Theatres celebrate victory after Bém, Richter back down over arts subsidies

Theatres and other state-subsidised arts institutions were celebrating victory over Prague’s City Council this week after councillors scrapped a controversial new system of awarding subsidies. The system – under which Prague’s theatres were subsidised according to the number of tickets sold – sparked a wave of protest by arts organisations and even led to angry artists disrupting a meeting of the city council.

It was Milan Richter, Councillor for Culture and Tourism, who came up with the controversial idea of subsidising the city’s theatres according to how many tickets they sold. The system, introduced in November 2007, led to a minor revolution in the arts world. Non-commercial theatres, art galleries and others complained they would go out of business within months if starved of state grants. There followed a petition signed by 30,000 people, public demonstrations and even in a noisy sit in at Prague City Hall.

So they rejoiced this week when Milan Richter and mayor Pavel Bem announced this week that they were scrapping the new system of allocating grants and returning to the old one, mayor Bem saying councillor Richter was partly to blame for introducing a system that did not distinguish between commercial and non-profit theatres.

Milan Richter, however, defended the proposals in an interview for Czech Television. He said he never insisted on keeping the particular system of subsidies, merely the principles of objectivity and justice on which it was founded.

Now the system has been scrapped, is this victory for the theatres? Ondrej Hrab, director of Prague’s Archa Theatre, says not quite:

“I think there’s still a long way to go, because this is just a promise. It’s a promise to fulfil all the demands of the petition except one: the resignation of Mr Richter and Mr Pecha.”

Mr Pecha being Ondrej Pecha, chairman of the grants committee at Prague City Hall. Neither he nor Milan Richter have any plans to step down, and it looks like the theatres will just have to learn to live with them. But the main bone of contention – grants doled out according to how many tickets you sell – seems to have been discarded for good.