“This is not the time to invest less in culture, but rather more.”
How can the cultural relations sector combat the negative effects of the corona pandemic? How can advocacy for culture in foreign policy be strengthened? In a EUNIC Talk about “Cultural Relations and Covid-19”, held on 15 July 2020, cultural managers from five different countries engaged in a discussion with representatives from EU institutions and the sector.
The meeting was opened with a statement by Roberto Vellano, EUNIC president, introducing the learnings from a survey EUNIC has conducted among its 36 EUNIC members. The survey researched how the crisis has affected the sector and what members in headquarters and in local branches project as the long-term consequences. He also presented the EUNIC Statement that was published on 8 June 2020, recommending all actors of cultural relations to invest in culture in foreign policy, to engage in a joint approach to cultural relations, and to support local cultural sectors worldwide.
Natasha Ginwala, Artistic Director of the Colomboscope multidisciplinary arts festival in Sri Lanka, started the panel by stating that not only did the pandemic alter public health and society, it also caused artists struggle to sustain. Cross-border collaboration can be ensured by looking at new ways of working together, as is the Colomboscope festival doing together with European partners, supported by the European Spaces of Culture project. Their joint online programme Held Apart, Together showcases local and international artists active during lockdown. Natasha stressed that “internationalism and exchange is oxygen for the community, that we welcome from a grassroots premise”, pointing out that state facilities for culture lack a focus on young and experimental artists. She also noted that new formats need to be developed as we emerge from the crisis, combining digital and physical aspects.
Internationalism and exchange is oxygen for the community. We welcome this from a grassroots premise.
Randa Hamid, Project Coordinator “Sudan and Europe – Creative Connections" and representing EUNIC Sudan, underlined this testimony by stating that in Sudan, networking and collaboration is difficult as it is without Covid-19 looming over society: “Sudan is passing through a very special political and economic condition right now, and corona comes on top of all that.” European partners can play a key role in technical support to the cultural sector in Sudan with dedicated funds investing in infrastructure and continuous training and capacity programmes, as well as by engaging in policy dialogue with the Sudanese government in order to make culture a priority area.
Henriette Geiger, Director People and Peace at the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation of the European Commission, welcomed Natasha’s and Randa’s observations and underlined that we are called to act together. The role of artists and culture must not be underestimated in building resilience worldwide. The European Commission reoriented its development cooperation portfolio to continue its work by adapting existing actions (such as the Ethical Fashion Initiative, reoriented to face mask design and production), accelerated administrative processes and opened new specific windows of activities, such as the Meet the Neighbours of the Neighbours digital platform. DG DEVCO furthermore briefed EU Delegations on the role of culture in responding to the crisis. “Culture is best placed because of the extensive experience of collaborating in partner countries through EUNIC and EU Delegations – we have to bring this to the next level and this is important for the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework for an added value to the cultural sector. EUNIC, with its combined investment in culture and worldwide staff of 35,000 is a real firepower, so we just need to use it well.”
Oliver Rentschler, Director Inter-institutional Relations, Policy Coordination and Public Diplomacy at EEAS, gave a wider perspective on cultural diplomacy and analysis of global policies and politics. The pandemic has brought many worrying trends and has amplified socio-economic fragility, intolerance, nationalist tendencies, battles of narratives, blame gaming, questioning collaborative - a lot is at stake if these issues are not confronted in an appropriate way. “None of the replies to these issues will work if we don’t put cultural relations at the heart of it all.” The EU strategy for cultural relations confirms this more than ever and therefore needs to grow, by expanding and improving the models of European Spaces of Culture, or further developing the Cultural Heritage Route in the Eastern Neighbourhood. He also indicated that while the EU strategic approach to international cultural relations dates to 2016, it is now time for a review: “We need to adapt the cultural relations strategy, expand what has proven to work and commit to it. This is not the time to invest less in culture, but rather more.”
We need to review the cultural relations strategy, expand what has proven to work and commit to it. This is not the time to invest less in culture, but rather more.
Sebastian Körber, Deputy Head of ifa, the Institute for External Cultural Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), one of the German members of EUNIC talked about how the German presidency of the Council of the European Union takes forward the topic of cultural relations. Culture should be recognised as an investment, not as a luxury. He announced that ifa will publish a study on the long term effects of the inequalities pushed to the surface by the crisis, and what culture can do about it. Another focus area for ifa is how culture and civil society work together, stressing that while the pandemic has lead to more nationalism, it has also underlined stronger solidarity.
Lyubov Kostova, EUNIC representative from Bulgaria, where she is the Director of the British Council, explained the impact of the pandemic in Sofia. The very strong anti-Covid measures impeded cultural actors on a large scale. The economic blow to the cultural sector has been heavy, especially to the independent sector. As funding for culture is quite weak in Bulgaria, the pandemic showed how vulnerable the sector really is. Some actions were taken by the municipality, while the Ministry of Culture was able to reorganise its funding plans for independent artists and operators. How has EUNIC supported organisations in this crisis? EUNIC has raised the voice to continue to do cultural relations and to increase access to international culture and culture from all over the country. Lyubov ended by calling all actors to organise roundtables from across communities to discuss what has worked and what has not. Culture must be seen as an absolute necessity.
Ulf Hausbrandt, EUNIC representative in Ukraine and Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, focused in his presentation on the general situation in Ukraine. The cultural sector in Ukraine has seen positive developments, including an increase in funding. However, the crisis has hit the sector hard, with the largest difference to EU countries being the lack of a safety net. Just a few days ago, the government finally announced a financial package for the cultural sector, albeit small. House of Europe, the EU-funded project led by the Goethe-Institut, installed a response package already in April which includes infrastructure grants, digital cooperation grants and an online hackathon. Looking towards the future, Ulf emphasized the risk of underfunding of culture in the next years, and fears of culture not remaining a priority. Ulf expressed the worry that “creative talent, artists and cultural managers, is lost due to poor economic conditions, especially since 67% of the Ukrainian population consider migrating an option. This will mean a loss of potential partners and thereby a reduced sustainability of EUNIC members' own programmes.” He also said that due to the expected budget cuts in Member States, European cultural input in Ukraine will decrease.
Ukraine risks losing creative talent due to poor economic conditions, especially since 67% of the Ukrainian population consider migrating an option. This will mean a loss of potential partners and thereby a reduced sustainability of EUNIC members' own programmes.
As final speaker, Tamás Szűcs, Director Culture and Creativity and the Directorate-General of Education, Youth, Sports and Culture of the European Commission, shared his prospect that the crisis could even strengthen European cooperation in other fields, such as mitigating the impact of climate change or addressing mental health. With this crisis, it also becomes clear how much culture benefits our wellbeing and social and economic development. Tamás said the economic recovery plan is a comprehensive response to help Europe get back on its feet but could also benefit the cultural sector with additional funding outside of Creative Europe (if Member States decide so). Culture is mentioned among fourteen sectors that require attention. Additional financial support would be available through a wide range of programmes.
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The Q&A with participants of the debate focused on questions such as how the EEAS will ensure its capacity in human resources to implement the strategy of international cultural relations, how advocacy for culture should be strengthened and embedded in other policy fields and supported by pragmatic objectives such as job creation. Panellists further answered questions about the music industry in Sri Lanka and Sudan, and the point was made that while culture strengthens resilience of communities, we also need to make sure artists and cultural professionals can stay resilient. Digital cultural relations were mentioned, calling out the importance to rethink new practices in light of leaving no one behind.
A final poll was launched to gather what should be the next topic covered in a EUNIC Talk, with a majority opting for digitisation, slightly followed by the European Green Deal. A number of participants also voiced interest in talking about cultural relations and peace building.
The panel was moderated by Gitte Zschoch, EUNIC Director, and brought together more than 250 people to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on cultural relations.