Czech Centres

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Wherever you live in the world, you probably will have at least heard of the British Council, the French Institute or the Goethe Institute which represent their respective countries abroad. But did you know that the Czech Republic has a similar network of offices around the world? In this week's Talking Point, Pavla Horakova tells you more about their history and current activities.

There are seventeen Czech Centres located in fifteen countries around the globe. They work under the umbrella of the Czech Foreign Ministry and their aim is to promote the Czech Republic abroad. Their work focuses especially on culture, trade and tourism, and each offers a programme of events, ranging from film festivals, art exhibitions and literature readings to trade presentations and events to promote tourism. Ladislav Pflimpfl is the director of the Centres' Culture and Education Department. He told me about their history.

"In the 1950s, there was a network of Centres of Culture and Information. They were in many foreign countries, mainly in the Eastern Block and also in many exotic countries. They served as a propaganda tool of the Czechoslovak government and the socialist block. In 1993, the Minister of Foreign Affairs decided to set up the Administration of Czech Centres, which runs the current network of seventeen Czech Centres in fifteen countries around the world. There are three main areas of their activities. The first one is culture and education, the other one is the support of export policy and business exchange and the last one is tourism."

Each one of the seventeen Czech Centres is different. Some are large, with their own exhibition spaces, and serve as open venues for cultural events. Others are quite small - just one office - and they have to organise all the events outside the centre. Tomas Zykan is the head of the London centre.

"The activities of the centres are quite dependent on what kind of facilities you have. Many people say that the age group of the audience equals the age of the director, which might be true. It is an interesting question because also to what extent the whole Czech Republic changes with the change of a director. But in many ways, we have the same goals, the same objectives, which is to promote the Czech Republic abroad and I think that's a common thing to all of us. We just have to work in different ways because our audience is different."

But who is the typical audience for a Czech Centre? Education and Culture director Ladislav Pflimpfl.

"For example in 2001, Czech centres organised more than 1500 events and they were attended by more than half a million visitors. We are oriented to a very wide spectrum of clients. We can see our target group among students and academic professionals. We work with different government functionaries and state institutions, also with individuals. We also very often collaborate with local businesses and artists, galleries, museums and cultural venues. Apart from our other programme activities we are running very successful Czech language courses for broad public and people studying Czech history and culture."

This year, Czech Centres are launching three long-term projects. Ladislav Pflimpfl told me more.

"For 2002 and 2003 there are three main projects of Czech Centres. The first one is called "Non-stop reading of Czech and Slovak literature in the world". The main aim of the project is to organise live and public reading of Czech and Slovak literature abroad. It is to be organised consequently at all Czech Centres worldwide which means eight hours at each Czech Centre and in the end it will turn into a non-stop reading lasting 24 hours a day, nearly eight days, literally non-stop in total. And we estimate that approximately 770 readers will be involved in total, including many VIPs and personalities from the participating countries."

The Non-Stop Reading project is aimed at promoting Czech literature abroad and also translation into foreign languages. Another long-term project supports regional cooperation.

"The other major project we are running is a project called "Regions". The project is aimed to promote newly established regions in the Czech Republic and we are organising presentations, including exhibitions, debates on business opportunities, exhibitions of attractive places for tourism. We are also trying to help to link cooperation between regions in terms of Czech regions and foreign regions. "

The director of the Czech Centre in London Tomas Zykan is the man behind the third major project called Czech*Idea.

"People still think about countries in very stereotypical ways, almost caricatures, which in many ways are helping the countries but in some other ways, they can hold them back, especially if we speak about new technologies, about design, about young talent. The dynamics of the country is usually much more interesting than how it is perceived from the outside. And it can become a very competitive edge - what your image is outside, what is your brand, if you like. So the Czech*Idea is trying to update the thinking about the Czech Republic, about our external communication, if you like."

Czech Centres is not the only organisation officially representing this country abroad. Ladislav Pflimpfl.

"The Administration of Czech Centres works under the umbrella of the Czech Foreign Ministry, which is very similar to the other agencies, like CzechTrade or CzechInvest. We consider them to be our partners and we have many joint projects, especially the "Regions" project. In harmony with the Czech foreign policy, the Czech Centres are dedicated to providing an objective view of the Czech Republic, to promote its image and its history, culture, arts, political and social affairs as well as economic development and business opportunities. I think this sort of promotion is very important, especially today when the Czech Republic is in the process of European Union integration."

Do other post-communist countries in Europe promote themselves abroad through a network of information and cultural centres as well? Tomas Zykan told me what the situation was like in London.

"I know in London the Polish and the Hungarian Institutes are very active. But these are probably the only ones from Eastern Europe which have a separate entity. I know that Slovakia and Romania are very interested and they are looking at the Czech Centre model how to form their own agency of that kind. I know that the Baltic States are very interested and very active. Slovenia is very active. In many ways they have different problems than the Czech Republic because people know the Czech Republic fairly well, they know Prague, they know Havel, they know Czechoslovakia. We have it easy in a way."

But running such a large network of offices surely must be quite expensive. Ladislav Pflimpfl told me about the financing of Czech Centres.

"The entire network of the Czech Centres including the administration is fully subsidised by the Foreign Ministry. The budget in 2001 was approximately 3,450,000 euro, which is about 110,000,000 Czech crowns. For 2002 we expect a bit less which means we have to redesign our policy as we can no longer organise events without any major participation of many local partners or domestic partners as well."

The current form of existence of Czech Centres does not enjoy unanimous support of all Czech politicians. Opposition MP Jan Zahradil is deputy chairman of the Committee for Foreign Affairs of Czech Parliament.

"I think Czech Centres should serve as a contact point and information point about all aspects of Czech today's reality but I am not sure whether they serve that purpose in the best way. I think they suffer from a lack of concept or strategy. Sometimes it seems to me that the selection of events displayed or performed at Czech Centres is too accidental and that it lacks some kind of short-term or mid-term or long-term strategy. So I think the Foreign Ministry should set up such a strategy and then it should somehow rule or run the centres in reality and not let them be on their own."

It's now three months before the elections and what approach the next government and the next parliament will take to Czech Centres remains to be seen. Finally I asked Tomas Zykan what was his main goal as director of the London centre.

"I would like people to think about the Czech Republic as an interesting country where ideas are coming from. A country to watch, which is always surprising and inspirational."

If you want to find out whether there is a Czech Centre in your country and if so check out its programme, you can do so at the Internet address www.czechcentres.cz. You can find there more information on Non-Stop Reading, you can apply online and you'll get involved.