The European Young Leaders (EYL40) Working Group on Arts and Culture was established to share and brainstorm ideas for collaborating on pan-European projects related to arts and culture. It draws on the wide range of artists, musicians, writers and cultural practitioners in our EYL40 network.
Brexit, the rise of populism and the pandemic have threatened a sense of ‘European-ness’ among the citizens of Europe. The Working Group places a particular importance on how arts and culture – a core European industry contributing to 4.4% of European GDP – can be used as tools to help build that spirit while relaunching economies. The EU’s motto is: united in diversity. Our job will be to promote that diversity while responding to common challenges.
This series of articles complements the Working Group’s three meetings this year. The Working Group will produce a policy briefing to be launched in November 2021 and to be brought to the attention of high-level policymakers at the European and national level. Recommendations will also be handled over to EYLs, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Clément Beaune, ahead of France taking over the EU rotating presidency in 2021.
It’s 2021 and cultural life across Europe is slowly picking up again. Only after football stadiums were allowed to reopen could museums, theatres, concert halls and opera houses welcome visitors again. However, this reopening contends with a significant reduction in numbers, making these cultural institutions economically unsustainable to operate in the long run. Meanwhile, the overwhelming presence of US-founded distributors on the digital front has even further driven out locally-made European content.
To bounce back from this pandemic, the arts and cultural sector requested funding. But this government spending causes a stir amongst critics when so many other problems caused by the pandemic still need to be addressed, notably a significant increase in inequality, impaired mental health, and an increasing lack of citizen engagement for democratic values. This is a serious point, particularly because efforts to ‘democratise’ access to culture have achieved only limited success, mostly because they are ‘too little, too late’. ‘Too late’ because we treat ‘democratising access to arts and culture’ as a repair job instead of an investment in our youth; ‘too little’ because when compared to the government spending and tax advantages in other areas or for other populations, arts and culture as a sector consistently lags behind.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Money well spent on arts and culture can transform the role they play in our lives and for the fabric of society, be it as part of education, artistic production, or how we consume art.
An adage worth remembering is make art – not bricks
Having access to an environment which gives rise to cultural expression is imperative for all. In order to address the fact that the foundations of creativity and civic development are established at a very young age, a possibly publicly-funded programme for children from kindergarten through to 4th grade, across all socioeconomic areas, should surround cultural institutions. In addition, by acquainting children (and their parents) from low-income areas with these institutions, there is greater opportunity for social cohesion as these institutions would be regarded as serving all citizens, and not just an ‘elite bubble’.
There are, of course, well-documented examples which can be replicated: the establishment of the Children Choir at the Opéra Comique, for example, focuses on children from low-income areas, or the creation of orchestra classes which enable children to learn an instrument as part of their regular school curriculum.
As arts and culture funding often responds to the desire of leaders to build their legacy, there is a disproportionate amount of funds siphoned into creating new institutions and buildings, whereas the focus on operating existing institutions or directly funding artistic production perishes because it is seen as less glamorous. An adage worth remembering is make art – not bricks. This includes funding for professional artists, but also the many local amateur cultural and arts initiatives which create the real tissue of the artistic network. Two concrete ideas are initiating a moratorium on creating new brick and mortar institutions, and redirect funding to artistic production to make ‘every European an artist’. Furthermore, a general review and benchmark of good practices in running institutions should provide some headroom to direct funding to artistic production.
We often confuse the great richness of cultural traditions in Europe because of the Union’s market fragmentation driven by national borders
Increasing STEM competencies is rightly viewed as a key ingredient for societies to master their digital transformation and adapt to new economic realities, including those of the workplace. However, there are other key competencies that are just as vital that our educational systems, with the exception of well-funded private schools, risk neglecting. These skills include project-based learning, creativity, out-of-the box thinking, an experimental mindset, and tolerance for and resilience to failure. As conventional educational systems are struggling to adopt this kind of upskilling, arts and cultural education are in a prime role to offer help. Moreover, cultural institutions can benefit from these ways of learning by providing their services to students and, most importantly, to the teachers who are often isolated within their inflexible and bureaucratic administrations that otherwise may not provide such development.
Funding could happen directly from the bottom up, bypassing the endless and highly political proclivity for curriculum reform, thus helping to overcome the traditionally unproductive divide between education and cultural ministries. This will require the use of digital platforms to make local projects replicable and scalable to allow for adaptation based on impact assessment data. Area9 is one such platform which is currently tested across Europe with EU-funding, focusing on STEM, but a proof of concept for cultural and artistic learning projects is currently being planned for projects in Germany and Denmark that aim to bring together museums and educators to develop scalable, local approaches.
One of the distinctive features of the European arts and culture landscape is its incredible diversity in terms of art forms, local, regional and national traditions, languages, historical and religious experiences, and so on. We often confuse the great richness of cultural traditions in Europe because of the Union’s market fragmentation driven by national borders. While we are contemplating the disappearance of local and regional cultural customs and art forms, we are witnessing the market dominance of US-owned distribution systems become even stronger, such as the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google), which are increasingly determining the way European art and culture are being viewed and consumed. But the ensuing threat of uniformization of our culture is not inevitable. Locally, European culture is still vibrant and produces outstanding works, be it in the classic cultural centres or at the fringes.
The EU recovery plan, which has enabled Europe to tackle a key challenge together rather than separately, could be the inspiration for orienting cultural spending
What we need is better access to this richness. This is based on key levers that we need to address. First, we must create European distribution platforms to create scalable access to these often-immaterial creations. Second, we must connect the national cultural spheres through cultural decision-makers and tastemakers from national European media organisations, which today is very limited. Third, we must make better use of, and improve the accuracy of automatic translation software to create systematic subtitling of European TV and movie productions, which would give an immediate access to the incredible diversity available today with efficient high-quality subtitles. Fourth, we must improve recommendation algorithms to bring more diversity to bear, instead of strengthening monocultural echo-chambers, for example, by connecting lovers of similar niche cultural practices across Europe to create critical mass in each.
The EU recovery plan, which has enabled Europe to tackle a key challenge together rather than separately, could be the inspiration for orienting cultural spending. Strengthen Europe as a leader in artistic creation, the broad anchoring of cultural practices, and celebrate the diversity of European identities, that which makes Europe Europe.