The role of culture in building cohesive societies in Europe

  • Insights
  • 21/11/2017 19:02

Education, Youth, Culture and Sports Council (EYCS)


Helen Sildna at the Education, Youth, Culture and Sports Council in Brussels
Today Helen Sildna, the founder of Tallinn Music Week, gave an inspirational speech at the Education, Youth, Culture and Sports Council in Brussels (photo: Estonian Ministry of Culture)

Inspirational speech by Helen Sildna, the founder of Tallinn Music Week, delivered on 21 November 2017 at the the meeting of the Education, Youth, Culture and Sports Council in Brussels.

Ladies and gentlemen, honourable ministers, Commissioner,

As a firm believer in the transformational power of the culture and creative sector it is my honour, privilege and responsibility to speak to you today. 

I will be speaking of culture and the creative industries, together, as they are intrinsically linked to each other – from the uncompromising artistic self-expression to being a measurable slice in the world economy. So, I am a firm believer in the transformational power of the combination of these two, because I’ve seen it work. 

I am an activist, idealist, humanist, entrepreneur and festival organiser. I run a private business, I am not in politics, but I have always had dreams and ideas for my country, for Europe and the global community. I am a dreamer, a doer and a fixer. 

I was born in 1978 in a small Estonian corner of a big place called the USSR. Then, in the late 1980s, came the Singing Revolution. Pop culture and rock’n’roll spirit triggered a peaceful yet confident resistance to the communist regime. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered without a single Facebook event. These were largely musicians, composers, writers, painters, architects, poets and actors, who stood right at the forefront of the movement that reshaped our countries, soon to be re-integrated into the European community. 

Today, merely 26 years later, Estonia is a digital society that boasts e-governance and a thriving tech scene. I feel privileged to be part of a generation who has witnessed such rapid change, as change is surely what we need to get used to as a constant.

It has taken me a decade to figure out my own responsibility and a way to contribute though.

In 2009 me and a group of friends started Tallinn Music Week. It was designed as a showcase festival and a place for the music industry to connect, discover new talent and kick off exports. Through the years we started witnessing results for our artist community. From the start, our goal was to create more opportunities for more. This was a method we had seen succeed in the Nordic countries that we could learn from.

In 2015, as the refugee crisis broke out, we had a moment of realisation – being a tool for music exports and internationalisation, it was about time to acknowledge that working internationally was a two-way street. There wasn’t much we could do, but at least raise awareness and perhaps avoid unnecessary stereotyping. We made a special effort to include artists from Syria, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East. We facilitated exchange, we did our best to introduce the complicated topic of the crisis through talent, cultural diversity and an open debate. We wanted to show our support to artists and individuals whose countries were affected by the consequences of war and conflict.

In September 2015, the Friendly Estonia initiative was launched, following the We have a Dream movement in Finland – a large concert and a communication project of artists, individuals and around 20 private companies – to make a bold statement – in support of an open an inclusive society. 

In 2017, we launched a joint initiative together with the Estonian Ministry of the Environment to promote the Sustainable Development Goals as part of our festival. 

These are just examples and proof that a festival can go beyond the obvious, but still maintain relevance in their sector.

We are interested in a holistic vision of the entire society. A society based on openness, inclusion, innovation, courage, equal opportunities and sustainability. We have also realised that when you have a megaphone and tons of followers – you also have a responsibility. 

Once you learn something like this, you cannot go back.

So on our 10th anniversary year we are embarking on a new initiative. 

You may have heard of Narva. The largest EU border city, right next to Russia. An Estonian town with a 96% Russian-speaking population.

Thanks to recent initiatives of Narva City Hall, the Estonian Ministry of Culture, the creative community, and many European diplomatic missions, we are starting to witness a transformation. Narva, once a source of scaremongering headlines of a gloomy industrial town at the border of Russia, could soon be a hub of European and global collaboration. 

After 10 years of working in Tallinn, we will next year take our festival format to Narva to serve the city and the local communities by showing motivation and creating opportunities. 

Transforming regions and making structural changes in our communities will take a snowball effect of diverse competences and resources. As the story of Tallinn Music Week proves, it can well be the creative sector, who will bring together arts, education, business, technology, social, environmental and international affairs – to make an impact. 

So where do we stand? 

Being an European citizen is something I hold dear and take pride in. So do my friends and colleagues from the creative sector across the EU. 

Many talented people across the European creative community have come to our attention because of well-crafted EU programmes. Creative Europe is an excellent example. Networks, artist mobility programmes, capacity-building and collaboration platforms – Europe has done well in fostering cross border collaboration and these programmes have been crucial to the development of the sector. 

But as challenges grow bigger, we all must continuously ask ourselves – are the methods we work by enough or can we do better?

The European creative community is diverse. I witness energy and drive to make change in the society, I hear people in deep discussions on meaningful contributions, I see organisations investing time and resources in charity projects, driven by a sense of purpose and social responsibility. 

At the same time I also see organisations in their comfort zones, working to maintain their status quo. I see a vast territory of a cultural market space, reserved for institutions and little or even no room for innovation and the new ideas.

The biggest obstacle for innovation and change is protectionism. The comfort zone of wanting to keep everything the same as it has always been. We all know how strong the pressure is to do so. 

The threshold for entering the creative scene is very high. And this does not make us inclusive. 

How do we change that? Empowering the small    

Being born in a country of 1.3 million people, one is used to taking size into consideration. Small is a paradox. It can mean weakness and an obstacle or it can mean an opportunity to make a difference with limited means, but with relentless focus. 

Lets learn from Björk, an artist from tiny Iceland who made it on a global scale, and from Malala who, at an early age and from her humble background in Pakistan, achieved the Nobel prize campaigning for the girls' right to education, and closer to my home, let's think how Estonia rapidly grew into a leading digital and tech nation. 

Could Europe be an innovation hub, a demo area for the brightest and the most novel solutions, driven by our talent and how do we achieve this

We can take pride in programmes that work and bring results. 

Besides the obvious – more efficiency, transparency, equal opportunities and impact-oriented thinking – I think we need to create space

Yes, we consciously need to create space. A safe, judgement-free environment of trust, empathy and opportunity, where smallest and craziest ideas can grow. This is something that the startup sector investors would probably tell you – the best ideas and innovation come from the smallest, unestablished initiatives.

The safe space can be created in form of creative hubs, pilot projects, new collaborations, outreach projects, community projects. These would be deliberate try-out zones where failure is accepted, people empowered and ideas developed. 

We need to lower the threshold of being part of the creative community

If we say inclusive – we should think how

If we say opportunities – we should really mean everyone, including the minorities, and those with special needs.

If we want to make this happen, we also need space reserved, defined and protected in our strategies and our budgets. We could perhaps look at it as seed money for cultural sector innovation? There are things to learn from the startup sector, just that the benefit will most likely be a spillover effect for the whole society. 

So the question is – who will invest

There are no 100% guarantees to anything, but we need more courage and willingness to risk. We need to foster a belief that the best idea can really and truly come from anywhere, protected by the principle of the equal opportunities. 

And as I am speaking of diversity, I would like to mention how we changed our approach in 2015 to aim at 50% of all speakers at Tallinn Music Week are women – to achieve gender balance. I would like to see the European creative community to confidently stand up to empower women and to champion gender equality. We do need more women in leading positions, we also need equal pay.

So what shall we conclude?

Arts, culture and creativity play an important role in fostering an understanding that all forms of diversity – both cultural, but also gender diversity is a form of rich self-expression, uniqueness, an added value and an opportunity to our societies.

Culture and the creative sector can and should be drivers of change in Europe. We consciously need to incentivise the type of change we want

The cultural policy tools and funding mechanisms need to reflect and encourage the cultural sector to take bigger responsibilities in the society than ever before, but they also need to systematically support the new and the small – the innovation.

And we, the players in the sector need to learn something too – to be a credible partners for society, we need to upgrade our competences and skills and we need to put ourselves in the context of the bigger picture. More collaboration and less fear of competition.

Because the real challenges in the world are not going away and they are migration, an aging population, automation and an urgent need to learn new jobs and acquire new skills, and then the big one – climate change.

We are on a verge of transformation. We know that change is never convenient. There are challenges to overcome. But I have seen it with my own eyes – the creative sector can help our societies to heal and to grow. Culture can create a safe space for the small and thus be inclusive. 

So I wish us all luck, determination, resilience, empathy and an open heart – let's prepare ourselves, the creative sector, for the biggest responsibility in the society than ever before.