Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva, the artistic director of the Plovdiv 2019 project, talks about ECOC for the plovdivtime media

Excerpts from an interview made by the journalist Maria Lutsova for The full interview is available only in Bulgarian Language.  

What are your takeaways from the Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture project? Your
personal one and the one you make in your capacity as an artistic director?

In personal terms, I know that I challenged myself in many respects this past year, pushing past
my limits in this project, which, I must point out right away, did not start in 2019 but quite a bit
earlier. I learnt a lot, and it is a knowledge that, under other circumstances, I would not have
been able to acquire. This is my personal takeaway, but also the one I have as a professional
person. I gained a valuable experience which, on no small number of occasions, was both
oppressive and repugnant.

My takeaway as an artistic director is that we had a truly intensive programme. What we have
worked on for these five years was accomplished on a scale that surpassed our expectations.
We succeeded in carrying out this project in spite of all the circumstances and the many
difficulties that stood in our way. Plovdiv–European Capital of Culture 2019 is a successful
project. Saying this, I speak for many, because the project was the product of a team, and each
one on this team gave his or her huge contribution. The project is a collective work. We’ve
worked under enormous pressure and, going through heaps of troubles, we’ve withstood that

"In your opinion, which were the standout events?

I usually refrain from listing my own favourite events, because, after all, I was personally
involved in the final selection. I am ready to stand up for each one; I know why each was greenlit and made it to the ECOC project. For example, the entire exhibition programme was very strong—beginning, early in the year, with “Smoke. Tobacco Stories” and Galina Lardeva’s
curatorial project “Boundlessly About Kolyo K.” Later there was the exhibition of art from Central
and Eastern Europe with the Deutsche Telekom collection, a project that entered into a direct
dialogue with spaces in Plovdiv’s Old Town and the collections of the city museums. We then
had the Ifa exhibition and the Open Art Files exhibition “Notes and Footnotes,” and also the
young Plovdiv-based artists, who showcased their art in the summer. This programme of
exhibitions proved quite effective and was a strong and eloquent presentation of Plovdiv’scapabilities as a city of art, and also of its artists. It also was as a showcase of the entire Bulgarian art scene.

We had also quite a number of performative events—“Odysseus” and “Medea,” which started
humbly but ended up a success that no one had anticipated. Then came “Orfeo ed Eurydice,”
which the director Stefano Poda staged at the Antique Theatre. It was something that I think is
an example of one’s pushing beyond one’s limits; it was something completely novel, something
the local context had ever seen.

I’d also mention “100% Plovdiv,” which exceeded expectations, and I say this being familiar with
the obstacles the project had gone through before it was launched. The way Plovdivians
welcomed it, and joined in it, was truly positive. This was a European level show that made us

Plovdiv Jazz Fest and One Dance Week turned out to be very strong events. There were lots of
other developments—the energy I saw at Hills of Rock pleased me a lot, and I’ve got to admit
that this is not my kind of music. Everything there was at a European level—in terms of
organisation, lineup quality and audience response.

I also enjoyed the ECOC opening show, and maybe this is what I should have started with. It, too, goes on my list of favourite events. I think there has never been such an event in Bulgaria, and I think there won’t be anytime soon. It gave rise to much jealousy, bad blood and evil energy—a dynamic that we had expected. Anyway, both the professionalism and the approach our partners brought in, as well as the stoicism, talent and overtime work of the Bulgarian performers stood out and was a presentation of what a true European Capital of Culture looks like."

"This start and the subsequent scandals appear to have prepared the ground for this
strange attitude Plovdiv’s art professionals eventually had towards the project. Many said they felt distanced, uninvited….

Plovdiv 2019 has been the only European Capital of Culture so far to use open calls to build its
programme. No other ECOC has relied so much on open calls. In Plovdiv the entire process was
based on this form of procuring cultural content. Starting in 2016 we carried out 20 opens calls in the next three years. During this period, prior to the application, we organised a series of
information meetings about how things should be done.

The first meeting was about what ECOC is and how we planned to go about its realisation. It took place at the House of Culture, and only Plovdiv-based artists and organisations were invited.
Also the first meetings with museums and galleries took place long before we had an actual
budget, and we showed various examples of how previous ECOCs had taken place. We talked
about the role of local museums, what they could do, and also that long-term planning pays off.
We urged them to check all the relevant anniversaries in the course of the year and the
connections that could be made between European influences—for example, this is what the
Museum of Ethnography did with the Аlafranga exhibition. Another topic was how European
culture has influenced Plovdiv, its history and culture. There was only one condition: make
something new, something you don’t do on a daily basis. This is, after all, the concept behind an
European Capital of Culture—to immerse yourself into this project and to wish to be a part of it."


"The statistics is clear: 40% of approved projects came from Plovdiv-based artists and organisations, 60% from partners across the country. This ratio speaks for itself; there are many ECOCs where local artists complain of being sidelined."


"After all, the European Capital of Culture initiative is not only a financing programme. In the two and a half years in which we were negotiating with various state governments and central authorities, not a single artist from Plovdiv raised his or her voice in defence of the ECOC project. Why didn’t they stand up and say: “We want to host the European
Capital of Culture, and we insist that the government recognise this project as a national cause.”
This strife was conducted by the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation and the then Managing Council. And I
got the impression that all everyone was waiting for us for a budget to be approved so
everyone could join in. I hate to say it, but this is how things turned out to be. One thing should
be clear: taking part in the ECOC is not only about money—you should do something, present it,
spell out its specifics, and defend your idea. What you certainly should not do is sit on your
hands and complain. This is not the ECOC idea."

"The foundation did not succeed in building a good communication channel, which also drew criticism…

Largely, yes, there was this problem with communicating the initiative. To a lot of people the
project remained largely unknown, and for long. There are still artists in Plovdiv who believe that the ECOC consists in European funding that we’ve been spending while keeping them away. They have not realised that the project lives off local funding. Yes, there was this communications problem. If the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation is to be blamed for something, if we should be faulted that something was done wrong, then this, too, is а result of the poor understanding of what the ECOC is. All of a sudden there was information about a cultural project that’s worth many millions, and even in communications terms we were treated—by many media outlets and on many levels, especially nationwide—as a corporation, not as a cultural project. Accordingly, Plovdiv 2019 did not get any media coverage unless we paid for it. This was a problem too. Somebody somewhere had heard that this was a millions’ worth of a product, without understanding what all these millions go for, where they come from, why they are being spent, what their purpose is.
And then all this speculation around funding started. Somebody’s financial interests were behind
each and every scandal surrounding Plovdiv 2019. The number of scandals can serve as a
marker of how many times Plovdiv 2019 has withstood some form of blackmail: somewhere
somebody’s project had been turned down and was not getting funding. And there you are,
you’ve got your scandal."

"How do you view the team’s fund-raising? I’m asking this because you’ve drawn criticism in this respect too.

I can’t say we did poorly. What we achieved was considerable judging by the usual scale that
private sponsorship for culture is done in Bulgaria. We’ve still got to go a long way. In Bulgaria,
culture is developed primarily with public funding. In this respect, we rank pretty low. I must say
that the key factor was the open call mechanism for commissioning content—we required that
our partners do their own fund-raising, bring in their own contribution, organise their
participation, so that some sort of sustainability can be ensured.

The main task for raising outside funding was left to our partners. And they did a splendid job of
it. Our calculations show that for the 11 million levs under the open call contracts, our partners
raised 18 million levs—from sponsorship, cultural institutions, embassies, work, art spaces,
participation. On its part, the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation, as event producer, raised 1.2 million levs
in additional funding from cultural organisations abroad such as EU Japan Fest and Goethe-
Institut, which contributed the biggest budget they have ever provided. Both the Ifa and
Deutsche Telekom exhibitions arrived in Plovdiv thanks to their own funding, which is essentially
an investment in content in Plovdiv. ECOC’s general sponsorships amount to 1.7 million levs.
These are companies that were brave enough to dive into an abstraction."

"How much exactly does the cultural programme cost?

The preliminary budget for cultural content, as set down in the Bid Book, stood at 35 million levs, of which 20 million was meant to come from the government and 15 million from the Plovdiv Municipality. As of the end of 2019 our budget stands at 16,454,560 levs. This budget does not include the Melina Mercouri Prize. As you know, the amount under the award is meant for future cultural content. The budget so far includes funding under private sponsorships and cultural organisations. In fact, the public funding spent on cultural content (13 million levs) came from Plovdiv Municipality, not from the government."

"What do you think you failed to do for the project and through it?

We failed in getting an exemption for this project—in terms of legislation, administrative services, management and budget. Such an exemption would have enabled us to start long-term planning and work properly with cultural content. The project had to be adjusted to a legislation and administrative procedures meant to serve construction projects. It failed because we weren’t together. Somehow Plovdiv 2019 was seen as an instrument of power, that we would be allowed everything no matter what. Nobody was able to grasp the difficulties we were going through. We were a mediator between the artists and the straitjacketing legislation. The few exceptions we were given in this process were made on an “in spite of” basis, just because a certain project had to take place."

Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva is an art historian, art critic and curator. She worked as a gallerist in
Sofia for more than ten years and has been an active art critic, author and producer of
independent projects. She has gained extensive experience in the organisation of exhibitions,
festivals and public events. She has specialised and taken part in residences in Germany,
Austria, the United States and South Korea. Her interests in the field of art theory encompass
contemporary artists and art tendencies, movements as well as the art of the 1950s and ’60 and
the problems of Socialist Realism. She has worked with multiple institutions and non-
governmental organisations in Bulgaria and abroad. She is a co-founder of Bulgaria’s first
association of independent curators. Prior to her appointment as artistic director at the Plovdiv
2019 Foundation, Ms Kuyumdzhieva was a member of the Plovdiv Municipality team that drew
up Plovdiv’s cultural programme for the period 2014-2024.

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