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Beyond words: Europe Cultural Foundation on the Narratives for Europe

“In order to understand the present, let alone the future, it is important to understand where we come from.”

HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands President of the European Cultural Foundation

This article was commissioned by the  Korean Arts Management Services and originally published in Korean  for the Apro, a database website for the global exchange of performing arts, a project supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Republic of Korea.


When I received the invitation from Odile Chenal[i] of the European Cultural Foundation (ECF)[ii] to join their upcoming Advisory Council[iii] meeting in Brussels, in May 2010, entitled “Narratives for Europe,” it got me into a lot of thinking. The idea of being a part of a European meeting was thrilling.  On the outset, knowing that I am to engage along with other “young” cultural entrepreneurs and artists in a discussion on today’s narratives for Europe together with the foundation’s pool of experts and experienced advisors, the whole exercise sounded appealing. But when I reflected on the theme particularly looking into the future, this posted a magnitude of questions. Compelling realities on “trans-national” and “intergenerational” issues reverberate in the present and guaranteed to influence tomorrow are concerns within my immediate environment. One cannot simply brush them off and say, I’m from the other side of the planet.  After all, I live and work in Europe.  ECF is giving the opportunity and it is one’s responsibility to seize it. Looking closely into my own work, this invitation served as a wake-up call for to think ahead and examine the borders of the mind as well as processing one’s preconceived notions. What does it mean to be a part of the making of narratives for Europe today? And what about tomorrow?

For more than 50 years, the ECF has been recognised within and beyond the European cultural sphere as a reliable organisation that pursues a mission of enabling voices that are too often unheard to be heard and link inspirational people and ideas to cultural policy making both in local communities and on the European political stage. ECF’s work has been characterised by its commitment as catalyst of cultural expressions and interaction that continually empower the consciousness for an open and inclusive diverse societies in Europe.  It is a unique body that facilitates and enables realisation of socially engaged grassroots artistic works towards political action within the greater European community.

Founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1954, ECF has been proactive in linking practice into policy. Its history can be viewed in four stages: integration into the European cultural landscape (1954-19670; a determinedly forward-looking approach and intensive cooperation (1968-1989); firm commitment to the support of culture professionals (1990-2001); and the development of a cultural policy for Europe (2002-present).[iv] ECF supports high-quality artistic activities and cultural cooperation across different countries, borders and boundaries through its grant schemes[v]and programmes. The Amsterdam-based organisation advocates for culture by helping to create better conditions for the arts and campaigning to change political attitudes to culture at EU level.  In the past years, diversity has been the focus of ECF’s varied initiatives in Europe and its neighbouring regions with emphasis on places where the foundation deems support is most needed. With a special commitment to the new generation of Europeans, its activities are geared towards bringing out the creativity in young people of all backgrounds.

This year, ECF embarks on a journey towards a renewed understanding of Europe by seeking out, telling and amplifying inspiring narratives. ECF takes a bold step of generating space for the evolving experiences and memories, perceptions and perspectives, questions and visions of peoples in Europe. It is tapping stories currently being created by its citizens engaging all generations and especially empowering the next generation of European cultural actors to build a future together. Recognising the capacity of artists and cultural operators to initiate change in societies, ECF provides an avenue for the narratives to come to life characterised by expression, reflection and debate. As Chenal articulated in the first reflection group meeting, “The existing initiatives dealing with European narratives are mainly dealing with the past, with shared memories and history. ECF strives to also integrate the experience of the present and a sense of future in its exploration of narratives.”


What is striking about the ECF is its daring capacity to put words into action. From my experience, whether one works with or for the ECF as a staff member, grantee, partner or participant, it sincerely welcomes thoughts that are floating in ones mind. Nor does it limit itself as a harmonious or mere propaganda driven platform in amplifying unheard voices, but it rather offers a multi-dimensional stage for competing voices, heated debates as well as provocative questionings.  In the preliminary Narratives for Europe meeting, Dutch curator, Nat Muller stated, “I’m very frustrated by the political correctness that these institutions often have. Consensus is the end of politics, art and narrative. How can you really have a proper discussion if you can’t be honest and bump our heads together? We just have to be honest. There are these differences and that’s fine. It’s okay to have that confrontation but by evacuating that from the subject it just numbs everything.” Political correctness is not necessary a requirement when engaged in a discussions at ECF meetings.

ECF’s genuine interest on ideas and people sets itself apart from many funding agencies. Empowerment of People through Art and culture; Connecting Sources of Knowledge and Linking Policy and Practice are the strategic guiding principles of this foundation that operates on a modest annual budget of 6 Million Euros.  Its four grants schemes: Collaboration; Balkan Incentive Fund for Culture; STEP beyond mobility and Artistic grants follow an artist friendly process that is realistic and concise.  It encourages the engagement grassroots initiatives and does away with the fuss of requiring applicants to be non-environment friendly. Meaning, away from the bundle of unnecessary photocopies, creation of fictitious partnerships prior to funding the project and long paper trail. Collaboration Grants fund trans-national, cross-sector activities by independent cultural operations working together. The Balkan Incentive Fund for Culture supports collaborative artistic and cultural projects with, and in, the Western Balkans.  Mobility Grants stimulate and support cross-cultural creative projects in wider Europe, enabling artists and cultural workers to collaborate, exchange, network and explore new ways of working together.  Artistic Grants support comprehensive artistic works. Currently under review, it will be re-launched in early 2011.  Through these different grant schemes, the ECF has supported over a thousand initiatives between 1999 and 2010 alone.

ECF is exceptional in terms of accepting, exercising and implementing new ideas from the ground. At the presentation during the Advisory Council meeting in Bellevue Museum in the Belgian capital, Serbian curator, Milica Pekic of KIOSK said, “the ECF was the first one to give us the money for the Culture Lobby project[vi].  Through their support, we were able to convince partners and sponsors in the different countries in the Western Balkans to fund this art project that involved 15 artists who mapped the thoughts of people through photography.” The Culture Lobby is an online platform that serves as an active archive of cultural memory of 600 citizens from the Western Balkans.  A pair of artists travelled through the different countries, took photos and collected statements that addressed the question “What do you think will change or disappear in your personal life when your country joins the EU?”  Over a period of 18 months, the pool of artists and curators succeeded in reaching out to a great number of people and audiences through this platform.

Apart from providing monetary backing for grassroots initiatives, the ECF also runs a magnitude of programmes covering mobility, media and arts.  Another inspiring example presented in the same meeting is the Stranger Festival[vii], under the ECF’s youth programme.  Since its inception in 2008, Stranger Festival currently holds 1,650 videos created by youngsters from all over Europe.  Looking beyond the numbers, this initiative provides an opportunity for young people to express the views about world using new media as a tool for communication. It offers unique learning process for youngster to develop their creative skills whilst the organisation explores new ways of working with young people, sharing skills and experiences as well as formation of institutional partnerships.

The presence of an international group of 45 participants, which included ECF’s own board and advisors, partner foundations, journalists, artists and young people, who met for a day-long roundtable in Brussels, is likewise indicative on how the ECF facilitates meeting of the minds and how they wish to move forward in addressing the issue/s that they are working with. In the welcome address of the Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, ECF’s President, one cannot help but be touched by the manner in which she spoke “In order to understand the present, let alone the future, it is important to understand where we come from. Today is an experiment. After listening to the presentations, I find it unfair to simply deliver a prepared speech and instead take part in the happy chaos.  I am delighted to share chaotic statuses on the personal issues: narratives for Europe and not of Europe.” This is affirmation that the ECF does not offer only an avenue for the loudest voices, but they also listen. She also emphasised  “We need a place to talk about intergenerational narratives, understand memories with the combination of head and heart.”  Instead of simply declaring statements, she posted question on 3 possible directions, “Do we define ourselves based on specific issues? Specific issues that need solving such as ethic and religious gap, old & new members in the European community, economy or culture? Or are we a platform for voices? Or both? How do we make sure that this platform functions? What would be the process of bringing the gaps together?”

As an organisation that has grown substantially both in numbers and actions in the past years, it maintains a critical and reflective eye on the work they are engaged in. Currently led by Director Katherine Watson, together with the Board, [viii]which is the ECF´s decision-making body, and the Advisory Council, ECF consists of a team of 25 committed professionals originating from many parts of Europe and the neighbouring regions.  Seeking consistency in implementing an effective and efficient cultural practice, the ECF manages to connect sources of knowledge in collectively building a new European narrative.

Many things are often easier said than done.  Like in any field of practice, a lot of jargons, phrases and statements are embedded in the daily vocabulary in the cultural and artistic profession.  International, transnational, inter-cultural, cross-border, diversity, hybrid, cooperation, collaboration, exchanges, understanding, integration, empowerment, commitment, change, development are among the iconic words immensely used.   They are written, spoken, delivered over and over resembling to “copy paste” format presented in varied concept papers, proposals, articles, websites, projects and so on to illustrate the creative consciousness. They read and sound well.  And with the right combination of elements required to realise a project, production or exhibition, a cultural institution, an artistic group or individual cultural practitioner is likely to succeed in communicating its vision.  Following successive repetitions, the usage of the words or even the practice itself at times seems to be suspended only the mind, hanging in oblivion.  The grand vision is reduced to an emblem in packaging that awaits for a substantive, comprehensible translation and realistic action. This may sound too pessimistic but sadly the truth behind the words has a tendency to transform itself into fiction when real action is called for. The good news is that there are always exceptions. Of course, there are those who deliver what they say and the great news is that ECF is one of them.

Notes:

[i] Odile Chenal is the Head of Research and Development at the European Cultural Foundation.

[ii] European Cultural Foundation < http://www.eurocult.org

[iii] The ECF Advisory Council is comprised of cultural leaders from across Europe and meets annually. In 2010, given ECF’s Narratives for Europe plan, participation in the Advisory Council meeting included additional leading individuals who are connected to ECF’s work. To know more about the ECF’s advisory council, click on< http://www.eurocult.org

[iv] Anne Marie Autisser, ECF 50 years, Sharing Cultures 1954-2004, European Cultural Foundation  (Amsterdam, The Netherlands 2004), 3.

[v] ECF has four grants schemes: Collaboration; Balkan Incentive Fund for Culture; STEP beyond mobility and Artistic grants.

[vi] http://www.theculturelobby.com

[vii] http://www.strangerfestival.com/

[viii] http://www.eurocult.org/about-us/about-us/our-organisation/board/

Some useful links related to ECF:

http://www.labforculture.org

http://www.Rhiz.eu

http://www.cultureactioneurope.org/

http://www.encatc.org/pages/index.php

http://www.theoneminutesjr.org/

http://www.policiesforculture.org/

http://www.erasmusprijs.org/

http://www.prix-europa.de/

http://www.ewppp.org/

http://www.ceebp.org/

http://www.kunstenaarsenco.nl/actueel/

http://www.makelovenotart.nl/

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