Nataliya Shostak: “Now is the time when culture can become an agent of change”

We met the coordinator of the EU-EaP Culture and Creativity Programme in Ukraine to talk about the capacity of Ukraine’s culture, creative economy in the regions, and how our state can become a breath of fresh air for Europe.

— Nataliya, could you tell us a little about yourself: What is your professional background? What projects have you worked on, and how did you become the coordinator for the Culture and Creativity Programme in Ukraine?

— Previously I worked at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, which I joined while still a student at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. An enclave of culturologistsof sorts was formed there. Overall the museum team was young and forward-looking. We organised educational programmes for adults, children, lectures, Night at the Museum, holidays. It felt that this was the new force that wanted to do things, change things. I was interested in both classical and contemporary art; I also worked at the PinchukArtCentre in the education department. Last year, I realised that I would like to try myself in a new role, and was very happy to join the Culture and Creativity team.

— Could you tell us about this Programme in more detail: what is its goal and values? What role does Ukraine play in this programme?

— The Culture and Creativity Programme aims to provide support for cultural and creative industries in Eastern Partnership countries, and increase their contribution to sustainable social and economic development. The main areas of activity are conducting research in the cultural sphere, organising trainingsessions to increase the professional skills of cultural managers, providing information  about the role of cultural and creative industries and providing opportunities for international cultural cooperation. In general, the Eastern Partnership region is very important for the EU. They want to see strong partners, who implement the right changes, who are inclusive, tolerant, open to the prospects of the new economy. Therefore, another goal of our programme is establishing closer communication between the public, civil and private sectors. If you observe what is happening in the cultural sector, you would often note that communication doesn’t work properly – there are many conflicts, lack of understanding that it is necessary to find common ground, competition dominates. People want to be in the limelight rather than achieve a common goal. Our task is to facilitate the establishment of communication and mutually-beneficial partnerships.

— What are the biggest challenges that you faced when you started working in the Programme?

— This is an EU programme, and this involves many different specifics, including bureaucratic ones. A great deal of time and effort is spent on paperwork, reporting, we need to obtain permission for our smallest steps. At my previous job, I did not come across bureaucracy as often. However, over time you realise that this is precisely what allows the EU and EC to guarantee transparency and impartiality in decision-making.

— Ukrainian society views culture quite lightly – Ukrainians feel that it can hardly change their lives for the better. What do you think is the role that culture plays in society? Why is it important in general, and for Ukraine in particular?

— The realisation that culture can change life for the better is virtually non-existent among the general public. Maybe in Kyiv, when you’re constantly interacting with certain circles, it may seem that changes in the perceptions of culture are obvious, but it is enough to go to some small town (and more than half of the population of Ukraine live in small towns), and you understand that it is not the case.  However, it is necessary to talk about this as much as possible, look for new channels of communication. Facebook and various Internet publications that write about culture are hardly known widely enough in small towns. It would have been great if we had public television that would create quality content about culture, illuminating it from new angles, instead of perpetuating the idea that it is merely entertainment.

Talking about the role of cultural and creative industries in general, it should be said that they are very important today. An undeniable fact is that they generate profit and create jobs. But even more important is their intangible component – stimulating sustainable, inclusive development. This sector promotes creativity in people, and this is essentially an unlimited global resource that carries emancipatory potential and can help to even eliminate social inequality. All that is needed is the creation of conditions in which this potential could flourish. The situation in Ukraine today is very complicated, and culture should be a national priority in such times. We can take the example of Europe, where culture this year was identified as the main soft weapon in the fight against the internal crisis, which should help overcome prejudices and bring back faith in a multicultural Europe. There is a war in our country and there are constant conflicts that are aggravated by ideologists and politicians. In this respect, quality education and culture are precisely what can provide a basis for the building of a healthy society.

— What are the main problems that you seein the international and Ukrainian cultural sector? Can they be resolved and how?

— Hmmm, it’s a difficult question… If we talk about Ukraine, firstly, the time is ripe to reform the Ministry of Culture, trade unions, and principles of funding cultural projects. It’s very important now to formulate a coherent action plan that stakeholders of the public and civil sectors would agree on, in order to reform the sector with joint efforts.

— In this context, it is worth mentioning that recently a team of Ukrainian cultural activists presented the Culture 2025 strategy. What do you think of this document? Why is a cultural strategy so important for Ukraine?

— The Culture 2025 development strategy is an excellent example of how an inclusive process of strategy planning and bottom-up lobbying can be built. The experts at Platform 2025 were able to mobilise cultural professionals and demonstrate that strategy doesn’t shouldn’t be adopted behind closed doors in government offices. The priorities are in harmony with the strategies of many European countries, but at the same time deeply rooted in the Ukrainian context and our internal situation. Now the main task is to engage in advocacy of the document to a broad audience.

— But let’s go back to Europe, which has lately been going through some difficult times. How can different types of crises impact the development of culture?

— Culture and art can respond to any crisis in one of two ways. The first is they become politicized and engaged, making their works a reflection of these political problems. The other way is distanced, focusing on abstraction, free creativity. It seems to me that now most cultural professionals understand their political import. The main thing is not to cater to some ideology, but to create a field for reflection, to engage society and together interpret all events through creativity.

Education and culture protect us from the risk of the return of totalitarian regimes, strengthening right-wing movements – the fear of their return is spreading like a wave across Europe. The Europeans have suffered a scare, it is difficult for them to move from an emotional perception of events to reasoned analysis. Hence the conflicts with migrants, the spread of xenophobia and other negative trends, which are observed in Europe at the present time. Therefore, cultural projects that can help people deal with psychological traumas and critically rethink this difficult experience are needed. 

 — Which Ukrainian cultural projects and initiatives inspire you? Which ones are really quality and promising?

— I’m generally inspired by the rebirth that can be observed in the cultural life of Ukraine, particularly in Kyiv, in the past few years. You have something to do every day, all you need is the energy to do it: this includes a full concert programme of contemporary Ukrainian music, non-formal education projects – Cultural Project lectures, educational programmes at Closer, etc. Among state institutions, I’m always interested in seeing what the National Art Museum and Dovzhenko Centre are doing.

I also get inspired by various projects in small towns, initiatives that are working there. What is needed now is to work on decentralisation in culture too, foster change in the regions. For example, we are now launching the Creative Town project. Traditionally cultural and creative industries are considered to be an urban phenomenon, since it is in big cities that the main cultural resources are concentrated. The aim of our Creative Town initiative is to identify the potential of cultural and creative industries in small towns, to study their cultural landscape and the tourism sector’s potential. In the near future, we will start selecting towns for participation in the programme. Independent experts from each country of the Eastern Partnership will select one town or one region where research and activities will be conducted aimed at developing the competencies of local activists.

— It’s true thatwhereas in Kyiv and other big cities of Ukraine the cultural sector is growing more or less actively, there is a real problem with this in the regions.How can culture be developed in the regions, what problems have to be overcome, and why is it important?

— It is necessary to implement as many cultural initiatives in small towns as possible. The main thing is to launch a wave of change, and then towns will begin to join themselves and initiate change from within. Fortunately, our Creative Town project is not an isolated case. In Ukraine, there is the EU COMUS programme, which develops new models for development of small historical towns in the Eastern Partnership region. In addition, the Plan Z project was successfully implemented in Zhmerynka. Experts who worked on the implementation of the project contacted city authorities, formed a group of local activists, mapped the city, organised various cultural initiatives – for example, an open-air film theatre was unveiled that screens cinema classics projected on the walls of city hall.

Another interesting project is Active Citizens of the British Council, where coaches travel around towns, gathering active citizens who want to learn and explore new practices and become agents of change.

— One of the features of culture in Ukraine is that it often exists in parallel or even in conflict with state policy. Why do you think this is so? How can culture professionals establish productive dialogue with the government?

— For a long time, the rules of the game have not changed at state level. The ministry continued to be engaged in the public sector – libraries, museums, different musical collectives, etc. that are subordinated to it and receive grant funding. Thus, the system has worked for a very long time, since the Soviet era. At the same time, over the past 20 years a strong independent cultural sector has developed, which is often more effective. And for a long time they existed in slightly parallel realities. In order to reform and stimulate the public sector, it is necessary to introduce competitive conditions in it, and it is nice to see that the Ministry is already ready for change.

I’ll repeat myself, dialogue between state, civil and private sectors is very important, but for this all the parties need to learn to listen and find common ground. It is necessary to overcome the crisis of trust and learn to work together. Only productive collaboration would allow moving changes in culture in the right direction. It will also be a positive signal to Europe that wants to see in Ukraine sustainable development and real change instead of permanent crisis and internal conflicts. Without a positive image of the cultural field it will generally be difficult for Ukrainian organisations to be competitive in the global cultural movement.

— What is, in your opinion, the cultural image of Ukraine in the world? How can it be improved?

— For many people abroad, Ukraine is still an exotic country. Usually we find ourselves in international news feeds as a result of disasters and revolutions. When Ukraine is mentioned, most people talk of the Revolution of Dignity, war, Chernobyl, and the less political would mention Chicken Kyiv. For most people on the map we are still lost and unsure. This is why it is important today to engage in cultural diplomacy, tell the whole world about the successes of Ukrainian music, design, technology, and the beauty of our cities.

— What projects or events do you have planned?What would you like to achieve in the near future?

— One of the important components of our Programme is conducting research in the sphere of cultural and creative industries and creating a database that would allow further implementation of policy decisions based on facts. We have currently launched a study of indicators of the impact of culture on development using UNESCO’s methodology, whose results in Ukraine should be presented in 2017. In addition, we start research of the state of development of cultural and creative industries in Eastern Partnership countries and one particular sector in each country. In Ukraine, it is tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

In addition, we continue to work with young cultural managers for whom we hold regular training sessions. In fall, we organised a series of workshops for cultural journalists. We will provide support for the Creative Europe Desk and carry out joint information events in various regions in Ukraine.

And since we understand that physically only a limited number of people can attend our training sessions, we devote a great deal of attention to online content. You can already take courses on our website about Creative Europe, strategic planning, secrets of writing project proposals, advocacy and many other useful topics.

The article was drawn up in cooperation with the EU-Eastern Partnership Culture and Creativity. 


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