There are currently 295 cities designated as members of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Creative Cities Network, an initiative launched in 2004 (Hanoi Department of Culture and Sports). These cities are expected to “work together towards a common objective: placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level and cooperating actively at the international level” (UNESCO “Creative”). More specifically, one of the aims of the Creative Cities Network is to “develop hubs of creativity and innovation and broaden opportunities for creators and professionals in the cultural sector” (UNESCO Creative Cities Network).
This UNESCO initiative emerged soon after Richard Florida’s influential “creative city thesis”. Florida’s thesis encourages the implementation of socio-economic development policies and physical design plans—by entire cities or specific urban areas—that attract and draw from the creative and art sectors, and especially the ‘creative class’. Focusing on the North American and European contexts, Florida credits the creative sector, rather than industry, for generating the economic growth that transformed post-industrial cities. Seeking to replicate this same growth in non-Western contexts, international consultancy firms and organizations—including UNESCO—have advised governments and municipalities around the world to follow this approach to foster creative activities. Despite a number of academic critiques of Florida’s ideas (e.g. Borén and Young; Gibson and Klocker; Peck; Scott), the creative city thesis is now “going global”, and influencing many policy-makers and politicians in Asia (Landry 100). This is not to say, however, that exciting movements were not already underway in such locales, driven by local enthusiasts. Yet the degree to which governments are taking these ideas on board has certainly shifted (see Ren for an excellent discussion of such synergies in Beijing and Berlin).
Over the last two decades, large cities across the region have witnessed the rapid emergence of so-called creative hubs and districts (Hee et al.; Huabcharoen and Ellsmore; Kong). To date, studies on such spaces in Asia have largely analysed their role within the circulation and adoption of creative city policies by national or local governments (e.g., Kong; Lin and Chiu; Yeoh). This scholarship has pointed to the ways by which the development of urban creative spaces is advanced as a strategy to brand cities, increase their cultural production, and encourage economic development (e.g., O’Connor and Gu; Ooi and Lai; Yeoh). At the same time, the implementation of such policies is also linked to negative externalities and tensions regarding gentrification, censorship, commodification, and social exclusion (e.g., Currier; Hee et al.; Lin and Chiu; Luger).
Within this context, Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi has witnessed the establishment of a number of small-scale sites devoted to creative activities since the mid- to late 1980s (fig. 1). Locally known as ‘creative spaces’ (không gian sáng tạo), these locales share a number of key characteristics with creative hubs researched elsewhere (see Gill et al.; Virani). Notably, Hanoi’s creative spaces are assembly points for a range of creative activities and people. Also, as is common elsewhere, they operate as local nodes in their respective creative communities, while supporting their affiliates and participants through mutual social support, and knowledge and information exchange (Pratt; Virani). To date, however, there has been relatively little academic research into Hanoi’s creative hubs (or those elsewhere in Vietnam), their motives for becoming established, and the emerging relationship between these hubs and the Vietnamese government’s newly adopted creative city policy for the capital (but see commissioned reports by Truong the Mapping of; Truong Mapping Creative Hubs, and Gasparin and Quinn on creative organisations in Vietnam).
Our aim in this brief feature article is thus two-fold. First, we investigate the growth of independent creative hubs in Hanoi, focussing on their founders’ motivations for establishing the hubs, and how the hubs are meeting local creative demands. Second, we consider the possible tensions and conflicts emerging between the visions of these creative hub operators and users, compared to those of the Vietnamese state, with regard to what the city’s creative hubs should represent. We suggest that the state is now strongly influenced by Hanoi’s membership within UNESCO’s Creative City Network since 2019.
To inform our analysis, between 2019 and 2021 we conducted an in-depth investigation of 10 creative hubs in Hanoi, focussing on their missions, activities, founders, and users. By drawing on two preliminary reports on the city’s hubs prepared for the British Council (Truong The Mapping of; Truong Mapping Creative Hubs), we selected our case studies to include different artistic orientations, length of time operating, and physical size. We included eight small, unifunctional spaces, and two large, multifunctional complexes, all of which began operations between 2009 and 2017. The hubs all engage in—or previously engaged in—non-mainstream cultural practices, including contemporary and experimental art. Given some of the hubs’ politically sensitive practices and discourses, we do not name them here. In the summer of 2019, while employed as a university research assistant, the third author, Celia Zuberec, completed semi-structured interviews with hub founders and operators (n=21), tenants (n=21), and users (n=36). These interview schedules were designed by the first and second authors, Sarah Turner and Danielle Labbé. We also interviewed three representatives from Vietnam’s central state ministries and two representatives from international organisations involved in Hanoi’s arts community. Additionally, Labbé and Nguyen N. Binh attended a number of meetings between creative hubs and representatives from the Vietnamese government and international organisations, including Nguyen being an observer at a high-level meeting with the National Assembly’s Committee on Culture, Education, Youths, Teenagers and Children (Ủy ban Văn hóa, Giáo dục, Thanh niên, Thiếu niên và Nhi đồng) in 2019. The objective of this meeting was to discuss the organisation and development visions of ‘creative industries’ in the city.
Fig. 1: A small-scale creative hub in Hanoi. (Photo credit: Zuberec.) Note: the use of images from specific creative hubs does not mean that we completed interviews at these sites. To maintain confidentiality we visited a broader range to take photographs and complete observations.
Emergence of Creative Hubs in Hanoi
Since the mid-1950s, an affiliation with the Vietnamese state was a non-negotiable requirement for the establishment of any form of organisation in the country. Citizen-led groups or associations with no connection to the state were effectively banned unless given explicit authorisation to operate. Cultural activities were restricted to state-managed associations and venues, with the government being the only provider of cultural training institutions, and sponsor of art works. By maintaining tight control over cultural production, the government worked to limit the circulation of ‘subversive’ content and ideas, and uphold and legitimate its authority (Healey). With the onset of Đổi Mới (‘economic renovation’) in the mid-1980s, and following a rare moment of self-scrutiny when the government acknowledged its grip on the cultural sector had been “undemocratic, authoritarian and overbearing”, this situation began to change (ibid. 121). The government’s acknowledgement came with promises of new creative freedoms and signalled a relative scaling back of its control over society (Kerkvliet “Introduction”; Wells-Dang). Thereafter, new possibilities opened up for Vietnamese citizens to form autonomous groups, paving the way for the emergence of creative hubs in urban locales such as Hanoi.
As this policy shift came into play, artists began to carve out their own scene in Hanoi. Supported by curators, collectors, and gallery operators, individuals started engaging more freely with artistic practices, media, and ideas, leading to the growth and diversification of the Vietnamese arts scene. Concurrently, other exhibitions and performances were held clandestinely in home-studios in order to operate away from the state’s gaze and its remaining censorship policies (Taylor). Driven by the impetus to “break from the establishment”, such private studios lay the groundwork for the city’s first accessible, non-government affiliated independent art spaces (Taylor and Corey 110). International cultural centres and foreign embassies also played a key role in the establishment of the city’s first creative hubs, by drawing on their social, political, and financial capital to support such endeavours (Nualart; Taylor). From the 2010s onwards, such spaces began to multiply rapidly, with a four-fold increase in the number of creative hubs operating in Hanoi between 2014 and 2018, a rise from 22 to 81 (Truong The Mapping of; Truong Mapping Creative Hubs).
While the first creative hubs were mostly fine arts-oriented, they have since become more diverse, showcasing various contemporary, experimental and, to a lesser degree, traditional art forms. Broadly, these spaces can now be grouped into two distinct organisational structures, differentiated by their size and diversity of activity. The first model typically operates from a large multi-story, multi-room building, and brings together a diverse mix of artistic and commercial activities. Tenants rent or own spaces in such complexes, transforming them to fit their needs as studios, galleries, performance spaces, cafes, bars, and shops. This model—which aligns closely with the literature’s accepted definition of a creative hub (e.g. Pratt)—is best represented by Zone 9; a hub that closed its doors in late 2013. Zone 9, established by a group of contemporary artists, existed for less than a year before being halted by the state. Nonetheless, its large size and vibrancy, as well as its rapid dismantling by the state, left a strong mark on Hanoi’s cultural scene (see https://zone9documentary.com/about/). Similar in organisational structure was the original Hanoi Creative City, which opened in 2015 (fig. 2). At that time it hosted a number of independent artists, but since then this hub has become increasingly commercially oriented (see https://www.facebook.com/hncreativecity/).
Fig. 2: Hanoi Creative City. (Photo credit: Zuberec.)
In contrast, the second model of creative hubs in Hanoi typically operates from a small space with no more than a few multi-functional rooms. These rooms might be used as exhibition spaces, classrooms for workshops, venues for talks, or makeshift theatres for screenings. These hubs are usually run by a manager alongside a small team of paid staff and/or volunteers. In general, these hubs do not have permanent tenants, instead rotating the artists being showcased. Given that they do not charge rent to generate profit, these hubs attempt to maintain some degree of financial stability through securing grants, charging small fees for activities, and/or operating businesses alongside their artistic endeavours, such as cafés and/or shops (Truong Mapping Creative Hubs; interviews). Currently, this second model—detailed further below—is the dominant structure of creative hubs within Hanoi. While both types of creative spaces have existed in Hanoi for over a decade, it appears that a ‘revamped version’ the larger-scale hubs is of greater interest to UNESCO and the Vietnamese state.
Fig. 3: A small-scale Hanoi hub hosting an exhibition in a multi-functional room. (Photo credit: Zuberec.)
The Vietnamese State’s Vision and UNESCO
Compared to other Asian locales such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the creative economy and creative city discourse made a relatively late entry into Vietnam’s state arena (Kong et al.). Ideas associated with this discourse began to circulate within Vietnamese policy circles in the late 2000s, stimulated by two main foreign organisations: UNESCO and the British Council. Around 2008, these organisations partnered with specific Vietnamese government agencies, primarily the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MOCST), and the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies (VICAS), in a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening and developing Vietnam’s cultural industries sector. Other local and international partners were sometimes also involved as well. These initiatives ranged from small-grant programmes and training sessions for creative entrepreneurs, surveys of creative organisations and businesses active in Vietnam’s main urban centres, to the formulation of Vietnam’s first national strategy framework for cultural industries and, more recently, to Hanoi City’s application to join the UNESCO’s Creative City Network (UNCCN).
A problematic tension has run through these various initiatives, reflecting two competing visions about the creative sector and its role in Vietnam’s society and economy. On the one hand, some projects and programmes led by UNESCO, the British Council, and their local government partners, have emphasised the value and potential of the creative initiatives emerging spontaneously in Vietnamese cities over the last decades (including small creative hubs), calling on the state to adopt policies to support their development. On the other hand, this same group of actors argues that Vietnam needs to prioritise ‘new’ creative industries able to generate “high value employment”, “lift the innovation capacity of the manufacturing and service sectors”, and “contribute significantly to the national GDP” (Vietnam Institute of Cultural and Arts Studies 6). This second vision focusses on the development of start-ups and businesses in fields such as advertisement, design, software development, and digital media. It concurrently downplays the less profitable fields in which many existing creative hubs in Vietnamese cities are working, such as the visual and experimental arts. This imagining is especially salient in the ‘National Strategy for the Development of Vietnamese Cultural Industries to 2020, with a Vision to 2030’, prepared by VICAS in 2013, with input from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, UNESCO, and British Council, and adopted by the Prime Minister in 2016 (UNESCO “National”).
The description of Hanoi’s programming as a new member of the UNESCO’s Creative City Network also includes elements of these two visions (UNESCO “Hanoi”). City officials indicate, for instance, that they seek “to develop and consolidate” the “more than 70 small creative spaces which are already operating in the city” (UNESCO “Building”). At the same time, they propose to set up events to “discover creative designs for smart cities and apply technology to design and industry” and “to develop graduates with skills for the new economy” (ibid).
In theory, these two visions are not inherently incompatible, since both could be promoted and operate within the city concurrently, perhaps even developing interesting synergies. In practice however, the problem—according to interviewees and our observations—is that central government decision-makers, Hanoi’s higher-level municipal officials, and corporate business sector leaders adhere mainly to the second, more economistic view of creative industries development. While Hanoi only joined the UNCCN in 2019, there are already indications suggesting that the government and business community do not envisage a ‘creative Hanoi’ founded on small, arts-focussed, and non-profit oriented creative spaces. Instead, these actors foresee the establishment of much larger complexes, backed by private sector investment, and focussed on more commercial and profitable activities, a point we return to later.
Hub Founders’ Visions and Concerns
Hanoi’s hub founders whom we interviewed shared very similar views regarding their hopes of cultivating and progressing the city’s arts scene, while making art more publicly accessible. Many noted that the state had been responsible for stifling the creative sector during the latter half of the twentieth century by tightly controlling the cultural scene and maintaining a firm separation from the rest of the world. One interviewee explained that during that time, Vietnamese people were barred from “independence or individual freedom” as “this would be a threat to the communist party’s power”. Knowledge, growth, and even interest in the arts, and particularly the contemporary and experimental arts, were thus understandably limited.
Several interviewees stressed that this repressive atmosphere has not completely dissipated, with one hub manager detailing that creativity in Vietnam remains “fragmented and spontaneous” with a lack of “foundation and support” for the arts. Several participants pointed to shortcomings with the country’s educational and cultural institutions, in particular, as the source of this cultural stagnation. Even three decades after the initiation of Đổi Mới, many felt the contents and curricula of such institutions were still trailing behind those of many other countries, hindering the advancement of Vietnam’s cultural sector. There was a general consensus, succinctly voiced by one interviewee, that the country’s official school curriculum did not teach students to be “creative, critical, or independent thinkers”, an observation also made by Gasparin and Quinn (627). Instead, it offered students little exposure to arts-related content and encouraged a one-way exchange of information that continues to stifle critical thinking and creativity. Interviewees who had completed their training at the Vietnam Fine Arts University or the National Academy of Music similarly spoke of graduating with narrow artistic knowledge centred on traditional artistic practices, theories, and materials. As articulated by one artist, “there was absolutely no mention of contemporary art in the whole program … [the curriculum] stops at the beginning of the 20th century”.
Overall, hub founders and users argued that this disregard for the contemporary and experimental arts by official institutions has compounded to create a lack of knowledge and support for art among the general public. In particular, a domestic buyer market and audience has failed to develop, leading contemporary artists to depend on foreign buyers to support their livelihoods. Coupled with the lack of a contemporary arts museum to collect local artists’ works, one interviewee pithily stated: “it’s a matter of art drain”.
Hub founders also highlighted that a growing emphasis on profit within Vietnam state and society has created an inhospitable environment for creative activities to flourish. Since Đổi Mới, they argued there has been a marked increase in the importance placed on economic growth and competition. Since the value of non-profit spaces cannot be measured in economic terms, the benefits of such spaces are not readily recognisable by the public or the state. With few expectations that central or municipal state organisations might work to remedy the creativity deficit within Hanoi itself, hub founders noted that they need to address this, through the establishment of independent creative spaces (Figure 4).
Fig. 4: A Hanoi creative hub exhibition attempting to expand understandings of contemporary art. (Photo credit: Labbé.)
Although nearly all hubs are registered as for-profit businesses (as a pragmatic choice to be allowed to operate, since the process of registering as a social enterprise or NGO is exceptionally convoluted), their working models more closely resemble that of social enterprises. As noted earlier, at the centre of all hubs’ missions is the belief that the public should have greater access to art and arts education. As such, all hub founders keep fees for events and training courses to a minimum, often offering free entry to performances, screenings, talks, and exhibitions. This, however, means that hubs largely depend on unpaid volunteers to operate, and many hub founders do not take a salary themselves. Overall, profit is far from the aim of such hubs. Most experience significant economic precarity and, given their limited operating budgets, tend to select locations where monthly rent payments are low, often with insecure tenancy agreements. Many have been forced to close on a temporary or permanent basis as a result of insufficient funds or the loss of their physical space (interviews). These hubs’ missions and operating approaches are thus essentially the opposite to the state’s interpretations of how to implement UNESCO’s Creative City focus.
Creative Hub and State Tensions
According to several interviewees, state officials—at both the central and municipal levels— perceive the collective actions of Hanoi’s creative hubs as a potential threat to the country’s political regime and ideology. In particular, given the state’s tendency to continue to limit freedom of expression and to monitor cultural production, tensions frequently arise regarding the hubs’ activities and missions. In the view of one hub founder, “the government is afraid of cultural freedom, and it doesn’t want civil society to organise and to rise up against it. So, from the government’s point of view, it’s important to control everything”.
For example, the Hanoi Department of Culture, Sport, and Tourism is a key state department through which officials monitor and control cultural and political activities within the city. This unit operates with the mandate “to regulate the exposure of art to the general public according to the state's wishes and needs” (Libby 209). As such, it is a legal requirement that members of the public submit requests to this governmental censorship body in order to hold public events. Failure to do so can result in fines or events being shut down. Several interviewees lamented that the process to obtain permissions is often lengthy and expensive, with most having experienced their requests for authorisation being refused at least once. While at times state officials might ‘only’ require the removal of certain works of art perceived as politically, religiously, culturally, or socially transgressive, in more extreme circumstances permissions for entire events can be denied. As one hub founder remarked: “in Vietnam, freedom has to exist within a framework… When the government sees an activity that is developing outside of that framework, they see it as transgressive and do what they can to eliminate it”. As a result, the most avant-garde pieces and performances seldom make it through this censorship process.
At times, state control over cultural production goes beyond this official censorship process. Some hub founders spoke of needing to have a backup power generator on hand when hosting public events, given that the ‘cultural police’, as the Department is locally known, sometimes cuts off electricity to buildings. Significantly, this has occurred even when hubs had already received authorisations through official channels. Some hub operators recalled how they had also been subject to more wide-sweeping restrictions, including having had their authorisation to host events rescinded for an extended period of time. In more extreme situations, hubs had been forced to cease all operations either temporarily or indefinitely.
Creative hubs are not passive in the face of these challenges, and their founders and users work to manoeuvre around such censorship and repression—often in very imaginative ways—which we write about elsewhere. Nonetheless, it becomes clear that the types of hubs that are being promoted and celebrated by the state as part of the UNESCO initiative are quite different from many that have ‘organically emerged’ in the city, founded on the dedication and hard-work of a number of engaged individuals.
Through our interviews and observations, including one author being present at meetings between creative hubs and government’s representatives, we have to conclude that the Vietnamese state currently has little interest in, and sees very little potential for, Hanoi’s non-profitable, small-scale creative hubs that focus on contemporary and experimental art. These are not envisioned as being lucrative operations, nor particularly relevant players, in the development of Hanoi as a UNESCO-style Creative City, and are being sidelined in official city imaginings. Central to the state’s vision are far larger complexes with important private sector investment. These are more commercially oriented, with profitable activities such as information technology, advertisement, digital marketing, and design. Certainly, at the high-level meeting at the National Assembly mentioned earlier, a foreign consultant emphasised the value of creative hubs for their business and economic opportunities, even linking them to positive GDP growth. On a different occasion, a senior official we interviewed from the International Cooperation Department, of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, was adamant that
the momentum of the development of creative hubs relies on the development of the IT sector. There should be more emphasis on the development of IT hubs. This type of activity draws more attention from the top leaders. There should be hubs with co-working spaces and start-ups; eco-systems for young entrepreneurs that foster digital innovation.
Taking a slightly different tack, a senior researcher at the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies (VICAS) who appeared more sympathetic to the visions of smaller creative hub operators noted during our interview that “the National Assembly is now concerned with developing a way to measure the economic impacts of creative hubs. They still don’t see the social value of such places but at least it is a starting point”. This researcher went on to note pragmatically that “we need to convince the government of the economic impact; the social impact will not be enough to obtain their full support. It is possible that they would consider funding a hub if they could be persuaded of its economic potential”.
Presently, it unfortunately looks like the UNESCO Creative City label has not provided the ‘breathing space’ for small-scale, non-profit driven creative hubs to flourish and gain greater official (and general) acceptance in Hanoi. The state’s cultural policies and regulatory frameworks, while less restrictive than in the past, still inhibit a fairly broad range of forms of creative and cultural initiatives, and activities. However, speaking with a few interviewees within the state apparatus who were able to note and recognise how a pragmatic approach could help support small hub operators provides a small degree of hope. While certainly not the ideal way forward, by being opportunistic while hopefully not losing sight of their original visions, perhaps some small-scale creative hubs will be able to persevere or even thrive in this new climate.
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