Every euro well worth it in cultural and art exchange

October 2007 -

Culture as part of development cooperation is not a luxury, says Paul Voogt, head of communications of the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum.

There was a time that it was called development aid. Then that was no longer considered politically correct and it became development cooperation. Not that anything changed in actual practice: it was still aid, from 'us' to 'them'. We bring the money and expertise, they provide the absorption capacity. It was and continued to be one-way traffic.

Until the moment that culture became a part of development cooperation. Cooperation under the denominator of culture is by definition a two-way process. This is true on the individual level: a Western artist in Africa influences art there, but is also influenced by it, returning richer than when he left. And the opposite is also true: the promising young artist who spends a year at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam influences our art climate.

This same xenogamy is also seen in institutional relationships: the Tropenmuseum works in close cooperation with museums in developing countries. This regularly results in collective productions, such as the exposition Zuid-Afrikaanse Familieverhalen on the stories of families in South Africa. Made to an extensive degree by South African researchers, curators, photographers and artists; opening first in Amsterdam and then in Pretoria.

But also when projects are involved such as training local staff, or helping to set up a museum or depot: the direct exchange with the countries we work in is reflected in our own expositions and activities. I know examples of engineers who have helped construct roads in Africa and then returned to the Netherlands, where they introduced new road construction methods. The work of Dutch artists and culture professionals is in fact influenced by international contact.

The exchange in the area of art and culture is seen all over the world, and is gaining speed. We have the level of the opinion makers, sharing a certain discourse whether they live in Lagos, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. They see one another's work at biennials and in museums; they participate in debates, read and publish and follow one another. They know who and what matters.

But the same thing happens on the level of popular art. Trends roll all over the world in music especially. Hip-hop is alive in Nairobi, Tokyo and Lima. Sometimes it is considered saddening: global culture being McDonald-ised. But the translation is unique everywhere in the world: it is mixed everywhere with specific traditions and styles. Even in our own cities an urban lifestyle is evolving in which the youth identify to an increasing degree with their Moroccan, Antillean or Dutch roots.

This new cosmopolitan culture inspires fashions, advertising, industrial design, et cetera. It is best to take the lead, especially in the Netherlands where dependence on the creative services sector is so high. Thus there is no better investment than in the exchange of art and culture. Every euro devoted to that exchange is in the fully understood best interest. Culture as part of development cooperation is not a luxury. It enriches us all. For there is no one-way traffic in art and culture.