ECF and its cultural mobility schemes

An essay by Olga Alexeeva, ECF

Tbilisi ©Nicola Mullenger

Tbilisi ©Nicola Mullenger

STEP Beyond Travel Grants help emerging artists and cultural workers to meet face-to-face, exchange views and skills, and inspire one another. Our grants programme, of which STEP Beyond is one of the various schemes, is a two-way exchange. The grants provide financial support to the arts and cultural sector in Europe and beyond. And through awarding grants, ECF benefits from being up-to-date with developments at a grassroots level, which helps us to shape our policy direction more effectively.

Although we celebrated STEP Beyond’s tenth anniversary in 2013, ECF’s dedication to mobility started back in the late 1980s, when we played a pivotal role in setting up the well-known Erasmus Programme, which promoted student exchange and mobility across Europe. ECF managed the Erasmus Programme for several years on behalf of the European Commission. In 1994 — exactly 20 years ago — ECF launched the first-ever mobility scheme of artists and cultural managers from Central and Eastern Europe, named APEXchanges.

1994-2001: APEXchanges & On the Move

APEXchanges was a fund for young artists and cultural practitioners from Central and Eastern Europe. The programme supported joint cross-border projects in the field of visual and performing arts by financing project-related travel costs. The term APEX was borrowed from the travel industry where it refers to low ticket fares. The fund’s aim was to support practical, inexpensive solutions to encourage the mobility of young emerging artists and cultural workers.
The fund was set up to address two major issues. During the communist era the cultural relations between Central, Eastern and Western European countries had been controlled, centralised and very exclusive. Most artists and cultural practitioners did not have the opportunity to meet colleagues and engage in artistic exchanges in an open, informal atmosphere. Collaboration on a voluntary basis was virtually impossible. Furthermore, in the early 1990s the cultural sector in Central and Eastern Europe was facing another problem: high travel costs in relation to average salaries were an important factor that made cultural exchanges on a non-institutional level still very difficult, leaving little room for initiatives to develop from this region.

The APEXchanges fund tried to fill this gap by offering two types of grants to artists and cultural workers from Central and Eastern Europe. Initially, APEX only offered the Link-up Travel Grants — short-term mobility support aimed at establishing international contacts, networking and exploring cooperation opportunities with peers abroad. However, the first evaluation of APEX in 1995 revealed that there was a weakness in the fund: it offered the opportunity to prepare but not to develop activities or co-productions. Consequently, ECF established a financial partnership with Royal Dutch Telecom KPN and KPN Project Travel Grants came to life.

Within this strand, slightly larger amounts were awarded that allowed up to one-third of the grant to be spent on the costs related to the start-up phase of a project.
Throughout its existence, APEXchanges supported nearly 

“1,000 people. Remarkably, the evaluation of the fund revealed that it had been supporting artistic traffic mainly away from Central and Eastern Europe: between 1996 and 2000, almost 80% of people who were awarded a mobility grant were travelling towards Western Europe. The programme came to a close in 2001, but ECF continued to award travel grants in 2002, shifting emphasis to the support of cultural exchanges for job-shadowing and job-sharing. At the same time, preparations were made for an entirely new mobility scheme, to be launched in 2003.

In the early 2000s, ECF also recognised the importance of information access for artists’ mobility by teaming up with IETM (then named the Informal European Theatre Meeting, nowadays designated as the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts) and other partners. We also helped to launch the On the Move portal — which is today’s most important cultural mobility information network.

Tbilisi ©Nicola Mullenger

Tbilisi ©Nicola Mullenger

2003: Enlargement of Minds & launch of STEP Beyond

Before the biggest-ever enlargement of the European Union in 2004, when ten countries became new EU members,[1] ECF conducted an in-depth exploration of the cultural dimension of the enlargement under the title Enlargement of Minds. The programme offered a substantial cultural response to the issues raised by EU enlargement and looked particularly beyond 2004 to consider the cultural cohesion of Europe as a whole. This reflected ECF’s long-term commitment to the wider European cultural space and not simply to EU-Europe. Three Enlargement of Minds seminars were organised in 2003 — in Amsterdam, Krakow and Toledo — devoted respectively to South Eastern Europe, the ‘new neighbourhoods’ of the EU to the East, and Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. Enlargement of Minds represented the red thread that ran through ECF’s activities and the findings were translated into new programmes, funds and advocacy actions, one of them being the launch of the STEP Beyond Travel Grants in 2003.

The acronym in the name stands for ‘Supporting Travel for European Projects’, while ‘beyond’ signifies the cross-border nature of ECF’s work. The fund was established with the aim of enabling artists, cultural operators, journalists, translators and researchers to cooperate and exchange across borders between the EU at that time, the countries that were to join in 2004 and neighbouring countries of the soon-to-be enlarged EU (Albania, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine). As of 2005-2006, the fund’s scope was broadened to cover Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. By prioritising exploration eastwards, STEP Beyond aimed to avoid new divisions in Europe and to emphasise the fact that Europe did not stop at the eastern borders of the EU. At that time, the Arab-Mediterranean countries were included through ECF’s support to the Roberto Cimetta Fund.

At the same time, ECF — along with IETM and other networks — was among the leading advocates for artistic mobility to be recognised as a priority at the EU level. As a result, mobility became one of the three priorities of the European Agenda for Culture (2007) — the key strategic document guiding EU cultural policies, and also one of the priorities in the EU Culture Programme (2007-2013).

2007: Partnership with Open Society Institute for Southern Caucasus and Turkey &

2007 was a key moment for the STEP Beyond Travel Grants scheme, as ECF joined forces with the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation (OSI-AF) of Open Society Foundations, which shared ECF’s strategic interest in investing in the development of cultural capacity and infrastructure in the countries of the Southern Caucasus and Turkey. From 2007 to 2014, OSI-AF has been providing a generous annual contribution to the STEP Beyond overall budget specifically for supporting artists and cultural practitioners wishing to travel to and from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

2007 was an important year for STEP Beyond from another perspective as well, as it marked the launch of This was an ECF-initiated online user-generated platform for cultural actors and organisations where people could get in touch with each other, exchange ideas, share experiences and stories, feature work and showcase projects. With its motto ‘Discover, tell, share, play’, was considered the perfect space for the STEP Beyond grantees to share their travel stories and experiences and was therefore instrumental in creating STEP Beyond’s digital presence.

Focused on the South Caucasus and Turkey, in 2010 Open Society Institute (OSI) and ECF co-financed The Black Sea Academy (BSA) taking place in Istanbul, and organised by ECF and the Istanbul Bilgi University. It was designed as a six-day international programme for capacity building, networking and sharing of knowledge and experience among young cultural entrepreneurs and managers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The 28 participants were selected from among 79 applications via an open call. High-level international trainers, lecturers and practitioners were involved.

2010-2012: External review and revision of STEP Beyond

At the end of 2009, ECF commissioned an external review of the STEP Beyond Travel Grant scheme. The aim of this review was to gain insights into possible improvements that would increase the scheme’s efficiency, minimise its administrative overhead and maximise the possibilities of linking STEP Beyond to other ECF activities and strategies. The report identified several shortcomings, ranging from unclear guidelines and inefficient procedures to imbalanced human resources investment. Several changes were made over the course of 2010-2012 following recommendations from the external reviewer.

First of all, the application guidelines and the application form were significantly simplified and clarified. Furthermore, the time between submitting the application and the actual travel was reduced from two months to one month, making the whole process easier and faster for the applicant. Another important change (with a view to increasing the overall efficiency of the grants scheme) was the decision to stop working with external advisors, as the overhead costs and time investment were considered disproportionate in relation to the relatively small grant amounts awarded. The policy towards the latter was also revised and it was decided to work with standard lump-sum amounts for several travel itineraries, making the grants administration more efficient and the scheme more transparent towards the applicants.

By the end of the 2000s, ECF had started to develop various projects and activities in the Arab-Mediterranean region — including the publication of An Alternative Gaze - A Shared Reflection on Cross-Mediterranean Cooperation in the Arts (2008) and Cultural Policies in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia (2010), and developing and launching Cultural Managers Exchange Europe — Arab Region, entitled Tandem/Shaml (first edition launched in 2012). With this in mind, in 2010 ECF decided to start actively and directly supporting travel to and from the countries of the region, after supporting the Roberto Cimetta Fund for nearly ten years.

2012: STEP Beyond Lab

Having developed a relatively easy and accessible procedure, both in terms of application process and reporting, since 2009 on STEP Beyond has been attracting an increasing number of applications each year.[3] This has posed some administrative challenges for ECF.
For this reason ECF considered ‘going completely digital’[4] and started developing a more efficient, online administrative tool to process applications and grants internally. In addition to improving administrative processes and increasing cost- and time-efficiency, this digital shift also aimed to improve internal knowledge gathering and external knowledge sharing: we wanted to get to know our grantees better, help them profile their work and connect them.
At the same time, ECF as a whole embarked on a digital mission. By 2010, ECF already had a significant digital presence. In addition to its corporate website, ECF had a flourishing user-generated platform in the shape of (see above) and a well-known networking platform for information on European arts and culture — ECF realised that there was a need for an integrated online approach that would cater specifically for the creative community by providing a platform and online tools that encourage promotion and collaboration in today’s digitally-focused world. As a result, we developed ECF Labs — a tailor-made social network platform aimed at people engaged in arts and culture in Europe.

This is where the objectives of the STEP Beyond Travel Grant scheme and the overall digital ambition of ECF met and manifested themselves in the development of the first public ECF Lab. The STEP Beyond Lab was launched in early autumn 2012. An online community of like-minded cultural practitioners who have applied for a STEP Beyond Travel Grant, it is also a digital tool to administer and manage the grant-making process.

While the digitalisation process made the work of the STEP Beyond team much easier and streamlined the process so it was easier for applicants too,[5] it is chiefly the potential of the STEP Beyond Lab as a space for creation, collaboration and knowledge exchange among peers that we hope to fully develop in the coming years. By inviting our applicants to join the STEP Beyond Lab at the time of submitting their application,[6] we aim to offer the applicants — regardless of whether their application is successful or not — the possibility of learning from and feeding back to each other, easily sharing their content on this and other platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), promoting their projects and finding collaborators. Therefore, through STEP Beyond, we hope to provide support beyond the relatively small travel grants and stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit of our constituency.

Although we cannot expect the users to stay with the STEP Beyond Lab if they are not awarded a grant or once their project has finished, we see this lab as a tool to aggregate our audience and an entrance to the whole universe of ECF Labs where users can discuss, exchange and collaborate on creative projects.

[1] Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
[2] Before the revision in 2010, it was possible to apply for a STEP Beyond Travel Grant to cover both actual travel costs and per diems (within certain limits). In practice, this resulted in a rather large discrepancy between the expectations of the applicants and the ambitions and available resources of STEP Beyond (in 2009 the average amount of grant requested was almost €1,800, while the average amount granted was €450).
[3] Although the number of awarded grants has also been increasing, the success rate has been declining as of 2009, indicating a growing number of ineligible applications.
[4] As opposed to a hybrid application form, consisting of an online registration form and an application form in Word format — making the system vulnerable to incomplete and ineligible applications.
[5] The introduction of the digital administrative tool and an online application form resulted in an easier application process, a reduced overall number of applications (due to the fact it was no longer possible to submit ineligible applications) and thus a higher success rate, a significant time gain for the STEP Beyond team thanks to a comprehensive content management system, and a well-structured and easily searchable database.
[6] The applicants are required to register for ECF Labs and are informed that a public project profile is created automatically as soon as their application is submitted.

Special thanks goes to the Open Society Foundations, our partner for STEP Beyond travels for the Southern Caucasus and Turkey, for co-funding this publication.

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