For the past three days I have been attending the 2014 Edinburgh International Culture Summit, “Culture – A Currency of Trust” at the Scottish Parliament. I left the summit this morning feeling both a sense of loss (that the community that had evolved throughout the summit’s duration was disbanding) and a sense of hope and purpose.
Convened by Sir Jonathan Mills, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, in partnership with the Scottish and UK Governments, the Scottish Parliament and the British Council, the summit sought ‘to emphasise the importance of artistic exchange in a world that is increasingly complex and multi-lateral.’ Its delegates included Ministers of Culture and Municipal Mayors from across the world, key international arts funders, leading performance and visual arts producers, directors, curators, artists, journalists, arts consultants and academics.
The summit set itself three key topics for consideration: ‘Values and Measurements’, ‘Cities and Culture’ and ‘Advocacy and Identity’. These were explored via public plenary sessions where short ‘mission’ keynotes were delivered by inspiring and provocative speakers including Simon Anholt, Robyn Archer, Benjamin Barber, Paul Carter, Nandi Mandela, Michael Power, Saskia Sassen and Ea Sola. These were interspersed with private policy discussions following the same themes, in which delegates were encouraged to develop practical solutions to universal challenges. I chaired a session on Advocacy and Identity, where discussion focused on the need for integrity and education in the production of cultural work and an acknowledgment of the diverse contexts in which the formation of cultural identities emerge.
At the plenary session, in their summing up of the various strands of discussion, Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican, reflected a consensus that our unthinking ‘audit society’ is leading us down a dead-end and that compelling stories, emotion and creativity, communication and a directed use of big-data might just break the deadlock. Shona McCarthy, CEO of the UK’s City of Culture 2013 brought our attention to the troubling idea of the ‘uncreative city’ and, evoking Saskia Sassen’s notion of the city as ‘event’ called for the positive aspects of ‘festival’ to be integrated across all aspects of urban life as standard. Louise Richardson, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of St Andrews eloquently identified education as the crucial cog that drives the relationship between identity and cultural advocacy and left us with the memorable observation that ‘it’s not the economy stupid: it’s the culture genius.’
All delegates seemed to be in agreement that future events should involve Finance Ministers and funders and that the idea of culture should be embedded across all the activities of governments, not siloed. In response, philosopher artist Paul Carter demanded that ‘it is time for the old muses to be upskilled.’ As the quality that makes us human and inspires trust and mistrust in equal measure, culture is a more precious currency by far than money, and one whose power has yet to be fully applied. As we heard closing entreaties from the Ministers of Ukraine and Iraq, those thoughts took on a profound meaning.