The European Cultural Foundation is a grant-making organisation which supports the role of culture in facilitating a more open and inclusive society across Europe. It was established in Geneva in 1954, to ensue culture played a part in Europe’s post-war rebuilding. The organisation’s headquarters have since moved to Amsterdam. Joe Turnbull speaks to Grants Programmes Officers Nicola Mullenger and Helena Rytilahti about their work.

ECF Idea Camp 2017

During the Idea Camp 2017, participants joined the Workshop Cook It With Others hosted by Cocinar Madrid. Photo by César Lucas Abreu

Can you explain a bit about what the European Cultural Fund (ECF) is and what its goals are?

We are an independent grant making and impact driven foundation that accelerates, catalyses, and connects civil society initiatives that rethink and build Europe as an open, inclusive and democratic space. For over 60 years, ECF has promoted culture’s pivotal role in society by various grants programmes, awards, advocacy and R&D work. Our office is located in Amsterdam, but the geographical area of our programmes consists of 59 different countries.

Our aim is to bridge communities and individual change-makers embracing participatory working practices, open sharing of knowledge and the desire to work together beyond borders of many kinds. We support cultural exchange and creative expression across wider Europe, to share knowledge across the cultural sector, and to campaign for the arts at all levels of political decision-making. We believe in the power of culture in building a democratic, open and inclusive Europe.

What is the ECF currently doing to address the huge challenges currently facing Europe?

We strive to strengthen civil society via arts and culture, which we see as essential for thriving democracies and for solving big challenges of our time, such as the refugee crisis, distrust in democracy or fragmentation of society. We believe that democracy needs imagination.

These topics are often addressed in our thematic focuses, such as the focus ‘Moving Communities’ in this year’s edition of Idea Camp (a three-day collaborative platform for daring and innovative ideas). Moreover, we support local change and connect those making change to broader and overarching structures, such as national governments and European-wide frameworks, particularly European Union institutions. For instance, one of our advocacy focus has been including citizens and culture in the Urban Agenda for the EU. However, our efforts are not only limited to the European continent, but also include Europe’s immediate neighbours for instance in South Caucasus and the MENA region, offering a wider range of perspectives.

Our grants programmes especially bring together individuals who can co-learn at the Idea Camp (a methodology of learning by doing and sharing) and other collaborative programmes, such as Tandem exchange for cultural managers. We have directly supported organisations working in complex political climates such as in Turkey, Poland, Croatia, Hungary and Moldova – recently with our network and action research programme Connected Action for the Commons and the annual ECF Princess Margriet Award for Culture, which celebrates extraordinary and exemplary artists, thinkers or collectives.

Can you think of any examples in the past where the ECF has successfully collaborated with or supported disabled artists or inclusive companies?

The Idea Camp 2017 was set out to be more involving to underrepresented groups. For instance, one of the initiatives present at this year’s Idea Camp in Madrid and subsequently chosen for an ECF R&D grant focuses on creating a safe and friendly environment for disabled people where they can develop culinary skills and to prototype earning money by opening a café in Cairo. Also, our travel grants programme STEP has supported disabled artists in their international collaborations, and we wish to increase this number.

Why do you want to reach more disabled artists/inclusive companies and how might you go about it?

We are looking to broadening our communities, across all groups of individuals, as we want to be reflective of the societies we live in. We believe that all citizens of Europe need to be participants rather than subjects – be it in their communities, society as a whole, or public debate. We are aware that to get there and stay there you constantly need to have a wide group of people at the table. It is an ongoing objective.

Such an ongoing objective means that in practical terms, we must constantly be ready to absorb new knowledge and critically reflect our activities and thinking. For instance, ECF is looking into promoting our programmes among disabled artists and cultural workers. We also want to learn more about the different ways of thinking about disability and get a better understanding of the first-hand artist experience.

Moreover, ECF facilitates and encourages discussion and sharing knowledge face-to-face and online. On our digital meeting point for change-makers, ECF Labs, some members of the online community have shared inspiring examples and interesting research around art and disability, such as this report on inclusive and accessible children's books in the UK.

Can you tell us about some current opportunities that you have open?

Our STEP grants scheme offers travel grants for creative and critical individual cultural workers travelling across Europe and its neighbouring countries. We run this programme in partnership with Compagnia di San Paolo. The call is always open and unique in Europe. STEP wants to foster a society with greater solidarity, equality and a stronger sense of social justice. We welcome applications from members of un(der)represented groups in society, and prioritise among others initiatives with themes or methodologies that promote inclusion and diversity. Moreover, even though STEP is open for everyone, we simply would love to support a higher number of excellent arts and social initiatives from the field of disability arts. There is a whole group of forward-thinking cultural practitioners out there we want to get to know!

Do you have any initiatives or events coming up in the future that you would like to highlight or tell us a bit more about?

We very recently launched Media Activism, a safe space for activists to share their causes and discuss how to support each other in achieving their aims.

The archive holds an ever-growing collection of 500+ alternative media created by active citizens, artists and civil society groups from across Europe. This archive includes short films, remixes, mixed media, music videos, social commentaries, animations and artworks that document Europe’s most pressing social issues. Anyone who would like to participate can add their content to the collection and engage with others.

If you are interested in applying for a STEP Travel Grant please read the guidelines, FAQ, and visit this link to apply.