Zdeněk Lyčka has just been made acting director of the Czech Centres, a network of institutes that promote Czech culture on the international stage. Mr. Lyčka, who is 57, himself headed the Czech Centre in Stockholm at the end of the 1990s and has also served as Czech ambassador to Denmark. When we spoke, I asked him how much independence the 22 Czech Centres around the world enjoy – do they have to coordinate every step with Prague, or do they have a lot of room to do their own thing?
“Everything starts with the entrance discussion and with the interview [for Czech Centre director]. It is very important that we choose a person who is able to do it on his or her own and with the small money we offer and with the context he or she has.
“Then of course they come with a proposal of the programme. If they can get financing from other sources, not only from Prague, from headquarters, of course we are very tolerant of the programme.
“Of course it should be in the direction to promote the best of Czech culture, but also innovation, technology, economic relations, tourism and regions and so on.
“Then of course there are some compulsory things from headquarters. We are pressing directors to do more things from the area of innovation and science and technology.
“The Czech Republic is a small country and we can impress the world with avant-garde culture and film and some small things.
“But also we can impress with our scientific developments, Czech brains, Czech ‘golden hands’ and so on.”
Is there a sense in which Czech Centres are competing with analogous institutes like the Slovak Centres, Polish Institutes and so on?
“I don’t think they are really competing. Normally they are cooperating, either in the framework of the Visegrad Four, which the Czech Republic now has the presidency of until the middle of next year… so of course it is in our interest to do things together with the Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles.
“But sometimes of course we can compete. Because if you have the same audience you are in a Western European country and the Poles come with an attractive programme, the Czechs should also come with an attractive programme – otherwise people would come to the Polish Institute, not the Czech Centre.
“Outside Europe it’s totally different. There it is very necessary to cooperate. I remember once discussing culture questions in China and we were together, the four Visegrad countries, and we made an alliance with Austria and Slovenia, so we had the Visegrad Four plus two, the so-called Central European Cultural Platform.
Do individual Czech Centres simply get a budget for the whole year and they have to work with it? Or can they apply for extra funding from HQ for particular projects?
“From this year they have a budget for the whole year. Because we have limited money from our founder, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Czech House in Moscow, and the budget is limited.
“All the directors have the final money decided and then during the year we have some amendments, but very rarely do we enhance the money, if they have a special project which is very important politically and so on.
“But they can get money on their own, and then of course they can continue.
“For the next year I am planning something new. There will be some spare money, not much but some, for projects in the field of European cooperation, for example.
“The Czech Centres can then compete among themselves and HQ will give the money only to the projects that are reliable and the best.
“This is the way the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs does things with the cultural part of its embassies. So does the British Council.”
If I understand it right, individual Czech Centres can raise money themselves?
“Yes, they have to.”
How do they do that?
“They talk to Czech firms, exporters to the region where they are located. Of course they can ask for public money as well, if they cooperate with city halls, or with private organisations.
“It’s very different from country to country and from director to director. Sometimes it’s a question of personal contacts. Sometimes it’s a Czech firm which is trying to get into a new market and is then willing to give the money.
“Sometimes it’s bad. In Russia, for example, Czech firms are withdrawing, they are not staying, they are not expanding. It’s the same in Ukraine.
“We also have another way of raising money: Czech language courses. Many people around the world are interested in learning Czech.
You mentioned the Czech House in Moscow. Is it the case that the rents from that complex support the whole Czech Centres network?
“That’s right. Normally we get money from the Czech House in Moscow, after paying taxes of course. The rest is paid by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because we are a subsidiary organization and our founder should give us some money.
“All together this is the base we can start with. Then we have the language courses and our own money raised by headquarters and by Czech Centres abroad.”
As the new acting director of the Czech Centres network, what are your plans for the future?
“[This] week we will have our annual meeting of directors. This year for the first time it is being held at the same time as the annual meeting of ambassadors from abroad.
“This is very important because sometimes we have some projects that can be good for both sides – the Czech Centres and the ambassadors. So I’m really looking forward to this working together.
“I think one of the first things is the money. There will be limited money for the next year, so they have to figure out how to get extra financing.
“The second thing is very important: strategic planning. Big events, top activities, should be decided one year before they begin.
“Sometimes it’s very ad hoc. It should be prepared and the money should be raised in advance.
“Otherwise, if you come to a big sponsor, a big company, let’s say two months before an event they just laugh. They’ve closed their whole budget for the year.
“This is one thing our directors should start. They have to prepare top activities for 2016 and 2017 now, this autumn.”
Are there particular activities or projects of the Czech Centres that tend to be popular? For example in, I don’t know, film or art?
“It’s very easy to prepare a film screening. You have a film and it’s either good or bad. If you have a good film and good name of a Czech film, fine.
“With art it depends more on the level of the audience and so on. We have some Centres focusing on modern art and a very particular public.
“But it’s not the only role of a Czech Centre – it should also be open to the broader public and to serve the embassy’s interests, for example.
“[This] week our directors will get a summary of the possibilities as to what they can do with the anniversary of Charles IV.
“Another interesting anniversary next year is 80 years since Václav Havel’s birth. Václav Havel is also a personality abroad and we have to do something with the name and with the heritage.
“It will be more concentrated on President Havel’s dissident activities – not so much on his presidential activities.”
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