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UCCN kicked off in Braga on July 1
UCCN kicked off in Braga on July 1 Copyright UCCN
Copyright UCCN

'I'm a believer' says UN chief as Media Cities network lights up Braga

By Jez Fielder
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Teeming with artists and energy, the XVI annual UCCN conference seeks to improve cultural life across the globe. But did you know it existed?

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For believers in the power of culture, the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) initiative might be the most exiting thing they've never heard of.

It sounds like a simple enough idea. Connecting cities through mutual interests in culture. Dialogue is encouraged. Artists share ideas across borders. One city's success can inspire another's. That's broadly the mission. But it's complicated.

The network was established in 2004 to foster international cooperation and use culture and creativity as a driver for sustainable urban development. Since Edinburgh kicked off the programme in 2004 as a City of Literature, the UCCN has grown enormously to 350 cities in more than 100 countries. Cities that identify a form of creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development are invited to apply. But once in, what transformation realistically takes place?

Leveraging UNESCO recognition

Fundamentally, cities that become part of this expanding network are able to access best practices and even leverage their UN-recognised status to increase their lobbying power. At best this could result in funding for the cultural pillar they represent. The areas are: Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts, and Music. The implementation on policy at local government level is the all-important city mayor, and this is where UCCN has targeted its efforts.

"Mayors around the world are in charge of the implementation of public policy at local level," says UNESCO Assistant Secretary-General Ernesto Ottone after launching proceedings for the XVI Annual Conference in Braga.

"When you gather 350 mayors of big, small or middle-sized cities, you are approaching all the communities that are around. So you are opening the dialogue on how important culture is for sustainable development."

Ernesto Ottone addresses the UCCN conference. Braga. July 2, 2024
Ernesto Ottone addresses the UCCN conference. Braga. July 2, 2024UCCN

Ottone elucidates the structure further. "First, we have to have all communities on board, then local authorities that make the advocacy, and then all the higher representatives of each country's member states that are part of UNESCO to endorse this and to fight for it. We need stakeholders that fight for cultural integration in the agenda."

Essentially, a global lobbying team with culture at its core.

Culture for all?

This is a far cry from "l'art pour l'art", and harnesses culture for its ability to become the intersection, the springboard for action in much wider areas.

"People understand that culture is not a synonym of art, or representation, or enjoyment only. It's also about the way that we wish to have societies integrating," explains Ottone. "We are not talking about culture for culture. We are talking about culture also enabling other aspects of society. We are talking about poverty, migration -- that's a huge problem today in the city-- cultural rights, and how you have access but at the same time you guarantee the right to what we call the status of artists to have livelihoods."

Ottone knows the old maxim about leading horses to water.

"Finally, it's up to the cities to see how big national policy can be brought to the communities," he tells Euronews Culture.

And that's why hundreds of delegates have gathered in Braga. Creatives and facilitators at the heart of local government and cultural management are here in their droves.

Funding is tough in all sectors but UNESCO and the other orbiting bodies have worked out that change can be affected more quickly and effectively at municipal level, and the myriad mayors and representatives are saying that it's both the designation and the access to the hive mind of the network that makes all the difference.

The new Creative Cities are welcomed to the club
The new Creative Cities are welcomed to the clubUCCN

Creative connections

Networking brainstorms normally fill one with horror, but the session held on Thursday in the medieval city of Santa Maria da Feira, an hour outside Braga, was surprisingly fruitful and highlighted how the collective imagination can find solutions across borders, with particular attention to youth initiatives.

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A representative from the the French city of Metz (Music) explained how their culture initiative finances artists to connect with schoolchildren at the earliest age possible, inspiring creative expression from age of 3.

Iaşi in Romania (Literature) brings successful writers into school to discuss writing and their own works. The scheme quickly extended to ten local high schools who further began to initiate reading clubs where students can present their own works in a sympathetic forum.

Albane Vangheluwe (Gent: Music) and Łukasz Kałebasiak (Katowice: Music) are both fans of the media cities initiative. They believe the designation is powerful and inspires continuity.

"When in politics, every five or six years, it sometimes shifts," says Vangheluwe. "But if you have a title, it's protected. It's a little comforting instrument. There's a guarantee for continuity."

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"Especially in the countries like ours," chimes in Kałebasiak, "like in Poland, where those shifts might be really radical. Even if we will have a new mayor or a completely new party with a different ideology, there's a huge chance that some projects or some kind of cultural policy will be continued."

"It opens doors," Vangheluwe goes on. "The network itself is stronger than the initiative on a single city level."

Performers at the UCCN Braga citywide opening ceremony, July 1.
Performers at the UCCN Braga citywide opening ceremony, July 1. UCCN

For some, the added presence of a designated city representative allows much more communication than there ever was before.

"Implementing the UNESCO City of Music coordinator within the cultural office of the city council, the dialogue between city council and music scene was made easier but also brought a direct access to a worldwide network of many other great creative music cities," says Alice Moser from Hannover (Music).

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These are positive examples but what about cities that don't qualify, or where the initiative is met with resistance?

"What we have seen in the past -- we are celebrating 20 years of this network -- is that somehow exchanging good practises has allowed some of the cities, even if at national level they are not there yet, at the city level to understand how wonderful it is to have diversity," says Ottone.

"Those cities that try to uniform the way of thinking, the way of living, the way of interacting, and we have examples, like ... Afghanistan right now. All those cities in Afghanistan today that cannot allow gender participation, well I don't know if the network wishes to have them because they don't represent the feeling. Now it doesn't mean that tomorrow, if there is a new government, a democratic government, it can't be incorporated."

Ottone shares a moment with the host and Mayor of Braga, Ricardo Rio.
Ottone shares a moment with the host and Mayor of Braga, Ricardo Rio. UCCN

Ottone's background is steeped in culture. He has Master's degree in Management of Cultural Institutions and Policies and was once an actor.

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it's not only territorial disagreement, it is because there is an issue about identity, history and memory that some culture wants to erase the other
Ernesto Ottone

With this level of sensibility, I ask if it is the fact that cultural expression elicits such an emotional response that makes it such a powerful agent of transformation.

He smiles.

"I cannot imagine having a world where culture is not at the core of all decision making. And today we see a world in crisis with armed conflict everywhere, if you see what is behind it, it's not only territorial disagreement, it is because there is an issue about identity, history and memory that some culture wants to erase the other. And that makes no sense. What makes the wonderful world in which we should all live is that you share some values that are not the same," he says.

"But when you sit with another, when you are in a place of culture, when you see artists in the streets, in the worst moment of your life, it gives you the hope of something that you want to transfer to new generation. And I believe that at the end, what we all think, those who have children, is what type of world we want to give our future generation. Where climate crisis is an issue everywhere; when racist hate speech are in all medias every day. So yes, culture is essential, but it's essential for breathing in the world. So yes, I'm a believer."

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UNESCO know it's not a perfect system. To measure success or indeed failure, the organisation's own reporting mechanism provides detailed evaluation on what has and has not worked.

Their latest analysis in February 2024 revealed that connections between cities show a bias towards the Global North, a Eurocentric focus, and limited engagement with Africa and sub-regions in Asia.

Street Performers in Braga for UCCN opening
Street Performers in Braga for UCCN openingUCCN

Moreover, reportage on this initiative has been slim. Particularly for something so huge and potentially transformative.

Sara Vuletic from Novi Sad (Media Arts) is no stranger to urban cultural designations after having been Programme Director for her city in its capacity as the 2022 European City of Culture. She thinks it would be great if more people knew about it.

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"It lacks a little bit of visibility and transparency of what we really are doing," she admits. "The project is so good, it just needs more of a boost."

It could well be that there's a marketing/branding shortfall here, but as Sara's Novi Sad colleague Tamara Zelenovic begins to tell me about the 18 genuine collaborations with other media cities that have seen their genesis at this week's conference, it's hard not to admire the potential.

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