In the last few years, we have witnessed a shift in approaches to artistic labour in Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia: instead of tackling the issue through artistic and curatorial projects, voices that advocate long-term organizing among artists and the whole army of workers in culture have grown louder and more politically articulated. Cultural work is, of course, a global issue, but initiatives towards an organized struggle in these countries exhibit many similarities.
Ana Kutleša is an art historian, researcher and curator. She is a member of the curatorial collective [BLOK], which operates (not only) in Zagreb at the intersection between art, activism, and urban studies.
For one, all those countries share the socialist legacy, and with it the institution of so-called “artistic status” or status of independent artist. Established in socialist Yugoslavia, the status provides for its holders a range of social benefits (health insurance, a pension, and other rights otherwise linked to permanent employment) from the public budget. That said, there are several issues arising around this status: its exclusiveness, the criteria of selection and evaluation of the holders, the ways in which countries define the basis for the amount being paid, and more.
Under the pressure of free-market ideology, a tendency has emerged to transform the institution in different ways. Since in most cases this means that benefits for artists are diminished or the number of artists entitled to the status is reduced, it could potentially create a critical mass of unsatisfied art workers ready to organize in a new way.
In that sense, the case of the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS), whose role, among others, is to manage this artistic status, is especially important. The over one-hundred-years-old association has limited finances and finds itself in a complicated legal situation regarding the administration of the artistic status, which comes down to the fact that the state has failed to cover the cost of social benefits for artists for years.
In 2019, a newly elected executive board managed to put pressure on governmental bodies to force them to pay for said benefits. They initiated a long and complex processes of turning the association into a politicized and solidary platform whose aim is to organize their members in the struggle for better working conditions, but also to participate in connected struggles and debates going on in the broader field of cultural production. During the coronavirus pandemic crisis in 2020, ULUS managed to establish solidary funds for all the artists suffering from precarity and indebtedness, and launched working groups geared towards several types of union organizing.
In Croatia, a similar association called the Croatian Freelance Artists’ Association (HZSU) also showed signs of activity: they reacted to the announced restrictions on artistic status, but, unlike their colleagues from Serbia, they grounded their arguments in the notion of copyright, focusing on the product, i.e. the art work itself, as something that needs to be remunerated, rather than the labour itself. Therefore, it is no wonder that they failed to link the problem of underpaid artists with the exploitation of all those whose work is not authorial, but who keep the system running, as well as failed to tackle the fact that a lot of the work of an artist is of such a “non-authorial” kind.
The broad field of un- and underpaid and precarious work in the cultural sphere, within which many types of work regularly remain invisible, was recognized as a battleground by the Croatian non-profit organization BLOK. In 2019 the group launched the initiative “Enough with the Cuts!” in response to the results of an open call for public cultural programs from the Ministry of Culture. Cultural workers gathered around the initiative insisted that their protest was not (only) about the current cuts, but a critique of Croatian cultural polices as a whole, which continue to push culture into the market. Improving working conditions for all cultural workers were recognized as the key issue, around which activists from the initiative formed the platform “For Bread” (Za KRUH). They are currently working on a “Fair Pay Protocol” (FPP), a document which would define the conditions of work, to be followed by price lists for different areas of artistic production.
One such price list was presented in October 2021 by the Zagreb-based Croatian Screenwriters’ and Playwrights Guild’ (SPID), some of whose members are also holders of artistic status. This document is much more than a list of figures: it explains the complexities of certain jobs, provides information about the legal framework, and highlights guidelines for future struggles in specific branches. The question of how FPP and price lists could be implemented is of crucial importance and could lead, based on the current debates of Za K.R.U.H., SPID, and other activists, to first steps in unionizing cultural production.
That said, successful unionization requires the readiness of a critical mass of workers to openly oppose to their job providers. Creating a union without this could lead to burnout among the union workers themselves as a result of inefficient, yet demanding work without financial autonomy. Katja Praznik, author of the study Art Work — Invisible Labour and the Legacy of Yugoslav Socialism, recently launched the initiative Cultural Work Inspection (Kulturna inšpekcija dela) in Slovenia with the aim of gathering cases of exploitation among cultural workers. She recently shared her experience in an interview, stating that cultural workers reach out to her, but are unwilling to speak publicly about their cases.
At the same time, the Slovenian network Association (Asocijacia), which gathers non-profits and self-employed workers in culture, engages in a broad range of activities, from counselling to advocacy and even protesting, but without a coherent discourse around the question of working conditions, still resorting to ideas of connecting culture and commercial sector and promoting social dialogue rather than combative unionism.
Whether these grassroots initiatives and the exceptional cases of ULUS and SPID will push other socialist-era associations that unite artistic status holders and self-employed artists towards class struggle remains to be seen. Bearing in mind the fact that their members do not necessarily share similar class positions, the future remains unpredictable. Accordingly, for Serbian, Croatian, or Slovenian art workers, it is equally important to look for examples of progressive organizing in the cultural sphere elsewhere as it is to nurture fraternal relations across their countries.