Cultural scene

The Intercultural Face of Europe’s Cities

Straßenszene in Berlin; Copyright: www.colourbox.comStreet scene in Berlin; Copyright: www.colourbox.comWhat are the major cities doing in the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue? What new concepts have they developed? How are they dealing with the ethnic diversity that characterises their populations? – The Dortmund congress entitled “Diversity unites” held at the start of September 2008 presented concepts, models and projects from different European cities. Under the title "Utilise and reinforce the power of art and culture for intercultural dialogue in cities", the around 200 participants passed a paper which they called “Recommendations from Dortmund”.

The organisers of the congress were the office for culture of the City of Dortmund, the state chancellery of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia with support from the Foreign Office. In addition, the event received support from the German Commission for UNESCO, the German Association for Cultural Policy, RUHR.2010 – European Capital of Culture, EUROCITIES and the Council of Europe. At the congress, speakers from ten countries provided a solid overview of the position in terms of concepts for action and initiatives at a local level across Europe.

Franz Kröger, director of the German Association for Cultural Policy, reported that at the congress three approaches to dealing with immigrants could be identified. France “integrates” immigrants from North Africa, for instance, by simply naturalising them. Consideration of intercultural concepts was a relatively late phenomenon. The Netherlands and to a certain extent Germany too for a long time adopted a “laissez-faire” approach to the policy of naturalisation. The transition to a policy of active integration is only taking place now. Finally, Great Britain, and London in particular, simply has different cultures living alongside one another, unconnected, sustained from many different sources, but without a shared blueprint for action.

London’s “white museum landscape”

Louvre in Paris; Copyright: Makeda Coastan and Dr. Janice Cheddie from London are currently trying to make amends for this with their approach. Their starting point here is the realisation that, owing to the colonial tradition of the British Empire, the major museums in London reflect the cultural history of Africa and Asia – the very ethnic groups that make up around 30 per cent of the population in London. But all of the museums are firmly in the hands of a white, middle-class elite, and ethnic minorities do not have any influence. This is why a “Commission on African and Asian Heritage” set up by the Mayor of London has been working for several years now. The two researchers reported that a dedicated taskforce is now ensuring that partnerships and fundraising are organised.

Sylvie Perron, a speaker on culture and integration from Lyon, outlined a project which enabled older immigrants from the Maghreb region of Africa to tell their stories so that they could be passed on in the form of an “oral history” to the younger migrants and the residents of the city. She said that downtrodden areas of the city where immigrants make up the majority of the population are being carefully and cautiously renewed with the help of artists. Lyon wants all segments of the population to take advantage of the opera and theatre – the idea is not for different audiences to come together depending on their ethnicity.

More migrants on committees

Copyright: Ulla Harting from the department of culture of the North Rhine-Westphalian state chancellery presented, the “programme for professionalising the intercultural management of art and culture in North Rhine-Westphalia”. incorporates six large, medium-sized and small cities, and it is targeted at, among others, artists and project managers from selected art and cultural projects with an intercultural focus, employees from local council and independent cultural institutions and at journalists. The aim is to create projects which form structures, launch festivals and increase the level of research in this field. For instance, in this context, a study is being carried out for the first time to investigate what cultural preferences and customs people with a history of migration have in Dortmund.

The recommendations of the congress emphasised the responsibility of local and state cultural institutions to promote intercultural dialogue and to actively include migrants in their activities. The programmatic claim to allow art and culture for everybody and by everybody must be met for immigrants as well. This will require an opening up of the existing local authority institutions, programmes and services promoting the cultural interests of migrants, and support and promotion of their artistic forms of expression. When it comes to the staff employed by cultural institutions, on committees and juries, the proportion of immigrants needs to rise. Special offers should be targeted at the younger migrants.

Bell signs of a block of flats in Wedding, Berlin, Germany; Copyright: mauritius images/imagebroker

Art is no substitute for social welfare policy

In his opening address, Professor Claus Leggewie from the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen warned against misinterpreting the promotion of art as representing social welfare policy. The result of this would be either “just mediocre art” or “weak social welfare policy”. He said that art could not be exploited. And it is in no way a suitable means of making up for failures in policies of integration.

For Leggewie, modern cities are intercultural entities in themselves. Foreign and familiar aspects, new and tried-and-tested things, scenes and environments meet directly, blend together and enrich one another. The public business of culture can promote talents who would not otherwise achieve the level required to become established, but it should not do this on the basis of quotas, i.e. according to the principle of the proportional representation of each ethnic group in the cultural budget.

Leggewie said: “The culture business likes new, sharp, outrageous things, not artists who merely fulfil a quota.” The promotion of diversity must not result in a situation where talented individuals remain trapped in ethnic groups because they only receive support if and because they are part of a collective. Leggewie demonstrated his theses using the example of Marcus Rothkowitz, who emigrated to New York in 1913 from the Jewish diaspora of Russia. His abstract pictures which later made him famous under the name Mark Rothko did not originate from the world view of a “particular group”, but instead derived from his quest to use his art to give expression to a universal human drama. And he was only able to do this in New York, nowhere else.

Volker Thomas
is a freelance journalist working in Berlin and he runs a text and design agency in Berlin (

Translation: WortWelt
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
October 2008

Related links

Funny stories about horses and soccer-players – read out on Arabic and downloadable as a podcast to be listened to anywhere!

Where to? 21 questions on migration and refuge

Learning German for Refugees

Arriving App

The guide for your first weeks in Germany

My way to Germany

Videos and practises for German learners