Agents of change: what is the role of cities and local governments in developing the arts and culture?



Jordi Baltà
United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) (Spain)

Louise Ejgod Hansen
Project and Research Manager, Aarhus rethinkIMPACTS2017 (Denmark)

Elimane Kane
Advisor to the Mayor of Dakar, former minister of culture (Senegal)


Karsten Xuereb
Executive Director, Valletta 2018 Foundation (Malta)


Jade Lillie
Director and CEO at Footscray Community Arts Centre, Australia

Key words: 

sustainable development; civil society; community engagement; art; heritage; cultural rights; participatory governance; peer learning; culture; cities.





This panel discussion explored a range of views and experiences regarding the role of local governments and other local actors in developing cities local agencies (government) in developing cities that are sustainably strong in culture.  Each of the three speakers, shared the challenges and opportunities relating to their individual experiences which raised the following key themes:

  • The most direct reference to culture in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is found in the Goal related to cities.

  • Increased attention to the link between culture and sustainable development.

  • Culture is the fourth pillar of sustainability.

  • Partnerships with civil society and private sectors are critical to the sustainability of strong cultural agenda in cities.

  • There is an imperative for cultural policy to focus on cultural rights.

  • Participatory Governance is key to community engagement and sustainability.

  • Cities should be developing around the people and the needs of the communities

Main points from each of the speakers included:

Jordi Balta

  • Provided a background on the Agenda 21 for culture.

  • Imperative for cultural policy to focus on cultural rights.

  • Over 600 LG and cities that have subscribed to the principles of the Agenda 21 for culture.

  • Increased attention to the link between culture and sustainable development
  • 2030 Agenda makes a direct reference to cultural heritage in the Goal related to cities (Target 11.4).

  • It is understood that all countries in the world need to make progress in relation to sustainable development. 

  • Another major conference launched the New Urban Agenda and will be inform policy for the next 20 years.  This is something we must be abreast (

  • Culture is the fourth pillar of sustainability – this has not been articulated explicitly but is something that is becoming more widely accepted.

  • Global and local agencies are increasing attention on locally relevant initiatives, as exemplified by UNESCO in its recent Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development (

Challenges include: 

  • Whilst we increasingly have global agendas and networks, it is still necessary to adapt these at local level.

  • We must foster a better understanding as to how culture interacts with sustainable development and strengthen local capacities.

  • Progress needs to be made in terms of governance frameworks (mutli-level, transversal, participative).

  • Civil society and private sector must be engaged in order to realise success

In conclusion:

The Committee on Culture of UCLG is working with a range of cities across the world with a focus on peer learning and policy innovation to share learning and engage in self-assessments to ascertain where cities are currently standing and how then to progress the sustainability agenda and goals.

Louise Ejgod Hansen

On European Capitals of Culture:

  • Often been called the longest existing and most successful cultural policy programme in the EU.

  • Cities are rewarded with the Melina Mercouri Prize of 1.5 million Euros the year prior to the event. The main part of funding is local and national.

  • On a local level, EU capitals of culture are excellent examples of practicing cultural leadership – private and public investment in culture, media and political attention is provided to culture in a way that we may usually dream about.

  • Local cultural infrastructure and local capacity building in the areas of culture are areas of focus when identified as a EU capital of culture. 

Based on observations, Louise provides her reflections having been a key evaluator on the program: 

  • Culture is used as a driver for societal change in European Capitals of Culture (ECOC).

  • In Aarhus, Denmark (ECOC 2017) the vision is: “Aarhus 2017 uses art and culture to rethink the challenges of tomorrow”.

  • This is not about creating a successful cultural year but what is the sustainability and legacy, if we are a EU capital of culture.

  • It is necessary to develop a more effective and diverse network of local agents of culture in order to find a more sustainable outcome in the capital of culture context.

  • Cultural leadership needs to be practiced by many local agents in order to create legacy. This includes the municipalities as local policy agents.

Challenges include:

  • Employees and the delivery organisation are usually temporary and will close down after the event. Shared ownership to the vision of the ECOC as well as capacity building within more permanent organisations is important.

  • Shift in management approach: From bottom-up in the bidding phase to top-down in the delivery phase. This happened because of a need to prioritise and to focus on delivery of the programme.

  • Role of Aarhus 2017 Foundation: Less focus on a shared ownership to the vision, more on the function as a subsidy office in which ‘rethink’ became a subsidy criteria. This weakens the sharing of the vision for what the cultural capital can in fact, be.

  • Co creation and co design in developing projects are critical to ensure sustainable and deep rooted ownership in the local context – this is crucial but not always common

In conclusion: 

Cultural leadership from a network of agents – artists, politicians, civil servants, regional stakeholders and institutions WITH Aarhus 2017 is required to realise a fully integrated and sustainable model of culture embedded in the life of the city.


Elimane Kane

  • We have to start from our local production as it includes are local economy, our local context.

  • The primary value is the common good, common wellness – these things are very important.

  • Cities should be developing around the people.

  • As a former minister for culture, I did not know as much as I know now that I am working in the city hall on a local level. There are different levels of understanding and engagement at local, state and national tiers.

  • Allies are important to build a cultural capital – artists, celebrities, politicians, civil society and private sectors.

  • Cultural rights must be our main focus.

Challenges include: 

  • First issue – constitutions.  Decentralisation is the freedom from administration.  This is something that is written in the constitution but is difficult to change in the reality.

  • Second issue - Money:  developing countries, financial and economic issues.  There is a lack of consistency with governments and they each have their preferred stakeholders – lack of sustainably and long term impacts.

  • Participation and inclusion – we want everyone, all citizens can recognise themselves in these settings.  We have to give people freedom and autonomy – empowerment so people can be free from institutions.

  • Audience development and community engagement – why don’t African communities go to Museums in Africa?  Are these places strange? Do they feel like these buildings and activities are not appropriate for them?  We need to build participation in these institutions.  If we can solve this problem, we can make anything possible.

  • Dakar is part of the creative cities network in the cluster-"ART NUMERIQUES" and it is a particular challenge for our city. 

In conclusion:

We need to find a way to manage and build new styles of open space. If we can create open spaces where people feel as though they can feel at home and like it is for them, they might respect it more and we can then engage people in more cultural activities. 

Cultural heritage and some traditions are not good, we have to create new ones and celebrate the traditions that are good and possible for communities to engage with. 

We need to provide training to artists and communities in areas such as dance, film making, visual arts and events management. 

Trust the people on the ground.


On Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century


Notions of cultural leadership were central to this discussion an in fact, all speakers shared examples of this within their own experiences and in context of the various projects they were discussing.  Some of these points included:

  • On a local level, EU capitals of culture are excellent examples of practicing cultural leadership – private and public investment in culture, media and political attention is provided to culture in a way that we may usually dream about.

  • Cultural policy must focus on cultural rights.

  • Participatory Governance: building local capacity to engage in policy making and leadership.

  • Leading cities in cultural policy and cultural rights are examples of leadership – this changes lives and ensure a stronger sense of engagement, ownership and participation from communities, locally and internationally.

  • Partnerships between civil society, private sectors and government are critical to the success of becoming a strong cultural capital (in and outside of the EU context). 

As discussed in the closing remarks of the summit: 

If we want things we have never had, we have to do things we’ve never done. (Namibian delegate).

This is the essence of what is required to be a leader, a local agent for change, a dynamic and engage city with strength in culture and sustainability.


Examples provided of leadership development 




Problems/obstacles to developing sector leadership 



  • Finding the balance between asking people what they want to do and providing something new to develop new traditions and opportunities for engagement

  • Governments who talk about participation but this not being true collaboration or participatory governance – can sometimes be considered token.

  • Participation fatigue – if you create mechanisms that are not embedded in daily life or community appropriate contexts, or which end up being ineffective. 


Self determination 

  • Expression of cultural rights are present so that people can participate in the process. How to ensure ownership.

  • Who is speaking for who? Without ensuring the voices of communities are present, we are making assumptions and potentially, the wrong decision.


  • We must think about tradition as something that is relative and dynamic. This is the only way tradition will remain relevant in the context of cultural and sustainable development.

  • The contradiction of society – urban and rural.


  • Coordinating the three tiers – local government, arts council and the ministry of culture.

  • Privatisation of public spaces ad institutions being permitted. 


  Examples of culture sector leadership on wider community issues


  • Senegal: Cultural days where we explore new activities and hope to increase engagement from the public.  There is now a national festival to celebrate arts and culture in Senegal.  We celebrate diversity through this and build a sense of stronger communities, in health, education, arts and culture.

  • Aarhus 2017: local network.  Region was established in 2007 as a new part of the Danish administrative system.  The region and municipalities have joined for the first time in a collaborative culture project – rather than competing on who has the best institutions but developing on the strengths of each other.  The challenge is to find a way to continue when the project is over and there are no funds available anymore.

  • Several examples of local governments and other local actors contributing to sustainable development can be found in the Good Practice database of the Agenda 21 for culture:

  • Comment: Sceptical to talk about best practices, this implies that we can copy but each city is individual and this is part of the success. This does not mean that we cannot learn from each other.
  Recommendations for action to enhance sector leadership


  • Cultural rights:  ensuring cultural rights are at the centre of all cultural policy and project development. As part of human dignity people should be able to shape and participate in cultural life.

  • Participatory Governance: engaging people in the decision making process around the development of cities and culture.  You must find the right participatory model that is right for your context.  Participatory governance includes: cultural strategies, budgeting mechanisms, decision making on investment.

  • Peer Learning:  increase opportunities for cities and countries to engage in peer-to-peer learning experiences – sharing policy, sharing ideas and experiences.  This could be something that IFACCA facilitates at the summits.  We must share our knowledge and networks to make sure that there is a community of practice to explore the key principles.

  • Ensure diversity:  in everything - funding, networks, partnerships, perspectives and activities.

  • Plurality of factors: an ecosystem that recognises the importance of different voices – public and private sectors, civil society and government.
  Key quotations


‘At its best rethink is a vision about taking the values we already have and developing something new' - Louise

‘The central point of participatory governance is power' (Audience Member)

‘Cities cannot be without citizens – focus on people and participation’– Elimane

‘Culture can only be strong if people believe in it – this is our work to do’ (Audience Member)

‘Actually, I think cities are not very good at developing culture – this may be a UK phenomenon however, I think that the role of cities are small and should support arts and culture experts and organisations to do the work of developing culture’ (Audience Member)