Diversity of global populations and of global cultural expressions was the topic of the third thematic block of the Salzburg Seminar. It was axiomatic for the attendees that cultural diversity is a positive value to be advocated for its own sake a counterpoint to the fundamentalism and xenophobia that all too often infect public attitudes about globalization in today’s rapidly changing world.
Cultural diversity in itself is nothing new, of course. China encompasses fifty-six cultural groups, half of which have their own language, one Salzburg seminarian reminded. One hundred languages are spoken in the Russian Federation alone, added another. Even so, the attendees struggled with the multivalent connotations of the term “diversity” in today’s globally interwoven cultural life. The vague and inconsistent definition of the term, attendees noted, makes it difficult to design, and subsequently to assess, programs aiming to foster cultural diversity.
Although “ethnically marked difference is the primary ground on which international engagement takes place,” observed one group session, the concept of “diversity” now encompasses differences across a spectrum of phenomena: within and between
populations, among the range of cultural voices that compete for visibility in cultural marketplaces, and perhaps most importantly, when it comes to variations in access and agency for indigenous and marginalized groups. One of the small discussion groups in Salzburg identified no less than four dimensions of diversity—of audiences, of genres, of the scales of organizations, and of the nature of interactions and power relationships. “The word ‘diversity’ alone does not describe the tensions and contradictions that are inevitably a part of cultural activities, given that these are human processes,” the group concluded.
In a time of accelerated migration and inflows of immigrants into industrially developed nations and metropolitan areas, fostering an enabling environment for cultural diversity has become an urgent priority. Put simply, international cultural engagement is no longer only a matter of connecting people across the globe. It is, no less significantly, about connecting diverse populations at home.
Cultural exchanges can have a catalytic function in such circumstances. As participants in Salzburg noted in various contexts, art can bridge communities of disparate origin; it can help people grapple with their search for individual and group identity; and it can engender a sense of empathy in a complex and, for some, unsettling world. Books, music, exhibitions, theatrical productions, can raise difficult topics for public debate, offering a safe language and medium for cultural or even political dialogue.
Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing the environment for cultural diversity today, Salzburg attendees voiced concern about exclusion, chauvinism, and, in some parts of the world, censorship in cultural programming and communications. Even in the U.S., a nation of immigrants where cultural diversity has long been a fact of life, arts programming is seen by many as being out of step with demographic realities. With half of the rise in the American population now attributed to Hispanics, for example, Latino groups are still, in the words of one speaker, “marginalized, underfunded, and fragile.” Far from being enablers of diversity, many institutions function as gatekeepers. In failing to diversify their programming and their audience outreach, they are not only sti- fling excluded voices, but also compromising their long-term relevancy.
Even where such gatekeeping is not purposefully excluding expressions from beyond the mainstream, a number of roadblocks stand in the way of a more diverse cultural life, according to the Seminar participants. Much boils down to the exigencies of arts programming. Festivals and large arts events, for example, need to attract audiences, so they tend to make safe programming bets. “There is always a tension between select- ing well-known artists that will attract the interest of the media, versus attracting acts that are new or not well known internationally,” a veteran cultural producer from the Middle East observed.
The result is that programming for diversity often ends up with “the usual suspects,” failing to reflect the energy and complexity of global culture. Compounding the problem are discrepancies in organizational capacity—not just financial but attitudinal. One seminarian called this a bureaucratic failure to “listen to each other.” A North American cultural manager suggested, “It is imperative that as we promote exchange we leave our comfort zones.” A colleague from the Middle East suggested that organizers of cultural events should not be afraid to “put a focus on the dynamism at the edge.” Several participants saw collaborations between larger and smaller organizations as a means of injecting diversity into the programming of the larger presenting entity. “Smaller-scale collaborative projects, developed with minimal resources, can have a significant impact on the long run,” a group discussion on diversity concluded.
Much attention in Salzburg was devoted to programming in a time of rising conservative Islamic sentiment. Cultural programs, especially in the Middle East, contend with an environment in which religiosity defines the contours of the public sphere. In many countries, unfettered artistic freedom is not tolerated by either the state or by significant portions of the population. In such conservative and authoritarian systems, cultural exchanges can do more than expose audiences to a wider range of creative expression. They can catalyze new attitudes about cultural policy and management. “We have to introduce transparency, accountability, and vitality,” one speaker noted, inviting conference attendees to imagine a “Cultural Marshall Plan” for countries in the Middle East that have embarked on the arduous path to political liberalization.
One of the deepest challenges to emerge from the discussions on cultural diversity is that truly inclusive programs and policy approaches demand a sober questioning of the ingrained norms, categories, and reflexes of cultural managers. A conversation thread in one group session suggested, “High culture and education are forms of standard set- ting” and “the stratification system is a result.” As a group member observed, “words like ‘quality,’ ‘excellence,’ and ‘standards’ imply white power,” and these “hot-button words leach into the societal dialogue.”
The “habitual attitudes of tastemakers” embed hierarchies into cultural work, a curator who has organized exhibitions of African art and crafts observed, adding, “How do you decide, and who decides, what is ‘art’ and what is ‘craft’?” Such seemingly innocuous definitions foster exclusion and insensitivity in ways that are rarely overt, or even conscious. By framing the creativity of some as “craft” and that of others as “art,” institutions implicitly diminish the esteem of the former expression at the expense of the latter.
How could cultural programmers and managers promote diversity? One group session suggested the following practical and attitudinal markers: “Respect. Preparedness. Appropriate strategy for each situation. Long-term thinking and involvement. Expect the unexpected.”
The topic of cultural diversity raised other questions of a highly abstract nature in the Salzburg conversations, going well beyond the purview of cultural policy and inter- national cultural exchange. One speaker warned about the modern world’s tendency toward homogenization, reminding the conference that exchanges should “celebrate diversity and harness it—not flatten it out.” Another participant observed how cultural diversity is becoming increasingly vague in a world where “people have hybrid back- grounds.” Others still pointed to the flowering of “transnational communities” or “diasporas,” which transcend geographic and cultural boundary lines. Such groups should be “recognized as stakeholders in, contributors to, and mediators for international cultural engagement,” one discussion group noted. “The cultural specificity of these ‘hyphenated’ cultural communities needs to be recognized as a valuable resource.”
Although the sessions on diversity undeniably raised more questions than they answered, they were unanimous in affirming the critical importance of diversity in global cultural relations. As one small discussion group concluded, “The principle of equal dialogue between cultures of equal dignity needs to frame all international cultural engagement.”
Recommendations for Enabling Cultural Diversity
– Encourage collaborations between larger and smaller presenting organizations in which smaller groups can offer more access and connection to diverse populations and artists.
– Provide training to cultural programmers so they can become more knowledgeable, responsive, and culturally sensitive.
– Broaden the circles of decision-making about cultural programming.
– Create spaces that allow for unexpected interactions, and cultivate community
“transmitters” who connect various cultural groups.
– Develop “access points for building trust with the less well-educated members
of our societies in order to develop interest in and understanding and tolerance
for other cultures.”
– Work to resolve tensions over the repatriation of cultural objects as an
important means of bridge-building with source countries.
– Exploit the potential of traveling exhibitions as effective platforms for cultural
exchange and debate.
– Recognize the need for long-term planning of international cultural
engagement projects—“it’s about relationships and not quick, one-off events.”
– Work with international media to balance negative stories about cultural
stereotypes and programming mistakes with “good news stories” about cultural exchanges in regions such as Afghanistan.