Independent Arab cultural operators: a reflection on existing challenges
10 years elapsed already. Studio Emad Eddin still refuses to be influenced by the circumstances leaving their doors open in Cairo. Training, rehearsals and artist residencies are organised for a very low cost – not to say for free in some cases. However, constraints continue to be an obstacle, due to the political upheavals Egypt has recently been through. Studio Emad Eddin founder and general director Ahmed El Attar shared his experience with more than 20 Arab cultural operators during a workshop held on September 11th in Tunis. The questions raised echoed the limits of this exceptional venue and the dilemmas regional actors face on a daily basis.
Focused on the strategic advantages of cultural venues, this workshop was part of a series of sessions that took place from September 8th to 11th on the promotion of culture outside capital cities organised in the framework of Med Culture – an EU-funded regional programme – and implemented in cooperation with the Tunisian Ministry of Development, Investment and Cooperation. Participants from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon questioned the sustainability of management models to be applied to their projects. Regardless of how relative they could be, lessons learned from Studio Emad Eddin experience would attempt at bringing answers to these questions. As El Attar recalled “Each project has its specific context and must therefore create its own tools and mechanisms”.
Dependency on subsidies
Studio Emad Eddin is mainly funded by civil society organisations and international institutions, and was established as a foundation. “Donors continue to support us because we keep attracting other sources of funding”, declares El Attar before explaining that “they realise that others trust us as well, noticing that throughout the years their funding decrease while our budget increases”. This approach is unlikely to succeed in other countries. “A lot of foundations withdrew from Lebanon these past few years” for instance, regrets Lebanese artist and Clown Me In co-founder Sabine Choucair. Palestinian artists also denounce a similar situation in their country.
In order to make projects avoid such situation, El Attar recommends participants to “diversify donors”. “We must aim for auto-funding, even partially. For instance 15% to 20% of Studio Emad Eddin’s budget come from renting the venue to commercial cultural enterprises”, he announces to the participants.
Numerous interventions from the participants show their difficulty to set up solvent projects. “Do not fool yourself and try to make profit, it is not going to work out. In our case, our projects can only be profit-making when we have a true impact. This is how you’d convince the donors”, advises El Attar. This reaction triggered a debate about the purpose of cultural spaces created by civil society actors. After a reminder of the basics of the management model for every non-for-profit project, El Attar expressed his indignation “the absence of State involvement, is what makes our model fail”.
When the State goes missing
Participants are unanimous: Arab states are either absent or lack of interest for what these spaces has to offer. Whether for political or economic reasons, a wide gap exists between public institutions and independent cultural spaces. “The idea of cultural development is not yet integrated to our governments’ strategic planning”, notices El Attar, who continues: “Do you think the Edinburgh or the Avignon festivals make any profit? Absolutely not. But the host cities do, thanks to the economic dynamics they provide”.
For El Attar – who is also the founder of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (DCAF) – there is mainly a perception issue as well. “At the beginning, the administration is often reluctant towards cultural operators they don’t know well. One has to persist, knock at every door and take the time to present one’s project and added value. They usually cooperate in the end”. All these obstacles hinder cultural development in the Arab world. Raising awareness about its importance and its complementarity with other economic actors is more than ever necessary. In the meantime, dozens of millions of young Arabs are abandoned in a cultural desert, victims of unemployment, poverty… and fundamentalist temptations.
Content produced in collaboration with Babelmed