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Our Culture is Breaking Through Across the Globe

Early 1990s favoured the presentation of Czech culture in the world. Foreigners wondered what a post-communist country had to offer and it was quite easy to succeed. “But the golden era is gone, the initial curiosity disappeared and now we have to really focus on what we excel in. And there is certainly a lot. Let us mention for example design, animated film, computer games...” says General Director of Czech Centres Ondřej Černý.

The first decade of the 21st century is over. What was the last year of the decade like for Czech Centres? 

Clearly successful in terms of the programme, and stabilization was achieved in economy and human resources. 

As far as the territories are concerned, our activities and projects carried out in cooperation with representative offices have been successful in entering the cultural infrastructure of the countries and cities and in addressing our key target groups: relevant institutions, experts, journalists, and all those who significantly affect the public opinion on the one hand – and students and young people on the other. In our work we are often supported by successful Czechs who live abroad and who are excellent multipliers of Czech interests.

In close cooperation with our principal authority (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic), we set strict economic limits on our work, and in terms of human resources we have significantly streamlined the work the Czech Centres headquarters, with all their energy focused on the coordination and support of the activities of the network of Czech Centres abroad. 

I am very happy that we have established a strong professional team both in the CC headquarters and abroad. The directors of Czech Centres are recruited from their original professions (ranging from journalists, academics and managers to diplomats), are very diverse in terms of their personalities, but they all have one thing in common: they really love their work, take is as an important mission, areenthusiastic representatives of our country and are true cultural diplomats. Of course we cannot forget their excellent foreign colleagues.  

 

The programme of the 25 Czech Centres abroad is multifaceted, including classical music, videoart, or creative industries. How does the 350th anniversary of Comenius fit in?

His life and work combines exactly what we want to show the international audience. It is that our culture is a very broad concept that includes not only artistic genres but also education, human rights, or discussions on ethics. These are the areas where Comenius was active, and even today his ideas are highly relevant.

It is a story of a genius, who was able to combine in his work a number of genres and themes, always seeing all things in contexts and correlations. His so to say holistic and multidisciplinary approach is still extremely inspiring.  

This year, we will not only celebrate Comenius, we will also draw inspiration from him – his view of the world, education, or human creativity. Or for example in relation to Agenda 2030 and its sustainable development objectives, which will be more and more thematised in our future programme. If Comenius lived today, he would make a very convincing ambassador of these objectives adopted by the United Nations in 2015.   

 

A great progress is also in the way our culture presents itself abroad. What is the biggest change?

Our organization has been in operation since 1950s and we have passed a number of important milestones. Not only political but also ideological, as we discussed what our main mission was. In the past there were various tendencies, for example to be more involved in economic diplomacy, which is certainly important but our priority is different. In our Strategy for 2020-2023, which should be finished by the end of March in collaboration with our principal authority, we define ourselves as a cultural institute with a mission similar to that of, for example, the Goethe Institute or the French Institute. After all, we are a very active member of the European network of cultural institutes EUNIC, both at a European level and in the so-called clusters in the European metropolises. In accordance with the objectives of EUNIC, our culture also includes science, education, human rights, innovations, and of course cultural and creative industries. An essential part of our work is the link to the foreign policy of the Czech Republic and intensive cooperation with our representative offices, both conceptual and operational. We must not forget that the heads of representative offices coordinate all presentation and diplomatic activities in their territory. An example of such cooperation is the Czech season of creative industries, design, new media, culture, and gastronomy in Spain 2020-2021, which is the joint product of the Representative Office in Madrid and the Czech Centre in Madrid. 

 

You often present Czech design companies abroad. What are these events like?

As a classic example of creative industries, design is at the same time the subject of cultural and economic diplomacy. This in not “only” about presenting for example a particular fashion designer, we want the designer to establish contacts with the local art scene. And of course with business structures. Such presentation is often the beginning of cooperation with a foreign company or institution. I am very pleased that recently CzechInvest pledged allegiance to creative industries and supporting them, and that the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the Czech Republic concluded a memorandum of cooperation with the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic in this matter. As a result, we will have a partner in presenting and networking of Czech design abroad.

 

You opened the Czech House in Bratislava last autumn. What can we look forward to?

Today, this particular Czech Centre has many more opportunities than in the past. Until recently it was located in the building of the Representative Office and our visitors had to go through security checks. This measure is no longer necessary and the Czech House is open to all who are interested in Czech culture, travel, or business. It is the seat of not only the Czech Centre but also the CzechTourism agency, which also advances the interests of CzechTrade and Czechinvest. We have one of the best addresses directly in the centre of Bratislava, surrounded by galleries, libraries, and the local university. This year we will finish the reconstruction of the exhibition hall and Designshop. The Czech House will become the meeting place of the Czech and Slovak elements in many areas of human activity. Including the internet and social networks. An internet project called Czech traces is already mapping the wide range of activities in Slovakia. 

 

We have spoken about the broader importance of culture and education. Czech Centres also offer Czech courses, are people in the world interested?

Teaching Czech abroad is one of the priority pillars of our activity. We are trying to help Czech studies at universities, which is an area that really needs support abroad. We are also strongly supporting the amazing Czech schools without borders programme, which is in many destinations of the world helping mixed Czech-foreign families encourage their children to learn Czech. However, the core part of our activity includes our own courses. We offer top lecturers, sophisticated teaching methodology and certified examination in cooperation with the Institute for Language and Preparatory Studies at Charles University to open the doors for our students to Czech universities or the Czech labour market. This  opportunity is not offered by any other entities abroad and you would have to travel to Prague to take the examination. At the moment we have almost 3,000 students and the numbers are increasing. The number of our foreign branches that offer these courses is increasing as well. Our mother tongue has a lot of supporters throughout Europe, but also in Korea or Japan. However, learning Czech is by far most popular in Ukraine, where we have 1 144 students.

Language teaching is not only instrumental, it opens the gate for foreign students to enter the heart of our country. And these students then become authentic and convinced propagators of Czech themes in the world. Despite the fact that due to the difficulty of the language they often reach just the A2 level… 

 

The opening of new opportunities is surely related to the fact that you offer study visits to Czech students. What are the things that they try out?

For four years I was director of the Czech Centre in Munich and we had tens of visiting students. I saw how important it was for them to get the experience, because they became an equal part of our team. They were engaged in all activities from dramaturgy through production to social network administration. Students are not paid but still I do believe that their study visits pay off in the long term. It is because students acquire working habits, valuable contacts, and practical experience abroad. Some of our female visiting students found jobs in the Czech Centres headquarters, from where they can move abroad under certain circumstances.  

 

In the May issue of the newsletter we will publish the second part of the interview with Onřej Černý focused on the Strategy of Czech Centres for 2020-2023. 


 


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