Last week my colleague Miķelis and I went to Tukums to participate in a seminar where the strategic framework for the cultural strategy of Tukums municipality was presented. Well, I say “participate”, but in reality we were there as observers.
The event was attended by approximately 10-12 people, excluding the organisers from Baltkonsults and Tukums municipality. The seminar began with a presentation by a Baltkonsults researcher on the strategic framework for the cultural strategy. The strategic framework was first presented on 7 January and revised as a result of the feedback received from different stakeholders. It was mentioned in passing that feedback was varied, and some individuals had promised to send in written comments, but this had not happened.
The framework is organised around three aims. The first is Co-crete and celebrate, which foresees a unified approach to planning and organising cultural life in the municipality and marketing its cultural attractions to the outside world. The second is Renovate and create cultural spaces. This one concerns cultural infrastructure – its preservation and maintenance, while also making it accessible and attractive to a modern audience. Finally we have Belong and cooperate, which relates to the governance of cultural life in the municipality.
Once the discussion got under way, participants challenged certain assumptions that they believed were implicit in the framework that had just been described to them. For instance, the idea that cultural events held in churches were separate from the cultural life of the municipality was questioned. Interestingly, this could simply be a matter of perspective - it was suggested that local residents perceive churches as an integral part of cultural life, while outsiders see them as being separate.
This was followed by a discussion regarding the need for a new public space for the arts. It was quite clear that there was no unified position as to how many spaces for art and culture are necessary in Tukums. Should the culture house and gallery be two separate spaces? Perhaps, as it was noted that the main culture house in Tukums can alienate certain audiences and there is not enough room to house many different cultural institutions under one roof. For example, relocating the music school to the premises of the culture house would not be feasible because pupils are often taught individually.
This discussion also provoked a short exchange about the difference between art and culture. This may be a simple linguistic issue – in Latvian, the word art tends to be associated with visual art (e.g. painting, culture), though art can also include music and literature. The participants, therefore, suggested that the name of this new space should reflect that it is a place for many different forms of art. Different names were proposed – centre for the arts, creativity. One participant even had the idea of calling it the centre/house of muses.
Unsurprisingly, financial considerations entered the discussion, and it was acknowledged that maintaining a vast cultural infrastructure and building an arts centre would simply be too costly for Tukums. Furthermore, it was unclear whether theses places would be able to justify their existence financially. Would there be an audience for cultural events? This was unclear. However, it was also suggested that it was entirely possible for Tukums to attract people from beyond the municipality. The example of Cēsis was used to illustrate the ability of towns that are located quite far from the capital to attract visitors. Nonetheless, it was argued that Tukums needed to focus on something to be able to compete with Liepāja and Ventspils, as they also have modern concert halls. Maybe chamber music?
I should note that, while more than half of the time was spent on discussing academic or “high” culture, towards the end of the discussion other forms of culture were introduced into the conversation. For instance, the need for cultural activities that would be attractive to the younger generation was mentioned. It was also argued that parishes also have vibrant cultural offers and social events for local residents. It was further noted that the focus of the cultural strategy may be alienating for some. That is, the strategy may be perceived as the expression of a narrow-minded specialist elite, rather than the inhabitants of Tukums in general. The lack, or at least perceived lack, of the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders and the resulting narrow focus of strategy may be an issue. However, this claim was challenged as there is currently limited interest and civic initiative. Even representatives of cultural institutions do not always attend meetings and seminars. It was mentioned in passing that many of the same people had come to previous meetings.
The looming administrative-territorial reform was brought up once again. One participant actually indicated that this discussion and the whole endeavour (the cultural strategy) was almost pointless. What will happen after Tukums is merged with the adjacent municipalities? In response, the researchers of Baltkonsults raised the possibility that having a cultural strategy in place could actually be useful. In what appeared to be an off-hand remark, the need for a unified, coherent approach to culture in the municipality was justified in financial terms – the ability to attract funding. A systematic approach could also be extended to the other (currently autonomous) municipalities. Furthermore, the planning process itself is a chance for residents of Tukums to express their preferences and, consequently, make the cultural offer of the municipality more responsive to local tastes and rhythms. Finally, the fact that not all the goals (e.g. a brand new centre for the arts) can be reached within the next five years does not exclude the possibility of laying the groundwork for ambitious future projects.
However, it was acknowledged that, as a result of the reform, questions of public funding will take on a different meaning as the cultural infrastructure in other places will also have to be taken care of. Furthermore, coordination of cultural activities within the borders of the municipality remains a prominent issue. Tukums has a high number of parishes with their own particular traditions, and this number will only grow as a result of the reform.
What did I take away from this? Well, several things actually. Firstly, art and culture are mischievous words and this discussion illustrates that they tend to be associated with academic and professional art and culture, rather than folklore or culture in the anthropological way-of-life sense. It appears that the people involved in working on the strategy are aware of this, but the conversation has this unfortunate habit of drifting towards spaces where “high” art/culture lives. Secondly, ensuring that the process of developing a cultural strategy is inclusive and infused with different perspectives is annoyingly tricky. There is a kind of self-selection bias at play here, and the result (the same people coming to these discussions) does nothing to alleviate the concern that the strategy is the vision of a professional clique. Finally, persuading people that this strategy is a worthwhile endeavour is becoming increasingly challenging as the reform moves closer and closer, even though it is not yet certain that it will definitely happen.