Members’ Voice: The role of culture in building intercultural societies

Statens Kulturråd - Swedish Arts Council,
28 September 2017, Sweden

Staffan Forssell, Director General of the Swedish Arts Council and IFACCA Board Member, presented to fellow members on the vital role of arts and culture for intercultural dialogue and freedom of expression during the 14th European Chapter meeting in Aarhus, Denmark.

The presentation was given in the context of discussions on Thursday 28 September, on responding to changes in migration, and policies that can support refugees and build intercultural societies, topics which will be explored in our forthcoming report D’Art 53. The presentation text is published below. 

Staffan Forssell, Director General of the Swedish Arts Council:

Culture and the arts have a unique way of touching our imaginations, and opening our hearts. To give an example: The stories by the author Astrid Lindgren, have had an impact on several generations of children in Sweden and other parts of the world. In her novel The Brothers Lionheart, there is a scene where the younger brother, Rusky, asks his older brother, Jonathan, not to fight the evil tyrant of the story. Jonathan replies that some things you have to do, even if they are dangerous, or else you are not a real human being, just a bit of dirt.          


During the Second World War, Astrid Lindgren worked at the Security Services with letter censorship. She was horrified by arriving messages about the Nazi annihilation of the Jewish people. The tyrant in The Brothers Lionheart has been compared to Hitler. The children’s fight against him inspires the reader to have courage to stand up for our human rights.


We now face the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Due to poverty, dictatorship, and war, 160 000 people applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015 – a high number per capita in a country with 10 million people. I am proud that we let them in. And of the fact that civil society gathered to help.


At the same time, is not easy, attacks are being carried out on asylum housing and anti-democratic extremist nationalist or religious movements increase the polarisation between different groups in society.


In Gothenburg, Sweden, the day after tomorrow, a Neo Nazi manifestation will be taking place. At the same time as the celebration of Yom Kippur and the Gothenburg Book Fair – a fair to which freedom of speech is essential. A Neo Nazi manifestation in these circumstances could be interpreted as an act of violence, as the purpose must be to impose fear, limit freedom of speech and create polarisation.


If we do not act against the polarisation between different groups, I see a great risk of the divide in society deepening. Our question here today is what culture and the arts can do to bridge this gap.


The Swedish Arts Council funds several projects to support refugees and build an intercultural society. The government has also funded specific programs, such as 1 million Euros to public libraries last year. The libraries have welcomed newly arrived asylum seekers into society. The number of visitors have increased - especially in small towns with many asylum seekers. The libraries are places for learning Swedish, using the internet, borrowing books or simply for meetings between people from different backgrounds. If the government budget comes through, the Swedish Arts Council will distribute another 23 million Euros to libraries in 2018. 


Ten million Euros is also going to projects run by civil society, through the Swedish Arts Councils Creative Places grant, between 2016 and 2018.  I would like to show a short film about Creative Places.


In many projects taking place around the country civil society plays a central part. Civil society is important, for reaching new audiences but also for the development of the arts. Initiatives in civil society are often run by enthusiasts. Public funding is essential for these initiatives to have sustainable effects.


Working with migration is costly. In Sweden, we currently have a booming economy that can handle these costs. We also know that investing now will give long-term rewards. We are funding now to ensure that our societies are decent for generations to come.


As patrons of the arts we can also stand up for democratic human rights using our own voices. Together with the Chairman of the Board of the Swedish Arts Council, I wrote an open letter to the Security Police. We questioned the decision to allow the Neo Nazi manifestation pass by a synagogue on Yom Kippur and the Gothenburg Book Fair. We were glad to hear last Monday, that the demonstration will not be allowed to pass the Book Fair or the synagogue for security reasons. But it will still happen on other streets in the city.


Freedom of speech must not be used to limit the freedom of speech of others. Freedom of speech and expression, together with our right to seek asylum, lies at the heart of a democratic society.


Let us, as democratic societies, not become fearful bits of dirt in the face of increased migration and xenophobia. Let us meet the UN Refugee Convention. And influence that which is in our power to change. Let us ensure that government funding for the arts promotes intercultural dialogue, welcome the new expressions and mixes of culture that come with migration, and speak out when our society is no longer protecting our human rights.