New Programme Means better Budgets and Opportunities

AUTHOR / Patricija Maličev

Mateja Lazar on Motovila and Creative Europe Desk Slovenia (CED Slovenia): What they are, and why they are better known abroad than here at home.

Mateja Lazar, originally from Nova Gorica, has been leading the non-governmental organization Motovila and the Creative Europe Desk Slovenia for seven years. On a quasi-personal note, I find it interesting that in recent years I have heard far more about the excellent job the office is doing from abroad than I have at home. The fact that Slovenia has over the past seven years proven to be one of the most successful of the 41 participating countries is no doubt due to the credit of these five women.

Over the past 7 years 135 Slovenian organizations have launched successful tenders, some of them a number of times. In addition to that we have to take into account the organizations and individuals who have received the EU awards. Over the period 2014–2020 those Slovenian organizations that acted as project managers raised 24.3 million EUR for Slovenian culture and film, which adds up to some 3.5 million EUR annually. The tenure of CED Slovenia concludes at the end of the month. The professional support that has proven to be a key factor in Slovenia’s exceptional success in Creative Europe will be available again when the country’s Ministry of Culture appoints the CED Slovenia Centre for the 2021–2027 period, which is expected inside the next few months. The Creative Europe program is an important, even indispensable source of funding for domestic film and culture in general, which helps enable them to exist and develop, and helps open doors to the international cultural arena. All of this is evident from the compelling data that emerges in the course of our conversation with Lazar that follows.

Who and what is Motovila?

Motovila is a non-governmental organization founded in 2013 with the unwieldy name of Centre for the Promotion of Cooperation in the Cultural and Creative Sectors. We don’t usually explain the meaning of our name, but there is a story behind it. Moto because our team is constantly up and running and because we are genuinely interested in making international connections – and the essence of making connections is mobility: not standing still, always on the move. The ‘vila’ part actually means a good fairy. Fairies are graceful, ethereal beings, and what we do is not at all graceful; it is very earthly, so this ‘vila’ part in fact also refers to the farm tool for digging through the garden or other physical work – which is a good metaphor for the effort we put into promoting international networking in culture. We serve our users, and they are representatives of all cultural and creative sectors, no matter where they come from, their legal form, whether they are big or small – and they are interested in international networking, that is, they want to look beyond borders. These borders are primarily geographical, physical, but with the projects they develop they often cross mental borders as well.

For fifteen or twenty years – ever since Slovenia started participating in the EU programs for culture and film – the entire Motovila team has been working in the field of information and support for these sectors, helping them obtain funds from the only EU program in this field, which currently called goes by the name Creative Europe. Eight years ago, the European Commission merged two separate programs – MEDIA Desk for the film industry, and the Cultural Contact Point for all the other cultural and creative sectors – into one. My colleague Sabina Briški Karlić ran the MEDIA Desk at the Slovenian Film Centre at the time, and my colleagues Tanja Kos and Ines Kežman, together with former colleague Maša Ekar and I established the Cultural Contact Point in 2002 within SCCA, Centre for Contemporary Arts – Ljubljana.

The Ministry of Culture, then led by Minister Uroš Grilc, wanted to provide the Slovenian cultural sector with a single entry point for a joint program – the Creative Europe Desk (CED) Slovenia. Although we were working within two different organizations our team was successfully collaborating even before we formally merged. In addition, we were convinced that integrated professional support equally accessible to all sectors could only be developed by an organization that was not primarily set up for just one sector. The Motovila Institute was selected in the Ministry’s call for proposals on the basis of our team’s references. The Creative Europe Desk is part of a network of national information offices that are contact points in the member states available for various European Union programs – they represent a door on which users can knock for relevant information and support in their own language. The system ensures that EU programs are accessible to all users, no matter where they come from.

How are the office’s operations financed?

They’re financed much like projects, only the selection process is different. Projects are selected through calls for proposals by independent international experts, while CED centres are appointed by the national ministries of culture. The activities of the national information office are co-financed by the European Commission on the one hand, and the national ministry of culture on the other, in accordance with the legal basis that determines the way the Creative Europe program will be implemented.
Thus, Motovila was able to carry out the activities of the centre in the 2014–2020 period. The process of appointing the Slovenian centre for the current period is still ongoing, and the Ministry of Culture is selecting an operator through a public tender. Quite a few of the CED centres, which are established in 40 European countries, operate outside ministries – much like ours, e.g. in France, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands. Like Motovila, these organizations have developed specialized professional support in international cooperation in culture over the years, and their appointment isn’t really in question in the face of such demonstrated success. The appointment procedure for an individual programming period doesn’t go through a public tender.

While it’s no secret that Motovila is well recognized in the international arena, you are also concurrently considered to be an example of good practice within the network of national desks and Creative Europe centres, because you have developed your support holistically.

Our mission is less technical than it might seem at first glance. It is true that, in practice, this means that when the call for proposals is published we help the applicant to prepare and submit a project application. But these represent just a few steps on the challenging path of supporting them. We also invest our time, knowledge, and network of contacts, as the saying goes, in small, new organizations, or young people who are still just starting out in their careers. We believe that in a few years we can help them be ready for the international networking that is necessary in today’s contemporary world.
Entering international partnerships that can be upgraded to a successful candidacy in the Creative Europe tenders requires a development plan. This is also a must in the long-term strategy of the organization. Thinking you won’t go beyond your backyard fence doesn’t provide any room or opportunity for development. We are developing integrated support to ensure our users can enter the international arena competently. This support includes specialized professional training for various subsectors, and in various fields, e.g. financial management of international projects, development of audience strategies, new business models or innovative international cooperation models, creative writing for project ideas or, most recently, a workshop for implementers of international artistic residency programs.
Working under one organization is precisely what allowed us to realize that specific sectors are very well versed in certain knowledge that other sectors lack. For example, the film sector in pitching – namely how to effectively, actually inspiringly, but briefly and concisely present your vision of the project. We want to employ cross-sector promotion, the type of knowledge that is perhaps more developed and mastered by a specific sector.

And how successful has Slovenia been in Creative Europe so far?

We are impressed with the results Slovenian organizations have achieved! Over the course of the past 7 years, 135 different organizations from Slovenia have proven successful with their tenders – about 70 percent of non-governmental organizations and 30 percent of public institutions. They have secured EU support for almost 400 international projects implemented by Slovenian project leaders and partners in the fields of film, literature, dance, theatre, music, architecture and design, cultural heritage, visual and intermedia arts, and other creative sectors.
If we opened up the proverbial newspaper today and looked at what is currently happening in arts and culture, we would probably find that one in two organizations does what it does with the support of Creative Europe; and that we probably supported this organization on their path, at least at some point. The organization City of Women paid tribute to women’s achievements with the WoW festival, which is part of the European project Women on Women. Slovenian Book Days take place in Maribor, Ljubljana, Nova Gorica and elsewhere in Slovenia, and many publishers are presenting and offering readers translations of European authors thanks to the support of Creative Europe. The Pivec Publishing House recently organized a gathering with three female European authors who have received the EU Prize for Literature. Then there is Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture with Summer in Šiška, which offers part of their programme as part of the European platform Liveeurope. The platform connects international concert venues that promote European musical talents. The Pazi! Park Association is setting up children’s playgrounds in Slovenia as part of the RE: PLAY project that focuses on cooperation with the Western Balkans region and aims to promote and develop processes of creative design of spaces in a way that includes children’s participation. Trigger, a platform for the international promotion of independent performing arts in Slovenia, recently concluded, as led by Glej Theater in cooperation with Bunker Institute, one of the most successful Slovenian organizations in Creative Europe. At Trigger, Bunker hosted RE-SHAPE project partners who explore contemporary art practices and design more sustainable and inclusive models of international collaboration. In July last year, during Slovenia’s EU presidency, one of the largest international music festivals, Europa Cantat, was held place in Slovenia, organized by the Public Fund for Cultural Activities, also with the support of Creative Europe.
In the autumn we had the 34th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts, organized by the International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC). MGLC is involved in the Perennial Biennial project, which brings together five European biennials of contemporary art from Germany, Latvia, Slovenia, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Radio Slovenia leads a very interesting project called B-AIR, which explores the role of sound in human development from the embryonic phase to the end of life. I recommend listening to the Radio Slovenia show B-AIR Zvočenje on Thursdays where interesting guests, Slovenian and foreign experts, present various topics related to sound. Recently, the first Slovenian Christmas film for children Kapa (The Beanie) directed by Slobodan Maksimović (Senca Studio) wrapped shooting and came to cinemas at the end of the year. It’s a co-production of four countries (Slovenia/Luxembourg/Croatia/Slovakia) supported by the Media sub-program. These are just a few of the most current examples that illustrate the diversity of supported organizations and areas. The list could go on much longer.

So, what’s the key to Slovenia’s success?

This is what our colleagues from the network of CED centres are constantly asking us. They often invite us to present this Slovenian “tiger”. Slovenia certainly stands out in terms of the amount of EU support per capita. In terms of the number of supported Culture projects, for example, we rank incredibly enough at fifth, just behind Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. We are also at the top, in 8th place, in terms of total EU support from the Culture sub-program obtained by Slovenian project managers in the period 2014–2020. And all this from among the full 41 participating countries, including the UK, which was a very successful member of the program – until Brexit!

Some credit also goes to our team, which has gained considerable experience, first within the Media Desk and the Cultural Contact Point and then in Motovila. We are considered one of the most experienced and competent teams within the CED network of centres. Certainly, the network of CEDs itself is a real treasure, a kind of Europe in small scale, where cooperation and the exchange of knowledge and experience are encouraged. Since we don’t act on a political level, but “in the field”, we can be very direct and open, and therefore effective, but at the same time respectful and appreciative of the fact that we are different.
Our colleagues from the CED network certainly believe that the support we provide to the domestic sector has contributed to Slovenia’s outstanding results. Official reports also testify to Slovenia’s exceptional success, e.g. the 2014–2017 Creative Europe implementation report prepared by the international institution KEA for the European Parliament in 2018. But since then, Slovenia has only been even more successful. KEA noted that for the Culture sub-program, the success rate of organizations in Western Europe is much higher than in the Eastern European countries. As a case in point, Romania and the Czech Republic only have 6% and 9% success rates, while in Belgium as much as 37.3% of submitted applications are successful, and the success rates of France and Spain are 24% and 18% respectively. KEA points out that Slovenia, with 27%, is an “unusually interesting” case with one of the best success rates out there.

Have they also looked into the reasons for Slovenia’s success?

No, but the success did make them wonder. In addition to the incredibly proactive and internationally connected sector and the good support of our CED centre, there are certainly other factors. One of them might also be the fact that Slovenia is small. And if you’re small, you have to make connections. What is also incredible is that the Slovenian NGO sector is extremely successful in tenders – as I mentioned, as much as 70% of NGO applications are successful. These organizations were in crisis even before the 2008 financial crisis. The decision to take part in EU tenders was not a choice, but a necessity. Therefore, they have over time gained knowledge and experience and have really become incredibly successful in tenders, which are otherwise becoming more competitive and selective every year. Along with success has come international recognition, and now we have quite a few organizations – we call them returnees – that are constantly involved in European projects. If years ago they were looking for potential partners abroad, today many Slovenian organizations can choose from (too) many offers coming from abroad. They are considered an equal partner and are in a position to choose only the best offers, which in turn makes their projects even more interesting and innovative. It also makes them more successful in their tenders.

Years ago, it was Motovila who, among other things, served as a role model for our colleagues in Bosnia and Herzegovina when they were opening their centre …

That’s right. Establishing a functional and efficient Creative Europe Centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a challenge. In 2015 we were presenting various possibilities for the operation of the centre in Sarajevo to colleagues from the region. The Slovenian model, which is successful and operates outside the ministry, was also useful for the complex situation in Bosnia, where the CED centre first operated within various ministries. That same year the CED BIH centre was established and supported by two independent organizations – Akcija from Sarajevo for the Culture subprogramme, and Vizart from Banja Luka for the Media subprogram.

In general, all our colleagues in the CED network mentor each other, so we were happy to share our experience and support our colleagues who were setting up new CED centres. When the Eastern Partnership countries – Georgia, Armenia, and Ukraine – began joining the Creative Europe program colleagues took a good look at the existing centres and actually recognized Slovenia as an example of good practice. We helped our colleagues in Armenia with their first steps, and it was an immense honour for me to be invited to the official opening of the Armenian centre in Yerevan, where I had the opportunity to present Slovenia’s incredible success story. Slovenia’s success is encouraging for countries where the cultural sector may face even greater challenges. For them, Slovenia is proof that it is possible to be very successful, even among the bigger countries.
At the same time these connections between the centres create additional opportunities for networking in our sector. Because we enjoy good cooperation with our colleagues from all over Europe, we are only one call away from the right partner our producers or organization representatives are looking for. I know that I can call a highly competent colleague in Yerevan, who will immediately find three different partners with whom our interested organization could connect.

Sometimes it seems to us that the awareness of Slovenia’s incredible success in Creative Europe is higher in Brussels and abroad, so we’re very eager to really promote this success at home, too. In the past seven years, Slovenian project managers alone have received more than 24 million EUR in EU support for international projects, which is approximately 3.5 million EUR annually for Slovenian culture and film. This may not seem much to some, but if we, for example, compare these amounts with the annual budget of the Slovenian Film Centre, it is immediately clear how important a source this is.
On the other hand, when compared to other countries, it is a phenomenal success. Let me give you an example: within the framework of the Culture scheme, which is intended to promote the translation and circulation of quality European literature, Slovenian publishing houses have acquired as much as 10 percent of all the money available during the past seven years! Let’s not forget that 40 countries are participating in the program. Or, say, within a special scheme for European platforms, such as Liveeurope that we already mentioned, in which Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture participates. There are a good dozen such platforms for the promotion of young or not yet established artists in various fields across Europe. As many as two of them have a leader from Slovenia: MAO with the architecture platform Future Architecture, and Beletrina with the poetry platform Versopolis. These are objective indicators that Slovenia has achieved above-average success.

And personally, I’m really impressed by the fact that this sector has created an incredible 1,070 international connections with 40 countries in the seven years under the Culture subprogram alone. These are Slovenia’s real cultural ambassadors!

However, some years ago the media here was pointing out how inefficient Slovenia is in its absorption[securing?] of EU funds.

This was happening because everyone was lumping different EU funding mechanisms together. Creative Europe is a centralized transnational program and doesn’t operate in the same way the Structural and Cohesion Funds does, where Slovenia sets the priorities according to which funds will be drawn. The Creative Europe budget is not pre-divided into shares that would belong to an individual country. Quality projects compete with each other, regardless of where the participating organizations come from.
What I want to emphasize is that in our case, Slovenia draws above average, but of course these funds are – compared with other programmes or financial mechanisms – the way they are because this is in fact one of the smaller EU programs. For comparison, everyone is familiar with the Erasmus+ programme, while Creative Europe is about a tenth that size.
But we are entering the new seven-year period with optimism. We now know that Slovenian culture and film are extremely competitive in these tenders. And there are significantly more funds available for these tenders than ever before. The new Creative Europe budget has grown by more than 60% – from 1.5 billion euros for the previous period to 2.4 billion for the 2021–2027 period.
We are looking forward to new opportunities and new connections, but at the same time we are aware that this sector will also need more support at home in order to maintain such a level of performance. In our case the EU support is always just co-financing. Every organization that decides to participate in Creative Europe must therefore, independently or together with partners or co-producers, put a lot of effort into providing the missing funds. In the new period the proportion of missing funding is lower than before, but still averages 30–40%.

And the Ministry of Culture helps out with that?

Certainly. The Ministry of Culture is the first address. But we still have, depending on the sector or project, the Slovenian Book Agency, the Slovenian Film Centre, and municipalities. The budgets municipalities spend on culture or perhaps even international cultural cooperation are, of course, incomparable. And organizations based in smaller municipalities are certainly at a disadvantage. However, it is encouraging to know that some municipalities are introducing mechanisms for co-financing projects that have obtained EU support, e.g. the City Municipality of Ljubljana. We hope that a similar mechanism will soon be established by other municipalities that would like to promote the international networking of its actors in the field of culture.
To sum up the words of my colleague, Ines Kežman: for our team, the tendering period is similar to that of the European Football Championship – training, training, and more training, followed by cheering, and then finally sincere joy and feeling thrilled at the best team’s winning, as well as the shedding of some tears together with those who failed this time around.
In addition to financial support, the “service” support offered by, for example, our institute is also important. That is to say, that those embarking on the path of European networking have free access to the networking opportunities, information, and expertise they will need at different project stages: when formulating a project idea, applying for a call for proposals, or implementing a project. We are grateful that the Ministry of Culture has provided such support in the last (most recent) period by funding the operation of the Creative Europe Desk. At the same time, the Ministry of Culture established a special mechanism for co-financing projects under the then Culture Programme in 2006, and since 2014 this mechanism has been available to recipients of support from both Creative Europe subprograms – Culture and Media.
All organizations with EU support can therefore apply for the small but automatic support of the ministry. We believe that such a mechanism, despite limited co-financing, has an extremely positive and encouraging effect on “newcomers” as well; it makes it easier for them to decide on their first tender application. Given the success rates, we would like to see more support at home as well. I don’t like the phrase “multiplier effect”, but this scheme, which amounts to around 100,000 euros a year for all successful Slovenian organizations, is probably very effective.
The Ministry of Public Administration certainly made a major contribution to the Slovenian NGO sector’s ability to compete independently and successfully in EU tenders. In 2018, they introduced an annual public call for co-financing NGO projects selected in tenders co-financed from the EU budget – so not just from Creative Europe. However, it’s a fact that the cultural sector, due to its great success, represents a large share of eligible organizations. This support, which largely co-finances the Slovenian organizations’ own contribution, has further increased the sector’s interest and determination to participate in EU programs.

How did the Creative Europe Desk operate during the epidemic?

We were constantly in contact with the implementers of European projects. Last spring, immediately after all the closures we conducted a small survey to obtain feedback on the difficulties they were facing in implementing these international projects under the significantly changed circumstances. National borders were closed, even municipal borders were closed. International mobility was severely disrupted.
We were glad that in just a few days more than 40 Slovenian organizations supported by Creative Europe responded and provided information on projects implementation. They faced many problems, and at the time they were already concerned about cash flow. They also proposed measures that, in their opinion, would most effectively contribute to the successful implementation of projects, namely the ability to adjust activities and budgets, to extend the duration of projects, to speed up tendering procedures, etc. We also regularly informed our partners in the European Commission and the Executive Agency in Brussels about the problems the project implementers faced.

What is an executive agency?

It is the agency that carries out most of the Creative Europe and other EU program tenders on behalf of the European Commission. Fortunately, the European Commission and the executive agency responded quickly and adjusted the requirements for project implementation. It was allowed to transfer activities online, freeze the implementation of the project for a certain period of time, and extend the duration of the project, etc. Flexibility on the part of the financier was welcome. Our experience at the time was such that the European Commission responded very quickly; they recognized the crisis in the sector.
We find this kind of bridging role between decision-makers and the sector important. We represent an interface and are in contact with both sides; or rather we are trying to build a bridge between producers and organizations in art and culture on the one side, and policy makers on the other. Our aim is to provide the latter with verified information from the field and to inform them about the challenges different sectors must contend with in order to adapt support mechanisms according to needs. This can further promote international integration and of course – as it is often said – the effective absorption of EU funds.

What is Motovila’s vision for the future?

The new Creative Europe 2021–2027 program, as we talked about earlier, has a substantially bigger budget and thus affords even more opportunities. At the same time we are concerned about the consequences of the Covid crisis, which will further weaken the capacity of the Slovenian sector. The undernourished sector cannot enter European projects because they are too demanding, and to do so would in fact be irresponsible and endanger partners or co-producers. We have already seen unrealized projects and organizations that have gone bankrupt – and we don’t want to see such situations. At the same time, we are aware that Slovenia has already reached and exceeded the dream upper limit of success, so the thought of gaining even more is really irrational. In principle, 40 countries participate in the program and it is unrealistic to expect that Slovenia would receive 10 percent of the available funds for each scheme. However, the domestic sector has shown that this is also possible – which is really incredible. We hope that the sector will be able to maintain this level in the future.
We didn’t really highlight the film sector because we usually do the interviews in tandem with my colleague Sabina Briški Karlić, who is currently on maternity leave. The year 2020, which was catastrophic for the domestic film sector, was the year Slovenian film producers alone managed to draw as much EU support as the entire film sector did from all media tenders in previous years. And even with the support of the Media program, co-financing at home is essential.
We are hoping that back home Slovenian film and culture will have the conditions that will allow them to enter the international arena with confidence. At the same time, of course, we are hoping that they will continue to enjoy the support of a competent CED centre. Now that the first calls for new programs have been published we are concerned about a possible gap in the centre’s operations. Our team believes in our professional competencies, and the sector together with its partners – at home as well as abroad – also acknowledge our work and support us broadly. So we hope that users will not feel the lack of our support during these months. In fact, we are already designing new activities designed to encourage individual international mobility to Slovenia, and complete our support activities with a mobility information point to help cultural creators and professionals overcome administrative barriers related to temporary work abroad.
In any case, we have a demanding tendering period ahead of us. Due to the delay in adopting the legal basis necessary for the implementation of the new program, most tenders published at the moment have really short deadlines over the summer period.

This article was originally published in Delo in June 2021.