Iryna Vikyrchak: “Our cultural and creative institutions need to work in such a way that their success is not a lottery ticket, but rather thoroughly planned and prepared”

At the end of 2015, Ukraine joined the EU’s Creative Europe, which aims to support the cultural, creative and audiovisual sector. By early July of 2016 year, as a result of an open competition in which 59 candidates took part, culture manager Iryna Vikyrchak was appointed as head of the programme’s Ukraine Desk. Iryna Vikyrchak gave one of her first interviews in her new capacity within the framework of the special Culture Matters project.

I would first like to congratulate you on your appointment as head of the Creative Europe Ukraine Desk. Let’s start with a question about your professional background: so far you have been working with literary festivals, literary and publishing activities, and what else? 

I have been working in cultural management for seven years now. A big part of my experience is made up of literary festivals. I am familiar with all aspects of such projects: from the general organisation of festivals and creation of curatorial concepts to PR department work and the intricacies of book publishing.

I have also travelled a lot, attending international events, literary festivals both in Europe and beyond. Now, literary events are for me, in the most part, curatorial experience. In addition, while working on different projects, I had the opportunity to acquire fundraising experience. 

The event is not just your appointment to the post of head of Creative Europe Ukraine Desk, but also the establishment of the Ukraine Desk itself. What are the main goals of the programme, and what are the opportunities that it can offer to the cultural and creative sphere

On 19 November 2015, an agreement on Ukraine’s joining the Creative Europe programme was ratified. This programme covers all EU countries, three Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova) and the European Neighbourhood Policy countries. A total of 39 countries, including Ukraine. 

Creative Europe consists of two main sub-programmes: the Culture and Media sub-programmes. In addition, there are other opportunities too: support for literary translations, European platforms and networks, etc.

The Media sub-programme is a grants programme aimed at supporting the audiovisual sector. It offers Ukraine four areas of activity: education, festivals, access to markets and audience development.

Within the Culture sub-programme, there are two options for collaboration projects: small collaboration projects (up to EUR 200,000, which involve three partners), and big collaboration projects (up to EUR 2 million, which require a minimum of six partners from six countries). This is the main, basic structure of the programme. 

Ukraine joining Creative Europe is Ukraine joining Europe in the cultural sphere, cultural and creative industries. It is the first step in Ukraine’s joining Europe, and it has already been taken. Accepting us in this community means that Ukraine, for a symbolic fee of EUR 1 (usually countries pay quite a considerable contribution to join the programme, however, given the current situation in Ukraine, an exception was made), obtained the possibility to access many opportunities offered by Creative Europe.

Any legally established cultural organisation, which has existed for at least two years, and which has over the last two years been active in its area of activities, may apply to Creative Europe. This is not only a possibility to write and submit your project, but also an opportunity to take part in creating alliances with other European organisations to create the final product. Or the chance to join a network that already exists of European cultural institutions.

There is also an interesting opportunity for publishers – the programme supporting literary translations. It is possible to apply for translations between European languages, from European languages, especially those works that have been awarded literary prizes, including literary prizes of the European Union. It may be a project over the course of two or four years. I believe that on the Ukrainian side, this programme has the greatest chances today. 

What are the first steps that you will take in your work? What are the most important goals that you would like to achieve? 

Creative Europe national desks have two functions in any country: inform and advise on the opportunities offered by Creative Europe.
The first specific task of the desk and mine personally is to create an information platform in Ukrainian with available information about the opportunities offered by the programme. We are already working on creating such an Internet platform. 

Firstly, it will offer information in Ukraine about all the opportunities available to Ukrainian cultural operators in addition to reminders about deadlines.
A separate section will cover information about establishing cooperation, developing relations and joint projects between Ukrainian and European cultural projects. It is actually the most important step, to find partners there, in Europe, and establish relations with them, and later develop these relations and build up dialogue. The site of the national desk will also offer useful tips for cultural and creative institutions. Moreover, the desk’s pages will be created in social networks in the near future so that we can easily convey all the necessary information to our audience.

In addition, we will provide consultations on an individual basis, to help – I emphasise, help – Ukrainian organisations establish the necessary contacts with partners. We will also help with drafting applications for Creative Europe. 

Later this year we plan to hold two training seminars jointly with the Ministry of Culture. One of them will take place in late September in Dnipropetrovsk, and we will hold consultations within its framework to help the participants of one of the projects, whose deadline is soon after the seminar, to finalise their application. The second seminar, scheduled for November, will take place in Kyiv. During the event, we will present the results of a year of Ukraine’s participation in Creative Europe and set out plans for next year. Foreign experts, desk representatives from other countries, representatives of cultural institutions and grantees, who already have successful work experience and are willing to share it, will be invited to both seminars.

How would you describe the Ukrainian cultural and creative industries and assess their capacity, including as business areas?

Prior to Creative Europe, I was familiar with quite a wide range of Ukrainian creative and cultural institutions, and I had the opportunity of working with many of them. Of course, some areas are now newer to me than others. Presently, as the head of the Creative Europe Ukraine Desk, new acquaintances consist of joining the network of other national desks. This is literally a “social network” desk across Europe. 

It is also cooperation with Brussels – in particular, a meeting will be held in October for all heads of local desks. 

In fact, Ukrainian applicants face many challenges. Creative Europe is not the kind of format where all you have to do is sit at a computer and fill in an online application. It is not a form where you’re simply expected to provide answers to certain questions. It is a huge incentive to grow in every sense – as an institution, and in terms of developing your network of contacts. Participation in the programme for any applicant immediately means a move to international level.

It is also internal operation – from improving accounting skills to raising your level of foreign language proficiency. It is also advanced mobility – to develop both local as well as international collaborations, you have to travel a lot, travel for internships, learn, and invite partners to your organisation. Of course, this involves a completely different level of independence, and a completely different level of content quality. A different level of quality of those cultural products that will be created as a result of cooperation between Ukrainian and foreign cultural and creative institutions to reach the largest possible audience. Since communication with the audience is a very important aspect.

But an even more important aspect – and I believe that this is presumably the biggest problem for all Ukrainian organisations in all spheres – is strategic thinking and strategic planning skills. It is not simply skills that you need to develop, it is also a new approach to your work, when you’re not planning today for tomorrow, but rather take a considered, mature approach to your work in terms of planning strategies for your own development.

Thus, Creative Europe has every chance of becoming an accelerator of sorts of the high-quality growth of Ukrainian cultural and creative institutions?

Yes, definitely.

What kind of support do you think Ukrainian cultural and creative institutions need most? And what is currently most needed by Ukrainian cultural organisations from what Creative Europe has to offer? 

Actually everything that I have mentioned above is precisely what needs to be done. If you want to grow as an organisation, as a creative business, then the first thing you need to do is meet those criteria. 

Of course, the crudest and simplest of all opportunities offered by Creative Europe is financial support. This is what we in Ukraine unfortunately have problems with everywhere. It is the possibility to grow financially, and operate at a completely new level with new opportunities.

In addition, Creative Europe has an instrument called a “guarantee facility”. It is an instrument to enhance access of the cultural and creative sector to sources of funding by providing guarantees.

The second area that is most necessary for Ukrainian institutions: networking, network collaboration. On Creative Europe’s website, and on the official website of Creative Europe (or rather that of The Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency – by the way, this is the agency that receives the applications) there is a list of organisations that are looking for partners from different countries. This can also be used. 

Another opportunity that can and should be taken advantage of is distribution of your cultural product and reaching new audiences. Through the Ukraine Desk, our cultural and creative institutions will be able to get in contact with the desks of other countries and find partners for their projects. 

So Creative Europe can be called a tool of cultural diplomacy, through which Ukrainian cultural and creative institutions can represent not only their cultural product but also Ukraine in the world?

Of course. However, the issue here is not just creating projects in Ukraine and sending them to Europe, but rather the joint creation of projects.
One of the criteria that is important for Creative Europe is the creation of new values. And in this context Ukraine can offer Europe a great deal. From our situation, from our recent events, we can bring a great number of purely human values, and add our values to the European values that already exist.

And so improve Ukraine’s image on the international arena? 

Of course, this is precisely what cultural diplomacy is.

Among the types of support provided through Creative Europe, there is “promoting cultural policy reforms” and “promoting cooperation between public and private actors, between the government and society”. I would like to ask you to elaborate on these two areas, perhaps with some practical examples or cases.

I would like to focus first on the functions of Creative Europe. Because what this area of activity involves will automatically, like a “lift”, raise other issues. This function primarily includes international mobility. Secondly, it is audience development. Capacity building is also an important aspect.

What is “capacity building”? It is a transition to a digital format, i.e. reaching that audience that cannot physically get to the capital from small cities and towns, but can use the Internet or gain access to information.

It is also the transition of works of art into digital formats and storing the data. The mobility of works of art, ranging from paintings to plays and performances.

These too are new business models. That is everything that has not yet been presented in Europe and that which we can offer, new business models – this too is an integral part of a complex mechanism, which increases the overall muscle mass of the whole cultural and creative sector.

There are also other areas, for example, education. This includes organising various educational events: training, seminars, scenario workshops, etc. But all of this – including at the level of thinking – has to go beyond the borders of a single country, beyond the resources available at hand, beyond already existing solutions and mechanisms. It is about leaving your comfort zone and moving to a big international European level. 

This broadens your possibilities enormously. All this “muscle mass” can be grown within 2 to 3 years of systematic and consistent work, attending cultural forums, congresses, seminars, searching for partners, communication and implementation of new projects within these newly-created partnerships. Of course, all of this requires patience, consistency, daily work, energy and planning skills. Our cultural and creative institutions need to work in a way that their success is not a lottery ticket, but rather thoroughly planned and prepared. We all have to switch to thinking that we are building for the long-term.

What should the Ukrainian state do in order to accommodate all the changes that Creative Europe entails?

Firstly, put legislation in order. Since we presently have problems with that. Starting with the audiovisual sector and down to some basic things, for example, the fact that cultural institutions don’t have the right to carry out commercial activities. 

I have studied the experience of different countries, for example, Switzerland, where Literaturhaus, a three-storey building in the centre of Zurich, leases its ground floor to commercial stores, and makes from the rent payments nearly half of its budget, with the help of which the institution operates. They earn the other half from sales of admission tickets. The tickets cost about as much as a movie ticket, i.e. the viewer has a choice between a literary evening and going to the movie theatre. I think that there is another important challenge for Ukrainian cultural institutions: learn to earn from their own activities despite legislative shortcomings. 

What are, in your opinion, the functions of culture in the time of war? 

You know, when I hear this question I immediately think of Sarajevo under siege. It was during the siege that the period of cultural development took place in the city. In our case, as in any other, culture is a fundamentally important component of national security.

We lived through much manipulation relating to Ukrainian identity, questions of language. Maidan simply opened our eyes to the fact that the Ukrainian identity is not a Ukrainian in a vyshyvanka. It is also Crimean Tatars, Poles, Hungarians who live on the territory of Ukraine, but they are all Ukrainians, all of this is Ukraine. 

For national security, stable cultural development, strengthening the positions of cultural and creative industries, are very important issues both in the context of national security and the context of European integration. Europe has opened its doors to us with all our “baggage”, including our financial problems. We have been taken in, European organisations are completely open to us, for cooperation with Ukrainian cultural and creative institutions. And now we need to grab this opportunity. To use it with utmost efficiency. And I, as the head of the Creative Europe Ukraine Desk, am counting greatly on the activities of our institutions and their willingness to grow in spite of all the difficulties and the growing pains, which await us (and there will be quite a few). The more difficult the times, the more important it is to work. I hope that together will be able to grow and build a consistent, long-term development strategy.

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