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July 27, 2012

ICCPR 2012


ICCPR2012 Venue_1

I am compelled to join the recent posts on the ICCPR 2012 conference in Barcelona. It was, as anticipated, a salubrious affair. More important than the salubriousness (is that a word?) was the enormous range of cultural policy presentations, with an impressive range of contributors – individuals from governments, city councils, arts and cultural sector organizations, architects and designers, researchers, and of course, academics. Warwick probably had the highest corporate profile in the conference, given how many of us were there. In a strong sense, I felt that the conference expressed just how cultural policy has indeed become a coherent research field.

My experience of the conference was made richer by several research interviews I conducted while in Barcelona with architects, artists and city officials. My photo above is the main theatre hall of the conference, and below one of the adjacent walls of the plaza in which it sits. I have no idea what this second photographic display is communicating – please tell me if you know.

During the conference I attended most of the urban cultural policy seminars I could. While in Helsinki I had some detailed conversations with a number of fascinating individuals, among them Panu Lehtovuori (see: http://www.panulehtovuori.net/) and Stuba Nikula, MD of the impressive Cable Factory (see: http://www.kaapelitehdas.fi/en/). I came to the conference with a lot of issues swirling in my mind, from urban entrepreneurship and creative economy to more mainstream problems of cultural value and national arts funding. Incidentally, the Helsinki cultural policy research foundation Cupore (http://www.cupore.fi/index_en.php ) were at Barcelona, with an interested talk by Sari Karttunen on the rising policy issue of the role of intermediaries and distribution in cultural production. So what about my ‘issues’?

Many of the conference’s cultural policy issues revolved around the industrialization of arts and culture, cultural standardization and managerial regulation. Of course, if you see cultural policy as centrally about public policy and the political administration of culture, then we find all roads lead to the nexus between cultural economics and the social cultures spawned by the all-powerful market. However, in this framework a lot gets missed in vernacular, urban, social communities, religion and artist-led cultural management, even missing the substantial discursive innovations from professional sub-cultures like those of architects and urban designers. While in Helsinki I visited a new housing estate in a place called Arabianranta (literally, the beach of Arabia in East Helsinki). Artists were contracted to work with housing developers – where the latter were concerned with building, the artists made sure this building was socially sustainable, communal and aesthetically engaged. Between them artists and builders were generating some effective cultural policy frameworks for housing, particularly social housing. I thought of the UK situation and the appalling state of our house-building industry. The first proposal of The National Planning Policy Framework in the UK, whose final version was published in March of this year, culture didn’t even feature. Lobbying on behalf of the cultural sector (like the Arts Council) finally got culture a mention. It was telling, however, that culture still needed hard lobbying to obtain even minimal recognition. And we all know that we won’t end up with anything like Arabianranta.

What was great in the conference was the quantity of presentations about cultural policy outside the arts and national arts funding frameworks (the impact of Ahearne and Bennett’s ‘implicit cultural policy’ was significant). In one of the closing lectures, Pierre-Michel Menger gave a wonderful and sweeping history of cultural policy in the context of the European Union. What struck me was his description of the period 1950-70 that was characterized by a cultural policy that was nation-bound, Government agency dominated, heritage-legacy centred, ‘didactic, patrimonial and institutionalized’. In a time of radical recession, we are surely heading that way again, where ‘culture’ is concentrated in the reliable, established arts silos of patronage, creating oases of inherited refinement amidst an urban landscape of austerity. How about re-thinking cultural policy without the State and without economics, and see what we end up with. Imagine no public funding of any kind (or only for the current closed professional networks) – has cultural policy studies the intellectual resources to define a field of thought and action?

Barcelona Street


July 24, 2012

#ICCPR2012 – A first timer’s view

Graffitied doorway, Barcelona

It was fabulous to be in Barcelona for the 7th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research (ICCPR) at the beginning of July. Of course I love conferences, and of course I love Cultural Policy, and I would just have to get on with the fact it was in Barcelona. We suffer for our research. This time in Barcelona it struck me profoundly just how much the city uses culture as part of its identity. Every surface is tattooed with identities political, commercial, regional and personal, from graffiti to logos, design to decoration. Every piece of street furniture is designed, every metal shutter is graffitited. This visual culture is official and unofficial, planned and unplanned, commercial and expressive, corporate and civic, strategic and ad hoc. It is identity through culture wearing its distinctiveness on its sleeve.

It is this broad, eclectic view of culture, and thus of cultural policy, for which the ICCPR – and indeed the discipline of cultural policy - provides a wide umbrella. This reflects the contested field of cultural policy. Cultural policy researchers and academics have taken into their purview not only the purposive actions of nations and states (and for that matter the supranational, and what might be called the ‘infranational’, i.e. the regional and parochial), but also the implicit, such as those policies not aimed at culture but which affect it, like town planning, and those actions which affect culture that come from what Althusser called the ‘private domain’, i.e. non-governmental agents such as the family, the church, education and so on. This wide ranging and eclectic field means that cultural policy academics come from a catholic range of disciplines. The conference reflected this, presenting research on a broad range of aspects of cultural policy and cultural politics.

The first session I attended was themed ‘digital culture’, and I was intrigued to find out about the Icelandic experience of extending democracy through social media. (Disappointingly, it turns out, there was not very much take up of Social Media by Icelanders as a way to engage in the democratic process. I have more followers - and tweet more - than Iceland. However, I would say that this was not so much a criticism of digital democracy per se but of a poor use of social media, and perhaps a cynical one at that.) The interesting thing for social policy discourse though was that this was in the same session as digitising museum and library collections, which is a very different subject. Pau Alsina (@paualsina) of the Open University of Catalonia tweeted that there was a ‘confusion between digitalization of culture and digital culture at #ICCPR2012’ and worried about a feeling of ‘techno utopia’. He had, I think correctly, picked up on an uneasiness about technology and what it means for, and more importantly where it fits into, cultural policy discourse. There is certainly plenty of space for future cultural policy researchers to tease out the strands of technology and separate subject from object, to define and to acknowledge the distinctions between and implications of phrases like ‘new technology’, ‘digitisation’, ‘social media’ etc.

As well as the emergence of the new, one of the things I really love about academic conferences is that received opinions and beliefs are challenged if not shattered. One of the shibboleths under reconsideration was that of French protectionism of films: JP Singh asked, “Why is France so welcoming of tourists but so protective of films? Why is cultural imperialism only discussed in terms of films?”, suggesting this was more of an economic than a cultural imperative. And Anna Upchurch disrupted my received understanding of the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain with evidence from the Arts Enquiry at Dartington Hall. Of course it was also good to have some things confirmed – Upchurch talking about the difficulties of getting theatre people together to meet in the 1940s, and even more so the reluctance of the then theatre managers’ association to release their statistics (compare that with the Society of London Theatres who only release theirs in anonymised form) showed that not much has changed.

In a sold out session (we had to change rooms to accommodate everyone), Ele Belfiore went further, suggesting a paradigm change. She reminded us that we did not have to accept the current terms of the debate, and declared her mission of ‘dethroning economics’, wishing to open the ‘cultural value’ agenda to humanists as well as those doing cost benefit analysis. Belfiore’s argument, built partly on Lakoff’s theory that frameworks shape the debate, is that we have given too much ground by arguing for cultural investment in economic terms, using the economic importance arguments of Myerscough, playing to the cost benefit preoccupations of the Treasury and so on. According to Belfiore, the argument ‘This is the only language this government understands’ is a counsel of despair which has set limits on the discourse by accepting an economic frame which reduces arts to numbers. This was very well received within the room, a delegate from Greece declaring, ‘The emphasis on just economic values has led my country nowhere!’, and I imagine this view would be just as popular with many arts practitioners. To find out more and to join Belfiore in her paradigm revolution, follow @CulturalValue1 and the hashtag #culturalvalue on Twitter.

Of course I saw so much more (highlights include Clive Gray examining the structure of cultural policy itself, Ben Walmsley effortlessly presenting on organisational change, Monica Sassatelli and Franco Bianchini on festivals, Egil Bjørnsen on the social impact of culture), and, as is the nature of conferences, missed even more (apologies to Annette Naudin, Dave O’Brien and David Wright – bang goes the PhD!). I also had some really stimulating conversations around cultural policy and politics outside of the seminar room. Overall I had a very inspiring time, and am left reflecting on cultural policy as a project that is not settled, still under review and, like Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s greatest gift to Barcelona, a work in progress that may never be completed, and that may even be its strength.


July 18, 2012

Culture, politics and cultural policies at the ICCPR 2012.

The Cultural Policy Studies research community descended on Barcelona for its bi-annual conference last week. I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I saw at the event.

Firstly it was a perfect setting. This was not only because of the ample opportunities for dining, socializing and flânerie that such a city provides, but of course these were welcome. The view from the top of the Museum of the History of Catalonia at the conference dinner was spectacular, and the venue for the conference itself, around the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, made for a dynamic, vibrant space. Delegates mixing with dog walkers, skate boarders, basketball courts and the general bustle of the city meant this felt some way from a detached ivory tower. The setting was also ideal because Barcelona inhabits or reflects the over-arching theme of the conference, Culture, Politics and Cultural Policies. It is a city that has been shaped, re-generated and re-invented by culture and creativity in its various forms - and not just ‘high culture’ (this, is after all, the home of Cruyff and Guardiola as well as Gaudi or Miro.) It is global in its orientation and make-up– with all the ambiguities that come with that- but still with a distinctive identity, bound up with local, national and regional political struggles. And, as the centre of a nation within a nation, culture matters here, as the eloquent opening speech from Ferran Mascarell i Canalda, Minister of Culture in the Catalan government attested. Cultural policy is wedded to politics in Catalonia in a more pressing way than it might be, in some other Western and Northern European countries as the city, nation and region negotiates with its own past, present and future.

This relationship between ‘politics’ and ‘policy’ was also brought home to me in the papers I saw, specifically in sessions on cultural development, and in conversations with colleagues from the Latin American diaspora. George Yudice’s account of the various grass-roots forms of cultural and creative activity, often facilitated by the use of new technologies, and their relationship to local forms of political activism and engagement across Latin America reflects a particular politics of culture. Cultural ‘development’ is not, here, being imposed by the World Bank or IMF but is being struggled over through, for example, competing visions of intellectual property and alternative models of cultural organization and distribution. These seem to me to be more fundamental ideas than those which accompany the somewhat co-opted narratives of culture’s benefit to the economy, to health, or community in the UK context. Somehow, in comparison, these latter stories seem to assume that the big political controversies in our democracy are settled – so cultural policy becomes a means of tinkering around the edges of institutions which, broadly, work.

There was thoughtful reflection on the British context too of course. Philip Schlesinger’s account of the game-playing , strategizing and career trajectories of policy-oriented intellectuals in the British research context was revealing. Dave O’Brien’s re-appraisal of civil servants as ethically oriented servants of the people’s representatives rather than, as they are often imagined, audit obsessed bean-counters, is also important in reminding academics that they aren’t the only people who can and do engage in useful thinking about these issues. Discussion with colleagues from Chile, however, also revealed some frustration and surprise that politics was not more front-and-centre in debates about what is at stake in cultural policy. In Chile, as Maite de Cea Pé’s paper revealed, a coherent, structured cultural policy is being created in a way which perhaps more readily reflects the underlying tensions and divisions in a society so recently emerging from a period of dictatorship. In this light the administrative and managerial questions which animate British cultural policy might be, in that dread phrase, ‘first world problems’. The politics of culture again matter in Chile and the competing visions of how cultural production and consumption might be organized and framed from a policy point of view feel closely linked to emerging visions of the kind of society Chile wants to be. These debates are far from settled, giving these discussions an urgency which their Northern equivalents might sometimes lack.

Of course recent events, including the coalition response to the financial crisis and the various scandals affecting powerful institutions in British society reveal that political controversies are not entirely settled in the UK either – or are at least in a period of flux. It might be too ambitious to suggest that cultural policy scholars place themselves at the forefront of responses to these kinds of controversies. It seems to me desirable, though, for both scholars and policy-makers in this field to keep in mind the relationship between the kinds of policies we want for culture and the kind of place we want to live in – and to be more vocal in articulating and debating that relationship.


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