The mishap of cultural values in present-day Europe

Sandra Coumans talks about how cultural organisations from Eastern Europe and the Balkans learn from each other on an international level.

Dit artikel is enkel beschikbaar in het Engels.

Taken point-blank, that is however nothing new. The future is by definition a state of the unknown, and the unknown brings with it uncertainty. That is likewise not a thing to be automatically afraid of, since the unknown is neutral: it can harbour risk and failure, but it can also mean a testing ground and an opportunity. At the same time, from a collective point of view, we have never had so many tools at our disposal to map our future. Through studies, research and prognoses we know more about our world and the possible directions it is likely to take than ever before. Especially in Europe, we have information at our disposal with a single click or swipe, we can connect to people all around the world from our living rooms and many of us have ample opportunity to for example travel and thus take in even more input.

Ironically, many people do not feel more at ease because of all those tools we have given ourselves. Quite the contrary, there is a general sense of crisis, a crisis that wages on many levels: economically, politically, culturally, societally, you name it. We live in turbulent times.

For the cultural sector, in the past decade or so there has not been a lot of encouraging news. Budget cuts, more and more prevalent nationalism, mistrust towards everything of not direct practical or economic value have put the sector in a defensive position and in strong demand of justification.

Flanders Arts Institute (FAI) in Brussels took that zeitgeist as an incentive for a roundtable afternoon discussion and asked how cultural organisations and practitioners should position themselves towards that sense of crisis. It was a moment to explore cultural interests and values in the light of a changing Europe, both in terms of ethical values as well as practical mechanisms on an international level. [i] And FAI took it as an occasion to explore a part of Europe which for Belgium (and other Western European countries) remains, despite the fall of the Iron curtain more than 25 years ago and the multiple EU enlargements since 2004, relatively new territory: Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

It was very encouraging to see that the audience, present in big numbers, covered a wide range of cultural and geographical expertise: representatives of different national institutes, cultural centres, European networks, practitioners, the political level, a wide range of arts disciplines, and from all corners of Europe including Eastern Europe and the Balkans had come to exchange views in the Atelier Vlaams Bouwmeester. A sign that the crisis and the need to cooperate are extremely topical for many and on all levels.

The panel saw different speakers with a long track record gathered: Nevenka Koprivšek from Bunker (Slovenia) and Balkan Express Network (a partnership of multiple organisations), Marta Keil (who was unfortunately absent due to illness but contributed through an essay) from the East European Performing Arts Platform (focuses on 18 different countries) and Konfrontacje Teatralne Festival (Poland), Péter Inkei from the Budapest Observatory (Hungary), Milica Ilic from the Office National de Diffusion Artistique (France) and Philipp Dietachmair from the European Cultural Foundation (Europe-wide). Milica Ilic and Philipp Dietachmair together edited the book ‘Another Europe. 15 Years of Capacity Building with Cultural Initiatives in the EU Neighbourhood’. Moderator was Chris Keulemans, independent writer and arts professional (the Netherlands).

Attending the round-table and only having superficial knowledge of the region, I was interested in hearing more about what is at stake in the cultural sector in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Moreover, I was looking to find out more about practical examples and best (or worst) practice in international cooperation in Europe.

I firmly believe that from every organisation, no matter how big or how small, there is something to learn (or, just as importantly, one can draw lessons from how not to do things). It was energising to think about how big, institutional organisations can still stay up-to-date with local developments, such as the European Cultural Foundation has [ii], just as how grass-roots initiatives can grow and develop a network all over Europe, Bunker being a case in point. Investing time, making clear choices as to the foundations of a programme, building strong partnerships with reliable organisations while incorporating critical evaluation and enough flexibility to be able to adjust what needs changing, were some of the points that came up. It was made clear once again that it is always appropriate to test your knowledge, to do fact-checking if you will (being part of for example the thorough research work by the Budapest Observatory), which works against preconceived opinions and paternalistic, hegemonic thinking. Finally, we are all aware that we live in increasingly complex realities (or at least it feels like that) and a lot has happened and continues to happen all over Europe – East and West, South and North. That poses the problem of how to be able to keep up with these continuous political and societal changes. Since it unfortunately fell a bit short, that particular point would have been interesting to have been explored more.

The organisations that were represented by the speakers have all accomplished their bit at the international level. However, it is up to each and every one of us to make their own equation. A basic but too often not enough explored question is what is there to gain in working internationally. I mean that in terms of necessity and motivation for an organisation or for an individual who is tied up in the cultural sector. [iii] Why do you want to be working internationally? Does that international ambition fit at all with your key organisational aims? And if so, in what way? Do you hope to gain more visibility or recognition, do you expect a positive effect on your financial position, are you looking for new artistic exchange, and so on. Furthermore, do you have the capacity (with regard to your financial, human and intellectual resources) to execute your longings? On what scale would you want to work and with what regions or partners? Will an expansion abroad maybe put too much pressure on your current offer and performance? Some of these questions may be easier to reply to than others, they should nevertheless be the starting point of possible cooperation projects. It comes down to making a business plan and contemplating the options and limitations you have thoughtfully. Something which is not often enough put into practice.

The organisations that were represented by the speakers have all accomplished their bit at the international level. However, it is up to each and every one of us to make their own equation. A basic but too often not enough explored question is what is there to gain in working internationally.

Listening to the different contributions, an (inexplicitly) recurring topic was the networks underlying their work. So let’s also talk about building relationships, and the values underlying them, a bit more. No matter what you do locally, regionally or internationally, most probably you will (have to) work with a network of some kind. Entering into a cooperation with another organisation or body means of course dividing tasks and responsibilities. But more importantly so, the nature of the relationship is essential in how that cooperation will function. For instance, inquisitiveness and realising that there exist alternatives to your own behavioural patterns is key to intercultural interaction. Openness is key to building viable and long-term partnerships. Knowing that, besides your strengths, you also have your limitations is key to learning and development. And ignoring all of that leaves blank the huge potential that different approaches and new, other ways of thinking have. At the same time, the international is so interesting, because it enlarges possible problematic issues in building and maintaining a relationship. It means that the values you employ gain extra importance. For example, during the round-table, the currently difficult political situation in Hungary and Poland was addressed and linked to the question whether what had been done there at a cultural level had at all led to any results on a societal level. Asking about the effects of artistic intervention is of course important and topical, but to link it so clearly to failing democracy in only Eastern European countries is frankly to me a sign of ignorance (not taking the historical and socio-political background into account) and hypocrisy (given the problematic populists developments in, for example, the Netherlands, Germany, France, or Austria).

This is for me the point that any discussion about cultural cooperation in Europe should much more focus on. Many of us, maybe especially in the cultural field since most of us aim to do our work for the good of society and we have learned to express ourselves, know very well how to pay lip service to concepts such as solidarity, equality, exchange, dialogue, etc., but all too often there are hidden agendas, there is not enough transparency between direct partners, and when it comes down to it (or maybe even all along) we choose ‘me first’. [iv] It is therefore now time to start putting our money where our mouth is.

There have been ample European crises in recent years, such as the financial crisis or the refugee crisis: it is very apparent that some European countries have taken the largest part of the burden, some decided to not want to be involved at all and take a unilateral course, some even profited of the pain of others. Although we say the EU, and Europe at large, is built on values and democracy, we have not seen that being demonstrated anymore. A case in point are the recent remarks by the president of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem condemning someone spending all their money on drinks and women and subsequently holding out their hand. [v] Although the remarks were not specifically made with regard to indebted southern European states, the link is quite obvious and the damage was quickly done. In reality, this evoked image is simply not true, it feeds into existing stereotypes and in the end, you are treating unfairly that which is an inherent part of you. Maybe Dijsselbloem had political motives, but that does not do away with that ethically dubious stance. Moreover, such political games can be very dangerous, as Brexit has shown. [vi] In a recent discussion a friend, who is from the cultural sector and is non-European, pinpointed this remarkable discrepancy between voiced ideals and actual deeds even as a specifically European disease.

Culture is the preeminent sector to be able to imagine and to deal with alternative perceptions. The international level is as well. For that reason, arts practitioners and cultural managers that work at an international level have a significant role to play in directing, administering and mediating intercultural co-operation at a level playing field. Today’s day and age calls for a truly ‘ethical’ approach, not only in the projects that are set up (the output, if you will) but also with regard to the nature of a partnership and one’s own organisational structure. That is not an easy issue to solve: a concept like openness, does that mean that you open up your complete database to a partner? Probably not. Where does then openness end and begin? Another tricky one: in what way is it possible to cooperate with a corrupt regime ensuring that civil society reaps benefits and you safeguard your own integrity? What is a fair allocation of financial resources between countries with different living standards? To what extent do partners have a responsibility towards each other when times get tough? And so on…

The fact of the matter is that, in the long term, the love you take is equal to the love you make. So the value that is created through artistic activities and projects (and this is exactly the kind of justification politics and society demand of the cultural sector), is interlinked to the values that make up the foundation of a given cooperation. So in the end, the arts have to live up to their own standards. This is what we, as the cultural sector, can contribute to the development of Europe as a whole, to make an opportunity out of our uncertainty, especially in a fluid world such as exists today, and one in which values we thought to embody to the teeth have become more and more volatile.

About the author

Sandra T.J. Coumans has been working for more than 12 years at an international level in various cultural organisations ranging from a Berlin start-up bilateral culture festival and the European Commission in Brussels, to BOZAR, one of the main Belgian national arts centres. Until recently she was Head of Office of the European cultural network Future for Religious Heritage. She has lived in four different countries, and has been based in Brussels since 2012 where she now runs a consultancy in transnational cultural cooperation.


  1. The roundtable took place on 27 February 2017 and is part of the research and development trajectory Reframing the International, which is aimed at looking in a critical way at the international level of the European arts sector
  2. Regarding Eastern Europe and the Balkans specifically, the ECF started successive cooperation programmes with roughly that region some 18 years ago. The different cooperation programmes are presented in the publication Another Europe. 15 Years of Capacity Building with Cultural Initiatives in the EU Neighbourhood, Dietachmair, P. and Ilić, M. (ed.), European Cultural Foundation (ECF), 2015. The book gives an overview of the ways ECF has been active roughly between 1999 and 2015 in the EU Neighbourhood region (those countries and regions that share a border with EU member states) and ‘new’ member states such as Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. In addition, Another Europe discusses what has come out of those collaborations in terms of challenges faced, concepts developed, and insights learned.
  3. A similar topic was explored in an article about the launch of the mentioned FAI trajectory Reframing the International
  4. In June 2016 the European Commission presented the so-called Joint Communication Towards an EU strategy for international cultural relations which is the policy paper aiming to put cultural diversity, high quality artistic creation, mutual understanding, respect for fundamental rights at the forefront of the European Union’s international cultural relations. Work is in progress and concrete results as to its implementation are yet to come.
  6. In the article Brexit op basis van leugens, manipulatie en racistisch gehits (EN: ‘Brexit on the basis of lies, manipulation and racist instigation’, by Joris Luyendijk, published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad) it is written that it is very likely that both David Cameron as well as Boris Johnson pushed for the (threat of a) Brexit vote expecting to gain own political advantage while counting on the referendum being rejected by the British population.
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