High Culture: Hangzhou Congress on culture & development

Jon Hawkes, 20/5/13

High Culture

From the 14th to the 17th May, UNESCO and the People’s Republic of China brought together 500 delegates from 82 countries in a 5 star hotel in Hangzhou to discuss ‘culture: key to sustainable development

Participants ranged from the Aga Khan to me.  I put it this way because I was at the very bottom of the power spectrum.  I may have been the only person in attendance who was not a senior representative of a bank, nation, city, funding authority, university, IGO, NGO, foundation, etc in some way involved in ‘development’.

The main background paper, ‘Culture in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda: Why Culture is Key to Sustainable Development, is a very good summary of the context in which UNESCO felt it necessary to initiate this gathering.  Amongst other proposals, this document describes culture as ‘a self-standing pillar of sustainable development’ and calls for culture to be a specific ‘independent sustainable development goal’.

Upon arrival, the first thing we were given was the text of the ‘declaration’ we were expected to approve at the conclusion of the ‘congress’ (I put these words in inverted commas because in UN-speak, they have very particular meanings and positions in the hierarchy of international protocols).  The draft declaration called for the following initiatives:

  • Integrate culture within all development policies and programmes
  • Mobilize culture and mutual understanding to foster peace and understanding
  • Ensure cultural rights for all to promote inclusive social development
  • Leverage culture for poverty reduction and inclusive economic development
  • Build on culture to promote environmental sustainability
  • Strengthen resilience to disasters and combat climate change through culture
  • Value, safeguard and transmit culture to future generations
  • Harness culture as a resource for achieving sustainable urban development and management
  • Capitalise on culture to foster innovative and sustainable models of cooperation

But, for reasons known only to UNESCO, the draft declaration didn’t follow through on the background paper’s suggestion for culture to be identified as a ‘self-standing pillar’.

The presentations were ordered around 11 themes:

In other words, UNESCO was attempting to cover every possible base it could imagine without rocking the boat, that is, arguing for the recognition of culture as an essential/useful instrument in the achievement of every imaginable objective without pushing for its nomination as a specific dimension or goal in itself.  This, despite its own arguments concerning culture’s ‘fundamental’ importance.

The existence of a conclusion before the congress had begun made it clear (to me at least) that, despite an extraordinarily packed and complex programme, the real purpose of the event was not to exchange understandings and stories, not to explore new synergies, but rather for this gathering to become the support base for UNESCO’s attempt to get ‘culture’ on to the agenda of the UN’s ‘post-2015 global development framework and sustainable development goals’.  I guess they believe that a declaration approved by 500 high level individuals and the organisations they represent would give them the traction they need in to get their proposals taken seriously.

Being new to the way things are done at the international level, I found this behaviour quite disconcerting.  A great deal of money must have been spent flying us from all over the world, housing and feeding us for four days at a 5 star level, and touring us around the sites of Hangzhou, which I must say, has a plethora of fabulous cultural sites and experiences.  Obviously, I suppose, other agendas were in play (was this a play to get the recalcitrant USA to re-engage with UNESCO?  To get the Saudis to deliver on their promise of big bucks?  To give China a platform on which to launch their neo-Confucian proclamations?  To give the soon to retire Francesco Bandarin a legacy?).

As I understand things now, the primary reason for the strategy behind this gathering was that culture barely rated a mention in the UN’s ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (2000) or at the Rio+20 conference last year (see below) so it has been the cultural division of UNESCO’s intent, for at least the last two years, to build a campaign to correct this oversight.

Realizing the Future We Want For All’ (the ‘outcome document’ from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio de Janeiro, June 2012) identifies ‘four key dimensions’, that build on the ‘three pillars of sustainable development’:

  • Inclusive social development
  • Inclusive economic development
  • Environmental sustainability

With the addition of:

  • Peace and security

The Future We Want goes on to say that it is based on ‘a vision for the future that rests on the core values of human rights, equality and sustainability’.

UNESCO has been advocating that ‘cultural sensitivity’ be added to the ‘core value’ list.  The declaration overtly calls for culture to ‘be included as the fourth fundamental principle of the post-2015 development agenda, in equal measure’ with the afore–mentioned core values.  But it certainly has no intention of pushing culture as a ‘dimension’.

As far as I can tell, the changes to the original draft were relatively minor with one exception: The UCLG’s culture committee’s Circular 70 made four requests for inclusions in the final declaration, one of which was that the UN’s ‘new Development Goals should include a specific goal on culture and sustainable development with several targets and measurable indicators on creativity, heritage, knowledge and diversity’.  Jordi Pascual and his allies were successful in getting this demand into the new concluding paragraph of the Declaration.

Immediately the congress concluded, on the 17th of May, UNESCO announced the release of the Hangzhou Declaration, without however releasing the document itself, choosing instead to fill their proclamation with grand statements from the eminences who appeared on the opening day.  Such, it would appear, is the way of international deliberations.

So was all this ritualistic behaviour worth the effort and resources expended? I am told by those that understand these things that the Declaration will be a useful tool.  I met, and hope to continue connection with, many very interesting people, as, it would appear, did most participants.  To many of those at the congress this may well have been both an invaluable and possibly unique opportunity for which I’m sure we are all very grateful.  The idea of a cultural perspective being applied to ALL policy gained a little more profile.  Beyond that I have no idea.

The downside for me was that the language used in much of the debate was both confused and confusing, the myriad of agendas at play were opaque and impenetrable and the focus appeared to be very much on the economic and industrial aspects of culture

I did begin to get a bit of an idea of what UNESCO perceives culture as being:

Unfortunately slippage is rampant: one second professional arts practice, then cultural tourism, then urban design, then active participation in public decision making, then arts education.  They’re all over the shop.

Perhaps I’ll give the last word to Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder and director of the BRAC Foundation in Bangla Desh, who at the opening plenary, stated that no development initiative can be sustainable without becoming embedded in local cultures. It’s that simple.

Tweedle dum, dee & duh

Attended the AICV’s ‘Finger on the Pulse’ conference on Tuesday 28/9. It kicked off with an address from Brook Andrew who told us (including the arts Pooh-Bahs from each of the three big political parties) that artists needed to be trusted and supported, that alternative practices are valuable because ‘breaking with tradition is tradition’ and that places where creatives could interact were of great importance.

Then it was the turn of the politicians (we have a State election 27/11). First up was Peter Batchelor, the current ALP Arts Minister. He revealed himself as a dedicated Floridist in his claim that the Government’s successful strategy of attracting artists to Victoria in turn attracted business investment. He talked of the wonderfully high ‘participation’ rates achieved by the Government’s cultural institutions (by which he meant attendance) and identified them as the core of his Government’s policy (‘proud of the large’). Misreading his audience totally, he stated that they (the Gov’t) were encouraging the ‘big boys and girls to help the smaller kids on the block’. All in all, smug (‘there is very little that we are not already doing’) and patronising.

He was followed by Ted Baillieu, leader of the Libs and Shadow Arts Minister. He spent a great deal of his address establishing his personal credentials (undergraduate actor, cultured family background, architect, long term board member of the Comedy Festival and Children’s Television Foundation). His description of Liberal policy began with a commitment to an ‘arms length’ approach (‘it’s important for government not to get in the way’) and a recognition that perhaps the most valuable contribution of the arts was its ‘edginess’. He was generous in his recognition of his opponent’s track record in arts support (noting in passing that his party’s record extended back to Kennett and Hamer). After some more floridisms (‘make Melbourne the place of choice for artists’), he then announced his party’s big initiative for this election: the ‘white night festival’ for Melbourne;  this is an all-night celebratory phenomenon that, since the late nineties, has spread across some 120 cities around the world. Quite how such a proposal fits with his concept of edgy art and declared arms-length principles was not elucidated.

Then it was the turn of the Green’s spokesperson, Sue Pennicuik. Ms P. holds eleven portfolios in her party’s shadow cabinet so she had by far the best justification for being as nebulous as the previous spokespeople. She suggested that arts support could well be twice its current levels and still be insufficient (this was apparently immediately tweeted as de-facto Greens policy, which it most definitely isn’t), offered more support for indigenous arts and artists (unmentioned by the previous two) and for the ‘grass roots’. From her description, it appeared that she saw this as meaning things like the support of facilities to allow local/new artists to exhibit in local venues. An improvement on big boys and smaller kids and all night extravaganzas but short on much more than warm and fuzzies.

Really the three were indistinguishable – actually acknowledged by Baillieu and Pennicuik and manifest most obviously by the fact that they all leapt on exactly the same bandwagons: support of live music and the Victorian College of the Arts. If anything this demonstrated that inner city seats are becoming more and more marginal (once upon a time, being Labor strongholds) and that pollies perceive that matters artistic may hold the key to victory.

The pollies were followed by a panel discussion featuring Magdalena Moreno (CEO of Kultour), Ben Eltham, Marcus Westbury and myself. (Ms Pennicuik was the only pollie to stay on for the ensuing discussion).

I understand that the AICV will shortly be posting footage of this part on its site so I won’t do more here than mention some impressions (I wasn’t taking notes). Magdalena did a wonderful job critiquing each of the presentations we’d just witnessed – along similar lines to my brief descriptions above but in more detail. Ben delivered a summary of his call for a cultural policy that went beyond simply pouring money into large institutions. He supported this with slides that followed the money (the stats speak for themselves). Marcus expanded on Ben’s introduction of the culture/arts debate and was his usual inspirational self, peppering his chat with some fabulous phrases (‘fertile soil not tree planting’, ‘activate your constituency’, ‘evaluate cultural impact across the whole of government’). I got stuck into the misuse of the concept of participation, the dangers of a ‘command culture’ and the capacity of an apparently autonomous Arts Victoria to maintain the status quo.

Our presentations were followed by some lively audience debate that covered issues from thinking about the arts as an ecological system rather than an industry to making human rights the basis of arts policy.

My conclusions: it was a coup to get the pollies on to the same platform (even if it was hard to tell them apart – congratulations to the AICV’s Director Jacqueline Grenfell for pulling off that one). More important were the conversations we were able to have amongst ourselves. Where these might go who knows, but breaking bread together was a good beginning.

(Declaration of interest: I’m a board member of the AICV – however the opinions expressed above should not be taken to reflect those of the AICV)

From little things big things grow

The international association of local governments (UCLG) has just released a draft proposal for the adoption of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development by its members.

The UCLG’s Executive is now ‘arguing that not only is cultural diversity presently a crucial element in globalization, but that development cannot solely be based on economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance’.

The spectacularly concise document now in circulation (and its support from the Executive) is the result a decade’s work by Jordi Pascual, the support officer of the UCLG’s Committee for Culture and long-term proponent of the Agenda 21 for Culture.

In 2001, Jordi was one of the few that recognised that in my small book, The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: culture’s essential role in public planning, was the germ of an idea that might actually be able to built into a practical way for local government to address contemporary issues. He beavered away for 10 years, gradually refining and promoting the idea of the fourth pillar until now it has metamorphosed from being the concept of an obscure down-under dilettante into a full-on mainstream policy option.

It’s been a fascinating journey and while I can claim some small credit for having laid the groundwork, the ‘instrumentalisation’ is pure Jordi. Good on you mate.

Tonight (25/8) superb doco – The Music Instinct: Science & Song

Saw this fantastic show on PBS back in June 09 in Canada and have been waiting since for it to reach our airwaves. Hosted by Daniel Levitin and Bobbie McFerrin, it’s been split into two parts for Oz showing, the first part at 9.35 tonight on ABC1

I can’t recommend it too highly – it pulls together most of the research that points to why making music is an essential part of being, or rather becoming, human; in particular the function of music-making in facilitating our capacity to enjoy co-operating with others.

This is a must see.

Quebecoise initiative goes national

For the past thirteen years, Quebec has had an annual ‘Journées de la culture’ (3 day) event designed to raise ‘public participation and engagement’ in culture-making. It appears to have been enormously successful, if measured by the numbers of people who engage on the day.

Finally, after a feasibility study confirmed the obvious (commissioned in 2006!), the Canadian Arts Summit (an association of big end arts organisations) has decided to support a similar event across the nation.

September 2010 will see coast-to-coast Culture Days. Having discovered that ‘a vibrant arts and cultural sector contributes directly to a healthy and stable society’, the (relatively) big end of town has decided to take action.

You may detect a mite of cynicism in my response, for which please forgive me. It appears to be a strategy designed to introduce ordinary folk to the ‘behind the scenes’ mechanics of art making, not so much to inspire them to get into it themselves but rather to deepen their appreciation of the contribution Artists make to life as we know it.

In other words, an innovative approach to audience development.

Which is perfectly fine.

My fear is that these three days out of 365 may come to be viewed as the be all and end all of community arts.

The population at large is not just the market for arts commodities, even though it may be entirely reasonable for the producers of these commodities to see them so.

From a public policy perspective, the concept ‘active participation’ (a phrase constantly repeated in the ‘Culture Days’ rhetoric) should mean far more than a single moment of interactive experience.

It should embody the understanding that cultural action needs to be a mass movement – that a ‘healthy and stable society’ is one in which collaborative creativity is an ongoing and ordinary part of daily life, from cradle to grave, in which everyone engages as a matter of course.

Yes, we honour the Artists and their efforts, but we also (must) do it ourselves. That is the real challenge for public policy-makers.

Let the children play

On 27/5/10, Kate Ellis, the Minister for Early Childhood Education and Child Care, announced that the Commonwealth Government is developing the country’s first Outside School Hours Care Learning Framework.

I can find no details about what the content of this Framework will be, beyond the report in The Australian on 28/5 that ‘children in before- and after-school childcare will be forced (the reporter’s considered word choice) to play outside more and engage in games that involve interaction instead of watching movies and playing video games’.

Further into the article the reporter writes that ‘while the curriculum was yet to be established, Ms Ellis said it would emphasise play-based learning, physical activity and social development’.
Ms Ellis is also the Minister for Sport (and Youth), so it’s hardly surprising that, at least according the obviously jaundiced Oz reporter, she has chosen to describe the initiative in sporty terms.

I am wondering how engaged arts activists have been in contributing to the development of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care (see the CmwlthGov’s mychild.gov.au website for a brief mention of this initiative).

Apparently, the development Ms Ellis announced is a part of this wider framework.

The reason I wonder about how impactful an arts perspective is being is because both intuitively and rationally (I’ve spent a lot of time researching this topic) I’m convinced that creative play (song, dance, storytelling etc) is foundational to our learning to become, and to enjoy being, social animals.

It seems to me that all those who work with children should have learnt the skills necessary to stimulate children’s creativity, should be competent in a range of processes that facilitate enjoyable and fulfilling creative play and should appreciate the importance of these activities in childhood development.

Furthermore, the curriculum should mandate creative play.

I’m hoping that there is already a bevy of activists on the case because, to my mind, this just might be the most important arts initiative a society might undertake.

For those of like mind, here are some websites that connect to national agencies with responsibilities in this area.

Office of Early Childhood Education & Child Care (within the Dept of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations)

Early Years Learning Framework

National Quality Standard

National Childcare Accreditation Council Inc. (responsible for the implementation and administration of the Quality Assurance systems for family day care, outside school hours care and long day care across Australia)

Early Childhood Australia Inc. (national umbrella organisation for children’s services)

Four new books worth looking at

I’ve recently come across four books that look as if they will be well worth a solid examination by those involved in grassroots cultural action/policy making (those that have time to read, that is).  I haven’t had the chance to get my hands directly on any of them, but given what I know about many of the authors/editors/contributors, I’m sure that they will all offer useful new perspectives.  They are:

Baeker, Greg (ed) Rediscovering the Wealth of Places: a municipal cultural planning handbook for Canadian communities (2010) Municipal World ISBN: 9780919779914

Brault, Simon No Culture, No Future (2010) Cormorant Books ISBN: 9781897151761

Lynne, Elizabeth & Goldsmith, Stephen (eds) What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs (2010) New Village Press ISBN: 978098155935

Stige, Brynjulf, Ansdell, Gary & Pavlicevic, Mercédès Where Music Helps: Community Music Therapy in Action and Reflection (2010) Ashgate ISBN: 9781409410102

Greg Baeker is a very active Canadian cultural policy consultant who‘s done a heap of work with local governments.  Among the contributors is Colin Mercer, well known to many Australians from his time as Director of the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies (1987-95)

I wrote about Simon Brault when he published this book in French.  Now the English version is out and, given his focus on the importance of amateur arts-making, I hope it/he will inspire some rethinking of where the emphasis should be in the public support of arts activities.

Jane Jacobs was one of the great understanders of urban neighbourhoods.  Her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities was, and continues to be, an inspiration to grassroots activists and progressive planners.  It’s great to know that her approach is influencing the thinking of new generations.  Among the contributors is Arlene Goldbard, a passionate articulator of the need for local engagement.

I had the privilege of partnering with Brynjulf Stige on a community music symposium a couple of years ago and was very impressed.  He is, along with the other two authors, one of the key advocates for what they call community music therapy, which socialises processes that have traditionally been private and individual.

The power of music

There has probably never been a liberation struggle that has not had a musical backing track.  And in many cases this has been superbly documented – for example, Rhythm of Resistance – Beat of the Heart and Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (South Africa) and The Singing Revolution (Estonia).  The function of music as the holder of a people’s identity along with its capacity to bolster courage in the face of adversity are well known, and once more is raised in this Al Jazeera piece on the music of the Palestinians

Food glorious food

The ways that a group gather, prepare and consume food offer unique insights into their values, that is, their culture.

Not surprisingly, there are strong connections between their arts and their attitudes to food.  Many anthropologists believe that the preparation for and celebration of the hunt formed the basis for early human music and dance, and harvest festivals appear to be ubiquitous across human cultures (to say nothing of drinking songs).

Current concerns in western societies about junk food, the decline of social eating (particularly within families) and the rise of the slow food movement, point to a growing awareness of the importance, not only of a healthy diet but of process – the rituals of sustenance may be as important as the content.

This recent article from Ari Le Vaux, while offering a very personal view of food, is predicated on an important insight – one that I believe is as applicable to art as it is to food.  The most satisfying is that which comes with a story, and the best stories are the ones in which the teller is also the protagonist.

They do it more in the bush

Researchers have confirmed that yet another piece of common observation is really so. Country folk sing and dance together more than city folk.

And along with this revelation, comes another reminder of the definitional hoops we are constantly being expected to jump through. This time, it’s the faintly dismissive phrase ‘informal arts’, which, in the North American lexicon, lumps together all that happens away from the gaze of cultural institutions.

Three days ago, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts released ‘Come as You Are: Informal Arts Participation in Urban and Rural Communities’. This is Research Note #100 in the NEA’s ongoing search for evidence.

Whether it be ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, the analysers have yet to make the distinction between ‘witnessing’ and ‘making’ or between individual and group – both spectra that I would have thought to be of far more interest and potential impact than attendee dress codes.

Still and all, I guess it’s useful to be reminded that relatively sparse and/or isolated communities aren’t just waiting around for Opera Company to arrive.