Culture is back

The outcry caused by the absence of the word ‘culture’ from the titles of any European commissioner under Ursula von der Leyen has been addressed at the last minute. As announced just before the final vote on the new Commission in European Parliament, Mariya Gabriel, initially commissioner for innovation and youth is now commissioner for research, innovation, education, culture and youth. During her hearing, Gabriel reminded the European Parliament that “European culture and all its diversity gets to the very heart of who we are. Our culture is the soil in which our common values grow and we place human beings at the centre by preserving our heritage.”

The Commission’s cultural commitments

In the same hearing, Gabriel said that she would oversee the implementation of the European agenda for culture and back new policies to preserve and protect cultural heritage and support to the cultural and creative industries as a catalyst for innovation, jobs and growth: “By preserving our heritage, supporting our artists’ creativity and promoting technological innovation, we will help build more united and peaceful European societies, which should be stronger in an ever more unpredictable world.”

This should not, according to Ian Ward, city leader of Birmingham and chair of the Eurocities Culture Forum, mean an exclusive focus on the so-called creative class: “It is not just what you can do for culture, but what you can do through culture. It is not just about the ‘creative class’, but about working for a community.”

Gabriel told the Parliament that culture will be high on the agenda of the new Commission, and made it clear that she recognises that culture is not just an add-on, but a smart investment for Europe. Specifically, she indicated that culture is a motor for territorial development, and urban development in particular. She also highlighted that cohesion and other funds should be more accessible for culture and cultural heritage projects: “I will remain faithful to the increase [of the Creative Europe budget] that we called for. I’ll secure it and try and achieve the best possible impact by working together with other programmes, such as Horizon Europe.”

Culture brings cohesion

However, Gabriel is not the only commissioner who has culture high on her agenda. Margaritis Schinas, responsible for the controversial role of ‘promoting our way of life’, has said he will focus on culture linked to social inclusion, harnessing the full potential of culture to bring communities closer together, and ensuring young people can gain new experiences, skills and opportunities to participate in society.

This approach is already evident in many of Europe’s cities. For example in Espoo, where local libraries have made use of their role as cultural hubs to also become hubs for social cohesion and integration. Espoo’s libraries hold regular events for language and cultural exchanges between the local Finnish and Arabic speaking populations, and they endeavour to ensure that their staff are of a sufficiently divers set of backgrounds to be able to recognise the needs of their clients. The city also runs a mobile library service that drives books and other resources out to refugee centres.

Nuremberg takes similarly proactive approach in which local volunteers go to refugee centres and invite a newcomer to the city to accompany them to a cultural event such as a concert or exhibition opening.

Despite this positive indication from Schinas, cities such as Karlsruhe, which is executing similar projects in cultural spaces including libraries and museums, insist on pointing out that cultural activities are two-way exchanges. According to Dr Susanne Ashe, head of the Karlsruhe’s cultural office, culture is about giving agency to newcomers, “There is one newcomer from Syria who was a refugee and is now a writer,” Dr Ashe explained, “and he says, ‘I am not your latest art project!’ You understand? That is a very important and difficult discussion – how to find the right way. But I am very sure that artists have a privileged way of finding solutions.” The monolithic ‘European way of life’ referred to in Schinas’ title cannot, therefore, simply expect to be ‘promoted’ through culture, but may also have to be open to challenge, and to change.

Culture and a flourishing economy

Ward also points to the importance of culture for stimulating the local economy: “The vibrancy of neighbourhoods and cities’ cultural programmes have a significant effect on the attractiveness of cities and help to underpin our economic success.” On this point, Gabriel spoke of her intended support to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) “particularly regarding culture, that’s where we can really count on creativity and innovation. In the Creative Europe programme… I expect SMEs to have privileged access.” Ward goes even further, insisting on the need “to develop a more resilient and sustainable cultural sector with new business models, including investment-based funding linked to city growth.”

In Bologna, the city investing in the cultural and creative industries through its ‘IncrediBol’ incubator space, which has helped more than 220 entrepreneurs on their way to launching new enterprises. With a grant of €10,000 for the purchase of machinery and equipment and a free leasing agreement for eight years, one local managed to start up ‘MakeInBo’ a company that now provides regular employment for 30 people.

The culture sector, which is responsible for the employment of almost 9 million Europeans, close 4% of all EU jobs, also creates a big draw for tourists. Indeed, cities such as Lisbon and Turin have developed their cultural offer so successfully that they feel they have too many tourists in the centre of their cities. Both cities are therefore now using culture to try to draw people into the less congested outskirts. Turin is using its museum card to inform people about and incentivise them to go to cultural events happening in less popular areas and smaller institutions. Lisbon is trialling the use of a cryptocurrency for tourists that could only be spent outside the city centre.

Sound cultural policy

How do cities develop sound cultural policies that actually produce all these potential benefits? Ward points to the past success of European peer-learning mechanisms among cities, which “allowed cities across the whole of Europe to share experiences about cultural investment and allowed cities to learn from one another, and that needs to happen in the future as well, so another EU funded scheme that will allow shared learning across European cities is vitally important for the future if we’re to grow our cultural offer and make our cities more attractive places in which to live.”

Gabriel has hinted at such a mechanism, stating that “we also need to give more visibility to different examples that already work.” However, the details remain to be filled in, and there is as yet no explicit commitment to such a mechanism, despite this acknowledgement of the need for one.

Culture for all?

The initial absence of culture from any commissioner’s title was said to indicate that culture would be treated as a transversal issue, with its role being acknowledged in all of the areas which the Commission works in. Given that the Commission was selling this as a strength, what does today’s inclusion of culture in Gabriel’s title indicate? Cities and the Commission seem to agree on the importance of culture for all, but will culture remain an important area for all commissioners? It will be for Gabriel, and Schinas has made it clear that this is an important part of the ‘European way of life’ which he is to protect.

This makes two out of 26 members of von der Leyen’s cabinet that have laid explicit emphasis on the important role that culture will play in their areas of work. We have not yet seen the same stress on culture acknowledged by commissioners with portfolios in health, digital, economy, environment, or the many other areas in which cities see culture having an important role. Whether the addition of the word ‘culture’ to Gabriel’s title is to negate the supposed transversal place of culture throughout the work of the Commission remains to be seen.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer