BSC researchers are currently involved in the H2020 project ROBUST. The overall goal of the project is to foster urban-rural synergies and inclusive development, and project members attempt to achieve this goal by engaging in practical attempts to create mutually beneficial and supportive linkages in different contexts. In Latvia, BSC is working together with Tukums municipality to develop a cultural strategy for preserving cultural heritage and organising cultural life in the municipality.
As part of the ongoing work on the cultural strategy, Tukums municipality organised a workshop on 26 November 2019. The purpose of this workshop was to (i) present the findings of researchers engaged in the development of the cultural strategy and (ii) perform a collective SWOT analysis of cultural life, institutions and governance in the region.
The event began with my introductory presentation about ROBUST and the interests of other project partners in the Cultural Connections community of practice. While the presentation only briefly touched upon the issues that are and will be addressed in Tukums, a discussion began about the way the strategy was being developed.
A representative of a local newspaper made the point that there has to be a concrete practical output that justifies the involvement of the municipality in this project. Specifically, she argued that the municipality should work on the strategy whilst keeping in mind that there will most likely be an administrative-territorial reform next year, which will redraw the current administrative boundaries. It is probable that Tukums will absorb the neighbouring municipalities and will, consequently, oversee a greater range of cultural institutions. Furthermore, it was noted that, for example, Engure municipality is very different from Tukums socio-economically speaking, and this is reflected in the specificities of local demand for cultural events and services. The issue, however, is that Tukums cannot currently make plans that involve the other municipalities, even though this means that the strategy will have to be revised.
An additional point was that the connection between food and culture was perhaps overemphasised in ROBUST. While it was acknowledged that, broadly speaking, culture can refer to a way of life, it was questioned whether the culinary traditions of Tukums municipality are definite enough to include them in discussions about culture. Some argued that, due to the proximity to Riga, there are no products or practices that are specific to Tukums. Others, however, noted several regional products that have historical connections with the municipality.
From the way these conversations unfolded I got the impression that professionals working in the field of culture were somewhat frustrated, though it was unclear whether this was only due to the perceived deficiencies of the municipality’s approach to the strategy. The frustration continued to be expressed when Dace Ernšteine, a representative of the municipality, presented the results of a recent online survey on cultural life in the region. Some participants were dissatisfied with the low number of filled in questionnaires, while others noted that they did not even know about this survey. It was also argued that more effort should have been made to engage people living in the parishes, which are currently under-represented in the survey. It seemed to me that this was perceived as a slight against the parishes. The fact that a gesture from the municipal council had not been made was, therefore, more of a problem than the impact this had on the quality of the data gathered.
The hostility gradually subsided, and participants started to offer their own interpretations of the results. Overall, the results were not believed to be surprising. The connection was repeatedly made between population decline, limited infrastructure and the precariousness of cultural life in the region in the long-term, despite several regional strengths (e.g. proximity to Riga, many amateur art collectives).
I noted that the survey did not appear to make a distinction between “high” and “low” culture. Folklore, festive events and museums were all perceived as being equally important and valuable. However, there were indications that not all forms of culture were believed to be important for Tukums. A concrete illustration of what I mean is the off-hand remark that without support for the Latvian Song and Dance Festival, there would be no culture. While no specific critical comments were made regarding contemporary forms of art and culture, the discussion mainly revolved around classical and folk cultural expressions.
After the lengthy presentation by Dace, it was time for the presentations by the researchers engaged to assist in the preparation of the cultural strategy. This section of the workshop began with a few introductory remarks by Jolanta Gūža. These were followed by two presentations – by Indra Murziņa and Ināra Groce.
The presentation by Indra gave everyone in attendance a general picture of cultural institutions and the governance of culture in Tukums as a whole. She noted the great variety of resources at the disposal of the municipality, but also indicated that there are gaps and failures to collaborate among different institutions. For instance, in her opinion not enough use has been made of the proximity of Cinevilla (the only backlot in Latvia, with historical buildings and constructions). This, however, was one of the assessments that caused some controversy and negative feedback from the participants. It appeared that not everyone believed the municipality had to do more to establish a better relationship with Cinevilla. Furthermore, the participants were sceptical as to whether the researchers had done a good job in capturing the situation in Tukums. Several examples of culturally significant institutions, which had not been included in the assessment, were mentioned.
Afterwards, Ināra Groce gave a general overview of the SWOT analyses performed with various representatives of cultural institutions across Tukums. The popularity of amateur art and creative collectives was believed to be a key strength of cultural life in Tukums. The people involved in cultural life are perceived to be highly enthusiastic. Likewise, the great number and variety of cultural objects and venues was repeatedly emphasised, as was the proximity to Riga. In conjunction, this allows Tukums to attract visitors from outside the municipality.
However, there are also significant weaknesses, which must be addressed when working on the cultural strategy. Firstly, while there are many places that host cultural events and play an important role in their local parishes and communities, many of them require renovation and investment to bring them up to date. Furthermore, in some cases the quality of the roads leading to these places is poor, which means that people are unlikely to visit a particular church or cultural house simply because they cannot reach it in poor weather conditions. Another pressing issue is the lack of coordination and information about cultural events. This leads to a paradoxical situation whereby there are both too many and too few events, depending on who you ask. A more organised approach to planning events across the municipality and informing people about them would go a long way towards addressing the perceived weaknesses of cultural life and cultural institutions in Tukums.