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For those who don’t yet know me, my name is Rob (you can read more about who I am and what I do here). In essence, I am a ‘resident scholar’ with Third Angel, but more like a house-mouse than a permanent lodger… I dip in and out of Third Angel’s archive, shadow the team at events and meetings, as well as having had the privilege of ‘sitting in’ on rehearsals and mentoring sessions.

My research explores if, when and how longevity in contemporary arts practice is achievable, and the challenges, risks and values attached to this. In mid-late 2021, in a world of vaccine passes and mask-wearing, I had the amazing opportunity to represent both Third Angel and my University overseas. My scholarship is funded by the White Rose College (WRoCAH) who made this possible: I spent 3 months working with the National Cultural Fund of Bulgaria in their base in the capital city, Sofia. While there I wrote a series of diary/blog posts that, I think, are useful to share here as a document of a moment-in-time, of an (international) arts ecology recovering from a unique and shared crisis. I would like to share them with you here, followed by a short reflection: 

Despatch #1 (sometime in early September ’21)

In an office above the Socialist Art Museum, Bulgaria’s ‘National Cultural Fund’ is never too far from reminders of its history. A country that is still working to decentralise its cultural sector as a post-communist Republic, Bulgaria is redefining itself both as part of a Western European capitalist tradition, and simultaneously working to protect and promote its cultural heritage as uniquely ‘Balkan’ (still very much reconnecting with its pre-Ottoman heritage, for those that know your history). Now in receipt of vast amounts of European Covid-relief funding, Bulgaria’s Cultural Fund is navigating its own domestic function as an ‘arm’s length’ support structure (operating as a democratic buffer between the state and its cultural sector), and is looking dubiously ahead to a time when these levels of funding will, inevitably, become unsustainable…

My three-month project involves researching and writing a comparative study of the Bulgarian arts funding situation, with ‘best-practice’ recommendations from British, Central and Northern European contexts. I have been living and working here in the capital, Sofia, for a few weeks now and highly recommend it as a place to visit!

Photo Rob Fellman

Despatch #2 (sometime in early October ‘21)

A few weeks on from the last despatch and I find myself further embroiled in the complexities of an Arts Sector that varies greatly from what I know of my own… It turns out (perhaps unsurprisingly) that making a comparative study between national approaches to cultural policy (across Europe) is VERY complex: it is near-impossible to make any useful comparison without first considering the history of each nation and/or region… I have been thrust into a world of research that I couldn’t have even imagined before starting this project, and I am really enjoying the process of seeing where it will take me next!

I have also just begun a series of interviews with local artists and grassroots theatre-makers, and every conversation opens up a whole array of new questions (and not to mention meeting some fantastic people and making new personal connections). 

Despatch #3 (sometime in early November ‘21)

My time with Bulgaria’s ‘National Cultural Fund’ is soon coming to an end. As I am pulling together the final details for my report I wonder what impact it might make? Just yesterday I was looking through an Arts Council England document from 2018 in which arts organisations voted ‘natural disaster’ as only 12% ‘risky’ on a ‘level-of-risk-to-the-sector’ scale, compared to ‘financial risk’ at 90%… No-one could have seen what was coming, even back then when words like ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’ were already the hot topics across the UK arts sector. As financial stability becomes intrinsically linked to our ability to survive natural crises like Covid-19 perhaps now is the perfect time for cultural sectors around Europe to rethink their current practices, to seize the moment of change and harness it for the better…

From speaking with a cross-section of art-makers in Bulgaria, there is a sense of positivity, despite the horrors that the pandemic has brought with it. As I finalise my report to the NCF, I struggle to say everything that (I believe) needs to be said. I am wrestling with the scope that I have set for myself and, despite my line-manager’s encouragements, I’m struggling to narrow my focus. What I realise, and commit to on paper here as advice, is that one report can’t change everything. This is easy to say, but harder to acknowledge in practice! What my report can do, however, is to capture the energies and emotions of the sector, to present data in a way that tells a story…

Ivan Vazov National Theatre, Sofia

In Summary

I think what this process (and reading the posts back now in June of ‘22) brings to light is the shared experience that a global crisis can instil. Even as I write this and our friends in Ukraine are at the forefront of another crisis that has united much of Europe and its allies (100 days in at the time of writing). Certainly, it changes the weight of words like ‘sustainability’, or ‘resilience’. Thinking now about the positive energies I witnessed (and felt) among the grassroots contemporary theatre-makers in Bulgaria last year has made me a little sad back on ‘home turf’ – only a week or so ago minister Rees-Mogg proposed cuts that would all-but-remove any ‘arm’s length’ structure of arts support in the UK. Where Bulgaria’s NCF are looking to learn from the systems around Europe, the UK is furthering a trajectory that will see instead a dismantling of ideals we have, perhaps, taken for granted. As Covid and Ukraine have shown, it is through networks of support that longevity may be possible; important to consider now as a whole arts ecology, how an already-precarious sector can continue to thrive despite collective and increasingly globalised crises.

As we move towards the warmer months, I plan to spend some time once again in Third Angel’s archive, as I attempt to draw more links between their past and present, their ability to ‘weather the storm’ of different crises, and for inspiration that might help us understand this term, longevity, a little better. I plan to keep you updated on this blog with some of my findings! If you are interested in keeping a closer eye on what I am up to, you can find me on Twitter @Rob_Fellman so please do feel free to connect with me on there.

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