An Interview with

Nemanja Milenković

January 10, 2023

Nemanja Milenković is a branding expert with almost 30 years of brand development of people, products, companies, and destinations.


Combining his competencies in the humanities (as a history professor) and practical sciences (as an industrial management engineer), he has forged his unique approach to brand development through formal and non-formal education and decades of practice as an NLP coach, PEAT processor and brand coach. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Tourism.


He built his professional experience on local, regional and national radio and TV stations as a journalist, presenter, and host, and then as the first and youngest director of the provincial public service (Radio Television of Vojvodina). As the Mercator Public Relations Manager for Southeast Europe and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the EXIT Foundation, and with extensive experience in advertising agencies, including roles as sales, marketing and creative directors, he has participated in the creation of a multitude of successful brands in both the public and private sectors.


Through various leadership positions and with different teams, he has helped Novi Sad win 6 prestigious European awards during the course of a single decade: two-time winner of the Best Major European Festival Award (2013 and 2016), the title of European Youth Capital (2019), the winner of the European Trend Brand Award (2021), the title of European Capital of Culture (2022), as well as the coveted Melina Mercouri International Prize, awarded to the most successful European Capitals of Culture.


Novi Sad's official year as European Capital of Culture was delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. What problems did this cause? And have there been any advantages to this delay?


Certainly, when it comes to such extensive work, there will always be difficulties. It is one thing when we are making agreements, and another when we get into different situations out on the field. Since 2016, when we began preparing for this year, my team has shown that it is ready to rise to the challenge.


We held the grand opening of the European Capital of Culture during the new peak of the coronavirus, continued our programmes during the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, while adapting to new situations on the ground. We successfully overcame all of that, and that is why we have received praise and admiration from other European Capitals of Culture. For the sake of the team, there is not only room for a different approach, but after all, no room for modesty either. I thank my young colleagues for their tireless dedication, patience and love.


How has the Foundation worked to ensure that everyone, and all parts of the city, have been included in the 'cultural refresh'?


Decentralization and inclusion in cultural processes and flows has been one of the backbones from the beginning. Through the project slogan, '4 New Bridges', decentralization also refers to new people, places, processes and programmes. First through processes, in the form of various calls in which everyone was invited to participate, and then through renovated and new spaces.


In Novi Sad, before the title year, everything was somehow focused on the city centre. Now we have five restored cultural centres, which means that next to the very centre of the city, there is the Almaš neighbourhood, which is the oldest part of the city, then the Suburbium of the Petrovaradin Fortress, the second in terms of size in Europe, which is also the location of the best music festival in Europe, and where Doček, a unique celebration of two New Years, declared the best European Trend Brand in the field of culture is held. Then, the District, the restored hundred-year-old industrial heritage of Novi Sad, on the banks of the Danube, the second longest river in Europe, and finally, a network of cultural stations, perhaps the most important model of culture, reconstructed old and new buildings in the function of decentralization. These new cultural spaces not only revitalized neglected city districts, but also included members of the local community in cultural flows, not only as passive consumers of cultural content, but as active participants in creating the programme.


When Novi Sad applied to be the European Capital City of Culture, you said, "We aim for the moon, and if we miss, we hit the stars." Do you feel that Novi Sad has "hit the moon"? Is the programme achieving all you hoped for?


We did more than promised by winning the title. More than anyone could have hoped for. Moreover, after covid and the current situation in Europe, instead of a feat, which for every city the preparation of the title of European Capital of Culture is, the successful implementation of the project in Novi Sad has become a miracle. Spatially, entire neighbourhoods and buildings dedicated to culture have never been renovated or built in such a short period of time in Serbia. In terms of the programme, the biggest European and world artistic names and organizations have become an everyday part of our city. From the perspective of 2015, when we ran for this prestigious title, the dream became a reality. In other words, the vision we had at the beginning of '4 New Bridges' has been achieved, now we need to continue on the foundations of those bridges.


Has the European Capital of Culture title strengthened Novi Sad's links with other European cities—and if so, what benefits has this brought to the city?


When we present the fact that in the title year, more than 1,700 artists from as many as 45 countries participated in the programme, it already speaks volumes of the 'bridges' that Novi Sad has built. All of this, of course, was preceded by cooperation during the years of project preparation, but perhaps the most significant is the connection of local stakeholders with the European scene. These are new people and new processes. Those bridges become legacies, which further open the possibility for different artists to continue on that path, and not only in the title year. Some new doors and new dimensions of cooperation have been opened to the local scene, and on the other hand, to the European scene, a new, conditionally speaking, corner, the wealth that Novi Sad can offer in the field of new spaces and programmes and increased capacities.


Regarding the institutional level, Novi Sad was the place where the best European festivals and eminent institutions implemented their programmes, such as the Burg Theater, one of the most respected theatres in the world, Ars Electronica, the famous European centre for new media art, the Prague Quadrennial, the most important world event dedicated to scenography, stage design, architecture and space in performing arts, the Dublin Theatre Festival, the oldest European theatre festival from Ireland, as well as one of the most prominent contemporary Italian theatre festivals – Associazione Culturale Capotrave/Kilowatt, the Swedish Gothenburg Dance and Theater Festival and a Greek organization dedicated to an innovative performance model – Polyplanity, Ulay Foundation, Typhlogical Museum from Croatia, Encontros da Imagem, the oldest festival of photography and visual arts from Portugal and many others.


Here at Sustain Europe, we often write about cultural sustainability: the importance of preserving heritage and culture, and presenting them to visitors and citizens in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. Do you feel the Capital of Culture programme is helping tourism become more sustainable in Novi Sad?


In the year of the European Capital of Culture title, Novi Sad has broken the record in terms of the number of tourists in the last 20 years. In addition to tourists from the region, the statistics from previous years were surpassed when it comes to tourists from all parts of Europe, but also from the whole world: the USA, Qatar, India, Georgia, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and numerous other countries.


The European Capital of Culture project is not only about culture. It brings much more complex benefits for tourism, hospitality, the economy, the general economy of the city, the social aspect… everything that contributes to the building a brand of the city, which is reflected in the fact that culture has become a way of life in Novi Sad.


What does the cultural future of Novi Sad look like? Do you feel the Capital of Culture programme is laying a good base for Novi Sad's culture to carry on thriving?


From the ideals of the 19th century, when Novi Sad, as the centre of primarily Serbian culture, was declared the Serbian Athens, to today's title of the European Capital of Culture, the city’s identity has been influenced by numerous circumstances, directly or indirectly. However, what has now crystallized and what we have now, encouraged by the most prestigious European title in the field of culture, determined to be woven into its identity is the fact that it really is the centre of culture, i.e., Serbian Athens and the European Capital of Culture. Novi Sad needs to develop further on that. Through the European Capital of Culture project, we first 'planted' hope, and finally, the possibility for growth and development. Still, like everything you plant, it needs to be watered, i.e., to understand that the title of European Capital of Culture is not just a festival that has a defined ending, but only the beginning of a new story, one which needs to be nurtured and developed on a continuous basis.




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