Voices From The Floor: World Summit on Arts and Culture

By Kathy Rowland

(1600 words, 18-minute read)

Moments of disruption during the 7th World Summit on Arts and Culture 2016 revealed the contentious nature of Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century.


More than 300 delegates from around the world gathered at the 7th World Summit on Arts and Culture in Valetta, Malta, from 18 – 21 October 2016. Organised by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies (IFACAA) every three years, the Summit was attended by arts and cultural leaders from national and supra-national agencies. Wedged in between this dense directory of Very Important Artnocrats were several artists and arts groups, including Cambodia’s Arn Chorn-Pond (Living Arts Cambodia)  and Singapore’s Kok Heng Leun (Dramabox).

The Summit, themed At the Crossroads? Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century, explored the idea of cultural leadership within the arts and cultural sector. The theme also posed the bigger question of “how culture can or does, play a leadership role in driving positive societal change.”[1] Program Director Nina Obuljen (lately Minister of Culture, Croatia) had the unenviable job of serving these different masters in programming the Summit. Despite the presence of some strong speakers and many well-crafted discussion topics, gaps and imbalances were inevitable.

This tension, between a view of cultural leadership as an aspirational project – to be smarter, faster, to innovate, to monetize  – and the desire for cultural leadership which engages with political, social and cultural fault-lines was to animate many parallel sessions and main-stage Q&As in the course of the Summit.

Sarah Gardner, IFACCA's Executive Director, welcoming delegates.
Sarah Gardner, IFACCA’s Executive Director, welcoming delegates.

Befitting the appendage of ‘World’, speakers and moderators were drawn from Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Africa. However, representation is a different thing from parity. Many non-EU delegates felt that the Summit tipped in favour of Europe. This perception was perhaps aided by the palpable anxiety over Brexit, and endorsed by the choice of the Opening Keynote, Doris Pack, the Former Chair, European Parliament Committee on Culture and Education (Germany).

Ms Pack’s insights into the highest level of decision-making and power broking in the EU were interesting. Nonetheless, many felt that these models or strategies  were not always applicable in other parts of the world. When Ms Pack did expand beyond borders to discuss the EU’s cultural outreach program, it brought a sharp critique from playwright and ED of African Arts Institute, Mike Van Graan, who, during the Q&A, challenged it as yet another form of cultural imperialism. The floor erupted in applause.

It was to be the first in a series of disruptions, from the stage, and from the floor, that surfaced over the four-day Summit.

The 1st Panel Session posed the question “What are the issues that have brought us to the crossroads?” Executive Director of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Oussama Rifahi’s answer? “Where I come from, it’s not a crossroads, but a straight long road to hell!”. Here was a scorching dose of reality that cultural leadership is not an abstraction to be theorized over in the light of the refugee crisis, and other global flashpoints. Mr Rifahi called out the immorality of bombs falling on Syria even as “the price of Syrian contemporary art blossoms under the hammer of auction houses in Dubai and New York …”. It was a much-needed reminder of the commodification and consumerism prevalent in the creative industries (Ndebele art BMW anyone?).

Malta street art gets to the heart of the matter.
Malta street art gets to the heart of the matter.

Once again, the audience’s response was unambiguous. However, the moment of disruption was thwarted when the Chairperson of the USA’s National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Chu, followed immediately after. Hers was little more than a polished power-point presentation of the success stories of the NEA. In a particularly tone deaf moment, Ms. Chu extolled the qualities of glass blowing – strength, risk-taking, danger – which made it an effective form of therapy for US soldiers suffering from PTSD. The power of art therapy on the debilitating effect of PTSD is not to be sneered at. However, following on Mr Rifahis’ speech, the NEA’s presentation had the effect of amplifying the relationship between the US and the quagmire of war and destruction in the Middle East and elsewhere.

An intervention by Esther Anatolitis, Director of Regional Arts Victoria (who, btw, was killing it on Twitter) to redirect the panel back to Mr Rifahi’s call to action failed to get much traction. It is difficult to make last minute changes to carefully prepared presentations, but sticking to the script prevents real conversation. Standard conference structures are closed systems that replicate existing power relations: using these flaccid formats to probe systemic privilege and power could only end in frustration.

Another moment of disruption, one that Ms Obuljen and IFACAA must be commended for, was the choice of Arn Chorn-Pond, Founder of Cambodia Living Arts, as the Keynote Speaker on Day 2. Mr Chorn-Pond survived the Killing Fields to exact the best possible revenge: reconstructing the music and dance traditions the Khmer Rouge almost destroyed. Mr Chorn-Pond, and his Director Phloeun Prim, are examples of cultural leadership that build from the ground up, supported by the policy and funding networks of several IFACAA members.

His story was both an affirmation of the power of art, and a reminder that artists are particularly vulnerable in oppressed societies. Further, Mr Chorn-Pond’s presence staged a history and arts practice that was not fixed upon a Western, developed world framework at the Summit.

The audience was deeply moved by his emotional speech, giving Mr Chorn-Pond a standing ovation. This was a moment of catharsises for delegates in the Mediterranean Conference Centre.

Arn Chorn-Pond's Keynote Address left delegates "humbled, stunned".
Arn Chorn-Pond’s Keynote Address left delegates “humbled, stunned”.

It’s a tricky emotion, catharsis. Without in any way denying the relevance and power of the 2nd Keynote, it must be acknowledged that survivor narratives can become festishedized into a triumphalist discourse of good over evil. In the face of present conflicts and human rights atrocities (which the Summit failed to engage with in any sustained manner), there is a need to be wary of turning away from present failures to look towards past triumphs.

The final moment of disruption exposed the power imbalances between the different stakeholders. The Summit included a pop-up Creative Hub, where artists from different countries combined their resourcefulness to make art in dialogue with the Summit. The project had the air of an aside. (This is not a critique of the makeshift nature of the Creative Hub, which was purposeful and well executed.) The artists’ names and profiles were not included in the any publication we saw, nor were they on the Summit website (here for the full list). Delegates were introduced to the team in an awkward, stolen moment, between official Summit proceedings.

The Creative Hub produced several works, including one made up of mementoes from delegates, along with a video installation and an interactive game, dealing with coded and truncated modes of communication respectively. Yet, it appeared that real connectivity and communication between delegates and the artists failed to truly take off.

This revealed itself during the final session, moderated by Robert Palmer (UK). Mr Palmer began the session with a promise to break down the power lines and open up a conversation. When a member of the Creative Hub, Alexandra Paice (Malta), spoke, alluding to the said failure, Mr Palmer interrupted her mid-sentence, asking what her comment had to do with leadership. It was a condescension that lost him many in the audience. The answer was clear to the floor – it was the failure of leadership to engage with the very thing that sits at the heart of its work – artists and their art.

Once again, it was the floor that spoke truth to power. First, a delegate from Romania launched an epic take-down of Mr Palmer’s moderation. He chose not to reply or even acknowledge her critique. The gendered nature of the non-exchange did not go unnoticed. The final word went to Jo Verrent of Unlimited (UK) who defined leadership as taking the responsibility of recognizing one’s own privilege and engaging with others.

IFACCA’s member agencies serve important functions, including conceptualising big sky ideas, the painstaking formulation and implementation of laws and conventions, advocacy, funding, capacity building and research.

Tan Sri Norliza Rofli of Director General of JKKN, Malaysia, announcing that Malaysia will host the 2019 World Summit on Arts and Culture.
Tan Sri Norliza Rofli of Director General of JKKN, Malaysia, announcing that Malaysia will host the 2019 World Summit on Arts and Culture.

These agencies are often caught in the unenviable position of advocating for the arts to their political/funding masters, while also performing a disciplinary role in their interactions with art-makers. The relationship is not mono-directional or stable of course, for artists have their own stores of cultural capital. What is clear though is that the art-cultural ecosystem replicates wider geo-cultural, political and stakeholder imbalances rather than exist outside of them.

There was much talk about involving other sectors, such as agriculture, environment and technology in future summits.  What seems more urgent is to re-engage with diverse arts and culture stakeholders in ways that defy old patterns of power.

The  next World Summit on Arts and Culture will be hosted by Malaysia in 2019, the second time it will be held in Southeast Asia (it was hosted by Singapore in 2003). It presents an opportunity to heed the voices from the floor, and craft a Summit which engages robustly with  contemporary world currents, and with the art maker.


[1] “Introduction” by Sarah Gardner in Discussion Papers, 7th World Summit on Arts and Culture, Valletta, Malta 2016, p.5.

Kathy Rowland attended the 7th World Summit on Arts and Culture 2016 as part of an ASEAN Researchers Program, in collaboration with the Asia Europe Foundation and Griffith University, Australia. The program is funded by the Asia Europe Foundation.

About the author(s)

Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.

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