Cultural relations activities create different forms of value for users, organisations and funders, among other stakeholders. Often different forms of value involve trade-offs that have to be negotiated, for example, reach versus quality or visibility versus invisibility.
Greater public interest and improved outreach are among the key benefits perceived by local cultural organisations involved in cultural relations activities. Extending audiences and increasing visibility in this way can contribute to their longer-term organisational sustainability.
Also highly valued by local cultural organisations and users alike are the opportunities they bring in terms of funding, skills transfer, training and career development. In the case of organisations in particular, these benefits help build organisational capacity. In the case of users, short-term funding mechanisms were often considered insufficient to establish sustainability of effort or impact and the suitability of skills was questioned.
Local cultural organisations as well as participants in the programmes covered by the case studies value the greater connectivity afforded through regional, national and transnational networking that opens up opportunities otherwise unavailable. Many programme participants called for further and more sustainable networking opportunities.
Collaboration between local and foreign organisations was highly valued in general, but misalignment of goals and incentives between users, organisations, and funders on some projects created tensions and disappointment. Furthermore, local participants in some projects sensed a lack of reciprocity or mutuality, which was associated with feeling undervalued by the foreign partner organisation.
There was some evidence of perceived exclusivity in terms of location, partners and types of beneficiaries in some projects. Even if the perception on the part of some stakeholders is specific to our research, it signals a potential image problem that could hinder the success of cultural relations activities more broadly.
Local cultural brokers create value and play a key role in managing various trade-offs and tensions. They are essential to the work of good cultural relations, but they are often not rewarded with equal opportunities, recognition and pay. In addition, local cultural brokers can cause tensions or conflicts if personal interest and proprietorial behaviour trump cultural relations goals.
Cultural relations create most value when there is:
a clear communication of goals and terms of engagement to avoid raising expectations and hopes which cannot be met through specific projects
a strong emphasis on locally-initiated, user-centred projects that involve and take into account local or regional actors at every stage of development – at conception, creation, design, implementation and assessment stages – as well as some form of reciprocity, mutuality and/or cultural exchange
post-programme support in some form, however limited, to ensure that, when seed corn funding is used, it works as it should and actually leads to some degree of local independence and autonomy
investment in supporting already existing networks over time as well as creating and managing new ones
a good balance of cooperation, complementarity and competition between organisations
‘blended cultural relations’ (optimising best use of new technologies alongside the face-to-face activities) can foster closer personal ties across all sorts of boundaries
a good balance between the intrinsic value of a project and its instrumental value for the local and foreign organisations alike, as well as the users and other stakeholders
a cascading of skills via local, peer-to-peer support as, for example, when trainees later become trainers and transfer skills locally and regionally.
attention to issues of diversity and inclusivity, within specific activities when appropriate as well as among the foreign cultural organisation’s entire portfolio of activities
recognition and appropriate compensation for local cultural brokers, both staff and project intermediaries, as well as opportunity for them to enhance their own skills
Cultural relations: managing conflict and strengthening civil society and future leaders
Managing risks by avoiding conflict is not the best long-term solution but, in the short-term, it may be necessary to secure a strategic position or relations in the field.
Cultural relations may not be able to resolve or reduce wider social and political conflicts directly but can contribute to doing so indirectly when certain conditions prevail. The very presence of cultural relations in ‘societies in transition’ like Egypt and Ukraine is symbolically significant, because they offer a measure of security in that they can ‘bear witness’ to the work of independent and activist artists and organisations; and because they create spaces of relative autonomy shielding cultural actors.
Some cultural relations projects while modest are still very important. The simple opening up of small spaces of dialogue between conflicted groups may be a ‘good enough’ achievement especially when well managed.
Managing the relationship between the state and non-state cultural actors can be very challenging in ‘societies in transition,’ involving difficult decisions about whether and how to support the state and/or independent cultural actors and organisations; a thoughtful pre-and post-project phase is necessary for detecting and managing actual and potential conflicts.
A frequent source of conflict arises from the very position of the independent artist: they may challenge the status quo but also live in fear of the state and state sanctions. As artists, they seek visibility but this can endanger their lives and the possibilities of earning a living – which is in any case very tough due to economic hardship. International cultural relations organisations play an essential role in offering ‘safe spaces’ and opportunities for cultural actors, especially activists, to work and network independent of state oversight. The provision of secure places is hugely appreciated by activist artists and can enable sustainable dialogue to flourish and partnerships to develop that can certainly, in the long-term, help reduce conflict.
Managing the visibility and invisibility of cultural relations as well as safeguarding the privacy and security of partners and beneficiaries is crucial for success of cultural relations.
Foreign cultural organisations are caught in a double-bind. They try their best to respond to local needs but must not create tensions with the government of the day or with state organisations if they are to achieve long-term aspirations towards conflict reduction.
Cultural relations can help strengthen civil society by promoting the development of the independent cultural sector and civil society through projects that offer funding, training, skills and opportunities otherwise not available locally.
Cross-generational dynamics in ‘societies in transition’ can hinder effective cooperation. Too much focus on youth in projects aimed at cultivating future leaders created tensions with older generations who saw themselves as equally capable of being future leaders.
Cultural relations can help reduce conflict and strengthen civil society when
they are embedded in trusted partnerships with local state and non-state actors, and contribute to deepening and expanding them
state and/or local independent cultural actors and organisations are supported without alienating one group or the other; funding allocation should not be seen as some zero-sum in supporting local groups
bridge-building activities between opposing factions identify shared goals and common interests that are clearly communicated by skilled and trusted mediators
a deep understanding of the local security and political context is shared by organisations and users
the exposure of artists and/or their works is handled with the care and diplomacy
local cultural brokers have the skills and support to engage in conflict resolution, as well as recognition of their role
civil society actors and potential leaders are equipped with skills that enable them to pursue change within and beyond their local communities