Kaunas Cultural Centre of Various Nations is located on Šv. Gertrūdos Street in the Old Town and is now famous for becoming the canvas of a drawing by THE Ernest Zacharevic (invited to Kaunas by Nykoka Street Art Festival).
The organisation itself has been operating for the past 11 years; its convenient location draws hosts of people every day. Representatives of different ethnic communities of the city are attending a range of events organised by the centre or rehearsing their own festivities. Dainius Babilas has been the head of the centre since its foundation. After a few brief yet very interesting encounters, the last of which after we saw Dainius taking pictures at the open day event of Kaunas mosque. That was the moment when we realised that the time had come for a more comprehensive conversation.
Dainius Babilas. Photo by Artūras Bulota
Who was behind the foundation of the Kaunas Cultural Centre of Various Nations?
11 years ago the policy towards ethnic minorities was very favourable. People and state institutions responsible for the implementation of the policy succeeded in making an arrangement with the Kaunas city council and established the centre. There was even an idea of creating a national network of such centres working in the field of ethnical communities. But the political situation changed and the process came to a halt – similar organisations now work in Vilnius and Klaipėda.
The first steps were not easy. We started out with empty premises and walls. A lot of effort, ideas and projects were needed to pick up pace. Unlike other similar centres, we have been focusing on culture from the very beginning, which was due to the peculiarities of Kaunas. Others have to give more attention to education and social issues.
Did you have to reach out to the ethnic communities or were they eager to come to the centre?
The communities took interest in the centre immediately. Their enthusiasm was the initial driver that moved us forward. Everyone was excited – the communities, the rest of the city, and the media, which was really interested in the centre during the first years – it was enough to mention an event organised in cooperation with the Roma or the Armenians. We had clearly filled a gap.
One of our initial visions was to create a cultural centre for the Roma. The company that was working on the building had even placed an information board with a corresponding announcement. Today we are happy that the idea was scrapped and the range of activities of the centre is much wider today.
The 20th anniversary of the Kaunas Armenian Community in 2014 - a performance by 'Hayrenik'. Photo by KCCVN
Let’s do the math. How many ethnic communities contacted the centre immediately after its opening and how many of them have stayed in touch since then? What share of the city’s population is the centre relevant to?
Statistics show that ethnic minorities make up slightly over 6% of the city’s population. This number hasn’t changed much during the past decade. We are talking about some 20,000 people. They are citizens of Lithuania, except that they don’t have Lithuanian ethnicity. But they are allowed to found various organisations and pursue their activities. Ethnic minorities of Kaunas have around 20 organisations – half of them are very active and constantly rally people and organise events. Some ethnic minorities, such as Russians, Roma or Jewish people, have several different organisations with different goals and ideas. Not everybody fancies singing folk songs, right?
One of our key goals is to promote communication and cooperation between representatives of different communities, so they are open the doors to their cultural spaces and brave enough to exit the comfort zones of their ethnic environment. This is why in general the events organised by the centre aren’t focused on a single ethnic group – they are open to everyone. Working outside the comfort zone we are able to shape values and change the world.
Are the events organised by the communities attended by representatives of other ethnicities or Lithuanians?
Indeed they are. The communities have gotten to know each other quite well during the past ten years. They socialise and this is primarily the result of the efforts of the heads of these communities.
Of course, I would like to see even more cooperation. Attending events will not bring major shifts in the society. This cannot be called a true cultural dialogue and effective national tolerance. In order to construct an intercultural society we have to create a space where people could work and create together instead of simply consuming results of activities. By combining different experiences we are creating a perfect environment for new, innovative solutions.
We would like to present diversity not as a curiosity, but as an opportunity that we have here in Kaunas – a platform to create additional value for the modern society.
Ethnic minorities – especially the impulsive youth – are a huge treasure for the country. At the least because they can speak several languages. It would be a waste to fail to make them feel a part of Lithuania.
Lithuanian wood carvings exhibition by Vytautas Sabataitis. Photo by KCCVN
We have been talking about the ethnic communities that have been living in Lithuania for quite some time. Does you centre keep in touch with the citizens of other countries who have arrived in Kaunas during the past decade? Their numbers appear to be growing.
Not much. I remember an article published by one of the dailies with a headline “Kaunas preparing for an influx of foreigners”. Everyone was expecting a tide of immigrants at that time. But it never came. We are talking about dozens, not thousands of people. The immigrants that arrive today are focused on economic and social issues to secure their material welfare. Cultural initiatives may be expected, but this will come in the future.
How big is the staff of the centre? Are there any representatives of ethnic minorities among the employees?
There are five people working in the centre including the technical staff. In this respect we are probably the smallest cultural centre in Kaunas. All of the employees are Lithuanians, but this was not something that was pre-planned. We are able to distribute our resources evenly among the communities at the moment. We are assessing them by their results, not their ethnicity.
We are not a state institution, but a non-profit organisation, so we have to rely on competitions, applications and projects to secure funding. We are a bit overstretched, because the scope of activities and events is overwhelming. We sometimes organise more than we are able to promote and summarise. Balancing the flow of information on the activities of the centre and the ethnic communities is one of our key tasks today.
What share of the events is organised by the communities as compared to the centre?
It is often easier to categorise events by who is taking initiative instead of who is doing the actual organising job. Around 30% of the happenings are initiated by the centre, while the rest are born from the ideas of the ethnic groups and other organisations. But we have to contribute to all events without exception. Each and every event that takes place here becomes part of the centre’s image and has at least some connection to the goals of the centre. We do our best to assist the communities with a range of tasks, such as translating posters, inviting representatives of the city council, publishing announcements in the press, and sometimes even writing project applications or reports. If necessary we can offer advice on suitable venues for the events. In this aspect the employees of the centre act as culture managers. We work to help the artists of different ethnicities to implement their ideas in the best possible way.
We could organise paid events, but we don’t do that on principle. There were a few such cases during the 11 years, but we prefer to look for sponsors, so the events are open for all. Besides, the culture that we promote is not professional art so we cannot expect to profit from it. Of course the employees of the centre get tired – they tend to complain that the amount of work is huge and the pay is too low. They need a boost of motivation from time to time, so I keep saying that we are baking a home-made pie here, which is incomparable to the one made in a factory and sold at the supermarket.
Africa Culture Days in KCCVN. Photo by Daumantas Skinkys
How do you manage to draw youth to the centre?
This is a different story, which is a challenge in most of the communities. It is not easy to engage young people in any traditional activity. This is one of the key areas of the centre. We do organise activities relevant to youth. We use the possibilities of Erasmus+, Creative Europe and other international programmes, gather teams for project activities in foreign countries and try to include both Lithuanian and ethnic minority artists. In this respect, we are unique too as we are representing Kaunas in international projects through multi-cultural groups.
It is really interesting to watch our youth introducing Lithuania in other countries. Music of Litvak composers, Russian salad, Armenian dances and Tatar pastry – this is the picture of Lithuania that they see. And this is beautiful, natural and true. This is the culture of people living here – unique, shaped throughout decades or even ages. Ethnic communities are distinctive and interesting not because of the things they have transported from elsewhere, but due to their peculiarities born in Lithuania. This is exactly why we usually don’t need foreign flags during our cultural activities.
Let’s go back to the “new wave” immigrants. Can culture become the ultimate integrating factor once the economic and social issues are settled? Do we need a new centre with other goals or an expanded schedule for the old one?
As far as I know, there are plans to set up refugee integration centres in major cities of Lithuania. But that job could be entrusted to the centre. We have enough resources and experience here. So does the Red Cross which has been our partner in organising the days of African culture and other events in Kaunas during the past few years. There is no need to make new entities. We could simply distribute relevant activities among the existing organisations.
And the answer to the first part of the question is yes, of course. This is true for both the new arrivals and the local population. Culture is the most wonderful instrument to unite people.
On Europe Day, May 9th, KCCVN performed a flashmob in the centre of Kaunas reminding the citizens about the issue of refugees called 'EU - Europe is United. Photo by Laima Panekaite.
We are drinking tea from cups that bear writing: “May 21, the Day of Lithuanian Ethnic Communities”. Why this date? And how do you celebrate it?
May 21 was announced the World Day for Cultural Diversity by the UN in order to promote ethnic identity and cooperation, and to emphasise the importance of diversity and mutual understanding. The day is celebrated across the world, and it was tied to the ethnic communities in Lithuania.
The celebrations are quiet. We are kind of still looking for the best way to do that. Besides, the date almost coincides with Day of the City in Kaunas, which is celebrated on May 20.
The story behind the cups is very simple. We invited representatives of ethnic communities on May 21 this year and gave them cups for presents so they could use them every day until the next a year and generate ideas how we could celebrate the occasion in 2016.
You have been organising the Lithuanian ethnic minority festival called the Bridges of Culture for many years. How successful was it? And why did you cancel it?
The festival was organised for seven years in a row. It was the idea of the centre and we are still proud of it. It was the biggest national event of ethnic communities that took place in Kaunas. And it was part of the city’s schedule of key events. But the circumstances changed. We did not want to degrade the festival so we decided to discontinue the tradition altogether.
The Bridges of Culture was a summer event. We chose to do it in the Laisvės Avenue, so it would reach even those who would not come otherwise. We also aimed to engage people that are less tolerant and even those who tend to discriminate. These groups are not big in Kaunas, therefore they are hard to reach. The events would take place throughout the day and include music, dances and crafts. Everything was kind of foreign, but all of the participants were citizens of Lithuania. An international festival without guests from abroad.
Is it one of the challenges of the centre to persuade the sceptics?
Of course, the range of reactions that we get includes support as well hostility, which is often baseless. We have to argue each year that the existence of the centre and multicultural events is necessary. There have always been people who think that our activities can shatter the foundations of Kaunas as a bastion of Lithuanian culture. Such people keep us alert, make us stick to our values with better determination and constantly raise the standards for ourselves. We are forced to constantly argue and prove through our actions that we do have patriotic feelings towards Lithuania and do our job for the sake of our city and our country.
Erasmus+ project "Creativity has (no) Rules" linked artistic expression and entrepreneurship and involved 37 young artists, cultural managers, people with fewer opportunities from 6 countries to Kaunas in September 2016. Coordinated by Kaunas Cultural Centre of Various Nations (KCCVN) and international project partners: Actus Dramatikus (Romania), PAOLAB (Italy), MJC de Flers (France), PlanBe, Plan it Be it (Cyprus) and AGIL (Portugal). Photo by KCCVN
Address: Šv. Gertrūdos g. 58