What does a cultural network have to do – and be – to become strong, sustainable and effective? Four cultural professionals weigh in.

Photo of networking

In a context of slumping public funding for the arts, partnership and peer learning has become more important than ever.

Networks connecting those working in arts and culture are springing up on many levels. Ranging from a handful of organisations in a town to professionals across Europe, some are grouped by region or area of work, or defined by the cross-sector connections they enable.

Major funders, such as Arts Council England, recognise the importance of such collaborations and are investing in them. But how are they best managed? And how can they be effective and sustainable?

Four European experts who have worked extensively with cultural networks share their thoughts, as first discussed at the ENCATC Congress on the sustainability of cultural networks.

‘There’s not just one business model that makes sense’ – Lluis Bonet

“To become financially sustainable, you have to understand the needs of the people and organisations participating in your network. There are many complex and overlapping factors: members’ values, your overall network strategy, how the network operates, leadership.

“In some places, there is a strong tradition of solidarity and doing things together. People engage in the network because they believe in it. And in other places, there’s more of a cost-benefit analysis – people are ready to pay if they can see tangible benefits for their participation.

“Working out where your network fits along this spectrum is the first major question.

“Another factor to consider is why national and international funders would support federations, associations and common spaces, and how a network can fit these aims.

“Governments need someone to talk with and exchange information. Culture has lots of micro-projects, and for governments it can be difficult to understand what the culture sector needs – they need a unique interlocutor.

“Having the right leadership to fit with these requirements is important, in that it can convince governments of the value of what a network is doing, and convince members of benefits. This leadership is a mix between long-term vision, commitment to the sector, and generosity.

“Similarly, the relationship with funders impacts the way the organisation is run. In some places, organisations function through lots of volunteer work, and at the other extreme, there are well-funded networks supported by different levels of government.

“If you were to look at a map of networks, it’d be clear there’s not just one business model that makes sense – there are many.”

‘Get comfortable with being peer-led’ – Njörður Sigurjónsson

“Networks are not hierarchical. We don’t have control systems in place. A network needs to come to terms with being flat and managed on a peer level, and it needs to be open to insecurities and ambiguities.

“The needs of a network are very contradictory. You feel like you need money and recognition from funders, so it’s only natural to try and speak with one voice, and to become more like the organisation you’re in dialogue with.

“But to my mind, a network needs to fight those tendencies and constantly be aware that it’s supposed to be a grassroots network, and should not behave in the same way as a mechanical structure.

“The most interesting networks throughout history have developed on their own, and often they’re only noticed in hindsight.

“The development of abstract art at the beginning of the 20th century is a good example. Artists and creative people met in cafés, grouping together to display something. It’s not obvious that this was a very dynamic and productive network – where ideas were shared quickly and effectively. Of course there’s leadership, but roles can be fluid and there are a few powerhouses that connect many others.

“In addition, we have to make sure we don’t take out the very elements of a network that make it exciting and attractive in the first place – its responsiveness to the environment, its adaptability to new questions. Sometimes the roles are unclear, sometimes the purpose is unclear, and no one knows if the network will have a purpose next year, but we should embrace that uncertainty.

“The cultural environment is not getting more secure, and people will always turn away from machines and towards other people to help deal with uncertainty and think about new solutions. There will always be networks, but maybe they’ll look different in the future – and participants need to prepare for that.”

‘Evaluation is a weapon’ – Pascale Bonniel Chalier

“Evaluation was a slightly neglected topic before, and it’s only become very important recently. This is partially because of the context of reducing budgets, but it’s also because of a general push to establish why national and international funders must invest in culture, art and networking.

“Put simply, evaluation is a weapon to explain the importance and usefulness of arts and culture. It supports effective monitoring of your projects and networks. It assesses efficiency. It helps clarify the motivations and expectations from your members, and the interplay between the local and national context.

“Our challenge as networks is to be more relevant and to help people participate more effectively. Assessing this through evaluation is not just a question of methods – whether you use qualitative or narrative research – the objective of the research must come first.

“If your objective is only to report the number of satisfied participants for a funder, such as the European Commission, you can do that through quantitative research. But if you want a sustainable model, and to demonstrate why your network must continue to function, you must go deeper and understand what is and isn’t working.

‘If you’re going to expand, stay focused’ – Sarah Gardner

“Not every network should try and expand. Doing so depends a lot on a network’s broader strategy, who their members are, what they’re aiming to do. I think the more global you become the less impact you can have on a local level. If your network is not set up to do things at the local level, that’s fine. It all depends on your agenda.

“It can be very tempting to think ‘we’re networked through this particular region, so we should now automatically go to other regions’. But there will be geographical challenges, cultural challenges and financial inequalities to think through these things before you venture further.

“A network ready to expand globally would have the financial resources, the legitimacy and community support where they currently exist to take on that sort of role. Ideally, there would be networks in other regions where they might join together. The answer might not be creating a network where no network exists – instead, it may be about linking existing networks in other regions.

“The network would also need the financial wherewithal, the capacity on the board and the right sort of governance. And you’d need to have people in other regions who want to network with you, which can take some time – you need to do research.

“With IFACCA, the network of arts councils and cultural agencies, we were very successful in building a network in Asia and Europe, in North and South America. But it was hard for us to connect in the Middle East. We had members from time to time, but there were always challenges rooted in cultural differences.

“That said, it’s important to consider further collaboration. As individuals, we always learn something from meeting people that are different from us.

“The four key areas networks tend to work in are research / information gathering, networking, capacity building and advocacy. You can find lots of information online already, so research has to be very focused to be useful. Networking – face to face meetings – will always be valuable, but as a global network, the logistical costs are a challenge.

“Try to be quite focused – whether that’s an artform focus, or an institutional focus. Don’t do everything all at once. Really think strategically about what the point of going global is, and who you’re going to do it with.”

Lluis Bonet is Director of Cultural Management Program at the University of Barcelona; Njörður Sigurjónsson is Associate Professor at Bifröst University; Pascale Bonniel Chalier is a consultant and a teacher at University Lumiere Lyon2; and Sarah Gardner is former Executive Director of IFACCA.

They spoke at the ENCATC congress on ‘new directions in sustaining cultural networks’, which ran from 27 to 30 September.