Culture is future »

11.20.2012

"Culture is all the more necessary in the face of the challenges arising from the current crisis.", by Androulla Vassiliou

How does Culture [creative] imagination give you a reason to hope?

Believing in culture essentially means believing in our future. Culture determines what will remain of us when we are gone. Civilizations are remembered for the quality of their cultural products as much as for the state of their economies or finances. The work of our artists will represent all of us, as a group, in the centuries to come.

The reason we are posing questions regarding hope at this time is because the current economic crisis is giving us reasons for deep concern and even despair.  History shows how economic crisis may pave the way for extremism, alienation and division: forces with the potential to threaten our democracy. In such circumstances, artists’ voices can represent the collective conscience and the demand for freedom. Dictatorial regimes have systematically feared and sought to suppress the work of artists. If our hope is for a future of peace, mutual understanding and democracy, we should keep cherishing and supporting culture and our artists.

However, culture and the arts do not only hold significance in a long term perspective.  Here and now, supporting culture may help support us through the difficult moments we are experiencing.

Culture is an important vector for the creation of local jobs and for the economic development of cities and region. Our cultural and creative sectors – both profit and non-profit making – play a big role in the European economy, accounting for up to 4.5% of the EU’s GDP. Employment in cultural and creative industries represents up to 8.5 million jobs in the EU.

One of the challenges brought about by the crisis is the risk of social conflict. Fractures and tensions among groups may deepen, with unforeseeable consequences and costs. There is ample and well documented evidence that active cultural participation, without being the main means to fight deprivation, can provide a powerful support to social cohesion. Cultural participation fosters wellbeing, enhances self-esteem and can improve dialogue among people with different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Taking part in the arts draws an individual into a community and gives a sense of belonging. Cinema, music, literature, theatre: all help to bring about an understanding of the point of view of others and overcome prejudices.

Economic downturns may indeed profoundly demoralize people, and thus damage the chances for society to look ahead and overcome the difficulties it faces. Culture can be key component of wellbeing, as demonstrated by a recent Italian study[1]; which revealed that cultural participation is the second predictor of psychological wellbeing after health; and with a significantly stronger impact than variables such as income, place of residence, age, gender, or occupation. I would argue that this potential is to be treasured.

Who embodies it the best? What would be the personal initiative / project / work that embodies your reason for hope?

There are so many projects and people around, investing their resources and focusing their energies on the transformative power of culture that it would be difficult and unfair to single out one or two. The fact that Nicolas Seydoux and the Forum d’Avignon should decide to focus the attention of this large audience on such a topic is a reason for hope and optimism!

I am deeply impressed by seeing how, in the hands of enlightened actors; the arts and culture have the potential to drive social and economic progress. The example of urban regeneration that took place in Bilbao around the Guggenheim Museum is well known, but around Europe the economy of many other cities and regions has been revived by culture. The Puglia region in Italy, for instance, is making a strategic use of EU structural funds to enhance creative industries. Each euro spent by the Apulia Film Commission to support cinema productions in the region, conditional on the employment of a local workforce, generates at least four Euros expenditure in the territory plus important indirect returns in terms of tourism and socio-economic development. The European Capitals of Culture have showed the huge potential for culture-led long-term strategic development, with high spill-over effects for tourism, urban regeneration and other areas. For ever euro invested in public funding for the Capitals of Culture, we see returns of up to ten times more in terms of increased business and private spending.  Lille, Liverpool and Guimarães are good examples of how the Capital of Culture' can breathe new life into a city. Above all, the programme gives hope and opportunities to young people who are able to find appealing job prospects in their region.

Overcoming a crisis requires that we look ahead and invest in the future. The striking experience of “El Sistema” for music education in Venezuela has already positively impacted the situation of hundreds of thousands of children in need through high level music education. Similar programs initiated in Europe[2] are having a dramatic impact on education attainment and self-confidence for children living in challenging circumstances[3]. They show that involvement in music may change children’ attitudes and expectations, and give them respect for themselves, for each other, and for education.

Even with sensitive issues such as the social situation of Roma people in Europe, culture and the arts have a role to play. Though the challenging situation of the Roma is first and foremost an issue of poverty and material deprivation, it is also an issue of cultural exclusion, prejudice and stereotypes. The success of measures to tackle material deprivation also depends on how such cultural exclusion is tackled. Tackling cultural exclusion is possible only if people have an opportunity to meet face to face and to start to understand the perspective of the other – this is what we call intercultural dialogue. Arts and culture can provide a platform for positive encounters and a safe space that helps to overcome differences and fears.

We have recently organized an event focusing on the contribution of culture to Roma inclusion. Through several concrete exemplas, we could see how active participation in arts and cultural activities can educate and empower, and also open a space of sharing and understanding between the minority and the majority populations. In one of the most deprived Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia, for instance, a group of children and young adolescents created a theatre company, the Slumdog theatre. This not only brought those involved a great sense of personal accomplishment, but provided the audiences to which they perform to a much deeper understanding of their reality and the issues that they, along with many others, face on a daily basis.

How would you like to pass it on to future generations?

For the moment, as the European Commissioner responsible for culture, my main endeavor is to advocate for a sustained policy and financial support to culture even in times of crisis. Culture is not a luxury. It is not a cost. It is a necessary investment to ensure the healthy working of society – and it is all the more necessary in the face of the challenges arising from the current crisis.

It is for all the above reasons that the commission, when putting forward its proposal for a new programme for culture and the audiovisual after 2013 (Creative Europe), proposed a 37% increase on current spending levels. We hope that the programme, not only because of its increased budget but above all because of its strategic conception, will provide a significant support to capacity building for cultural and creative operators. The Commission also presented an initiative in September 2012 aimed at unlocking the potential of the cultural and creative sectors, by increasing their competitiveness, their international reach, and boosting their contribution to growth and jobs. We now count on the support of the sector, Member States and the European Parliament to help us achieve our goals, and to ensure that Europe’s cultural and creative sector remains as vibrant and stimulating as possible.