One decade on since this cultural organisation’s inception, Henrietta Foster says the atmosphere has changed dramatically, and the future brings new challenges
When the EUNIC London cluster was created in 2007 it was in a completely different political landscape. The crash of 2008 had not yet happened, cultural budgets were not so tight and Britain was decidedly part of Europe and the EU. Ten years later, the atmosphere has changed and the future is bringing new challenges.
Once described by Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly “as a unique platform for sharing the wonderful creative strengths of European artists,” EUNIC London is a network of cultural institutes and embassies from the member states of the European Union in the UK. A branch of EUNIC Global, the London network at present has 31 members who share knowledge and resources to promote cooperation and develop partnerships, with the invaluable support of the European Commission Representation.
Their current president and Cultural Officer at the Embassy of Portugal, Catarina Ferreira, defines EUNIC London’s role as “linking potential energies, trying to be fluid and bureaucracy free.” Director of the Czech Centre London and previous president Tereza Porybna adds: “it is a chance to network, bring ideas to life and pull together resources to really make things happen.” In this EUNIC has succeeded magnificently with a slate of important and impressive cultural projects to their credit.
Despite its name, EUNIC London operates all around the country and seeks to expand its connections outside of the capital. For example, a two-day visit was organised at the end of May with FACT in Liverpool, to connect a group of cultural attachés with the local arts and culture scene. One of the key objectives of the current presidency team, led by Catarina with Vice-Presidents Lukas Van Damme (Flanders House) and Achilleas Hadjikyriacou (Cyprus High Commission) is to “develop exciting partnerships outside of London, reaching out to new partners in particular in the Vote Leave areas.”
The EUNIC London meetings are held on the first Monday of every month and invite representatives of UK cultural organisations to pitch for collaboration. It’s one of the many ways of making “an active bridge for collaboration between diplomatic actors, cultural institutes and the British cultural scene,” according to EUNIC London Executive Secretary Marie Proffit. She adds that in many ways “we are still the new kids in town.” One of the original new kids was Peter Mikl who was Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in London and a former President of EUNIC London. He says: “I vividly remember a unique group of people, dedicated colleagues from cultural institutes and embassies in London, full of creative ideas and ready for action. Our common vision united us: to devise and implement unique projects with British partner institutions showcasing Europe’s diversity in arts, culture and science. DancEUnion at the Southbank Centre, In Praise of Shadows at the V&A, Robotville at the Science Museum to name but a few. All these projects met with enthusiasm from both the partners involved and the audiences. Mission accomplished!”
Ildiko Takacs was the third President of the network and head of the Hungarian Cultural Institute. She remembers with pride the seminars held by EUNIC London on cultural diplomacy “that aimed to articulate the role of the cultural institutes in the twenty-first century, provided an inspirational platform for discussions not only for diplomats but for cultural leaders, managers, journalists and everyone interested in cultural issues. EUNIC London has channelled the power of our common European values.” Head of the Romanian Cultural Institute and another former President Dorian Branea adds that “a new vision of cultural diplomacy emerged at our seminars. A vision that was not shy in discussing sensitive topics with authority, truth and genuine collaboration.” He defines EUNIC London as “a coalition of the willing.”
Ildiko Takacs adds that: “One of my favourite programmes was In Praise of Shadows (2009) an acclaimed exhibition of 22 new European lighting designers as part of the London Design Festival at the V&A.”
According to Marie Proffit, “EUNIC London is constantly exploring new horizons, partnerships and pushing boundaries. In 2016, The Games Europe Plays brought some of the most innovative and challenging video games and digital experiences from all over Europe to British audiences. Across a series of three shows coordinated by the Finnish Institute, we looked at the future of learning, playing and healing, young people and all generations.”
Ferreira quotes EUNIC London’s flagship project, the European Literature Night, as her special project that she has had the privilege to lead this year. In partnership with The Royal Society of Literature, over nine years the format of the event has developed from one night at The British Library to a roadshow visiting five British cities. “We wanted to bring five European authors to a new audience in five British cities, which for the most part voted to leave the EU.”
Brexit is, of course, the elephant in the room and no one knows how it will impact the British relationship with European culture. Proffit and Ferreira refer to the current situation as “a new set of cards we have to play with,” adding with confidence that “EUNIC London has a more important role now. We are committed here to develop and nurture collaborations even more than before,” and that “the door is open and we will never close it.”
Henrietta Foster is a writer and television documentary director. She works mainly for the BBC and has almost finished a film on women orchestra conductors called Beyond The Grace Note.