Inspiration from Quebec, Canada that excels in cultural diplomacy. Interview with Nassib El-Husseini , CEO, The 7 Fingers.
In November 2016 Karen Toftegaard met with CEO for the circus-company The 7 Fingers, Nassib El-Husseini, to ask him some questions about international touring strategies and cultural diplomacy. We begin with a clarification: Nassib is talking as C.E.O of The 7 Fingers – not as the president in CINARS Advisory Board or as board member of the art council in Montréal, which are roles he also carries out.
Karen: I am very fascinated by the cultural model you have for international touring and the cultural export you have been doing especially here in Montréal. What are your strategies and what is your reality?
Nassib: Look, there is not one answer – of course not. We have a support system that is available for all. But the nature of the disciplines and of the work dictates a different route and different ways to support. You cannot address the question, if you are a Circus company like Cirque Eloize as if you are a contemporary dance company. Because it is not necessarily the same market. So let’s start with what’s available to all. And then we go to the specifics of The 7 Fingers. What’s available to all luckily is hopefully going to multiply this year, because the Federal has come back. [Canada’s economic growth strengthened in 2016, leaving more funding for the arts. Read more. -Ed.] But what we have, is always really interesting because we had the three levels of support, from the municipal, the provincial (Quebec) and the Federal. And all 3 support creations. The provincial and the Federal also support export. The municipal do not support export. It supports activities and creations here in Montreal. But in some way it does support exports. When you help people to create, it also makes them more ready for the export.
We have big advantages in Quebec. It is not just one program. To understand it well, you should understand that the ministry of culture have two agencies that can help with export. Which is CALQ (Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec) not for profit. But the ministry also have another agency, which is La SODEC (Société de Développement des Entreprises Culturelles) which helps for profit companies. Many festivals and companies act in both fields depending on the project and their board members.
Bank supporting culture companies
Karen: That means you can get both commercial and non-commercial support?
Nassib: Yes. Well in the beginning the SODEC was mainly targeting movies, books and music. Now it is also for live stage. The ministry of culture in Quebec are for both kinds of support depending on the companies. And that is specific to Quebec. Another tool available is that we have a financial cooperative “Caisse de la Culture” which specialises in culture. They support culture companies and understand their needs.
Karen: And who made this one? Who is behind this “Caisse de la Culture”?
Nassib: In the beginning it was the Union of artists who initiated this cooperative bank. They called it Caisse, because it is a cooperative bank, but it works like a normal bank. For example if you are an artist and you sell your show to a governmental institution that will pay you in one year, Caisse de la Culture accepts to give you the money. They accept that contract and give you the money in advance. Which is otherwise very difficult because the banks usually do not give you anything. And also there is an agreement with Caisse de la Culture and other banks with EDC. EDC is an export development cooperation. That is an arm of the government of Canada to finance export, and this is usually for manufacturing shoes, planes and trains. Not culture. But there is now a support and we, The 7 Fingers, do use it. You can have it even to vouch for profit. They give support for pre-shipment financing. For example if you sell the show but you need cargo and you need to create the show.
Export or die
Karen: Why do Quebec have so many institutions supporting your cultural export? What are the thoughts behind this praxis?
Nassib: We are 8 million people in Quebec and a territory 3.5 times as big as France. It’s a looooot of space. A lot of cost to travel. Little population, little demography and the language barrier to export in North America for let us say theatre or things that heavily rely on language. Also there is this identity challenge for Quebec, which have had a lot of national movements for separation and independence – carried a lot by the artists in the beginning. These factors made the Government sensitive to the issue of art, artists and language and necessity to protect the specificity of culture in a sea of English speaking people. I mean, 8 million out of 300 million! All these elements resulted in the vibrant community of artists attracting attention from different authorities to win their hearts. Whether you are for independence or against, it gives a lot of importance to the artist community. Some say that the water here is the reason why there are a lot of artists. But I think that the visitors also need to exist – because they need to export. Who else will we play for the art? We are a small population, not unlike Denmark. Actually same number almost. However we are a small population in a huge country. So the question of export is a no-brainer or we die economically.
Cultural diplomacy – Artists speak and do beautiful things
Karen: In an interview I did with Clothilde Cardinal (Programming director at the venue Place des Arts in Montréal), she mentioned having and using this cultural diplomacy. How do you navigate within cultural diplomacy-strategies?
Nassib: The 7 Fingers is one of the companies that uses it the most and serve the most. I was in Moscow recently with our creation PRINCESS OF CIRCUS . We have a partnership with the Russians, while others are in almost kind of a Cold War with the them. Artists speak and do beautiful things, this is naturally used as a cultural diplomacy. Embassies and “Delegation du Quebec” use us in a good way, by inviting and raising visibility for us and for them. Inviting personalities both from the political and business world, and from the art world. Simply raising the profile as creativity and beauty. This has never stopped. But Quebec made it more possible to use, because it has a network of “Delegation du Quebec” in many countries and they are really close to the artists and use it. You know, depending on who you are, some artists criticised us because of the winter opening ceremony of the Olympics. They did not like the political regime. We disagree. We disagree with almost all politics in the world. We belive in going and engage with the art. Not staying at home and sleep. In every country in the world, you have citizens of the world, who are beautiful people. If you cut talking to them, it is the most sad thing possible. So we totally believe in diplomacy/cultural diplomacy. But in the end we make shows and we want to meet the public. Let us not put that much into it. But it can also be used as diplomacy and keeping the communication open, even when societies or Government are in strife. It is oxygen for people to meet and for like-minded people to meet. Arts unite.
Karen: You mentioned what Montreal and Quebec do to enhance the cultural export. What do you do to lobby or convince the politicians that it is still a very good idea to invest in arts and in export. What are your strategies regarding the politicians?
Nassib: There are many groups that are spokespersons for artists, so it is a collective effort. Individually what we all can do is do good work and answer the journalists etc. But the work is done on a level of associations. Like Culture Montréal and Union des Artistes for artists. It is more the work, the associations who have members in the drama, in theatre, in dance, in CINARS. For export, CINARS is very vocal but many are. Individual artists do it while they do the work and prove its importance. However it’s really not lobbying, in the sense of official lobbying. That is the work of the organisations who are created to do that.
Karen: And what does CINARS do?
Nassib: CINARS specialises in helping export, by providing opportunities and the market every 2 years but also by getting support by the Government and showcasing during other markets like APAP. So CINARS is a vehicle to showcase. Not only during the market in Montreal.
Beauty as an argument
Karen: What kind of lobbying have you been doing. Is it more like associations?
Nassib: Yes, but only through associations such as En Piste and meetings with officials.
Karen: What kind of arguments do you use?
Nassib: Some use the economically argument. I leave it to others. Yes, it is true that we are a part of the economic activity. Yes, it is true we are vital. Yes it is true that we are job creators, not always highly paid but job creators. We are bigger than many other sectors of the economy. But I leave it to others, this economic argument.
Karen: Which argument do you prefer?
Nassib: Beauty, necessity for sweetness, educations in different ways, education not like preaching, but that comes directly from art. Premiere art does not need to be defended. It is like drinking water. It is like breathing oxygen. I am in agreement with people who use the economic argument. I do not disagree. I just leave it to others and prefer to put the focus on the importance of this expression that distinguishes us from the other ranges that I love. The animals, the non-speaking animals, the plants. If we take out culture – that is a jungle.
Art is like Esperanto
Karen: What do you say, when you talk to politicians and give your argument for culture?
Nassib: All of the above. And I will go with other people that speak of the economy. I make sure that they are in the room. I am not against it. I just do not think I am the right person to defend it. Although I am probably one of the C.E.O’s who is efficient in making the economic work. And I understand it’s importance. I think The 7 Fingers is perfectly integrated and very good at that, but when I speak to officials, I speak about the intrinsic importance of arts and culture.
Karen: And why is it important?
Nassib: How can we imagine having citizens of the world living in peace and harmony, if we do not foster culture and art? How do we even consider it possible? It is another Esperanto. Esperanto failed and English is our most common language now, but art and culture is stronger than English. It is stronger because it has no barriers. It touches people in so many different ways. Even more so important, when it can reach out to the youth. From day one, it can reach out to them, in order to really bring them the sweetness and sensitivity and openness of the mind.
In our shows, we have people from all over the world and from all over the ways of life and we make the same shows together and it is possible because we are depending on stage together. People from different origins are coming together making the same show and delivering it in such a forceful way. I think indirectly it is the job of the Arts Council to pass on this message of heritage. I think it is more efficient. For an example the show CUISINE & CONFESSIONS is now touring with success in places where you do not hear about fascism and communism. And the show shows beauty and we eat a banana cake in the end. But there is one moment where one artist talks about how his father was kidnapped and killed by fascists. I think people who will not hear about that in school or university or through preaching, when they see this beautiful show, then it is that moment that touches them. I was a professor before, and I was talking and writing to the converted and I think with shows we can reach out to more people, who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to be touched in that way.
Thank you to Nassib El-Husseini for sharing his thoughts and experiences with Cultural Diplomacy.