Editorial: Arts and Cultural Institutions

 J.P. Singh, The University of Edinburgh

J.P. Singh is Professor and Chair of Culture and Political Economy, and Director of the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

This issue of Arts & International Affairs explores the connections between art and cultural institutions. Arts are symbolic practices and reflect on ways of life. Institutions are formal repositories for experiences, learning, and conventions. While obviously related, arts and cultural institutions are not the same and this issue of AIA explores the synergies and divergences.

Arts are creative and they are cultural. A creative experience is part of the artists’ imagination, pursued both with talent and genius. Creative practices become cultural when they reflect, or are embodied in, collective beliefs and experiences (Singh 2011). Equally they can question cultural practices and the arts have often pushed this boundary. Despite all the controversies, and the groups that are marginalized or included, each year’s arts’ awards—whether for books or films or fine arts—celebrate those who pushed the boundaries of our thinking and tell a story that needed to be heard in ways we had not imagined before. The social world of art often either romanticizes the renegade who defected from cultural practices or revels in one controversy or another: the Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin who in 2012 announced his resignation from the Royal ballet at the age of 22 at the height of his career; Bollywood’s Padmavaat in 2017–2018 that ignited controversies with far-right Hindu nationalists for its portrayal of an apocryphal Hindu Princess; or a January 2018 production of the opera Carmen in Florence, which changed the ending for a feminist close in which the opera’s eponymous heroine kills Don José rather than the other way around—the audiences booed the production, the Mayor of Florence defended it.

Cultural institutions also shape artistic practices, and can embody the political economies of their time, in turn constraining or regulating art. Social scientists have shown that arts and cultural institutions should stand at an arms-length from political processes in order to encourage a diversity and freedom of artistic expressions (Throsby 2000; Frey 2000). Thus, a ministry of culture controlling arts funding is very different from a National Endowment for the Arts in the United States or the Arts Council England. On the other hand, the problem is that arts regulators and funding agencies do not passively reflect a “public interest” and have internal prerogatives (Rizzo 2003). There are also macro political-economies that arts embroil, inviting charges of reflecting particular ideologies and taste (Miller and Yúdice 2002). While artistic practices shape arts agencies, more often the latter are risk-averse and conservative despite an occasional controversy.

This issue highlights many tensions and confluences between arts and cultural institutions. We present two themes: one dealing with the ‘Status of (Inter)National Organizations as Cultural Institutions,’ and the other titled ‘Cities, Culture, and the Proliferation of the Biennials.’ Our new Managing Editor, Evangelos Chrysagis, is to be credited for creating these sub-themes.

‘Status of (Inter)National Organisations at Cultural Institutions’ deals both with the limits and the possibilities of arts and cultural institutions. Scholar Naomi Adiv’s forceful piece notes that the threat to cut-off less than $150 million in annual funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States has less to do with budget savings—it’s an infinitesimal part of the federal budget—but with broad conservative grudges and “culture war tropes” that seek limit government involvement in the arts or curtailing particular types of arts expressions. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the British Council presents a contrasting story. Director of Arts Graham Sheffield writes to the power of theater in cultivating the British Council’s agenda of fostering cultural relations among communities and nations. Rather than avoiding controversial issues, the British Council has sometimes dealt with them headlong and with reflection. For example, last year the British Council sponsored a production of Argentine Director Lola Arias’ Minefield exploring the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war not based on the politics of the Argentine or the UK but from the perspective of the war’s personal tolls and horrors. The British Council is part of the UK government’s soft power strategy but even as a quasi-government cultural relations organisation it has sometimes not shied away from taking on difficult subjects and it is certainly not immune to funding cuts. There was some opposition to funding Minefield within the British government.

The Mafalda Dâmaso article shows how art may expose the limits of an organisation’s ideals, in this case that of the United Nations, through art. She describes Pedro Reyes 2013–2014 exhibit titled The People’s United Nations. Dâmaso’s theoretical exhumation of the project shows how the UN is far from its ideals of democracy and deliberation.

Our second theme is ‘Cities, Culture, and the Proliferation of Biennials.’ All three essays are aware of the importance of the creative economies and tourist monies generated through cultural events such as the biennales and the growing cultural importance of cities. Scholars Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas, nevertheless, explore not just the dominance of nation-states or the market modes of production inherent in the nearly 150 arts biennials in more than 50 countries. They also show how the biennials foster resistance, diversity, and creativity. Similarly, Anne Murray’s multi-media interview with the two curators and co-founders of the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art of Oran, Algeria, posits the value of this biennial along with the value and dominance of Venice Biennale across the Mediterranean. Certainly, co-curators Sadek Rahim and Tewfik Ali Chaaouche are aware of the tremendous creativity in Oran but also of the 8 million tourists who visit the city annually. The theme of how cities prepare for presentation as cultural sites and tourism is taken up in Anna Lisa Boni and Philippe Kern’s article. The authors are European cultural officials and practitioners. Their practical advice for the cultural preparedness of cities includes a note on the cosmopolitanism of city cultural workers.

In the perennial debate on whether art shapes cultural institutions or vice versa, this issue of Arts & International Affairs seems to offer a somewhat safe answer betwixt the perspectives. But the authors venture beyond safety in noting the boundaries and provocations where art challenges cultural institutions, or where it reflects the prerogatives of institutions but also provides resistance and redefinition. We invite your indulgence!



Frey, Bruno S. (2003) Arts and Economics: Analysis and Cultural Policy. Berlin: Springer.

Miller, Toby and George Yúdice. (2002) Cultural Policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rizzo, Ilde. (2003) Regulation. In A Handbook of Cultural Economics, ed. Ruth Towse, 408–414. Cheltanham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Singh, J.P. (2011) Globalized Arts: The Entertainment Economy and Cultural Identity. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Throsby, David. (2010) The Economics of Cultural Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.