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Culture bids can be about change, not money

The three Irish contestants for EU Capital of Culture 2020 are top-down and inadequately focus on culture as an agent for transforming people

When Andrius Mockus became mayor of Bogotá with its communities destroyed by drugs, crime and corruption he coined the phrase ‘citizen culture’, and called his strategy ‘subart’. The city’s cultural strategy was to encourage people to trust themselves, to take their lives into their own hands and to feel responsible as makers of the city – to live better together. The United Nations has argued that culture is about people and human flourishing, not as isolated citizens but in “communities and groups”.

This locates culture in a politics of transformative change. What is the role of culture? Is it a goal in itself, an independent element of development? Is it a mediator between the social, economic and environmental elements of development?Should it be the overarching goal of development?

Development is about sustainability of what can be produced in the present to imagine a process of social solidarity in the future. Cultural policy too-focused on market or state goals and without direct involvement of civil society and citizens can’t support people-centred transformative change. It can’t be the creative innovator of the public good that we regard as comprising human development: social, economic and environmental.

These issues of cultural purpose provide the frame for assessing the current battle for the prize of European Capital of Culture in 2020 between the Three Sisters (Wexford, Waterford and Kilkenny), Limerick, and Galway city and county.

Galway’s bid is called Making Waves, Limerick’s is called Embracing Multiplicity – Creating Belonging and the Three Sisters’ is called Reimaging The Region.

Each contestant has now published its cultural strategy. The focus must be not so much on who wins, but on whether whoever wins can place culture as the overarching goal of development and assure the necessary cultural participation for this.Culture-bid3

It is not a good start that the priority in all strategies is to increase the agency of institutions and the efficacy of delivery. The lack of guidance from the EU on where to locate culture and the absence of an Irish cultural policy is not helpful. On the other hand rigidity would be problematic.

Limerick’s strategy is top-down and primarily sees culture as an independent element in development. Its idea is to emphasise culture and link it to education, research, environment, and to physical, social and economic development. With a proposed budget of €37m, the strategy seeks to grow the infrastructure and support for culture. It integrates culture at the heart of economic growth and regeneration.

The Three Sisters’ strategy, with a budget of €31m sees culture mediating between the social, economic and environmental. Implementation would be based on new governance structures and action focused on the excellence of the delivery of services. It is not clear whether the strategy envisages a New York like ‘Commissioner for Culture’ employed in the Council or an agreement with the private sector to deliver services. What is clear in governance is that there is no vision for co-governance with local politicians or the local community.

Galway, with a budget of €45.75m, seeks to build a model of cultural excellence across various domains: safeguarding cultural heritage, supporting training initiatives, enabling access to learning partnerships for the artistic and creative communities; and improving ways for new media channels to transmit cultural communication, presentation and production. Governance is to include the development of a Charter of Cultural Rights and a management agency, like a Cultural Council. Galway sees culture as an independent element of development and as a mediator between the social, economic and environmental.

The three strategies do articulate various engagement strategies for the public. However, the language of top-down engagement prevails, and participation is not a core value. No effort is made to find new forms of participation. This is an impoverished vision of culture based on local cultural policies that do not provide for community mobilisation, capacity building, and empowerment. The cultural rights of excluded groups thrive best when freed from institutions. Culture without community cannot weave a new social fabric.

No effort is made to address the precariousness of artists who often work voluntarily, moving from project to festival, spending a lot of time unemployed. If we value the contribution of these citizen-artists, if we value culture’s overarching role in development, surely we should make their contributions more secure?

If we believe in this role of culture as an overarching goal of development, local authorities need to demonstrate it, especially when in competition with others for excellence against a background where funds are scandalously scarce.

It’s not about economics or tourism, the concerns that currently dominate. It is about building an ecology where culture can deliver transformative change for human good.

Ed Carroll is the convenor of Blue Drum