From May 9th through 11th of 2007, the European Network of Cultural Centres (ENCC) staged the “Shortcut Europe 2007” conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. 85 participants from 13 European countries discussed the development, the perspectives and the challenges of the so-called “Experience Economy” for cultural centres.
The Danish ENCC member association Huse i Danmark (HiD) managed both the programming and the organisation of the entire event. The point of departure for the conference was a growing awareness for the ever-increasing role of business aspects in the evaluation and assessment of cultural activities. Moreover, cities and communalities are starting to recognise the financial value of local cultural life with an inclusive vision and development. The central problem under investigation at the “Shortcut Europe 2007” conference was the position of the cultural centres in this development and the overall conclusion reached was that cultural centres, given their focus on support and development of local projects in arts and culture, can have a fundamental and significant role within this development.
The paradigm and subsequent theoretical foundation for this rising debate is formed by the notion of the Experience Economy. This concept encompasses all non-material goods in the form of experiences for which consumers are prepared to spend money. The basis for this concept is the current prosperity. Our basic needs are satisfied; advanced technology has made our lives comfortable and expanded our life-span. Never before have consumers had so much time on their hands, and many of these consumers wish to spend this time in a ‘meaningful’ fashion. Albert Boswijk is the Director of the “European Centre for the Experience Economy” that was established in The Netherlands in 2001. He is convinced that the confluence and synergism of various factors result in a both permanent experience and a recollection that will provide our lives with purpose and the desired meaning. These factors are amongst others uniqueness, authenticity, emotional effect, increased concentration, the involvement of all senses, a change in the perception of time, a balance between challenge and capability, some thrill and a clear goal.
Flemming Madsen, the manager of the Danish consultant agency “Culture and Communication”, which has been successfully combining culture and the arts with business for over 10 years, has a similar view on things. It is his adamant intention to encourage cultural centres to actively control their destiny instead of subjecting themselves to budget cuts, and he sees a positive attitude towards the Experience Economy as the means to attaining such control. In Madsen’s opinion Experience Economy does not imply selling one’s soul or giving up one’s integrity, quite the contrary; Madsen argues that the search for sustainable experiences is a basic human need, a need that has always existed. The novelty of the current situation, however, resides in the exceptional proportion of daily life and the world economy of the 21st century taken up by the search for permanent and meaningful experience. Similarly to Boswijk, he sees the causes in the current prosperity, in the desire for individuality, a fading identity, in technological advance and in new opportunities for increased meaningfulness in the aforementioned non-material value.
Klaus Høm, formerly responsible for the administration of the 16 cultural centres of Copenhagen and currently director of the “Institute for the Blind and Partially Sighted in Denmark”, also proclaims that cultural centres should not shy away from private-business funding. His former mission was principally to change the image of the cultural centres in such a way as to attract private sponsorship. His goal consisted of generating political, public and media attention, and his means to attaining this goal were a conscientious documentation of the activities of the cultural centres in order to provide transparency for the decision makers, improvements in the management, a long-term image campaign and, last but not least, budget liability. This approach was designed to provide the cultural centres with legitimacy in the eyes of decision makers, sponsors, the media and the public. Høm’s approach turned out to be a success. Copenhagen’s cultural centres generated budget surpluses, public and private funding was increased and both public and media started perceiving the cultural centres more positively. Høm’s vision is to turn Copenhagen’s cultural centres into societal and cultural key players and in order to attain this goal he deems it necessary to reduce the cultural centres to a small number of large and extremely specialised centres as it is his opinion that only a large and specialised centre can successfully create a cultural splash.
Not only the conference attendees reacted to this strategy with criticism; Dr. Karen Lisa Goldschmidt Salamon, social anthropologist and private teacher at the Center for Design and Research at Denmark’s Design School, also came forth with an opinion that was critical of Høm’s view on things. Dr. Salamon’s work is mainly concerned with the social implications and the political economy of cultural products and cultural consumption. She pointed out that it was considerably easier to measure the effect and revenues of publicly effective big events and thus to market these events, than it is to measure the effects and revenues of long-term activities of the cultural sector at the grass-roots level, case in point being the cultural centres. Arguing that it is virtually impossible to quantify culture, Salamon sees cultural events designed for marketing and entertainment as threatening to higher culture. According to her, other determining factors in the debate are the current tendency to relate every political conflict to cultural differences, the fact that consumptive behaviour, taste and cultural habitus increasingly determine identity and cultural affiliation, and that our society is confronted with the question whether truly everything is for sale. According to Salamon, the Experience Economy has four main effects: one, we feel we are part of a myth or a larger community; two, our sense are stimulated and we are moved emotionally; three, we attain the ‘object of our desire’ (e.g. the book to a limited edition or a ticket to a one-time-only concert); and four, we are ‘members of a club’, providing us with social esteem.
But, what is the connection between the Experience Economy and the activities of the cultural centres? Is it merely a marketing strategy devised to convert culture into maximum cash flow? What is new about big (more or less cultural) events that are marketed so effectively as to generate revenue? In contrast to the definition of cultural and creative business provided by the cultural analyst Michael Söndermann, the concept Experience Economy extends beyond profit-oriented enterprises. However, the cultural centres may be frightened off by the fact that the key feature of the Experience Economy is success in the market. Although such a success is not rejected as such, it has never been a priority of the cultural centres, and success in the market has traditionally been seen as rather incompatible with social and cultural activity given that culture cannot and refuses to be measured according to the standards of marketability.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the fundamental principles of the Experience Economy have been part of the activities of the cultural centres ever since the beginning, be it without the existence of the name or concept, and therefore in absence of a debate on marketing strategy. The cultural centres could use the debate on the Experience Economy to take active part in the forming of the concept, and, from a positive perspective, improve the marketing and communication of their activities. Such a debate could lead to new creative and innovative ideas that could benefit the social and cultural sector as a whole and lead to additional income and funding in the mid-long run. With a conceptual definition of the Experience Economy fit to their specified goals and objectives, the cultural centres could constitute a group of actors capable of constructively providing this development with content, whilst protecting their own interests and ensuring the financing of their traditional structures, without adapting or changing their perceived identity. An outspoken participation in the debate may, not in the least, prevent an entirely market-oriented definition of the concept used as a foundation for an entirely market-oriented cultural policy and as a justification for the instrumentalisation of cultural activities of all kinds.
Project Coordinator of the ENCC