Culture Action Europe members forum

This month National CVAN Coordinator Julia Bell reports back on the Culture Action Europe members forum that took place in Brussels last month. 

Culture Action Europe (CAE) is a European Network of artists, cultural producers and membership organisations dedicated to promoting culture as an essential element of sustainable development both locally and on a European scale. It also contributes intensively to the European Debate on culture through the expertise and the practice of a wide community of cultural organisations and practitioners from different disciplines across the Europe. 

In October 2014 the Culture Action Europe Conference ‘Beyond the Obvious’ took place in the UK for the first time in Newcastle and Gateshead. This was a considerable achievement for the UK and in particular for CVAN who as a CAE member helped secure in partnership with ISIS Arts, both support and funding of around £80,000 from Arts Council England, British Council, Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, Gateshead and Newcastle City Councils and the North East Cultural Partnership. This was a major regional partnership that demonstrated the commitment that Newcastle and Gateshead, its Universities and Cultural Funders have towards international collaboration. Our approach is now the model framework that has been adopted by CAE when considering European cities wishing to host the conference.

The conference was a great success, introducing the cultural sector of the UK to this transnational network which has less UK members than other countries. CVAN joined CAE because it wanted to play a key role representing the visual arts at European level through CAE and is now looking to help support CAE, by recruiting more UK cultural networks to their membership in order to grow the UK’s voice at European level on cultural matters. 

Following the conference, CAE is moving ‘beyond the obvious’ and transforming itself from not just an advocacy and lobbying organisation but into a genuine network: a community actively engaged in discussing and reshaping culture’s role in generating societal well being from local to  European level.

This first CAE member’s forum was an opportunity for CAE members to work together with the Secretariat, discussing how to fully implement CAE plans and achieve a better impact as a network. This was a two day intensive workshop that gave the members a real opportunity to shape thinking. Before this event, the only real engagement that members had was at the AGM that falls either side of the public conference and this never allowed ‘follow up’ thinking post conference to materialise into something more concrete. 

A strapline of CAE has been: ”Putting Culture at the heart of public debate and decision making”. This formed our starting point for discussion, with the following questions raised :

  • What are the success indicators for this?
  • How will we measure them to ensure we are meeting them? 
  • How will we know when we have succeeded? 
  • What will that success look like?
  • What will it give us or enable?

This sounds easier than it is to define. Members come from all corners of Europe, work within very different contexts, are funded in very diverse ways and our starting points can be very different. One person’s indicator of success might not be another’s in their cultural environment. So we split this conversation down, thinking about how  we are stronger than the sum of our parts, yet our work has to be done at local level through which a cultural wave would develop across Europe. We looked at what activity we could each do within our individual remits that could contribute to placing culture at the heart of public debate and thinking and then the more tricky task of unpicking what measures could be used to monitor progress from grass roots upwards to monitor our success, but this in itself is hard to make comparable across Europe. For some, a conversation with a local MEP around the value of culture might be a groundbreaking contribution to CAE’s cause, for others that relationship might be well established and the measure of success needs to be different. We also talked about what tools we have at our disposal (again very varied) and what else do we need?

There was a discussion about mapping expertise through questionnaires to know what we have in terms of capacity and expertise across this massive network. A harnessing of skills, knowledge and power, acknowledging also that it is great to have that intelligence at our disposal but knowing what to do with it is even more important.

The question was raised “how legitimate are we as a voice?” provoking discussion around how we garner legitimacy and it was agreed legitimacy comes from the process you adopt, the credibility of our approach with evidence attached to clear messages. It was also about knowing the issues, needs and demands of your members so you speak with full authority on the needs of the cultural sector across Europe. 

The discussion often veered between the process of networking and advocacy through doing something ‘public’ and a more underground but consistent approach of placing culture at the heart of decision making through regional, national and European discussion. A desire to make a noise and also do some consistent homework behind closed doors. Neither took precedent but both continued to be discussed to some degree and included:

Having three achievable goals, measurable goals that would determine our relationship strategy by working backwards from these in terms of how we would all work to meet these goals at a local, national and then collectively European level. An interesting suggestion proposed in a breakout session was that of a Cultural Impact Analysis Framework that local authorities and government could use to analyse any impacts on culture particular decisions or financial cuts might have. Similar to that of say an Environmental Impact Analysis, all cultural funders and local authorities could be required to complete the analysis to adequately assess the impact on culture, particular decisions might make. Whilst we can all make claims of what the cuts will result in, a framework to follow creates an education tool for those involved in decision making to really grasp the impacts both direct and indirectly can have on cultural provision.

There was also a desire to consider how we could better educate our MEP’s in all committees not just culture at European level to understand the importance of culture running up to the new budget setting for culture for 2021-2026 in 2018. Possibly a concerted effort to work local level upwards would create a momentum that would naturally inform this. 

More immediate ideas – invite your MPs and MEPS along to your organisation for a ‘back to the shop floor’ experience, let them work in your gallery, theatre, museum for a day and see the kind of work you do and the issues you face. Another proposal, don’t just invite them to the opening night of a play, or a high level VIP event. Invite them the week before, let them see the range of skilled technicians and professionals developing the play, or producing the exhibition – give them a greater understanding of the range of professional skills and employment available through the cultural industries. Another practical suggestion – lets start filing our reports on advocacy and case making on a shared database so that we have access to good research that we can all learn on.

And finally a more ambitious but possibly difficult thing to get going – A European Day of Culture where members encouraged their network members to contribute to a public event promoted across Europe to highlight not only the cultural offer but also the collective force of culture when working together.

On the second day, there was also a time for a more introspective discussion around the membership of CAE. Renegotiation of the relationship between the Executive Board and the membership, as ever this often comes down to Communication. Coordinating a network myself, I am more than aware that communication can be the downfall when resources and time are short, but as pointed out by the membership, we have to be able to trust those appointed to manage CAE and those on the Board to get on and do their work. This pull/push discussion is one I don’t think can ever hit a happy medium with any network, there will always be some who want consultation on everything, others who don’t and who prefer to place their trust in those appointed to govern the network. But it was good to have a discussion around what is expected from the Executive Committee and the members, where the trade off is, what is expected of both and what is realistic at both ends - is our expectation of ourselves and others ever realistic? But a clearer understanding of what proportion members should receive information, enable action and facilitate activity would be useful to ensure we are all pulling in the same direction. 

Some basic things were raised and which I believe will be adopted:

  • Existing members need to be armed with information in order to recruit members to CAE. Clear, relevant and easy to access in ‘elevator pitch’ terms, finalising a focus and approach and measurable goals for CAE will make it easier for all of us to make a pitch the network’s value  to those less familiar but potential members. Being able to say what being a member means and offers would be useful along with a clear members pack and sign up tools. 
  • A mapping of who is in the network, who isn’t and who should be would be good for members to do at national level within their own countries to build membership. Identifying key national networks missing, targeting them and building membership. 

What was clear across the two days, is that the members are hungry for a clear role within CAE to feel the impact back home and make their individual members feel part of something bigger. CVAN is now working with other UK members to consider how it can grow the UK representation at European level. It is also considering how to take some of the thoughts from the member’s forum and consider how to put them into action along with further action from CAE in due course…. Further details are to follow soon.