Magdalena, I know that you have a background in culture. But how did you come into cultural management and start helping other cultural and creative institutions in different countries?
My experience in cultural management and drafting proposals spans 12 years already. It’s even a little funny since my first profession was as a musician. One day, after graduating from the music academy studying accordion, I discovered a management course in the cultural sphere in the Polish Academy of Sciences and thought: “Wow, that’s for me!” And as soon as I received my new education in this sphere, I found a job in the international department of the music academy. This was a year after Poland’s accession to the European Union, and at that moment they needed people who had at least some skills in writing cultural proposals. That was why I was immediately thrown into the deep end, involved in preparing projects for the Culture 2020 programme, although at the time I had no experience whatsoever in filing in huge applications…
A year later, we applied and received funding. We were absolutely shocked because there were two of us preparing the application, my friend and I, we were 23-24, we had no practical experience whatsoever, only minimal knowledge and intuition. And of course a lot of work. Many colleagues from our partner organisations were helping us. As a result, we received funding and brought the project to life. It was great! And so my career in writing proposals began.
And so you started helping other institutions to write applications for various cultural programmes?
Yes, because it was the first case of a successful Polish application in the cultural sphere to obtain a huge international grant. Later, the Polish contact centre on cultural matters invited me to share my experience, talk about how we had worked on the application, the feedback we received, and what tips we could offer colleagues.
Then, of course, we had more and more new applications. Subsequently, I began working with Norwegian organisations. We had two big projects, financed by a grant from the European Economic Area, so I was working with them on developing the project’s ideas, finding partners, and then on the project and its implementation.
So why is it so important to apply with a good proposal and what should you know to attain that?
Figuratively speaking, it makes you independent. Often organisations in the cultural and creative sphere have enough ideas and talents, but not enough resources for the development and implementation of their projects. Therefore, it is this important to give them the chance to realise their dreams and a proposal that has been successfully prepared offers them just such an opportunity.
And, of course, it is an excellent way to develop an organisation and expand relations with other organisations, be visible to achieve recognition. This is particularly important for small cultural and creative institutions.
What should you pay attention to when drafting a proposal?
You should have a good amount of knowledge about what you’re writing, first and foremost. In addition, you have to be confident and concise to convince experts because your application is competing with hundreds and thousands of others. The application should be well thought-out and discussed with your partners, based on a realistic analysis of your idea and the target audience.
What are the criteria that experts use to assess an application?
There are several very important factors. First, it’s the project’s relevance. Why is it so important to fund your particular project? Prove it.
What also matters is the quality of the division of tasks among the partners in the context of the project’s technical organisation. In addition to your project’s promotion, dissemination and impact on a specific sector and a specific target audience.
The idea of the project is also important, as well as its content, presentation, innovative approach, and an experimental element in the project. For instance, there are more relevant themes that often go hand in hand with the EU’s policy. Today, these are new skills for life and work in the cultural and creative sphere. That’s very important.
What can take a good application out of the competition or, on the contrary, make a weak application successful? Perhaps you can share some examples?
Of course, it all depends on each individual situation. When it comes to content, when writing the draft application, you would have to repeatedly introduce changes to it. There’s always the risk of forgetting to correct one detail, as a result of which the application loses its logic. For example, if you mention in one place that you will be organising seminars, and then later mention something completely different. Believe me, it’s easy to make such mistakes, and the expert will immediately spot them. It is also important to pay close attention to all figures, facts, data so that they are coherent throughout the document.
Needless to say, the text should be written well. It is also important to know that there is a special “Brussels” English used for writing proposals. During training sessions, I try to teach participants at least some of its individual elements so that they can use them when drafting a proposal.
Is the language used to draft the proposal so important?
It’s very important! You can’t use spoken language, even if it sounds good, and the text is well written. It’s important to strike a balance between refined language and jargon and simple language.
Also, try to be realistic when drafting the application: if the expert notices that you have greatly embellished something, he will immediately see that it’s unrealistic. If the experts decide that you do not fully understand what you’re talking about, this will be a serious obstacle on your path to success. You shouldn’t lie, besides, there’s no point because the experts are well aware of the situation. Even if they don’t know your organisation, it is quite simple to tell whether someone is lying.
If I’m not mistaken, this is not your first visit to Ukraine. Therefore, are you familiar with the Ukrainian cultural and creative scene?
Of course, I’ve been working with Ukrainian partners for quite a time now, as well as with other organisations of the Eastern Partnership. I believe, it’s approximately 8 years.
I have taken part in cultural conferences, we developed three training cycles for cultural managers from the Eastern Partnership countries, so I know many colleagues from this region. If there’s an initiative, an opportunity for cooperation, we always write, call, in short, we’re in touch all the time.
How would you describe the Ukrainian cultural and creative sphere? Perhaps there are certain features that could make Ukraine unique among other European countries?
Hmmm… I think that Ukrainians are very ambitious and incredibly creative. You may need to develop skills relating to increasing and reinforcing the capacities of cultural and creative organisations (I believe that this applies to most countries in the region, if not all of them). Lack of preparation is really a serious problem.
I have also noticed that people working in the cultural and creative sphere forget, to a certain extent, the social implications of their activities. To demonstrate the role of culture and how it impacts the development of various fields, including the economy, is a very important detail that can be successfully used in an information campaign.
What instruments and methods can help the creative sphere to become more effective?
I firmly believe in two things. First, it’s cooperation. Therefore, during the training that I hold I always focus on opportunities for cooperation, since, oddly enough, people keep forgetting about that. That’s for one. In addition, I believe in the exchange of values, and in the transfer and exchange of experience (both practical and theoretical).
Moreover, openness and mobility are very important. In addition to flexibility and understanding of the situation. Therefore, people who don’t travel, don’t continue to learn throughout their lives are unlikely to be able to achieve something truly important.
Do you think Ukraine could adopt or at least taking into account the Polish experience in reforming culture and the systems of support for the creative sphere?
Of the positive trends in the Polish cultural sphere, I can note the fact that more and more money is going through non-government organisations, independent initiatives that receive applications. These are not only centralised sources of funds distribution because the Ministry of Culture provides not only financial support but also effective support tools.
Creative institutions are becoming increasingly tied to the specific policies of a city, and big Polish cities like Krakow, Wroclaw, Lodz, Gdansk, Poznan, etc. are investing increasingly in the development of the cultural and creative sphere at the city level. This is an excellent, tangible mechanism to support the creative industries, offering the possibility to work more, share practical experience, and adapt it to local conditions.
Moreover, the country should decentralise the cultural and creative industries. For example, I think that it is necessary to formulate a definition and understanding of this concept at the national level, but the centres of attention should be in cities because this is a very local question, and it should be addressed at the local level.
If we talk about culture slightly more globally, how do you think the concept of “culture” will change in the near future?
If we talk about culture as a tool for understanding what people do (because that is what it really does), all the motivation and everything that people do throughout their lives is focused on culture and related to national, regional and local cultural traditions. Culture is the best tool to achieve an understanding of why people behave one way and not another, what motivates them, inspires them and what they seek.
I think that at the global level, the understanding of culture is becoming better and better all the time. But at the same time, we are seeing manifestations of extremist movements, which is alarming. Therefore, culture should be viewed from a comprehensive perspective. In addition, the mistake is often made of referring culture to art. This is false. Culture is the cause and result of everything.
What are the three things that you would say are priorities for successful cultural growth (for Ukraine or any other country)?
Good management and experts, as well as the participation of people in this important process. This includes consultation and other forms of cooperation. The possibility for ordinary people to influence cultural life. In addition to promotion of the understanding that culture is a priority for the business sector, because it does actually have an impact on it.
It is also important to ensure demand for the cultural product. There are many talented and creative people, but they lack an audience that would buy their product or service. Keep in mind that the cultural and creative spheres are just like any other sector of the economy. No sector can grow if people don’t know about its products and don’t seek to discover them, content with what they have at the moment. Demand for creative industry products should start to be stimulated at school. In addition to developing taste, the understanding of the importance of the creative sphere, as well as why it is worth investing more money in its products.