Culture Summit Abu Dhabi laid out what the future holds for the culture sector: 'There's a growing sense of urgency'

The consensus is that it will get worse before it gets better

The reopening of the Louve Abu Dhabi in June 2020 is sign of Abu Dhabi's global cultural engagement amid the pandemic. Unsplash
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It's time to reboot, re-strategise and re-engage.

This was just one of the many messages that emerged from the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, which concluded on Wednesday.

The annual event, organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, brings together global experts in the fields of design, heritage, media, public policy, technology and business for a series of speeches, panel discussions, case studies, artist talks and performances. This year, it was held online.

While the sessions were as rich as they were varied, the shadow of the pandemic hovered over many of the discussions, as thought leaders and policy experts charted a course to sustain and rejuvenate global culture and creative industries during these uncertain times.

Here are a few of the key takeaways from these discussions:

Digital solutions will remain

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a number of cultural institutions around the world to rethink how they engage with their communities. For the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, this meant a revitalised focus on the digital front.

“We had to reformulate our priorities to support our artists and our industries,” Reem Fadda, the foundation's director, said during a panel discussion on Wednesday. “We have had to reroute funding to make sure that we persist their livelihood, as well as our built infrastructure and community.”

Reem Fadda of the Cultural Foundation. Sofia Dadourian
Reem Fadda of the Cultural Foundation. Sofia Dadourian

As the foundation’s physical location in Al Hosn closed between March and July 2020 – keeping in line with the government-mandated restrictions to help stem the virus’s spread – Fadda said the institution began to think of other ways to meet the present needs of the community.

“Our communities demanded digitisation and [they] were hungry,” she said. “They wanted our support, the children needed an outlet. The families required to see something, hear music and we wanted to oblige.”

The foundation began meeting those needs by hosting a series of online music performances. It also collaborated with a number of other cultural institutions in the emirate to offer a range of online workshops, including classes in oud mastery, calligraphy and embroidery.

It also ensured its children’s library was accessible, even in the thick of the pandemic. “We immediately created an online library through resources like Scholastic publishing ... Now we created a resource that is impeccable and available for all children and families and schools for free.”

As a result of this concentrated push towards digitisation, Fadda said the foundation suddenly found itself visible to a larger audience, catering to a wider regional and even global framework.

“This is truly something that has become a legacy for the institution."

The role of the cultural economy in post-crisis recovery

In the face of economic crises, the cultural economy and creative industries should not be left behind. That was the message by panelists in the session titled “What role can the cultural economy and the creative industries play for urban recovery?”.

Sameh Wahba, global director of Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice at The World Bank, argued that culture’s contribution to the economy is not just measurable in terms of numbers, but also in its effect on civil society.

Cultural economy and creative industries are critical for job creation

In a post-crisis response, such as recovery after a disaster, war or even in our present moment of dealing with a pandemic, culture becomes "the glue" that binds communities.

"Cultural economy and creative industries are critical for job creation," he said, pointing out that the global cultural economy of $4.3 trillion "creates the most jobs for youth and for women, so it is also an empowering force from a gender perspective".

Catherine Cullen, special adviser on culture in Sustainable Cities at United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), said that governments should recognise culture as a "driver and enabler of sustainable development" and pass policies that enable the creative industries to thrive.

Since most players in the cultural economy operate as small to medium businesses, the government can help by promoting residencies, innovation hubs and incubators, as well as micro-grants and sponsorship programmes for creative practitioners.

Hilmar Farid, the director general of culture at Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture, shared the country’s economy shift from one that was reliant on natural resources, such as oil, gas and coal mining, to one that cultivated cultural resources, including aspects of traditional music, dance and craft. This includes fostering the performing arts, which can appeal to the local population and tourists.

The most important way to forge a stronger cultural economy, Farid said, is for governments to ensure that public’s concerns are met. “Civil society groups and artists need to be part of the decision-making process. Let the community of artists and practitioners take the lead. The government should play a facilitating role.”

Cullen also urged local governments not to overlook the role of culture towards a city's development and continue to establish programmes that help creative industries.

She said that the “continuation of an active cultural life” is vital for the economic and social well-being of cities. “In this crisis, people have turned to culture to create meaning, to show solidarity and to boost general morale … Culture needs to be consolidated as the ‘fourth pillar of sustainable development’”.

It will be get worse before it gets better

In the summit's final session, a high-powered panel – including Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, and Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, Unesco assistant director-general for culture – offered different views on how to move forward, but the consensus is that the sector is facing serious challenges ahead.

Tim Marlow, director of the Design Museum in London, explained it in stark terms. "We need to acknowledge that substantial cultural institutions will go under in the next two years and a lot of creative individuals will find it very hard to make a living and to pursue their creative ambitions," he said.

We should always aim to keep speaking to the broader world

"While I am naturally optimistic and I think that there's a growing sense of urgency before and now only accelerated by Covid-19, we do have to face the fact there is still catastrophe in all parts of the world, particularly in the Global South, that we need to watch for and culture will be the victim of that."

To stem the losses, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao director general Juan Ignacio Vidarte called for institutions to avoid insularity and foster wider collaborations to create projects that resonate universally.

"It is important that the roots of our institutions should be firmly grounded in the place and time where it belongs,” he said. “But having said that, we should avoid the risk of treating local audiences’ expectations as less ambitious as the international public. We should always aim to keep speaking to the broader world.”

Through Louvre Abu Dhabi and May's Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Al Mubarak said the capital will continue to be part of that conversation.

More information is available on the website and sessions from previous events can be viewed at the summit’s YouTube page.