Aida Kalender founded AKCIJA Sarajevo with some friends in 1998. Akcija means “action” in Bosnian, and they began by organising large cultural music events for young people after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This article is a result of an interview made in March 2023. I hope you enjoy reading Aida's fascinating tale as much as I enjoyed hearing it.
On financial sustainability of non-profits and government support for museums
The large cultural institutions in Bosnia had collapsed during the war, and smaller and more flexible independent initiatives seemed to work well in the late 90s. There were many non-profits in the cultural sector in Bosnia during those early years after the war and there was significant international aid and donations as culture was recognised as a strong vehicle for youth reconciliation, peace building, and democracy.
However, international funding never lasts forever and around the year 2000, there were other fresher conflict zones around the world and international foundations withdrew their financial aid.
Once these international actors were gone, the funding dried up. The withdrawal of international foundations created a huge funding gap which many non-profit organisations could not survive.
Professionalisation of non-profits and leverage of civic support
In this context, AKCIJA Sarajevo began to look to find its new place in this new social context through the profesionalization of the sector by bringing in new skills in communications, management, cultural management, and policy.
The group identified laws in Bosnia and tried to engage with them through stakeholders from the cultural sector and mobilisation of citizens. They started organising a network of cultural staff and independent operators. This provided a platform for discussion about problems such as arts funding and gave them a collective voice.
“We did some initial research in the form of interviews with the people from the cultural sector, both from the institutional sector and from non-profits, to see what the biggest problems were, the obstacles and needs of the sector at that moment. Based on these interviews, we created a list of crucial issues in the cultural sector.”
One of the biggest issues was the lack of a Ministry of Culture at the state level. The lack of top-tier organisation created problems even for the largest national cultural institutions, among them The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was closed from 2012-2015 due to lack of structural funding. You may see some of the international coverage of this event from October 3rd, 2012 in The Guardian.
The Museum had attempted to make a symbolic stand by locking the doors and placing bars on it thinking it would encourage a reaction from political bodies or society, but no one reacted.
The importance of cultural policies and media exposure - communication is everything
In 2015, AKCIJA visited the Museum by invitation of one of the employees. The general media had reported that the employees were unprofessional and lazy and did not know how to run the organisation. What Aida found in the Museum was shocking.
There were about 45 employees coming to work every day and guarding the collections. The Museum didn’t have electricity or alarm systems anymore. The staff realised they were alone. They organised themselves into 8-hour shifts to guard the Museum. They had been doing this for 3 years with no salary, health insurance or any kind of benefit.
AKCIJA realised this story needed to be shared publicly. They called in a friend who was a professional photographer to create portraits of the museum’s employees and Aida ran a series of small interviews.
AKCIJA used this material as the basis for a public campaign/exhibition with video clips and photos of the staff called I am Museum. They invited citizens and cultural organisations to the opening of their exhibition and to participate in the guarding shifts as an act of solidarity with the employees.
The success was unprecedented. Citizens and personalities of the cultural sector showed up, hundreds of them every day to support the Museum. Some of them brought equipment to donate. Professors from the universities gave free lectures. Cultural organisations organised programs free of charge such as film nights, concerts and debates. Then the celebrities showed up, and with them, the media. The pressure on the political elites increased.
After 45 days of strong media coverage and social media marketing with images of citizens coming to support the Museum, politicians agreed to find the money to backpay the employee wages and re-open the Museum in September 2015.
Several months later, AKCIJA won the Europa Nostra award, and the Museum expanded its international connections with large European and American museums abroad.
Culture as a medium for Activation and Integration
You would think this is the happy ending to the story. The non-profit organised civil society and saved the big Museum. Unfortunately, this is not the end.
The small AKCIJA team worked for over a year to make this project happen, but once the battle had been won, a new gap appeared. The work and power dynamic in the official public sector for culture was not the same as the non-profit sector.
The old balance of power relationships were re-established. You’re not part of the institution? Then you’re not part of the team. Thank you. We don’t really need you now. Goodbye. Business as usual now.
What had seemed the beginning of a seed for public and civic collaboration, a partnership between State and non-profit art organisations, a model for sustainability, was gone.
“I saw this as a kind of public-civic collaboration, partnership, which could also be a model for sustainability for the non-profit sector because we basically share the same mission. We see culture as a public good. The state cultural institutions such as the Museum are also non-profit. They are a public organisation, and we are an independent organisation, but we are not commercial. I was thinking, okay, maybe we have the same mission. We can work together. We can share some resources. Maybe they have space we don’t have. We have other skills that can be of help. For example, the Museum didn’t have a website. We found the money to build them the website. Somehow, this collaboration didn’t work long after the Museum's opening, unfortunately…”
Aida feels there was a kind of prejudice on the side of the public cultural sector that people who work in non-profits are not professional and are nonconventional. It opened up a lot of new questions.
How do you work in a country with no core funding for non-profit organisations in the arts? Basically, you live project to project. You find things that are interesting and worth pursuing, but it means you have to switch gears every two or five years.
“Once you are in this sector, it really becomes a part of your life. In countries like the Netherlands, you have four years of funding for non-profit art organisations. This doesn’t exist in Bosnia, but it would be very important to start changing the cultural policies systematically. It means introducing new policy models of funding. To do that, we’d need a strong coalition again, a very good campaign, a lot of media support. I’m still trying to recharge and generate some energy to maybe return and start some projects again.”
The Sysyphus challenge
“It’s really like ups and downs. You have some ups, you get some funding, you create great results, great amazing things. You get some awards, but then everything goes down.”
There is no ending to this story. Yet. Aida is recharging and hopes to begin again in the future.
But how are you supposed to build upon previous results? Aida feels like the current model’s problem is that, in many ways, you are always at the beginning. As soon as one project finishes, you are at the beginning again. There is no recognition or evaluation of your work. It matters little if your non-profit was founded yesterday or if it’s been around for 25 years, like AKCIJA - everyone is in the same pool competing for the same funding.
“Maybe we need a non-profit sector for culture with wider recognition by the cultural sector in general. We need to recognise that you can be independent, non-governmental and still be professional and talented. You don’t need to work within the framework of the public institutions - which can limit you in many ways.”
Final thoughts on cultural non-profits outside the public institution
Personally, I found some interesting differences with my experience in Latin America. Although both Peru and Bosnia had come out of more controlling political histories in the past years, the role of the State in both and the perceptions of the public are completely different.
While Bosnian society seems to expect strong services from its civil servants and is more likely to judge professionals in the private non-profit sector as less capable, the opposite has always struck me to be true in Peru. State institutions there are organisationally weak and the general impression of civil servants is that they are either lazy or mediocre or both - the kind of people who wouldn’t be able to get a job in the private sector because they’re not competent or hard-working enough.
Both of these views are generalisations, of course, but it was interesting to note that they were seemingly born from the local political structure. I would expect neither is quite the case for other countries, so I can’t speak for them - so please do share your thoughts and impressions on how cultural non-profits fit in the cultural sector of your area of the world.
Can we draw more parallels? Are we more similar than we thought at first glance? Or are we very different still? Are there any strategies we could share across borders to try to change cultural policies or are we all doomed to push the Sysyphus rock forever?
I would like to thank Aida Kalender for her time and her honest insights into the world of cultural non-profits in Bosnia during the early turn of this new century. I write this article in the hopes that Aida’s shared experience will help us in some way or another. Are you interested in collaborating with her? Let me know!
This article is part of the Founders in Heritage series. Read about the experiences of other founders and entrepreneurs in the heritage world through the links in the main blog.
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