After surviving decades of occupation by a foreign power, how does a city restore and capture the value of its strengths in the arts and cultural heritage? This is a question that Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, faced in the early 1990s after the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union.
During the Soviet occupation, artistic and cultural activities - and hundreds of years of cultural heritage - were suppressed. The occupation and its restrictive policies disrupted the vibrant cultural life of Vilnius and were extremely harsh for writers, artists, filmmakers and other workers in creative sectors. But the voices of creativity and culture in Vilnius could not be silenced, and non-conformist underground groups survived to print newsletters, preserve folk culture and sustain national identity.
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Revitalizing the arts and cultural heritage
In the years following independence, Lithuanian policymakers at national and local levels grappled with the challenge of how to revive the arts and cultural heritage. Decentralizing cultural decision-making and abolishing the regulation of artistic and cultural expression were among the changes pursued in government plans. Cultural leaders had high hopes that government policies for creative sectors would be modernized in the newly independent country - and far-removed from Soviet-style controls. Expert committees, municipal commissions and a culture and arts council were established to make decisions on programs and how to finance art, culture and media projects.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, government programs in Lithuania recognized the importance of connecting cultural heritage preservation to educational institutions and international cooperation.
Cultural policies were directed at reform measures such as decentralizing cultural administration and supporting inclusive participation in cultural life. However, making changes to policies and funding was more difficult than expected. Support for the arts was considered a low priority while the new government and municipal leaders confronted social and economic challenges.
Improving cultural inclusion proved to be an elusive target - with many people in Lithuanian society not having sufficient access to the arts or involvement in cultural activities. In a survey on the barriers to cultural inclusion, “lack of accessibility” due to cost was a major cause for 37% of the population. Another 23% indicated that “supply issues” - insufficient information, limited choice, poor quality and inappropriate opening hours - were contributing factors.
As the global smart city movement gained momentum, Vilnius and other cities around the world acknowledged the potential value of embracing art and culture in sustainability planning and supporting local ecosystems of creative professionals. In a guide for cultural action at the local level, United Cities for Local Government (UCLG) noted that “cultural rights, heritage, diversity and creativity are core components of human and sustainable development.” According to the American Planning Association, sustaining a high concentration of creative enterprises in a community contributes to economic vitality and a favourable climate for innovation.
In 2019, Lithuania released a cultural policy strategy which identified core values and established strategic directions and objectives for the next decade. The strategy refers to “a positive correlation between active participation in cultural life and quality of personal and social life.” Hence, a strategic objective in Lithuania is “to promote the equal accessibility of high quality and various forms of culture for diverse social groups”.
Integrating cultural policy and urban strategy
Today Vilnius plays a major role in Lithuania’s cultural and social development. “Smart solutions, development of high tech, innovative companies and cultural policy create favourable conditions to improve cultural competencies of the population, promote cultural activities and improve the overall experience of cultural life in the city.”
Although Vilnius represents only 25% of the nation’s population, an estimated 70% of Lithuanian creative and cultural industries are concentrated in the Vilnius metropolitan area. As an emerging smart city, Vilnius has taken action to capture the value of its strengths as a creative and artistic centre. A wealth of digitised cultural heritage is preserved and available through e-paveldas (a virtual information system with an estimated three million pages of digitised objects), the Lithuanian Integral Museum Information System (LIMIS), and Vilnius University. The Vilnius University library engages in national and international cultural heritage preservation projects and digitizes more than 80,000 pages per year of cultural heritage objects. Users can access scanned cultural materials through the library's digital collections website.
Through its cultural policies - based on multiculturalism and openness - Vilnius seeks to ensure people in all segments of society can use and enjoy cultural services and activities. In strategic guidelines on cultural policy, municipal leaders in Vilnius convey a vision of the city as a “creative capital - where culture is accessible and involves a wide audience of the city's residents and guests, covers the entire geographical area of Vilnius, and attracts creative and cultural talent from Lithuania and abroad.” To achieve this vision, the city intends to:
- Ensure a diverse culture of high value is more accessible to Vilnius residents
- Promote the multicultural identity of Vilnius more effectively and preserve the city’s cultural heritage
- Improve the quality of services provided by the cultural sector and facilitate more efficient management of cultural resources and programs
- Increase the city’s visibility in the international art and culture sectors
Recognizing the value of cooperation
By reaching beyond local and national borders, Vilnius adds value to the city’s image as a centre of creative talent and cultural heritage. Multiple entities in the Vilnius art and cultural ecosystem participate in initiatives such as Creative Europe, Europeana Foundation and the URBACT ACCESS network.
Creative Europe 2021-2027 - an EU framework program designed to support and strengthen European culture, heritage, creative and audiovisual sectors - announced an allocation of €2.2 billion. The program promotes cross-border cooperation and networking, protects cultural and linguistic diversity, and fosters the dissemination of European artistic and cultural content.
ECMA Pro is an example of a cooperation project co-funded by Creative Europe. With twelve partner institutions - including the Academy of Music and Theater in Vilnius - this project aims to improve the skills, international visibility and audience appeal of young musicians in the field of chamber music. In addition to artistic training, ECMO Pro fosters capacity-building in career management skills, audience development and societal outreach. The project will encourage the use of new technologies and digitisation. Project activities will include the creation of an online learning platform for chamber music education and a digital switchboard to facilitate communications among concert organizers, agencies and chamber music ensembles.
The Europeana Foundation is an initiative that serves as a multilingual access point to digital European heritage, and Vilnius University is the largest Lithuanian contributor to Europeana Collections. In light of the pandemic, Europeana believes “the need to embrace and support the digital transformation of Europe’s cultural heritage sector in an inclusive way has never been more important.” The Foundation helps cultural institutions to modernize technical infrastructure and share their collections online.
The University of Vilnius faculty of communication led the Europeana Archaeology consortium to increase the volume and online accessibility of “high-quality digital content for Europe’s rich heritage of archaeological monuments, historic buildings, cultural landscapes and artefacts.”
The Lithuanian National Museum of Art in Vilnius is a recognized training and competence centre for managing museum digitization in international projects such as Europeana Photography.
Vilnius is also an active member of the URBACT ACCESS network, a European project involving cooperation among multiple cities. The project champions a belief that “a more inclusive culture has the ability to facilitate greater understanding of individuals and their lives … and find solutions to the complex issues of today’s urban metropoles.”
According to the URBACT website, Vilnius faces challenges that will be addressed in the ACCESS project, such as identifying the cultural needs and preferences of local communities and societal groups; encouraging the decentralisation of art and cultural offerings; and exploring how smart solutions and technologies may increase cultural inclusion.
Vilnius municipal leaders believe that knowledge-sharing and collaborative efforts in the ACCESS network will help in identifying the roots of cultural problems and discovering innovative ways to ensure equal access to culture for all citizens.
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