From BIFC to BAC: The launch of the cultural fund for the Balkans - interview with Katherine Watson

Интервју | 01.01.2013. 00:00

The European Cultural Foundation (ECF) has announced that ArtAngle, an organisation based in the region that will take over the management of the Balkan Incentive Fund for Culture (BIFC) from July 2013. The BIFC – which was originally set up in 2006 by ECF and partner organisations – will be re-named the “Balkans Art and Culture Fund” (BAC). With financial support from ECF, it will continue to support cultural initiatives and organisations in the Balkan region and those wanting to work with partners in the region. The new fund was announced by ECF Director Katherine Watson during the final event of the Swiss Cultural Programme held recently in Sarajevo. spoke to Katherine about ECF’s mission, its priorities and its new partnership in the region.

What is the main mission of ECF now, given the context in which it was established almost 60 years ago? And what are your biggest challenges now, bearing in mind the global financial crises?

KW: ECF’s mission is the same as it was 60 years ago, which might sound a little unusual. The idea when the foundation was established in 1954 in Switzerland was that Europe was and is about more than just coal and steel, and that culture is really important to building Europe. That mission was important then and is maybe even more important now, but there is a huge difference, of course, and that is to do with context. Not only is the situation now different from 60 years ago, but it is different from the situation in 1994 and post 1989. We have found that things are changing so quickly that the situation is different even from last year. Supporting culture because of the contribution it makes to Europe means that we are always either a blank page or an open question mark.

The context within which we work now is being challenged now more than ever before, especially with the increased criticism of Europe. What is the role of Europe in people’s lives? The Europe that we know now is quite different from the Europe of 1954. It is a relatively borderless continent now, so all of the things that were regarded as challenges and opportunities for Europe have become generally accepted for people, especially for younger generations. For instance, borderless travel – being able to move between and live in various countries, being able to move away from a national sense of identity that is based on national roots, and the possibility that one could have a multidimensional identity, that one could come from a certain city or a certain country, but be identified in a more transnational way.

The current economic situation in most countries is such that there is a re-tranching into a national way of thinking. I think that is the greatest challenge to an organisation like our own, because this is not just about culture that happens in a geographic space, it is about contributing to the idea of Europe. So, if the idea of Europe is questioned, or if the idea of Europe becomes invalid, then our mission becomes even greater.

- How does the economic crisis reflect on funding possibilities for ECF?

KW: We were founded in 1954 in Geneva, by a group of European thinkers includingDenis de RougemontRobert Schumann and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. In 1960, Prince Bernhard invited the foundation to move from Switzerland to the Netherlands. At that time, our current funding model was set in place, whereby 25% of the lottery funds that are received by the Prince Bernhard Culutuurfonds (our long-time partner) are passed on to ECF top fulfil our European mission. Most of our money comes from the national lottery system in the Netherlands. What we would like to do is be less dependent on the lottery money that we do receive. So, like others in the cultural sector, we are looking at developing new partnerships and using the resources we already have and working in partnership to maximise that.

We have not been funded by the government, at least not in sustained way, so shifts in public system funding have not affected our budget directly. However, they have affected the budgets, of course, of our grantees and organisations with whom we work. So, I think that we need to think about how we change as a funder in the face of shifting funding paradigms in Europe.

Of course, in many countries there is not strong public sector support for culture, but certainly there is more support in northern European countries. In the Netherlands, we have had very strong public support. Once that begins to crumble, not only the public sector, but civil society looks to independent funding bodies and the foundations. We have to see if there is a way that the gap can be filled, where the public sector support is falling short.

What are the main reasons for launching the new regional fund, BAC, and what are the main principles behind its activities?

KW: In 2004-2005, ECF initiated a reflection group to think about what role our foundation could play in the Western Balkans. As a result, we established the Balkan Incentive Fund for Culture (BIFC) in 2006. ECF was one of the financial contributors, also Open Society Foundations through the Arts and Culture Programme in Budapest, as well as Hivos from the Netherlands, and some other foundations. In partnership with the Open Society Foundations in particular, we were able to catalyse some other interests and other funders to put in place a fund that would support cultural cooperation across borders in the Balkans and also work between cultural organisations outside the region and others working in the region. Managing the fund in Amsterdam was a temporary arrangement. In 2009 and 2010, we reflected both internally and externally on the programme and on the support that had been given. Over the period, there were more than 100 grants supported by about €2.2 million. One of the strongest points to emerge was that more sustained funding and partnerships would be more beneficial than project funding. And to make that happen, we needed a partner in the region. So, it was time to say: “OK, now it’s time to help catalyse the resources and to move the financial resources, the management and ownership of the fund into the region.” So, we are launching a new fund with ArtAngle as the manager, but this is based on several years of groundwork with partners. It’s really exciting. From my perspective, this is the most logical step and the time is absolutely right now. The biggest challenge will be working with ArtAngle and others to try to grow the fund.

How did you choose ArtAngle as a partner in the region?

KW: In summer 2012, in collaboration with Open Society Foundations, which has been ECF’s funding partner from the beginning, we launched an open call to organisations in the region, saying “this is the situation, come forward with some proposals…” We shortlisted four organisations (of a total of 14) which were in turn invited to further expand on their ideas and concepts. And from these four, ArtAngle was selected.

ArtAngle is a very new construct, but it came out of a lot of work that was developed by the Swiss Cultural Programme – locally engaged people who were working with external funds. What ArtAngle presented was a multi-city, multi-location approach. ArtAngle founders are located in Sarajevo, where ArtAngle is officially based, but also in Belgrade and Skopje. In addition they are networked across the entire region. They also have a strong sense of how to look for the gaps in the region or how to look at where things could change rather than looking at the existing status quo.

Foreign foundations are often cited as a crucial factor in the development and sustainability of independent organisations in the artistic and cultural scene all over the region. How do you see the role of ECF in that sense?

KW: We have to look at the history of ECF – working not only in this region, but across Europe. Our interest has been over the long-term, not just for the short-term. Although our grants are more on a project basis, there is a commitment to work not only as a funder of projects, but also to work in partnership with organisations in order to develop cultural policies in the region, to assist in advocacy efforts, to help local communities and local cultural workers to assert the kind of pressure that is needed or to encourage national governments to be more engaged in an area where they have not been engaged before.

NGOs in culture and art are not appropriately recognised in cultural policies and practices in the region, working in such an uncertain situation in terms of financing that it endangers their existence. Now even national cultural institutions are jeopardised because of the financial crisis. ArtAngle announced that special attention would be given to supporting development/capacity building of cultural organisations in the region. Does this mean that the new regional fund will be more flexible in that sense, more open for funding structural costs, for example?

KW: One of the driving forces for having the fund in the region is to respond more directly to the needs of the particular area. And that is the best achieved when sitting in the region. We need to be open to how that fund will develop and, to be honest, it is still relatively small, certainly now with not as many partners as when we started BIFC in 2006. At that time more grants were given than in any other year because more funders were on board. Since then, many funders from outside the region have stepped away, for various reasons. We need to look at how to support capacity development in a different way and capacity development cannot be in response to the previous context. We need to look at the current context and we need to look at different ways of approaching and funding development.

We also need to look at how culture can be aligned with other sectors and not only look at the diminishing commitment to culture itself. We need to step up and see how culture can contribute to other sectors and how we can try to find resources in other sectors by working side by side. You can see many of these examples in how the Swiss Cultural Programme is funded and how ECF was funded. There is a crossover. There are many community connected organisations and independent activist type organisations that are contributing to community development, democratic development giving the ownership back to the citizens through their participation in culture. I think we need to try to find the ways to maximise that… to try to find support wherever that support is, whether it is public sector or any other sector, because we get stuck in old models. We need to look with fresh eyes at what those models might be.

ECF is active in advocacy campaigns such as We are more, which encourages arts and cultural organisations across Europe to get involved and stand up for increased support to arts and culture in the policies and programmes of the European Union. In our region, the NGO cultural sector has been in existence and developing for several decades, but yet, until recently, there were no umbrella organisations that coordinated the activities and goals of the NGO scenes. Now we have the Independent Cultural Scene of Serbia (NKSS), Jadro in Macedonia... How do you see the role of these kinds of organisations and possibilities for their stronger involvement in advocacy campaigns at the European level?

KW: I think there has always been a continuous need to connect the independent scene and networks outside the EU to those inside the EU. Certainly, our concept of Europe is not just the EU, and there are funds and resources at the European level that are opened much more broadly than just to the EU member states. So I think organisations like ECF are trying to be that bridge between the Brussels thinking and the thinking beyond the EU. You can only do that by linking that to what is happening on the ground in practice to policy making, so we are trying to make that bridge. That is also made stronger by reinforcing advocacy interests and voices at a local level – whether it is a local municipal level, which is very important in any context and even more so now than in the past, or whether it is at a national level. The space that a city plays in the independent cultural sector is  very important, starting at the level of citizen engagement and the ability to raise issues, even before the money is there, in ways that go beyond just asking for money. That is when policy-makers shut doors, thinking, “Oh, it’s just another interest group looking for money”. How we can find ways to make the case for being more than just money, or in this case not just about culture – it is about our future.

Do you see any possibility for putting additional pressure on decision-makers in the Balkans in order to provide a better position for culture? Our countries are in different phases of European integration, but the field of culture isn’t mentioned in the EU reports on progress that have been made in these processes, and our politicians may have the impression that culture is not important for the EU.

KW: That is because culture is so narrowly defined and because of seeing that culture stays and plays in a particular box. For its value and contribution to the community and society, it needs to be understood as being part of the development table. So, there is economy, there is society and there is environment and there is culture, and in order for our communities, our countries and our world to progress, all of those have to have a part to play. The challenging thing is that culture has always been defined in a certain way, as something peripheral or extra.

You joined ECF in 2006 as Director of its online partner initiative, the multi-lingual cultural information and networking platform, LabforCulture. ECF also launched, showing an awareness of the importance of online interactive platforms for the further development of the cultural community, as well as for activities in the field of cultural policy. In this region we also have cultural portals that are crucial for visibility of the cultural independent scenes, but there are not particular funds for that kind of production. Is there a chance for some changes in ECF policy regarding this issue?

KW:  Working in digital projects over a period of 10 years, we can see how different the engagement is with the internet. I think we need to act to shed ourselves of some previous ideas because things are so much more accessible now, because so much of it is ‘do-it-yourself’. Because of that it is very hard to find resources to centralise or build something and look at it as a delivery mechanism rather then a community space or user driven space. It is demand driven rather then supply driven, so I think that needs to be a change in how we look at things, which means that we need to open up a lot more than just letting things happen. We need to be in the places online where people are and to open up our thinking there as much as anywhere else because it is a different online world than it was in 2006, when was launched… Today’s audience expectations and demands for interactivity are so different than those several years ago, so absolutely digital tools are invaluable but maybe our approach needs to change and be more in lines with what people expect online.

( - Vesna Milosavljević)

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