This new illustrated study explores cultural relations through the practical example of the International Collaboration Grants programme. It answers questions such as: what are the ingredients to building cultural relations? What are the benefits? How did grantees encounter mutuality, equality, equity, and inequality within their collaborations? And what is distinct about the approach of cultural relations organisations to grant giving?

Firstly, what are cultural relations?

Cultural relations are reciprocal transnational interactions between cultures, which lead to outcomes such as greater connectivity, better mutual understanding, more and deeper relationships, mutually beneficial transactions and enhanced sustainable dialogue between people and cultures. That is one short definition, although there is no single agreed upon definition, and working definitions differ between cultural relations organisations. Cultural relations are important to the British Council, which supports peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide.

About this research study

The report is split into two distinct parts. The first section evidences cultural relations in action through the International Collaboration Grants collaborations. It looks at how the cultural relations approach benefitted grantees, and provides clear pointers on what helps a positive and successful international collaboration and relationship. It also highlights some of the barriers to achieving this. If you are embarking on an International Collaboration project you might find this helpful. The second section defines the cultural relations approach to grant giving within arts and culture, and through this we see the subtle difference in approach to grants programmes between cultural relations organisations and arts councils within the UK as well as how they complement each other.

Case studies and illustrations

The report is illustrated throughout, and is accompanied by five illustrated case studies.

The findings

Download the full report 
Download the executive summary 
Download the case studies


The research documents are compatible with screen readers. They feature comic strips throughout, and transcripts of all the comic strip illustrations are available to download:

Illustrations transcript: Case Studies
Illustrations transcript: Executive Summary
Illustrations transcript: Cultural Relations in Action report 

Summary of the findings

What made international collaboration relationships work?

  • having worked with the other organisation before or knowing each other and how they work 
  • complementarity in what each organisation brought to the collaboration 
  • openness and transparency in dealing with each other 
  • being like-minded in their field/project theme or having common values, backgrounds or political stances on the core issue of their field/ art form 
  • shared enthusiasm about their project’s objective or about learning new things or doing a good job 
  • meeting together regularly or frequently 
  • having fun or making it ‘playful’ 
  • recognising that organisations in other parts of the world are facing the same issues and learning from how they deal with them 

What contributed to building trust? 

  • regular online meetings/ calls and in-depth consultation with openness and transparency
  • joint decision-making
  • agreeing a generous collaboration policy at the beginning of the project
  • agreeing joint ownership of the project outputs
  • adversity and bonding by overcoming difficulties together
  • getting to know the other person or the partner organisations, their approach and thinking on the project theme
  • shared commitment to delivering quality or ‘being in it’ for the cultural exchange rather than financial gain
  • distributing the grant fairly

What did partners value about their collaboration? 

  • wanting to learn new approaches, ideas, and different ways of working
  • wanting to see other ways of thinking and forms of expression 
  • breaking out of one’s ‘bubble’ 
  • breaking the isolation caused by the political situation in their country
  • realising how much one has in common or shares with people from the other side of the globe
  • wanting to change the view that others hold of one’s country or culture

Challenges and tensions

Partners faced various challenges in their collaborations, which tested relationships. Challenges that were sometimes couched as ‘cultural differences’ by partners were those around different ways of working, working at different speeds: for example, how quickly partners would respond to emails — different approaches to how to do things in projects; or how to deal with conflict. These caused tensions at times. When these challenges were overcome this happened through discussion, open communication, owning up to one’s own mistakes, showing understanding and keeping focused on the work. 

The research highlights that practicing equality is new for some actors & requires experimentation with how to organise a partnership.

How did partners understand cultural relations?

  • It is primarily about the relationship. Dialogue between people to achieve mutual understanding, but also outcomes from a collaboration, although dialogue is more important.
  • Exchanging, sharing and learning from each other, especially about how art is understood and translated. New ways of creating, new formats, cross-fertilisation.
  • Respecting diversity, understanding of difference and acceptance of it, not imposing a certain way of viewing culture or of doing things.
  • Meeting as people beyond just the art form and being able to see value in each other. 
  • Cultural diplomacy, or ‘a kind of soft politics’.

Why are cultural relations organisations well placed to support international collaboration grants?

  • The British Council brings to this work its unique in-depth, up to date knowledge of what is new or interesting in the art and wider cultural sectors in other countries; coupled with their contacts in government in these countries. These have been built over a long period of time due to the British Council's extensive presence outside the UK. This is an asset that the British Council has built over a long period of time thanks to its extensive presence outside the UK.
  • The global network of British Councils arts teams based in different countries and its arts group in the UK provide rich experience-based knowledge that can be drawn on across the international networks that it is part of, and which can be valuable when deciding on international partnerships, grant applications and designing programmes.
  • This network helps UK arts councils, as British Council staff can act as a kind of intermediary, on the one hand, between artists in different parts of the UK or the UK arts councils, and, on the other, artists in countries where British artists want to connect. British Council staff can provide valuable information and advice to visiting British artists, including on practical issues. They are aware of local sensitivities, cultural differences and ‘things that might otherwise act as blocks for UK artists.
  • The British Council network of offices abroad and its understanding of the local context in other countries also helps adapt projects and collaborations to changing circumstances in the countries where collaborating artists are based.

What is distinct about the ‘international cultural relations approach’ and how it adds value to international artistic collaboration?

Commonalities between the three cultural relations organisations (British Council, EUNIC and Goethe-Institut) were identified trough the research. The cultural relations organisations focus more on relationship building, because they see their grant giving as being about building and supporting long term trust, understanding and relationships – the outcomes of cultural relations. It is here that the added value of the cultural relations approach primarily lies — in the ‘accompaniment’ of grantees during their collaborations: the cultural relations organisations, including the British Council, organise gatherings of grantees to meet and explore partnering together or to develop further relationships or a sense of community; their staff support grantees when they encounter difficulties during the implementation of their projects and they provide grantees with various additional resources. Pursuing fairness or equality in international partnerships is at the core of the cultural relations approach and these principles are also what make the cultural relations approach innovative. They are committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and linking the outcomes of their work to them.


Illustrated by Eileen Lemoine, copyright the British Council