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A rebuke of the New York Times article titled ”A populist leader kicks off a culture war in museums”

As a response to the article posted by the New York Times on 27th of January, titled ”A populist leader kicks off a culture war in museums”, we are posting the full correspondence between the Ministry of Culture and the New York Times reporter, Mr. Alex Marshall.

The Ministry believes the article omits crucial information provided to the reporter, which would render the bizarre notion of a so called ”culture war” null and void. We feel obligated to present the point of view of the Ministry in an unedited and uncensored form, clarifying all the facts and intricate legal specifics of topics raised by the reporter and well as country-specific minutiae that will give the readers of New York Times, as well as public at large a better understanding of the Government actions. The Ministry is convinced that only a full disclosure of all communication between two parties will offer a complete picture on the matter.

From: Alex Marshall <[email protected]>
Sent: Monday, January 18, 2021 11:08 AM
To: MK PR <[email protected]>
Subject: re: New York Times / Vasko Simoniti interview request

Hello

I’m a journalist with the New York Times in London writing a story about all the changes that have been happening in Slovenian cultural life over the past year with the new heads of museums, the planned museum of Slovene independence and so on.
You’ll be aware there’s been a lot of complaints around it, with some people saying it’s an attempt to move Slovenian culture in a more patriotic and conservative direction. 

I’ve read a lot of press releases from you about these issues, but we’d really like to speak with Minister Simoniti: why he’s making the changes, what he wants to achieve, whether there is anything wrong with making culture more patriotic and what he feels of the complaints. 

Would that be possible? We intend to run the story on Friday, so it would need to be on Thursday latest.

I tried Prime Minister Jansa’s office too, but they told me it was best speaking with you.

I hope something is possible and to hear from you soon.
Thank you for your time.
Yours sincerely,

Alex

Alex Marshall

Culture reporter (Europe)

On Wed, Jan 20, 2021 at 8:51 AM Mitja Iršič <[email protected]> wrote:

Dear Mr. Marshall!

Thank you for your questions. You claim that there has been »a lot of complaints« regarding the establishment of a new Museum of Slovenian Independence. We have not heard of any complaints outside of politically driven speech from the left-wing opposition parties and the political activists allied to them, that try to present the museum not as a move to a »more patriotic and conservative direction« as you say, but rather equate it with blatant, radical nationalism, which is a huge insult to Slovenian citizens and a polar opposite of values connected with our independence.

National independence is the ultimate representation of freedom to most Slovenians. It is not an ideology and in general has absolutely nothing to do with conservativism, nor nationalism. Independence was a project of all Slovenian citizens (not just ethnic Slovenians!), who have decided by an overwhelming majority to live in a free, democratic society during the 1990 Slovenian independence referendum.  This event is the only one in history that properly united all Slovenian citizens under a common umbrella of ideas – pro Europeanism, pro-capitalism and pro-liberalism. 

Many Eastern and Central European countries that broke the shackles of communist oppression, have a museum dedicated to those fateful times in a nation’s history.  Croatia has its Homeland war museum, Poland has its own Independence museum, Latvia has the Museum of the occupation of Latvia, Lithuania has the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights etc. All of these are dealing with the same topic of transition from being a part of a socialist international super-state to a modern democratic European country.

Technically speaking the museum will be part of the celebration commemorating the 30th anniversary of Slovenian independence. It will be subject to international standards and curated by professional historians with no political affiliations, to ensure proper representation of Slovenia’s struggle for freedom.

What we want to achieve with it, is rather self-evident. The question itself is rather peculiar. What did the United States want to achieve with the American Independence Museum, which is directly sponsored by the federal government? What does the city of Washington DC want to achieve by making the famous National Mall which is a pilgrimage to the Republic, its founding fathers and prominent statesmen? We believe that – just like the forthcoming museum of Slovenian Independence – the ideas behind these institutions are clear: a celebration of freedom, a celebration of individualism and even more so – a celebration of humanity.

Sincerely,

Mitja Iršič,

Public relations officer     
Maistrova ulica 10, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenija

On behalf of dr. Vasko Simoniti, the Minster of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia.

From: Alex Marshall <[email protected]>
Sent: Wednesday, January 20, 2021 12:08 PM
To: Mitja Iršič <[email protected]>
Subject: Re: New York Times / Vasko Simoniti interview request

Dear Mitja

I really appreciate the detailed and quick response, but it seems to have slightly misunderstood my email and implied everything I was asking about was the museum of independence. I apologise if that was my fault, and my message wasn’t clear. What I was asking about were the whole moves in the cultural field:

– Since taking office, Mr. Simoniti has replaced the heads of numerous museums including the National Museum, the Modern Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary History and so on. In some cases, he’s changed the rules governing those museums to aid making changes.

– He’s also tried to move cultural organizations out of Metelkova 6

– He’s reviewed the list of artists who qualify for special status (such as with the case of Zlatko)

– And he’s classified one artist protested – the case with bloody chairs outside the ministry – as a death threat when a, not very good artistic statement on the ministry having  “blood on its hands” seems a more obvious interpretation

The article is looking at all those changes as a whole including the independence museum project.

What I’d like to ask is, by making all those changes, what is the culture ministry hoping to achieve? Many of the former heads of the museums, and others in the cultural field, have said to me the government is trying to control the sector, so reorganise Slovenia’s institutions in a more conservative and patriotic direction and they say it’s a bad thing, and trying to end exhibitions that might be critical of the government or engage with social and political issues.

They compare what’s happening to events in Poland and Hungary in recent years where the government’s acted to control cultural institutions. Is that the case or what is your response to that?

I appreciate this is asking more questions, but would the minister be able to give me answers? I’d appreciate it if so, as we obviously want to include his views.

Thank you again,

Alex

On Thu, Jan 21, 2021 at 3:12 PM Mitja Iršič <[email protected]> wrote:

Dear Mr. Marshall!

You have only been privy to one side of story. The truth is – like everything in life – rather nuanced and complex. We do hope you will listen to our explanations and make your own mind on how the matters stand. The questions you are asking are very familiar to us, and – just like questions about the Museum of independence – stem from leftist frontiers of Slovenian politics and NGOs connected to it. We have explained these questions to the Slovenian public in great detail, only for them to reemerge in basically the same form from foreign media and academics  – who are of course not aware, that these matters have been – legally, politically and operationally – cleared up in Slovenia.

Regarding new appointments of public institutions such as museums, galleries etc, the Government is thoroughly committed to following due process and pays utmost attention to rules and regulations that govern appointments of the directors of public institutions. A public competition has been carried out for each appointment, with strict standards and rules governing who can apply for the position. After the Selection board of the Ministry of Culture has suggested the most appropriate candidates (based on competency) to the Minister, he has always diligently followed its proposal. The Minister steadfastly preferred the candidate which was objectively found to be the best on merit. However, when it comes to appointments of directors of public institutions, the law states that the selection of candidates selected by the Selection board must always be sent to Councils of the public institutions, which are eligible to give their opinion on which candidate is more suited for the function. Due to sheer number of years left-wing coalitions have been in power, those councils have always been selected by left governments, so they tend to negate the Minister’s preferences (which is, as a rule always the top candidate in the selection process) and give their opinion that another candidate  is more suitable – usually the current directors or a candidate aligned by left-wing centers of power. The government is not trying to undermine the professionalism of such Councils; however, it is important to note that they have been indeed nominated politically and their role as an independent consulting institution is at best doubtful. Another thing to stress is that the Minister of Culture in not bound by their opinions. Their role is purely advisory. This is due process in Slovenia, and it has been the same for three decades. In fact – when the Minister uses his power of discretion it is exactly a tool which eliminates the potentially politically biased opinions of the Councils of the public institutions.

The system is inherently political, since the Councils themselves are appointed politically, yet the left-wing governments never took issues with it in the past.  Accusations of political interference only surface once a right-wing government is in power and never during a quarter of a century when left-wing governments have governed. The Minister’s reliance on due process of picking the best candidates is the only line of defense against a politically appointed apparatus. 

The new appointments of various directors have been slandered in public by the left-wing media and leftist academia alike. Accusations have been made that candidates are professionally incompetent; some even go so far to call them apparatchiks and SDS (Slovene democratic party) shills. This is an enormous insult to these prominent candidates, who came through the selection process with all the required competencies required for the position. These are highly regarded experts in the field, known both domestically and internationally, yet they do not fit into the inner circle of political candidates appointed to these positions in the past.

Now let’s tackle the case of the so called “forceful eviction” of NGOs in Metelkova 6. The Metelkova 6 building in Ljubljana is property of the Ministry of culture of the Republic of Slovenia. It is part of an old Yugoslavian army complex. All the other buildings that belong to the complex were already renovated and turned into state-of-the-art museums. The Metelkova 6 building is the only one left unrenovated and neglected. It is a building from the 19th century, with no substantial maintenance done. As such it is structurally unsound and dangerous for its residents as well as passers-by. The plan to renovate the building and turn it into a museum is decades old. In fact, the last two ministers of culture (both belonging to Social democrats, who are now part of the opposition) both started official proceedings to evict NGOs to make the place for the natural history museum. When the NGOs populated the ex-army building in 1997 was always going to be a temporary solution. The position of the Ministry of culture (whether lead by left or right leaning ministers) has always been, that the Ministry will sooner or later use the buildings for one of its own public institutions (museums, galleries, libraries etc). These premises are not their headquarters but merely their offices. Nor do they have any legal claim to keep occupying the building. In fact, the ministry of culture has been getting exasperated emails from other NGOs and similar associations asking why the current inhabitants of a building in an elite part of Ljubljana are privileged to reside there. Some of the NGOs in the building have nothing to do with the cultural sector even though the building was originally meant as a temporary center for NGOs in the cultural sector.

Not to mention some tenants sublet their spaces to other organizations without the consent of the Ministry. It’s also extremely dishonest to claim that the NGOs are being thrown out of the building “during the coronavirus crisis”. This is in fact not the case. The Ministry merely sent a proposal for an amicable termination. If a consensual agreement cannot be reached the tenants still have a full year to move elsewhere. The decision for this move was decided years ago, and the current administration just followed up on the actions of the previous ones. The fact that the proposal was sent during the coronavirus crisis is merely a coincidence, which in any case is irrelevant since the NGOs are NOT being asked to move out at once.  However the reality is that NGOs have always known this was a temporary solution, and the fact that they were able to stay in the building for 23 years has more to do with the fact, that previous administrations never found enough funds to renovate the building and hand it over to one of its own public institutions.

The building is 100% owned by the Ministry of culture. There is no legal dilemma. The Ministry of culture carries complete holder’s rights to renovate it and give it to one of its institutions – namely the Natural history museum, which for now has no place to store its priceless collection of artifacts. It is true that renovations will only start in 2023, but the building is not stable or safe to inhabit. In fact, the professional commission contracted by the previous government found out that heavy structural reinforcements will have to be made, to make it earthquake-proof. Pieces of roof tiles have already fallen off the building and only due to good fortune no innocent passersby were hurt.

Metelkova offices which NGOs have been using cost-free for two decades are not crucial to their existence nor are they a god given or a constitutional right. There are hundreds of NGOs in Slovenia, which do NOT have such privileges, nor are they privy to millions of taxpayer euros, like the NGOs in question, which all belong to the elite, well-organized institutions with ample funding and strong personal and institutional networks. However, due to the uniquely powerful position they hold in the Slovenian society, that they have started to treat these privileges as inalienable.

The Minister of culture is well used to political activism, and he would never make an issues around bloody tables in front of the Ministry, if those tables only carried the name of him and the Secretary of state, since they are both are politicians. He raised an issue, because those bloody tables carried names of regular employees who had nothing to do with politics. He was merely trying to protect his workers, after they have expressed fear of going to work and anxiety in their private life. The bloody tables exposition was just the tip of the iceberg. These kind of “performance art” takes have been happening since last spring, and they are getting ever more so violent, with performers blocking the streets, putting names of regular bureaucrats on windows, a month ago they even completely ruined the outer walls of the building with black ink, causing major damage, worth several thousand euros. The hysteria, mainly fueled by opposition political parties as a form of political struggle, has become unbearable. The bloody tables were nothing compared to the onslaught of hate-mail following that “exhibition”. The Minister as well as his secretary of state received threatening E-mails informing them that this was only the beginning of “the resistance” and that the protestors are willing to go “all the way”. Minister’s house was attacked several times with black ink and graffiti portraying his severed head. These kinds of attacks have been ongoing for months.

Attacks like this are being executed strictly by a very narrow group of people, who are politically motivated, since regular run-of-the-mill artists really have nothing to complain about. The current government and indeed Ministry have offered enormous support to the culture and arts in Slovenia. Every self-employed artist was eligible to 1750 euros in three months as well a total write-off of all wage taxes. All self-employed artists are also privy to emergency 1100 euros per month from October onwards (when the second wave of the epidemic started) until the end of the epidemic (i.e.at least till April). The number of self-employed in the culture has risen during the epidemic by more than 100, with funds for them rising from 9.5 million to 10 million euros.

All NGOs had their programs financed, even though they never executed them during the corona crisis. The 2021 budget of the Ministry of culture was increased by 46.3 million euros, to a record-breaking 2.2% of GNP. Claiming that the Ministry or the Government is trying to hush critical voices is a slap in the face of all hard-working public servants who gave their heart and soul to help the cultural sector survive through these difficult times. In fact, the current administration is only the second one in history, which succeeded to ensure +2% of the GNP dedicated to culture – the first one to do so was the 2004-2008 administration lead by the same minister – dr. Vasko Simoniti.

The Minister of culture is always open to discussions. With documents and facts, not with slander and what could – paraphrasing Justice Peter Mahon – only be described as an orchestrated litany of lie, which is how the topic has been discussed thus far. We believe it is of paramount importance that the press (foreign and domestic) understands the intricate details of Slovenian politics, social dynamics and culture, rather than succumbing to one-sided activism of wealthy politically motivated institutions with hefty international ties.

To sum it up, there is no conspiracy of the right-wing government, nor a push to the conservative values in culture. Freedom of expression is sacred to any government which adheres to libertarian principles. In fact – the current Slovenian coalition is not homogenous like coalitions we had for the last seven years (which all consisted of left leaning parties). The coalition governed by prime minister Janša is an amalgamation of two right and two left leaning parties, both of which have a very favorable attitude towards NGOs. It is in fact the first politically heterogenous coalition of this sort in Slovenia since 2013.

Kind regards,

Mitja Iršič

Public relations officer

From: Alex Marshall <[email protected]>
Sent: Monday, January 25, 2021 11:48 AM
To: Mitja Iršič <[email protected]>
Subject: Re: New York Times / Vasko Simoniti interview request

Dear Mr. Irsic

Thank you again for sending those last week. I put much of it in the story, but my boss has now asked me to find out one further thing to bring this up to date

– We understand the Slovene embassy in Rome opposed an exhibition of Yugoslavian art due to be held at MAXXI this year, organized by Moderna Gallerija.

Do you share that opposition, and if so why? Have you contacted MAXXI or the Italian government about it? It is due to travel to Moderna Gallerija. Do you still expect that to go ahead?

I really need answers today. Is that at all possible?
Thanks again!

Alex

On Mon, Jan 25, 2021 at 3:37 PM Mitja Iršič <[email protected]> wrote:

Dear Mr. Marshall!

Thank you for your additional question. There has been a lot of misinformation regarding the topic you’re raising, so we are quite grateful that we have an opportunity to clear it up. The ambassador sent the inquiry to the Ministry, asking for an opinion whether the Ministry’s expert commission shares his concerns that this exhibit cannot be held under a common umbrella of 30th anniversary of Slovenian independence and Slovenian presidency of the EU (1st of July to 31st of December). The expert commission at the Ministry confirmed the ambassador’s considerations, that this exhibition certainly does not fit into these international events. The Ministry as well as Moderna Galerija are obligated to follow the commission’s guidelines, but even from a commonsense perspective I am sure you would agree that an exhibition called Heroic voices from ex-Yugoslavia simply does not fit celebrations of Slovenian independence. It’s as if Americans celebrated 4th of July by reminiscing about the wonderful decades and centuries of subjugation under imperial Britain.

However, a string  of misinformation appeared in Slovenian media, saying that the Ministry and the ambassador does not ALLOW the exhibition to happen in the first place. This is not the case. The exhibition can go on as planned, it just cannot be promoted as part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Slovenian independence and Slovenian presidency of the EU, which was what the previous leadership of Moderna Galerija suggested, after the exhibition was scheduled to take place last year and then got postponed to 2021 due to the Covid19 pandemic.  The Ministry is following guidelines set by the expert commission, which clearly stated that this show is simply not appropriate for the context of Slovenian idependence celebrations, while not commenting on its artistic substance.

If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact us at any time.

Kind regards,

Mitja Iršič

Public relations officer     

Služba za odnose z javnostmi
Maistrova ulica 10, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenija