Cultural Policy between Agency and Theory. Impressions from Hildesheim.

Copyright: Andreas Hartmann

Wolfgang Schneider, Birgit Mandel And Daniel Gad

by Anke Schad and Michael Wimmer

It can be difficult to gain a clear overview of large academic conferences. ICCPR2014 in Hildesheim provided a forum for more than 200 individual presentations from a wide range of viewpoints, all spread over up to 14 parallel sessions. Of course there were some routines that were familiar from the previous events organised by EDUCULT in Barcelona (2012), Jyväskylä (2010), Istanbul (2008) and Vienna (2006), including a return to popular issues such as Culture and Development, Culture and Diplomacy, Culture and Urban Development and Cultural Industries. It was striking how these phenomena were strongly linked to a particular context (“place”) while also revealing some surprising global interconnections (“common ground”). Yet while researchers and academics in Europe and the “Western world” have tended to focus on critical analyses of the state and commodification, the contributions of African and Arab delegates impressively demonstrated what it means when a country is attacked or even taken over by extremists, thus suspending the rule of law and basic democratic and human rights. The willingness to do critical research or to produce art is political per se, combining educational, artistic, academic and economic interests in the service of social transformation. So in Hildesheim, “good ol’” cultural policy once again took to the stage as social policy, but visibly rejuvenated and in female, activist and Arab garb.

Are we just playing an academic career game? Or are we agents of change in a development context?” These were the questions posed by Jonathan Vickery from the University of Warwick in his closing comments. These questions are only relevant to an audience which has the luxury of being able to choose which path to take. Perhaps it was the focus on “change” and “agency” that led to most presenters failing to elaborate on the methodology they used in their research. Jenny Johannisson, professor at the University of Borås/Sweden and Chair of the Scientific Committee, pointed out that there is still a need to establish an academic, theoretically-grounded and methodologically-sound approach to cultural policy research and to seek out debate in the “major” disciplines of political science, social science and history. Whilst previous ICCPR conferences have tended to underline the seemingly unbridgeable gap between academic and applied (advisory/activist) research, the conference in Hildesheim showed signs of a changing trend.

It was mainly the younger, female-dominated generation of researchers and activists – such as Rana Yazaji of Culture Resource Egypt – who argued that it may be more beneficial for the sector to seek out dialogue and consciously use specific contexts and roles in a productive way. It was particularly positive to see how the conference did its best to create flat hierarchies in which young researchers, practitioners and academically and theoretically established researchers could operate. Its presentation format was ideally suited to enabling exchanges between equals. Some contributions also presented new alliances at methodological level, for example, in participatory research, informed decision-making and expertise in political agenda setting.

The conference organisers succeeded in gathering together a remarkable group of young activists and researchers from Arab and African countries (who until then had had limited access to the international research scene) in the historic setting of Marienburg Fortress – now the Culture Campus of Hildesheim University. During panel discussions on Cultural Policy and Political Crisis, they reported on their efforts to implement a progressive cultural policy in today’s conflict situations. Despite the fact that some of their lives are under threat they demonstrated their strong will to work for a better society using culture as a tool. Resisting every form of censorship is at the top of their cultural policy agenda. In their fight against authoritarian regimes, they directly demonstrated to the other delegates the power of their fight for democracy and the kind of curiosity, clarity of thought, willingness to act and vitality which threatens to disappear from large swathes of our crisis-ridden Western economies and which really threw a light on the growing sense of lethargy in cultural policy engagement.

A critical analysis is needed: what has become of the promise of widespread democracy through culture?

In his report, Michael Wimmer focused on the threats to democracy posed by current trends in Europe relating to culture and cultural policy. He brought these threads together in order to turn the spotlight on the dangerous coincidence of the “democracy fatigue” that is rampant in Europe and the resurgence of authoritarian regimes at Europe’s fringes. The direct cultural policy dimension emerges in the non-fulfilment of promises of democracy, which were once taken up by representatives of the arts and culture as part of their involvement in widespread democratisation. A young Nigerian colleague reported on attempts to establish a cultural policy rooted in civil society as an alternative to state institutions. The aim is to help the African continent to move away from its economic, political and cultural marginalisation.

Good guy, bad guy: premature descriptions of civil society as a consistent force for good

On the topic of civil society, a panel discussed the EU’s new Creative Europe programme and its potential consequences. The presenters agreed that the cultural sector was becoming increasingly commodified. But they also criticised the bureaucratic decision-making involved in creating the programme, which largely excluded the opinions of civil society. This statement of course necessitates a more precise definition of what we like to cursorily refer to as “civil society” but which actually represents an amalgamation of a range of very diverse interests. Apart from their desire for more public funding (“Seventy Cents for Culture”), civil society representatives often have little in common. Nevertheless, after trying out the “open method of coordination”, there is a desire to go a step further in the cultural sector and develop new models of governance, so that as many stakeholder groups as possible can be involved in the appropriate decision-making processes.

Do we talk so much about cultural policy because it is so irrelevant?

In a panel discussion on how to define cultural policy, Clive Gray presented his theory of the ambiguity of cultural policy decisions. He argued that a particular feature of cultural policy lies in failing to make decisions and failing to resolve conflicts of interest. In political terms, this is more effective than creating a clear set of circumstances that would displease at least some of the affected clientele. Anders Frelander from Sweden agreed with him up to a point. In his analysis of the history of Swedish cultural policy, he concluded that Sweden is characterised by ongoing inertia in this area – regardless of the fundamental political changes experienced by the country with the end of a hegemony focused on social democracy and the welfare state. Even more provocative was an interjection from the audience which once again drew attention to how the cultural sector would shrink and become increasingly irrelevant. This marginality leads to the feeling that it has to be compensated for by additional discursive effort to feed the existence of a variety of sham conflicts, which, upon closer inspection, prove to be largely irrelevant, at least for the development of society.

Austrian cultural policy – above average in terms of supply, at the rear in terms of demand

To conclude, young Slovenian cultural policy expert Andrej Srakar presented his new Cultural Policy Index. He has collated a wide range of statistics to create a ranking of European countries in terms of political engagement, private engagement and participation. In her recent article “Tauziehen zwischen Tradition und Gegenwart” Veronika Ratzenböck of Österreichische Kulturdokumentation pointed to a serious anomaly. Austria came 11th out of 33 in “Public Development of the Cultural Sector”, after Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark and France, and 14th in “Private Engagement” after Iceland, Latvia, Norway and the Netherlands. This ranking may be a good average, but it hardly confirms Austria’s description of itself as “Kulturgroßmacht Österreich” [Austria – a cultural giant]. And when it comes to participation, Austria was ranked bottom, behind Cyprus and Ireland. In terms of cultural policy, we can deduce from this that it is finally time to tackle the instruments that, since the 1970s, have promised but failed to deliver broader access to cultural life.

Arts education has found its place (at least in Hildesheim)

Overall, the organisers succeeded in giving the event a new direction in certain areas, creating a breath of fresh air and resulting in an excellent conference. A series of semi-plenary sessions on selected issues such as Cultural Policy and Transformation, Cultural Policy and Arts Education and Cultural Policy and Participation provided the time and opportunity for more in-depth discussion. In their choice of topics, the organisers drew on their own particular research areas and were surprised at the high levels of interest shown by the audience. It is particularly remarkable how arts education has found its place at ICCPR. In Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the UK, and also in a number of Asian countries, arts education has established itself as a prominent focus of cultural policy. It should therefore no longer merely be studied in terms of its pedagogical content and objectives, but also as an element of cultural policy.

The session on arts education initially looked at the eternal question of “art for art’s sake?” It was refreshing that the two panellists were not arts education experts in the strictest sense, so they were able to give a more objective view of the issue. While Sigrid Røyseng from Norway once again returned to the Cultural Rucksack programme, designed to give all Norwegian children access to culture at least once a year, Clive Gray of the University of Warwick made a policy analysis of the current trend in arts education, which he believes is more a result of political opportunities than convincing impact analyses.

In the second half of the session we presented the results of the EDUCULT research into German pilot products in arts education, which analysed the relationship between political agenda-setting on arts and education and the practical realities. Tobias Fink from the University of Hildesheim reported on the evaluation status of the Cultural Agents programme. The results should help to ensure that the intentions are implemented with lasting effect. A meta-analysis presentation of Creative Partnerships, one of the world’s top-ranked programmes, warned of a danger that expectations would be trimmed back to scientifically-proven effects after the Cameron/Clegg government suspended funding for the programme after taking office, despite all the evidence of its positive impact.

The caravan moves on: from Hildesheim to Seoul in 2016

The conference provided an opportunity to make valuable new contacts and take part in inspiring discussions. We would like to congratulate the organisers for making this kind of communication possible (partly due to the fact that it was almost impossible to leave the Marienburg without biking the seven kilometres back to Hildesheim). The Scientific Committee has decided that ICCPR2016 will take place in Seoul. After its outing to rural Germany, it is now time for it to return to one of the world’s vibrant capitals. The presentations in Seoul will demonstrate whether and how the context will influence the content. It remains for us to thank the organisers for their wonderful hospitality. Apart from the weather, we could not have felt more welcome! Rural life certainly has its attractions.