Featured People: Basma el Husseiny

On the occasion of the conference The Arab Future and the Role of Europe on 27 November 2014 in The Hague, we are proud to feature one of the conference speakers and longstanding ECF collaborator, Basma el Husseiny.

Basma el Husseiny is an arts manager and a cultural activist who has been involved in supporting independent cultural projects and organisations in the Arab region for the past 20 years. She is  the founder of Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), which she also managed until September 2014, a regional non-profit organisation that aimed at supporting young artists and writers, and stimulating cultural exchange within the Arab region and with the world.  After a presidential decree to Egypt law, whereby receiving international funding has become illegal and therefore will be persecuted, Al Mawred had to close down their office recently for the sake of the safety of its 30 employees. She has also co-founded, and was a trustee of the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture, an independent regional foundation. Additionally, she is a UNESCO expert in cultural governance and was previously the Media, Arts & Culture Program Officer for the Ford Foundation in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Arts Manager of the British Council in Egypt. Basma is a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Cultural Policy and Management, Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey and she is also the Egypt representative of the Arterial Network, Africa’s largest cultural network, and a member of Arterial’s Cultural Policy Task Team.

You can read "Out of Context" by Basma el Husseiny in the Vol.1 of The Dwarfing of Europe? publication.

The following interview was conducted in August 2014 in the framework of an upcoming publication on ECF’s capacity building programmes in the EU Neighbourhood (due to be published in January/ February 2015 (pre-order requests can be sent here). This interview was conducted by Milica Ilic, the publication’s editor.

Basma: “I worked in theatre as well, for a long time and since I was 17. Of course I couldn’t make a living from this work so I had various jobs over the years, including a successful career in advertising. I was the director of a theatre company. In 1998, we were doing community theatre in an old historical neighborhood in Cairo. At the same time, I was working in an advertising agency where I was responsible for conceptualizing and managing the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the British Council in Egypt. I had many meetings with the director of the British Council to discuss ideas for the campaign and we became friends. I invited him and his wife to come and see the performance we were preparing. They came and liked the play so much that he offered me a job at the British Council. I was to be art assistant – for the first time they would employ someone to work exclusively on the art programme. I was earning a good salary in advertising and what he offered was one fifth of what I was making but I didn’t hesitate. It was a great opportunity for me. I took the job and became responsible for the art programme of the British Council in the whole of Egypt (as they have an office in Alexandria and satellite offices in other places in Egypt). I disposed of a very small budget but over the years we managed to raise it to a higher level. By the end we could have a budget big enough to bring on yearly basis at least 3 groups from Britain to Egypt, manage a gallery and an auditorium with a film and lecture programme. We also had a resident theatre company. My job evolved and with time I became art manager. 

This was an ambitious cultural programme for a British Council office. The argument I gave to the London headquarters was that, beside its role in representing British culture, the Cairo office is also a cultural centre in a city of 18 million inhabitants. It has a responsibility as a cultural centre, in addition to its work in cultural diplomacy. 

I liked this work very much and somehow along the way, shortly after I joined the British Council, I decided to give up theatre making. It was a conscious decision, something I had to confront myself with. I was working in independent theatre, what we called at the time free theatre. In practical terms, this meant that we all had other jobs and had to rehearse after work. We would start the rehearsals at 18h, would finish around 23h or 00h and I would then have to wake up at 6 to take my children to school and then go to work. It was just impossible. With no money, no funding, no place to rehearse (we were rehearsing in cafés!), it was very difficult. At the end of the day, the product of our labour, the performance, would turn out to be 20% of what I wanted it to be. Working in theatre under these conditions didn’t bring me any satisfaction, in fact it brought a lot of frustration. At the same time, my position at the British Council enabled me to help a lot of people. It brought me satisfaction. In the end, it was a choice between a feeling of being successful and a feeling of being unsuccessful.”

Interest in cultural management

Basma: “In the beginning, I had no experience in arts management, or arts administration as it was then called. I had to learn by making mistakes. The British Council provided an incredibly rich learning environment. It was a very old, bureaucratic, old fashioned organisation but it invested a lot in staff training. I studied financial management, customer service, assertiveness and negotiation, all within courses provided by the British Council. Towards the end of my work there, I attended the Edinburgh festival and noticed that the British Council was organising a three-day arts management workshop for professionals from Central Eastern Europe. I was there for the three days so I asked if I could attend the workshop. At first I was refused, but after promising that I would not intrude and would only listen, I was allowed in. The workshop leader was Neil Wallace, a respected and well known cultural management educator. Returning to Cairo, I wrote to him to express my enthusiasm and point how valuable it would be to have this sort of training in our region. He invited me to a workshop he was doing in Amsterdam and secured a scholarship so that I can attend. It was brilliant! For the first time, I could organise the knowledge I had in a logical framework and identify the questions and weaknesses. Before this experience, I was learning as I went. This training was extremely useful.

In another life, after I had left the British Council and started working for Ford Foundation, I gave a small grant to an organisation in the region to bring Neil Wallace to do this workshop in Egypt. Around 20 cultural managers from all over the region attended it, including Hanane Haj Alli and other key people. This is my history of cultural management.”

The making of a regional cultural organisation

Basma: “At the Ford Foundation, I was the media, arts and culture programme officer for the Middle East and North Africa. My work was to give grants, give money to people to realize projects. And then something important happened that would change many lives: September 11th. At that moment I had a contract with the foundation for another four years. However, I became increasingly impatient. I saw a lot of things happening on both sides, in the Western countries and in the region, many opportunities to improve relations or at least prevent them from getting worse and not enough being done. I was working very hard to try to help people do things that would improve the situation in the region. At the same time, the Ford Foundation became increasingly conservative. The Americanising aspect became very visible. When I joined the foundation, I saw it as a truly international organisation. By 2002, my impression was that it shifted into a truly American one.

This is when I started considering leaving. I had this very old dream to start a sort of a network of cultural individuals. I started to rethink about this and asked a group of friends to meet and discuss the idea. We held a meeting in Cairo, with 9 people from different countries came and we discussed the idea of Mawred. They are the same people that a few months later created Mawred together with me. They constituted the general assembly. By the time we finished the legal procedure of creating a new organisation, we were already 17. Most of the original group of people are still there, although some of them left in the course of the years.

A few months after the initial meeting where the idea of Mawred was precisely defined, I resigned from my position at the Ford Foundation.”

Al Mawred Al Thaqafy: Cultural Resources

Basma: “Our work was defined from the beginning in three distinctive lines, some of which developed more quickly than others. The first one was supporting individual artists, especially those under 35: providing direct support through firstly a small grant programme and than travel grants. The second line was aiming to change the environment, by raising cultural management standards through training and publications, improving cultural policy through research and advocacy and improving the funding by advocacy and establishing new funding models. The third line is targeting audiences by diversifying the offer and providing festivals and other events. These three lines have been there from the beginning and continue to guide Mawred’s work.

We try in everything that we do to also provide models of practice that could be valuable also in public institutions. For example, in grant making we always issue open calls, we choose grantees through juries whose members change often and whose work is transparent. I think these are very important also as examples of good practice for public institutions. 

Mawred’s success is due to ten years of work of a lot of people. I may be visible on daily basis, but a lot of other people contributed to it: our members play an important role and our Board is incredibly important. Hanane Hajj Ali is a driving force, Khaleed Mattaw who was our chairman for 3 years is an amazing man. The staff is very dedicated, all 32 of them play a crucial role. I think the greatest asset of Mawred Mawred is that most people working there develop a sense of ownership and they don’t treat their work as a day job. Of course, one cannot treat as a personal issue either, but it’s important to acknowledge that we are not a factory, working here is not something that you do for a few hours and then just forget about it and move on to something else.

Setting up such an organisation in the particular context of Egypt, one has to consider political implications. At that time, my inclination was to be very visible. I didn’t want to work underground, I wanted us to be fully visible and face any difficulty this would entail. Everywhere we went we made a big bang, as if to say: here we are! Of course we paid the price for this: we were badly harassed; 2004 and 2005 were terrible years in that sense. Nevertheless, I think that this approach was a good one: as a result, we were acknowledged, sometimes maybe with a lot of hostility, but we existed and the government had no choice but to accept that we are there.”