Resilience Between a Pandemic and War
How will we remember the year 2021? Will it be remembered as the interlude between 2020, the year when the Covid pandemic started, and 2022, the year when war came back to Europe? Not for the European Cultural Foundation. 2021 was a year of tiring uncertainty, incredible resilience and imaginative creation.
In 2021, the Coronavirus pandemic entered its second year and – despite vaccines being developed in record time – it caused continued hardship for millions of people, not least in the culture sector. In addition, existing challenges like the climate crisis, growing inequalities, societal polarisation, warmongering and shrinking public spaces were further amplified throughout the year. If there was one common thread, it was uncertainty.
In 2021, the Culture of Solidarity Fund was our flagship initiative as a flexible instrument to support cross-border European activities in times of uncertainty and cultural lockdown. While it was initially established as a temporary crisis response, its relevance had not diminished, or rather, it had increased 12 months on. Armed with the experience and lessons of the start-up phase in 2020, we retooled the fund and improved the impact, quality and representation by focusing on certain themes and geographies, as well as further developing the multiple partnership model. In 2021, we issued three editions of the fund.
How can Europe manage the Coronavirus crisis as a cultural and societal challenge without breaking apart? How can we use it as an opportunity for positive change? Under Imagine Europe, we have been designing, developing and funding a portfolio of projects that tell the stories of Europe and imagine a better Europe post-pandemic. This has included the European Pavilion network and the Europe Challenge, which has been set up to award innovative ideas to deal with a world full of uncertainty in partnership with the public library of Amsterdam (OBA).
Under one of our three thematic clusters, Share Europe, we have been designing, developing and funding a portfolio of projects that promote a functioning and safe European public space. This has included a research and advocacy project for a safe European digital space, the debating platform Europe Talks, enabling safe physical cultural spaces and the Culture and Creative Spaces in Cities initiatives.
Under Experience Europe, we have been designing, developing and funding a portfolio of projects that create a European sense of belonging through cultural and educational exchanges of people and common practice. This portfolio has been heavily affected by the Coronavirus crisis as physical cross-border mobility and cultural exchange almost came to a standstill. However, providing physical people-to-people contacts and European experiences remains important in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In the meantime, we designed new formats for people-to-people contacts by shifting some of our Experience work into the digital space before we are able to complement these digital encounters with physical encounters and cross-border mobility again. Initiatives in the Experience portfolio include a new multi-annual programme for young Europeans in cooperation with Stiftung Mercator (Generation Europe+) and Tandem Regions programmes.
The European Cultural Foundation co-funds and implements a large-scale EU pilot project on cross-border mobility for artists and cultural professionals (i-Portunus Platform) in times of (post-)Coronavirus and climate change. Starting with our own programmes, we implement and advocate for cross-border cultural initiatives in a climate-neutral way (Culture for Climate Action).
Culture has been among the sectors that have been most severely hit in Europe. In 2021, we continued to advocate for dedicated support and funding for the recovery of the culture sector at both national and European level by making culture part of Europe’s recovery plans and budget. Our campaign for a Cultural Deal for Europe was an extension of our Culture of Solidarity initiative and it resulted in significant financial commitments from the EU and its member states towards the revival of the cultural sector in Europe.
What did we learn in 2021?
In our Work Plan 2021, we observed that the vision, mission and programmatic focus of the Foundation remains relevant in these challenging times. In dealing with the uncertainty of the situation, we added a sizable ‘flexibility component’ – the Culture of Solidarity Fund. We aimed to navigate a triangle of Uncertainty, Focus and Flexibility.
Our Culture of Solidarity (COS) Initiative has proven to be a relevant, valued and contemporary interpretation of the European sentiment during times when national and regional approaches seem to come first. In addition to new COS editions, we will consider a rolling fund with some annual priorities.
The massive investment of governments and the EU to mitigate the Covid-19 crisis has provided an opportunity for public-philanthropic partnerships in (re-)building Europe. It is complicated to leverage the discrete charm of bureaucracy, but we are working towards it with determination and imagination. Together with Culture Action Europe and Europa Nostra, we are now advocating for a Cultural Deal for Europe, which should result in €15 billion of investment (2% of the Recovery Fund) in the European cultural sector. If we are successful, we need to monitor whether the money is spent wisely.
The last year has been challenging for all staff. The European Cultural Foundation has been supportive and flexible, with management and staff representation working hand in hand. Overall, resilience and performance have been solid, but for some the burden has been harder than for others. Staff need continued clarity, support and guidance from management. We need to invest consistently in our organisational culture and communication.
For most of 2021, we have worked together in the digital office. Somehow it has worked. We miss some aspects of the physical office but not others. There are advantages to remote working for a pan-European organisation – like temporary outposts across Europe. What do we want to retain from the 2020/21 remote work experience and what do we definitely not want to retain? How much flexibility is possible without losing organisational cohesion? How can we define a forward-looking work culture? And how can we integrate our climate goals into this?
The last two years have been almost travel-free. We have saved a lot of carbon and time. What does a healthy and sustainable travel policy look like for an organisation that invests in European people-to-people experience, which needs a constant breath of European exposure but also appreciates the seriousness of the climate challenge?
In 2021, we have invested in additional internships for young professionals working in programmes, public policy and communication. It has been a win-win for both the European Cultural Foundation and the interns – and this programme will be continued.
We need to watch changing attitudes towards philanthropy in general and new draft regulations on cross-border financing in the Netherlands and Europe in particular, which could have big implications for the Foundation’s core business model.
As challenging as 2021 was, we know that it will be followed by even more challenging times ahead. We need to stay resilient, focused and flexible.
Together we can.
Director, European Cultural Foundation