New Forms of Collaboration Between the Social and the Cultural Are Possible and Desirable – an Interview With Elefterios Kechagioglou

By Clothilde Sauvages

A veritable artistic and social laboratory, the Plus Petit Cirque du Monde has been acting for 25 years as an actor in the social and territorial transformation of the priority district of the city where it is installed in Bagneux. We met its director, Elefterios Kechagioglou. He spoke to us about the importance of combining pragmatism and poetry, of the need to take art down from its pedestal and to think of places of culture as places of life.

Hello Eleftérios, today you run the smallest circus in the world, a social circus in Bagneux. How did this idea of ​​creating a circus with a social vocation come about?

By studying the territory! The city of Bagneux is a popular city, working class in the south of the Parisian suburbs. We had the idea of ​​a circus and we developed this project with the locals in order to meet their main challenges: doing things together, giving meaning to everyday life.

And why the circus?

At the beginning of the 90s, a new form of circus began to develop: a more contemporary circus and without animals. There was the desire to go to meet people and extend the spirit of popular education of the movements of the 70s and 80s by leaving conventional places and allowing everyone to practice and do art. Bagneux was land all the more fertile as there was a tradition of carnival and festivals with the grape harvest. There was a preexisting link between the showman, the circus, the theater and street music.

The circus is also an excellent social tool because it makes it possible to tackle questions of risk and self-confidence, and it has a very little social connotation. At Plus Petit Cirque du Monde, we work daily to develop the “social circus” through the creation of the Caravan Circus Network which brings together 30 international organizations. We have also developed a university degree with Paris XI “Social transformation and mediation through sporting and artistic practices”.

Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde is also a place: unique architecture, large wooden volumes. To what extent does this place influence your practices?

This place was designed by the team Patrick Bouchain and Loïc Julienne. It combines grandeur and simplicity: it is monumental thanks to its large volumes, but it is made from modest materials. It is an architectural work as much as a plastic one that leaves no one indifferent. The sacred is close to the artistic. It is no coincidence that very tall cathedrals were built. The virtues of this place are of the order of practice because many arrangements are possible and of the order of the imagination because it is not common to enter a room 28 meters high and this has an impact on the sensations we experience. There is also a historical dimension since we kept the gymnasium built at the same time as the Thomson neighborhood and factories.

Another important point, we wanted to avoid the fortress aspect which encloses the culture. The artist no longer wants to be locked in his stage cage, hidden behind the scenes so as not to be seen. The tradition of performing on stage, of being applauded and disappearing when changing costume is over. It is a very nineteenth and very bourgeois conception of art.

Rather than following the classic pattern where I go to a show in the evening because I have a ticket, people here can get in and out very organically.

This approach started from the start of the project with a participatory project open to the public for 2 years. Then it continued because we wondered how our project could remain a site and keep an evolutionary dimension. Working with Patrick and Loïc was very instructive in this regard. This allowed us to understand how this idea of ​​a permanent site has all its meaning in artistic and social work. Art is an ongoing work, as is the performing arts. Every day you start again, and every day you get up to answer questions. Besides, we did not solve the problems of the neighborhood by building a circus. Somewhere we have even more responsibilities now that we have obtained public funds for the construction of the building.

How do you combine the useful with the poetic?

It is legitimate to ask the question: what is it useful for? What do we do that allows people to be better, to improve their conditions? Poetry is important but should not make us forget pragmatism. We thought of the foyer as an open reception area: able to accommodate shared meals, meetings, etc. If parents of pupils want to make a meal on Saturday with the children they do it, just as if it is necessary to make a meeting we do it. In this sense, the “barrack Friday” initiative was set up in partnership with local associations. During these Fridays everyone is welcome and we offer varied, free programs, which are not confined to strictly cultural activities.

What do you think of the cultural and social rapprochement?

There is an urgent need to rethink the place of culture in society.

Art has been put on a pedestal for too long. The French territory benefits from an exceptional network with cities of 10,000 inhabitants that have national scenes. But this model has its limits since only 17% of the population frequent these cultural places. And that it did not allow us to avoid social conflicts or even attacks. You have to wonder what happens to these 83 other percent of the population who do not go to cultural places

Hugo said, “ when you open a school, you close a prison “. This certainly applies to culture, ” when you open a theater you close a prison “. For a while, the Ministry of Culture wanted to put art at the service of the brand image of France, which amounted to putting the social aside. And still today, the social and cultural worlds look at each other with suspicion. Arrogance and conservatism are not favorable for the emergence of new ways of thinking, new collaborations. Today, more than ever, we have to ask ourselves what we want to do with cultural centers, how to get out of the walls, how to stop being divisive.

The change is felt and it is favored by the inspiration that projects from the social and solidarity economy generate.

The cultural world is changing and freeing itself from its own constraints.

The Pocket Concerts project is an illustration of this. It aims to find a new audience for classical music, starting from the observation that it only interested an aging audience in city centers. It is a huge step forward to rethink classical music, take it everywhere and develop learning times. Likewise, many major theaters are now questioning the need to transform their bar into a place to live in order to get out of the closed-door logic that has long prevailed in cultural places.

So I hear that this rapprochement of the culture and the SSE can be experienced with bitterness by the culture because it coincides with the stagnation of budgets dedicated to culture and that this rapprochement is perceived as a result of the liberal surge, a horse of Liberalism.

What are the main components of your business model and how is it original?

First of all, to build our economic model, we adapted the outline of a Business Model to put it at the service of our values. Instead of “profit” we wrote ” creation of values “. Once this change has been made, it has become easier to build an adapted economic model. Today, our economic model is made up of public funding (51%), private funding (14%) and our own resources (35%). The economic model must be the subject of continuous reflection: how to ensure the sustainability of the project? Satisfy all stakeholders (employees, volunteers, residents, etc.)? Make it an extension of our values?

I draw three main lessons from our reflections on the economic model.

The first is that a general interest organization should care as much about its business model as a for-profit business. It is, therefore, necessary to have a team dedicated to this research and as much as possible to diversify the sources of funding.

The second is that growing up should not cause us complexes. An associative structure can grow to multiply its impact without losing its soul. Today we have implemented projects that have meaning, good results and that can only develop if we increase our size.

Finally, the last lesson is to change posture towards funders and to consider them as stakeholders. When we negotiate, we never position ourselves as a cultural project that demands public or private money. The objective is to co-build, even to co-pilot. It is important not to position ourselves as an inferior player because we have a less economic scope. We have our expertise, it is an expertise of territory, of land, just like a municipality with its own expertise.

And the posture is the same with private partners?

Yes quite! In the priming phase, they were more difficult to convince. Today the building offers them interesting visibility which they can more easily justify internally. Where the public sector has many criteria, the private actor is less involved in the projects developed. There is, of course, a philosophical debate as to whether or not one wishes to work with the private sector. Some are in an off-system approach, using only their own resources and this is very respectable. For our part, we have decided and we are working with the private sector: this has led us to collaborate with the Areva foundation, which certainly represents nuclear power, but which is not uncorrelated from the public sector. They supported us for over two years. Without the private actors who support us,

How do you see the role of your partners/sponsors, how would you like to see your relationships evolve?

An optimal relationship would be an operational co-construction relationship, and we are moving towards that. Build a common vision as soon as possible.

And we are gradually getting there because, on the one hand, foundations want their employees to get more involved. On the other hand, the State increasingly understands that it is necessary to associate structures in the reflections and not only to decide, to announce, and to put people in a posture of a wait-and-see attitude. Because a ministry without partners, without private initiatives, without citizens to collaborate with, this no longer works. It is not possible to stay in a ministerial office and find out what is going on deep in the Creuse or in a Parisian suburb, there are white areas.

Bringing capital into a project should no longer be the act of the prince “I give and you do”. It is much more interesting for everyone to do together.

This co-construction approach seems essential to me today even if it is scary. The term that often comes upon this subject is the fear of “being instrumentalized”. What is interesting because it is above all the artists who instrumentalized art by advocating a transformative art. They are afraid that other stakeholders will do the same, as we have seen in municipalities carried away by the extreme right and who said, well here we stop!

My last point is that we should no longer see culture as the icing on the cake. It must be rethought in connection with all societal issues, including in its economic model. How can artists support urban transformation initiatives? How can artists make the territory more attractive? How can artists offer local service to residents? Operationally, this is done by seeking budgets for economic development, social cohesion, links with overseas territories, territorial attractiveness, town planning, ecology and not only cultural budgets. So certainly, we can say that it is opportunistic, but it is with such projects that we discover new ways of doing things,

Interview edited by Hélène Vuaroqueaux

This post was previously published on where the content of the website is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 France.

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