free zone / NGO zone

Nothing Happens without Activism

Interview with Nele Hertling and Sven Neumann of ASfE

“The nature of the European crisis is not only financial – it’s also a crisis of consciousness in society and between political decision makers about the role of culture and the creative power of civil society,” explain Nele Hertling and Sven Neumann, representatives of A Soul for Europe.

“A Soul for Europe” (ASfE) is now an international initiative with members in 21 countries and having its working group in the European Parliament. What was the beginning of this story?

Nele Hertling: „Our need to lobby for Europe results from our professional experience as cultural actors I worked on theatre projects for a long time, and I was especially interested in the situation of dance in Berlin. Contemporary independent dance did not have a high position in political consciousness. Whenever money, space, practical support for young companies or artists was needed, it was very difficult to get the interest from politicians - even those connected with culture. So we thought of a politician’s situation: Everyday somebody would knock at his door and ask for support for a particular project, so after the 30th request he would not listen anymore – but if one person speaks for a larger group, this is likely to be much more effective and might lead to results. We learnt this lesson; we learned to bring together interest or project groups and to join forces. It was a process of understanding the importance of lobbying together.

Young contemporary art and culture have similar difficulties everywhere – it is helpful to learn from each other, from best practices or failures. Cooperation leads to closer networking and makes lobbying on local, regional, national or European level more effective.
There is a quote from a famous children’s theater play: one is nobody, two are more than one, but once we are three, we will be many more soon.

Sven Neumann: What we should point out as it comes to ASfE is that we are not a cultural lobby. The crucial idea behind ASfE is lobbying for the sake of Europe by making use of the cultural potential that Europe has. For cultural operators, this is sometimes difficult to accept because there’s always the fear of “using” culture. Of course we make use of culture but in a positive way – we work on implementing culture into every field of policy making as it is not a separate subject but influences all spheres of life in civil society.

How to make such a change?

N.H.: I’ll answer with another experience. Berlin after the unification was a poor city. Before the Wall fell, culture was highly subsidized, but afterwards the city lost an important amount of federal support with the argument that the city was now free and should be able to develop as any other city in Germany. Culture suffered most. In this financial and cultural crisis representatives from many different cultural institutions, projects, and initiatives called for a meeting to debate on new steps and possible solutions to save the existence of the artistic and cultural life of the city. The first proposal was to go on strike. But it soon became quite clear that a cultural strike does not affect the persons that can change anything. Museums, theatres, concert halls are closed – so what?

We decided to form a strong group of civil-society actors to work on new ideas and ways of influencing political decisions. About 15 people from different sectors of art and culture including an opera director, a representative of a small dance company and a young art gallery, a Museum director as well as professionals from big institutions agreed to work on it. For nearly two years this group met almost every week, – and succeeded to develop a very strong political profile with concrete ideas what to do: how to find new financial resources, how even to save money, how to contact governments. The first positive result was that all these different institutions and persons got to know each other. The opera director realized how interesting it could be to work with a dancer from the suburbs, since they have similar ideas and similar problems. We were lucky to be hosted by the Academy of Arts and to have the chance to use this institution to organize a series of public debates, inviting media and the politicians responsible for culture. The initiative became more and more popular and at some point succeeded to arrange a meeting with the federal chancellor Helmut Kohl and 12 representatives from the group. First thing he said was: I know that you all don’t like me as I am not a cultural person, but I am ready to listen to you. We didn’t complain, instead we presented our ideas. We said: Berlin will be the capital of Germany one day and culture is the most important factor to gain international reputation. At the end of this meeting, which lasted twice as long as he had originally offered, he promised to create a budget for cultural projects in Berlin related to the city’s role as Capital. The fund was soon established and it was based on the needs of art and culture in Berlin. It still works – after nearly 20 years – and helps to realize many creative and exiting projects. Almost everybody can apply. A changing independent jury decides about the distribution of money. This is the model.

After 4-5 years most of the original goals had been achieved and the group stopped meeting regularly. It had been proved that working across borders of branches and sectors can be very successful. This experience was a good basis to the ASfE experience later. You can be successful if you go on; if you don’t give up and define your needs – this is the main message for NGOs: Be open-minded, work together!

S.N.: I’d like to emphasize one important detail from what Nele said, when she recalled the meeting with chancellor Kohl, which was: “We didn’t complain”. This points out a mistake that culture operators tend to do – they focus on their work and problems and when they get the chance to talk to the officials they start “complaining”. What is needed is a broader perspective and this you find when you give up the competition issue for the moment and join forces in order to achieve something for culture. What was interesting for me when we started meeting people all over Europe as ASfE, was the experience that despite different structures, when it comes to the acceptance of culture, we are facing similar problems. So what ASfE does is putting these local problems in a broader context and connecting initiatives from all over Europe. So, on the one hand, they exchange experience, ideas and knowledge – and on the other hand, we try to give them bigger visibility by inviting EU politicians to local round tables, the so-called “A Soul for Europe Forums”. In fact we discovered that sometimes it is even more difficult to get national or local politicians to the table than EU-parliamentarians. Over the years that we have been working as an initiative, we managed to explain to the EU-politicians that ASfE is not another cultural lobbying group asking for money, but has the aim of changing attitudes through very concrete steps involving artists, NGOs and politicians in a joint process.

N.H.: Change of perspective can lead to change in reality. ASfE did not start as a group lobbying for the sake of Europe, in the beginning it was about Berlin. When new countries joined the EU, Berlin was suddenly in a new position of a city in central Europe and was not ready for this. We had to reflect on creating a new space and atmosphere, as Berlin in fact was historically closer to the east European cities than to Brussels or Paris. We were convinced that the old center of Europe and it can be a meeting place for both sides – and culture is the only way to unite us, because despite of diversities we have this common past. The question was: how to do that? The answer was: it is possible only by making civil society a partner for political decision makers, so the first task for the conference we were planning was to bring together highly representative local, national and European politicians with young people from all around Europe, put them around the same table and make them talk to each other, which was very difficult in the beginning. The initial conviction that culture has to be seen as the most important factor of development and cooperation in Europe was the strong basis.

How did you convince politicians to treat you seriously?

N.H.: We were lucky that in this working group we had as one of the initiators a former cultural minister with many important contacts.

It seems that the way to go is acting through soft relationships and inviting people from different circles to cooperate?

N.H.: Yes, absolutely. We were able to inform Richard von Weizsäcker about the initiative, he liked the idea and helped to contact the German chancellor Schröder, the minister of foreign affairs Joschka Fischer, as well as other important politicians and convinced them to come to the first “Berlin Conference”. In addition, we also invited José Manuel Barroso, who had just been elected president of the European Commission. He accepted – and in fact had his first public appearance in Europe at our Berlin Conference 2004. This was all possible through direct personal contacts. They all agreed that culture is a useful tool to gain better understanding, tolerance and to support the unification process. Barroso expressed in his speech that culture had been neglected for too many years that it was absolutely necessary to implement culture in all political action and strategies and he promised to work on that during his presidency. The necessity for the European integration process was understood, the situation changed – now, after a few years many EU programmes include culture, which was not the case before.

S.N.: Politicians began to understand that through culture they can retrieve a missing link to the citizens. From the beginning ASfE worked on two levels. One is trying to establish contacts in the European Parliament in order to get the chance of implementing topics and ideas. The other one is building a network of young cultural operators from all over Europe who provide the potential for these new ideas and topics. These young decision makers were brought together from all over Europe already for the first Berlin Conference. Gathering politicians with cultural operators around one table was our principle from the very beginning. But what is important for this partnership is not only the politician who has to accept it, it is also us. Cultural operators are sometimes even more difficult to convince to be a responsible partner. And the truth is that you cannot get out of the position of a complaining applicant, if you are not willing to take something in your hands and be a responsible partner for the other side.

N.H.: That is why lobbying for culture has to begin from lobbying among cultural operators.

S.N.: In order to make them realize that such a work for the common good can also positively affect their own work on a long-term perspective. The first ASfE Forum was organized in Belgrade 2007 by a cultural operator who had been one of the young European participants of the first Berlin conference in 2004. He asked ASfE to support him organizing a small conference that was meant to bring civil society and political decision makers from the region together at one table in order to exchange ideas – following the example of the Berlin Conference. We invited European parliamentarians from different parties and even a commissioner to Belgrade. When local politicians finally realized the international dimension of this forum, they started to look differently at this NGO-guy, who they had neglected so far.
Forum Belgrade finally gathered local, national and EU politicians, experts and NGO representatives from the region and from all over Europe. The format soon became a model for further forums in other cities in the following years. In Belgrade it led to some remarkable steps. 2008 it was the city of Belgrade who approached the organizer of Forum Belgrade, offering him financial support if he was willing to do a 2nd edition. And with the support of the Felix Meritis Foundation in Amsterdam, who is a close partner of ASfE and was the main co-organizer of Forum Belgrade, he succeeded in applying for a huge Dutch funding that helped him to set up a new space for the arts, culture and debate in Belgrade.

This a convincing example why it’s worth to go beyond your small interests…

S.N.: Yes, and it would not have been possible without many small steps. You never know what you can come up with, before you start doing it.

N.H.: The presence of EU-politicians guaranties broader visibility, but it is just as important to lobby nationally, because it is the national government that takes decisions and can neglect proposals and programmes prepared on the European level. So it is crucial not to forget local, regional and national, partners and cooperators to support them to accept and use their chance and responsibility of being European cities and regions. National governments influence and shape the policy in Brussels, so as long as they are not willing to create common projects the EU-Commission cannot do anything.

One of your debates during ECC will be devoted to the idea of European Culture Capitals. It is a hot subject in Poland as some Polish cities compete for the title. Do you think this is a good way to reinforce the common European identity and the awareness of European responsibility?

N.H.: When the project was created in the sixties, it was interesting. It was the idea of presenting Europe after two world wars as a unit in diversity, to initiate a new consciousness of the cultural richness of Europe. Over the years quite often it became too much a project for political influences, concentrating more on numbers of tourists or economic success.

It could possibly play its original role again if cities understood their chance to present themselves with their own historical and contemporary value in reference to the common European history. It would give us the fantastic possibility to see all these backgrounds, cultures, religions and minorities. We call for going back to this original idea of presenting the cultural diversity through the special experience of each chosen city – instead of doing similar international events with international stars allover. It definitely should make civil society initiatives a serious partner and include many local players in the development of the program because only then such a project can have a long-term impact. The whole topic is really worth rethinking – that is why we consider it an important subject for the debate.

Why should Polish NGOs participate in ASfE debates?

N.H.: Because it is very important to learn about your possibilities: what can everybody do for the development - not only for your organization, but for the region, the city and also your profession in general. The conference is a chance to distribute the message to understand and make use of your own possibilities as an active European society member. It is not helpful just to complain about politicians, better to become active, build a network, start to travel and get to know people and options.

S.N.: The motor of all our activities is the belief in the importance of culture; and we should not forget that culture is in danger at the moment if you look at the tremendous cuts in cultural budgets in many countries all over Europe.

N.H.: Especially in times of crisis we have to convince politicians about the importance of culture and the need to support it. The nature of the European crisis is not only financial – it’s also a crisis of consciousness in society and between political decision makers about the role of culture and the creative power of civil society. We want culture to have an important role in society – not just that of entertainment, but – of a driving motor and a tool of development for society.

S.N.: And this so far not recognized role of culture and art might also be to create new ways and solutions, not only for the art sector, but also for our society in general.

Interview by Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska