IETM Bucharest: meeting review

A few weeks ago, in the midst of awakening spring, the rainy capital of Romania received 380 cultural professionals, who came from 50 countries and 4 different continents to engage in a collective reflection on the position of artists in contemporary society. 

The political changes on national and local levels followed by a civil outcry against corruption, which had been stirring Romania for several months prior to IETM Bucharest, did not leave the meeting preparations without its challenges. However, the hard work, creativity and enthusiasm of our local partners, National Dance Centre Bucharest and UNITER, performed miracles and turned IETM Bucharest into a meaningful and timely encounter. The strong solidarity, generous engagement and joyfulness of the participant community also played an invaluable role.

Our four-day deliberations began with the speech by Mircea Cărtărescu, the prominent Romanian author, who reminded us that in times of terror and uncertainty, the artist has a duty to act - on stage, but also in the streets, and to stand for freedom, for justice, for democracy and for human values. 

Preoccupied with the precarious conditions performing artists live through in Europe and beyond, we shed some light on several initiatives devised in different countries to improve the condition of the arts field.

During the session "Do it together: answers to the precarious position of artists", we shared experiences of collaborative bottom-up efforts to strengthen the position of performing artists. Delphine Hesters and Joris Janssens from Kunstenpunt (Flanders Arts Institute) presented their recent research on the position of artists, based on the results of a large-scale survey revealing the socio-economic status of Flemish artists. Further, the speakers marked out eight categories of strategic angles and best practices, previously featured in their blog post written in preparation to the session, and triggered an open exchange on various solutions put forward in different regions and contexts in Europe. 

The exchange of insights and practices has gone further on the specially dedicated Facebook group Freedom & Frenzy, which is intended as a space for mapping existing initiatives of improving the status of artists. Anyone is welcome to join the group and contribute to the discussion.

The panel “The Art of Drafting Cultural Policies” showcased a range of experiences in policy making for a more just status of the artist. The session was centered on UNESCO’s 1980 Recommendation on the Status of the Artists and aimed at discussing its relevance, if any, in our varied contemporary situations. Panelists coming from France, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Romania shared their reflections on the way the Recommendation translates in their countries. How timely is the Recommendation? How important is it for artists to be involved in drafting cultural policies? Does the status of the artist need to be explicit to occupy a place on the policy agenda? 

One of the session's conclusions was that there is a need to go beyond arts policies and devise policies that have to do with culture more broadly and as a transversal phenomenon i.e. to explore and recommend strategies for culture and development, culture and economics, culture and racism, culture and national identity, etc. Furthermore, there is an urge to get more active in researching local conditions and international cultural policies, find allies within governments and social movements, improve our advocacy strategies, take part in amending policies on behalf of the arts sector, and monitor and evaluate policy implementation.

©Alina Usurelu
IETM Bucharest served as a safe space for an open conversation about diversity, while acknowledging that people in the group came from very different standpoints. We tried to build a feeling of solidarity in the room, to face our prejudices, share odd experiences and good examples. We understood that the problems for black artists often relate to expectations: they are expected to be, look, behave in a certain way, or deal with certain topics in their arts because of their identity; at times they are hired "because they're black" (tokenism), or they are expected to be the unpaid "diversity officer" in an organisation regardless of their official job description. As a sector, we all need to recognise sliding scales of privilege and act to make a difference.

Tackling gender inequality in the performing arts sector, which was identified as a reflection of problems in overall society, the meeting allowed for a discussion of the concept of gender and sexual identity through the arts. We discussed current challenges, success stories and failed practices, and the possibility to move beyond gender identity. As regards gender inequality in particular, "excellence" is often an excuse to maintain the status quo, and the fear of speaking up when confronted with inequalities is a common obstacle. We agreed IETM can be a safe space to practice speaking in public about these issues, to refine our arguments and to gain self-confidence.  

A diverse group of cultural professionals – from Nigeria, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Romania and Indonesia – shared their experiences of navigating the maze of cultural mobility. Surprisingly enough, the conversation bypassed bureaucracy matters (recognised as vital though) and instead focused on the identity one carries while travelling to other countries. To what extent do we represent the contexts we come from? How are we perceived by the outside world depending on the diplomacy and policy strategies our countries pursue? Some participants pointed out that when it comes to international partnerships, it might be a challenge to identify whether it is your project idea that is relevant or your geographic origin that is being valued (for example, when your country happens to be one of the "focus areas" of EU external relations).

We also touched upon the problem of the one-sided representation of a country's art field because many curators and programmers tend to showcase only those international works which match the local audiences' expectations. 

We highlighted the issue of geographic distances which make mobility a challenge even within a single country (US, Indonesia, Australia etc.) and dwelled on the role of mobility in combating the isolation many practitioners experience, also in the light of some recent political developments (Brexit, post-Trump US, etc.). The need to share narratives about mobility experiences was highlighted as a way to reinforce our arguments when we approach funders and policy makers.

Acknowledging the depression Europe has been driven to, we attempted to identify the ways art and artists can help save Europe, and found ourselves confronted with the haziness of the concept of "Europe" itself: are we talking about saving the institutions, values or culture? What do we have in mind when referring to Europe – the European Union, the European project or the European identity (if it exists)? We concluded we must remain critical of the manner in which the EU political structure functions, but continue developing interpersonal bonds across borders to nourish and sustain the European project as such. When the bonds are established, they are hard to break, even if the structure is falling apart; for example, Brexit does not seem to hinder the cross-border interpersonal connections within the art community, despite the toxic political discourse and the institutional changes to come.

Once again, we drew a conclusion that the crossover between culture and politics is crucial. A healthy democracy and the viability of democratic institutions depend on people's ability to accept each other’s points of view and reach a compromise, a sort of a "grey area" in their relationships with other mentalities and communities. Culture has the power to enable us to break out of the increasingly predominant black-and-white discourse and develop this "grey area" of acceptance and understanding.

The question thrown in by the moderator - as artists, are we being too polite and not brave enough? - was responded to with a definite "yes" reflecting the responsibility felt by the participants of getting more engaged with overcoming the gloomy reality the European project is living through and combating populism which increasingly embraces political rhetoric and social sentiments.

Populism will be at the heart of our future plenary meeting in Brussels. Building on the conclusions derived from IETM Bucharest, we will reflect together on how art can help to overcome the "us against them" discourse, put together the pieces of fragmented societies and shape a truly different future. You can already register for IETM Brussels here.

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