3rd OMC expert group meeting - Cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue (Phase II)

18/19th March 2013,
Brussels, Belgium

Organiser: European Council

Logo European CouncilWith their March meeting, the national experts on cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue are over half way with their work in the framework of the Open Method of Coordination. Two more meetings and their achievements will have to be presented. What did the March meeting deliver? Invited speakers presented more examples of good diversity practice from cultural institutions in Poland, Italy, Belgium and the UK to inspire the deliberations. Chris Torch - on behalf of the Commission appointed European Expert Network on Culture - presented a template for the presentation of practice examples, for which Platform for Intercultural Europe had put forward the first draft. The purpose of the template is to make the practice examples comparable and to solicit the kind of information that will make their analysis interesting. The template asks, for example, “Has this action been inspired/necessitated by public policy?” or “Has this action influenced or changed public policy?” Chris Torch also introduced the group members to the idea of a matrix, which correlates practice examples to the involvement of public policy. Practice examples will be placed in the matrix in order to map the prevalent relationship of practice with policy. Recommendations to policy-makers will be possible on this basis. The Open Method of Coordination as an EU tool for intergovernmental collaboration on the advancement of national policies might fulfil its purpose here. In another part of the meeting, the national experts worked in four subgroups on ‘programming’, ‘staffing’, ‘reaching out to new publics’ and on ‘creating spaces of encounter’ in order to start elaborating the components of the expert group’s final report.

Read more on the presentations of the invited speakers.  We ask how exactly they fit in the work of the OMC group:

‘The craft of bridge-builders or re-inventing agora in European borderlands’ 

Krzysztof Czyzewski spoke from his 22 years of experience as director of the "Borderland of Arts, Cultures, Nations" Centre in Sejny, a town in north-eastern Poland close to the border with Lithuania and Belarus – a territory having changed hands many times over the centuries, leaving scars in its many different peoples' memories. Krzysztof chose this location in 1990 to start a complex artistic and educational programme to explore the ‘borderland’ region’s conflictual history and to create a new plural society out of long-term processes of interaction and co-creation. In the meantime, the Borderland Centre has become emulated in over a dozen locations across the world.
Krzysztof explained his philosophy along the line of four keywords: space, time, language and craft:

  • The work of the Borderland centre offers people from different ethnic and religious communities shared activities in a common space and encourages the recognition of their common heritage. This contrasts with the prevalent ‘minority culture’ practice.
  • Both the timing and the length of a cultural initiative is considered crucial at Borderland. The emphasis is on continuity.
  • The term ‘Borderland’ (pogranicze) was used so as to shed its negative meaning and both to replace terms associated with Polish domination of the East and as an alternative to the ‘artificial, positive’ term ‘intercultural dialogue’.
  • The fact that the artistic work at Borderland is intercultural, i.e. socially motivated, doesn’t release the artists from a responsibility for the quality of their work: “A bridge must be well built.” And: intercultural dialogue doesn’t ensue from artists’ relationships with audiences, but out of co-creation.

Prompted by questions from the OMC experts, including by Platform for Intercultural Europe, Krzysztof revealed information of stricter relevance to the work of the group:

  • He considers the Borderland Centre a public cultural institution. It was a civil initiative which eventually found support first from the local government and finally from the national ministry of culture.
  • He does see the practice of the Borderland Centre in opposition to “a culture of evening performances” and to “stage art”.
  • His strongest message to the experts was:

“We will either reform mainstream cultural institutions from within
or there will be post-cultural,
and not just post-industrial spaces in our cities.”

  • A question about the effect the example of the Borderland Centre has so far had on mainstream cultural institutions in Poland unfortunately remained unanswered. But the listeners heard that the movement of decentralisation of culture in Poland after 1989 has paradoxically favoured big players, especially since the arrival of EU money.

It was important that the OMC group heard an example from Central Europe which highlighted the need to deal with ‘indigenous’ diversity. May be it dispelled concerns by OMC experts from the Baltic states – expressed during the lunch break – that the OMC work wasn’t so relevant to them because there were few immigrants in their countries.


Heritage and Interculture (Italy) 

Simona Bodo explained that her work on the topic started with her participation in the study “Sharing Diversity, National Approaches to Intercultural Dialogue” (ERICarts, 2007). She reminded the OMC group that museums were established in order to represent and validate local, regional and national cultures, and that they are therefore fundamentally at odds with the idea that museum collections should be used in order to emphasise their inclusive and shared meanings. After years of effort, Intercultural Dialogue was still at best understood as one aim of museums amongst several rather than an engrained museum practice. The prevailing approaches to intercultural museum work are:

  • Showcasing cultural difference to the cultural mainstream
  • Promoting newcomers’ (mainstream) heritage literacy
  • Enhancing self-awareness in migrant communities through culturally specific programming.

The motivation for these approaches is often to fill cultural deficits or to compensate for misrepresentations of cultural groups. However, they do not encourage cross-cultural engagement and neglect processes, which create new knowledge and new relationships. Moreover, when museums target specific cultural groups with special programmes, they face the danger of “reproducing racialised thinking”. Nevertheless, the challenge to work interculturally, was essential in order to avoid “museums’ irrelevance to their society”.
Simona referred to the “From the Margins to the Core” conference at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2010 (nearly 700 international delegates), which explored the “significance of diversity and equality in contemporary museum and heritage policy and practice” and was considered groundbreaking. One of the conference speakers (Mark O’Neill, Head of Art & Museums at Glasgow City Council) had distinguished two models of diversity practice in the museum sector: the standard ‘welfare model’, where temporary exhibitions, education and outreach activities are bolted on to an unchanged traditional functioning of museums, and the ‘social justice model’, where ‘marginalised’ communities are implicated in curatorship, conservation and display. Mark O’Neill’s verdict on the two models was clear: the ‘welfare model’ “replicates existing power relationships”, whereas the ‘social justice model’ “breaks down unhelpful dichotomies and creates a sense of the museum as a living resource, connected to culture” (see conference proceedings).

Simona went on to present five ‘strands of experimental intercultural work’ in Italian museums – all projects centred on participation:

  • Training and actively involving museum mediators with a migration background in the planning of narrative trails, collaborative exhibitions etc. in order to achieve “a more dialogical, multi-vocal interpretation of collections” (e.g. “Brera: another story. Intercultural trails in the museum”, National Picture Gallery, Brera, 2012-13).
  • Engaging mixed groups through mediation methods such as storytelling and theatre in order to develop new, shared narratives around collections (e.g. “Plural Stories”, Guatelli Museum of Everyday Life, near Parma, 2008-2009).
  • Promoting a gradual acquaintance of diverse audiences with collections by relating museum objects to personal objects (e.g. “TAM TAM – The Museum for All”, Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Milan, 2011-2012).
  • Encouraging the “adoption” of museum objects as a means of building new bridges between artefacts and individuals  (e.g. “Choose the Piece”, Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Modena, 2008-2009).
  • Promoting interaction between project participants and contemporary artists in order to develop new perspectives on heritage or identity  ( e.g. “City Telling”, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation, Turin, 2008-2009).

These six projects all appear to have been of short-term nature and as such closer to the ‘welfare model’ than to the ‘social justice model’ – a critical aspect of the Brera project was, for example, that “museum staff not directly taking part in the project (from upper management to front-of-house staff) was not sufficiently involved.”*[see reply below]

The examples were picked from a collection of over 30 practice descriptions in the “on-line resource devoted to heritage education from an intercultural perspective” of Fondazione ISMU (Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity), updated quarterly. This collection illustrates that a broad range of Italian museums experiment with intercultural work, and that there is a growing community of practice (considering that Italy has around 3.800 museums, of which 420 are state museums - source: Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities). The on-line resource is part of a long-term programme intended to involve as wide a professional community as possible in debate and exchange. However, Simona admitted that the practice descriptions in the on-line resource remain quite unknown and are frightening to many of those from traditional museums who find out about them. Moreover, intercultural ways of working are still absent from the training of museum professionals.

When asked about the role of public policies, Simone Boda most astoundingly said:

“No political agenda can change museum practice.
Museums must be willing to change;
support by public authorities is then welcome.”

Was she speaking out of resignation over the state of affairs in Italy, or was she really suggesting that museums across Europe are immune to direction from government (and from democratic decision-making)?*[see reply below]

At the very least museum practice and public policy is linked via the question of resources. Consider the ‘lessons learnt’ about “Brera: another story”: It “would not have been possible without a considerable involvement of external experts. Any museum with features similar to those of Brera Picture Gallery (i.e. a state museum lacking autonomous status), or without a structured education service, wishing to promote a similar project, should (…) determine whether resources are available to involve external experts (…) The production of ‘intercultural’ audio-guides is of vital importance to (…) ensuring that the project leaves a permanent trace in the museum’s exhibition spaces (…), and is accessible to all visitors at any time (…) On the other hand, it is undeniable that the intercultural trails personally guided by museum mediators are more likely to have a much stronger impact on visitors (…) the offer of guided tours on a permanent basis would cost the museum around 15.000 euro per year. (…) There was no budget specifically earmarked for communication: most participants in the experimental trails, especially those with a migrant background, learned about the project from museum mediators and more in general by word of mouth.” (See project description in “Heritage and Interculture”.) If museums depend on more funds for intercultural work, they have a reason to talk to policy-makers. On the other hand, if public funds for museums are tight, policy-makers have the option of making them conditional on intercultural work being carried out in museums.

In terms of making Simona Bodo’s presentation useful for the purposes of the OMC group’s work, the on-line practice collection “Heritage and Interculture” of Fondazione ISMU should be captured as a practice example (rather than the individual examples it contains). However, the ‘lessons learnt’ which are described in each of the project descriptions could also be usefully summarised to inform the conclusions of the OMC group. In terms of placing “Heritage and Interculture” on the OMC group’s matrix of relationships between policy and practice, it should be noted that the initiative is that of a private foundation. It is comparable in purpose to IPAPIC (Institutions Patrimoniales et Pratiques Interculturelles), a French initiative presented at the previous meeting.


Approaches to diversity in Brussels cultural institutions

This set of presentations followed on from the presentation of the “Cultural Plan for Brussels” at the previous meeting. The representatives from the two biggest theatres of Belgium, the Théâtre National of the French-speaking community and the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg (KVS) of the Flemish-speaking community, explained how their respective houses both consider themselves invested in the present and therefore in contemporary creation, and recognise the multicultural nature of Brussels –a principally French-speaking city, with pervasive Flemish culture, a multitude of immigrant communities and the capital of Europe.

Alexandre Caputo (Artistic Adviser, Théâtre National) highlighted the initiative Toernee General, a cooperation (since 2006) between both houses whereby their audiences get the opportunity “to get to know the shows from 'over the language border' which they find good, exciting or relevant.” Co-productions within this cooperation allow artist from the different language communities to meet.

Danny Op de Beeck (Financial Director, KVS) explained how in the course of a 5-year renovation of the KVS building, during which the company moved to the district of Molenbeek, where socio-economic problems are rife, the theatre was transformed from a traditional theatre with lots of season card holders to a modern outreach theatre with an audience of 50-60 thousand per year made up of individuals who come once or twice per year.

Willy Thomas (KVS Theatrical Company member) drew attention to the Tok Toc Knock Festival, a project with which “KVS, the Brussels city theatre, is leaving its haven behind and going out into Brussels for a whole season (2012/13) … to create theatre and related art in and together with the districts involved. … Seventeen artists of various backgrounds, Dutch-speaking and French-speaking, from Brussels or elsewhere … will be working in the city for several months.”

Asked how quality is ensured in their approach to theatre-making, Alexandre Caputo said that “quality can hinge on risk and innovation”; Willy Thomas answered that “the engagement created, the importance of the moment can be central to quality.”

To show just how ‘root-and-branch’ the overhaul of Théâtre National and KVS has been, the OMC group also heard of the ‘diversity plans’, which the two institutions have adopted in collaboration with Actiris, the Belgian employment agency. Mark Trullemans from Actiris explained that diversity plans take a comprehensive approach to diversity; they consider women, young people, people over 55, handicapped people, less educated people, and people of ‘other origins’. Actiris develops diversity plans with enterprise from all sectors (in a consultative process involving employers and employees); in the cultural sector it has so far worked with 10 institutions, 6 of which now have a diversity plan in place. Diversity plans entail interventions in four areas: management, staff policies (e.g. neutral recruitment processes), internal communications and external communications (website, charter). When a diversity plan has been put in place, the organisation concerned gets Actiris’ diversity label for two years. Mark Trullemans answered Platform for Intercultural Europe’s questions whether there was a critical size for organisations to adopt a diversity plan with “No, the smallest organisation with a diversity plan has only 2 staff and adopted the plan in view of future expansion.”

In terms of placing Théâtre National and KVS together on the OMC group’s matrix of relationships between policy and practice, it should be noted that the initiative for their institutional change and cooperation came from themselves, and was effectively endorsed years later (December 2012) by a cultural cooperation agreement signed by the culture minsters of Belgium’s two linguistic communities, Fadila Laanan and Joke Schauvliege.


Paul Hamlyn Roundhouse Studios (UK) 

Régis Cochefert, Arts Programme Manager at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, introduced The Roundhouse, North London, UK, to which the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (one of the UK’s ten largest foundations) is the single biggest benefactor.

The roundhouse was built in 1847 to house a railway turntable, but was soon used for a sequence of different purposes, then fell into a long period of disuse until being opened as a performing arts (theatre) venue in 1966. In the 1980s, a period of decline ensued until an expensive redevelopment started in 2004. The point of interest to the OMC work is that when the venue was reopened as a music and performance venue in 2006, it was combined with a state-of-the-art creative centre for young people in the building’s under croft (Paul Hamlyn Roundhouse Studios), which “annually provides 3000 young people with opportunities to develop skills in music and music production, circus, theatre, poetry, TV and video, radio and digital media. … The creative programme that takes place inside the Studios encompasses creative projects open to all 11-25 year-olds, plus projects with education partners and targeted community and outreach work specifically designed for those who are disabled, homeless, out of education or training, excluded or at risk.” The founding belief of the programme is “that participation in arts activity unlocks young people’s creative skills, empathy, knowledge and self-confidence, and that this will help them to live fulfilling lives and contribute in a positive way to society.” Amongst the success stories which have emanated from the programme are the artists Scottee and Tres B.

For the purposes of the OMC work (with the remit to look at public cultural institutions), we must ask:

In what sense, if any, is The Roundhouse a public cultural institution?

While during its first incarnation as a cultural venue, the building was owned by public authorities (Greater London Council 1966 until 1983, then Camden Borough Council) and the tenants probably rented at non-commercial rates and received public funding for their work, the building was bought by a private benefactor in 1996, and The Roundhouse was set up as a trust in 1998. Since then The Roundhouse has operated largely as a commercial arts venue (two thirds earned income), and amongst the subsidies it receives (to fund its 11-25s creative programme in total and partly the arts venue), only a third comes from public sources (Arts Council). Since its reopening in 2006 it is also a registered charity and as such runs the creative programme for 11-25s.

So The Roundhouse partly exists to fulfil a public good and it does collaborate with public education and employment agencies, but it seems otherwise private in nature. Moreover, public policies do not appear to have much of a bearing on the activities of The Roundhouse, nor vice versa.

As such The Roundhouse is relevant to the OMC in that one could ask whether public institutions engage enough in the kind of work which Paul Hamlyn Roundhouse Studios carries out and take an example from it. Amongst the lessons which the Studios might offer are:

  • The importance of low-threshold access: besides structured learning programmes, “, low-to-no-pressure ways in” are on offer, e.g. weekly open access drop-in sessions.
  • Involvement of the target group in decision-making: The Roundhouse has a Youth Advisory Board and from that two delegates to the board of trustees. Both tutoring and empowering youth is considered the most important (but also difficult) balance.
  • A permanent endeavour to seek out needs and opportunities and respond to them: “DELIVERY, EVALUATION, INVENTION - repeat as necessary…”


Decibel Performing Arts Showcase (UK)

Tony Panayiotou, Director for Diversity at Arts Council England, presented the Decibel Performing Arts Showcase, a business event originally intended to showcase Black, African-Caribbean and Asian artist (2003 to 2008). Since 2009, Decibel has taken a much broader approach to diversity in the arts, and deliberately targeted female artists and LGBTG (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transsexual) artists. During a 4-day Decibel Showcase, about 40 performances take place. Artists can present tour-ready work, work in progress or can pitch an idea to cultural programmers. Decibel also entails support to artists on how to market themselves, how to pitch their work and how to apply for Arts Council funding.

Decibel Performing Arts Showcase is an example of an initiative in favour of diversity in the arts by a public agency. It is interesting in that it abandoned an exclusive focus on ethnic diversity and recognised ‘multi-layers of discrimination’.

Written by Sabine Frank on behalf of Platform for Intercultural Europe
18th April 2013

*A reply from Simona Bodo (22nd April 2013)

 “I don’t think it is fair to say that 'These projects all appear to have been of short-term nature and as such closer to the welfare model than to the social justice model’. The museums, which promoted them, may find it hard to secure financial sustainability and institutional change at all levels, but the notion of participation underlying their projects is definitely in line with the 'social justice model', and they may be defined as 'ground-breaking' precisely for this reason.

When I said ‘No political agenda can change museum practice …’, I was certainly speaking out of resignation over the Italian situation. In fact, I deplored how radically the situation has changed in countries such as the UK, where direction from government has been dwindling in the past few years.

What I rather wished to argue is that unless a radical change takes place in the 'institutional culture' of museums, public resources may well be made available to encourage the development of more diverse audiences, but museums will use them only to pay lip service to the notion of 'intercultural dialogue'. Without change from within, museums will remain unable to go beyond policies, which target individuals and groups according to their racial origin and ethnicity. The creation of ‘third spaces’ cannot be initiated through a top-down approach."


PIE position paper on OMC "Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue" (as presented on 24th September 2012)

PIE suggestion of template for policy and practice examples (as put forward after the OMC meeting on 11/12th December 2012).



©2011 Platform for Intercultural Europe. Donate!