Interview by Claire Power with Luca Bergamo, Secretary General of Culture Action Europe, held on Friday 2nd May 2014.
No doubt about it, advocacy and lobbying are the topics of the day. A consensus is clearly developing that we in the arts urgently need to increase communication about the value of culture and the arts beyond our sector to be effective in briging about change. Meaning seize the initiative, act in solidarity and no waiting about to be invited. Such was the nature of the debate at this year’s Visual Art Workers Forum in Dublin (Project Arts Centre, 9 May) and the sentiment of an interview with the Chair of the Arts Council, Sheila Pratschke the following day (Irish Times, 10 May), where she lamented how the value of culture remains contentious in Ireland when it generally is accepted that culture is vital to society.
In the run up to the European Parliament elections on 23 May, I met up with Luca Bergamo, Secretary General of Culture Action Europe (CAE) in Brussels. Our conversation was insightful and included at times provocative perspectives on making the case for culture and the arts at the highest political level. This month, all involved in the EP elections will be watching to see if turn-out improves on 2009’s lowest ever at 49%. The lack of participation in the democratic process was interpreted as a sign of a general collapse in confidence in Europe’s political institutions and the failure of democracy to protect people in the face of global financial collapse.
So what is Culture Action Europe? It is a political platform for arts and culture and its aims are two-fold: to put culture at the heart of the public debate and decision-making at every level, local and European, and to encourage the democratic development of the European Union. It is a Europe-wide network of membership organisations, with a Secretariat based in Brussels. It is funded by over 100 members, with support from the EU Culture Programme 2007-2013 and the European Cultural Foundation. Luca Bergamo became Secretary General of CAE in 2012. He is keen to emphasise that Culture Action Europe is a movement, not a lobby group, which restricts access to the organisations and groups it represents. Rather than working only in response to the actiions of others, Bergamo is interested in adopting a position of ‘confrontation and collaboration’ to formulate shared agendas. CAE seeks to ensure culture plays a pivotal role in shaping society during ‘Europe’s transition’. Preferring not to frame the debate in terms of crisis, Bergamo’s thinks instead of the present as a time of transition and at times of change culture is the pathway to secure and sustainable societies in Europe. He makes a point of citing the importance of local authorities in achieving the culture agenda, urban planning especially, considering 85% of population of Europe live in cities.
So, against the bigger backdrop of culture, what does Bergamo think is the role of the value of the arts? He replies that the arts are at odds with a worldview that privilages rationality above everything else. He explains that the arts are about human connection, that getting in touch with ‘the peculiarity of the arts, and experiencing the arts, creates feelings, emotional and imaginative, that stimulate curiosity, discovery and empathy and is a way of building knowledge about the world we live in’. Under Bergamo’s direction, Culture Action Europe advocates for a future where all policy (social, economic, etc) is developed from a position of understanding that culture is fundamental to civil society and quality of life. The power of culture is that it across all aspects of life and has real potential to positively affect real change in our value-systems.
Culture Action Europe is busy refining this message and re-defining its relationships with members to empower others to negotiate, using its mandate to seek influence and set the agenda. Bergamo advocates for an ‘extrinsic’ approach or ‘going-out’ to form a discussion that is wider than the sector. Actually, some time ago, he eliminated the word ‘sector’ from his own vocabulary, explaining that ‘we live in a civil society not a sectoral one, all individuals have a stake in it’. And what is at stake? Bergamo argues that culture and the arts need to build the demand in society. ‘All politics’, he says, ‘is the result of negotiation with the support of a constituency. If the constituency is the beneficiary, then the process isn’t working. You have to be relevant […] We need to operate in relation to an idea of a shared community and to show the impact on community in a shared way, not just representing the ones that benefit. All politics is about constituency, negotiation and compromise’. Bergamo compares CAE’s objectives to the impact of ‘what the environmentalists did 30 years ago’ and aim to ‘make culture a necessity’. I ask what is the best example of political persuasion and agenda setting he can think of and he replies, ‘Greenpeace, because it conveyed a message that was received by citizens. We need to show the system, elections and politicians that people are concerned with culture and people are the agents of change.’
Right now there Culture Action Europe are prioritising the raising of awareness among local authorities and strategists for the need for spaces and places for culture in urban planning, and the replacement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in people’s minds with a better measure of societal progress. At present culture is not included in any way, shape or form under the well-being indicators used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) ‘better life index’, an initiative of the European Commission.
Asking what we can demand of candidates for the local and European elections this month, Bergamo cautions that ‘elections are not the best moments, all promises are made and not kept’. What is important, and what the National Campaign for the Arts has been so strong at since its inception, is establishing a dialogue between the grassroots and the elected representatives. ‘One by one, find the ones for the future’, advises Bergamo, as he tells me about the letters he has just written to the 27-30 likely members of the new European Parliament. With anticipation, he has invited them to meet about establishing an inter-parliamentary group on culture. Leadership, we are reminded, is about setting the agenda and bringing others with you.
For further information on Luca Bergamo and Culture Action Europe please see: http://www.cultureactioneurope.org/
The Local Authority and European Parliament elections will be held in Ireland on Friday 23rd May 2014.
Claire Power is an independent arts professional based between Brussels and Dublin.