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60 years connecting people through arts and culture. A conversation with Katherine Watson, ECF Director Back

60 years connecting people through arts and culture. A conversation with Katherine Watson, ECF Director

29 Jan 2014

To celebrate the launch of the European Cultural Foundation’s brand new website and start the celebrations of our 60th anniversary, our online curator Canan Marasligil talks with ECF Director Katherine Watson. Katherine shares her views about the role of culture in Europe and tells us about the European Cultural Foundation’s future projects.

“From our roots in 1954, through the 60s, 70s, 80s and into the new millennium, we have set our sights firmly on the future and Europe in 2054!” — Katherine Watson

This year, the European Cultural Foundation is celebrating its 60th anniversary, a wonderful opportunity to look back but also to develop the future. Could you tell us a bit about the history of the European Cultural Foundation?

The European Cultural Foundation was set up in Geneva in 1954 by people passionately believing in culture as a vital ingredient for Europe’s post-war rebuilding and healing process. These included the Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont, the architect of the European Community, Robert Schuman, and HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, under whose presidency ECF moved to Amsterdam in 1960.

60 years later, we celebrate these efforts to build a better Europe, but more importantly, we evaluate the impact of our work, consider ways of improving it and reflect on how we can engage with the current European debates. Future thinking is so much more important than hindsight – we need to be thinking about the Europe that we want and need and the key role that culture can play in the coming 60 years.

From the global financial crisis to the rise of populist discourse in many European countries, clearly there is no shortage of issues where the surrounding debates can be enriched by the particular approach of the European Cultural Foundation, which I would summarize as identifying with the importance of a bottom-up approach and concentrating on providing the necessary conditions to facilitate and further the debate to initiate change. Can you elaborate on the particular contribution of the European Cultural Foundation?

We believe in engaging the constructive and collaborative power of people and that this power can be best awakened through exposure to diverse perspectives and ideas, especially by discovering unheard voices. Over the past four years, we did this through exploring new narratives for Europe at a moment when the prevailing narratives seemed to have lost their resonance. In this sense, our previous focus leads directly into the next one for 2013–2016: Culture, Creative Communities and Democracy. As you mentioned, we think that a bottom-up approach is essential and we will therefore continue to initiate and support cultural change-makers across wider Europe. In the face of all of our challenges there are alternatives – the European Cultural Foundation seeks to support and connect them across Europe. The 2014 laureates of the ECF Princess Margriet Award, Teatro Valle Occupato and Teodor Celakoski, are a great example. One of our jury members, Chris Dercon noted the importance of the question of the loss of commons in both political and cultural spheres and the importance of the work done by our laureates in this field.

You support a wide range of individuals working in the arts and cultural sector, from artists to cultural managers, but one key component of the European Cultural Foundation ‘s work is to link practice and policy. How do you achieve that?

It is vital to nurture exchange and creative expression across wider Europe; we have been connecting people through arts and culture for 60 years and we will continue to do so in the next 60 years. Let’s be clear, we cannot do any of this work on our own, our passion and efforts are driven by the very people we chose to support. We share knowledge across the European cultural sector, and campaign for the arts at all levels of political decision-making, and we do get positive outcomes. For instance, we had advocated fiercely over the past few years for the approval of the Creative Europe programme and for the key role that culture can play in external relations. We currently work with partners on various advocacy campaigns, including the New Pact for Europe, an initiative to advance the European debate and engage citizens and policy-makers in advance of the European elections with concrete proposals.

You also work at the local level.

We work throughout wider Europe, but are based in the Netherlands, and it is also crucial for us to connect with European issues at the local level. Working simultaneously at these different scales allows us a unique perspective into the interconnected nature of most of the issues facing culture and Europe. This awareness is something we then reapply to our individual projects, as well informing both our strategic planning and our advocacy efforts. For instance, our recently launched manifesto Voor Europa door Cultuur (For Europe through Culture) is a great showcase for it with a wide range of partners, working towards the European Elections in May 2014.

You have many exciting projects and events coming up throughout this anniversary year, and it seems that your digital reach, through this new website, the newly developed the European Cultural Foundation labs and the various social networks will be a key component of your work.

It will indeed. With this new website, we aim to put the spotlight on people. Whether it is our grantees, the members of our team, our partners, artists we work with… we want to showcase the efforts of all these individuals working to build a more open and democratic Europe. And because we not only want to show but really engage in a conversation, we invite everyone with an interest in the arts and culture, to join us on ECF labs, which we liken to a cultural Facebook, where we can have a real space for sharing knowledge and take the debates further. Many of our readers and partners are on existing social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, so that’s also the place where we connect. It’s a wonderful way to cross borders as well as to explore and be imaginative. From our roots in 1954, through the 60s, 70s, 80s and into the new millennium, we have set our sights firmly on the future and Europe in 2054!

Katherine Watson is Director of the European Cultural Foundation. Her international experience, on both sides of the Atlantic, combines interdisciplinary art productions with advocacy, research, and policy and programme development for non-profit arts organizations as well as governments. She has a particular interest in investigating how the digital shift has affected our society and in the intersection of art and culture with other fields of endeavour. Katherine Watson has been a producer, director, manager, fund developer, arts adviser and jury member, and chair of several boards. She is currently Vice Chair of the European Foundation Centre in which ECF plays an active part.

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