31 May 2018

Opening plenary 2018 – The intersection of policy and culture

Against the backdrop of the European Year of Culture, Jacki Davis, journalist and public speaker, kicked off the Conference as moderator of the Opening Plenary, which featured inspiring leaders that have made culture (and cultures) a focal point in their work and who highlighted the important role philanthropy could play in ensuring that it remains a shared priority.

The first word went to Luc Luyten, Chair of the Belgian Federation of Philanthropic Foundations and Chair of the 2018 Conference Host Committee, who welcomed the more than 600 delegates in the audience to the conference. “Culture is a vital sign of life in every society and community here in Brussels, in Belgium, in Europe – everywhere,” he said. The Opening Plenary speakers would “help us understand why we need strong policies to support culture to connect citizens”.

As a warm up for the audience, Sergio Gratteri, musicologist and audience engagement expert, led delegates in a group singing exercise, to get the ideas and inspiration flowing.

Jan Goossens – challenging philanthropy to step in and step up

The keynote speaker, Jan Goossens, Director of the Festival de Marseille, took the stage and wowed delegates with his impassioned defence of the power of culture to build bridges and bring hope. He first outlined the trying times that Europe is living through, and the fraught context that cultural projects and policies are being developed in. “Europe has become a battlefield between populists and reformers,” he said. Widening inequality means that “Europe seems to be reinventing its own class war.” European policymakers have shown themselves to be “profoundly incapable of offering courageous responses.”

Artists have predicted this and are creating artistic pushback on these growing lines of concern in Europe. They understand that Europe can no longer hide behind its past accomplishments, but must forge bold solutions to stave off collapse of the European project. We must “restart, relaunch, try to redirect the European project by deeply investing in building bridges, values and solidarity on many levels and in many fields.”

So where does philanthropy come in? Goossens believes that creating shared European spaces is key, and this is where foundations can step in. “The creation of shared spaces, which can be real spaces of resistance, will be crucial,” he said. “This will not solve everything, but we will not get to solutions unless we have a common future to look towards.”

An example of this kind of shared European space is the Festival de Marseille, a series of cultural projects in a city that suffers from deep cultural and social divisions. One event brought citizens of Marseille to 3 nights of performances at the National Theatre of Marseilles. The novelty of these performances was that 70% of the audience had never been to the theatre before. Citizens also shared the stage with performers, through an interactive dialogue. Bridging communities through culture in a shared space makes this a prime example of what Goossens is advocating for. Public funders may be reluctant to fund such projects, so foundations can step in to fund bold and innovative projects.

Goossens warned also of being too Eurocentric. “We cannot reinvent Europe if we do not include other artists, like artists from Africa − they need our support but we need their inspiration,” he said. Besides, places of real tension and destruction that once were exotic to us – Tunis, Kinshasa, Port au Prince – are no longer so. “They are intricately connected to European urban experience,” he said.

Finally he said that arts and culture will not be enough on their own – they will have to be part of a larger conversation about cross-sectoral solutions, and philanthropy could play a role here as well.

Does policy empower or dilute culture’s role in social change? – A moderated debate

To hash out some of the issues raised in the keynote speech, Jacki Davis moderated a discussion among Jan Goossens; Nina Obuljen Koržinek, Croatia’s Minister of Culture; and Martine Reicherts, Member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Luxembourg and former European Commissioner.

Nina Obuljen Koržinek said that through education and culture we can address inequalities, and the other concerns brought up in the keynote address. “I think we are doing much better than 10 or 15 years ago in terms of understanding the importance of arts and culture in the European project,” she said. “And we did a lot with philanthropy to bring these agendas and concerns closer to the centre of the debate.” She cited the new EU agenda on culture as a point of pride, saying that it sends a clear message about what can be done at EU level and what Member States can do.

Martine Reicherts pointed out that at the European Commission, the Directorate General for Education and Culture was once seen as a minor player, but this has changed. “They have understood finally that education and culture are really key to the whole problem,” she said.

For Jan Goossens, this was not enough. “It is true that culture has moved more to the centre, that there is money, that there are some political ambitions being formulated,” he said. “But the implementation and impact are lacking in ambition, creativity and being daring enough.” He had the impression that safer, clearer, more consensual projects that are being carried out by more established institutions such as operas and museums are the ones being funded.

Reicherts emphasised the sensitivities around culture, saying that it can be very political. “Waterloo was a win for some, a loss for others,” she said. “And it can be the same in selecting these projects.” She stressed that foundations should absolutely step in where public funders will not. Taking it further, she suggested that philanthropists should, “Stop asking the EU to do your job.”

Koržinek also pushed back, saying, “We need to not neglect what already exists, heritage is important.” She said that there is a role for everyone to play, and the question is, what is the role of governments? Those responsible for public funding need procedures, even though they can sometimes bog things down. But foundations can be more brave, innovative, and experimental, and clearly have a role to play in this sensitive issue.

Goossens gave an example of the French government’s attempt to build bridges to immigrant and socio-economically challenged communities by sending paintings from the Louvre to exhibit in these communities. “The problem is recognised,” he said. “But the solutions are horrible.”

He warned that, “We are sitting on time bombs in European cities. Kids living there feel no reason to identify with institutional or cultural life, they have no perspective and no future, so all that has happened in the past five years becomes very attractive,” he said. “Who will take the lead in listening to them and empowering them?” The EU and foundations need to better understand and incorporate into their policies and projects what artists are building up in terms of know-how, connections and networks in these socio-economically challenged communities. A permanent conversation between EU policymakers, foundations, and cultural practitioners could be key to leveraging this knowledge to create effective policy.

Koržinek and Reicherts welcomed the challenges brought up in the debate, and agreed that philanthropy has a key role to play in linking politicians and the people on the ground.

Final thoughts

Koržinek said that in working together, we cannot look at foundations as a monolithic group, as each has their own philosophy and way of working. National governments, the EU, citizens and foundations can all do their part, collectively and individually.

For Reicherts, trust emerged as a key issue. She would like to see a move from a world of fear, where everything is checked and controlled, to a world of trust.

Pitching a concrete proposal, Goossens said that what would be extremely meaningful would be to have a cultural Erasmus-style programme, focusing on the Mediterranean, that would allow young, potential artists from fragile areas in cities to embark on a two-year training programme, spending three months at a time in different cities. This new shared space of trust would be a form of belonging that is not anchored in the past but projects into the future.

Jacki Davis thanked the speakers for a lively and insightful debate.