback received was negative. The EETEAL and Theater Union have proposed delaying the regulation's implementation and to continue negotiations on a transparent funding model.

Union sees changes as a risk of a 30 percent reduction in funding

The EETEAL criticized the Ministry of Culture for both the short time frame and the content of the document; the first meeting on the document that was distributed on Friday evening, was held on Tuesday morning of the following week.

Content wise, the ministry wants to change the formula used to determine grant thresholds based on the volume of creative work. The union, however, emphasized that the proposed formula would reduce the size of the troupe; however, "there have been additions to the scope of professions on troupes, such as video artists, e.g.," Kristiina Alliksaar, chair of the union's board, said.

She said that the proposed change is a guise for a 30 percent cut in operational subsidies for all Estonian performing arts organizations. This change is fundamental and has far-reaching effects.

The union is also disappointed with the draft's change to the volume of creative work. The previous regulation allowed that the increase in volume had to be less than 20 percent compared to the previous year's volume for the same theater, but the Ministry of Culture wants to set a limit of 5 percent instead. The draft justifies this by citing budgetary restrictions that prohibit the volume increase originally envisioned.

In addition, the Ministry of Culture wants to restrict operational subsidies a theater can receive to no more than 30 percent higher than the previous year, citing a limited budget again. Alliksaar said that neither the change itself nor the specific rate were reasonable.

She said that the changes are contrary to the spirit of the regulation.

According to the proposal, 10 percent of the operating grant budget will be allocated to applicants whose operating grants are reduced compared to the previous year. Alliksaar said that it is unclear whether this signifies a 10 percent reduction in the total amount allocated for the general application round.

All of these modifications stand, in the opinion of the EETEAL, in contrast to the basic idea of the regulation, which is that support is paid based on the volume of activity.

"This proposal will change the grant amounts for 2023 to exclusion of major changes based on real activity levels," Alliksaar said. "The decision to cut the ceiling for private theaters from €900,000 to €630,000 while leaving the ceiling for municipal theaters unchanged is unreasonable and incomprehensible as well," she added.

The draft allows separate calls for applications for municipal and private theaters. Alliksaar said that it remains unclear how the current joint call for applications would be divided. The union also wants a separate round for theaters that have been in operation for more than 10 years, have a troupe and a fixed location.

The union said that the Ministry of Culture's decision to award two-year grants only is similarly unreasonable. It should be up to the theater to determine whether to apply for a one-year or two-year grant; otherwise, a one-year grantee would have to present two years' worth of content to receive funding, the union's leader explained.

The funding scheme cannot be based on pandemic workload

The proposal changes the evaluation method for grant applications by assessing, among other things, the proportion of original contribution among new productions in the last two fiscal years.

Alliksaar said that it is unclear what criteria can be used to determine substantially uninteresting but original works and to determine the share of world classics in the category of originals.

While the law requires a theater applying for an operational grant to have been in operation for at least two years, the union suggested that this term be extended to five years in order to account for the theater's social capital.

In conclusion, the EETEAL said that while the ministry's attempt to rectify past mistakes was commendable, it is unfair to establish a permanent funding scheme based on the reduced workload caused by the pandemic.

Alliksaar summed up the criticism as follows: "While the model created based on flawed baseline data does not reflect reality, the transition to the new funding scheme is justified as theater funding should be more realistic, fair and transparent."

She added that the regulation might also conflict with the coalition agreement to end the separation between culture and the creative industries and to engage the private sector in cultural policy more consciously.

Gert Raudsepp, the leader of the Theater Union, said that the funding model being designed is steadily drifting away from the underlying idea of needs- and volume-based support.

"The Estonian Theater Union supports the proposal of the EETEAL to continue negotiations to develop a transparent funding model," Raudsepp said.

Representatives of the EETEAL will meet the Ministry of Culture on Friday for further discussions on the funding model.

The Estonian Association of Performing Arts Institutions (EETEAL), which has been active since 1991, includes Vanemuine, Estonia, Endla, Ugala, Drama Theater, Independent Dance Stage, Von Krahl Theater, Vaba Lava, Kanuti Gildi Hall, Kuressaare, Ugala, Russian and Rakvere theatres, R.A.A.A.M, Vat Theater, Vana Baskin Theater, Tartu New Theater, Estonian Youth Theater, Tallinn City Theater, Nuutrum Theater, E-Lektron and Estonian Theater Festival.

Estonian Theatre Union is an umbrella organization of the associations of the performing arts sector.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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