Bottom-up cultural policy reforms in times of oppression? By Philipp Dietachmair

Feb 2019

Programme Manager - EU Neighborhood

Philipp Dietachmair,


As part of Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. These articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, as well as various cultural actors.

The European Cultural Foundation (ECF) has a long and colourful history of collaborating with artists and independent cultural groups in the Arab neighbouring regions of Europe. Already in the 1990s, the foundation’s Mémoires de la Méditerranée translation programme became an important platform for contemporary writers from all over the region. Our books and publications helped many to raise their artistic voice in Europe, often for the very first time.

It was nevertheless new regional associations of independent cultural workers, such as Al Mawred Al Thaquafi – Culture Resource and later on also Ettijahat (for Syria), who in the early 2000s took the initiative of approaching ECF with a more long-term endeavour of building a whole new cultural field across the entire region. Their vision was, and still is, a new and regionally networked cultural scene; a professional field that would be up to facing contemporary artistic challenges and cultural needs of societies and would steadily grow across many different countries in the Arab region. Al Mawred’s organisational capacity building for new local initiatives and their arts management trainings for emerging cultural workers quickly resulted in an essential insight: Legal frameworks and state structures were seriously lagging behind the practical needs of contemporary cultural production in many countries of the region. Improving external working conditions and governance issues turned out to be questions of very similar relevance as the development of up-to-date cultural structures and new ways of art production was in itself.

This led to a quick realisation that despite all justified hesitations of entering the playing field of state administrations a constructive dialogue about the reform of governance structures and many legal provisions in the field of culture was inevitable. Especially, if one really wanted to improve the ground on which new cultural initiatives and emerging artists could flourish. Largely inspired by the experience of another regional collaboration programme of ECF named Policies for Culture, which supported initiatives for policy reform in South East Europe and post-war Ex-Yugoslavia, eight entirely new cultural policy clusters started to work in this direction locally and nationally. While building on established mapping methodologies such as the Compendium of the Council of Europe, actual working approaches of policy reform groups from the volatile Balkan countries and their experiences with equally instable social, economic and political realities provided the new groups with a much more appropriate model for designing their own local reform processes. Their pioneering work resulted in the very first Arab conference for cultural policy dialogue convened by Al Mawred in Beirut in 2009. In 2010, this process brought about the first-ever publication of comprehensive cultural policy profiles for Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia.

Policy reforms can only be effective, if the artists, organisations and initiatives who work on cultural productions and are thus subject of such policies do participate in the debate and formulation of new regulations in a bottom-up manner. This was the defining key principle of ECF’s regional policy programmes for the Balkans. Since its translation into Arab working contexts as of 2008 it has been providing a strong encouragement for the newly established cultural policy groups to proceed in a similar direction. The first regional conference of 2009 and a number of new local policy initiatives such as Ettijahat strongly built on all the brand new insights collected since. And indeed, a number of follow-up pilot actions indicated that more dialogue on cultural reforms with state-governed structures was really possible. Especially where it concerned issues of mutual strategic concern, the practicalities of arts production and developing professionalism in the cultural field.

In the light of over half a decade of massively destructive wars, political and social disruptions and growing rigidness towards independent cultural initiatives and artistic expression in so many countries of the region, pursuing the aspirations of truly participative policy reforms for the arts and discussing cultural development bottom-up may seem like a wild fantasy. Many of the cultural initiatives from the region which ECF continues to be engaged with nevertheless seem to maintain strong confidence in the imaginative power of artistic expression. Many continuously operating independent initiatives sustain their trust in the ‘art of civil action’, which became so forcefully visible in 2011. They keep working on their vision of a better future for their societies by means of culture. And indeed, I am convinced that a number of pragmatic, more modest and quiet, but tangible measures will lead to a further growth of knowledge resources and structural capacities in the field. This may consolidate and prepare local initiative groups for what today could seem to be a distant but nevertheless imaginable shared and culture-led future for all communities and societies in the region. I therefore strongly believe that some of the actions proposed below (and many more) may prepare the ground towards the truly participative cultural policy reforms of the future:

  • Continue, deepen and broaden analysis of context, working conditions as well as new policy developments (including new risks) for cultural life and artistic production across all countries of the Arab regions (and beyond where relevant). After the seminal 2010 publication, many new realities wait to be further assessed, compared and continuously shared regionally (as currently carried out by Al Mawred, Ettijahat and its local partners). This needs to include many more of the interested players in Europe and other neighbouring regions as well as around the whole world – such as for example the newly established Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends Association
  • Create new and more publicly accessible (e.g. journalistic) formats for writing about new artistic trends and encouraging cultural developments in the region. Thereby create new informal spaces for critically and positively discussing about new cultural realities in the region. Focus on trustworthy online spaces of interaction and digital platforms, which could attract young newcomers to the field and could encourage them to build their own analytical capacities and knowledge as future cultural policy reformers.
  • Join forces with like-minded advocates for reform from outside the culture and arts field and explore unusual collaborations for working on some of the larger and most pressing issues in Arab societies. Socially-engaged local entrepreneurs, local media, even officials who represent open-minded local administrations and municipalities may become potent supporters for establishing more solidarity and new forms of collaboration among likeminded cultural workers across the region.
  • Use artists and cultural workers among the recently arrived diaspora in Europe for growing exchange and collaboration with cultural players abroad. Engage the new European Arab community of cultural workers for building knowledge capacities and transferring new practical skills to their home regions. They could also become a strong force of keeping the challenges of contemporary cultural work and independent artistic expression in the region high on the European agenda. Also, they could spearhead many more advocacy initiatives inside Europe and make tangible proposals towards European decision-makers
  • Establish, where possible, entirely new practices of local cultural life and artistic expression by experimenting with innovative forms of art and engaging local communities in meaningful cultural experiences. The creation of new realities by exploring alternative ways of production and organisational structures that are more resilient towards the disruptive working context of the region may very well be the best form of a more factual advocacy for culture at this point.
  • Foremost and most importantly, maintain hope and inspiration through continuously imagining, creating and producing genuine, meaningful and engaging artistic projects and experiences

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