UNESCO's World Cultural Forum

Cultural entrepreneurship got a big shot in the arm last month via UNESCO.

UNESCO hosted the first Forum of Cultural Industries at the Villa Reale, an 18th-century Hapsburg palace in Monza, northern Italy. Artisans, marketers, designers and government officials from more than 50 countries mixed, mingled and discussed how best to bring handcrafted goods to the luxury and fashion markets.
"Far from being a threat to cultural diversity and creativity, globalization is in reality a support and vector," said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura at the opening ceremony on Sept. 24, "so long as [it] is placed in the service of sustainable development, respectful of people and their socio-cultural environments."
Forum attendees likewise noted the gathering's pro-business tone, a departure from the usual bureaucrat-heavy U.N.-sponsored gathering.  "It was like a trade fair," noted Tony Pigott, president of the Canadian division of the worldwide ad agency JWT (formerly J. Walter Thompson).  "Marketing is seen as almost a dirty word among U.N. people -- it's consumerism -- but it's NOT a dirty word to the artisans."
Senegalese textile designer and maker Aissa Dione, whose fabrics are used by Parisian fashion houses and sold under her own name in Europe and New York, emphasized the importance of a friendly regulatory environment. "I'm also a businesswoman [as well as a designer]," she said.  "Fair trade is not that important to me.  I had to make a business in the global business system, and you have to do that."
Still, she was a bit surprised at the Monza conference to find herself included on a panel discussing gender issues in cultural entrepreneurship. "I'm not that interested in gender issues," she told Hand/Eye.  "I have 95 men working for me.  Economic development overall is more important. "Here in Senegal," she added, "we face tremendous problems of economic development, of taxation.  Raw materials are sometimes very difficult to get and prices change."
Or, as she recently told the World Bank's DoingBusiness.org Web site [http://www.doingbusiness.org/documents/Women_in_Africa-AissaDionne.pdf],... profiled female African entrepreneurs, "We could do at least four times the business we are doing now if we had better ability to borrow."
For Marcella Echavarria, whose SURevolution company brings artisanal jewelry and home furnishings from South America, Africa and India to the showrooms of New York, the Monza conference came at exactly the right time.
"The forum was very successful because it brought together a multidisciplinary group of people involved with the artisanal sector from different angles: artisans, mentors, manufacturers, designers, government people, development people," she said. "What was really groundbreaking at the Forum was the emphasis on the missing link for the success of the sector: the cultural entrepreneur."
To Tom Aageson, executive director of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation and former executive director of Aid to Artisans, the Monza forum showed that cultural entrepreneurship has finally been recognized as a powerful force. "For me, the conference was a huge step forward in getting the world to understand the importance of culture," he said.  "It's great to see that the language of cultural industries is now commonly accepted -- we're only now understanding the role of culture in society."
But to Dione and Pigott, there was one big element missing from the Monza forum. Apart from a keynote address by Lanvin's head designer Alber Elbaz, both reported there was underwhelming attendance by the fashion and luxury industries, the very customers cultural entrepreneurs are aiming to attract. "I was told Armani and Fendi would be there, and they weren't," said Dione.  "UNESCO likes to focus on theory, but the fashion and luxury companies need to see products, not theory.  There should be a product display at the next conference."
Everyone agreed, however, that Elbaz's speech was inspiring. Pigott called it "brilliant."
"He spoke about property theft and knockoffs, a problem for the entire industry, and about the relentless pressure of fashion design," said Pigott.  Echavarria said Elbaz, who was born in Morocco, grew up in Israel and now works in Paris, told a story that illuminates the importance of business to the creative industries. 
"I used to work with Yves Saint Laurent, and one day he asked me for my opinion on a dress," she quoted Elbaz. "I said, 'It seems commercial.' To which he replied, 'You mean desirable?' That day, I entered the world of fashion."
A greater sense of commercialism is something that Pigott hopes will be stressed at the next Monza conference, and in the world of cultural entrepreneurship in general. "There was a very emphatic and loud declaration from them all: We need more marketing and market access," he said of the artisans attending the forum. "There's not enough mechanism to get makers together with markets."
Asked what he'd like to see at the next Monza conference, Aageson replied  with a question of his own: "As cultural enterprises mature, where will they find capital to scale up?  We need to bring investors to the next gathering." But he added that recognition of cultural entrepreneurship byinternational donors, aid agencies and national governments might be just as important.
"How do we get them interested in making this part of their development strategies?" Aageson pondered. "Do USAID and others like it have actual development strategies related to culture? And how do you get economic development officials at the table?"
Pigott, the advertising man, thinks artisans could benefit from a new concept in consumer awareness. "Fair trade and microfinance need a third leg -- micromarketing," he explained.  The Monza conference "completely validates our theory that new innovations in marketing and marketing platforms will be significant" in aiding cultural entrepreneurship.
 
To that end, Pigott recently helped found the Brandaid Project, a Toronto-based endeavor to provide pro bono marketing for artisans in developing countries. Its first clients, so to speak, were craftsmen in Haiti who make masks out of papier-mache. The ad clips, one of which stars actor Josh Brolin [http://www.youtube.com/user/BRANDAIDProject#play/uploads/0/-yjlFUwFAhc],... be viewed on YouTube [http://www.youtube.com/user/BRANDAIDProject#play/uploads/1/3Q8PQmcWeFM]."We got them to update these masks with castoff clothes, to tremendous success," he explained.  "It's all about finding new ideas for old crafts."
According to Pigott, creating an ad market for artisans is simple in concept. You've got to "enlist ad agencies to expand pro bono campaigns to these groups,"  then "create virtual online agencies to enlist freelancers to create marketing materials as volunteer work."
While the Monza gathering was designed mainly to be a forum where artisans and entrepreneurs could meet, mingle and network, several shared ideas did come out of the conference.  "There's momentum to make this a biennal or even an annual gathering," said Aageson, "a Davos of culture, a World Cultural Forum to parallel the World Economic Forum."
Aageson and Echavarria noted that other proposals included endowing a university chair to study cultural entrepreneurship, creating awards to be given in the field and possibly even creating a think tank to study global cultural enterprises. UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture Francoise Riviere told attendees that future forums would be held at Monza as well. Some participants had definite ideas about what should be added to the next forum.
Pigott said that "peer pressure" could generate higher turnout from the luxury and fashion industries. "Get influential people in industry, celebrities to endorse the concept and conference," he said. "Get LVMH, Gucci to come." 
"There should be a focus on overall design," noted Dione. "Fashion and luxury are good, but design needs to be represented as well. "
But all agreed that they'd be going to the next one. "This is just the begining of something new that needs voices, commitment and permanence," said Echavarria. "Building this new world needs to have a long-term vision." 
"Will I go to the next Monza conference?" laughed Aageson. "If they invite me! I wouldn't miss it for the world."
 

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