EU National Institutes for Culture - EUNIC

For stronger European cultural cooperation: EUNIC during the coronavirus pandemic

EUNIC Director Gitte Zschoch writes in "Politik and Kultur" about the consequences of Covid-19 for European cultural cooperation and the measures the network is now taking.

When galleries are closed and concerts are cancelled, when libraries don’t lend books and stages aren’t lit by spotlights, then cultural life comes to a standstill. And then when no planes are taking off and there is little cross-border traffic, international cultural exchange inevitably comes to a halt as well.

Tangible effects on our network

As a platform for European cultural exchange, the core of the work of EUNIC, the network of 36 European cultural institutes, is based on people coming together and meeting – usually across national borders. Last year, projects were developed and implemented together with local partner organisations in 120 branch offices in 92 countries.

How has this crisis now affected the work of the network? Almost all members have had to temporarily close at least half of their branches worldwide. The first institutes shut down or converted operations in China in January and before the end of March, the branches in the Americas had largely adapted their work to the distancing requirements and closed their offices to the public. The crisis went right to the marrow.

Newly devised projects

The initial reaction by international cultural exchange was also to move culture to the Internet. This resulted in projects that benefitted the artists whose live performances and exhibitions were cancelled. We collected them on social media under the hashtag #EuropeForCulture. Some members also drew attention to themselves this way. For example, the Czech Centre in Berlin linked its German-Czech Corona Stories, for which it commissioned writers specifically, and its own podcasts using #CzechCultureToTheWorld.

Our Finnish colleagues launched the Together Alone fund in March, which promotes projects that deal with exceptional conditions or artistic practice of the future. The first ideas are now being implemented, including an algorithm-generated graphic work by Mikki Nordman. She interprets global statistics on the spread of the virus by creating a copy of the seventeenth century painting “Agnus Mundi” consisting of emojis.

With its open, global platform, the Goethe-Institut launched an offer for artists who stream live events or present them for a set period of time. The platform also invites viewers to dial in to an event from Slovenia, Singapore or South Africa. The ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) is presently preparing a project with the working title “Are you for real?” – a format that digitally imagines the concept of traditional touring exhibitions and redefines it as a participatory practice of exhibition making.

While many countries in the EU have set up emergency measures to support cultural professionals, there are hardly any government funds available for culture in many countries around the world. In Ukraine, the House of Europe project has now launched new programmes to respond to the crisis, including an online university that offers further training opportunities and small grants that contribute to the livelihood of the participants. Over 400 people have already received them. People from many countries were involved as advisors and mentors in a hackathon that gave rise to a new type of community using purely technical means. As long as the equipment and an Internet connection are available, it makes no difference whether you’re sitting in front of your screen working on projects together in Kiev or in Brussels.

There is also little public support for the cultural sector in Senegal, so EUNIC also launched a new programme for that purpose. The name of the project is Lëlu Di Wajal’Art, which is Wolof for “creative retreat to celebrate art again.” Accordingly, it invites participants to develop ideas that rethink cultural offerings using digital technologies and taking into account changes in the behaviours of the public during the coronavirus.

In addition to these projects that digitally explore the production and reception of culture, the coronavirus pandemic has also given the sector a digitisation boost. Internal online learning opportunities for employees have been initiated. Already now, in June, the number of participants in the webinars offered by EUNIC has increased eight-fold compared to the previous year. In addition, many members have digitised internal processes, converted their accounting and introduced online payment options. Yet this is where the most is lacking, not only in terms of technical equipment, but also in terms of knowledge and personnel. This is highlighted by the answers to the question of what our members need most right now: “digital expertise,” “comprehensive digital transformation” and even “equipment for conducting video conferences.”

What’s next?

One observation that we are making during the coronavirus pandemic is the tendency towards isolated cultural policy by the EU Member States. The rescue programmes that are set up help, understandably, one’s own sector first of all. So far there are no significant rescue packages for international cooperation, although the cultural sector is thoroughly international. We as Europeans can shoulder responsibility here because only when the cultural sectors are healthy can we engage in an exchange with the people working in them worldwide.

That is why EUNIC has given its internal project fund the focus this year to strengthen local cultural scenes. This drives European cooperation forward while at the same time supporting local partners. The 120 branch offices worldwide can apply for it. The fund will be announced in early September and measures can be implemented from January at the latest. We expect our members to provide 300,000 euros for this: a drop in the bucket.

Germany has already set up such a fund, initiated by the Goethe-Institut and the Federal Foreign Office together with many partners. Three million euros are available and cultural institutions worldwide can apply for quick and substantial support.

Because these funds are insufficient, we reason with the European Commission, the European External Action Service, European Parliament and the European Council that international cultural relations must continue to be supported and that they must be expanded to form an integral part of the EU’s foreign relations. In 2016, the course was set with the publication of a strategy approach by Federica Mogherini, the former EU High Representative. International cultural relations were also anchored in the new European Agenda for Culture in 2018. But more could be done. In the course of geopolitical challenges and the coronavirus pandemic, the topic is at risk of being overlooked.

We have written a Statement on this. It underscores what international cultural relations can do to help global society emerge united and stronger from the crisis. Cultural exchange enables people of different cultures to meet. Only if we know each other and learn from each other can we develop trust and reduce fears and prejudices. This is an important prerequisite for creating a global community and overcoming the crisis.

What we need to do now

Now that many events are being held digitally, the question of the space for international cultural work is arising again. While the traditional concept provides that, for example, German and Brazilian artists meet and enter into a dialogue, EUNIC has always been concerned with expanding this bilateral view to include the European. By meeting on Zoom, Jitsi or Teams, we can be in Brazil, Sweden, Germany and many other countries at the same time – limited only by the different time zones. How does this affect our work? How do we include people who have no access to the Internet and are therefore excluded from the digital space? We will conduct a study this year to analyse how our members are dealing with these new opportunities and how the digitisation of international cultural relations is unfolding.

The big question remains, however. After the crisis, will we return to the same practice as before? Half of our members believe that approaches to international cultural exchange need to be rethought in general. Some want even stronger European cultural cooperation. Even if it seems cumbersome, when, if not in a crisis, should we take a united stand? A global crisis requires mutual responses. European partners could join the German aid fund. With more resources, the much needed support would reach more organisations around the world. Within the framework of its EU Council Presidency, Germany could take on a leading role in cultural cooperation.

Our partners around the world, especially those from the Global South, rightly demand that European cultural institutes demonstrate partnership on an equal footing. With the present increasing appraisal of the colonial past and racist structures as well as the global responsibility of Europeans that arises from this, we must ask anew how we can practice equal partnerships – especially since the financial support for so many cultural projects mainly still comes from the Global North.

Even before the crisis, we had set out to find answers to these questions. The European Spaces of Culture project tests innovative models for European international cultural relations. The formats found here can initiate a new way of doing things – fair, equal, based on mutual listening and learning and mutual participation.

The EU strategy for international cultural relations speaks of generating “a new spirit … of global solidarity.” We can now turn this into reality. Let’s use this extraordinary time do to just that.

  • Covid-19
  • Cultural relations
  • Publication

Co-funded by the European Union Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.