Nine Hints on How to Talk to a Cultural Attaché

These nine hints on how to talk to a cultural attaché come out of an invitation from BAFA to speak at their annual conference of UK arts festivals in 2010, held in Brighton in the November of that year. I formed part of  a panel presentation on international links where I was asked to address the question: “The Ecology of the Cultural Attaché”.

After 18 years working as one, my contribution to this session was to give the insider view: under what conditions do cultural attachés work, how can you get them to support your programme, are there any helpful ways to gain their confidence?
First off: Watch your relevance 
This conversation is not a one-way street. It is important to speak to their interests as well as to your own. You will have more success if you make an offer to reciprocate in some way.
Understand their work context
Cultural Attachés often work for two masters – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture. The former will often have more weight in their lives as their employer. This Ministry will be bearing the biggest costs like salaries, resource provision like buildings and related overheads – as well as paying for their children’s education and the inflated rents charged in your capital. The latter Ministry may be much more sexy, more visible, but it is “only” funding the programme of work, essential though that role is.
Get the local politics right
These days, the person you call the Attaché may be as much part of a National Cultural Institute or a Government Export Agency, as an employee of the actual Embassy – all bodies present in your capital, sometimes in their own buildings. If they are part of an Institute, the Embassy may even have parallel staff, as can be the case with federated states. Relations may not always be cordial between these bodies, so make sure you are informed about exactly who you are talking to.
Get the national politics right
If they work for a federated state, it is that level of government that will be at the origin of their money. There may be a separate representative for the regional governments (variously called state, province, region, nation), but in whom they can express no interest since they are not being funded from that tax base. The reverse will also be true.
Understand their financial context 

In spite of appearances, many attachés only hold a small budget locally. Their role is policy, not grant aid – which is often generously covered by national institutions back home, and whom they are encouraged not to compete with. Do not get frustrated at this, since it protects them (and eventually your own reputation) from accusations that they:

  • by-passed the system
  • went against a policy decision taken by the responsible national body
  • replaced democratic decision-making by autocracy and favouritism
  • ran the risk of encouraging double-funding
Work within current diplomatic values 
Since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, be aware that new diplomacy initiatives may have affected what the attachés are allowed to be interested in. (See my WOMEX article in this blog.) Recent political and economic upheavals mean that bilateral relations have fallen out of grace, in favour of truly multilateral projects that can pull in several partners. There is safety and strength in numbers – that is, of both money and people. Be aware that some attachés may have been required to view the arts as merely instrumental to the promotion of national reputation, visibility and values – whatever their personal view may be.
Be sensitive to the constraints on their place in your local market 

Attachés mainly work the local demand for their national skills and products: the supply of these is usually well-looked-after back home. They will rarely be allowed to meet artist costs from their budgets, but they are responsible for maintaining the rights and protections of their national artists. Their ability to develop local market share for their artists, upon which they may even be measured, remains vulnerable to areas outside of their control:

  • the impact of local cuts in public expenditure
  • not being able to fund artist transport from their budget
  • green criticism of the increased carbon footprint incurred by international cultural exchange
  • subordination of the cultural brief to public diplomacy initiatives
  • the impact  on their artists’ earnings of double taxation, VAT, with-holding tax and non-harmonised tax credit systems in your country
  • a lack of reciprocal social security agreements between you to protect their performer health when touring your country
  • uneven policies not to speak of corruption in the overseas collection and disbursement of rights payments
  • difficulty protecting intellectual property rights when touring or in the digital sphere
  • loss of revenue from exchange rate fluctuations
  • border controls – that is, whether your state defines theirnationals as travelling under a visa or a non-visa regime

Favour ways around the negative impacts

  • Get the attaché to fund trips for the buyers such as yourself
  • Offer exchange – much richer than the simple purchase of your product
  • Add value – consider offering skills as well as product
  • Give them and their artists access to your networks
  • Offer reciprocity: “If you can do this, I will give you/organise that.”
  • Support international cultural diversity in the UNESCO 2005 Convention sense
  • Hook your project onto their motivation to promote cross-border creativity
  • Alert them to initiatives that are as yet on the horizon, so that they may take full advantage from privileged information and put in early for extra funding
And finally, do not stress the attachés by expecting them to work outside of their available resources: you will lose a valuable friend or two.

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