Eastern Partnership Ministerial Conference on Culture, Tbilisi, 27-28 June 2013

Eastern Partnership Ministerial Conference on Culture
27-28 June 2013

Eastern Partnership Ministerial Conference on Culture
Tbilisi, June 27-18, 2013

program in PDF format

Cultural governance, challenges in the region seen by the independent sector
Philipp Dietachmair, Coordinator of Sub-Group Culture (Working Group 4), Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished Ministers, Commissioner, your Excellencies, dear colleagues,

I am working for an independent cultural foundation called the European Cultural Foundation in Amsterdam. But today I address you as the current coordinator of a group of about 20 civil society organizations working in the field of culture. Our organizations and cultural initiatives – almost half of them is present here today – work in all Eastern Partnership countries and a growing number of EU countries. Under the name of Subgroup Culture we represent our interests and propose new cultural policy ideas coming from the independent cultural sector in the framework of Working Group 4 of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.

For the past few years all members of our group have been collaborating on an increasing number of cultural civil society projects which cross EU borders and at the same time involve different places in the Eastern Partnership countries in new regional cooperation structures. The projects supported by the Eastern Partnership Culture Programme or the Tandem Cultural Managers Exchange meanwhile already represent a good pool of such trans-national and regional collaboration experiences.

What we can clearly see in our daily practice is that the structural conditions and external circumstances of our work may still differ from country to country but the overall issues and challenges in all our societies which we can address with cultural civil society strategies are increasingly the same:

All over Europe – inside and outside the EU and its neighborhood – fundamental questions about the future development of our democracies are being raised. The economic crisis threatens entire areas of our societies – especially its younger, elder or marginalized parts – to lead a life under precarious circumstances on a continuous basis. All over Europe citizens demand more participation in decision-making, more transparency in using common goods and more social justice.

Most people directly experience the ongoing socio-economic shifts in their own neighborhoods, the villages, urban districts or towns they live in. In times of fundamental economic transformations when new answers for our democratic systems are needed the maintaining of social cohesion is crucial. Keeping our societies together however needs spaces for negotiating different opinions and ideas, especially on local community level – and this is where many of our cultural initiatives operate today.

The SPACES project supported by the Eastern Partnership Culture Programme for example engages young and socially marginalized dwellers of different neighborhoods in Chisinau, Kyiv, Tbilisi and Yerevan. In a creative discussion and do-it-yourself renovation process which involves citizens, local artists but also the local authorities, a dilapidated public infrastructure such as a run-down underpass or an abandoned square turns into a meaningful public space again. A collaborative artistic intervention or the realization of a temporary open air cinema turns former no-go areas in new urban zones which citizens are not afraid to use anymore.

Socially engaged art projects like this create opportunities for people with a variety of opinions to discuss issues of importance to them as individuals and the neighborhoods they live in. Such projects allow participants to express their critical opinions about pressing social needs but also political issues. Ideally such processes also discuss real practical solutions together with local authorities. In that sense cultural initiatives become examples of citizen participation and grass-roots democracy in the most immediate living environments of citizens.

Both in the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries another important aspect of the independent cultural sector is our critical, yet constructive approach to cultural policy reforms. We try to do this in dialogue with members of the local and state authorities and also the EU institutions. In all formerly socialist countries in the EU and the Eastern Partnership the legacy of state-funding for culture has left newly founded cultural NGOs outside strategic decision-making processes of the authorities and public funding mechanisms at the beginning. This is why many cultural policy debate and reform initiatives were and still are often initiated by the independent cultural sector itself – especially on municipality or region level.

An NGO initiative called Ukraine Culture Network for example has recently developed so-called local cultural resource maps for 8 cities all over Ukraine. These maps tried to pool all local artistic and cultural assets through the eyes of the citizens living in Lviv, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk, Luhansk, Lutsk, Odessa, Melitopol and Mykolayiv. A list of citizens’ ideas and their wishes for developing and improving the cultural offer in these cities was presented to the authorities and discussed in local media. In addition, a number of structural observations and strategic cultural development measures were proposed by local experts and the cultural NGO groups which initiated this project. The cultural resource maps now provide municipalities a base for debating the cultural future of these cities together with its inhabitants. The thematic areas addressed in the maps cover a broad range of issues from cultural diversity to social inclusion of marginalized groups, heritage preservation needs, youth culture and many other local priorities of concern for local citizens. Groups in other Ukrainian cities like Vinitsa but also some rural places in Georgia have just started to use the cultural policy mapping process for their local population as well.

Many of our local innovation projects also open channels to take a fresh creative look at the established ways of life. This can be of special importance in rural areas where folkloric traditions of diverse cultural groups and creative skills in a number of crafts still play a crucial role in community life. Harnessing these local cultural traditions can provide an important impetus for improving local quality of life in remote rural areas or peripheral communities where ethnic minorities live. However, a contemporary artistic reinterpretation or reinvention of these rural traditions and crafts is often the only way to keep them alive and meaningful for the next generations. This is where non-formal types of education as offered by artists or cultural community workers can play an important role.

In the Tandem Exchange Programme a group of female embroiderers from the village of Palanca in Moldova recently collaborated with a Berlin-based fashion designer originating from Romania. Their participation in the Berlin Fashion Week turned into a very successful, internationally promoted new fashion line which is now sold worldwide via the Internet. This is a good example of how a very unusual trans-border and cross-sector cooperation in our field can develop real social innovation and development potential, especially for women living in a small rural community.

Independent cultural organizations are often filling a niche that neither the state nor the private sector is ready to engage in. The few examples which I mentioned show how civil society organizations in the field of culture can stimulate citizens to become drivers of social cohesion and democratic development in their own local environment – especially when public services or business investments are absent.

A recurring issue for the independent cultural sector across the region is the question of appropriate working spaces and the availability of venues for cultural projects. As players outside the public-funded cultural infrastructure cultural NGOs usually do not have access to government owned buildings. In absence of sufficient funding lines their budgets are also often too limited for renting space for market prices. This situation makes independent organizations vulnerable and dependant on temporary working conditions.

A positive example of finding a creative solution for this problem is the collaboration of a number of cultural NGOs based in Chisinau within a temporary empty building of a public museum. It was first rented for only a weekend by the European Cultural Foundation and the Soros Foundation Moldova for a festival of the Tandem programme. Since then however, Museum Zemstvai hosts the contemporary art organizations Oberliht (which is also present here today) and K:SAK. A small subsidy given to the two organizations by the Moldovan Ministry of Culture in allows them to get a substantially reduced and hence affordable rent for this otherwise empty building.

There are already many examples for public and private initiatives which provide viable models for turning abandoned industrial spaces or state-owned infrastructure into vibrant cultural factories. Some of these spaces can already be found in the Eastern Partnership countries. However, most of these are private initiatives of wealthy individuals. A further exchange of models for revitalizing public property by housing independent cultural initiatives between the EU and Eastern Partnership countries could help here. A greater acknowledgment of this topic in cultural development strategies across the region would help cultural NGOs to tackle their work space problems. In return this would allow especially municipalities to increase their cultural offer for citizens.

Another challenge for newly established cultural NGOs in the region I already touched upon is the fact that cultural budgets are almost completely spent for already established institutions. In times of economic hardships cultural NGOs all over Europe play a growing role for providing cultural services to citizens in niches where the state withdraws and business is not interested.

Cultural civil society organizations across the region almost by nature have learned to live with very modest budgets. Still, as there are too few public funding lines which acknowledge their actual contribution to society most of them struggle financially on a daily basis. The establishment of innovative funding mechanisms which are more detached from direct disbursement of administrations to public institutions could increase transparency and accountability. Introducing independent juries and more project-based grant-making procedures would support a more equal and fair access to public funding for culture.

The provision of more appropriate working spaces, a better acknowledgement of our positive contribution to social innovation and opening more public funds for NGO projects are key practical priorities of our sector. We hope to see these topics featuring more prominently on public policy agendas in the future.

Most importantly however, we believe that we need to work on developing a real spirit of partnership and trust between government and independent cultural actors. The cultural resources of the region and the many professional skills and positive practices that are already available only will fully unfold their potential for our societies, if resources are pooled and new knowledge as well as the efforts of all cultural actors – public – independent or private are shared.

This is why we think we need to create a new model that would enable regular consultations and knowledge exchange between government structures and independent cultural actors on regional Eastern Partnership level. Our proposal would be to launch an ongoing structured dialogue and partnership process for cultural policy reform across the entire region. This process should be a regional knowledge exchange platform but it should also result in real collaboration and concrete policy reform projects. It should involve governments, their cultural institutions, European institutions, municipalities, civil society in culture, citizens and other private stakeholders both in the European Union and the Eastern Partnership countries.

Our group of civil society organizations will take a next important step for extending our regional collaboration in this direction in autumn this year. A coalition of civic initiatives and the city of Lublin will host a regional congress called Culture for the Eastern Partnership. During this gathering of stakeholders from all over the EU and the Eastern Partnership we will launch a new regional network of civil society organizations in culture. The network will substantially increase the number of cultural NGOs represented in the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and shall also enlarge our pool of practical experiences and partnership opportunities with government institutions and policymakers.

We believe that this new network could be an important regional backbone for creating the structured and participative dialogue on cultural policy reform we propose. Our presence here today is hence also an invitation for a new regional partnership between civil society and governments in the field of culture. There are substantial challenges to tackle but the possibilities of making our cultural assets work for our societies together are clearly out there – and culture – as Charles Esche, the director of the Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands often underlines: culture speaks more about the possibilities than the impossibilities!

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