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Armenia begins reconnecting with its diaspora, starting in Glendale

The Armenian minister of culture, Lilit Makunts, visited Glendale Friday evening to share her vision for the future of Armenia’s entertainment industry and answer questions about the recent revolution that led to a peaceful transition of power after a decade of one-party rule riddled with corruption.

At the event, held at the Downtown Central Library, Makunts said the ministry’s partnership with Creative Armenia, a foundation based in both Los Angeles and Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, will assist the Armenian government in improving the country’s entertainment industry.

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It’s a significant moment for Glendale, which has the largest number of Armenians in the West, many of whom emigrated from Armenia in past decades to flee oppressive rule and civil war.

“It’s great to be recognized as a center of the diaspora,” said Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian at the event, referring to the scattering of a population, often involuntarily, whose origin is in a separate geographic area, such as Armenia.

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“We hope it’s the beginning to many more visits, deeper and more warm connections between her, the government of Armenia and the people of Glendale,” Najarian added.

Makunts, 34, has been on the job for about a month and a half. She is one of about 19 recently appointed ministers, several of whom were young participants in grass-roots protests, led by now Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, that grew by the thousands to become what’s known as the “Velvet Revolution.”

In just a couple of weeks, individual acts of civil disobedience loosened the power grab by Serzh Sargsyan, who was president for 10 years before Armenia became a parliamentary republic and the Republican Party elected him again as prime minister.

“What happened … was not supposed to be possible,” Alec Mouhibian, vice president of Creative Armenia, told audience members at the event. “It was going to take several generations before we shook the Soviet shadow.”

The excitement to get a firsthand account of the revolution was palpable in the Glendale library as Makunts shared her experience and introduced her vision for the arts in Armenia to more than 400 attendees.

She began in English, but after an audience member shouted out, she transitioned to Armenian. During the question-and-answer portion of the event, audience members inched away from a staff member trying to grab the microphone to hand it to another attendee and they spoke over each other in an attempt to get a word in with Makunts. People herded around Makunts after her talk until she was escorted out by a security guard.

It was a rare opportunity for Armenian American residents to reconnect with their home country’s government.

“There’s always been tension between Armenia and the diaspora … starting from Soviet times,” said Ara Oshagon, an artist and curator on the Glendale Arts and Culture Commission. “The Armenian government hasn’t really made a big effort to reduce those tensions, so this is a huge step forward.”

With new leadership, the diaspora can “look at Armenia as an opportunity and not as a burden,” Mouhibian said.

“The Velvet Revolution proved that culture is Armenia’s strongest resource,” Mouhibian added. “Our culture is what led the whole world to say ‘How did they do that?’ Our goal is to convert this revolution into a long-term renaissance of Armenian art.”

Creative Armenia will act as a key consultant to the Armenian government in its effort to build the entertainment industry essentially from scratch, with a focus on accountability and growth. Mouhibian said government officials want to make Armenian art relevant globally, not just to Armenian audiences.

Later this year, Makunts and Creative Armenia will launch Artbox, an accelerator-like program that will assist artists with funding, strategy and mentorship in bringing their projects to fruition. The organization will receive support and promotion of its projects from the Armenian government.

Creative Armenia is a foundation that operates like a production company, Mouhibian said. It finds and develops talent and then funds projects to boost Armenian artists’ careers. The group’s board includes high-profile Armenian creators, including Serj Tankian, singer with the Glendale-based heavy-metal band System of a Down, and Eric Esrailian, producer of the movie “The Promise.”

Mouhibian said the country’s entertainment industry has for decades been filled with corruption and cronyism. In Armenia, most cultural centers and studios in film, television and music are linked to the Ministry of Culture.

A handful of people in power make decisions for the large and complex music, film, arts and television industries and would often only fund the projects of their “buddies,” Mouhibian said.

“Because of the huge Armenian community here, and because L.A. is the creative capital of the world, I believe this revolution was a huge boon to Los Angeles,” he said.

One attendee at the Glendale library event asked Makunts what the city can do to help the Ministry of Culture.

“We need expertise,” she replied.

Armenia lacks a cultural infrastructure, especially in more rural areas, Makunts said. She asked that Glendale residents and other Armenians abroad support the ministry with expertise in cinematography, production, music and other fields, or with investments to fund creative projects.

Now that the diaspora has support from the Armenian government, there’s a sense of hope in Glendale, Najarian said.

“There has been a huge shift in Glendale because the city has such close ties to Armenia despite being [7,000] miles away,” he said. “We do believe this new change in government is going to lead to a much more open, much more free, much more transparent government and that’s what everyone has been asking for for decades in Armenia.”

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