Making the creative city

Finally we conclude our four part series on Cebu by asking "What kind of a creative city could Cebu be?"

Last week we visited cultural spaces and met inspiring creative milieus around these.  This week we conclude the series on Cebu by looking at two things.  The first is a reflection on cultural policy and its implementation and implications for Cebu as a Creative City.  Then I will conclude by making some comments about Cebu in its quest to be defined as a such.

Cultural Policy and its Implementation

Philippines cultural policy, developed after independence in 1946 and enshrined in its constitution is a rich, insightful document which effectively captures the complexity of the country’s cultural life, including its relationship to its indigenous roots, and to Catholicism.   It is a document done at a time, more than likely, of high euphoria, with the achievement of independence following centuries of occupation by the Spanish, Japanese and Americans.  In 1973, UNESCO published a study on the Philippines cultural policy  Reflecting on all aspects of cultural life, the UNESCO document recognizes certain key challenges related to the management, implementation and monitoring of the policy, It’s fascinating to look at it as a historical document that still has some relevance.

its main recommendations respond to access by all of the outcomes of the policy, recognizing that culture is not the preserve of the elite, but remains dynamic and living for everyone.  Inherent within all humans is the need to express and reflect on their lives within their respective societies.  Some other recommendations in the review relate to the country's over obsession with the USA and its mediatized culture, and the challenges of indigenous centered design, visual culture and performance.   

For these reasons it’s significant that amongst the powers and responsibilities conferred on the National Commission on Culture in the Republic Act No.4165 is this important one:  “12. To awaken a new consciousness of, and define a new approach towards our own culture, by emphasizing the search for knowledge of, and the growth of appreciation for, the genuinely creative rather than the merely imitative, as well as the native and indigenous, rather than, but not exclusively of, the imported or foreign elements and components of our material and artistic culture.”

Government Support of Culture

A look at the National commission of the Arts website shows a slick programme of activities linked to its policy and mandates   With much activity and funding going to Manila, artists and bodies from the capital tend to be the key engagers with government outside of grants. in workshops.   A dig in some of the reports show that artists feel strongly challenged by the Commission, citing concerns around maladministration and corruption.  This is not uncommon in the global south.

Cebu often comes off second best in any event as we mentioned before.  Recently it lost the prestigious furniture fair, an industry where Cebu leads, to Manila.  This was a sore blow and creates extra costs for a large number of Cebuano firms to attend.

The culture department oflocal government, some of whom I met with, seem a moribund bunch, low on the capacities or ideas to support arts and culture meaningfully. A cultural mapping project has been in operation for some time, apparently, and there is no clear timeframe for its completion, nor documents to look at yet.   

Government support as we saw last week comes from the very active Department of Trade and Industry, has worked closely with the British Council in its attempts at developing the local creative industry sector in particular design. 


urban tourism as an opportunity 

Tourism can sometimes be a good place to supplement cultural funding especially if the tourism department of a city has an urban tourism focus to supplement national governments natural beauty and leisure tourism angle.  The Cebu Tourism authority has focused its budget on a beauty contest as its key project for a number of years, rather than responding to the rich culture of the city.

An opportunity instead would be for the city to focus on a growing international trend of using online more effectively and using budgets to build social networks locally and internationally.  To inform locals and visitors of happenings and to provide reviews that are interactive.  In this way tourists are incentivised, through clearer information to stay longer in a city before they go off to beaches and the like.  But more importantly it sets up communication within a city about itself and bolsters pride.  An example of this is how Cape Town has used its meagre tourism budget to build proud online communities and promote tourism using all the latest online developments.

There are many opportunities for both cultural and creative tourism in the area.   These could be central to an urban tourism focus which could also support its hospitality sector.  This brings us to storytelling


Storytelling is a key way to explain our past and to imagine our future.  It is our link to humanity and is one of our oldest arts.   Cebu has many exciting stories to tell. These are important for itself as well as for others.

The Cebu independent film scene is growing, Much of it made possible by the cheapness of new media and by the presence of a number of film schools, film clubs and screenings, and at least one significant film festival.  However like its music, one has to search, not all is subtitled, there is a plethora of short stories by students on youtube.  Some of Cebu's stories are being told here, in music and in literature.

Visual arts is a good place to tell complex stories. The Fine Art College at the University of Philippines however is educating in more traditional visual arts practices and modes. Since contemporary visual arts is one of the areas in which complexity is valued, and tends to be more political charged, out of its discourse new realms of art making and its relationship to society explored.  Without a higher education body playing an educative role in helping to foster such discourses, it is hard for it emerge by itself.   The most interesting critical visual practise tended to be in the streets with some graffiti artists also moving into producing works for galleries.  


Amplifying the artists voice

The UNESCO report’s concluding remarks recognizes the important role of the artists in impacting tangibly on its society: “In a developing country, artists have a difficult but vital role. Society has present day needs and must think of the future.  Can art be considered serious or valuable unless it makes a contribution within this context, and has an influence on people’s way of life?  It would seem essential for the artist to seek a kind of perfection which anyone, regardless of his place in society, can appreciate?”    Does Cebuano creativity and art making respond to its context?

My reading of the Cebu is that Cebuanos care about deeply about culture and development, and while individual practitioners – artists, cultural managers, designers, funders and the like – have engaged with the concept of culture and transformation, it is not yet something that has been sufficiently valued to make it a key driver for sustainable urban transformation at scale, yet.  Its one of the areas I see as challenging when I considered its aspirations as a Creative city.  

Becoming a creative city? 

Cebu has taken on the moniker of a Creative City and is part of the SE Asian Creative Cities Network (SEACCN).  But one can sense that in Cebu, we are dealing with a weary creative sector who are still responding to what's been a very rough economic meltdown for the country.  As a result the Creative Cebu Council, driving its Creative City initiative is not really active. 

The opportunity provided by the SEACCN is the potential for developing a shared support platform that can use peer experience to challenge and improve practise, foster collaborations and creating new pipelines for content.   It does help to have some additional branding, on a city but to be a creative city goes beyond being simply a banner.  A more robust model of a creative city is needed and continuity is essential.


I think its important for places that want to play within this concept of a creative city especially in the global south, to ask some critical questions.  Why does the city want to be a Creative City?  What does this mean and for whom? Who does it benefit? What does it mean in many of our cities where poverty and exclusion are the order of the day?  What is the best Creative City we could be for ourselves? These are critical issues of the soul of a city, that require more than a small group being involved. 

While the creative industries are important for economic ends, we need to be informed by inequality and local context beyond economy to center on the social and be more strongly aligned to culture.  For these reasons its important for context relevant dialogues around concepts such as art, culture, heritage, tradition, modernity, entrepreneurship, inclusivity and social justice, and post colonialism be had, in the light of unique challenges in the South  

I was kindly hosted by Create Cebu, to talk about Cape Town, the Creative Cape Town initiative and our successful bid for World Design Capital 2014, which I did shortly after I arrived. The active discussion came back to the difficulties of initiating a joint plan of action amongst cultural and creative industry sector players.  In the words of one of The Creative Cebu Council and Create Cebu member, Kae Batiquin, "Cebu reflects its geography as an archipelago and is more of a vertical functioning space then a horizontal connecting ecosystem".   It is true that Cebu is very divided with a plethora of bodies vying for leadership, but this is true of many other cities in my experience including Cape Town. 


Talking is key

I said then, recognising I did not know the place at the time, that if the Cebu were serious about becoming a creative city it should focus strongly on the key element of networking and building ownership amongst a very wide range of stakeholders.  I believe this is still the key issue.  The soft nature of creative cities, means as many of the city's key leaders and their institutions or organisations need to be "on board" in some way, even if this is not a formally constituted thing.  And it requires constant maintenance in the form of ongoing engagement and messaging.   Talking and networks are important.  As we see in Creative Cape Town and with Creative Chiang Mai there has been improved resilience of the creative ecosystem as a result of consistent facilitated networking.  The challenges of secondary cities (being smaller and not sufficiently close to political and financial power, and shorter on resources) demands strategies that can enable strength through connectivity.

Secondly the issue of research needs to be considered carefully.  Mapping studies, channels for regular info sharing and dialogue help a city reflect on its assets and reassess limiting perceptions.  Sharing local stories in the context of broader research is also inspiring and helps build the confidence of smaller firms.  The involvement of local tertiary institutions in local creative city research, is good for the city and institution as it both informs and eventually begins to address the pipeline of new graduates in relation to improving research.   

The difficulty is often one of finding the right facilitating body who can hold the process without ego, and help with the development of a governance structure to take it forward.  It requires a fair level of will and mutual engagement by partners and an ability to work smart.  Cebu would do well to learn from its various partners in SEACCN and replicate some of their successful actions in its own unique way. 

Lastly its critical to start considering creativity, culture and innovation in respect to social outcomes, to move beyond the economic.  There are useful learning opportunities with social entrepreneurship for example, for working with local knowledge in sustainable ways. Class and inequality issues do need to be interrogated to build inclusivity.  This is vital to help build a strong creative city ecosystem.


I want to thank the various people I met while in Cebu who were so hospitable and open to talking.  Those I met in Cebu, especially its youth, are clearly some of the most optimistic, passionate and enthusiastic people I have met in a long time.  The creative energy many of them bring to the table is infectious.   It would be a pity if this could not be harnessed to make the difference to Cebu as it could.  I do think it’s possible with the relevant parties initiating a greater focus on connectivity and a honest reflection of what sort of creative city Cebu could be.