Culture Summit: not just a networking opp for VIPs

In October the UAE happens to be playing host to some blue-sky thinking – in the capital a stellar line-up of speakers at Culture Summit Abu Dhabi muses about the future of culture, in Dubai the reportedly very successful Dubai Future Forum had an equally star-studded roster of folk dealing with the future of just about everything else.

The quality of the debate and the sheer scope of the content meant that Dubai’s trawl through multiple near-futures probably couldn’t produce any seismic takeaways, but then that wasn’t the point. It might be that Culture Summit Abu Dhabi can do a bit better in terms of actionable recommendations.

Under the theme ‘A Living Culture’, Culture Summit takes place from 23 to 25 October. It aims to discuss the future of the culture sector and explore creative cultural solutions to some of the most urgent issues affecting the world today, and given the economic and spiritual value of the cultural sector it can provide a very useful forum.

True, in past years we’ve been critical of its introversion – selected bigwigs from international culture (“art, culture, policy, media, and technology leaders from over 90 countries”) are flown in to be wined, dined, entertained and invited to network with each other when they aren’t involved in speaking at or listening to the discussions.

That’s always been the format. But the Covid restrictions helped enlarge the audience by putting most of the panels online and making them publicly accessible; and now that we’re back in in-person formats, public access is being maintained as far as is practicable. Practicality is constrained, however; the event is by invitation only and spaces are limited – all those VIPs have to be fitted in – so if you’re not one of them you can register your interest in attending via the website. There’s no actual ‘register to attend’ form; try the generic contact page.

We’ve also been accused of being a bit sniffy about the value of past Culture Summits, but either things have improved or we’ve mellowed. The past couple have been very good in the quality both of the discussion and the outcomes in terms of recommendations.

The programme looks good this year, too. For a start it’s a full three days, with presentations from 9am to 5pm or later – none of the afternoon-only laxity seen in some other ‘conferences’. Most of the time there are three streams running concurrently, and the content has been organised so that each day examines a sub-theme in more detail.

On day one, Living Cultural Ecosystems broadly takes a sectoral perspective, looking at the emergence of  cultural and creative ecosystems that are more adaptable, resilient and responsive to change. There are several presentations specifically on this theme but others that provide an interesting sidelong view – diversity in Hollywood, the changing role of the collector, the power of culture districts.

The second day looks at the ways culture impacts individuals and communities through the lens of changing patterns of cultural participation. This theme – Living in Culture – ranges from the general (Cultural and Creative Ecosystems: Infrastructures, Challenges, Regulations) to the specific (art in Afghanistan, how museums will have to adapt). There also a high-tech AI-oriented thread that includes a creative ‘conversation’ between Tim Marlow from London’s Design Museum and Ai-Da, the world’s first ultra-realistic artist robot (that’s her/it on the right). The keynote from Forensic Architecture’s Eyal Weizman looks like a must-see, too.

Finally, day three gets the catch-all subtheme of Culture, Diversity, Power to cover how public and institutions policies can support diversity in a sustainable way. 

The programme is made up of keynotes, panel discussions, artist talks, workshops, film screenings, creative conversations, and performances – the latter including oud royalty Naseer Shamma, Kader Attou’s The Roots (you can get tickets for this too: it’s at the Cultural Foundation), Jahida Wehbe, Charbel Rouhana playing with Danilo Pérez’s Global Jazz Project … All good stuff.

Mohamed Al Mubarak (right), chair of DCT Abu Dhabi, which organises Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, must be pleased with the status the event has built – “a meeting place for cultural experts and professionals from various fields of expertise to come together and discuss the future of our sector,” as he put it.

He also spoke of “the shared responsibility we have to find solutions and shape policies that can address the pressing issues of our time and find ways to drive change in our global industry”. That was echoed by Ernesto Ottone from UNESCO, one of Culture Summit’s partners: “The 5th Culture Summit Abu Dhabi presents a timely opportunity for cultural stakeholders worldwide to share a common vision to revise current models and imagine more sustainable and resilient pathways for the future”. And another partner representative, Richard Armstrong from the Guggenheim, said the Summit “offers an all-too-rare opportunity for artists and thinkers to envision the future”.

That’s obviously key to the Summit’s success: it’s not so much the programme’s content, more the chance for cultural players from around the world to network, build contacts, see how others are doing it, and take home ideas that can perhaps affect the way we create, access and value culture tomorrow. Here’s hoping.

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