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Planning a new cultural venue: Exploring the needs of the local cultural ecosystem

How to plan a new cultural venue in a district already rich in cultural life? How can a new cultural institution help to connect existing spaces and organisations, instead of competing with them? Adaptér will be an Art & Technology Centre in the Újbuda district of Budapest, co-financed by the Urban Innovative Actions-funded project CUP4Creativity. Aiming to connect the local cultural scene with the tech sector and residents, it is crucial that the new institution takes into account the gaps in the local cultural ecosystem and acts as a bridge. In this article, UIA expert Levente Polyak looks into the workshops designed to better understand the shortcomings and needs of this ecosystem.

Many things can go wrong when a municipality prepares the ground for a new cultural venue. The history of flagship cultural events and institutions show that new venues often interfere with existing initiatives, competing with them both for funding and for public attention in a limited market. Sometimes they co-opt ideas or initiatives conceived earlier in civic initiatives or informal groups, thus institutionalising them and draining the energies of the civic sector. In other cases they simply prove to be irrelevant from the viewpoint of the bottom-up cultural scene, operating silently, unconnected with existing venues, initiatives and organisations.

In order to better connect a new institution with an existing scene, it is therefore important to better understand that scene, exploring their shortcomings and needs. The pursuit of understanding the art and cultural, as well as the science and technological landscape of Újbuda, inevitably pushes one to want to understand entities (venues, organisations, businesses, etc.) not only as single units, but as part of something bigger, as part of a puzzle within a broader ecosystem. Hence, the cultural (and technological) mapping of Újbuda (see the article “From initiatives to synergies: Mapping Újbuda’s cultural scene”), was concluded with the explicit intent to understand the district in a more interconnected manner, to explore relationships between local actors, making for a more comprehensive and accurate picture of the cultural (and tech) life locally.

One of the key aims of the CUP4Creativity project is the establishment of Adaptér, an Art & Tech Centre located in Újbuda’s Bartók Cultural Quarter. This institution is hoped to become a node where the threads of the district’s cultural life can be woven together, connecting the local culture and art scene with the area’s science and technology sectors. However, in order to be fully embedded in the local cultural and tech life, the facilities, equipment and the programming of the new centre have to be planned to serve local needs and inspire enhanced cooperation. A co-design process is needed.

ARC open-air poster festival in Újbuda. Photo (cc) Levente Polyak
Revisiting the needs of a scene

Rita Szerencsés is a social designer and researcher at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME). With extensive experience in co-designing processes with a wide set of stakeholders, she was invited by CUP4Creativity to explore the needs and aspirations of local stakeholders and help understand the place of Adaptér in Újbuda’s future cultural ecosystem. Restricted by one of the last waves of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, I met Rita online to discuss the workshop series she led with protagonists of the district’s cultural life.

The workshops, organised around the idea of the future Adaptér, were born from the need to reconsider some of the project’s points of departure. While this discussion about the embeddedness of the future venue in the local ecosystem came relatively late in the process, the consortium was able to implement a feedback loop to inform and adjust the planning process. The consortium’s flexibility in adapting to the needs arising from their members allowed it to go back to an earlier stage in order to bring partners to a common understanding concerning their ideas and potential connections to the future venue.

Rita sees the workshops a “means for the developers of the new venue’s concept to understand what the local stakeholders’ needs are.” While the core concept of Adaptér is established and agreed on, “it is not too late to fine-tune the concept and incorporate newly arising needs into the venue’s profile.”

The workshops brought together not only partners of CUP4Creativity, but also key protagonists of the local cultural scene: representatives of a number of local galleries, art ateliers, coffee houses and restaurants joined. „The idea was to start from the participants’ general vision of the neighbourhood,” explains Rita, “before moving towards more specific questions” related to the area, its local characteristics and the specific needs of local organisations and businesses. The methodologies of the workshops followed a simple logic and aimed to facilitate the workshop participants’ engagement and contribution.

“Essentially, we produced mind maps: what do they remember, what are their strongest impressions of the area? What’s going on in the neighbourhood and where are the gaps?” recalls Rita. During the first workshop, the needs of participating organisations were assessed using a sort of SWOT analysis. This SWOT analysis, in turn, served as the basis of the second workshop, that, more specifically, zoomed in on Adaptér, narrowing the focus of the discussion.

When discussing the needs of individual organisations in the area, participants evoked many more urgent needs than a new cultural venue. More uniform regulations, a better use of public spaces, a joint brand, a shared communication platform, a coherent development strategy for the area, a solid environmental and sustainability dimension for local culture could all strengthen the coherence of the district’s cultural scene. At a more practical level, sharing technical equipment, materials, storage space and volunteers could also make the work of local organisations more efficient and more collaborative.

However, more conceptual aspirations converged around the need for a “district living room,” a venue that brings together initiatives and that also connects with local shops and producers. These demands offer the consortium, and especially the partners responsible for conceiving the new venue, a working hypothesis towards refining the concept of Adaptér. While the new venue will clearly not solve all the challenges faced locally, and its practical added value to local stakeholders and the entire ecosystem remains to be seen, Adaptér can potentially open up new avenues and opportunities to further develop the cultural (and technological) ecosystem of Újbuda.

Mapping exercise in Újbuda venue. Photo (cc) Levente Polyak
From cross-sectoral cooperation…

In the past years, Újbuda has become known for its vibrant and lively cultural scene. This transformation has been led by a variety of local actors. The neighbourhood’s success is not only due to designated cultural organisations: the restaurants and cafés (and restaurant-galleries) claimed a key role in this transformation. Besides the occasional events, the fact that they’re regularly open and accessible from the sidewalk and serve as “third places” for many of the area’s cultural workers, makes them the most visible elements of the area’s cultural life. Rita underlines this contribution: “The role of the cafés and restaurants is straightforward: with their cultural programming, they have become the real representatives of the area’s cultural life; they’re the ones who maintain this cultural scene on a daily basis.”

Other cultural organisations and creative offices, often based in side streets of the Bartók Boulevard or in upper floor offices across the neighbourhood, are less visible but nevertheless crucial building blocks of the area, not only as customers of the local services and public to cultural events but also as contributors to the local discussion about the district’s future.

On the other hand, despite the university’s close proximity, the area’s science and technology actors are even less visible and less connected to this cultural ecosystem. This, to some extent, can be attributed to the fact that some of the university’s facilities and the industrial area hosting many of the technology start-ups are situated at the edge of the cultural district and are not as easily accessible to visitors as Bartók Boulevard, the area’s “cultural avenue.”

Nevertheless, there is a growing interest among cultural actors in the district’s less central areas, including the industrial zones. As Rita explains, “the popularity of local industrial tours signals the significant interest of the local residents, indicating their desire to get to know this aspect of the district better.” As opposed to the already accomplished cultural venues in Újbuda’s heart, “these industrial areas incite interest not because of what has already happened in those places but because of what can happen there.”

Connecting art and culture with the tech industry is an exciting new direction that a number of cultural initiatives have taken which resulted in a number of great collaborations in other European and North American urban contexts (e.g. Art and Tech Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art, USA; and at the University of Houston, USA; The Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany). By building on the appeal of the lesser-known industrial (tech) sector, the cultural ecosystem could branch out to a new direction and create innovative and potentially lasting links with organisations and businesses working in the science and technology sphere. The planned Adaptér could be an important institution in creating and maintaining these links.

Árasztó part, new public space in Újbuda. Photo (cc) Levente Polyak
…to inclusion

In Újbuda’s forming cultural ecosystem, many local cultural entities have strong ties to each other, yet their relationships are somewhat strained by the fact that, although they work together on a number of cultural projects and events, in the face of limited financial (and other) resources, they are also competitors of each other. This somewhat complicates the understanding of the cultural ecosystem and emphasises the importance of learning about the nuances of the local context. Another characteristic of the cultural life on and around Bartók Boulevard is that because the collaboration between certain actors has been going on for years, some of these actors have strong ideas about how the area should be further developed and who should have a say in how to move forward.

“Initiatives to bring together actors around Bartók Boulevard are very strong but they have made a familiar mistake: despite being very inclusive in the beginning, after the forming of a core group – and a sense of ownership – they become increasingly exclusive,” considers Rita. “With time, such groupings become less accessible for those who did not participate from the beginning.”

Another challenge ahead of the Adaptér, therefore, is its inclusivity: how can the new venue act as an engine to engage new actors, initiatives and businesses, continuously refreshing the ways local organisations are connected to each other? How can it create a horizontal network with a low threshold for initiatives to access its spaces, equipment and the collaborations established in its framework?

The Adaptér for a future-proof district

With the construction of the Adaptér ongoing, the workshops aiming to establish the position of the new venue in the district’s broader ecosystem informed the “software” (uses and functions) and “orgware” (organisational structure and governance) of the new cultural institution: its facilities, services, programming and collaborations. While the establishment of the Adaptér might not correspond to and address all the important needs of local organisations, it might create a new pathway to keep the Bartók Boulevard area relevant in a changing city.

This includes countering the “cultural street effect,” which in the past led to the degradation of several vibrant cultural areas to popular tourist destinations, avoided by locals. New dynamics and connections might help renew the area, because “the cultural street status will inevitably only stay like this for a while,” predicts Rita. “Knowing previous examples one can see what are the pitfalls of a cultural street initiative. And this kind of tech-immersion might be able to save the area from declining.”

A more networked neighbourhood is also a more resilient one: in various crises, if organisations, venues and initiatives are connected, they can pool resources and share benefits, while better serving the needs of their local communities. The capacity to connect with each other, integrate multiple voices in decision-making, diversify revenue streams and share resources make initiatives more capable to adapt to changing circumstances: the resilience of its protagonists also makes a neighbourhood more future-proof.

Written by Levente Polyak from Eutropian. The article was first published on the Urban Innovative Action website as part of a series of UIA Expert articles on the CUP4Creativity project.

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