New Civil Roles and Organizational Models of Cultural Organizations

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* Report: New Civil Roles and Organizational Models of Cultural Organizations. By Pascal Gielen & Thijs Lijster. University of Groningen, Faculty of Arts, Pilot Research, 14–04-2016



From the Introduction, by Pascal Gielen & Thijs Lijster:

"In the past, cultural organizations such as museums, theatres and opera houses played a decisive role in the constitutive process of a civil society. Most of these institutions constructed a cultural hierarchy in the context of a nation state through familiar processes of socialization and canonization. Since the late 18th century, culture has been a useful educational tool in the process of state building. Quite a few of the public funded institutions, for example in the fairly young states across Central and Eastern Europe and the EU Neighbourhood still exemplify this traditional role of culture in the construction of new national identities.

Over the past thirty years, however, several developments have begun to sideline or even discredit the traditional role of these established art institutions. On the one hand, democratization processes in the field of culture questioned this top-down ‘civilizing’ process in which the elite promotes its own ‘high’ culture as the only good culture, wherein the masses should be initiated and educated. On the other hand, globalization – the combined process of a diversification of culture through migration and the homogenization and internationalization of culture through mass consumption – puts pressure on what has been traditionally considered to be part of the established cultural canon of a nation state. These historical evolutions cause a crisis in legitimization of the classic role of public art institutions. Over almost the same past thirty years, however, everywhere in Europe and its neighbourhood new civic initiatives in the arts and independently operating cultural organizations have emerged. By the end of the 1970s, for example, the first centres for alternative culture were established, initially mostly in Western Europe. Abandoned industrial buildings were turned into venues for new subcultural scenes. Sometimes also classic institutions such as museums and theatres became platforms for alternative civic initiatives. Pioneers of independent culture, such as the multi-disciplinary production centres WUK in Vienna or the Melkweg in Amsterdam, have today grown in such numbers that professionals working in them have even organized themselves in specialized pan-European networks such as Trans Europe Halles. In the 1990s, processes of establishing cultural structures that operated independently from state and commercial activities started to emerge also in the formerly socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and in some of the EU neighbourhood countries. Political pressure on formerly dissident culture was partially removed, but new initiatives were also a response to a strongly felt desire for a different and contemporary cultural offer. Alternative cultural formats and new inspirational art productions that truly reflected recent post-socialist developments in these societies had not existed before. New independent players therefore started producing alternatives themselves. New clusters of non-commercial cultural workers outside the established institutional landscape – such as the Clubture platform in Croatia – coined the term ‘independent culture’ as a new political value proposition.

Today, public and private arts funding bodies all over Europe witness the emergence of organizations and activity profiles that reach even beyond this ‘classic’ distinction between public – commercial – independent. Cultural organizations increasingly do not follow the non-profit - public-funded - commercial producer logic anymore but increasingly seem to deliver a hybrid mix of voluntary or self-funded initiatives, subsidized art projects and (community) services which can even blend in with offering commercial productions in a variety of activity fields.

Many of these new cultural initiatives differ in at least two ways from the former type of established art institutions: (1) they do no longer refer to a national culture or artistic canon, and (2) they mostly lack hierarchical or rigid organizational structures. Considering the first difference: cultural organizations have evolved from producing artistic content (visual arts, theatre, new media, literature, et cetera) to offering cultural/creative projects as a new type of social initiatives that serve the wider public good (e.g. community development projects, new social/cultural venues, youth work and well-being of specific groups, cultural education, et cetera). Others have started to develop cultural strategies for activist civil society agendas or advocacy goals that tackle much larger policy issues beyond the arts as such (e.g., citizen participation, urban development, public space, environmental issues, democratization, social inclusion, EU affairs, et cetera). The working strategies of cultural organizations increasingly seem aimed at realizing project actions or providing creative services that address global challenges or tackle community issues (or both in combination). They seem to extend towards new creative working areas where they explore ‘glocally’ relevant themes that often lead them to actions far outside the immediate arts and culture sector environments.

This extension of cultural working strategies towards the civic realm can especially be observed in turbulent socio-economic environments or unstable working conditions, such as those caused by the prevailing financial crisis across communities in Southern Europe or were political calamities shake societies like those across many EU neighbourhood countries. Some of the most original cultural initiatives there have turned into real advocates for a ground-breaking change in understanding and promoting new civic roles they would like to play in re-thinking future socio-economic developments in their societies. Some have thus become creative drivers, if not initiators of much broader civic initiatives or civil society movements.

Considering the second difference – the lack of hierarchical organizational structures – we can observe how across the cultural sector management practices and working structures seem to become much more fluid than the structured organizational models and strategic hierarchies that characterize most of the traditional arts institutions. Long-term strategic plans seem to be increasingly replaced by a shared creation of general organizational value frameworks. These provide an overall strategic orientation point for the organization while ideally creating room for individual pilot initiatives and experimentation. Many new cultural initiatives today remain rather small and informal. They build temporary alliances with other like-minded initiatives in order to pursue shared strategic goals or to share knowledge, resources and ideas for tackling similar cultural questions and artistic working fields. The cultural field is increasingly characterized by rhizome-like network structures.

All these individual characteristics of these new civic initiatives have strategic and structural consequences.

(1) Most of these organizations work on a local level, and engage themselves in the first place with a local or regional civil society. At the same time we see them developing large pan-European and international networks with like-minded peers to exchange information and knowledge.

(2) Most of the initiatives seem to have a temporary, less sustainable character and operate in a tactical rather than a strategic mode.

Public arts funding mechanisms but international philanthropy as well have hardly yet recognized such trends towards strategic hybridization and structural liquidation."


"This interim report’s only objective is to outline a pilot research in which we will focus mainly on the theoretical and conceptual framing of the proposed problematic. We will not only consider current debates on civil society, citizenship and civil actions, but also outline a framework for, or rather a way of looking at, the issues under consideration.

Such a framework will be presented especially in chapter 2. After analysing the origin of civil actions we will outline a so-called ‘civil chain’ in which the civil roles of cultural organizations are expressed. This chain also provides a way of studying organizations and activities within the civil space in a more analytical manner.

In chapter 3 we will continue our conceptual search with a sketch of the recent debates on the possibility of organizing an international and pan-European civil space. Is such an international civil domain at all feasible? Knowing full well that such a space has traditionally been organized on a national level, we wonder what the characteristics of such a domain would be and what types of organizations and strategies are needed to give it a solid foundation. In other words, what are the constitutive elements or building stones for a European civil society?

However, a civil space needs citizens. Or rather, civil roles will not be adopted in the absence of citizens or public spirit. Only if and when people feel responsible for their environment and for the ecological, social, political or economic problems in it can civil action emerge at all. We must therefore tackle the following issue: what is citizenship? We will address this question in chapter 4. How is citizenship defined in current studies and by governmental authorities? What does citizenship mean in a globalized world? And, more specifically, what is citizenship when referred to on the European level? For instance, what is the meaning of the increasing promotion of the notion ‘active citizenship’? Does citizenship still only concern rights and obligations or is there more at stake? Also, how does national citizenship relate to globalization, refugees, immigrants and ‘sans papiers’? Who defines what our civil rights and obligations are? Also, how do cultural organizations with a civil mission relate to this battle of definitions?

We save the final question for chapter 5, in which we will focus exclusively on cultural organizations and their civil role. We will move the issue of citizenship from micro to meso level and from individuals to organizations. Is there such a thing as citizenship for organizations? And if so, what are their specific civil roles? Here we revisit the civil chain from chapter 2 and use it as our guide. What is the source from which organizations get their energy? To which local problems are they offering a solution? And then: what strategies of rationalization, communication and organization do they adopt in order to fulfil their civil roles? Field studies conducted by Maité Juan and Philippe Eynaud at Têtes de L’Art in Marseille and by Philipp Dietachmair at the cluster of organizations Culture 2 Commons in Zagreb are this chapter’s touchstones for adjusting, nuancing and further elaborating our theoretical framework.

In chapter 6 we link up again with the (pan-)European civil space. This global, international space will be linked to cultural organizations by looking for so-called ‘glocal’ strategies. Where can we find potential links between working on the spot and a much more abstract European space? Again keeping the civil chain in mind we will examine how connections between the local and the global may emerge and also be continued in a sustainable manner. For example, can local problems that lead to civil actions generate and continue to generate the necessary energy for such activities on a higher, global level as well? And if so, how?

A seventh and concluding chapter of this pilot study will summarize all the questions and hypotheses. Building on the knowledge in the preceding chapters we will endeavour to outline the right contours (and the right questions) for subsequent studies."


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