In times of national crisis, the ability to adapt and respond rapidly influences whether a country makes the transition to a more stable and prosperous future.
In Ukraine the Euromaidan revolution of 2014 brought to a head competing visions of the country’s future, ultimately leading to a new government and a wide-reaching reform process that is inspired, in part, by the aspiration for closer alignment and integration with open, democratic societies in the EU and UK.
Seven years on, much has been achieved, and much remains to be done. The culture sector, in particular, has been a success story, undergoing an impressive revival that has made a substantial contribution to change in Ukraine more broadly. Its experience provides valuable lessons about the role of cultural policy for other countries going through their own periods of major upheaval and change.
A new report from the international think tank Chatham House, Cultural Revival and Social Transformation in Ukraine explores these changes as well as the role that the sector is playing in reshaping the relationship between state institutions and civil society, and in strengthening national identity and resilience. It also points to significant opportunities for the UK and other European countries to engage with the cultural scene in the years ahead.
The report documents the emergence of a vibrant, independent cultural scene in the wake of the revolution as well as radical reform of the state’s cultural institutions. According to the report’s author, Marina Pesenti, Ukraine’s cultural scene has grown in boldness, diversity and scale since 2014, in areas from publishing to music, film production and theatre, to fashion and exhibitions.
There has been a revival of interest in Ukraine’s own culture and heritage, including its rich interwar avant garde theatre and film, as well as the literature of Ukrainian national figures such as Taras Shevchenko.
There has also been a flurry of creative enterprise and cultural activism with urban regeneration projects, pop-up exhibitions and art events used as a platform for debate and discussion on social and political issues.
Behind this cultural revival has been an effective coalition between state institutions, the cultural community and civil society. In a marked departure from previous ‘top-down’ approaches, the post-2014 strategy for the sector’s reform was developed by an alliance of NGOs in collaboration with the culture ministry.
It established key operating principles for the new cultural sector, modelling it on the UK’s more participatory and consensual approach to cultural strategy and funding. It introduced the idea of competitive appointment to leading public sector jobs, and the creation of new arms-length bodies to fund cultural activity on a more transparent and competitive basis.
The new strategy reformulated existing concepts of the arts and creative industries, replacing the idea of art and culture as a ‘luxury good’ or government propaganda vehicle into a tool for social change, innovation and economic growth.
The report found that these principles have steadily become institutionalised since 2014 both through new laws and the founding of a range of arms-length institutions which draw some of their inspiration from UK models. These include the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation which distributes grants to artists, and the Ukrainian Institute which promotes Ukrainian culture abroad.
In sum, the reforms have succeeded in creating what Pesenti describes as a new ecosystem for the cultural sector following a period of significant marginalisation and underfunding.
The role of international support
Outside support has been crucial in sustaining this successful new partnership between state and civil society. The EU and European national governments have played a major role in the post-2014 cultural revival, expanding funding for programmes in culture, education and civil society and supporting the cultural sector in its reforms.
The British Council expanded its drive to share expertise and best practice from the UK cultural sector, and delivered major EU programmes such as Culture Bridges, which enabled artistic exchanges between Ukraine and EU countries.
It also scaled up its own community leadership programme Active Citizens, which the report credits with helping create networks of artists working for social change.
The Goethe-Institut has been another major player in Ukraine’s post-2014 cultural revival. One of its flagship programmes, the Cultural Leadership Academy, has helped address training gaps among cultural professionals working in Ukraine’s regions.
Cultural change and social transformation
The cultural revival of the past decade has been characterised by a new spirit of independence and agency, with Ukrainians taking a renewed interest in their cultural heritage and seeking ways to express themselves with a distinctive Ukrainian voice.
There is a new emphasis on diversity and inclusion in the country’s national identity – again influenced by the European cultural model – with more attention also paid to minority cultures and languages.
The values shift in the sector is also helping unleash a new climate of entrepreneurship and innovation, and promoting a creative mindset that will be key to economic growth.
The road ahead
While much has been achieved, it is still early days in Ukraine’s transition. The report highlights the culture sector’s fragility and the need for further international support to ensure the changes are long-lasting. Recommendations to the international community include directing more support to the cultural scene in the regions, and to national heritage restoration.
The Ukrainian government is encouraged to maintain and complete its current reform programme, in particular the restructuring of cultural institutions and ensuring the continued independence of arms-length cultural agencies.
Strengthening cultural connections with the UK
For the UK, the revival of Ukraine’s cultural sector presents opportunities for greater people-to-people exchange and new institutional connections.
'Ukraine's cultural sector is diverse, innovative and changing rapidly,' says Nicholas Thomas, British Council Director Ukraine. 'There is a strong appetite for more international partnership and good opportunities, we believe, for the UK.'
The UK can benefit from stronger cultural links with Ukraine, helping make its dynamic and diverse cultural scene better known in the UK and beyond.
At this critical time in its history, the support of the UK and other international partners to the cultural sector can play a crucial role in cementing the wider reform process and in providing a platform for Ukraine’s distinctive voice to be heard on the world stage.
Alison Baily, Senior Policy Adviser, Security and Stability, British Council