The decisive deal

THE EUROPEAN UNION does not have a cultural policy. It has programs, such as the Capital of Culture, which Greek actress and former minister for the arts Melina Mercouri proposed in the early days of the European Union as a vehicle for cultural understanding between member states. There is Creative Europe, launched in January 2014, with over a billion Euros in funding for the arts, and other programs such as the one currently supporting European collaborations with Australia. These often mean big grants, but complex application and acquittal processes. There is, however, no formal overarching policy.

As the only resident-Australian member of the European House of Culture, I attended a roundtable in Brussels in December 2013, a precursor to the Berlin Conversation in March, when members of the European House of Culture and senior artists were to meet candidates standing in the May European elections. This forced coupling is designed to argue for cultural policy and to invite Euro politicians to engage with the arts.

The document we discussed in Brussels summarised the position: the 1992 Maastricht Treaty provided a framework for 'encouraging, supporting, and supplementing' cultural actions of member states, 'while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore'. This left the European Union with responsibility for 'complementary' action, and excluded the power to legislate regulatory provisions. Nothing changed in the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007.

The meetings in Brussels and Berlin are part of an arts-led political process to persuade European Parliamentary candidates that a cultural policy is essential. Its absence lies in the initial establishment of the European Union, which went to great lengths to ensure that the individual rights of member states would not be diminished or overridden, as expressed in those treaties. This sits awkwardly next to current financial actions in member states, such as Greece, where citizens question whether they have democratic rights any more when the European Union can insist on austerity measures. One of the participants in the Brussels discussion asked: why would the European Union back away from telling people what to do culturally when they are so happy to order states to behave in particular ways in other aspects, economic management in particular? Does this contradiction say something about the high value Europe assigns to arts and culture?

WHILE THERE ARE good statistics capturing Australians' attendance at cultural events, and we are proud of our artists and what they create, those who work in and for the arts still seek a sign that their work is considered essential and central to Australian daily life.

A Soul for Europe was represented by the extraordinary Nele Hertling, the former director, with Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann of Berlin's famous Hebbel Theatre, now of Berlin's Academy of the Arts. A Soul for Europe is a movement that began in response to Eastern European conflicts. Cultural leaders collaborated to support arts projects that would assist the healing and harmonisation of societies in deep conflict. This organisation is now working to establish a Cultural Coalition for a Citizens' Europe: at its heart is a strategy group consisting of fifty-five civil society advocates, from twenty-one countries, to cover the areas of culture, politics, business, research and media.

Its aims are many, but include 'ensuring that Europe makes better use of its cultural assets', and 'strengthening participation of citizens from all sectors of society in building a better Europe'. Significantly, artists and intellectuals are included as citizens. You note I am deliberately avoiding the word 'community'; more of that later. The document lists key actions as: creating new narratives that help re-imagine and re-create Europe; redefining democracy and citizenship in Europe and raising awareness about their development; and developing a new model for collaboration based on three hubs for action – civil society (organisations and individuals), artists and intellectuals, and politicians. This model will connect policymakers to citizens in new ways by involving politicians at all levels throughout Europe and translating the narrative into policy proposals to present to European leaders in preparation for the 2014 election cycle.

The Brussels meeting was convened specifically for final comments on the draft document The Decisive Deal before it was presented to candidates in an effort to persuade them to take part in the Berlin conversations. I was interested to attend for a number of reasons, including to feed back to Australia the kinds of arguments being mounted to persuade politicians of the value of the arts.

While this is an old battleground with many hard-fought Australian skirmishes won and lost, it is an especially interesting campaign at this time, given the severe economic climate in Europe. Nele Hertling had come to Brussels directly from Berlin where the city's recently announced budget for the next two years included no mention of culture; in response, choreographer Sasha Waltz, a recent guest of the Sydney Festival, announced that she would dismantle her eponymous dance company. The group in Brussels was gathering to finesse a campaign designed to ensure the primacy and centrality of the arts in Europe.

IT SEEMS TO me that those of us in the arts in Australia are far too easily persuaded to back off when money is short (and even when it is not). We are in a very tight budgetary cycle now. We now know there is ample evidence of the value of the arts – to social cohesion, post-crisis memorialisation, the wellbeing of a society generally and particularly to the young and old, the sick and the infirm –yet we are too easily intimidated by arguments which, in those contexts, declare healthcare to be so much more important than arts and culture. The counter-arguments never seem to come loudly enough or quickly enough that investment in arts and culture often prove to be much more effective as positive preventions than the costly treatment and cure of illnesses and disorders which arise from marginalised, unhappy or overstressed sectors in our societies.

But it's not just health, it's also about prisons, education, the elderly, jobs, environmental crises and so much more. Nor is it only about crises and gaps. The inherent value of art for art's sake lies in its ability to make an already healthy and prosperous society (which Australia is) even more cohesive and more creative. Yet, I often hear pragmatic voices advising along the lines of 'that'll never get up, it's going to be a tough budget'; then lobbying weakens in the face of what appears to be a definitive analysis of art's chances in particular economic climates. What I liked about the sound of this meeting was the defiance of such messages, and the mounting of strong arguments for supporting arts and culture, whatever the economic climate.

As my own devil's advocate I should also say that some colleagues have reported a typically stiff upper lip in British organisations which suffered, and seemed to have no choice but to accept, such stringent cuts a few years ago. While the large institutions have been bitten hard, smaller outfits for whom there has never been financial largesse have been typically inventive and are surviving, even thriving, in some cases. Grim necessity may have been the mother of invention there, but I'm not one of those who believe that artists, or the arts, must necessarily suffer in order to do their best work.

THE DISCUSSION IN the large attic rehearsal space of La Monnaie, Brussels' opera house, began with almost universal consensus that no one would have problems with anything contained in the document, it was easy for everyone in the room to sign up to it. The question that came immediately, however, was: 'Did it go far enough?'

Kathrin Deventer, secretary-general of the European Festivals Association, introduced the discussion by saying that this was a crucial period for Europe, so many people in its cities were mistrusted. This campaign was designed to bring the cultural conversation to those who have power, and to co-shape that conversation with the European Parliament.

One seasoned veteran of British party politics emphasised that this was a political campaign, and the danger of such a paper could be that its supporters would simply 'talk amongst themselves'. He said that two weeks earlier he had been with a big group of Euro parliamentarians and there had been no mention of culture or citizenship. He feared that one of the campaign's greatest hurdles was complacency, that many of the new European parliamentarians simply will not believe in 'Europe', literally not valuing their own roles, let alone the cultural component. Later in the meeting he argued the member states should be required to contribute a tied percentage to culture, something that politicians could understand in concrete terms, and as a seasoned operator he urged keeping the document short and sweet.

The discussion inevitably broadened to definitions of arts and culture. One participant said he asked his students not to label, and suggested the notion that culture happens in 'other' ways. Others argued to look pragmatically at 'demand'. In a shifting public space, citizens will demand other things, therefore we must go beyond just 'those who make a living from art'. It was argued that culture is not just art, but that art can be uniquely transformative. It is possible to build social capital from the arts: an important and interesting aspect of sustaining culture, feelings and imagination. It can lead to transformative moments in individual lives, civil rights and social justice.

A participant from Portugal -– the country that European artists expect will become the next Berlin, as the economic downturn leaves empty spaces in which artists can live and work cheaply -– commented on intervention. If the European parliament is as convinced as it seems to be of the value of cultural projects, then it should not be ashamed of intervening in the cultural policies of member states, in the same way it intervenes in economic policies. I supposed that this meant that savage cuts to the arts in any member state would be protested by the European Union via its cultural policy. Our equivalent would see the Commonwealth Ministry of the Arts acting via its cultural policy to oppose cuts by state or local governments: you start to get a sense of the challenges that such overarching policies would bring.

The participant from Romania argued that Europe can no longer be relied upon, while a participant from Turkey argued that it is impossible to talk about European culture when culture is already so comprehensively globalised: that issues of global justice demand a different kind of distribution of cultural resources. I wondered, is it still possible to talk about Australian culture, and should we be distributing more cultural resources to developing nations, especially those nearest to us?

At one point the conversation turned to the constant desire to render culture more visible. I made the point that people encounter arts and culture everywhere on a daily basis – it is highly visible, but not recognised as art. One of the participants from Italy asked, 'Have you all read the recent stats on participation in culture?' The inference was that it's only a small percentage of Europeans who engage with culture – hence the lack of interest by politicians.

He missed my point. In Australia we have very good stats about active participation, attendances at events and exhibitions; but these were not the numbers I was referring to. I refer to the countless millions everyday who hear music, even dance or sing along in their own homes to that music, and fail every day to recognise or acknowledge that the enjoyment of this product is derived from the work of a composer, musicians, technicians and others. The same goes for products of design, fashion, graphic art, screen content of every kind, and all those things that in many ways define our daily life.

I listened intently, took lots of notes and rarely spoke, but at a certain point asked whether 'culture' was being used in the broad sense, or did it really just mean the arts. If it was meant in the broader sense, then it would be wise to specify arts, as the candidates could devote generous spending to sport and cuisine and still claim they were supporting culture. But the answer, with some qualification, was definitely the former.

This European use of the word 'culture' still seemed to have an overhang of the earlier sense of 'cultured', that is, someone who is refined, who knows about the arts.

Yet its wider meaning in the European political framework is acknowledged in the The Decisive Deal. It explains that the Treaty of Lisbon recognises 'cultural values' in Article 2: 'The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the member states in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.'

The Decisive Deal incorporates all this, but argues that 'culture is also understood as cultural activities and their impacts in all areas of society such as urbanism, economy, ecology, social cohesion, etc.', and for that reason, insists on talking about 'cultural activities and the arts' as well as 'cultural values'.

WE IN AUSTRALIA have advantages in using culture to describe a life wider than just the arts. On the other hand, we rarely elevate our discussion of culture to include core 'cultural values'. Yet those values inform what many artists strive to express in their work. I find it useful to think that we are more likely to use the word to describe the many things that constitute the fabric of life. I think of 'culture' as that thing I detect in the places I visit, or drop into. If I visit Madrid, for instance, then football, food, and bullfighting are as vital as the Prado or Lorca, flamenco or Buñuel. This usage allows me to describe subcultures in my own country, referring, for instance, to the differing cultures and subcultures of Western Sydney or Redfern, Gold Coast or Townsville, Northbridge or Fremantle, Brunswick or St Kilda.

And, indeed, part of the experience of young festival directors and managers –including a growing number of Australians –who take part in the Ateliers of the European Festivals Association, is to enjoy that wider sense of culture in host cities – to date Görlitz, Varna, Singapore, Izmir, Ljubljana and coming up Edinburgh, Beirut, Poznan and Kampala. So it's not that the wider reference is unknown in continental Europe, but there the word culture still largely denotes the arts.

While I heard a marked difference between our use of the word culture and theirs, allowing us to talk about the arts as part of culture, which I find helpful, there was another word missing entirely: community.

We know the word is over-used and often misused in its rarely challenged role as a sweetener for activities which do not authentically proceed from community or with community in mind. It is also often used in a way that somehow excludes artists, and forgets or denies that artists are also members of a community who buy food, clothe their kids and pay school costs and water rates and taxes. While the British use the word in much the same way as we do in Australia, Europe differs. Yet there are superb projects and processes that contribute just as strongly to what we call community cultural development.

A Soul for Europe is clearly one of them. For me, it's a key point of difference that The Decisive Deal talks about 'society', 'civil society' and 'citizens' rather than 'community'. While the intent of our use of the word 'community' is almost always to reassure everyone of inclusiveness, it is in danger of incorporating that unfortunate habit of reverse condescension in which organisations or events give the 'community' what it already knows and wants because, as English sociologist and commentator Frank Furedi put it, the 'community' is often deemed to be 'not up to much more': quality and innovation still being preserved for economic or aesthetic elites. There is a huge difference between 'community member' and 'citizen', the latter loaded with rights and responsibilities in the context of broader society or nation, unlike the more localised 'community member'.

This seems to be standard in continental Europe. In Australia and Britain, cultural policies at every level of government are chock full of references to 'community', it seems in an effort to ensure that no handler of the public purse would ever favour elites; up comes the old anomaly with sport. There's pride in investing in sporting elites, but often reticence in their arts equivalents. In Europe there are thousands of examples – in the Capital of Culture program for instance –of what we call community engagement, by another name. France's nomenclature is particularly interesting. The fabric of the country rests on liberté, egalité, fraternité and therefore it would be unconstitutional to bestow gifts unevenly – hence General de Gaulle's successful decentralisation during which marvellous arts centres and hubs, resilient to this day, were set up in Lyon, Avignon, Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence, to name a few.

Some also argue that this kind of approach has a downside, that talking about gay rights, for instance, isn't easy, because in theory everyone has the same rights – let it happen, but don't lobby around it since legally no-one can be discriminated against. This issue has become especially fraught in the case of ethnic minorities now living in France: in a scenario not unlike that of Britain where the Empire has struck back, do North Africans from former French colonies have, in practice, the same rights as other French residents?

Following the street violence near the Peripherique and areas where north Africans have settled, the first step was not to debate 'community and the arts', but to put Jacques Martial in charge of the Parc de la Villette, close to the centre of disturbance. Jacques is the first black man to head one of the major cultural institutions of France (the Parc has a budget second only to the Comédie-Française). His mandate was to program the Grande Halle in such a way that the local residents who use the outdoor areas of the Parc might also be interested in the shows and exhibitions inside the venues. It has been a huge success, as young street culture kids gather at the WIP (work in progress) program installed inside one of the many architectural follies of the Parc, and locals find resonance in exhibitions such as the one that explored the art of France Outre-mer.

FOR US IN Australia, it has become almost mandatory for large venues and small, as well as the better-funded bigger events such as festivals, to be overt in their programming for and with 'community'. For Canberra's centenary celebrations, I had already included a number of projects with which non-artists from any walk of life could engage. I had invited our only directly commissioned international artist, Jyll Bradley, precisely because I knew her work always engaged with people outside the arts. Her project, City of Trees, emerged from interviews with those who knew and loved the wooded areas of Canberra and the ACT, and her own research into the importance of tree-planting in the establishment of the national capital. The result was a series of downloadable recordings which could accompany visitors to those wooded areas and an exhibition at the National Library of Australia.

One River was a project that extended the length and breadth of the Murray Darling Basin. Produced by Lindy Allen, with lead artists Donna Jackson and Malcolm McKinnon, One River's website united activity throughout the basin and in real space the project commissioned resident river artists from Goolwa to Augathella, and conducted seminars which included artists, scientists and holders of Aboriginal knowledge about the rivers. The project stimulated a different kind of conversation about river life, revealed what they shared rather than what divided them, and earned respect for the artists living in its towns. It also underscored the fact that the national capital is the largest city in that river system, which links it to four states and the territory.

The Museum of the Long Weekend saw vintage caravans towed from all over Australia to join a convoy that eventually camped on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Apart from the joy of the vans themselves, the camaraderie of their owners and the work of artists who had created installations inside some of them, Scott Rankin, artistic director of Big hART which produced the event, mounted a strong philosophical case. Scott argues that in a society increasingly obsessed with productivity, defined in terms of hard work, long hours and infinite degrees of efficiency, we often neglect the enormous advantages of leisure. I know in my own work that a too-crowded brain rarely comes up with fresh new ideas: these are more likely to arise unbidden in a time and place of rest. Scott argues for the benefits to society of the kind of family bonding that happens on a caravan holiday, round the fire at night, with a chance for real conversation often absent from busy lives. These moments are as important to nation-building and national cohesiveness as all the furrowed brows of major project development. So, in this program to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the naming of Canberra, there were many arts projects – these are but a few examples –which engaged with, and took their inspiration from, non-arts sectors of society.

ONE OF THE features of all this work is that it strives for excellence. These artists work in and for 'community' but they also demand their work be the best it can be – a combination of imagination, craft, and skill all pulled together with high production values to create work which stands up to global scrutiny and standards recognised throughout the world. The two are not mutually exclusive, yet that's the impression that a lot of programs imply. I find that one of the greatest fears amongst arts and culture policy makers is that of being asked to define 'excellence', yet the word is filled with as many unknowns, and is used with a confidence as unwise –in the midst of widely differing opinions –as 'community'. I know what I mean when I use the word. I've seen a lot of work by many artists of all kinds, and when I see something full of craft and skill, serious in intent (even when light, comedic and full of fun), stylistically original not borrowed (this means imaginative and lively presentations of classics as well as new works), and it is work which stands up to the best I've seen in the past (and I've seen a lot, from all over the world) this is what I call 'excellent'.

It is rare.

It is not the same as fashionable and not the same as populist, even though many such projects are very popular and their presence widely communicated. It is the result of experiment and failure along the long and painstaking path to excellence, exactly the same as in science, and that artistic process is equally deserving of our support and encouragement. And there is no doubt in my mind that non-artist participants (I am still avoiding the word 'community' in an effort not to step into that word's muddy waters) benefited from them: the joy and energy communicated by them to me was of both an individual and societal nature. The vast majority of non-artist citizens loved the projects, which made them feel happy with, and proud of, their city and its achievements.

DESPITE THE PRESENCE of these artists whom I was sure would create excellent works to celebrate Canberra's centenary, it was communicated to me that more 'community' work was needed. Given the program was already rich in excellent content and variety, I had no problems agreeing to an extra million dollars which would support 'community' initiatives. In the end, around fifty projects were supported, not all of them arts projects: they ranged from the cake decorators and floral arrangers, to the Royal Canberra Show; from the preservation of the Artsound radio collection of interviews with local artists and Gavin Findlay's work on the archive of Canberra performance group Splinters, to a Highland gathering.

While some projects bit off somewhat more than they could chew and, in many cases, the absence of artistic direction or professional technical support meant they had to draw on the able support of the Centenary team, all worked to give the celebrations a local and diverse feel. I was happy with that; the celebrations were intended to be local, regional, national and international – and we ultimately achieved even an extra-terrestrial dimension when a collaboration with ANU at Mt Stromlo saw a Japanese astronaut carry a Centenary flag into outer space.

While most of these projects did not aspire to the upper stratosphere of 'cultural values', our own program did. Two forums, Inside/Out: new actions for change by First Australians, both celebrated the achievements of earlier Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists and gave voice to younger groups exploring new pathways, including the arts, for action. The Future Journey of Democracy, initiated through the Centenary Multicultural Forum, allowed gatherings in Canberra and Melbourne to talk to each other in real time, and explored the differences in democracy between Australia and Egypt, Greece and Somalia, India and Burma, and also gave voice to Australian resident citizens from Iraq and elsewhere, as well as to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Centenary of Canberra's Indigenous Cultural Program itself was a massive acknowledgement of the national importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. With theatre, music, dance and visual arts from all over Australia, the guest visits of traditional owners and practitioners, and a particular effort to elevate the profile of the ACT's local First Australians and their artists, sports-persons and other leaders in the field, this was a deliberate choice in programming. Some questioned why this should have been such a large part of the program. My answers were simple. Firstly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were excluded from the nation-building exercise of creating a new capital for the new Commonwealth: their inclusion now was one more small step in redressing that imbalance.

Secondly, many of the great moments in the long and often very painful journey towards the re-inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into modern and contemporary Australian society happened in the national capital. Our patron, Sir William Deane, formerly both High Court judge and governor general, often referred to the Mabo decision when he attended events in the program. The Apology was another moment when the capital stood proud.

SO WHAT WAS the unease I felt in Brussels? Capitals of Culture have similarly all-inclusive programs; they tend to highlight all that their city is, including art and sport, architecture and city planning, even science and education, agriculture and environment.

But when I asked the question about culture versus art, I felt a bit dumb, as if I had somehow blotted my copybook in the office of serious European culture. It felt as if it wasn't just about words. I look at Nele Hertling's work within A Soul for Europe and am filled with admiration. I know WA's Lockie McDonald was impressed by this organisation and he longed to do a project for harmonisation on Christmas Island, but it was ultimately just too hard. Then I see the programs of the Academy to which Nele belongs; for instance, a remarkably rigorous look at the music of John Cage, its history and continuing presence, or the more recent Wagner project which asked artists of the calibre of Robert Wilson and Romeo Castellucci why they continued to create new works in response to his operas. Such projects are uncompromisingly pure in artistic ambition.

At the same time, Nele and her colleagues in A Soul for Europe are agitating, not for face-painting and bouncy castles as a sign of true fidelity to 'community', but for arts and culture as a means for greater unity across an entire continent, for the rights of citizens to participate through the arts in the re-imagining of Europe through a new narrative. It felt to me, that for all our notion of 'culture' in some ways now embracing a healthy, more inclusive range much broader than just the arts, to include cuisine and pop culture, sport and 'lifestyle' activity, we would do well to lift our gaze above the local day to day and start to bear more intensely in mind what the Europeans do have, and that is the notion of cultural values.

We need look no further than traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society in which the arts have always been an integral component of wider and deeper cultural values, or the many projects which are generated in partnerships with grassroots groups seeking and achieving genuine cultural development. At present, new narratives around the big subjects of democracy, urbanism, the environment, tolerance, justice and equality are picked up from time to time by artists or organisations according to their individual passion or curatorial choice. Otherwise, what artists do tends to be separated, literally, in a departmental sense, from these cultural values rather than integrated into their spirited development, maintenance and defence. One participant in Brussels suggested that what is needed, in addition to a department of the arts, is a table for the arts in every department.

The Cranlana Programme in Melbourne exemplifies the best of colloquia which bring together good minds to 're-examine the touchstones of our conduct' with executive courses 'designed to enhance participants' understanding of the philosophical, ethical and social underpinnings that are central to creating a just, prosperous and sustainable society in Australia'. This is admirable ambition and language not dissimilar from A Soul for Europe. The long list of Cranlana alumni since 1993 contains a handful of those who work in the arts.

But it's not the same as having a lobby group which takes an elevated gaze at the heart of artistic and cultural practice, with artists leading and championing the quest for a better, more unified society.

I am the last person to suggest that either Australia or Europe lack a soul, but all souls demand refreshment from time to time, and while we may have many arts policies, as do the individual member states of the European Union, these are still not united in the way that A Soul for Europe argues when it claims that 'Europe is a cultural project'. Rupert Myer gets closer when, as chair of the Australia Council, he talks about the vision of Australia as a 'culturally ambitious nation'.

We are disadvantaged in that Australia is an island, whereas Europe is a concept. We have evolved as a concept too, but still very much influenced by our internal and external geographic separations. Subsequent to a much more holistic set of cultural values in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society –where the spiritual and ephemeral, including song, were as much if not more valued than temporary shelter or possessions –white Australia's values emerged from squattocracy: if you could see it, measure it and put a fence around it, it could be valued and protected. It might be time to develop our own new narratives and approaches to cultural values, and for artists themselves, as well as politicians and the millions of citizens they represent, to understand that arts and culture play an essential role in that development.

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