How the EU is helping to preserve Ukrainian culture during the war

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Culture © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European countries imposed a series of sanctions in an attempt to prevent Moscow from financing its aggression. But while sanctions strike at the heart of Russia’s war efforts, Mariya Gabriel believes culture can also be a powerful means of peace.

The European Commissioner for Culture said that she still had in mind the images of the Kyiv Classical Symphony Orchestra performing national composers and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the Ukrainian capital’s Independence Square a few weeks after the start of the war.

“The support is not limited to sanctions”, explains the Bulgarian national from her office in Berlaymont, the building which houses the headquarters of the European Commission. “Support can be very emotional, with interpersonal contact, and that’s what culture gives us in the most beautiful way. Culture is the most powerful tool for peace, source of inspiration and motivation in difficult times.

A group of musicians, a French horn player closest to the camera, plays from music stands in a square
Members of the Kyiv Classic Symphony Orchestra performed in Independence Square in Kyiv on March 9, 2022 © NurPhoto via Getty Images

She highlights concrete initiatives that show that Brussels provides support to Ukrainians in their country of origin and in exile, with “full flexibility” to make their stay more productive, such as targeted support and project funding for Ukrainians in as part of the Creative Europe Work programme. An EU cultural heritage center has launched Save the Ukraine Monuments, a project to digitize the country’s cultural heritage and safeguard this data.

Ukraine’s culture minister has even been present in person at meetings of her EU counterparts as a sign of Brussels’ willingness to help protect Ukrainian culture, she said: “What’s really important , is to express our full solidarity and to say that we are in regular dialogue.

Asked if some have questioned EU efforts to give Ukrainian artists the same access to opportunities and funding as those in member states, Gabriel said support for the country’s culture has been “spontaneous and positive”.

While the war in Ukraine is at the forefront of people’s minds, Covid cases are also rising across Europe and Gabriel, whose portfolio also includes innovation, research and youth, is still dealing with the consequences of difficult times for the European cultural sector. His own way of consuming culture changed during the early stages of the pandemic, such as shifting to virtual museum tours. But while rewarding, she also observed how cultural institutions had unequal access to resources to help them make the digital transition.

She says her experience and that of millions of Europeans during the pandemic has led to a better understanding among Brussels politicians of the importance of culture. Part of it was financial: Covid reminded Europeans of the importance of a sector that accounts for around 4% of EU gross domestic product, or €477 billion, and employs 8 million people, more than the automobile sector.

The EU seems to have put its money in its mouth. The bloc’s recovery and resilience funds are devoting 2% to culture, the equivalent of around 10 billion euros. Initiatives include the injection of 7.5 million euros into Belgium’s Palais des Beaux-Arts Bozar for a project involving digital content and a grant program for artists in the Czech Republic. The Creative Europe programme, which promotes cultural cooperation within the bloc, has seen its funding increase by 60% to 2.4 billion euros for the next few years.

“We are creating innovative labs to see how we can reach new audiences, how we can make culture more accessible to people,” says Gabriel. More recently – last month, in fact – the EU launched the Collaborative Cloud for Cultural Heritage for the preservation of European treasures. With a budget of 110 million euros, it is intended to bring together academics, conservators, archivists and curators and provide them with the technology needed to digitize artefacts, research works of art and document data. .

Only the head of a large bronze statue sticks out of a cone of white sandbags
In Odessa, Ukraine, a monument dedicated to the city’s founder, the Duke of Richelieu, was covered with sandbags to protect him from Russian invasion © Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Still, the biggest challenge in Gabriel’s eyes is educating artists about these programs and the potential money available to them. This is why it has intensified its influence in the capitals of the EU and beyond, visiting a European city every 15 days.

Beyond the pandemic and Covid, Gabriel says she has been keen to use culture as a tool for diplomacy with nations abroad. “My ambition has always been to put culture at the top of the European agenda. . . Culture is a real asset for our international relations,” she says, citing “cultural policy dialogues” with Korea, China and Japan. In these, Brussels shares its experiences on the impact of the pandemic on the cultural and creative sectors, the preservation of cultural heritage and more.

For her, the investment – ​​both financial and the time spent with cultural institutions and artists – is obviously worthwhile, even if political crises divert resources from her cause. “If we fail to tackle culture, we won’t be able to tackle some of the toughest issues for us as a society.”

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