Monday, 15 December 2014

The educational dimension

Last October, during the intermission of a performance of Brahms' “Requiem” by the Saint Louis Symphony, twenty three protesters sitting in various parts of the auditorium stood up and sang “Requiem for Mike Brown” (the black unarmed youth that was shot by a policeman in Ferguson). Some members of the audience were shocked, others applauded, the same happened with the musicians on stage. Noone interrupted the protesters, noone called the police. Maybe because what happened made sense, at that place, at that time, in that specific context. Music being an integral part of protest in Ferguson, this, acoording to one of the organizers, was an attempt to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable. You have to make a choice for just staying in your comfort zones or will you speak out for something that’s important? It’s not all right to just ignore it”. (read full article)


The recent killings of black people by police in different US cities have provoked an intense soul searching among cultural institutions in that country. In a recent joint statement from museum bloggers and other culture professionals regarding Ferguson and related events, one reads:

“The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)? (...) Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission. (...) As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case.”

Last August, serious controversy involved the decision of Tricycle Theatre not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival, for the first time in eight years. The reason was that the festival received support from the Israeli Embassy in London and, given the ongoing assault on Gaza at the time, the Board felt it was inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved”. They offered to provide alternative funding, but the Festival did not accept (read full article). The conflict in Gaza was also the reason why participating artists in this year’s São Paulo Bienal (later supported by the bienal curators) called on the organizers to return funding from the Israeli Conusulate. Negotiations resulted in the removal of the conusulate logo from the general sponsors and its association only to the Israeli artists that had received that specific financial support (read full report).

We may agree or disagree with the decisions taken by these organizations. But the questioning of the role of cultural institutions in today’s society, especially their educational role, must be permanent, constant. Just like Rebecca Herz, I believe that they shouldn´t act irrespective of their mission (as it is suggested in the above mentioned statement of the US museum bloggers), but any museum collection or theatre /orchestra / festival programme can have a connection to contemporary life and help shape the kind of society we need or dream of. As the work of many contemporary artists is a response to contemporary life issues, it is not unusual to find this kind of connections, and the fertile thinking associated to them, in the programming of theatres, companies or galleries (the Maria Matos Theatre, the Gulbenkian Programme Next Future or the alkantara festival are the first to come to mind, among the organizations whose programming I follow in Portugal, but there are others). Museums or orchestras presenting works that are not contempoarary are not used to linking their collections or concerts to contemporary life though or, if they do, it does not become obvious to me. Quite often I find myself thinking “What is the point of this exhibition or concert?”, “Why is this relevant?”, “How does this connect to contemporary portuguese society and its diversity?” (the inspiring work of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment comes to mind once again...)

This brings me once again to a recurring issue on this blog: accountability and responsibility. I don´t see cultural institutions as islands, cut off from what is happening around them. I believe they should make it clear for people how what they have to say or show can be relevant to them and a way of finding meaning; they should share their vision and objectives publicly and take responsibility for fulfilling them; they should be a public forum, where people can find comfort, but also the necessary discomfort. They clearly have an educational role (in the sense of providing what the Ancient Greeks called “paideia”), one that I wouldn´t necessarily make depend on what happens (or doesn’t happen) at school or at home and one that doesn’t firstly depend on an education department, but on the director him/herself.

Two museums directors and a curator will be with us next Tuesday, 16 December, at the Gulbenkian Foundation conference “What places for education? The educational dimension of cultural institutions” (more information). Charles Esche (Director of Van Abbemuseum and one of the curators of this year’s São Paulo Bienal), David Fleming (Director of National Musems Liverpool and President of the International Federation of Human Rights Museums) and Delfim Sardo (Curator, University Professor and Essayist) will challenge us to think on our responsibilities and practices in the current social and political context.




Note: For those who cannot be in Lisbon, the session will be livestreamed from 10am Lisbon time. The link for the livestream as well as a number of papers, posts, interviews in english may be found on the conference webpage (in “Oradores” and in "+Info")


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Monday, 1 December 2014

An apology of criticism



Critical thinking is a mental and emotional function in which someone - based on his/her knowledge and information available – decides what to think or do in relation to a specific situation. The result is a substantiated opinion. It is subjective. It may be positive or negative. It must be intellectually honest.

There is a tendency to associate solely negative aspects to the word ‘criticism’ and to see it as an attack. That´s why many times a critique provokes reactions such as “criticising is easy…”; or a hasty clarification by the ‘attacker’, such as “please, don´t take this as a criticism”; or even the need to declare that the ‘attacker’ has nothing personal against his/her ‘target’.

A couple of weeks ago, I reacted – critically - to the interview of a national museum director and, specifically, to a statement regarding an issue that is of extreme importance to me in our profession. This means that, based on my knowledge and the information available, I decided what to think of that statement and I shared that thought. Other people reacted to my criticism, agreeing or disagreeing or adding other aspects to the process of critical thinking. At a certain point, though, a colleague intervened to say: “One shouldn´t speak ill of colleagues on Facebook”. This intervention has kept my mind busy since.

I see a distinct difference between speaking ill and criticising. Speaking ill can only be negative and there is something too personal in it, something too sentimental, something that ends up neutralizing the strength of arguments and severely affects the credibility of the critic. Speaking ill is not constructive, it might be temporarily ‘therapeutic’ for the speaker, but it is ineffective.

Criticism is something different. Criticism is the wish to be aware, to put one’s knowledge in good use, to contribute for something better (through positive or negative appreciations) and also to assume responsibility. Thus, criticism is not easy.

Very little critical thinking is shared in public, with the exception, perhaps, of whatever relates to the governement and politicians in general – which makes me think that maybe we don´t feel as responsible for this country´s political life, thus, criticising (or speaking ill) becomes easy... In what concerns everything else, and considering specifically the cultural sector, public criticism and debate regarding decisions, positions, projects is rather limited. The professionals of the field might be feeling that all this is beyond their control and this feeling of impotence makes any intervention seem hopeless. Others might not like the exposure public criticism brings along, wary about personal/professional relationships that tend to get mixed up on these occasions. Others still might not like to take the responsibility of criticising publicly. Thus, as criticism is actually seen as something negative, as an attack, it is better kept behind closed doors, ‘in the family’, or, better still, untold. For some people, it shouldn´t be happening on social media. (I can´t help thinking that, when a couple of years ago I wrote positevely about an interview of the same national museum director, nobody told me I shouldn´t be doing it on Facebook; I suppose it was not considered criticism).

I envy cultural bloggers in (mainly) the US and the UK, who contribute to the open debate and criticism of all important matters, keeping the dialogue alive, their voice heard and the interested public informed. They are too intelligent to fall into the trap of ill speaking. This is an act of responsibility. This should be an expected act in a democracy. All important, major, things must be discussed openly, positive and negative things must be largely debated, responsibility must be assumed. The direction of all public cultural institutions concerns us all, starting from the professionals of the field.

Which brings me to another point: criticism is associated to accountability. When Nina Simon completed her first year as director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, she wrote the post Year one as a museum director... Survived!. Both accountability and criticism stem from a deep sense of responsibility and Nina´s text is the perfect example of what I would like to see happening here.  But it´s not happening. In a country where those holding public positions are not expected to be accountable – that is, to openly define their objectives and to regularly explain what it is that they do, how, why and how successful they are in it - criticism might actually make less sense and we enter a vicious circle. A circle where few substantiated opinions are heard publicly, having no impact whatsoever, and where things happen anyway, no matter what, and success is declared... no matter what. We even consider normal that someone with a public position might be defending the indefensible, might not be giving an honest opinion, out of duty to his/her superiors. A vicious circle, a game, where we sacrifice our intellectual honesty. What´s the gain? And at what cost?


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Monday, 17 November 2014

That´s advertising

What is usually understood as “advertising” among cultural institutions is an ad in a newspaper or a magazine based on an exhibition or performance poster and informing on what – where -  when. Sometimes, this concept is transported into a TV spot, where the poster gets to have some kind of “animation”, using the image and letters of the poster, and where the information on what – where – when is also transmitted orally. In other words, facts.

Last year, I saw on You Tube the advertising spot of an exhibition at the Czech National Museum in Prague and it got me thinking. It related to the 2008 exhibition of the original document of the “Munich agreement”, which had been signed 70 years earlier, in 1938. This was an agreement between Britain, Germany, Italy and France which allowed for Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking territories to be sliced off and handed to Hitler.  


This was definitely not the usual what - where – when tv spot. This was a museum transmitting a message and addressing an invitation with a clear knowledge of the social-political-cultural context in which it operates and with a sense of humour. Short, intriguing and rather bold, considering what museums in general have got us used to. It speaks to the citizens of the Czech Republic and to the rest of us, although no words are needed.

More recently, I was very pleasantly surprised with a “Made in Portugal” ad. The 3rd edition of the Montemor-o-Novo Theatre Festival was organized by the Municipality of Montemor-o-Novo together with a number of local theatre groups, in spite of the financial difficulties felt in the cultural sector, presented all over the town and with the objective – among others - to involve the local population, independent of age, education, previous knowledge or habits of attending theatre performances.



The sense of humour in this spot won my heart once again. The second thing that came to mind was how true it felt, considering the festival´s mission and objective, especially the concern to involve the local community, which becomes the protagonist.

The third example I would like to discuss is also “Made in Portugal” and it´s more than an ad, it´s what one may call a campaign. “Maria & Luiz” is the joint effort of Lisbon´s two municipal theatres (Maria Matos and São Luiz) to work together in forging a relationship with people, through the creation of a card that costs €10 to purchase and offers 50% discount for a year. The campaign is made of seven short films (with english subtitles).


Seven short films, seven stories of romance, vanguarde, drama, music, expression, charm, phantasy. The ingredients of the the everyday life of very diverse people reflected back to us once we find ourselves in a theatre room.

The objective of advertising is to build messages that may influence attitudes towards a product or an idea. Now that I put the three examples together, I realize that one thing they have in common, apart from a sense of humour, is that they are centred on the people they wish to communicate with. Not facts, people. The story is not just the document or the festival or the discount card; the story is not told by the curator, the artist or the manager. Common people become the protagonists and narrators. Common people is what cultural institutions are about. This is the idea I see behind the concept, this is the message. Being part of a sector that is used to communicating with “its own” – with those who are already part, with those who “understand” – I am happy to see that some of us have chosen a different way, a different relationship.


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Monday, 3 November 2014

Is Giselle a curator?

Giselle Ciulla, Clark Art Institute (image taken from the website)
Is everyone who feels dazzled by medicine, follows the news, marvels at the advances registered and shares them with other people, a “doctor”?

Is every person who is fascinated with the stars, reads about them, has a telescope and does observations, an “astronomer”?

Is every person who likes art, has some favourite pieces and wishes to share and discuss the feelings and ideas these works provoke a “curator”?

What distinguishes an amateur from a professional and an interested person from an amateur? This is not exactly an original question, but the context in which museums operate today puts it once again on the table.

When I first read about the project uCurate of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, USA, I was thrilled with the idea. I wrote at the time that this is also the role of museums in society, a role that allows for involvement, active participation, which recognizes that there are more than one versions of the ‘truth’ and creates a place for them to be shared. There was one thing, though, that I felt very critical about: the fact that Giselle Ciulla, an 11-year-old whose proposal won the 2012 competition, was mentioned on the institute´s website as the “curator”.

Is Giselle a curator? Does the fact that she is a young person with interests, ideas, needs, opinions, who chose a number of works from the Institute´s collection and put them together into an exhibition make her a curator? Or rather a curator is somenone who – together with the ideas, needs, and feelings – has got the technical knowledge that can help shape ideas and needs into interesting, relevant, inspiring exhibitions, open to discuss more than one truths, nowadays with the help of the people who wish to be involved? The Wikipedia is an impressive collaborative project, where people may contribute and share their knowledge. Behind the entries, though, there are “curators” who make sure the information shared is accurate, otherwise the project would lose its credibility. What kind of analogies to the world of museums and their crowdsourced projects can we find here?

In an article entitled What is photography when everyone’s a photographer?, Joan Fontcberta is quoted saying Taking a picture today is easy and little attention is given to craft. This means that the art quality no longer resides in the fabrication but in the prescription of meaning”. Who´s responsible for prescribing a “meaning” in museums and helping fullfil the intentions? Ed Rodley states in his post ’Outsourcing’ the curatorial impulse: “If I had to characterize the essence of present-day curation, it would be ‘sense-making’”.

Far from defending the “omniscient and all-powerful curator” and being very supportive of all attempts to involve all people interested in museum work (so that what´s presented in them may be the result of extensive involvement and contributions from a number of people, thus more relevant), I wouldn´t get to the point of not distinguishing or confusing the roles of those involved.

In a recent article entitled Everybody´s an Art Curator, Elen Gamerman points out some of the main issues in the current debate: “The trend is sparking a growing debate among artists, curators and other art-world professionals about everything from where to draw the line between amateurs and experts to what even constitutes a crowdsourced show. How far can museums go in delegating choices to the public? How tightly should they control the voting on exhibit content? And at what point does a museum start looking too much like a community center?”.

Community activities at the Santa Cruz Art and History Museum (image taken from Nina Simon´s blog Museum 2.0)

Good question... A person attending the course I am currently giving on museum communications asked me after watching Nina Simon´s TED talk Opening up the museum: “Does the museum [Santa Cruz Art and History Museum, where Nina Simon is the director] keep in the collection works made by people who attend their workshops?”. And I would take this questions further: “If they do, do they keep all of them, some, on what criteria?”. I am a great admirer of Nina Simon and her vision regarding participatory museums, but we should not limit our evaluation of what she is trying to achieve to financial gains and attendance. There´s much more to it and Nina is doing what many more museum directors should be doing: risking, experimenting, evaluating.

The context in which museums operate today is specific, but the whole situation is not exactly new. It occurs every time there is a significant change in the environment (social, political technological). There is a need to rethink things, to plan differently, to adapt. I believe that the current environment asks for museums to be as much about the present as they are about the past. It asks for curators to be prepared to cater not only for their peers, but also for the “normal” people who wish to enjoy the museum and see it as part of their lives and communities. Yes, this means paying attention and being sensitive to the changes taking place. Yes, this means sharing authority and creating space for different views of the world. Yes, this means experimenting and taking risks. Yes, this means developing new programmes and skills. No, it doesn´t mean that museums must become something else, something they are not (from community centres to health centres to youth corrective services and so on). No, it doesn´t mean that everyone´s a curator. No, it doesn´t mean mistaking crowdsourced projects for give-people-what-they-are-asking-for projects.

So, how to go about this? I believe museums and the professionals working in them should focus on their competitive position. They should focus on what makes them special, different from other institutions. They should capitalize on their strong points and develop the necessary skills to face and work with new realities. The ultimate objective is to remain alive and relevant. And that takes some courage. It takes some attitude too.


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Monday, 20 October 2014

Not to be missed? Mmm... why?

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

It has become very common when promoting a cultural event to mention what – when - where and then to add the magic phrase “Not to be missed!”. At times, a couple of lines are added to this information, basically to let us know that artist x is the best in his/her field or world known. Judging by the information sent to us by a number of cultural institutions, there´s nothing we can miss and there are a number of artists that are the best in their field and world known. The first statement is not true and the second is not precise.

Considering the growing offer of cultural events and activities, people have a lot where to choose from. For some, given their experience and knowledge, the choice is easier as they don´t need other people to tell them what they should see, what they can´t miss. For others, less knowledgeable regarding a number of artists and their work, there is some need for orientation. Some extra information that might help them understand what´s important and relevant for them, what they wouldn´t really like to miss.

Unfortunately, the statement “Not to be missed” - unless it comes from a friend, someone whose judgement we trust - doesn´t serve this purpose, it´s not enough. After all, everybody says the same. Likewise, to mention that the artist is the best is not convincing enough for those who don´t know him/her and doesn´t necessarily provoke an urge to get to know his/her work better. The truth is there are a number of artists who are very good in what they’re doing. Is there really a “best”?

Thus, the question in many people´s mind is “Why?”. Why can´t I miss the concert, the play, the exhibition? What´s so important, so special, so different, so groundbreaking, so touching, so appealing, so beautiful, so provoking, so relevant that it will be worth investing my time and money to see it instead of seeing or doing something else?

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)
This poses a great challenge for those people working in communication. There is a need to move beyond the usual, beyond the obvious and easy information on what – when – where, and to search for the kind of information – as well as its visual representation - that might clarify, surprise, intrigue and appeal to the people cultural institutions wish to communicate with. There is also a need to choose the appropriate channels for making this kind of information available and easily shareable.

It is with great pleasure that I have been following the launch of the 2014-2015 season campaign of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (OAE). Some essential background information before getting into this:

The OAE was created in the 1980s with the aim to start from scratch, to re-think the whole institution called “orchestra”: its rules, its codes, its restrictions (read their short biography) . In an early mission statement, one reads that the OAE is to “Avoid the dangers implicit in playing as a matter of routine; pursuing exclusively commercial creative options; under-rehearsal; undue emphasis as imposed by a single musical director; recording objectives being more important than creative objectives.”  [Wallace, Helen (2006). Spirit of the Orchestra]. Today, one reads on the website, “It still pushes for change and still stands for excellence, diversity and exploration. And over two decades on, there´s still no orchestra in the world quite like it.”

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

This whole philosophy is also applied on the relationship the OAE fosters with people, and especially younger people. At a time where a number of orchestras are struggling to renovate their audiences and stay alive and relevant  - not really knowing how to do it -, the OAE has long invested in this relationship. Among its various initiatives, I would highlight “The Night Shift”, a series of informal and relaxed late night concerts which break a number of traditions we tend to associate to the enjoyment of classical music. Over 80% of the people attending these concerts are under 35 years old and approximately 20% are attending a classical concert for the first time. Listen to what they have to say:




There is an easy, relaxed, accessible tone in the way the OAE communicates with people. It becomes obvious that they are clear about their mission and purpose, they are sincere, they enjoy sharing what they love most with all those who might be interested (including those who don´t know they might be interested). Their clear vision reflects on their language (both verbal and visual), as well as the platforms they use to communicate (for instance, a rich Vimeo channel and a very live and engaging Facebook page).


OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

This season´s campaign has a clear and strong activistic visual. The musicians are part of the campaign, they´re the protagonists. The posters in the streets present a contemporary visual, beautifully integrated in the urban environment. The short messages on the posters are complemented with statements by the musicians and other members of staff who talk about their favourite piece in the season. The OAE’s horn player, Martin Lawrence, says: “I’m looking forward to this concert [the New World Symphony], mainly for the manic energy and spontaneity of conductor Adam Fischer. I am fascinated to know what his approach will be to these war-horse pieces – it won’t be normal… I am expecting huge drama, monstrous pianissimos and being on the edge of my seat.” Do you know of another classical music orchestra that communicates like this?

The OAE wants to be and to remain relevant. They don´t assume people will know, they´re there to make everything more clear, more understandable, more enjoyable. They are accessible, passionate, human. They have a good sense of humour and they´re not afraid to show it. They don´t tell people “You can´t miss us” or “We´re the best”. Their very suggestive motto is “Not all orchestras are the same”... And ooh... they´re certainly making it clear for me how sorry I should feel to be missing them!


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Monday, 6 October 2014

Preserving for what?

Imperial War Museum

On my second year in London, back in 1994, I could see the cupola of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) from my kitchen window. It was a beautiful view of a beautiful museum. To the surprise of many people, this is my favourite museum in London.

On my way to the first Congress of Military Museology, I was thinking that I never considered the IWM, which was going to make a presentation on that day, a military museum. To me, the IWM is a people´s museum (shouldn´t they all be?). A museum of the military and the civilians, of men and women, of grown ups and children, of human beings and animals (I am thinking of some of the exhibitions I saw there). It´s much more than dates, battles, tactics, types of weapons, treaties. It´s a museum that tells the stories of people whose lives were affected by war.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

The IWM presentation was included in a panel that would discuss the Military Museums and the the Great War Centenary. The first speaker was Maria Fernanda Rollo, a university professor and coordinator of the project Portugal 1914. This is a web portal, with very rich contents gathered with the collaboration of various institutions and professionals with different backgrounds, as well as the general public. The aim is to promote active citizenship, committed to the protection, preservation and safeguarding of a collective heritage, as well as to raise awareness of the importance of remembrance and the preservation of historical knowledge. “This is a virtual museum, that tells stories, where one learns with affection. It´s a museum that is alive”, said Maria Fernanda Rollo.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum
I smiled when I heard this statement. Because, implicitely, Maria Fernanda Rollo was revealing to us her perception of museums: a dead space, a space where stories are not told, a space where affection doesn´t have a place. A perception which is widely shared by many people in our society at various levels (do you remember why painter Paula Rego wished for the museum of her paintings in Cascais to be called “House of Stories” and not “museum”?).  But I also smiled while listening to my good friend Gina Koutsika making her lively and stimulating presentation on the initiatives of the IWM for the commemoration of the centenary. Gina showed us how alive a museum can (and should) be, how full of stories and feelings, how close to the communities it serves. This is not a museum in the virtual world, it´s a real one, it exists.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

Once the debate started, my mind travelled to another museum visit, some ten years ago, at the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ypres, Belgium). Another remarkable museum in the town that stood in the way of the German army and was totally destroyed during the war. A museum full of human stories, where the visitor may take up the identity of one of the town’s inhabitants and follow his/her story during the war. The one thing that marked me the most, and that I never encountered in another museum since, was the most simple way of showing that one object could be many stories. By exhibiting a pile of white handkerchiefs, the museum told the story of the multiple uses of that one object: it could be a sign of surrender; or a way to protect oneself from lethal gases covering one´s nose; or something to cover one´s eyes when facing the death squad.

In Flanders Fields Museum

From Ypres, my mind crossed the boarder and went to France, to the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux and its amazing project “Léon Vivien”. Good museums can find imaginative ways of putting their collections in good use, bringing them to life and connecting them with people. Léon Vivien is a fictitious character, a soldier, whose story is told on a special Facebook page through a number of objects, followed and commented by thousands of people. Good museums can do well both in the real and virtual word.



Eventually, the issue of remembrance came up in the debate. Lieutenant-General Mário de Oliveira Cardoso was another speaker on that panel and he quoted philosopher, essayist and writer George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Remember the past, preserve historical knowledge. Yes, that´s the aim of a number of insitutions, including museums. But why? What’s the purpose? Is it being achieved? Are the stories preserved and remembered just for their own sake or rather because they can be a link to the present, to current human stories, not only our own but those of others too? Can the stories preserved and remembered help me connect to the Other, make his/her story my own?

Europe is full of military, history, first and second world war, holocaust museums. They all aim to preserve the historical past and show the importance of rememberance. “Never again” is the motto we encounter in many of them. Are these museums aware that recently, following the atrocities that took place in Gaza, the cry “Death to Jews” was heard once again in some European cities? Have they reacted? Have they taken the opportunity to put their collections in good use and to show what is the purpose of preserving the historical past and remembering? Isn´t it precisely in a moment like this that museums should intervene publicly and contribute towards clarifying and shaping public opinion? Otherwise, preserving for what?


Other texts

Los jóvenes tienen que conocer esto para saber en que país están viviendo
Interview with Ricardo Brodsky, director of Museo de la Memoria (Santiago de Chile)

Le MuCEM ne doit pas devenir un musée pour touristes
Interview with Jean-François Chougnet, director of Musée des Civilisations de l´Europe et de la Méditerranée (Marseille)

Who funds the arts and why we should care
Interview with Charles Esche, curator of São Paulo Biennial


Monday, 22 September 2014

Gay, black, disabled... can we stop talking about it?

Gay Jazz Festival, Philadelphia (Photo: Bruno Bollaert, taken from The Examiner)

Last May, Philly magazine announced that history was about to be made with the organization of the first Gay Jazz Festival in the US. The announcement intrigued me. It rather seemed to me like history was going backwards. I visited the website of the William Way LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) Community Center that would host the  - I quote: “groundbreaking” - event looking for more. One read: “Philadelphia has enjoyed a legacy of being a great music city. We’re also a city that affirms the lives of LGBT people. Hosting the first LGBT jazz festival in North America provides an opportunity to showcase the rich and vibrant culture of our city. (...) The festival will serve as the finale for the William Way LGBT Community Center’s annual music series and highlight the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community.”

I believe that an important principle when dealing with other people, other cultures, is to first listen to the people themselves, to try and get to know and understand them better; their thoughts, their life experiences, their sensibilities, their needs and convictions. Thus, I am sure the Centre must have had a clear view on the necessity of a gay jazz festival, but still, even after consulting its website, it was not clear for why this initiative might be considered “visionary”. Why would gay jazz musicians need a gay jazz festival to present their work? Would this help raise awareness regarding gay people´s rights? Could it be because they don´t usually have a place in the jazz festivals being organized in the US and abroad? Why should a music festival aim to highlight “the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community” (and how would it do it?) and not simply the artists and their music?

I am frequently asking myself more or less the same questions when it comes to disabled artists. People working with them and the associations representing them claim that they don´t usually get to see their work presented in the usual festivals and the programming of cultural venues in general. It is considered of lesser quality and many times, once a venue programmes a show or an exhibition, they feel that they have filfilled their obligations towards disabled artists and no more is needed in a season. This is a reality indeed. Are we moving forward, though, and are we somehow solving the problem by organizing “special” disabled artists festivals, exhibitions, etc.?

Michelle Ryan, "Intimacy", Unlimited 2014 (photo taken from the Unlimited website)

 Between 2 and 7 September another edition of the festival Unlimited took place in London, a big event, with works especially commissioned for it, which “celebrates the artistic vision and originality of disabled artists”. In a country like the UK, which, compared to others, has already taken a number of necessary steps towards respecting disabled people´s rights, what is the role of a festival like Unlimited today?

Between 13 September and 15 October the Musée de Grenoble is organizing Le Mois de l´Accessibilité. One reads on the website that the museum invites people with disabilities to discover their exhibitions and activities during the whole year, giving all necessary assistance. So, what is the purpose of this “special” month?

Considering these and other initiatives, I keep questioning myself who attends these festivals, exhibitions, activities and what happens after? Do they attract the already “converted” or they appeal to a wider people? Do gay or disabled or black artists become more acknowledged by the sector and the public? Are they seen as the professionals they are? Are we moving towards an inclusive representation, where they are seen first and above all as artists, or rather curators and audiences still go to see something “special”, confined in a specific space and time, its “own” space and time? Do these festivals help us move towards caring more and more about the art and less and less about “the rest”?

I´ve written in the past about promoting shows which involved disabled people without giving a “warning” to the public that this would be the case. People bought their tickets, watched the show, they might or not have felt a certain discomfort and some left very pleasantly surprised with the quality of what they had seen. Wasn´t this a step towards learning that the “rest” didn´t actually make a difference? Shouldn´t our goal – the artists´, the curators´, the education and communications professionals´, the disabled people´s associations´ - be to work towards turning the difference mainstream?



When reading “Museums and Migration” (ed. Laurence Gouriévidis) this summer, I was pleased to see that this was the principle followed in some museum exhibitions in countries like Canada, Australia or the UK, countries with high levels of immigation that have seen at certain times government strategies that aimed to deal with “the tension between the recognition of a culturally diverse society and the need to articulate a national identity that projects a culturally cohesive nation” (Mary Hutchison and Andrea Witcomb, p.228). These museums moved beyond the ethnic festival, the Week of China – India – Pakistan – Nigeria – Bolivia, etc. (usually concentrating on music and food), and looked for ways to turn the migrant communities´ stories part of the main national story and to “promote positive feelings about people feeling at home across cultures and the idea that people in many parts of the world live within cultures that are already transnational, cosmopolitan and characterized by cultural hybridity” (Kylie Message, p. 60).

I believe that this is the way forward; it´s to stop drawing attention to the difference and making it part of the story. I quoted once before Morgan Freeman who considered Black History Month to be ridiculous, refusing to see his history resumed in a month, and, when asked “So, how are we gonna get rid of racism?”, he simply answered: “Stop talking about it!”. Do we still need gay, black, disabled, ethnic months-festivals-fairs-shows? Maybe we still do, I don´t deny it. But do we also have a plan for moving things forward?



More on this blog

The beginning and the ending of a b&w week in Vienna






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