Culture As A Development Tool: Six Lessons Learned

How can the EU improve cultural diplomacy in Eastern Europe?

The EU is currently reviewing its cultural diplomacy work in its 16 neighbouring countries. This is because in 2017 the EU made culture central to its work with other states, and also because the European Commission will launch its next seven-year budgetary programme in 2020.

What can the EU do to increase impact?

Having been the Team Leader of the EU’s culture programme in six east European states over the last three years (, I have been involved in a number of stakeholder consultations in Brussels in spring 2018 on the lessons learned from   “one of the [EU’s] most successful programmes” in the sphere of culture.

Here are six of the key points that have been shared:

 1.     The understanding of culture and creative industries is shifting

In the East Culture was brutalised by the Soviet regime and people who lived through it do not share the same positivity as people in Western Europe. Consequently, cultural consumption is low. Culture is confused with one key ideology: Culture as a tool of government to develop their own image of what distinguishes one territory from a neighbouring one. Culture is therefore representational not diverse. This misuse of culture can be seen in both the unreformed post-Soviet nations and in those nations pushing for European integration and a denial of their historic past.

The main development that is forcing a renewed interpretation of culture is the development of creative industries. Artificial intelligence, social media, and new technology did not exist in the Soviet model. Governments see the potential of the creative industries as a job and wealth creator and want to take credit for its development. Because lucrative creative industries like gaming need, graphic designers, actors, artists, script writers, producers, historical researchers, musicians, advertising specialists and more - government has had to rethink the value and the role of professionals who have studied the Arts.

Moreover, creative industries are transversal. Creative industries can be used to improve manufacturing processes, healthcare, education, tourism and social services. They don’t fit into a neat box, nor do the people who work in them. This forces fresh challenges.

 2.     The value chain remains unreformed

Warhol understood he was part of the economic cycle – Tarkovsky did not. That’s because the Communist Party controlled the creation, distribution, and sale of culture. Artists’ main role in the process was production. Following the collapse of the USSR, inexperienced ministries of culture have filled the void left by the Party. Instead the commercial and non-commercial sectors should have become the main driver of the cultural product, and government should have supported them with direction, support in giving the sector its own control over its role, distribution and sales.  Consequently, these countries are rich with artistic talent, but weak in terms of cultural product distribution, auction houses, Intellectual Property lawyers, literary agents, distribution channels, touring theatres, cultural lobbyists, cultural journalists, theatrical agents, specialist insurance policies, cultural PR and marketing companies, cultural management services and professional groups. These are all the professional skills needed to link the artist with the consumer.

 3.     Professional association is vital

One sign of weak value chains is a lack of professional bodies that unify a sector so it can lobby effectively with government. Old trade unions still exist, and skilled professionals avoid them as much as they do talking to government. Interpersonal trust is low still in Eastern Europe. Professionals see no immediate benefit in working together through guilds, federations or associations. Consequently, the sector has no voice, and little power or influence. Internationally this makes global networking difficult. The region becomes isolated. East European artists therefore find it harder to work abroad, they do not develop a reputation and they cannot achieve international remuneration.

 4.     Management and business transparency

Many cultural institutions are poorly run. Soviet style management still leave directors ultimately in charge of decisions that should be made as far down the staff pay scale as possible. Young staff are de-incentivised. Working abroad becomes a common dream. Older, senior staff do not move on after five years. Institutions stagnate. Nepotism, bribery and gathering compromising information on staff members are rife in HR structures and appointment processes. Large-scale shows, festivals and cultural heritage restoration, provide great opportunities for corruption. This makes collaboration internationally unattractive, if not impossible.

 5.     Critical thinking could deliver progress

Even if cultural operators can self-organise, they also need critical thinking skills to argue their case.

The education systems are failing these countries’ ability to compete internationally. Literature, history, music and art should be challenging subjects that open up discussion and debate. Humanities and science subjects should develop enquiring minds, so that in adulthood audiences want to explore intellectual challenges through cultural expression.

Education should be developing critical thinking that does not copy and paste, but disrupts established thought, improves systems, challenges ideas and increases tolerance. These are the skills that will produce both good artists, great managers and vibrant economies.

 6.     Policies need to be strategic and integrated

All of the above needs to be developed simultaneously. Developing a national culture and creative industries policy needs to include the ministry of finance, ministry of labour, ministry of education, ministry of trade in a deep and meaningful process. To achieve this the role of ministries has to change. Far too many are staffed by lawyers who write impractical legislation. Ministries need to act in the interests of their citizens, through promotion, monitoring standards, ensuring labour force supply and supportive financial instruments. This requires continuous consultation with the sector, and as much outsourcing of work to the sector as possible. The government’s most important role is to set a strategic vision, that will support the sector and society in the decade ahead. Government should be about what is possible, not what is not allowed. Government policy should set slightly unachievable targets – so the sector can help it forge ahead positively and be ambitious.

Tim Williams

May 2018


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