As Brussels steadily baked over the rising sun on a Tuesday morning, the EFC Conference on ‘Culture matters: connecting citizens & uniting communities’ began. ‘Culture is a vital sign of any community,’ stated Luc Luytens, Chairman of the Belgian Federation of Philanthropic Foundations in his welcoming speech. ‘Culture stimulates critical self-consciousness.’
With this critical eye Jan Goossens, Director of Festival de Marseille, stood up to denounce the ‘gap widening between those who benefit from the free market of globalisation, and those who have been left behind’. He proclaimed an urgent need to start with ambitious cultural policies that are so desperately lacking.
Goossen observed a critical lack of urgency in response to the ‘battlefield of populism’ within Europe. Initiatives such as heritage projects ‘are legitimate, but we need more projects that talk about a possible collective future… one not too Euro-centric’. Young Europeans need empowerment through being listened to – a rising number feel they have no reason to engage with institutional life. To this end, ‘we need permanent conversations between cultural practitioners, EU members, foundations and artists’.
Art and culture are not enough on their own – they are part of larger conversations about values and solidarity. Nina Obuljen Zoržinek, Croatian Minister of Culture, and Martine Reicherts of the Bank of Luxemburg, provided far more institutional output.
Reicherts steadfastly opined that ‘Culture is sensitive, because culture can be political. Art is not objective, and culture is about emotions… culture cannot be steered from Brussels’. Zoržinek said ‘culture needs all the money it can get’, but while agreeing that we need to create further cultural projects that go beyond the norm, ‘we shouldn’t neglect the heritage projects that already exist.’ Zoržinek looked to the audience in stating it was far ‘easier for foundations to create inter-disciplinary projects’ than ministers.
There was a tension between where responsibility lies and how we collaborate. Trust needs to be (re)built, and it was with this in mind that my first session began: ‘Trust and truth in a culture of fake news – What role can philanthropy play?’
As society consumes information in fundamentally changed ways in record time, technological developments have led to multiple crises in sustainable funding for the media. Traditional sources have difficulty in remaining relevant. Lisa-Maria Neudert of the Oxford Internet Institute explored the use of ‘computational propaganda’ – algorithms, combined with big data, to manipulate the public. ‘Facts do still matter very much, but it’s becoming harder to distinguish what the facts are… Data should be at the heart of the discourse,’ stated Neudert.
James Bell of Pew Research Center, spoke of research conducted to discover how significant the presence of social media was in news sources. ‘The number one thing people want out of their media is for them to be politically neutral – but across 38 countries surveyed last year, only 52 per cent currently believe this to be the case’. A small relief was that although Pew had seen ‘a growing significance in social media as a source of news… compared to personal circles, social media does at least expose them to different viewpoints’.
Patrice Schneider, Media Development Investment Fund, ended the session by calling philanthropy to arms to save the media. Yet in doing so we must be ‘ready for a new blend. What about the future? Are we trying to save journalism? Philanthropy should be helping the media to experiment – because the stakes are too high if they don’t.’
The day ended with, ‘Culture and nature intwertwined – the health of the one depends on the health of the other’. How we treat, conceptualise and define nature is rooted in our culture. Organised by the EFC Environmental Funders Group, to discuss what a new notion of culture might look like for Europe – one ‘where it’s not about dominance over nature, but harmony’. However, Veli-Markus Tapio, of Finnish Cultural Foundations, conceded that ‘a lot of areas related to agriculture can be quite divisive. It came sometimes be difficult to get your hands dirty as funders’. In this way, funding support systems and research can be the best method to facilitate cultural dialogue around nature.
This was an ambitious and yet tentative start to a broad dialogue about culture. How can philanthropy effectively engage with political actors, the media and those who treat our natural environment to inspire the greatest impact? These examples are as important as they are fragile, and these conversations are important to disseminate the inherent value in the intersections between them and philanthropy. If ‘Culture stimulates critical self-consciousness’, surely it is through asking tough questions, seeking empowering solutions and taking risks, that we can critically preserve and value cultural identity.
Amy McGoldrick is Marketing & Advertising Officer at Alliance magazine