An Interview With Marek Fiser, Brno City Council Member for Culture

Brno Daily sat down with councillor Marek Fiser (Piráti), to discuss culture in Brno, what ex-pats can bring to the town, and Brno’s bid to become European Capital of Culture. Photo credit: Jiří Salik Sláma.

Brno, Apr 15 (BD) – BD: So Marek, you are the Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture. What are your main areas of responsibility in this role?

MF: In the first place I am a councillor, which is like being the Minister of Culture of Brno. So of course my first responsibility is culture, but on a weekly basis we make decisions about everything that’s happening in the city. How it works is that I prepare material related to culture, and other people on the council prepare their own material, and we vote on them every week. So that’s how it functions. In terms of culture, the biggest investment in the cultural field for the upcoming years is the new philharmonic concert hall, Janackovo Kulturni Centrum (Read more in our previous article: “In Pictures: Future Janáček Cultural Center on Besední to Hold 1,300 Visitors”, September 2018). It’s a project I inherited from the previous city council, and we are still working on that, so that’s the main thing that we want to build within this election term. On Thursday we will be visiting the philharmonic concert hall in Katowice in Poland, led by Tomasz Konior, who is also in our team for the project.

“I went to work in Prague for more than five years, and I came back because I really love the city where we all live and I want to improve it, and I think this project of bidding to be the European Capital of Culture will help Brno a lot.”

There are other projects of course, like the creative centre in the former prison in Cejl (Read more in our previous article: “Former Cejl Penitentiary to be Transformed into Creative Center”). I think this is the second biggest, both financially and also for the development of the city, but of course there are other projects. There is a total annual budget of around CZK 1.3 billion for the cultural sector, which is distributed to the organisations established by the city, and also independent culture. The organisations that we established are, for example, theatres, the Brno philharmonic, and art galleries, and there are other organisations where we are the main provider of funding for their yearly budgets. The other part is projects that apply for grants published on the Brno website, which are then looked at by the committee, who then distribute the money to them based on a point-system.

I’m also responsible for strategy. I inherited the so-called cultural strategy, which was drawn up in the term of my predecessor, Matej Hollan, and approved by the previous city council. There are some things which were part of the strategy, but there also needed to be people to actually implement it, and there was no strategic department at the Department of Culture. But now, after the decision of the city council about three or four weeks ago, it has been agreed that there will be this new strategic department, and one of the tasks of this department will be to prepare the bid to be the European City of Culture. So, in short, that’s what I do daily.

BD: Talking about Brno, there seems to be a sort of positive buzz around the city at the moment, maybe especially in terms of culture. What do you see as the main positive trends in Brno?

MF: I think in the past five years – and this has to do with the nature of the city as a student city, a technology city – there are new companies coming, especially in the IT sector, even some big companies, and there are more and more ex-pats coming to Brno to work here. I’m closely connected with them; my girlfriend’s one of them, working in IBM, and so I’m in touch with the ex-pat community daily, either through football or through my girlfriend. I think that’s really the driving force behind the city now really getting internationally recognised.

I think people like living here because it’s safe, and it’s a cliché that it’s cheap, but looking at the market prices of the flats, of course the more people want to live in the city, the more rents rise, but I think it’s still a really good city to live. People like it, they make families here, they even stay for the rest of their lives, while others maybe only come here for one or two years, to just improve their CV. And I also like it myself; I went to work in Prague for more than five years, and I came back because I really love the city where we all live and I want to improve it, and I think this project of bidding to be the European Capital of Culture will help Brno a lot.

BD: I think most of the ex-pats who live here would agree that it’s a great city to live in, but can you say something about what benefits you think the ex-pats bring to the city?

MF: I think historically Brno has always been a multicultural city, until the World War and then the communist regime, so I think it’s getting back to the roots that we are now welcoming people from other countries to live here. And I think it’s really great that it’s not as touristy as other cities, like Prague for example. I think the benefits of them coming here are that the city can grow; they come here, they pay their taxes, they show their culture, and there are not many issues with them that we need to solve. We don’t have problems like some other cities. The benefits of course are that for young people now living in Brno, they study at the university, they get a better chance to meet foreigners, to learn languages, to see that it’s possible to live abroad, to get experience, to get in touch with other cultures, to work on projects together. It’s really great.

BD: Can you see any drawbacks to the increased number of ex-pats living here? You mentioned the housing, for example…

MF: This might be something that affects people that live in this city. The increase in rents is apparent, so there should be more houses built in the city so there is not this increase that’s endangering the local population. After forty years of communism and the wild 90s, there have been some problems, and it will take some time to get over them, but I think the city’s doing its best to really become an international town that’s good to live in. In Brno, everyone knows each other somehow, and it’s hard to go to any pub and not meet someone that you know.

I think it’s really important that the city works with the ex-pats that are coming to make life easier for them, to get more and more employees that speak languages, to help them to get around, and also to work with the locals and explain to them that these people who come here and work are good for the city’s development. Sometimes they might get the wrong impression that foreigners are something weird that we don’t know, and they’re taking our jobs while at the same time living on benefits, and we have to pay for them. It’s not like that. The city should have a better strategy for how to work with the locals to explain to them what these ex-pats bring to the city, and also work to better integrate the ex-pats and make it easier for everyone to live here together.

BD: Is there anything in particular you would like to see done to make this process smoother?

MF: That’s a good question. I’m also the chair of the Committee for Minorities in Brno, and I think there are a lot of things that could be done, to be a little bit more professional, marketing-wise, to show people what these communities do and that they are fine and are ready to integrate. Definitely when you come to the city and you see Hlavni Nadrazi, it’s not really the greatest spot in the city! But it’s getting better and better, even on the trams there are now explanations where you are. But there’s always something you can do better.

BD: Let’s talk about the application to be the European Capital of Culture in 2028. How did this idea come about?

MF: I know that when I was living in Prague, there were some rumours that Brno would apply for 2015, but I think it was just too late, because Plzen and Ostrava and even Hradec were too far ahead, and there wasn’t a good chance of winning it, and so it wasn’t approved by the council. Now we are starting really early.

“I see it more as a community project, I want to have it driven from the bottom up, to have people touch their hearts and start to really work together on something they can see, that can have a huge impact.”

The main impulse came from a colleague that works at the cultural department, who was there when Brno decided not to apply years ago. When she knew that I would be taking over the office, on the first day she came to me and said, “Listen, this could be a huge thing, and could have a huge impact for the development of the city. What do you think?” As it was in our coalition agreement, I started looking for more information. She later arranged a meeting with Mattijs Maussen, a Dutch guy who I didn’t know, who she was in touch with because she was studying culture. It turned out that he was an expert adviser of several cities that had made successful bids before. As he explained more and more about this project I got really interested, and he suggested I should go to Leeuwarden to see it for myself. This was a week before I was appointed city councillor, so I said “OK, let’s look into this and get more information, let’s visit some cities and hear their experiences.” And the more I heard about it, the more I saw in front of me that this was really something that could change and improve the whole city. So I got really enthusiastic about it, and we started to work on it.

BD: When you say it could bring a lot to the city, what are the main advantages that Brno could get from this?

MF: From the experience of the other cities, when it’s done properly it can have a huge impact on tourism, and it can make it easier to attract European money for investment in projects, and to bring new companies to Brno. So I think there’s really a financial benefit. It can also bring people together, like the locals and the ex-pats, for example. I really want to get the ex-pat community onboard. I know myself, from when I was living in Holland, that these people are really active, they do things. I came to a new city and I was always there for any activities in the Erasmus community or the ex-pat community, together with the locals also.

In terms of the benefits, culture in this case has to be seen in the broadest sense of the word. It’s not a case of just: “We have the best philharmonic in the Czech Republic” and we just show it off. It’s not like that. I see it more as a community project, I want to have it driven from the bottom up, to have people touch their hearts and start to really work together on something they can see, that can have a huge impact. If you do it properly and invest in people, it gives them the possibility to do something for the city and also for themselves, to let them grow with the project. The best candidacies were driven by young people, 20 to 25 years, people who are just out of school and don’t know what they will do in their life, so I want to motivate them, and give them a chance to do something. You just make these conditions possible, you’ve got some experience already, so you can mentor them, but you give them a free hand to show their talent, and maybe some of them will become the directors of the cultural institutions of the future, maybe even independent theatres. We don’t even know all the things that could happen with this.

BD: Speaking on a more practical level, what’s your plan? How is Brno going to win?

MF: As I said, the city council just approved this new strategic department, which will have two main tasks: one is the implementation of the cultural strategy, which was already there, but without the workforce to really implement it. And the second thing is to prepare the bid. At the moment we are defining these new positions, and then we will publish them and ask people to apply for them, and then we will build the strategic department. I think this process will take around two months, to have the strategic department ready. The whole thing still needs to be approved by the city assembly, so the plan is to work on the proposal for the city assembly, to prepare the financial plan and also the program plan: what kind of city does Brno want to be in 10, 20, 30 years.

It’s been approved by the city council that we’ll have Mattijs as the expert adviser contracted by the end of September, and we will be meeting for the first time officially on the 26th April. I’ve already spoken to a lot of people, and I can already see four or five epicentres of people that are really willing to work on this, without expectations that it’s only money-driven. I don’t want people who are saying: “This is a nice project because I might get something from it.” I want to motivate people to do something, and see the benefits. This is how I want to let it grow, the same as how I was motivating people for the stadium project in Luzanky.

“I want to organise at least three workshops, but probably more, to define the main message, about where Brno wants to be in the coming years, and everyone is welcome to these workshops.”

By October we should have the material ready for the city assembly. Of course people will need to know what it means financially, so I want to explain to every member of the assembly that they should see it as an investment. Then the assembly will vote on it, and when the green light is given we’ll get to work on the project program, to define the main message that Brno will take to the competition. You have the main message, and then you also have the particular parts of it, which have to fit together to define the whole message. It’s going to be everything, not only culture, but I see it as a possibility for sports, for the environment, for traffic, for urban planning, and everything.

BD: In terms of the application, and the chances of winning the bid, what do you think are Brno’s main strengths?

MF: The position of Brno within Europe, in the centre and close to lots of big cities; the co-operation across the border; that there are really a lot of universities here, with talented people; the expat force; and also this vibe of the city that was proven with the stadium project – people have already shown that when there is something they really want, they are able to work together even when they have different political views, social status, and so on. I think Brno is really special in this way, that people like the city, and when there is something they believe in, they can really work together very well and very hard.

BD: If people read this and want to be part of it, what can they do? How can people get involved?

MF: Well, of course they can apply to work for this, there will be jobs available soon in the Department of Culture, so after the job adverts are published they can apply by sending their CVs. After that I really want to rely on volunteers; I’ve already set up a Facebook group, Brno 2028 Volunteers, where we will post all the information about the development of the project. I want to organise at least three workshops, but probably more, to define the main message, about where Brno wants to be in the coming years, and everyone is welcome to these workshops. Or, people can prepare their own projects, which might end up being a part of it. I just want to give the people the opportunity to take part on many levels. One of the positions will be a so-called Engagement Co-ordinator, and I want this person to go not only to parts of the city, and leaders, but also to the region, the universities, companies, volunteers, everyone, and this will be the crucial part I think.

BD: is there anything else you want to add?

MF: It’s funny that I ended up as the councillor for culture, because everyone knew me as a sports guy. But culture is my new sport, and sport is also part of culture!

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