11/29/2010 08:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Visit to Croatia

I always enjoy visiting a new city and exploring its arts scene. Last month I was invited to teach in Zagreb, Croatia, home to one our DeVos Institute Summer Fellows, Zvonimir Dobrovic.

Zvonimir is a natural arts entrepreneur. At the young age of 32 he has already started two successful festivals which are supported by a mix of government and private contributions. I was there during Perforacije (Perforations) his new festival of Avant Garde theater, music and performance art. (His other festival, Queer Zagreb, is a gay arts festival he started at the age of 23 that will celebrate its 10th anniversary next Spring.)

Zvonimir's ability to attract government, corporate and individual support for his festivals is all the more remarkable given the prevailing arts funding environment in Croatia.

Like in most other countries in Europe, the huge majority of arts funding in Croatia comes from the government. To be sure, there is a vibrant group of small, adventuresome arts organizations that survive without government funding.

But the majority of arts organizations depend almost entirely on government grants.

It was fascinating to teach 200 arts leaders from Croatia and five surrounding Balkan countries all with similar arts funding systems. The dependence of these arts managers on government funding influenced the way they approached their work. They could only budget for the amount the government gives them. They felt little or no power to find and spend additional resources. When I discussed long-term artistic planning, many of them felt like they had gone down the rabbit hole. How could they think of creating big exciting arts projects five years from now when they were not certain of what their government grants would be? It took them one full day of class to begin to appreciate that they were the masters of their own destinies, that there were opportunities to find additional resources and that this would allow them to build their programming, reputations, and ability to generate even more additional revenue.

Croatia is the rule in this world, not the exception. This is why people like Zvonimir, people who do not feel bounded by the grants they receive from their own governments, are so important. They serve as role models for their communities.

If a 23-year-old young man can develop the resources to support a gay festival, then more experienced arts managers should be able to find the resources for opera, ballet and theater.

Many people I met in Croatia are skeptical that private philanthropy can thrive there. I had the honor to meet with the hugely popular President of Croatia, Ivo Josipovic, a musician, composer and arts manager. He was clear on the need to build new sources of arts funding; his country, and most others, simply cannot maintain the levels of funding needed to support all domestic arts organizations. But he also understood that it would be a challenge to build a large base of private support. We discussed the various actions the government could take to encourage corporate and individual giving to the arts. His advisers were far more skeptical than he was about the ability to create a culture of philanthropy in Croatia.

I disagreed of course, and presented Zvonimir Dobrovic as Exhibit A.