Workshop: ‘Social Inclusion’

online, 22-23/04/2021

An online workshop for academics and actors involved in cultural and cross-border projects was held on 22 and 23 April 2021. This was in the framework of the European Jean Monnet CECCUT network (, which analyses the European Capitals of Culture (ECoC) initiative as a tool for urban cohesion in cross-border spaces. The aim of the workshop sessions was to discuss the themes of social inclusion and culture in a (trans-)border context.

The actors who were brought together first of all put forward a number of suggestions for good practice related to the process of social inclusion through culture and from the perspective of overcoming urban and state borders. Culture is a central area that allows the most marginalized people from a generational, educational, professional, health or community point of view to be recognized and active within society. It is encouraged through particular exchanges, and the presence of networks of actors on a cross-border scale is a major condition to ensure the setting up of cultural projects aimed at audiences in difficulty. These networks are at the same time organizations of political and technical polyvalent governance, in line with the example of the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC). Examples include the Eurometropole Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai between France and Belgium, and Alzette Belval between Luxembourg and France. These structures can develop the function of bringing together vital forces within urban areas fractured by state borders. In some cases, they can even set up civil society groups that can make proposals concerning social inclusion, for example the civil forum of the Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai Eurometropolis. In addition, there are networks of cultural actors, such as cross-border partnerships involving libraries or collaboration between cultural centres, for example, that have been developed by the 12 Maisons Folie of Nord Pas-de-Calais in France and Wallonia in Belgium since 2004. These cross-border networks can help to deconstruct stereotypes associated with minorities, such as the Roma community, refugees and LGBTQ+ groups. Material networks are also reported to be essential actors in the cultural opening up of audiences in difficulty in cities. For example, in the Belgian border town of Quaregnon, near Mons, a motorway bridge has helped to bring peripheral audiences closer to cultural venues.

Second, it is apparent that the European Interreg funding programmes are major levers for encouraging the setting up of social inclusion projects through culture in a cross-border context. In this regard, a project of inclusion through the arts aimed at more than 200 young people with absent parents, suffering from disabilities, belonging to the Roma minority or associated with a poor background, was established within 12 municipalities of the cross-border region between Romania and Serbia near Timisoara. This project will be continued in the framework of the European Capitals of Culture ‘Timisoara 2023’. In this region, more individual initiatives are also being taken to link artists and populations located at the social and spatial margins. For example, every month a young artist from the Serbian city of Novi Sad is invited by the cultural centres created in the suburbs of the Romanian city of Timisoara.

The actors in the CECCUT workshop also wanted to emphasize the meaning given to social inclusion through culture. This inclusion can be understood as a process of active participation in the various artistic events, rather than simply as being present at works and live performances. Participation allows the social scope of people on the margins of society to be broadened. Moreover, this participation — whether active or more passive — requires a learning process. Through this process, there is a transfer of artistic skills, as well as know-how, knowledge of how to relate to others and the construction of greater self-confidence that can be put to use outside the world of the arts. Social inclusion through culture makes better social cohesion possible in its entirety, and gives full meaning to participatory democracy and cultural rights. Nevertheless, there is a potential difficulty that is added in a cross-border or multicultural context when we want to work towards this social cohesion: language. This was highlighted in particular by the cultural actors in the cross-border region of Gorizia/Nova Gorica between Italy and Slovenia, the future European Capital of Culture, Go! Cultural projects with a view to social inclusion must address this language issue. It can be a subject around which a project is built, as was the case, for example, during the European Capitals of Culture ‘Luxembourg-Grande Région’ in 2007, or even a cultural programme, such as in Latvia, where there is a large Russian community.

The workshop participants also stressed that the audiences for social inclusion through culture in urban and cross-border spaces are very diverse. Inclusion must be aimed at everyone, even if social inclusion means targeting certain audiences that do not have access to culture due to criteria such as age, disability or socio-economic situation. In addition, there is the territorial scale at which we wish to set up inclusion projects for these particular audiences. Target audiences are reached by bringing culture to their neighbourhoods, for example, in the case of the ‘Grand 8’ project in the framework of the European Capital of Culture Mons 2015, and in Timisoara, European Capital of Culture in 2023. The latter is a city in which several youth cultural centres had already been opened in the suburbs in 2019 with the support of the European Voluntary Service and the local population. Similar initiatives have been carried out in Esch-sur-Alzette (European Capital of Culture 2022) with the Nuit de la Culture, and in the French-Belgian Eurometropolis Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai with the ‘Next’ festival. However, as cultural actors like to say, we must not forget to get the public out of their neighbourhoods either. Social inclusion through culture depends to a large extent on mobility in the city to be able to access culture.

At the same time, the access to culture in the vicinity or in the wider urban space requires the presence of projects with accessible content. Sometimes, with a view to social inclusion if we want to reach a target audience that is distant from culture, we must leave room for improvisation and take particular care over the ‘playful’ dimension of a project, especially if we want to appeal to younger people, who are difficult to reach outside the compulsory school framework. Schoolchildren can also act as cultural ambassadors by bringing their parents along. For example, during the European Capital of Culture Lille 2004, schoolchildren were offered a free ticket to encourage them to come and see shows with their parents. The problems are of course very different if we want to reach older people. Their exclusion from the world of culture is linked to their lack of resources and often to mobility problems. We must therefore bring culture as close to their home as possible, and sometimes make the effort to increase the mobility at a very local scale, as was the case in Timisoara with the street arts festival. Further, the participation of the elderly in cultural projects can also be understood as a strategy to mobilize their memory in order to shed light on the history of the territories. An example of this is the ‘Firing Places’ project, linked to the rediscovery of the cross-border cultural region of Banat situated between Romania, Serbia and Hungary. Other audiences have limited access to culture because of their geographical distance and the extent of their working hours, such as farmers, who are not always thought of as cultural audiences on the urban fringes.

Measuring social inclusion through culture was the last theme addressed by the workshop participants. There is a general agreement that the evaluation of ‘inclusion’ needs to be based on common instruments among the different teams involved, especially in cross-border areas. These instruments are linked to objectives defined upstream, and based on a territorial diagnosis in terms of social inclusion. The indicators chosen may be quantitative (for example, the age, profile, frequency of participants and their preferences). These will then allow the definition of tailor-made activities. A European Capitals of Culture type of programme requires the coordinators to define a monitoring system. This monitoring can have a cross-border dimension when the capitals are based on projects that straddle state borders. Some territories have wanted to develop cross-border cultural observatories to identify the transformation of a territory under the effects of an ambitious policy. This was tried in Esch-sur-Alzette; however, it is not always easy, because the comparability of data on a cross-border scale causes issues when moving from one statistical source to another. In fact, it is above all in the medium and long term that changes can be truly appreciated, as was emphasized by the participants from Lille and Esch-sur-Alzette. Continuity in monitoring is therefore needed, once annual programmes such as the European Capitals of Culture come to an end. This requires the political will and financial means to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, for example, testimonies, expert opinions, sociological accounts, the collection of information other than narrative data such as sensory expression or artistic language, as highlighted by the Pollen Association, etc. This monitoring can be based on a sustainable network of artists. In some cases, such as in Quaregnon, near Mons, this monitoring is part of a strategy of citizen participation. Evaluation is then no longer simply a measurement of the results achieved, but an objective to be reached in order to ensure social inclusion through culture. Some very interesting evaluation frameworks have been proposed by UNESCO and by the Institute of Cultural Capital (University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University).