Cultural Intermediaries and their Roles in Taiwan’s Cultural Diplomacy and Cultural Relations

Written by Chun-Ying Wei.

Image credit: National Concert Hall with CKS Memorial Library by Marek Kubica/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

The definition of ‘cultural intermediaries’ can be confusing and vague. The concept was first described by Bourdieu to refer to occupations and workers involved in the production and circulation of symbolic goods and services in an expanding cultural economy. Although Bourdieu referred to cultural intermediaries in the context of postwar Western societies, the term has evolved in different countries’ contexts. Jennifer Smith Maguire and Julian Matthews suggested the term has been used as a descriptive catch-all phrase for any creative or cultural occupation or institution. Such a vague and contested subject of discussion requires clarification.

From the perspective of cultural policy studies, arts councils can be considered as a type of cultural intermediary. In the UK, Arts Council England is an executive non-departmental public body (NDPB) sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and operates by the arm’s-length principle. As per the quango debate of 2005, the Council controls its internal employment decisions and grants to arts and cultural organisations.

In Taiwan the Ministry of Culture also supports several cultural intermediaries, including NDPBs such as the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), National Performing Arts Centre (NPAC), and the Taiwan Film Institute (TFI), all of which have significant roles in Taiwan’s cultural diplomacy. Similar to the Arts Council England, NCAF provides funding and assistance to arts and cultural activities. NPAC (formerly the National Theatre and Concert Hall) is responsible for promoting, developing, and preserving performing arts with its three theatres: the National Theater & Concert Hall in Taipei, the National Taichung Theatre, and the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying). The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) is also under the National Performing Arts Centre. Set up in 2014, the Taiwan Film Institute preserves and restores film while also significantly contributing to the international promotion of Taiwanese cinema.

As NDPBs operate under the arm’s-length principle, they make independent decisions of grant allocations without external political interference. They have discretion over budget and employment decisions which enables relative creativity and freedom from bureaucratic restrictions. The strength of this flexibility is particularly visible in the cultural intermediaries’ role of cultural diplomacy and cultural relations. While cultural diplomacy refers to government orchestrated or sponsored activities, cultural relations can include both orchestrated and spontaneous activities, such as educational exchange between institutions and artist residency programs. Recent discussion at the Asia-Europe Foundation in Singapore noted that cultural exchange could take place in either orchestrated or spontaneous forms, as cultural exchange involves many processes and works at many levels: from the highest of levels of the state (national security and statecraft) to the people-to-people level (to satisfy the desire for openness and mobility).

The Taiwan Association of Cultural Policy Studies (TACPS) has conducted research projects on cultural intermediaries and co-organised the 2018 International Symposium on Cultural Trajectories addressing cultural governance and cultural intermediaries. Yi-Sheng Li’s exploration of cultural relations organisations in international exchange strategies suggested three main categories of cultural relations organisations as cultural intermediaries:

  1. Organisations specialising in international exchange (e.g. Korean Culture and Information Service),
  2. Arts councils with specific cultural exchange strategy (e.g. the NCAF),
  3. Organisations dedicated to certain categories in cultural industries (e.g. the NPAC and TFI).

There is yet to be a NDPB dedicated in international exchange in Taiwan. In the official structure of Taiwan’s cultural diplomacy, the Ministry of Culture deploys cultural attachés from Taipei to 13 overseas cultural centres. The cultural centres host cultural activities and act as platforms facilitating exchange.

Taiwan’s the semi-official international relations status allows cultural intermediaries to sign Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) or establish partnerships with similar organisations in lieu of signing state-to-state agreements. For instance, the British Council signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with NCAF to promote Inclusive Arts, aligning the Taiwanese government’s strategy towards the aging society. Given both organisations’ NDPB status, this partnership can be considered as an indirect exercise of statecraft. Since both of organisations are addressing inclusive arts and challenges in an aging society, this MOU demonstrates a strategic shift in Taiwan’s cultural diplomacy, wherein the partnership enhances mutual understanding through cultural relations focused on shared interests.

Professional networks established by cultural intermediaries also serve as links to the global cultural scene. Meng-Yu Lai listed three main categories of international exchange activities in the performing arts:

  1. International arts festivals (e.g. the Festival d’Avignon, Edinburgh International Festival, and the Next Wave Festival),
  2. International organisations for performing arts (e.g. Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centers, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and International Society for the Performing Arts), and
  3. Marketing or showcase activities (e.g. The Australian Performing Arts Market and Internationale Tanzmesse NRW).

NPAC participates in promoting Taiwan’s performing arts internationally and cooperates through professional links with Taiwan’s overseas cultural centres. For example, in 2008 the Taiwan Cultural Centre in Paris commissioned the then National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Centre (now part of NPAC) to host an exhibition stall in the Internationale Tanzmesse NRW in Düsseldorf, Germany. The commission has since become a regular participant in the Internationale Tanzmesse NRW and fostered further international exchange through dance between Taiwan and Europe.

Besides NDPBs, other cultural intermediaries, such as private organisations, are also active in Taiwan’s cultural diplomacy. These organisations can partner with the Ministry of Culture, especially when the government cannot officially participate in international networks. For instance, the Ministry of Culture commissioned the Chinese Association of Museums to continuously participate in the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to exhibit research and foster cultural exchange for Taiwanese museums. ICOM also approved the Chinese Association of Museums to act as the representative of the museums in Taiwan and for the exhibition stall to be positioned at the same level with other national members.

The latest addition to Taiwan’s cultural intermediaries, the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TCCA, 文化內容策進院), marks another milestone in Taiwan’s cultural diplomacy. The incumbent Minister of Culture, Cheng Li-chun 鄭麗君, has proposed the idea of creating a ‘national team’ to promote Taiwan’s cultural and creative industries. The Taiwan Creative Content Agency will support the production of cultural industries for the global market. How will this national team collaborate with the Ministry of Culture and others? When the TCCA is inaugurated in September, it will mark a new phase of Taiwan’s cultural governance and cultural diplomacy.

Dr Chun-Ying Wei received her PhD from the Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, Goldsmiths, University of London. She serves as a board member and a researcher for the Taiwan Association of Cultural Policy Studies (TACPS). She also teaches at the International Master of Arts Program in Cultural & Creative Industries in Taipei National University of the Arts.

This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s cultural policy.

*Vienna Center for Taiwan Studies will be holding a conference on Taiwan’s Cultural Diplomacy – A Decade of Intercultural Discovery on 25-27th October 2019 at University of Vienna, Campus, Austria. If you wish to participate in this conference, please register here.

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