"Culture has tremendous potential to create change."
At the Global Creative Leadership Summit last week, cultural leaders from around the world discussed the immensely positive impact of art and culture on economic and social development.
“There was enough money for beer and cigarettes,” said painter Alex Katz, describing the New York art world in the 1950s today at the Global Creative Leadership Summit. “I became a painter to go into a fugitive world.” Sixty years later, culture has become a central, highly visible part of society, seen by many leaders as a tool with the potential to create positive economic and political change. Members of that establishment met as part of a panel discussion entitled “Culture Beyond Borders” at the summit, which was organized by the Louise Blouin Foundation and the United Nations Office for Partnerships, to discuss the roles that culture can have in an increasingly connected world.
A recurring topic of discussion throughout the meeting was how the “Bilbao Effect” — Guggenheim Bilbao’s success in revitalizing its home city — has ushered in a new way of thinking about the use of art and culture. As Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the museum’s director-general, noted, “Twenty years ago, just the idea of using culture for other goals was an anathema.” Now, artistic institutions are seen as an integral — even essential — part of any development project.
Lisa Dennison, chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America operations and a former colleague of Vidarte, when she served as director of the Guggenheim Museum’s New York branch, noted that the big news at the Venice Biennale this year was that the United Arab Emirates had become involved. The number of players is increasing. She recounted that a few years ago a Bilbao taxi driver had once excitedly informed her that the first Asian tourist had arrived in the city. Quickly, that has become commonplace.
Vidarte noted, however, the dangerous tensions that can develop when governments become involved in the arts: Creativity can be dampened or government officials can have too much power over artistic products. Increased attention and financial backing for artists can lead to tricky political arrangements.
Louise Blouin, who is also CEO of ARTINFO's parent company, Louise Blouin Media, also emphasized that the transition into a world that is more closely linked is unlikely to occur seamlessly. “As globalization bring us together,” she said, “it creates friction.” Connectedness does not necessarily breed civility. Artist Jorge Pardo also pointed out that the globalization that seems so pervasive actually involves only a minority of the world’s people. “Eighty percent of the world doesn’t have access to this kind of exchange,” he said.
Echoing Blouin and Pardo, designer Bruce Mau, who received the summit's Global Creative Leadership Award yesterday, discussed how unpredictable culture's effects can be. "There are forces now that are flipping our cultures inside out,” he said, striking an optimistic tone. He urged people to embrace and participate in these changes, saying, "This is the only way we can solve the problems we have." Suddenly confronted with the world, he added, “you see what you have yourself."
All seemed to agree that culture has tremendous potential to create change, though it is difficult to discern how exactly it will function. It is not a precise tool. As Katz put it, “Some culture travels very gracefully; some doesn’t travel. Jerry Lewis travels to France. He doesn’t travel to New York too well.”
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