Culture, Tradition, Art and Modern Economy

by Marcin Niewęgłowski


The word “culture” has many connotations. It can be understood as refinement and good manners (a set of model behaviours in social interactions) or physical culture (the act of improving health and general fitness). Culture can also be defined as the material and immaterial “creative” achievements of a society or as part of the process of identity construction. For more than 20 years now it has been drifting into yet another territory. The territory of economy, where it tries to find a suitable its place on the urban, regional and national markets.

Unusual Beginnings…

The impulse that caused the shift in the perception of culture (and art) came in the 90s from two different parts of the world. First, in 1994, the Australian left-wing government lead by Paul Keating announced the completion of the “Creative Nation.” It defined the nation’s cultural policy and was the first document of this kind in the British Commonwealth. The policy abolished the artificial, 19th-century division between high and low culture/art. It “Creative Nation” also emphasized the multicultural identity of Australians, who were “white” descendants of European settlers on the one hand, and Aborigines (the continent’s indigenous people) and emigrants from Asia on the other.

The cultural policy was an impulse that caused culture to be treated as a part of the country’s economic potential (cultural industry). To fulfill this potential, the authorities decided to start from the very basics and chose too invest in education and research of multicultural identity. It led to the creation of the Australian National Institute for Indigenous Performing Arts, an organization responsible for the process. During the first four years of the “Creative Nation,” more than 252 million Australian dollars were spent on the development of the cultural and art industries. And the investment has brought results after a couple of years. Today, creative industries in Australia constitute an inherent part of the nation’s economy, are worth 13 million Australian dollars and offer employment to 336,000 people.

After Australia, the next impulse that changed the perception of culture came straight from UK. The truth is, it was a consequence of the events that began earlier on the southern hemisphere. In 1998 the British Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) created a classification of creative industries. They were divided into three sectors:
arts and crafts (performing arts, artistic crafts and music industry, arts and antique markets),
creative production (publishing, fashion business, media, film, video and computer games industries),
creative services (advertising, architecture, design).

This is when culture and art (both modern and traditional) have officially gained new quality – economic value. According to the newest research conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), arts and culture constitute 0.4% of the British GDP (with investments of 0.1% GDP). In 2011, both of the sectors generated £5.9 billion added value for the British economy. Arts and culture also contribute to the development of tourism in the UK. It amounts to a minimum of £856 million a year.

The events in Australia and Great Britain inspired the European Union to also tackle the subject. In 1999 the “Essen Declaration” was published. It contained ten axioms for the culture industries and stated that culture and art create jobs. Thus, their status in economy has shifted from national to international importance. It is currently estimated that 1 Euro invested in culture generates another 4 Euros. That is why cities such as Essen, Liverpool or Bilbao have chosen these creative values as a solution for their future in the 21st century. However, the trend is not characteristic of Europe alone. When Michael Bloomberg was the mayor of New York, it was through culture and arts that he built competitive advantage over other American cities. Whereas the mayor of San Francisco – Ed Lee – stated that innovative business solutions emerge in places inhabited by talented individuals. These individuals can be found in cities that offer unconventional urban lifestyle based on creative values.

Those critical of the importance of culture and arts for the urban and national markets can counter this argument by stating that these are just single voices or subjective views. However, the fact is supported by international reports such as “Citi for Cities,” “Good Country Index” or “Country Brand Index.” The report on the most attractive Polish regions for investors concludes that funding arts and culture has a direct impact on international investments. What is more, they encourage enterprise and resourcefulness. The authors of “Startup Genome” have pointed to a distinct correlation between a developed and dynamic artistic scene and the startup ecosystem. Berlin and Austin, Texas are examples of such environments. Their success stories are an inspiration for other cities.

The Strength of Tradition

The government of Indonesia has also noticed the importance of tradition in the emergence of new creative, economic capabilities. The Asian country that has been a site for factories producing clothes for international corporations is starting to discover its own creative potential. It is focusing on Muslim design which has a global market value estimated at $100 billion. 87% of Indonesia inhabitants are Muslim. For that reason alone, the country wants to be a global link, a hub in this area. It strives to create trends for both the conservative customers in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and for more liberal consumers from countries such as Malaysia.

Mari Pangestu, the country’s minister of tourism and creative economy, is involved in the development of Muslim design in Indonesia. Her department – together with international partners, such as the British Council and the London Centre of Fashion Enterprise – has been organizing the “Indonesia Fashion Forward” program since 2011. It aims to support the development of promising designers from Indonesia and to promote them on international markets (Europe, Australia, Asia). This way it fosters the creation of global, creative brands. “Indonesia Fashion Forward” is a 3-year project during which designers are able to gain experience in running business (branding, marketing, production, pricing). The designers are selected during the annual Jakarta Fashion Week. The event itself demonstrates how the Indonesian fashion and design is influenced by tradition (the use of “batik”, the original painting technique, as well as local and ancient symbols and the unique colour – khaki).

Sheer data demonstrates how important the creative sector is for Indonesia. It is estimated that creative industries generate 7% of Indonesia’s GDP. According to the Ministry of Trade, 64% of exported goods and creative services come from the fashion industry. Last year it brought more than $11 billion. The crafts sector is also important. Unfortunately, the actions taken in the creative industries do not have a local impact. However, first projects are being introduced in Surakarta and Yogyakarta.

The “Indonesia Fashion Forward” program is not the only initiative in which Great Britain cooperates with Asian countries to develop creative industries. The prestigious London Business School operates in the same sector. The college organizes a week-long trip to India as part of an MBA programme. During the visit, the participants have a chance to learn about the characteristics of the Indian fashion industry and its global successes (through meetings with acclaimed designers such as Narendra Kumar and Azeem Khan), and exchange views on the future of the creative sector.

Haiti is another country that utilizes tradition as the basis for organising business. The Haitian Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, is a great supporter of the idea and ensured that the project started in spring this year. Unlike most countries, Haiti does not want to use the “creative industries” term. Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin – the Haitian Minister of Tourism and the person responsible for the creative sector – propagates the concept of a “crafts industry.” It stems from the concept of a “Creative Village” and focuses on engaging academic research to support the design, development and promotion of the “Haitian crafts” brand (in the sector of interior decoration for the hotel industry).

Tradition and culture also initiated changes in Africa and Brazil. The fact is mentioned in the “100 Things to Watch in 2014” report by JWTIntelligence. What will be the next export creative goods from Africa (following Nollywood and Afro beat sounds)? First presentations of works by African artists were organized in Great Britain and USA in 2013. An auction of modern African art organized in November 2013 has also been a breakthrough. Since then, the world has started to perceive Africa together with its creative values.

In Brazil, tradition turned into business is one of the elements of its global expansion (mainly into the American market). In 2013 the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency organized the “Be Brasil” fair in New York to promote the country’s art, design and fashion. A couple of weeks later Brazil was the special guest of “Miami Art Week.” During the “Brazil ArtFair” project, 15 Brazilian galleries, 20 of the most important design companies and hundreds of artists from Brazil presented their work. And there is more. The publication of “Art Cities of the Future” attracted a lot of attention last year. The authors of the book state that when it comes to shaping trends in modern art, the 21st century will belong to cities such as Sao Paulo.

Creative Incubators – Synergy of Tradition, Art and Business

The abovementioned “100 Things to Watch in 2014” report also points to another direction of development that is particularly important from the perspective of traditional art, design and creative industries. These are the art incubators. Cultural institutions are beginning to expand their reach by initiating or incubating projects that are often interdisciplinary and that influence their surroundings and the institutions.

The first creative incubator was officially opened in 2014 at the New Museum in New York. The incubator is a hybrid of a professional and educational institution which is open 24/7. It was created to foster solutions that fuse art, design and technology. Prominent figures in architecture, design, technology and art were involved in creating the incubator. It is designed to house sixty startups and businesses. The participants of this interdisciplinary centre benefit not only from its office spaces, but also from mentor support and various programs created especially for them.

The aim of these prototype or experimental ventures is to create ideas and solutions that will improve the functioning of New York as a city. The organizers of the incubator work with issues such as environment, transport, poverty, communications and food. They want to prove that realistic, implementable concepts can be generated by the artistic world. In the future, the New Museum project will become a combination of a think tank, co-working office, accelerator and laboratory.

Earlier this year, at the beginning of 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced recruitment for the Art + Technology Lab. It is a program that aims at creating interdisciplinary laboratories that would be a platform for cooperation between art and technology. Companies that are engaged in the project (such as Google or SpaceX) demonstrate the rank of the undertaking. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, apart from offering a working space for experimentation, will provide grants for those conducting the experiments. Moreover, the initiative of the American Folk Art Museum also needs to be mentioned. Around the same time this year, the museum invited thirteen designers to create projects of clothes based on its collection. This is how the “Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art” exhibition was created. It was interesting because it demonstrated how inspirations taken from tradition could yield surprising results. Basing on five paintings from the 18th, 19th and 20th century, Koos van den Akker, a Dutch designer, created a collection that is astonishingly rich with colour.

Before American museums begun tapping into their interdisciplinary potential, similar, non-institutional undertakings had been organized in Europe. The alternative art fair Alt_Cph has been taking place in Copenhagen since 2006. The event is organized by the team of the Copenhagen Art Week in cooperation with the IT University of Copenhagen and The Factory of Art & Design. This year’s September edition will be focused on pioneer projects that fuse art with sciences.

The growing number of business ventures that incorporate art – not as a snobbish addition but as a true added value – prove that creative incubators are not transitory, short-lived projects. During the last edition of is year’s London Design Week, the MINI motor corporation organized a special exhibition. The theme was futuristic visions of travelling and mobility. The company decided to organize the exhibition in order to see the future of its business from the perspective of people who are not involved into it directly. Some of the presented artistic ideas imagined a car of the future that functions like a living organism.

Lessons from Europe

Traditional art is the creative fuel for the fashion industry. The industry, on the other hand, generates export income for the retail sector. This is how it functions in Great Britain. The global successes of British fashion brands (Asos, Farfetch, Net-a-Porter, Burberry, Barbour) generated the majority of the country’s £720 million e-commerce revenue in 2013 – according to “The Global Retail E-mpire” report. It is estimated that there are about 100 000 designers in Great Britain who sell goods worth 16 billion Euro annually.

In Great Britain, the issue of realizing the potential of art and culture is approached in many ways. Between 2011 and 2014, Arts Council England and Arts & Humanities Research Council carried out the “Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture” program. It focused on supporting research and development projects that fused art and technology. The aim was to seek new ways of reaching audiences and to formulate new business models for culture. The program resulted in the creation of many endeavours, e.g., the Culture Label – a project which helps arts organisations to enter the souvenirs market.

Interface was the first initiative of this type. It is an annual networking event for the representatives of the world of culture and art and of young IT and new media companies. It is organized in the form of speed dating, i.e., short and matter-of-fact talks. Interface coordinators match the participants according to declared interests and specializations. The aim of the event is to introduce new forms of cooperation between traditional institutions of culture (Barbican, Royal Albert Hall) and new, local companies and startups. Up to date, there have been two editions of Interface – in London and Brighton.

The question of the influences of traditional art remains unanswered even in places such as the capitol of Great Britain. A special project that was organized together with the London Design Week this year proves this fact. It promoted local brands and creative boutiques from the West End Design Quarter. The organizers of the event partnered with Visa to encourage customers to visit the area. During the London Design Week, anyone who owned a Visa card could get discounts at the stores and boutiques located in the West End Design Quarter.

Artists and representatives of the world of art also have their part in designing solutions for the future. Future Everything is an example of such an undertaking. It is an interdisciplinary organization that has been operating in Manchester for 20 years. It fuses the spheres of technology, culture and social sciences. Every year, the community meets to present prototypes of solutions. ArtsAPI is one of them – it is an analytical tool which gathers data on artistic organizations (their operations, works and relations) and facilitates the creation of new solutions and business models. The application solves the problem of big Big data Data in the artistic and cultural world.

It is possible to perceive the British government’s long-time actions in the creative industries sector as a continuation of the country’s imperial thinking. Until the 60s, London was an empire when it comes to territory. However, the attitude has been shifting towards development and innovation for a couple of years now. The Olympicopolis project is a symbol of this process. It is a concept of an educational-cultural complex in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The conglomeration will hold a new culture and heritage centre, an educational technology centre, a design school and office space for businesses. The project is expected to introduce dramatic changes into west London and is firmly supported by Boris Johnson, the mayor of the city. Thanks to Olympicopolis, the district is to become a global centre of enterprise, innovation, research and education. The complex is not just a whim of a handful of influential personas. The concept of Olympicopolis is a part of a long-scale plan of transforming Great Britain into a global hub of creative industries within the next 10 years. The multicultural heritage of the country is to become one of the foundations for this endeavour.

However, before that happens, Scandinavian countries remain the leaders when it comes to employing tradition and crafts in the business creation processes. The fact that Helsinki won the 2013 World Design Capital contest is only one of the proofs of this fact. The successes of Scandinavian design stem from its diversity. It is shaped by the culture, tradition and mentality of the countries’ citizens. Swedish design uses pastel colours and wood to create a warm effect. Danish design, on the other hand, employs high gloss finishes and traditional 50s and 60s concepts. Finnish design is very modern. What brings the above-mentioned styles together is high quality, aesthetics, simplicity, functionality and usability. Recently, such aspects as ecology and sustained development have also become important. The designs of the countries reflect their uniqueness and character. Finnish design manifests a culture of nature (lakes, water) and the belief in extraterrestrial life. Inspirations drawn from the hulls of ships can be seen in the Danish style, just like motifs taken from Viking history can be observed in Norwegian design.

The influence of crafts and tradition on design can be easily observed in Sweden. Since its beginnings, the country’s design was linked to rural life and nature (earth, water, air). “Lantlig” is an example of this fact – it is a style that refers to objects that have been worn away with age. Such objects, due to their non-modern appearance and character, become an inspiration for Swedish designers who seek insight in romantic and idyllic values. What is more, the functionality of such design, which is often unappreciated or overshadowed by aesthetics, is strongly rooted in history and tradition. It originated in the artisan heritage of creating usable objects. This is why Swedes understand that design is necessary, not only when it comes to furniture. It is crucial in almost every sphere of life, e.g., in urban spatial planning.

The artisanal character of Scandinavian design is also applied to business. Scandinavian designers do not tolerate outsourcing. They support the development of crafts by creating manufactures. Paradoxically, despite expensive technology and high work costs, more than 75% of designer products from Finland are sold abroad (in Canada, USA, South Korea).
Poland is No Different

In Poland, tradition is typically associated with rustic life and folk songs. It is often judged unfairly and treated as something tacky. However, outside of Poland, it is often perceived as something exotic – just like oriental, eastern cultures are received by typical Poles. International successes of musical bans such as Kapela ze Wsi Warszawa (Warsaw Village Band) or Dikanda exemplify this fact. Music produced by the artist known as Gooral, who merges Polish highland tunes with experimental electronic music, has also managed to attract considerable attention. The Siemianówka Lake near the Białowieska Forest (Puszcza Białowieska) was chosen as film scenery for “The Chronicles of Narnia” fantasy film. References to Polish folklore can also be found in street art (for example in Białystok).

Design from Poland is also becoming famous worldwide. The Polish pavilion became famous during the 2010 Expo in China. It astonished visitors with its form – the entire building looked like a traditional Polish paper cut ornament. The pavilion attracted 8.5 million people and thus became more popular than the exhibitions prepared by Italy or Spain. Polish tradition in design became big again three years later, when graduates of the Wrocław Technical University won the Furniture Design Awards 2013 in Singapore. Their project, the Hive pillow, which was shaped like a honeycomb, was selected among hundreds of entries from dozens of different countries.

It is hoped that the China Expo success can be repeated during the Milan Expo in 2015. What will the Polish Pavilion look like? It will merge tradition and modernity. The international Expo 2015 fair’s theme is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” That is why Poland is employing the narration of the great scope of its agriculture and food policy. It will be symbolized by a pavilion shaped like an apple crate – as Poland is known for its exported apples. It will be the traditional side of this project. The construction is also going to resemble the hash character, that is the Internet symbol # – one of the emblems of information society.

This year’s 50th anniversary of the Industrial Design Department at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts demonstrates that Poland has a rich history of design. It was the first department in the country where students could learn about design. The faculty created the syllabus basing on the local tradition of the Kraków Workshops Association (Stowarzyszenie Warsztatów Krakowskich) – a pre-war, interdisciplinary crafts organization – and on the German philosophy of Bauhaus. The anniversary was accompanied by the “Design from Cracow” (“Wzornictwo z Krakowa”) exhibition ( Among the innovative projects presented during the exhibition (such as a helmet for the American ultra-modern BioSuit spacesuit) one can also find those that were inspired by tradition. Katarzyna Łupińska has created the Massada Eyewear brand that offers original, 30s and 40s inspired eyeglasses frames.

Handmade objects have become very popular during the last couple of year, especially due to online shopping. There are a couple of platforms for artisans and creators of handmade goods in Poland. These are websites such as Decobazzar, Pakamera, 100 Palców and MyBaze. The German platform DaWanda has also taken note of the potential of the Polish handmade goods market and made its debut in Poland in 2012.

The handmade trend has also led to the creation of Polish design brands that draw their inspirations from local folklore. It is exemplified by the success of the ethno-design brand Goshico. The founder of the company transforms Polish folk art into a creative business. Goshico became famous for its line of handbags that were made of felt and decorated with traditional cut paper art. The company’s products are also sold abroad, in countries such as Germany, Belgium and Norway. They are now planning to enter the American and Swedish markets.

Another Polish company which proves that folk art and tradition can become a foundation for a modern business is Folkstar. It specializes in folk gadgets: gifts and presents. They sell everything from socks, cushions and ceramics to clothes and jewellery. Marta Wróbel’s company proves that Polish design inspired by tradition can be attractive and sought after – in Poland as well as abroad. And it is being compared to the best. It is not unheard of that many foreigners equate Polish design to that of the Scandinavian countries. It is because the styles share three basic values: simplicity, clarity of form and the use of natural materials.

Traditional Polish art has a rich, yet often unlocked, potential. For many years it has been claimed that amber products such as jewellery can become an important export good. The main importer of such products is China, where such products are extremely popular and amber has become exclusive. Tradition can bring modernity into objects, as it could be observed during the 21st “Dobry Wzór” („Good Design”) contest organized by the Industrial Design Institute in 2014. A heater designed by Jacek Ryń won the prize for home appliances. What was its advantage? Its original form was inspired by the tradition of wickerwork. This way Ryń managed to break the banal formula for creating a home heater. It is not only design that is important, but also local materials. For many years it has been claimed that amber products such as jewellery can become an important export good. The main importer of such products is China, where such products are extremely popular and amber has become exclusive.

Post war changes in the borders of Poland have introduced interesting themes of rediscovering identity. Szczecin is an example of such a process. The Hanseatic city had a rich, multicultural history (Swedish, Prussian and German) and was incorporated into Poland after World War II. Only after many year its new, Polish citizens discovered the city’s traditional white pottery. It was a type of pottery that was brought to Szczecin and the West Pomorze region from the Netherlands 200 years ago. The pottery was white and decorated with blue patterns. As it was extremely expensive, Polish artisans began producing their own “Stettiner Waren.” The white pottery ware decorated with plants and flowers was then sold abroad and thus became recognized. It’s tourist potential has been rediscovered a couple of years ago by the Szczecin authorities. The “Stettiner Waren” pottery, which is produced by only three certifies workshops, has become a popular souvenir.

A strong regional identity is also driving the development of design in the Silesia (Śląsk) region. Prominent organizations and institutions such as the Katowice Academy of Fine Arts, Design Silesia, Rondo Sztuki, Made In Śląsk, Geszeft and Zamek Cieszyn also play an important role in the process. Thus, it is not without reason that the region is becoming a leader in service design and design thinking. Local patriotism also fosters the creation of urban brands. The “0-32” brand mirrors what is the best in the residents of Katowice. The name of the company is the dialling code for the city.

The future of Polish design

Polish design can develop in many different directions. Last year, Biedronka discount store chain sold dresses and tunics designed by four students of the Łódź Academy of Fine Arts. They won the company’s contest for young designers. The project was a success – 25 thousand items designed by the students were sold in shops in Poland. As it happens with first-time projects, there were also critical comments, especially from other designers. Some of the critics were against collaboration between academia and a discount chain.

Another interesting tendency in Polish design is its drive towards science. The Academic Centre of Design that will be built in Łódź for 21 million PLN (5 million EUR) is an example of this phenomenon. The Łódź Academy of Fine Arts is also planning to create a centre for research and development for the creative industries, especially for industrial design. The centre is expected to foster modern design in a style characteristic for the city of Łódź and allow creators to reach deeper into the traditions of the region. The Academic Centre of Design is planned to open in 2016.

The investment at the former Gdynia Shipyard also seems ambitious. The construction of the Constructor Park began officially in June. The 44 million PLN (10 million EUR) complex will offer 5.5 thousand square meters of space for prototype workshops, design studios and experimental labs. It will be a centre of interdisciplinary collaboration between artists, designers and engineers who will work on projects – from the concept phase until their completion.

Can services of the future be created in Poland today? It is a difficult question. Nevertheless, the panGenerator art group tried to answer it. The latest effect of their work is “Neclumi” – an idea for a line of jewellery in the age of wearable technology – times when clothes and technology will become one. Intelligent watches or wristbands for running or playing tennis are examples of such items. According to Euromonitor, such objects will become widely used and available in 2016. The panGenerator team decided to outdistance the trend by creating probably the first jewellery in the world in the wearable technology standard. A person will not have to wear it on his or her neck. Neclumi will be displayed on the neck by a special mobile application and a pocket projector. What is interesting is the fact that the projected jewellery behaves like a material one. When the wearer moves, it also moves according to the laws of physics. Of course, it is not an example of tradition or traditional art in design, however, it demonstrates the astonishing possibilities that lie ahead of designers today.

A Sea of Possibilities

The events, trends and phenomena mentioned in this text present only a fraction of the current state of tradition, art, design and creative industries. It is enough to state that the changes happening in Indonesia are also taking place in many other countries. More and more competitors appear for the Asian country – similarly to Indonesia, Turkey wants to become a leader and a global hub for Muslim fashion.

Despite the controversial image of Islam in the world, one can observe a growing interest in Middle Eastern fashion in many places in the world. Digital influencers – people who built their reputation and status online – are especially important in promoting Muslim design. Mariam Sobn, a journalist from Chicago, is one of them. She started the blog in 2007. Dina Toki-O (a blogger) and Zukreat (a vlogger) promote Muslim fashion in Great Britain. The first blog on Muslim fashion in Australia ( was created in 2010. Ascia Farraj, one of the first Muslim fashion bloggers to show her face, should also be mentioned.

The combination of Western culture and Muslim traditions and values has given rise to a new sociological and cultural phenomenon. It is called “mipster,” that is a person who is interested in latest music and fashion, but also draws inspiration from Muslim roots, holy books, mystical poems and prophets. That is why “mipster” is often called a “Muslim hipster.” This grass-roots movement emerged as a consequence of a need among young Muslims living in USA to demonstrate that they are valuable human beings who are far from religious fanaticism.

The above-mentioned examples of Scandinavian, Dutch, Australian or Asian projects are proof positive of the folklore’s potential as the catalyst of creative industries (design, music, computer games, film). All it takes is the desire to explore one’s tradition. In other words, nothing to be ashamed of.


Translated by Beata Marczyńska-Fedorowicz