Conclusions by Niels Righolt

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MCP Broker – Final Conference

Conclusions by Niels Righolt

Reflections on the MCP Broker project final conference at Hangar in Barcelona on June 30 – July 2, 2015 organised to socialize the lessons learned from the project and to share the ways in which the partners addressed the issue of benchmarking diversity management in public cultural institutions.

Getting Started

The setting, set design and overall dramaturgy of the program defined a very important part of the conference. The former industrial site of Hangar and its rough interior provided a perfect frame for the scenography. A scenic lounge-setting with a ‘living room’ atmosphere was the centre of attention for a half-moon of chairs, designed to create a maximum of interaction between the ‘audience’ and the project partners: all in all over 130 professionals from the partner countries (Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Italy and Spain) but also from other countries (Germany, Uganda, Colombia, Tajikistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan). It proved to be a very good idea to set the scene for an inclusive dialogue and the design made it easy to facilitate the multi-voiced dialogues and debates.

After the formal routines of welcoming participants, getting everyone in place and introducing the three-day program, highlights and contents, the final conference took off with two official messages from the European Commission, in the form of videos, by Ms. Belinda Pyke (European Commission’s Director for Migration and Mobility, Directorate General for Migration) and Mr. Michel Magnier (Director for Culture and Creativity, Directorate General for Education and Culture European Commission). Both messages remarkably emphasised the importance of arts and culture as a vector for social change and as an instrument for a more inclusive society. In doing so they made a perfectly curved pass to Mercedes Giovinazzo, director of Interarts, the host organisation in Barcelona.

MCP Broker – The story

With Mercedes we reflected on the MCP Broker project partnership, its activities and process as well as on its outcomes. We started off by illustrating the initial assumptions underlying the project and by highlighting the initial willingness to engage with the realities of public cultural institutions in the five participating countries (Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden). Despite the existing differences in the composition of the cultural sector, the scope of national cultural policies and funding structures, etc. Mercedes underlined the fact that the institutions which were invited to take part in the project activities acknowledged the importance of addressing issues such as transition, change, interaction and inclusivity. She underlined that the project has enabled for an overall process of understanding which brought to the forefront the need for the arts and culture sector to understand and interact with new citizens. It also highlighted that, whereas the EU applies a structural approach in terms of definitions, such an approach is not always easily understood or applicable. For instance, the MCP Broker project has been funded through the European Integration Fund for “third country nationals” whereas the use of the term ‘migrants’ in the project title might have initially implied that a wider sense be given to the term. Moreover, all along, the project has had to focus on the realities of the participating institutions in order for it to be relevant to them. Indeed, many institutions navigate between a public policy framework and their respective missions; also a great number of other issues of course influence their modus operandi: the effect of the financial crises, decreasing resources, a shift of the domestic political focus and priorities, increasing demands for reaching out for more – and new – audiences, lack of knowledge / staff competencies etc.

However difficult the situation looks for quite many of the participating institutions, the real benefit of being part of the project turned out to be exactly that: participating in it! Exchanging knowledge, experiences, having the opportunity to discuss the issues and tools introduced with colleagues, practice exchange during the project lifetime and, not least, being able to bring the institution into a ‘state of mind’ where professional hesitation, investigation and reflection was given space and thus moved the institution towards a more reflective approach on its inclusive practice. This turned out to be the true benefit of the MCP Broker project, something that was immediately reflected in comments and reflections from the room in the following lively discussion.

Making the benchmarking tool matter

Introducing the benchmarking tool, Ida Burén from Intercult in Stockholm was accompanied by Cristina Da Milano and Simona Bodo from ECCOM in Rome. They presented their overall reflections on how the benchmarking tool, which had been refined in the initial phase of the project, had been applied and reflected on the needs expressed by the cultural institutions that had used it. Cristina Da Milano sketched its contents, underpinned some of the challenges met in the usage of the tool and concluded by underlying that it needs to be adjusted and completed with further parameters related to the everyday reality of cultural institutions in order for it to become truly relevant for cultural institutions at large as a strategic tool for change and increased participation. This point was supported by the cases presented by both Ida Burén and Simona Bodo.

Interestingly enough the ensuing discussion with the conference participants showed, that even though there are some relatively evident lacks in the tool as it is, it still has worked quite well as a process facilitator by raising the users’ awareness on standards, way of thinking, institutional practices, ‘blind spots’, new approaches, etc. As an example, the adjustments made by Intercult have made it become a tool which reflects and connects to the DNA of most cultural organisations. Both Ida Burén and Simona Bodo pointed out that the more aware the institutions, the more relevant the tool became. In fact, even though the institutions considered themselves to be relatively advanced in their thinking on diversity issues, at the beginning of the process most institutions scored in a low position according to the benchmarking tool. But, towards the end of the project, that pattern changed and there were a more coherent balance between the cultural institutions’ perceived self-image and their actual performance according to the benchmarking tool.

Diversity management – or how to navigate in a ‘sea’ of diverse demands

After a both highly enjoyable and lively network session the first day ended with a plenum and panel debate on diversity management in cultural institutions – a review on the project and a dialogue with a specific cross-Mediterranean approach. Again the institutions’ difficulty to navigate between their own missions and artistic agendas, the representational politics and supportive structures and how to deal with and ensure a higher diverse presence from their potential users formed a backdrop for the conversation. Ida Burén and Cristina Da Milano were accompanied by Luca Bergamo from Culture Action Europe, Michael Wimmer from Educult and Antonio Gucciardo from Interarts in the formation of a highly reflective dialogue on the lessons learned from the project, its process and, not least, an interesting tour of the status of diversity management in the five countries. Both Michael Wimmer and Luca Bergamo nuanced the cultural landscape in terms of how institutions could meet and deal with the challenges relating to their programming practice, recruitment policies, and choices of partners and transversal collaborations with other sectors, just to mention some of the points given.

Trans-Mediterranean reflections

The above-mentioned panel was then joined by Abdallah Soliman from Gudran in Alexandria in Egypt and Karim Dakroub from Khayal in Beirut for a trans-Mediterranean debate on issues relating to migration, identity making and culture as a factor for the integration of newcomers. Not surprisingly, the present situation in the Middle East influenced the last part of the debate. Both Abdallah Soliman and Karim Dakroub expressed the hope that European institutions and cultural organisations would seek for a more nuanced picture and understanding of the complex cultural identities and patterns existing in the South of the Mediterranean sea, both to the benefit of cultural exchange and possible collaborations between partners on both shores but also as a way into European reality for the presumably thousands and thousands of people wanting to flee the animosities and horrors taking place in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region: a point made far more visible after the MCP Broker conference in late summer and early autumn, when up to one million refugees have sought shelter in Europe. The panel agreed that Europe should confront issues other than those relating merely to religion and politics in order to frame a more cohesive and inclusive dialogue with cultural operators and individuals from the Maghreb and Middle East. A point much supported by the participants; for instance, Christine Merkel from the German UNESCO Committee, who also emphasised the need for a more respectful and curious approach from Europe in terms of understanding who we are ‘talking’ to and the cultural background that they have.

Next steps

The second day was designed as a Learning Partnership activity through which to address the challenges ahead: in three different workshops, participants were asked to focus on their needs and the necessary strategies to meet them. As in the previous day, participants stressed the fact that they perceived a changed approach as to how the issues of culture and migration are being addressed and that, for such an improved understanding, an instrument such as the MCP Broker benchmarking tool is very useful. No doubt the previous intense day’s debate with colleagues and experts from all the participating countries helped create an atmosphere of reflection, progressive investigation and curiosity on the different experiences this crowd of highly experienced professionals brought to the table. As a result, and in agreement with the project partners, Luca Bergamo from Culture Action Europe suggested a possible follow-up on the conference in the form of a specific working group with a first meeting scheduled to take place during Culture Action Europe’s annual conference which will be held from October 15 to 17, in Gothenburg, Sweden: 23 of the participating organisations in the conference signed up for this working-group and have committed to the continuity of the activities of the MCP Broker project. It shall be interesting to see how a complex and well-anchored initiative like MCP Broker can spread in new ways into the culture sectors many diverse levels. It was also agreed that a specific website, dedicated to the issue of diversity management in cultural institutions, be launched: the website will be ready by autumn 2015 for all those interested in pursuing work on this issue (www.mcpbroker.eu).

Final remarks

The MCP Broker final conference was, in my opinion, an outstanding example of how it is possible to design, frame and execute a conference in a way which allows a maximum of participants and speakers to be heard and contribute to the discussions and debates.  Obviously, the fact that almost everybody in the room had been working with or had been engaged in the MCP Broker processes in their home countries helped provide the notion of being invited to an extended family gathering, where the level of interaction was way above the average. I have the highest respect for the calm, ‘loungy’ and well-executed professionalism the organisers from Interarts showed before, during and after this conference. It was simply a great pleasure and it made my job so much easier.

Niels Righolt

September, 2015

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