Bilbao, 14 March 2014, Art Media Agency (AMA).
The first Forum d’Avignon Bilbao took place between the 6 and 7 March 2014 at the AlhóndigaBilbao, a space designed by Philippe Starck. This comes after the second Forum d’Avignon Ruhr in Essen, influenced by the model inaugurated in 2008 in France, and forms part of a cycle of conferences and debates dedicated to developing the role of culture in the city.
The opening, led by local and international organisers of the Forum d’Avignon, highlighted the importance of culture with regards to the development of cities and the competition they face in terms of attracting industry and population growth. It emphasised the idea that culture should be perceived as an investment rather than an expense. Bilbao, a pertinent example with regards to this, formed the basis of discussion during the two-day event. A city suffering severe industrial decline in the 1990s, with 25% unemployment, Bilbao was transformed both by the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and the city-wide redevelopment program which ensued. The €133 million invested generated a greater GDP within the first year and achieved complete return on investment as a result of tax revenue less than five years after its completed construction.
The introduction to the Forum subsequently adopted a strong stance in favour of the strengthening of culture in Europe, particularly by way of more substantial budgets. To this end, organisers invited participants to become ambassadors of the values proposed by the Forum in their own countries and provinces.
Different panels were then asked to focus on individual aspects of the link beween art and the city, allowing each speaker to present their experience from an individual perspective. These presentations were then followed by Q&A sessions.
The first roundtable discussion was entitled “Dialogue between what is public and private in the field of creation”. The first speaker, Jean Blaise, presented the example of Nantes, demonstrating how the city had successfully undergone renewal as a result of multiple medium-sized artistic projects (infrastructure, biennials, festivals, and so forth). Previously a city with few notable attributes, it decided to use culture as a means of developing its economy, tourism and social industry. The local authorities invited artists to work on the subject of the city, something which gave them the opportunity to explore the history and features of Nantes, thus indirectly becoming “ambassadors” for the city. Another prevalent idea was to come up with new “points of view” in the form of artistic interventions in specific places within the city. Intervention in the public space allowed for the “democratisation” of culture, everyone having unlimited access to the works. These “points of view” equally provided citizens with the opportunity to become “tourists” and “discoverers” of their own city, despite the ongoing controversy which arose as a result (particularly with regards to heritage). Blaise concluded his speech by denoting the benefits of creating partnerships between the public and private, both in order to reduce budgets and to allow businesses to be associated with such projects, ultimately creating strong social links. Nantes was thus put forward as an excellent example of integrating art into all spectrums of the city.
The presentation given by Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the former Minister for Education, Science and Culture in Iceland could have been entitled “What politicians can learn from the creative industries”. During the economic crisis of 2008 — which particularly affected Iceland, which suffered the worst banking collapse in history — the Icelandic population astonishingly turned to culture (cinema, theatre, art, etc.). Despite the enormous reduction in its national budget, Iceland decided to continue to finance its culture – for example, increasing the number of state-funded artists from 12,000 to 16,000, or making donations towards the completion of the Harpagon Concert Hall. Its policy sparked criticism relative to the “waste” of money on projects such as these. However, the critical message remains that cultural industries have a significant impact on the economy, forging links within society and enriching the lives of the city’s inhabitants.
Gail Lord, co-founder of Lord Cultural Resources, expressed her views during the Forum, using several of her own specific projects as examples to substantiate her points. She stated that the private and public sectors are increasingly — particularly recently — interlinked. Faced with a low budget, the “Sustainable Chicago 2015″ project called upon local involvement at a grassroots level. More than 40,000 people took part in the project in total. What has clearly emerged from “Sustainable Chicago 2015″ is that neighbourhoods want to be recognised individually, allowing for their identities to be taken into account with regards to artistic planning. In a second example, she revealed that $10 million was raised as a result of a Billboard Tax initiative undertaken by young, local artists. These artists had discovered that there were no taxes imposed upon billboards used for advertising, claiming that these actually “defaced” the public space. After years of legal debate, tax of this sort has been definitively imposed and now raises $1 million per year, illustrating that artists can provoke social change.
Following the Q&A sessions, the speakers reconvened in order to tackle the need to convert large national projects into smaller, more local projects. Amongst other issues, the importance of education and the need to understand society as a creative whole were raised, particular emphasis placed on the fact that artists are themselves citizens.
The first panel clarified the importance of culture for the development of cities; on a large scale, it highlighted the role of large projects in uniting citizens, creating visibility and attracting new talent, whilst it also emphasised the necessity of smaller projects in the quest to democratise art and culture on a local level.
The second discussion was entitled “Artists as promoters of cultural and social change in our cities”, focusing on the role of artists in the city. The first speaker, Jochen Sandig, Artistic Director of Radialsystem in Berlin, stressed that it is in the public interest to work with people, using his own project as an example, which involved 40,000 people. Artists are, according to him, citizens like everybody else, and it is fundamental to retain empty spaces in order to sustain creativity. Jochen Sandig finished his presentation by posing the question: how can creative cities stay creative?
Txomin Badiola, a Basque artist committed to the cause, came to defend the rights of artists to be political agents. He raised questions — although his opinion on the subject seemed very clear — about the idea of culture as an industry. In his view, capitalism is increasingly blind to all factors other than those which are economic and, at best, societal elements of cultural policy. Furthermore, he suggested that artists, as ambassadors of change, should always be in opposition to political and economic powers. Badiola added, regretfully — admitting that there is no solution to the problem — that artists are always torn between a gruelling need to fit within the market, in order to earn money, and the political aspect – resisting the powers in place for the greater advantage and advancement of society.
The topic of the renewal of cities was then undertaken by Beatriz García from Barcelona, a researcher in urban sociology with a focus on cultural policy at the University of Liverpool. In 2008, Liverpool became the European Capital of Culture, something which had an extensive economic and social impact on the city. The event considerably transformed the image of the city, felt both by outsiders as well as its inhabitants, and attracted international media attention. Beatriz García placed emphasis on the fundamental need for local involvement; 70% of artists who participated in the project were local.
Alfonso Santiago, Director of Last Tour International, a music festival in Bilbao, placed an importance on the presence of live events in the city. In his view, festivals can only survive if they are successfully integrated into city life, irrespective of their appeal to tourists. The Bilbao Festival, for example, made a total contribution of €16 million to the city in 2013. These events are popular, even in times of financial crisis, and are therefore important vehicles for a city’s economic development.
The notion of the “city as brand” came to the fore repeatedly throughout the conference. Even if the reality of this concept depends greatly on the size of the city itself, and even if clear benefits can be drawn from it (economic factors, reputation and local pride), many questions arose from the idea. Does the city define the event or does the event define the city? Does a brand, in its necessary simplification of the concept of a city, hide the reality and true diversity to be found in the urban space?
The second panel was very assertive in its statements, and consequently provoked rich discussion. Primarily, it questioned the role of the artist in the political and social ecosystem. Secondly, it raised the issue of local “resources” (artists) and of allowing for there to be the space for creativity to flourish without imposing too many restrictions. Finally, it highlighted the prominence of large events in their ability to attract tourist attention and simultaneously construct a history and local pride. It also emphasised that true “cultural transformation” requires time and implies public participation.
At the end of the first day, participants were invited to follow one of the three coloured umbrellas, each guiding them towards a different symbolic place in the revival of Bilbao: the Guggenheim Museum, the symbol of the city’s artistic ambition; Bilbao La Vieja, one of the most creative neighbourhoods in the city; and the Zorrotzaurre, the next large urban project: the transformation of a currently derelict site into a new, modern neighbourhood in Bilbao, thought up by Zaha Hadid.
The third roundtable discussion, the following day, was entitled “Cities as a driving force for cultural change in Europe”, which explored the challenges faced by European cities in terms of cultural binaries: global versus local and creation versus conservation, amongst other dualities.
Guadalupe Echevarria, Cultural Director of Donostia/San Sebastián, European Capital of Culture in 2016, reflected on the (mainly material) needs of artists, to which the cities hosting them would have to respond. Very often, the basic needs of artists are ignored; infrastructures, an interesting social and intellectual environment and an effective market ecosystem (galleries, dealers, fairs, etc.) are among such fundamental requirements. Regarding this, Berlin was given as an effective example; Brussels was equally mentioned due to its central geographic location, its multilingualism and its close access to strong collectors’ “markets”.
Patricia Brown, Director of London-based consultancy firm Central, used the city of London as an example to advocate for artists’ ability to leave their personal imprint on the city. From a metropolis dominated by cars, London has become a city which places pedestrians and bicycles at the centre. The newly-liberated spaces (particularly parking spaces) have risen to the demographic challenge. Already with a population of 8.5 million, London will likely be home to 10 million inhabitants by 2030. The British capital is not the only one to take action against the large number of vehicles in the city; New York and Paris are following in the same direction. Newly-created spaces link economic activity and residential spaces. Patricia Brown equally highlights the importance of working with city-dwellers and being shrewd: delays in construction works as a result of the economic crisis can be put to use (whilst waiting for work to recommence) as places for the emancipation of creativity. The arts and culture industry is in fact the second most lucrative sector after finance in London.
Corinne Hermant de Callataÿ, General Director for Regional and Urban Policy at the European Commission, later focused on the particular involvement of culture in urban policy. She began by reiterating several basic truths (actually the only person to mention these): conglomerations experience profound, cyclical changes in their planning methods, boundaries and even in their jurisdictional procedures; cities have different systems in place depending on their size; suburbs – of equal importance – are often forgotten in these processes. The European Commission budget for public programmes related to cities in Europe, between 2007 and 2013, rose to €6 billion. The current trend shows a concentration of these programmes, as is proved by the examples of Naples, Lille and Brussels. The conclusion to this relatively technical presentation was a resounding “culture is the soul of cities”.
According to Évelyne Lehalle, Director of Nouveau Turisme Culturel, Nice, over half of those who make use of cultural infrastructures do so as tourists. This represents €15 billion in France, 8% of the GDP, a phenomenon which has grown by 5% on a global scale. Yet it is rarely the cultural protagonists who benefit from this. Evelyne Lehalle later raised the question of the digital age and its existence as both a challenge (as a result of e-visitors who consume culture without ever physically going to cultural sites) and an opportunity (thanks to a direct and easily tailored access for visitors). Finally, she called upon listeners to turn towards young people and city inhabitants in order to improve and diversify the tourist domain.
In the light of these presentations, it became evident that cities must meet several different, specific requirements: those of artists, tourists and above all, their inhabitants. Art has the potential to be a lever for urban development, however artists have basic needs which must be met in order for them to be able to live. Finally, the undisputable fact emerged that trust must be placed in artists and city-dwellers to lead social development in cities and to be ambassadors for tourism.
The fourth and final discussion, entitled “The city in progress, a future ecosystem”, did not seek to assimilate these points of view, but rather explored different examples of cities undergoing change.
The presentation given by Tarek Cherkaoui, Chief Strategy Officer of the Qatar Museums Authority, suggested a rather utopic vision — that a city can actively situate itself in the world. The concept of a “hub” was emphasised, using five hubs in Qatar as a basis: Investment (from future opportunities), Knowledge (via the Qatar Foundation), Transit (through the airport terminal of Doha and Qatar Airways), Media and Political (primarily through Al Jazeera) and Cultural (thanks to QMA). This policy does, however, require investments of great magnitude ($100 billion relating to culture). Tarek Cherkaoui presented art as being a highly important factor within development plans, and not something to be considered as an afterthought. In Qatar, the emphasis was placed on public art in spaces dedicated to artistic expression (for example the conversion of sites no longer in use into places dedicated to hosting artists in residence: the Firehouse – a former firestation – or an old fishing village). Tarek Cherkaoui admitted that all investments of this sort were made in order to attract international spectators – the challenge being to consolidate international taste and demand whilst still preserving Qatar’s historic style. In any case, Qatar’s goal is fundamentally to associate art, culture and economic growth.
An even more original presentation was to follow. Beatriz Colomina, a historian of architecture at Princeton University, proposed a study which defined the concept of the city as emanating from the image. On the premise that images are present in all aspects of city life, and that the superimposition of these images has now become a natural inclusion within the city aesthetic, Colomina concluded that today ”the city has entered into the bed”, even if there seemingly exists a great gap between the two. Everyone is the curator of everything, for themselves and for those around them. How to define the nature of things? What is public and what is private? What is in the city domain and what resides in the home? What belongs to the day and what belongs to the night? Her energetic, passionate and even humorous presentation enchanted the auditorium, which welcomed her exceptionally refreshing approach.
Juan Diego, Secretary General of the Bilbao Bizkaia Design & Creativity Council, far more sober in tone, presented the renewal of Bilbao made possible through the 25 projects which the city organised for the 25-year anniversary of its renovation. This project highlighted creativity as the principal solution for the renewal of cities, and diversity as the inspiration behind such creativity. Diego emphasised the need for economic renewal to complement the development of infrastructure, without which the city runs the risk of becoming a beautiful place void of meaningful activity. Throughout his address, the act of storytelling came to the fore as an important factor in effective communication.
Again, it is clear that the various speeches of this last roundtable discussion did not aim to reach a consensus. On the contrary, these differing visions demonstrated that great investment in culture and, more generally, in a city’s quality of life does exist and work, and therefore can be hailed as a great success.
Overall, this first edition of the Forum d’Avignon Bilbao can be deemed a success: the pertinent speakers from a variety of fields demonstrating a wide range of knowledge and resulting in several intellectually-charged debates.
This being said, the audience would have benefited from greater interaction between the different participants and spectators. In brief, a more carefully managed system in terms of speaker-spectator interaction would have been a welcome addition to be considered for the future.
Nevertheless, several points clearly emerged from the debates. Primarily — expressed several times throughout the Forum — the importance of culture in the city as an indispensable economic catalyst for the promotion of tourism, as much as a key player in the forging of social links and a source of pride for locals. In times of crisis, culture seems to be the short-term, mid-term and – most-importantly – long-term solution. Furthermore, the concepts of local culture came out on top as opposed to a focus on international style. In this sense, the question of Europe as a whole was strangely left untouched, aside from a financial allusion to it. Overall, and perhaps this is the human message in all this, it was advised that cities who wished to use culture as a means of differentiation should leave a certain margin for improvisation, taking care to avoid excessive rigidity; above all, confidence in the city itself emanating for the most part from the ability to rely on its citizens and artists.
Overall, the targeted approach of this Forum can be said to be responsible for the extent of its success. It allowed for a fine-tuned but all-encompassing focus on the subject, leaving no area untouched. It is hoped that the success of Forum d’Avignon Bilbao will allow it to be repeated again next year.