Memo February 2010


A memo sent to correspondents, friends and acquaintances of the Budapest Observatory (BO) in February 2010

Heavy loading for a short month.


The European Commission commissioned empirica to do a mapping of cultural websites in Europe (not really: only the EU members and their closest relatives were included). The idea is great, the report substantial, findings interesting. Just to think that about fifteen years ago the concept of cultural website hardly existed.

BO is pleased. Yet disagrees with the main conclusion that calls for a “one stop shop approach providing a central access point to the multitude and comprehensive information offers and different types of services already available on the internet for all cultural disciplines.”

The virtual world develops in unpredictable ways. A suprastate megaproject can only fail in trying to govern the scene. Smart and quick businesses end up being devoured by even smarter and more aggressive businesses – or are just swept away by the next Web 2.0 wave.

empirica and party apparently echoed what they read in the terms of reference: “how cross-border and cross-sector debate on European culture and the European project can be stimulated online in order to help the further development of a common European cultural area for those interested in European culture… this would help to stimulate intercultural dialogue and develop mutual understanding…”  

The survey identified some excellent sites with lively action. They need not be “stimulated” by either creating a powerful rival or by channeling them into a super-portal. You may agree or disagree – and can argue either way on 19 March in Brussels.

Proof for or against?

BO began as an early fan of Europeana, a supporter later on. Recent visits, however, seem to confirm the suppressed worries: Europeana is clumsier and more uneven than those giants that it is supposed to compete with. Since it is not a real unified database, it leads to sources that are very different in style and content, often need repeated login etc. Best suited for devoted and patient scholars.  

Proof for

The Culturemap survey did not cover the Compendium site. True, this latter only partly aspires to being an interactive community site. Yet what it offers, offers well. I mean the – for BO – central feature, the collection of national cultural policy profiles. Especially the rendering. Once you get inside any of the “profiles”, you quickly find your way by switching back and forth, up and down.

Good technique. What about content? The description of public cultural systems (that includes lists of dozens of legislation items) is increasingly peppered with comments and opiniated remarks – something that the new common designation of Watch suggests. You can capture this new dynamism of Compendium if from inside any country profile you click on the Profile Updates on the left. From our region, find latest developments (or setbacks) in cultural life in Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Macedonia, Poland, Serbia and Ukraine.

If you expect something similar from the sister site in the CultureWatchEurope family, you will find the collection of heritage country profiles inferior to Compendium in every respect

Cultural profile of the USA

An American non-governmental organisation has been pulling together all conceivable and available statistics on various aspects of culture in the USA for over four years. (The data cover eleven years between 1998-2008.) Findings were disclosed in January. The 76 indicators include attendance figures, employment statistics, cultural industries output data (e.g. music merchants’ report on the sales of instruments) etc.

Good news first. What they call capacity indicators, are on the rise. The share of people making a living of culture – measured in various ways – has been increasing. The number of non-profit cultural organisations shows rapid growth: a new one is created every three hours. The proportion of Americans doing culture (photography, ceramics, music etc.) also grows, approaching 20% of the population. Similarly, share of personal consumption spent on culture has grown to 1.83% in 2008.

The other side

Bad news are more. Attendance figures are in a decline: 6% down at pop music events and 13% at art museums between 2003-2008. Many groups have financial problems and seek new ways to experience culture, including the Internet. Whether due to shrinking attendance or not, funding from foundations and businesses went down. While in 1998 culture represented 14.8 and 10.3% from these two sources, its respective share in 2007 was 10.6 and a miserable 4.6% only. It will take a lot of efforts to regain the competitiveness of culture against other uses of audience members’ time, donor and funder commitment.

The authors of the exercise created several combined indices, including an overall National Arts Index, which stood about 5% lower in 2008 than eleven years earlier.

(Non-native speakers find the American and British aversion from the word culture strange. This report uses arts even in contexts like “arts organizations include museums as well as design, architecture, and publishing companies”. At best they say arts and culture, which for many of us sounds like apple and fruit.)

Danube Strategy coming

BO attended a conference on the Danube Strategy. How to concoct a device with so few preliminary clues – that was the recurrent dilemma in the section that sought opportunities to incorporate culture into the process. Will clever projects amalgamate into a strategy?

You may take a closer look at the ascending scheme – may even touch it. A public consultation is going on till mid-April. Submit suggestions about joint cultural action in the Danube region, keeping an eye on the broad aims of the future strategy, such as “reinforcing the potential for socio-economical development”. (Involve BO, if appropriate.) Remember, no central funding is promised – but a favourably received project has chances elsewhere.

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