The culture minister need not be an artist, but Czechs don’t need another Besser

Dentist turned politician Jiří Besser (TOP 09) tried to bring order to the culture ministry, but couldn’t keep his own books clean

Politics & Policy|Society
Pavel Pokorný | 09.12.2011
Could it really be Jiří Besser has an eye for detail only when it comes to state property?

Outgoing Minister of Culture Jiří Besser (TOP 09) failed to list his ties to a Florida company in asset declarations to the lower house of Parliament, and therefore violated the conflict of interest law. It was not that omission that led to his political downfall so much as the fact that his friend and partner in Comoros Group LLC, Beroun businessman Pavel Hrách, has been convicted of fraud and bribery.

The irony is that while Besser, who resigned this week, had announced grand plans to bring order to the Culture Ministry— which oversees the budgets of some 30 artistic, cultural and educational organizations, and is responsible for matters relating to churches and religious societies, drafting legislation in radio and television broadcasting and implementing the copyright act — he twice “forgot” to account for Comoros Group LLC, which owns a $230,000 apartment at a Florida golf course, where he and his wife have holidayed.

Could it really be that he has an eye for detail only when it comes to state property and is more easygoing when it comes to whom he associates with, and criminal activity in general? If so, Besser is not the only Czech politician with such a liberal attitude, and perhaps his current wife is not off the mark in her assertions that it was not the Florida deal that was his undoing, but rather a far larger real estate transaction —the landmark restitution of Church property agreement hammered out under his tenure and due to be signed, by Besser, this month.

Managing cultural affairs

Jiří Besser, 54, and his ex-wife were both dentists, and had built up a thriving practice before he was elected mayor of Beroun, a small city within commuting distance of Prague, in 1994; he remained in that post for four terms, until being elected to the lower house of Parliament in 2010, running as an independent with the upstart center-right TOP 09 party, now allied with the Mayors and Independents (STAN) group. Despite lacking obvious credentials (apart from being a hockey enthusiast) Besser was named culture minister.

A former communist, he was nonetheless under consideration to head either the ministry of agriculture or of regional development, but despite lacking obvious credentials (apart from being a hockey enthusiast) was named culture minister. But a person needn’t be a farmer to effectively head the agricultural ministry or an actor to be culture minister, he told Czech public radio in a July 2010 interview, when still a candidate for the post.

Jiří Besser (right) with Archbishop of Prague Dominik Duka

“Above all, what is needed is someone with management skills, such as those I hope that I developed during my 16 years at the Beroun City Hall,” Besser said. “Someone who manages a ministry with detachment and distance but who at the same time actively participates in life, as I believe I’m doing.”

In an interview a few days later with a Beroun regional newspaper, however, he acknowledged that he would have to win over the skeptics. “Some artists will perhaps be a bit put off that a minister was not proposed from their field. If I am chosen, I will have my work cut out for me to prove that a culture minister need not be an artist,” he said. “But the minister definitely has to be someone who has managerial skills, who is interested in the field, and able to do what is right for the cultural sphere, to create the optimal conditions.” Find the best people, conduct due diligence, trim the fat, optimize; such was Besser’s managerial philosophy.

Besser set out to do just that. He hired media professional Stanislav Brunclík, who was just leaving commercial station TV Nova, to help get his message across and tackle problems. He took on the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, National Gallery, National Library, National Technical Museum, State Cultural Fund and other smaller fish already in his first few months in office — though his priority from the outset was the property restitution agreement with the churches — and push through personnel changes, and launched selection procedures.

Find the best people, conduct due diligence, trim the fat, optimize; such was Besser’s managerial philosophy. But while trying to bring order to the sector, there was little evidence he gave a fig about culture, let alone the artists themselves. Many of the decisions he made during his tenure of nearly 18 months were met with hysteria (artists are a sensitive lot by their very nature). But Besser has perhaps been treated a bit too harshly, as a review of his main achievements shows.

Merging the State Opera and National Theater

It began with the December resignation of Prague State Opera (SOP) director Oliver Dohnányi, who reportedly left under pressure from the Culture Ministry. A few months later, Besser recalled SOP acting director Radim Dolanský and put National Theater (ND) director Ondřej Černý — who agreed with his vision to merge the two venerable cultural institutions — in charge of them both. Tens of thousands have signed a petition calling for the SOP and ND to remain independent.

Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition calling for the SOP and ND to remain independent, but the merger is due to commence as of January 2012 and be completed by 2015, by which time a single administration will be in place and all SOP assets should have been transferred to the ND.

It was a typical example of Besser’s priorities as a manager, wherein quality and artistic concerns appeared to take a back seat to savings. But he was not wrong to move in this direction, though he was insensitive in his approach, and once passions have cooled perhaps a compromise can be found. SOP and ND sorely need a long-term conceptual solution.

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