Does UK Arts & Culture need to be more European?

8 November 2013

Following a symbolic clash between the launch of Arts Council’s new policy debate and the 2013 EU Culture Forum, AND’s John McMahon reflects upon how UK culture can link up with colleagues on the mainland.

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Last week saw an event to unveil Towards Plan A: A New Political Economy for Arts and Culture, an Arts Council England & RSA -supported discourse (including several keynote papers and an on-going blog) to explore how the arts and culture can connect, collaborate and contribute, in systematic and fundamental ways, across adjacent sectors such as local & regional government, education and commerce.

Much like the accompanying essays themselves, the speeches from the RSA’s hallowed platform were deeply considered and extremely thought-provoking.

However, in a squeezed final few moments at the very end of proceedings, a question from the floor pointedly highlighted a conspicuous omission: nobody had addressed the matter of how UK arts and culture could or should be seen in a wider European context, in terms of partnerships, funding or good practice.

Meanwhile, Twitter made plain the fact that this marquee England-wide event was covering similar themes to, and taking place at the same time as, the 2013 EU Culture Forum.

Les Rencontres, Tampere

The hesitance of our island nation in fully engaging with Europe is, of course, a longstanding issue that extends far beyond the cultural sector. I had the opportunity to ponder the matter in some depth a month or so ago, when I travelled to Finland for a conference about European local and regional government’s role in the strategic planning of culture.

It was the second annual conference of Les Rencontres, an EU-wide network of senior local government managers and elected representatives for arts and culture. Much to my surprise, I was the only British representative out of nearly 70 attendees.

The event was graciously and expertly hosted by the City of Tampere, Finland’s third largest urban centre, which sits in the South West of the country, about 110 miles north of Helsinki.

Highly industrialised in the 19th Century as a former hub of the Nordic textile trade, in recent years Tampere has undergone an astonishingly complete process of culture-led regeneration. Its vast, previously obsolete bricks-and-mortar industrial infrastructure has been comprehensively repurposed to house a rich array of museums, cinemas and business incubation units. This flourishing is strongly reflected in the fact that Tampere now consistently ranks amongst Finns as the most popular city to relocate to.

Fittingly, then, this year’s Les Rencontres event focused on culture and social innovation, with economic growth, regeneration, education and social participation/cohesion all explored. The spectre of European fiscal austerity permeated the event deeply, as did the question of how we innovate, with less money, to not only sustain but deepen the role of culture in such arenas.

Conference highlights

Very much towards this theme, I presented on A New Direction’s Connected London programme, through which we’re working with Innovation Unit, London boroughs and other partners to examine how new models of income generation and delivery of cultural education can be formed in this more challenging economic context.

My slides can be found below, whilst a summary of the wider conference content will soon be available here.

Download Finland presentation Final

The wider programme was fascinating. It’s difficult to choose general highlights, but in particular I’d like to refer to the presentations of:

Outi Kuittinen from Demos Helsinki, whose key-note speech on the first day of the conference really set the scene by framing Finland’s success in economic, educational, and wellbeing terms as being underpinned by social innovation, with creativity and culture at the core of this;

Marianna Lehtinen, Senior Coordinator for Children’s Culture at the City of Tampere, who spoke persuasively about the Finnish concept of a cultural entitlement for all children (remarkably, many municipalities in Finland have a separate budget strand for cultural education, in addition to ‘general’ education and ‘infrastructural’ culture funding). Marianna also gave an intriguing introduction to Aladdin’s Lamp, a collaborative best-practice network for arts education in Finland (See her presentation below).

Download Rencontres_aladdins lamp

...and Javier Jimenez from Lord Cultural Resources, who gave an intriguing summary of the process of developing Chicago’s first cultural strategy, and how the consequences of this went far beyond economics and new infrastructure to reinforce citizens’ wellbeing and civic engagement (See presentation and notes below).

Download Javier Jimenez_Chicago Cultural Plan 2012_Sept 20

Download Javier_Chicago Cultural Plan 2012_Sept 20_Notes

EU cultural funding, and building UK participation

However, one of the fundamental areas covered in the conference agenda was the launch of Creative Europe, the new EU-wide culture strategy, and the accompanying funding programme (currently being ratified by member states, and to commence next year).

The new strategy promises a holistic vision for the development of the creative industries in Europe, and this passes down to the proposed funding programme too; whereas before there were separate, biddable strands for Culture and Media, these will now be combined into a single initiative which will allocate up to €1.46 billion between 2014 and 2020.

The overarching mission for the programme is to foster and promote 'smart, sustainable and inclusive growth' across the EU’s cultural industries.

There’s an immense opportunity here, but research from the previous programme confirms the suspicion that UK cultural organisations do not engage as strongly as partners from other countries.

Per capita, the UK has traditionally produced the lowest number of applications of any EU member state, but the success rate of those bids, at 46%, is the second highest of any country in the Union (behind only Germany).

This Guardian article by Visiting Arts (the EU Cultural Contact Point for the 2007-2013 programme) highlights, and challenges, some of the reasons for this historic disengagement, including lack of participation in wider EU networks; apprehensions about a process that is presumed to be highly bureaucratic; and a scarcity of ‘cash’ match funding.

From the information available so far, the new programme goes a long way to addressing and surmounting these and other obstacles to participation. But how can London and wider UK-based organisations really get to grips with the opportunities arising?

A good initial step would definitely to be to sign up to, and to read, the European Commission’s Culture and Education Newsletter and the European Cultural Foundation’s Newsletter; and to also subscribe to Visiting Arts’ E-bulletin, for information on the transition from the 2007-13 to the 2014-20 programmes.

Visiting Arts actually also have an event on Creative Europe in central London on December 9 2013 (10.30-12pm), too, so that should be well worth attending if you can make it.

Given that many of the funding opportunities will focus upon trans-national partnerships for new artistic productions, research and sector development partnerships, in order to participate fully it’s also crucial to get to know colleagues across Europe with whom we might collaborate.

A range of UK-based entities (such as GEM, Engage, CLOA, Arts Development UK, and many, many others!) are good at percolating down news of some wider European developments. Following my experience in Finland, I also strongly recommend local and regional government partners to explore participation in, and membership of, organisations like Les Rencontres. I’m frequently told that Eurocities is also a very vibrant, exciting network.

For broader cultural organisations, you’ll know your alternatives much better than I do, but I also believe there’s value in taking the time to identify and engage with bodies that can strengthen and bring an international perspective to your work.

This might include the International Council of Museums (ICOM), Europeana, or ne-mo.org; IETM (the international network for performing arts); dance networks like EDN and Aerowaves; or Cluster (for Visual Arts; currently ‘closed’ in terms of primary membership, but active in sharing practice more widely). It may also be useful to look beyond your own sector, to make links across different art-forms, heritage, film etc.


If you know of others networks that you’d recommend, please take a moment to share that knowledge in the comments thread beneath this blog.

We’ll also do our best to share and/or signpost further information about the new EU Culture Programme as it’s finalised and opened for bids, so watch this space!