Structure, culture and agency – the position of Soros’ organizations in the Croatian institutional landscape

Sanja Sekelj and Željka Tonković

Time and Place: Friday, 02.07., 09:40–10:00, Room 1
Session: Networks of Events

This contribution in concerned with the influence and reception of Soros’ Open Society  Institute and a number of its cultural spin-offs in Croatia during the 1990s and early 2000s,  especially the Soros center for contemporary art (SCCA). Although both art history and  contemporary curatorial practice have been greatly influenced by the spatial turn, expressed most  explicitly in Piotr Piotrowski’s call for a horizontal art history (widely applied to scholarship  related to inter-war avant-gardes and transnational artistic contacts during the Cold War) (Piotrowski 2008), in current scholarship related to the historical significance and/or structural  position of the SCCA’s there is still a tendency to adopt universalist positions. Claims such as  that the Soros Centers encouraged only specific kinds of artistic production (making it uniform  across the former Eastern Bloc) or that they were merely vehicles for the introduction of  neoliberal ideology in ex-communist states – these claims neglect specific local contexts,  differences in the lived experience of communism and its dissolution across Central and Eastern  Europe, as well as the differences in the development of contemporary art and artistic  infrastructure in specific post-socialist states during the 20th century. To properly reflect on the  position and significance of the Soros Centers, as well as on the meaning of transnational  collaboration they initiated during the 1990s, our claim is that they need to be researched in  relation to specific structural and cultural contexts. In our previous work – in which we analyzed  the local network of SCCA-Zagreb, generated through its annual exhibitions – we already  concluded that the exhibition activity of the SCCA in Croatia depended on “the personal  networks of the individuals involved in the work of the Center”, as well as that the Center  adopted “a hybrid model of functioning (…) between an ‘organization’ and a ‘network’”  (Tonković, Sekelj 2016). However, the local significance of the SCCA remains under researched in the above-outlined relational sense. 

By way of using qualitative and quantitative data, this contribution seeks to a) interpret  the structural position of the SCCA and other relevant Soros spin-offs (such as the Multimedia  Institute) in the Croatian institutional landscape during the 1990s and early 2000s, and b) to  complement these quantitative findings with insights from key cultural workers of the time, thus  bringing to the fore the agency of actors involved with Soros’ organizations specifically and the  art scene more broadly. The dataset used to define and interpret the structural position of Soros’ organizations using social network analysis is extracted from art criticism published in  professional magazines dedicated to following current contemporary art events (Arkzin, KonturaVijenac, Zarez). In the period between 1991–2006 a total of 4829 texts were published in which  art critics wrote about different local and international art events (exhibitions, art festivals,  performances and screenings), and from which we extracted data on authors and institutions  mentioned in art critiques. Two sets of network visualizations were made: a set of bimodal  networks in which the nodes represent art critics and mentioned institutions, and by way of which we can determine central institutional actors as seen from the perspective of Croatian art  criticism (in total 1835 nodes with 4398 established edges); a set of unimodal networks  consisting only of institutions, in which institutions are connected if they collaborated on the  organization of art events (in total 845 nodes with 2304 established edges). From this second set  of collaborative networks we describe the structure of the art scene from a Croatian perspective,  define central actors according to degree and betweenness centrality, determine social circles and  interpret the position of Soros’ organizations within the institutional landscape. While the  interpretation of network dynamics between 1991 and 2006 is complemented with the changing  cultural narratives drawn from the content of art criticism itself, the agency of cultural actors is  interpreted through the analysis of 30 narrative semi-structured interviews conducted with key  cultural actors during the 1990s and early 2000s. The protagonists were asked about their  networking practices during this period, to describe the structure of the scene, its main actors and  the quality of their ties, about the values disseminated through the network, as well as about the  influence of the socio-political and cultural contexts on their networking practices. Following a  qualitative structural analysis approach (Herz, Peters, Truschkat 2015), a structure-focused, an  actor-focused and a tie-focused analysis of the conducted semi-structured interviews was  applied, with a greater emphasis on Soros’ organizations. The narrative dataset served as basis  for the development and interpretation of analytic concepts with the help of “thematic coding”  (Charmaz 2006). 

The obtained results are thus interpreted with regard to structure, culture and agency of  actors, by conceptualizing different social circles in the institutional landscape as netdoms  (White 2008), in which common aesthetic, political and social meanings are shared. By  combining idiographic and nomothetic investigations specific for art history and sociology, this  contribution seeks not only to propose a methodological approach that combines qualitative and  quantitative data analysis, but also (by using qualitative methods from both fields) to steer the  discussion towards the issue of deep interdisciplinarity between the humanities and social  sciences. 


Charmaz, Kathy. 2006. Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative  Analysis. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publications. 

Herz, Andreas, Luisa Peters, and Inga Truschkat. 2015. “How to do qualitative structural  analysis: the qualitative interpretation of network maps and narrative interviews.” Forum:  Qualitative Social Research 16 (1). 

Piotrowski, Piotr. 2008. “On the Spatial Turn, or Horizontal Art History.” Umění art 5: 378–383. 

Tonković, Željka, and Sanja Sekelj. 2016. “Annual exhibitions of the Soros Center for  Contemporary Art Zagreb as a Place of Networking.” Život umjetnosti 99: 78–93.

White, Harrison C. 2008. Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge. Princeton:  Princeton University Press.