Monday, 28 October 2013

Cultural policy, with some "jaw-dropping" numbers

Sunday, October 20

The sunday session begins with a forum on cities and cultural policy - what art can do for a city.

John Howkins speaks

1) John Howkins, UK: a tall, thin, white-haired British consultant, with, apparently, a giant IQ. Here's what he says:
  • the essence of a city is people and ideas. That's it. Economy, business, infrastructure are all secondary.
  • what makes a world city? Not size, economy or location, but culture.
  • what IS culture? He tries not to use this word, but identifies several meanings for it. In Art, the meaning is tied to aesthetics. In anthropology, the meaning is tied to a way of living. In biology, the meaning is tied to a medium for growing things. In computer science, the meaning is tied to an operating system. The latter meaning he explored with cities, citing London as having an open-source operating culture.
  • the key question for cities now is: how are we using the best ideas, the best people, to improve a city? He talks of international expos as occurring only in the rapidly developing world, since their effectiveness still holds there. In the developed world, there hasn't been an expo for a long time, since the internet is now the source for the types of global connection that used to be situated in expos. He maintains that the new expo is the international arts festival, which promotes the kind of connection that is impossible on the internet.
  • looking ahead to the next 20 years, he maintains that two pairs of linked factors will determine the success of cities: Change and Diversity are the first pair. Cities need to promote these things successfully. Learning and Adaptation are the second pair. A city needs to be in a constant state of learning and adaptation to be successful.
  • he reminds us all that once we are out of school, learning is something we manage ourselves. The responsibility is ours. He finishes with the statement "the cities I know best and love are always learning". A note for Toronto's mayor Rob Ford?...
2) Michelle Boon, USA, the commissioner of cultural affairs for the city of Chicago speaks next.
  • Chicago has enacted a new cultural plan, its first since 1986. 
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel drove this initiative, and put $1 million USD into it (note to the reader: keep this figure in mind for when we get to what Singapore has been up to...). Michelle says that this mayor is probably the only ex-ballet dancer mayor in the US. 
  • through a public consultation process, her department found that the citizens of Chicago consistently ranked Arts Education as a top priority. 
  • Chicago has undertaken an initiative to find ways to link the non-profit arts sector with the for-profit arts sector. 
  • after the session, I speak to a few North American heavyweight ADs who say the Chicago speech had a lot of spin in it. The fact is, the money is not there. The support is inadequate for the goals. Space in the cultural HQ building is being closed down for lack of support. 
Chicago's Cultural Priorities

I think back to the Chicago initiative to find ways to link the non-profit arts sector with the for-profit arts sector. It's here that my alarm bells go off. The goals of the people who manage these sectors are rarely in concert. Sometimes the art can travel from one sector to another, but always, I would maintain, in the case where a serious artist was nurtured in the non-commercial sector. I recall here an earlier conversation with the head of the Hong Kong Arts Festival who is trying to rebrand the "not-for-profit" sector in more positive terms as the "for purpose" sector. Profit vs. purpose. Put that way, the difference is clear. The ADs I speak with after say that in the case of Chicago, the money is just not there. Rahm Emmanuel's $1 million is nothing. The support is inadequate to meet the goals. 

Liu Wenguo speaks

3) Next up is LIU Wenguo, China: the man who runs the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While I've been here, I've learned that this festival is, in fact, not really a festival, but an umbrella. There is no curator. The festival is a brand that groups together many shows that are in progress at this time. It's giant, but not focused. Mr. Liu speed reads through a speech, and the simultaneous translators have difficulty keeping up. As a result, I miss a lot. Here's what i caught:
  • the festival is a way to showcase China to the world. It espouses values such as tolerance, excellence, magnanimity and modesty.
  • "Big Shanghai" is the idea being fostered: a city that is inclusive, international, and innovative.
  • "Innovation is the soul of the Arts, and innovation is key to the development of a city."
  • the message is that Shanghai is the birthplace of modernity in China. It is a modern powerhouse. Looking around the city, that seems true. The infrastructure is amazing. The city is vertical, gleaming and moving forward like a bullet train. It seems that, at least within this festival gathering, arts, culture and innovations are key interests of this modern China.
Benson Puah speaks

4) Up next is Benson Puah, Singapore, a man I've heard speak a couple of times before at ISPA in New York. He is the diminutive, smiling genius of arts and culture in Singapore. He used to run the Singapore Arts Festival, and now has reduced his workload to just one giant institution, the Esplanade theatre complex. He seems always at peace with the world, and two steps ahead of everyone else. Generous, modest and brilliant. If anyone should run the world, I think this guy might be the best candidate.
  • he begins: "Good morning. I am between you and tea break." He smiles, and promises to be brief, and to stay away from the quicksand of powerpoint.
  • he speaks of the 1989 report on the arts in Singapore, and how that report led to the creation of Singapore's arts infrastructure. 
  • a new plan in 2000 moved away from art as a spiritual need, and instead stressed the creative economy. The emphasis on art as an economic tool led to unprecedented growth as Singapore used culture as a way to market itself to the world.
  • Benson said that this economically-driven plan exposed itself as being only part of the picture, and that something vital was missing. In 2009, another plan was made that stressed the relationship between Culture and the Community - that Art is Art, not an economic tool, and the spiritual health of people is related to the health of their Arts and Culture, and their ability to interact with it.
  • as Singapore has moved rapidly from third to first world status, it has become increasingly mixed race. He cites some stats that sound very Canadian. He affirms the role that art has to play in understanding a place's shifting identity. This is very similar to the point that Aussie Andrew Bleby from the Melbourne Festival made a couple if days ago, and that I heard at the conference I went to in Kampala last month. Art can help us process Identity.
  • Benson speaks of a recent fight with cancer and the epiphany it led to. In the ward he was in, the patients were from many cultures, undergoing the same ordeal, dealing with the same pain. There was a strong sense that our blood is the same colour, and that cancer doesn't discriminate. He understood in a new way the importance of tolerance and understanding, and the possibility of shared identity across cultural difference.
  • the emerging challenge in Singapore (and one that China is also processing) is how to preserve tradition. In a global culture that provides so much instant gratification, slow skill acquisition is difficult to promote.
  • now the jaw dropping stats of a city state putting its money where its mouth is (and in stark contrast to Chicago, or, well, most of our cities in North America): Singapore Arts Council is about to increase its budget by 140%. Art is being deployed as a key tool in the education system. $210 million USD are being spent to develop a new Cultural plan. Culture is at the centre of the city's planning.
  • Benson says he is happy and fortunate to be in this city at this time. (He contributed much to this vision being realized in Singapore, so he's also to be thanked.) Ultimately, he says, this is all about who we are as people. Policy / money / governments can only take us so far: it is up to the people to invent themselves and their culture. I agree, but I also wish, as do doubtless many of the people listening, that my own government's policy would take us as far as Singapore's.
5) HUANG Changyong, China: the head of the Shanghai Theatre Academy is next up (after the tea break). This is another machine gun fast speech and leaves the translators struggling to keep up. I follow little of it, but do glean the following:
  • China is positioning Beijing as the Chinese Cultural Centre, and Shanghai as the International Cultural Metropolis. 
Hans-Georg Knopp speaks

6) Hans-Georg Knopp: another super-bright policy consultant type, who lives half the year in Berlin, and half in Shanghai.
  • he speaks of Berlin. After the war, culture was literally the rescue of the city. There is nothing more important than culture.
  • the regulated and unregulated nature of culture in Berlin is key to its success. He speaks more of this unregulated aspect. Street musicians do not need licenses. Restos and bars face no restrictions on opening hours. This leads to a roughness in Berlin that is key to its success. In polls, a majority of visitors cite Berlin's subculture as being as important as its High Art.
  • he speaks of the wisdom of policy in Berlin, where policy makers and artistic leaders are brought around the same table to set cultural policy. He says that there is an inherent gap between cultural policy makers and cultural practitioners, and that cities must find a way to fill this gap.
  • artists are mobile. They go to places that are cheap and interesting. The roughness and affordability of space in Berlin has made it home to many artists, and this, in turn, has given the city the number two ranking of cities in the world, after New York - another rough and artist-full place (although space there ain't exactly cheap..).
7) Scott Galbraith, USA, the head of the Bushnell Centre for the Arts in Hartford CT. 
  • this slick powerpoint lecture seems hopelessly out of place in this context. It feels like cutting edge 1990. The city has invested in a plan called iQuilt, and the Disney-meets-Apple name seems appropriate to the city-theme-park plan, with an emphasis on fun stuff and test-drives for Broadway shows. 
Chris Lorway speaks

8) Chris Lorway, Canada
  • Chris speaks of his time running Luminato, and how he converted the festival from a "Bucket Festival," where what was on at the time became what was on at the festival (similar to SPAF), to a festival with curation and a plethora of major commissions (with a nice nod to The Africa Trilogy that Volcano built for Luminato). It's a succinct and accurate view of a major festival, and one which tells the story of how festival programming decisions can begin to animate and reflect a city's identity back to the citizens. Good job, Chris!
A couple of final points are made in the discussion at the end of the session. Huang Changyong speaks of the necessity of arts education. In a city of 25 million, this is the way to give the people access and awareness of something of value: art.

Panel discussion at end of the session

Hans-Georg Knopp wraps it up by saying that "Culture asks the question that nobody else dares ask." What could be more important to a civilization?

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