by Venu Dhupa, Duncan Higgins and Kathleen O'Neill.
In 2009/10 the Arts Council of England's Cultural Leadership Programme, under Hilary Carty, had the foresight to support a project called EROS. This was based on the idea that the cultural sector needs to release its potential to shape international relations in a way that counters the current rampant nature of globalisation.
EROS brought together high level leaders from across sectors, including the cultural sector, to examine the challenges and opportunities of international working. Each of the participants were tasked with taking forward the outcomes within their own sectors or in partnership. Duncan Higgins (Artist, Professor, Nottingham Trent University and Professor at the Bergen Art School in Norway) and Venu Dhupa (Independent Cultural Consultant and former Director of Creative Development at Creative Scotland) took the idea of Conversations between Nations and started a series of think tanks under the overall title The Disintegration of the Persistence of Nations. Each think tank takes place in a different European location and has its own theme. There are associate partners who provide continuity but also invited guests.
Art Place and Social Imagination?
How can art play a significant part in constructing, questioning and negotiating particular ideas of social memory and the re-presentation of place identity today? This was explored through a series of presentations, organized, and hosted by the National Museum of Art and took place in a variety of venues. The think tank was to promote group discussions and the sharing of critical understanding relative to each participants' individual responses to the themes. In doing so it conditioned a wider questioning of art practice/s and how 'place' might be constructed, re-presented and aligned to active cultural and political narratives. This has led to building the participants' networks and practice based artistic work.
These pressing questions, very alive and vital in Lithuania, building an identity from the past, in the present and to the future, are seen as key parts of our wider and shared cultural concerns today. They also form a central theme to the three think tanks to date.
Kathleen O'Neill, a participant from Scotland gives her view of her time in Kaunas:
'The journey carried professional strangers to become companions and raised issues of their global role as artists. We learnt about each other's work at home and overseas, removed from our every-day working environments to enquire of ourselves and others, how we may collaborate at national and international level. Our Think Tank cultivated curiosity and expression by association with peers from other regional, national and international places and greatly encouraged us to discover more about ourselves through our meeting.
'Whoever we are, we live in a world where collective consciousness is paramount towards positive change and where allegiance at the interface of arts and culture is a growing necessity. Who are we to even contemplate that we may not grow our international networks and respect differences which simultaneously reveal human commonalities of struggle, achievement, purpose, grief and joy? How might we endeavor through our professional commonality, to bring a world holistically closer to peaceable educational, social and political solutions? These were the questions explored with artist guide Duncan Higgins. This theme was especially and beautifully traversed through discussion of his own recent and intimate works fuelled by the Solovky Islands of Northern Russia.
'In Kaunas overall, we explored issues that historically perplex nations and people worldwide, and focused on issues of social memory, considering inter-cultural connectivity. Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union on March 11th, 1990 and was the first Soviet republic to do so. This pressed questions of real and perceived histories, whilst building place from past to future. During our visit, roles and relations between artists, lecturers, curators, and artistic networks were explored. Together we reflected a breadth of perspective; different native peoples, representing a range of practice and arts media, yet seemingly with similar concerns.
'Benefits to engineer improved international creative collaboration and consciousness sit at the heart of these think tanks. Our hosts in Kaunas with outstanding welcome, exemplified good practice, organising visits to contemporary art and heritage venues with equal pride and detailed measure. This evidenced a willingness to embrace the widest possible cultural partnership and exposure. By contrast in Scotland we are commonly bound by silo organisational culture; heritage, academics and contemporary artists sitting most often widely apart in cultural planning arenas. Our Lithuanian hosts showed a liberalism and openness to creative approaches for joint working and offered our equal accessibility to heritage, and contemporary art through enthusiastic close working partnerships. This highlighted our Think Tank as a structure offered to us as a space for wider cooperation not only at international but national level.
'During September 2013 art as universal text will be explored as a central theme to the 9th Kaunas Biennale and these high standard events are greatly supported offering the potential for future international dialogue. Building opportunity for cooperation is evident in Kaunas, and the Meno Parkas Gallery we visited, (supporting artists formally represented by the Lithuanian Artists Union) in reference to relationships with the National Ciurlionis Art Museum, Kaunas Picture Gallery and Zilinskas Art Gallery, states in a recent publication1, 'cellular cooperation should be dominant, this way strengthening the position of all those institutions at an international level' When we met academics, curators and creative directors of museums, cellular cooperation evident, and the conceptual rather than geographical place of our commonalities was heightened.
'Think Tanks serve as a catalyst for change, bringing creative thinkers together to explore challenging issues and forge a sense of common ground. They present opportunities to explore emotional, physical and intellectual space, of our own and others. The visit to Kaunas also created a dedicated place for the sometimes ordinary to be addressed in an extraordinary way, enabling spontaneous dialogue between participants working within various realms of arts and cultural work. Travelling far to sit together, it may be said, brought us, our common interests and our global responsibility closer.
'Kaunas inspired new relationships between people from the UK and Lithuania with potential to build innovative cross country collaboration. From my perspective, the voice of Lithuanian artists and curators reflected questions currently being raised in the south of Scotland; in Dumfries and Galloway, artists are creating by timely economic and social necessity, new ways of communicating with local and national governance of the arts, taking sector lead in improvements towards community building, health, education and cultural economic opportunity. Their voice and dynamic, through invention of new practice for Scotland echoes conversation between Lithuanian artists. In both places, creative people similarly attempt ways, yet from very different historical contexts, to amass routes towards cooperative communications and 'cellular-like' artist support systems.
'Artists don't live by fixed conceptual boundaries and neither should we impair cultural growth by reinforcing geographical borders. Creative Think Tanks sculpt ingenuity and amass a sense of comradeship face to face, in an otherwise isolating profession. Joint working through international 'critical and supportive' networks is paramount to individual, national and international progress.
Whilst professional political and social circumstantial contexts varied broadly in our international group, our heritage and learnt methodologies through which to create, produce and benefit from arts product, remind us that life is transient and in a short stay on a large Earth we might better recognise how working collectively through cultural collaboration and exchange can impact on quality of life for all. Towards the end of his life in 1909 Mikalojus Ciurlionis, an internationally renowned Lithuanian visual artist and composer, painted Rex. We were able to see his work in the permanent exhibition at the National Ciurlionis Art Museum in Kaunas. This image, now lodged in my mind depicts shared generic memory; journeying, experience, values, yesterdays and hope for tomorrow. It is as if Ciurlionis reminds us the globe sits in our hands to dismantle boundary distinctions and nurture internationally collaborative futures by expansion of attitudes to connect us.
'Kaunas presented as inspired and inspiring to include tales of Dogu Bankov and food from recipes of Agnes Schaunegger. Many thanks are owed to our generous hosts, especially, Osvaldas Daugelis, Director of Musuems, Egle Komkaite-Baltusnikiene, Deputy Director of Museums, and our artist guide Goran Ohldieck, all of whom provided excellent arrangements for our hospitality and a most welcome invitation to return. I look forward to our next meeting, in time and place in common.'
The partners for the Kaunas gathering were: M.K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art, Kaunas, Lithuania, Creative Scotland and Nottingham Trent University School of Art and Design, UK.
1. Menos Parkas Galerija 1997-2012