7 July 2022
Global Cultural Districts Network Convening in Lugano After Three-Year Hiatus
The 2022 Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN) Convening took place in Lugano, Switzerland from 29-31 May, two years after it was originally meant to. For many in attendance, this trip was their first since the beginning of the pandemic, and for all members of GCDN, it was the first time they’d come together in almost 3 years. The GCDN Convening brings together cultural leaders as well as city officials from around the world, each of them working to bring arts and culture to their communities in innovative and effective ways. The work they do is powerful in creating positive outcomes in communities, and the event in Lugano, hosted by Lugano Arte e Cultura (LAC) brought together more than 120 leaders in the cultural space to exchange ideas, share experiences and learn from experts in the sector.
And, what a charming and exquisite place to convene! Lugano is a small city of 65,000 people with big appeal. Located in the Ticino region of southern Switzerland, Lugano’s strategic proximity to both Zurich and Milan gives it a blend of Swiss and Mediterranean cultures. This geography has also helped make way for all sorts of exchanges, including artistic and cultural, over its history. Home to several prominent regional theaters and festivals, Lugano had long been considered a centre for the performing arts. In the early 2000s, the community of Lugano became very interested in investing in a cultural center focused on artistic production and presentation.
In 2015, LAC opened its doors, offering a new cultural resource for artists and audiences. A purpose-built cultural facility, the venue presents an active calendar of performances and visual arts exhibitions including the Museo d’Arte Della Svizzera Italiana, educational programmes, and artist residencies. LAC’s architecture takes full advantage of the magnificent lakeside views that are synonymous with Lugano. The public plaza in front of the building invites the community not only to participate in the regular arts programming, but to make LAC part of the city’s daily life. In remarks during the Convening, local officials acknowledged LAC’s role in strengthening the social and economic context of the city and region.
Lugano daytime view from LAC
Lugano night-time view from LAC
Michel Gagnon, LAC General Director, had been eagerly looking forward to bringing the GCDN to experience this signature cultural anchor, the heartbeat of Lugano’s contemporary arts community. The GCDN is an initiative of AEA Consulting dedicated to peer-to-peer connections and knowledge sharing. Established in 2013, GCDN is primarily a forum and the “annual” Convenings represent a dedicated opportunity for the operators of world cultural districts, or developments with a significant arts and cultural element, to connect with sector experts across geographies and experiences.
“The Convening always draws together what at least looks like a highly heterogeneous group, divided by age, nationality, professional experience and who knows what else,” reflected Adrian Ellis, chair of the GCDN, in an email. “But they are bound by common interests and passions - by a conviction that culture in its broadest sense is integral to civic life; that a fulfilling civic life is a right- or maybe for some just something very close to a right; and that their jobs are to create the conditions in which those rights (or quasi-rights) can be satisfied. And they take their jobs seriously.”
Attendees naturally brought their own experience of rapidfire change enabled by technologies and accelerating cultural shifts in response to the hugely tumultuous challenges of recent years. Brimming with fresh perspectives and anxious to share and learn from others, throughlines rippled across sessions that speak to the growth and development of the cultural sector.
Michel Gagnon LAC Director General welcoming GCDN
Adrian Ellis GCDN chair closing session of GCDN convening
“The Convening highlighted just how predominant and universally shared the effects of the existential challenges of our time are on our industry,” said Gregorio Scarpella, GCDN director. “It showed that cultural and urban leaders need to leverage their heft to achieve true meaningful change/impact. It demonstrated the value of collaboration and knowledge exchange in achieving that outcome. And it showed that we can’t shy away from having complicated (sometimes uncomfortable) conversations and put ourselves, professionally, at risk as leaders, if we want to achieve progress.”
The network is a solutions-oriented set, inclined to consider practical, as well as, existential concerns about the responsibilities of cultural institutions in these times. Over the two-days together, attendees sought to articulate the unique contribution of cultural districts to their communities. Arts and wellbeing are at the forefront of many agendas and attendees shared promising practices and new partnerships. On the climate crisis, one speaker warned that the time for voluntary preventative action had passed; many more speakers referenced examples of cultural institutions adopting the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the European Union’s New European Bauhaus as effective policy in action. Equity, diversity, inclusion, and access are on the minds of many cultural leaders, and while there is widespread recognition of the need to advance social justice, the network does not yet have a shared language or position to fully engage the complexities of structural racism across regional differences.
“The balance between the centrifugal forces pushing [members] apart and the centripetal forces is always changing over time,” said Ellis. “This year we had thought the centrifugal forces would be in the ascendant - the sector has rarely been more buffeted by its internal contradictions and by the exogenous shocks of racial bigotry, environmental vandalism, and pandemic. Rarely in our professional lifetimes has the agenda of cultural democracy felt more vulnerable or marginalized.”
In other words, the urgency of the challenges that we face is apparent, yet the urban and cultural leaders who gathered in Lugano are renewed with a sense of civic social purpose. Members are finding unique arts and cultural balance to contribute to an emergent future that progresses the agenda toward right action. Technology, and our evolving relationship with it, is changing cultural participation and production. It is also enabling new ways for GCDN members to work together, like the global co-commissioning initiative led by Alserkal Advisory in partnership with a few other cultural districts in the network that Executive Director Vilma Jurkute announced during the convening.
Vilma Jurkute, Executive Director of Alserkal Initiatives
At the center of the GCDN has always been an ongoing inquiry about the purpose and purview of the cultural sector. During the final session, one leader poignantly asked what seemed to be on the minds of many present in the room: “Are we arts leaders or leader-leaders?”. With that question, it felt like a portal opened up to the next phase, prompting resolve as attendees head back to their own cultural districts.
“Maybe it was the sheer pleasure of the dramatic landscape and the hospitality and culinary flair of LAC, maybe just the novelty of tactile engagement. But it felt like a group of people determined to put a shoulder to the wheel, without illusions about the narrow precarity of the path over common ground. Or the importance of navigating it.” said Ellis.
There is plenty of uncertainty in our world but regular schedules of events, like annual convenings, are planned commencements of sorts. One cycle ends and another begins, making way for the next generation of thought to come forward. The work will evolve and next year the GCDN will hold space for these conversations to continue in Montreal.
Stephanie P. Fortunato is the director of Special Projects for the GCDN and co-host of The Three Bells podcast. More information about the GCDN and its agenda can be found at www.gcdn.net.
Photography Credits: Photography by Digitalflow – image use courtesy of Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN)