With my internship coming to an end, it is time to reflect on my findings – and to come back to the original question that has motivated me to start this project in the first place. I set out to analyze cultural activities in Bucharest from a policy perspective, and derive policy from practice. What has become of it?
When I started my research, I had only a vague idea of what would expect me. After almost three months of interviewing cultural practitioners, literature and internet research, visiting cultural spaces and participating in events, I have come closer to answering some questions, albeit not all.
One of the first things I learned, and that very quickly, was that the relationship between practice and policy in Bucharest is characterized by a gap, by which I mean that the cultural sector, the policy level and the citizens are disconnected from one another. A historical perspective is insightful to explain why. I have learned from talking to professionals involved in preparing Bucharest’s application for European Capital of Culture that the city is still dealing with the detrimental effects that the Ceausescu regime had on the life of its inhabitants. People were forcefully removed from their homes when the regime demolished thousands of houses in an attempt to remodel the city scape. Communities were destroyed, and the effects are still noticeable today – people are less eager to use public space, collaborate with each other and work on common issues, and participation in cultural offers is low. Existing cultural policies often lack the means for successful implementation. There may be no budget allocated to a strategy plan, or a change in leadership may cause previous policies to lose importance. Insufficient implementation was therefore a recurring theme in the interviews I had with cultural operators. This is why the policy level often can’t reach the actual practice in the sector, and the lack of efficacy leads to a general mistrust in policy makers. When asked for their opinions on cultural policy planning, many of the people I spoke with said something along the lines of „Yes, I respect the good work that they are doing, but I don’t believe it will have an actual impact.“
As a result, it seems to me that the relationship between practice and policy is at an impasse.
Because they don’t trust policies to have a sustainable positive impact, people don’t get involved and don’t know much about current developments. They are also less likely to integrate new policies into their own work because they don’t see an advantage in that. This, of course, affects implementation negatively – and here the vicious circle starts again, because bad implementation spurs mistrust, and so on. The gap reinforces itself.
This perspective, though, regards the relationship between policy and practice as a one-way street – it is about how policy influences practice. This direction of influence is dominant in cultural policy literature and debates, and maybe rightfully so, because after all, what is cultural policy if not the attempt to shape cultural practice in a certain way? The realm where the relationship is discussed the other way round is advocacy. In both cases, the cultural sector can easily appear as merely a canvas that can be acted upon, if one does not recognize the complex web of interactions that make up the dynamic of the field. From an anthropological perspective, I am interested in exactly that – and if there is one thing that my university teachers have taught me, it is that things are never static and never passive, even though they might appear so. This is how I became interested in an aspect of the relationship that I hadn’t found much information on – the influence that cultural practitioners have on policy making when they are not actively advocating for certain changes, but when they just do what they do from day to day.
I had expected to see patterns emerge as I dug deeper into the topic – something happening in the field that policy makers have to pick up and consider in their work, just because it is there. In the end, I have to admit that it went beyond the scope of this project to really come to a comprehensive conclusion. But most of all, my initial expectations hadn’t taken power relations into account. Policy makers don’t have to pick up developments. They can decide to make certain issues their priority, or they can decide not to, and sometimes they might just ignore certain activities altogether, consciously or unconsciously. This has diverse effects on the sector. Based on these considerations, I have come up with ideas about the conditions that make some parts of the cultural sector in Bucharest more important to policy makers, making it more likely that they would pick up developments from that field – and thus more likely that practice would influence policy.
It seems to me that the main actors driving change in the cultural sphere right now are dedicated individuals across the field who are committed to introducing new ideas to the sector, and non-governmental initiatives (NGO’s and the independent sector, including advocacy groups). They do so by creating links to transnational discourses, drawing from best practices where they can find them. This list is not exclusive – it is based on my subjective impressions of how change takes place in the sector, and I am aware of the fact that there are policy initiatives, for example the aforementioned application to European Capital of Culture, that have had significant effects, too. But looking back on the last years and decades of cultural activity in Bucharest, there was no coherent cultural strategy by public authorities, and this has left the sector to evolve largely on its own, driven by these actors. I believe that this is partially a good thing – culture and the arts need the freedom to evolve on their own terms, so as not to create authoritarian structures. The problem is, though, that some actors don’t have the resources to develop into the desired direction on their own, and that there are discontinuities between the policy level and the practice of these dedicated initiatives and individuals – their efforts are not always translated into policies. When I look at the sector, I see the pattern that change happens faster and more pronounced in those parts of the sector that, even though the whole sector is operating under precarious conditions, have a somewhat better position than others, and these actors are more likely to be recognized by policy makers as important. The determinants of these fragmentations as I see them are:
Recognition in society
- whether the general public knows about the existence of certain actors and what they are doing, or not;
- whether the public thinks what certain actors are doing is a legitimate expression of culture/art, or not;
- whether these actors enjoy a high reputation in society or are rather unpopular.
Financial resources and profit margin
- the amount of financial resources respective actors have access to;
- the type of resources they have access to (state subsidies, sponsors etc.);
- and their own profit margin.
Level of networking
I’ve written here about how I think that collectivity – networking of people working in the same field and/or with similar goals, such as the National Network of Romanian Museums – can effectively contribute to a better position towards policy makers.
What happens when one applies these criteria to the cultural sector in Bucharest? The way I see it, this axis emerges:
This is of course an approximation, and the picture becomes more complex when one looks at the divisions within each field. But it conveys the idea, imprecisions notwithstanding. Two things are reflected in this: First, the divide between traditional and contemporary forms of art, and second, the position of policy makers as stakeholders. Public institutions are more likely to represent traditional forms of art, and independent operators working as freelancers are more likely to belong to contemporary arts. Only 2-3% of public funds for culture are allocated to the independent sector in Bucharest. Creative industries have a special position because they are more likely to create profits of their own. This fragmentation shows, too, that policy makers do not merely hold administrative authority; they don’t necessarily service the cultural sector unless that is their agenda. They have interests of their own, and currently, there is a trend to focus on culture where it contributes to economic development and/or creates profit and high, immediate visibility.
There are several conclusions that I take away from this. The most important is that when policy makers are stakeholders, all policy planning should start by defining the premise of what the stakes are that everyone is putting into the process. What do policy makers understand as their primary function and mission? This affects how practitioners as well as policy advocates address them. This could reduce the gap between practice and policy, too – understanding what the other party wants and what they understand as their role might not bring everyone on the same page, but it might help people find a language that their interlocutor will understand.
For my project, this means that when I derive policy from practice and formulate policy recommendations, I need to clarify what I understand as the role of cultural policy, too. The recommendations that I have come up make sense if policy understands itself as a support structure for the whole sector with the aim of enabling a wide range of cultural activities to be available for everyone, with a focus on sustainability and infrastructure. Seen from this angle, the fragmentation of the sector into segments with more or less agency is a problem that cultural policy should address because it won’t resolve itself, for example by market forces. This means that:
- Cultural policy needs to pay special attention to supporting the weakest elements of the field. (This confirms the need to have a coherent, long-term strategy.)
- To transform the work of dedicated individuals into sustainable structures that won’t disappear as soon as the respective individual withdraws from their activities, there needs to be documentation and preservation of best-practices and a closer look into how these can be implemented more widely.
- Also, professionals should have access to trainings, so that the number of dedicated individuals who are on top of current developments can increase.
- Regarding the gap between policy and practice, it seems to me that improving implementation alone won’t be enough, the gap itself has to be addressed, too. Therefore it might be wise to accompany new policies with a communication strategy. That means informing practitioners about what is actually possible and how exactly policy has changed, and include them in all policy decisions that affect them.
Even though this post describes my views alone, I didn’t come up with these ideas entirely on my own. My role in this project was really more about connecting the dots. Therefore, I want to thank all my interview partners: Alexandra Zbuchea, Alina Șerban, Dragoș Neamu, Oana Radu, Raluca Ciutā, Simona Vilāu, Olivia Nițiș, Claudia Șerbānuțā and the team of CubicMetre, Raluca Iacob and Diana Ciocan.