Frank Baumann, Director of the Goethe Institute: 50 years of the Goethe Institute in Serbia

With cultural exchange comes invaluable added value

The Goethe Institute is a reliable and useful organization for learning the German language, getting education and for Serbia and Germany engaging in cultural affairs. We talked with the Director of the Goethe Institute, Frank Baumann, about the work that the Institute has been doing for the past fifty years since its establishment in Serbia and the cultural cooperation between our two countries.

Frank Baumann, Director of the Goethe Institute

The Belgrade-based Goethe Institute was formed in 1970. What are the results of half a century of cooperation so far? 

Fifty years is a long time, but cultural relations between Serbia and Germany are, of course, much older. For instance, the correspondence between Vuk Karadžić and Johann Wolfgang Goethe, dates back from 1823. Since 1970, our Belgrade office had a chance to witness significant changes in both countries – from the multiethnic, socialist Yugoslavia to modern, independent Serbia, from West Germany’s half nation to a united country in the heart of Europe – there have been long and winding roads here and there. On the operational level, as a cultural institution, it’s all about the exchange, language and knowledge. It’s about people and societies, people wanting to see this world and their place in it, how they want to live, how we organize our common spaces, in Serbia, Germany, Europe and everywhere. The Goethe Institute has gained good reputation as we are viewed as a reliable, open, useful, easily accessible and financially independent organization for language, education and cultural affairs between Serbia and Germany. You should also ask this our Serbian partners both from civil society and from the state sector, with whom we have been cooperating for a long time. Last but not least, there are our clients, like numerous students of language and library users. I hope that their replies will not fundamentally differ. You can always do better, of course, or to quote a German phrase, “standing still means taking a step back”. We are looking into the future with hope that cultural relations between our countries will continue to be good in the next 50 years too.

During the 2020 pandemic, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Goethe Institute in Serbia decided to launch a fund for short-term international assistance to artistic institutions that contribute to the strengthening of a pluralistic society. Which projects have been implemented and which organizations have received assistance with the support of this fund? 

I’m glad you took notice of this initiative. That’s the so-called Covid Relief Fund, a joint initiative to be implemented by the Goethe Institute worldwide. The aim is to help organizations in selected countries to invest, for instance, in streaming technology and similar projects directly related to pandemic-induced challenges. We have received quite a few applications following our public call for submission of application. A jury in Germany finally selected 9 proposals from Serbia that will receive this grant. That was a very good ratio for us if you consider that the average support amounts to just under 20,000 euro. The quality of the Serbian applications was convincing enough for the jury. The good news is that I have reason to believe the Relief Fund will be extended also in 2021, and a new call will be launched hopefully quite soon.

In terms of annual production of new books, Germany ranks 6th among 87 countries

In which segments of art has the cooperation been the most intensive so far and what are your plans for 2021? 

Feature films from Germany have had their audience in Serbia. Every year, we showcase their highlights at our festival called GoetheFEST. Stage productions are also popular. During 53 years of the BITEF festival, German artists performed every single year. Artists, musicians, writers and curators are usually very interested to come to Serbia in a professional capacity. Our guests bring something with them, but at the same time, they are eager to take something home – new contacts, insights, new perspectives, plans for future projects and engagements. In this way, invaluable added value is created through cultural exchange. Joseph Beuys is the legendary artist from Düsseldorf, whose 100th birthday is celebrated this year all over the world. Beuys influenced generations of “activist artists”. Following the invitation from the well-known art historian Biljana Tomić, former director of the legendary gallery in SKC, Joseph Beuys came to Belgrade for the first time in 1974. Beuys was very important to the Yugoslav progressive art scene. The year before, the “group of six”, assembled around Marina Abramović, met Joseph Beuys in the Richard de Marco gallery in Edinburgh, where Zoran Popović filmed a performance by Beuys to incorporate it into his new work. This piece got a lot of attention in Belgrade, and as a result of the subsequent visit, there was a long-term artistic exchange between Yugoslavia and Düsseldorf. At the heyday of the Düsseldorf Academy, which, beside Beuys, other famous names like Günther Uecker, Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, Gerhard Richter, Bernd and Hilla Becher and even Klaus Rinke are associated with, there were many students from the former Yugoslavia. Klaus Rinke was in Belgrade with his master class as early as 1980 and performed at the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art (“I’ll wait until they let me in”). Today, it gives me great joy to say that Klaus Rinke confirmed that he would come to Belgrade,  to prove that Beuys, he and all the rest are still of important relevance, if all goes well and travelling is possible again for an artist in his 80s.

One of your activities is to support the learning of the German language. How interested are people in Serbia to learn it?  

They are very much interested. That’s why we are offering language classes and exams for all levels. Allow me to give you five reasons to learn the German language in Serbia today. First, it’s definitely about the attractive study and work opportunities in Germany and not only for those people who are highly skilled workers. Germany also awards a large number of scholarships for studying in Germany. There are special work holiday visas for young Serbs, and there are special provisions for a work permit for certain professions. There are also agreements on school and student exchange between Germany and Serbia. Second, consider German in the context of business – your communication in German with your German-speaking business partners leads to better business relationships and thus better opportunities for effective communication, and thus to success. Third, German is the second most important language in science. With its contribution to research and development, Germany ranks third in the world and awards research grants also to Serbian scientists. Fourth is the communication. Developments in the media, information and communication technology make multilingual communication necessary. In terms of annual production of new books, Germany ranks 6th among 87 countries. A fair knowledge of German therefore opens up wide access to information. Finally, there is cultural understanding, as well as enjoying literature, music, art and philosophy: German is still the language of Goethe, Kafka, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven and some other clever minds.

German is the second most important language in science

As the director of the Goethe Institute in Belgrade since 2017, what is your opinion about the current cultural scene in Serbia? 

All I can say is that we have a huge network of wonderful partner institutions all over Serbia, with whom we have been cooperating for years, if not for decades – museums, libraries, cinemas, cultural centres, schools, festivals, civil society representatives, state institutions, the media, from the smallest galleries to international brands. Most important thing is that the cultural scene finds a way out of this terrible situation caused by the pandemic. What comes afterwards, when people gather again in big numbers to enjoy the culture of all kinds, from all around, that’s what moves the scene not only in Serbia. Without an audience, without personal exchange, without feeling other experiences, opinions and reactions, we will all remain in our digital bubbles, which is a dead-end road for prosperity, democracy and common sense.

What do you like about the Serbian culture and the spirit of the Serbian people, worth telling your friends in Germany about?

I would recommend everybody to come to Serbia, to discover the country and its friendly people by travelling around, by bus or car, hiking or cycling, exploring the country from Fruška Gora to Mokra Gora and from the banks of the Drina river in fertile Mačva to the hills of Stara Planina and beyond. We should not forget the old Belgrade, the only metropolis on the Western Balkans, Novi Sad and ancient Niš. Stop on your way at a roadside café, check the meat dishes, ajvar and kajmak, try some palačinke sa eurokrem, forget about driving and have some rakija made from kajsija (apricot) or šljiva (plum)… Take your time (“samo polako”). When in Serbia, do as the Serbs do!

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