Monday, 27 December 2010

While waiting for the marbles

The new Acropolis Museum looks like a huge meteorite that fell in the middle of a densely built area. It is not easy to appreciate the building from the exterior, it lacks a ‘respiration’ zone around it. As we are approaching, getting different views of the various volumes that compose it, we could even say that this is a strange and ugly object, arrogantly imposing itself in the space where it is inserted.

On the other hand, this work by swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, in collaboration with greek architect Michael Photiadis, conquers us unconditionally the moment we are inside it. This is not a building that overlaps the objects it is supposed to exhibit. On the contrary, it seems that every space was conceived considering the specific pieces it was going to receive. The views of the underground excavation (through the glass floor) are frightening (due to the height) and impressive. The main corridor that takes us to the exhibition – called “the slopes of Acropolis” – gives us the impression that we are indeed part of the procession that is heading up in order to deliver the offerings to the temple of goddess Athena. In the room of the archaic period we enter a garden of statues, solemn, smiling, somehow sad. Beautiful.
Photo: Aris Messinis (Agence France-Press)
The whole of the third and last floor is dedicated to the Parthenon. Luminous, graceful, with a direct and glamorous view to the Acropolis and the Parthenon, it has the exact dimensions of Athena´s temple. The majority of the objects exhibited here are plaster copies of the original frieze and metopes, today at the British Museum in London.


The battle for the restitution of the originals to Greece is part of a larger discussion, at international level, about the restitution of antiquities to their countries of origin (although the term ‘countries’ in this context might not be the most accurate). Apart from Greece, countries like Italy, Egypt, Peru, Nigeria, Ethiopia and others, are asking American, british, French, german museums to return pieces they consider that they form part of their cultural heritage, promoting them at times as national symbols, objects of national pride.

This seems to be a battle between nationalist states and universal museums. In December 2002, eighteen museums (all of them north american and european) signed a Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. Condemning the illicit traffic of archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects, they consider, nevertheless, that objects acquired a long time ago (they do not specify how long) should be seen in the light of different sensibilities and values, reflective of that earlier era. These objects, one reads in the declaration, are today part of the museums that cared for them and made them available to an international audience. They do not belong to the citizens of one nation, but to the people of every nation. In 2008, James Cuno´s controversial book Who owns antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage came to defend the universal museums. Cuno says that these museums should have the freedom to acquire antiquities even when they are of uncertain origin, in order to prevent them from falling into the obscurity of private collections, not allowing the great museums to fulfil their mission of educating the public about various cultures, exhibiting objects from all periods and all continents.

Two of the most balanced reviews of James Cuno´s book were written by Tom Flynn and archaeologist Colin Renfrew. Flynn criticizes the universal museums´ patronizing and colonial vision. He stresses the fact that all those who contributed with texts are directors of north American museums (with the exception of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum), as well as the lack of reference regarding the relationship north American and European museums should foster with other countries, the museums of which are not mentioned in the book (read the full article here). Renfrew, on the other hand, criticizes Cuno for claiming a freedom without regulation, without any diligence, for universal museums in acquiring antiquities and supports the need to establish codes and clear acquisition policies at an international level (read the full article here).

This is a much vaster and complex discussions, that goes much beyond the limits of the summary written here. The arguments of both sides deserve to be analyzed with attention and objectivity. In the meantime, and without wanting to oversimplify a complex issue, I would say that I am not afraid that the claims for the restitution of certain objects will leave the so-called universal museums empty, not allowing them to pursue and fulfil their mission, as it is feared by their supporters. The claims are very specific and they are not about each and every object in those museums´collections.

When I look at the Parthenon I see an amputated monument. I believe that the originals of the frieze and metopes should be returned, since the necessary conditions for their care are guaranteed. Returned not to Greece and to the Greeks, but to their natural context, historical and cultural, in order to be appreciated by citizens of the whole world, to whom they belong.

Outras referências Elginism
The Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles Articles by Kwame Opoku in Modern Ghana
Who draws the borders of culture? (Article by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times of May 5, 2010) The Medici conspiracy: The illicit journey of looted antiquities - From Italy´s tomb raiders to the world´s greatest museums (Book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini)

Monday, 20 December 2010

Etched in memory

In the post Let´s talk business, last May, I was talking about analyzing memories as a way of evaluating the impact of the visit to a museum, of an exhibition or of a performance. I have been following with interest the publication of some of the results of a big survey with museum-goers on the blog Museum Audience Insight.

Museum Audience Insight is the blog of Reach Advisors, an american company of marketing research and strategy, that works with many museums. In the beginning of the year they launched a survey with the objective to collect data that could answer questions such as:

- Do childhood experiences at museums affect motivations and expectations of adult museum-goers?
- If certain types of childhood experiences are common among our most engaged adult visitors, can museums “stack the deck” so that children today have similar experiences?
- How crucial are school field trips to raising new generations of museum goers? How crucial are fathers?
- How important is curiosity as a motivation?

The survey was launched via mailing lists, Facebook pages and Twitter of 103 museums in 5 countries (USA, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia and India), although 97% of the respondents were from the USA. More than 40,000 responses were compiled. The methodology is explained here and here.

One of the main lines of inquiry concerned early childhood memories. The researchers are trying to understand, among other things, which are the factors that make a museum experience memorable; what ages are more impressionable; how early childhood memories differ among different audience segments. They asked people to talk about their earliest or strongest childhood museum memory, to say how old they were in that memory and who they were with. After that, they could go on and tell everything they remembered from the visit.

In general, the average age of memories was 7. More than half of the respondents remembered the presence of their mother. A bit less than half remembered their father. School visits were crucial for adult museum visitation, especially among people whose parents had a lower educational level. Memories related to history museums and historic sites (24%), natural history museums (21%), science museums and science centres (21%), art museums (17%).

In the last two months, Reach Advisors have published more and more specific results of the survey. All complemented with statements from people who took part in it. On the 28th of October there was a post totally dedicated to natural history museums (“When you´re seven, it´s all about the dinos, baby!”). That´s because data analysis indicated that memories from these particular museums stick around for decades, vivid and detailed memories. The determining factors here are the scale of the objects, dinosaurs, dioramas, but also, surprisingly, rocks and minerals. There are also many memories from natural history museums shops.

There was another post after that on interactive experiences (“Hands-on exhibits are very fun!” – Hands-on experiences in childhood memories). Researchers concluded that these are very important components in what concerns museum experiences. Nevertheless, memories that include only a hands-on experience tend to be less vivid and detailed, unless related to a specific object or an exhibition.

Another element that can profoundly mark memories from a visit is the building itself. In the post “A grand and beautiful building with cool things’ to look at” – Architecture in early childhood museums memories” we can read that in certain cases, more than the objects exhibited or the activities, it is the buildings that mark people´s memories. Nevertheless, scale and grandeur do not make them cold and prohibitive for children, contrary to what might be expected. Almst all memories are positive and certain among them refer to smaller and more modest buildings.

In the posts “Museums are awesome!” and “Awesome? Try fascinating!” we read about the analysis of language when describing the memory. The scale of the building and objects, as well as glitter, beauty and the exotic, impress children and stay in their memory. These experiences are described as ‘awesome’. On the other hand, experiences that have awaken an interest in a certain subject or the desire to learn more, the adjective mostly used is ‘fascinating’.

The last post of the series (more will follow) is entitled Career choices: how museums sometimes make a difference. It presents the cases (few, but significant, really) of people for whom a visit to a museum gave them an interest in a specific subject that determined their career choice when they became adults.

I was 8 years old when I first visited the Louvre. I was following my parents in the rooms and corridors of the museum, until we reached a huge staircase. And when I lifted my eyes, I saw at the top of the staircase the Victory of Samothrace. I was deeply impressed, I couldn´t take my eyes off her. I don´t know if it was at that precise moment, but it was during that trip that I told my parents I wanted to work in a museum (I changed my mind many times in the years that followed...). And every time I am back at the Louvre, I approach the staircase hoping and knowing that the Victory of Samothrace will have the same impact on me, as the first time.

What´s your earliest or strongest museum memory?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Guest post: On access to culture, by Cecília Folgado

In the last days access to culture and the universal declaration of human rights have been in the centre of the debate within the cultural sector. Personally, I do not rejoice in the centrality of the issue. I confess that it upsets me and induces me to ask for space in a borrowed blog.

I get upset because of my personal experiencenad those who know me know, of course, that I grew up in a town (capital of a district) without cinema, without a library and with a cultural activity concentrated in the local theatre group, its international festival and the town popular festivals. There was also, of course, television, where one would discover things, films, musics.

I left the town in 1993 and, 17 years and a Centre for the Arts and Performances later (a result of the network of cinema-theatres envisioned by Minister Carrilho), there´s not a big difference. It´s true there is a larger offer, there are shows, there is even a jazz festival. And there´s a new museum. Cinema is still residual, such as other cultural and artistic expressions. There is still, of course, television, and nowadays internet as well (which gives the illusion that we are in the centre of everything and have access to everything).

These days, the centrality of the issue of access to culture and the claim to it is taking place in the context of the 23% cut suffered by the structures that get a quadrennial support by the Ministry of Culture (in reality, a cut suffered by all structures receiving support). Now, to be honest, this is not a claim for access to culture, what is at stake is exclusively the access to the financial means that are necessary for one part of the cultural sector: the artists/authors and their structures (a central part, but, even though, one part, because culture is not only about creation or creators).

State funding is necessary, that´s for sure, even though there should be some urgent and serious thinking regarding its volume, form and opportunity; but it should be distinguished from the right of access to culture. Because the later is bigger, larger and more fundamental than any funding system.

Access to culture implies that we all have the same opportunities, whether we were born in Portalegre or Cova da Moura, whether we walk or use a wheelchair, whether we know how to write or not. This is the access defended by the UN: access that allows for equality and non-exclusion. This access, recognized and guaranteed, will only become true if we bother (we, the cultural sector) to elaborate a cultural policy that is consistent, whole, for the future, a policy that strengthens the cultural tissue, in the areas of expression, creation, but also, and fundamentally, in the territory; it will only become true once we understand that funding is an investment and it should go beyond creating, beyond producing.

It´s true that in times of crisis and in times of cuts can be frightening and scary times: the sector is fragile and orphan (6 ‘adoptions’ in 11 years), the dependency (instigated by the State) immense. But, as it has already been written in other texts and other blogs, maybe this is a time of opportunities. It would be better if the time and energy spent claiming money that does not exist were used to take a look at ourselves, each one of us, each agent, each structure, each area of expression and try to understand in what way we can work better, more efficiently; to work more efficiently not in order to make ‘profit’ or to become ‘merchants’ of culture, but in order for the sector e culture not to succumb after each ministerial change or each economic and financial crisis, and in order to guarantee real access for all to culture.

CECÍLIA FOLGADO BA in Marketing Management (IPAM, Matosinhos) and MA in Arts Management (City University – London). In the areas of Marketing Management and Cultural Production, she worked with Núcleo de Experimentação Coreográfica (NEC), Companhia Instável, Fundação Narciso Ferreira de Riba de Ave (2000-2003), Henri Oguike Dance Company e Akram Khan Company, (London, 2003-2006). In 2007 she was part of the production team of the Cultural Forum State of the World (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation). Since July 2007 she is Deputy Communications Director of São Luiz Municipal Theatre. She studies Creative Cities and sustainable development through cultural planning (subject of elaborated her MA thesis). She gives training in Communication and Marketing (Setepés) and Cultural Management (Theatre and Cinema School, Lisbon Polytechnic Institute).

Monday, 13 December 2010

A blue (or any other colour) hug to the crisis

Two years ago I went to buy tickets for a play at the Almada Municipal Theatre (AMT). The employee at the ticket desk informed me that for the price of the tickets I wanted to buy (or a bit more, I don´t remember exactly) I could become a member of the Friends Club. Thus, for a year I could have free tickets to all AMT productions, substantial discounts for other productions, as well as free tickets or discounts for all my companions (regardless of the number). It wasn´t difficult to calculate that for the price of four tickets (two adults and two children) for one play I could practically have free access to the whole AMT season. I remember thinking at the time that the AMT didn´t seem to worry much about generating revenue; and that it would have better admitted that entry to its plays was free, rather than giving the idea that the subscription price was wrongly calculated or that there was no ‘higher’ cause behind promoting the Friends Club.

Institutions that promote subscriptions normally do it because they guarantee benefits both for the institution and for its publics (building loyalty among existing and potential ‘clients’). A big part of the book
Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts, by Philip Kotler and Joanne Scheff, is dedicated to pricing policies and strategies that aim to build loyalty. Among the benefits for the institution, the two authors highlight: guaranteeing a source of income; the possibility to reduce the costs of promoting the shows (the costs of attracting and renewing subscribers are lower that the costs of attracting single-ticket buyers to each production); more space for the artistic director to experiment; a larger audience for more ‘alternative’ or experimental productions or projects that do not involve known or popular artists, since it´s all included in the ‘pack’. On the other hand, subscribers get discounts; they get priority seating; they have the right to change tickets; they have access to a number of other services (parking, discounts at the restaurant, special events, educational programmes, meetings with the artists, etc.); they are given the possibility and the opportunity to ‘train’ their taste, since, once again, the ‘pack’ also includes experimental, new or less known projects.

Thus, I was left thinking what could have been the objectives of AMT when creating the Friends Club, since the subscription price did not seem to be able (or even wish to) guarantee the above mentioned benefits. I didn´t renew my subscription: a personal choice, of course, related to my way of life, my need to have more freedom and flexibility in choosing the productions I want to see, that form part of the (large) offer in the Lisbon area; a proof that, if people don´t really invest in the subscription, they don´t think they have got anything to lose by not attending more shows and thus lose the incentive to renew; a proof, as well, that extremely low prices or free tickets are not able by themselves to build loyalty, even among those who attend many performances. (Regarding the issue of complimentary tickets, a subject that has also been discussed in this blog
here and here, a recent post in the blog Arts Marketing is an excellent summary of the points that need to be considered.)

I thought again about the AMT Friends Club last week, when I received a letter by express mail, signed by AMT director Joaquim Benite, inviting me to a general meeting (although I am not a member anymore). Last Sunday I also received a phone call asking to confirm if I would be attending the meeting. The reason for the meeting was a €150,000 cut imposed by the Ministry of Culture, the equivalent of 10% of the theatre´s budget. In the letter we could read the following statements, among others: “(…) a crisis that furthers the development of confusion and the strengthening of those powers that don´t give up on pushing Arts and Culture towards the ‘laws of the market’ (…); “(…) revivification of the old and persistent struggle against the subventions of the Public Powers to the Theatres, aiming at making Culture and the Arts become part of a mercantile system and the subversion of the constitutional precept that guarantees everyone the right to cultural and artistic fruition.”; “At the AMT we are not willing to simply watch, in a conformist and passive way, the advancement of the Ministry of Culture .” (Joaquim Benite is also the author of
this text on the AMT site – in portuguese only).

I was left thinking if the way AMT itself is reacting to the crisis and the specific situation created by the cuts in Portugal is not also revealing a certain conformism and passivity. This does not only apply to AMT, but to many other institutions as well. Many countries have gone or are going through a similar crisis. In all of them there are voices, more or less official, that consider the crisis to be an opportunity to look, honestly and realistically, at the sector and at the way it functions. Instead of clinging to ‘vested’ rights, to our dependency from the State, to a rhetoric that aims to equate the healthy and efficient management of our institutions to the commercialization of our offer, isn´t this the moment to try and establish new, different relationships, that would allow for a bolder vision and the pursuit of a more stable and sustainable future? Isn´t this the moment to evaluate our resources (financial and human) and to try to optimize them and manage them more wisely, efficiently and imaginatively? Including money spent on stamps and phone calls?

Isn´t this also the moment to gain courage and make difficult decisions? When there is a need to make cuts, the most obvious choice seems to be to cut in the programming budget, maintaining fixed expenses, mainly related to personnel. Aren´t we forgetting, though, that the raison-d´-être of our institutions is programming? Shouldn´t this be the last item in the budget where we should cut? In the cultural and other sectors, in this and other countries, analysts of the crisis are pointing towards an inflation in the number of employees in many public institutions, that seem to exist, after all, in order to employ people. Are they all necessary? Are they all competent? Have they all got appropriate training for carrying out their duties and tasks? The analysts say no. My experience also says no.

Let´s look at the crisis as an opportunity, yes. The opportunity to develop new management models, to adapt to a new reality, to be creative and imaginative in solving the problems; the opportunity to grow, away from the State patronage; the opportunity to become more demanding, more rigorous, more efficient. Let´s also create a space for new voices to be heard, the voices of a new generation of culture professionals, that may contribute together with the personalities that are widely known and respected in the field (for example, I suggest reading the post
Crises que vêm por bem: Contribuições para um sector cultural diferente - in portuguese only – published by Miguel Magalhães in the blog Cost Disease Diaries on December 8). Let´s also try and put the right professionals at the right place, involving in the field people whose training and know-how may contribute in transforming it. In other words, let´s join our efforts against conformism and passivity. This is an opportunity.

Monday, 6 December 2010

On how to build an immigrant

I am borrowing the title from an article by Ana Bigotte Vieira (read here in portuguese only) published in the blog BUALA – African Contemporary Culture on the 10th of November. The author presents, without sentimentalities and excesses in her writing, the situation experienced near Ceuta, on moroccan territory, a place where people of various nationalities gather and wait for the right moment to attempt the desperate and hopeful leap against the barbed wire. They have against them the exhaustion, the hunger, the abuses of the owners of the illegal immigration networks, as well as of the moroccan and spanish police, and also SIVE, a system for the detection and blocking of the boats of immigrants in the open sea, composed by radars, cameras and connection to a satellite, that allows the authorities to stop them from reaching the coast.
The article by Ana Bigotte Vieira reminded me of one of my favourite books. Eldorado, by Laurent Gaudé, came into my hands by chance. I started reading it with a certain indifference – I had nothing else to read on that day – but soon the French author´s writing captivated me and I couldn´t let go of the book until I had finished it. This is the story of Italian captain Salvatore Piracci, who for twenty years has patrolled the Mediterranean intercepting the boats of illegal immigrants, many times left adrift in the open sea by traffickers. One day his faith in his mission is profoundly shaken after the encounter with a survivor who has lost her child during the trip. The captain leaves everyone and everything and follows the path of the immigrants, becoming one of them. At the same time, we follow the story of two brothers leaving Sudan hoping to reach Europe, the new Eldorado. Only one of them will reach the destination.
I was also reminded of Laurent Gaudé´s book when I first saw the work of Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo Road for Exile, as part of the exhibition Islands Never Found, presented at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece. Even before getting to know this work´s title, the fragility of the balance of the pieces piled on the boat, the lack of space, the transparency of the sea water (beautiful, but hard and deceitful at the same time), created with bottles of vodka, reminded me of the stories narrated by Gaudé, of the world he described. Barthélémy Toguo has created so far five versions of the piece Road for Exile. One of them was exhibited last year at Carpe Diem in Bairro Alto (read here in portuguese only).
Recently I read one more novel related to the subject of immigration. Leaving Tangier, by Moroccan poet and writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, is the story of a Moroccan brother and sister who are looking for a better life in Spain. A book about a reality that was largely unknown to me (about the tactics of the moroccan regime or about love affairs and homosexuality in an arab country), the permanent contrast between the traditional and the modern, and also betaween Europe and the North of Africa. The approach becomes more interesting given that the author has been living in Paris for the last forty years, between (or within) the two cultures.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Is it only the term that bothers?

When 17 years ago I started my MA in Museum Studies and I discovered the world of cultural marketing, that is, the world of marketing for not-for-profit institutions, there was an intense controversy going on regarding this subject. For the big majority of museum professionals, marketing was incompatible with the mission and objectives of these institutions. There were warnings regarding the danger of ‘museological prostitution’ or the creation of ‘cultural super-markets’.

In 2002 I wrote an article for the Portuguese Museum Network bulletin entitled Museum Marketing: after all, is it only the term that bothers us? I read it again now, eight years later, and, although today I would have probably constructed my arguments in a slightly different way, there are certain points I still defend: the need and interest of museums in using marketing as a means that allows for a consistent and efficient communication and that contributes in fulfilling their mission; the awareness that museums were already developing various marketing initiatives – but in an isolated, unarticulated way, that was not part of strategic planning -, which could lead to the conclusion that it was mostly the term that bothered and not the use of those techniques; the need for the profession (of museologist) to qualify its own specialists in marketing, people that would be sensitive towards the sector´s specifications, able to help in fulfilling the mission, knowing at the same time how to respect it.

The conference Economics and theatre: challenges in times of crisis, that took place last Thursday at the D.Maria II National Theatre, made me think again about all this. I couldn´t go to the conference, so I just read a partial report about what was said in an article in the newspaper Público, entitled Managing a theatre is not like managing a company, quoting Miguel Lobo Antunes, one of the speakers of the panel “What should theatre directors know about economics?”.

The economics debate, that at times seems to be dominating everything and everyone, is a concern common to many cultural agents, probably the majority. Especially when economic indicators become the main performance indicators for our institutions. Nevertheless, when reading the article I felt that there were many analogies to the way a few years ago we were discussing marketing for the not-for-profit institutions.

Cultural activity is also an economic activity. And, just as I argued in the case of marketing, the sector can only benefit from the inclusion of professionals specialized in that area, that is, people who, apart from their knowledge in economics, understand the sector´s specificities and may contribute in fulfilling the its mission. The starting point for achieving this specialization is either the studies in economics with further specialization in cultural management or the studies in social and human sciences or the arts with further specialization in the economics of culture. In Portugal there are people qualified in this field and I don´t consider them a ‘threat’. On the contrary, those of us working in marketing and cultural communication recognize in them someone who speaks the same language.

This issue, though, takes us to another, which I don´t know whether it was discussed during the conference at D. Maria II National Theatre. Who is, or should be, the director of a theatre? The Artistic Director? A Manager? A General Director from the performing arts field with a knowledge of economics or a General Director from the economics field with a knowledge of the performing arts? Or maybe a bicephalous management?

Monday, 22 November 2010

"Get a job!", they say...

I was reading the various comments on Publico online regarding Luis Miguel Cintra´s interview to Tiago Bartolomeu Costa entitled “There is a concrete aggression against the companies”. On many occasions in the last months I felt uncomfortable, even shocked, with the violent, furious way some of the ‘commentators’, the majority anonymous, expressed their opinion against funding for culture, the arts and the artists and their contempt for them, demonstrating in certain cases – like in this one – big ignorance.

The ‘phenomenon’ is not exclusively portuguese. At the time the cuts were announced in the UK, some comments left by newspaper readers demonstrated the same fury, the same contempt, a lot of incomprehension and ignorance.

Given my profession, I tend to read these opinions from the point of view of communication. And I feel more and more that there are two issues the cultural sector, and the arts sector in particular, should address.

First of all, ‘institutional’ marketing (in quotes, because I use the term referring both to institutions and individuals). It is not enough to promote and communicate our programming. Nevertheless, because of the lack of resources and time, this is exactly what we all concentrate on. Only that in this way we end up reaching mainly existing audiences and not conquering non-audiences. Institutional marketing is a tool that would allow to communicate a vision, it would raise awareness regarding the values we defend, it would show the way a project is being built, it would try to define an accessible language, it would present ‘proofs’ as an answer to the concerns expressed by the public, it would create the basis for a relationship, it would help get support (I am not referring to financial support, but that also), it would commit into making evident the relevance of what is being created for the lives of all of us.

The second issue, very much related to the first, is that of the professionalization of those working in the area of communication and cultural marketing. It is curious that Luis Miguel Cintra himself, when he refers to the multiple tasks his small team is asked to carry out, he highlights the importance of two of them, both related to marketing: choosing photos and writing a press release.

Very often, the people working in this area are there by chance. Not questioning for a moment their commitment and dedication, many times we feel there is a lack of professional training, lack of general and specific knowledge that would allow for rigorous, consistent, relevant, innovative work. In order to work in this field, just like in any other, it is important to be well prepared, to have the knowledge and tools that would allow us to question, test, adapt, evaluate what is being done and at the same time offer good counseling to those dedicated to a different art.

It is not exactly the comments mentioned above that made me think about solutions and ways of reacting. It is very little honest on behalf of someone who believes to be informed and who pays to see the shows of Broadway, to claim that Luis Miguel Cintra does not convince anybody to go and see his shows. Although the number of spectators is not exactly a proof of quality, as we all know, the fact is that Luis Miguel Cintra, apart from having many shows sold out at the small Theatre of Bairro Alto, he manages to sell out day after day much bigger rooms when he moves to other theatres, mixing traditional and non-traditional audiences, those who follow him faithfully and others that are being exposed to his art for the first time. And that means something.

The above mentioned comments reminded me once again that ignorance exists and in the majority of the cases it is not intentional (like in these comments), but genuine. The challenge for those of us who work in the cultural sector - not only communications professionals, but also education professionals, without forgetting of course the artists themselves, programmers, artistic directors, museum directors, etc. – is to recognize it, to understand its causes, to fight it. And that means, in the first place, that we need to have adequate training in the field we are working. It also means that we should rethink and adjust our strategies and priorities.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Article 27

This week I came across Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights twice in my readings. The artivle says: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

The first time, it was in the book
No Culture, No Future by Simon Brault. Brault in the director of National Theatre School of Canada, Vice-President of Canada Council for the Arts and President of Culture Montréal. His book concentrates on issues related to cultural participation. In the first chapter, “Culture as a forward-looking sector for the future”, the author presents the development of cultural policies in countries such as France, Great Britain, the United States, as well as Canada, he reflects on the conditions of artists, on the economic impact of culture and on its funding. It is in this context that he refers to Article 27 and the right to freely participate in cultural life, a right that justifies governmental involvement in supporting culture.

The second chapter of the book, entitled “Culture as an essential dimension of the human experience”, presents the author´s vision of culture, as a lifeline, as not only a factor that forms and defines every human being, but also one of civilization and progress. Brault refers here to
The Values Study, carried out by the Connecticut Commission on Culture and with the support of Wallace Foundation, that presents the results of approximately one hundred interviews with citizens with different levels of cultural participation. The aesthetic experience, as well as cognitive, political and spiritual values are common among the interviewees, but they also give importance to the impact of cultural participation on the connection between mind and body, gaining an appreciation of ethnic and generational differences, also mentioning notions of identity, self-esteem, pride and dignity. Brault reflects on all those factor that form barriers to cultural participation (social, educational, financial and other practical – lack of time, transport, etc.) and presents a number of examples of cultural institutions that aim to provide better access, contextualizing their offer, simplifying the language they use, promoting encounters between artists and the public, but also using surtitles in opera, with live transmissions of the shows at cinemas, performing outdoors and completing the experience on the social point of view (restaurants, bars, shops, etc).

I found out in this second chapter about the Belgian Association Article 27, that brings together a number of cultural institutions and whose role is considered exemplary in the area of cultural democracy (I did not find the association´s site, but there is a reference to it
here). The Association offers free tickets or tickets at a very low price, in many cases tickets that hadn’t been sold, to all those that have financial difficulties and cannot attend the performances. Currently, the Association is considering extending the offer to other types of cultural and artistic activities, apart from the performing arts. This is an initiative that makes sense and may even generate some revenue, but it concentrates in the elimination of the financial barrier, which doesn´t seem enough to me in order to consider its action fundamental for cultural democracy. The big issue here is not money (it may also be part of it), but mental and cognitive barriers.

Simon Brault embraces the declaration “Elitist culture for all”, by French director
Antoine Vitez, and claims that, apart from supporting, protecting and funding excellence in art, it is important not to forget to develop the demand. In the third chapter of his book, he presents the city of Montreal as a case study of the creation of a cultural development policy in a city that wishes to be seen as a metropolis.

Simon Brault´s book didn’t tell me something new. But it is a well-written book, by someone who believes in what he´s doing and does it with passion and dedication.

I found the second reference to Article 27 in Sharon Heal´s editorial in the October issue of Museums Journal (the monthly journal of
Museums Association). In September it took place in Liverpool the inaugural meeting of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums. The Federation brings together museums that deal with issues of slavery, human rights or the Holocaust, museums whose mission is also to educate and campaign for the respect and against the abuse of human rights. In her editorial, Sharon Heal claims that dealing with these issues should not be the exclusive responsibility of museums whose subject is directly or obviously related to them. Evoking Article 27, Heal reminds us that cultural rights are human rights and believes that all museums must look at their local communities and try to understand if there are people in them that are financially, intellectually or socially excluded. And if there are (we know there are), don´t museums have the obligation to do something about it?

Up to now I had not thought about the issue of cultural participation and audience development with reference to Article 27. We are all so worried about proving the value of culture and convincing governers, sponsors and the society in general of the importance and need to support it, that all too often we forget that cultural participation is a declared right. Thus, the starting point, as I claimed in my post
Who deserves to be funded? (II), should be different: it should be about facilitating access (physical, cognitive, financial).

Monday, 8 November 2010

The 'comfort' factor

It was in the book The Museum Experience, by John Falk and Lynn Dierking, that I first read about the ‘comfort’ factor, associated to the quality of the experience of visiting a museum. The two authors identify three contexts in the interaction of the visitor with the museum:

1. The personal context: previous experience and knowledge, interests, motivations and concerns that each visitor brings along and that define his/her personal agenda in what concerns the visit.

2. The social context: the type of group of which the visitor forms part, as well as, even in what concerns solitary visitors, the interaction with other visitors and members of staff, influence the visitor´s perspective of this experience and help us understand different behaviours.

3. The physical context: the architecture and ‘feeling’ of the building, exhibition design, shops, cafés and restaurants, WCs, areas to take a rest, are all factors that determine the quality of the visit.

Falk and Dierking consider that visitor experience is a constantly changing interaction among the personal, social and physical contexts. In what concerns the physical context, George Hein, in his book
Learning in the Museum, refers specifically to visitor comfort as a prerequisite in the construction of a learning environment and experience.

Who can enjoy an exhibition when they feel tired and cannot take a rest, when they are hungry, warm or cold, when they cannot find the WC or when its conditions are not as they should be? These are all apparently secondary elements, but significant for the quality of the experience we aim to provide, because they condition it.

I believe that we find the same three contexts in any cultural experience, the ‘comfort’ factor also having an impact on the quality. The author of O Blog do Desassossego published a post last month entitled "On Theatre", where we can read: “(…) The problem is that the plays are always an hour longer than they should. Generally, when it´s time for interval they should actually be finishing. But no, we go on chewing for another hour and a half a story that could be told in less time. And then I can´t find a comfortable position in the seat, everything hurts, I yawn and I only want to get out from there (…)”. The duration of a play, the possibility to know about it beforehand, the existence of an interval, the room temperature, the seats being comfortable or not are elements that determine the quality of the experience as much as, or for some people even more than, the quality of the play. I confess that once or twice I opted not to see the productions of Cornucopia knowing that, given the duration, from a specific moment onwards I would be unable to follow the action taking place on stage and I would be thinking of how uncomfortable the seats are, the pain in my legs and I would be noticing other people constantly changing position in search for some comfort. Also at CCB, I am always trying to get a ticket for an aisle seat, since there is not enough space for the legs of a medium stature person, as myself; I also don´t forget to take a jacket, as the air conditioning is usually cold. The same occurs when opting for a tier of benches on the stage of Culturgest or Maria Matos Theatre, where, apart from the lack of space for the legs, we are forced into a physical proximity with stangers that not everybody wishes for. (I let other people talk about the comforts and discomforts at the theatre where I work. I know they exist.)

There is another possibility still: when the long duration of a bad play contributes to our total discomfort: physical, psychological, intellectual. Last Thursday, the comfortable chairs of the main auditorium of Culturgest where not able to ease the total discomfort caused by the play
O Inferno by Mónica Calle. And while the evaluation of the quality of a play is always subjective, we cannot say the same about its duration (3 hours) and the lack of interval. Half of the spectators abandoned the room during the play. Those who resisted and didn´t leave, either because they enjoyed the play or because they felt ashamed to leave or out of respect for the actresses´s effort (which was clearly my case), they saw the director jumping on stage as soon as the play had finished. She acknowledged that half of the spectators had left, given the duration of the show, and then she turned and thanked the actresses. Extremely tired and upset, I thought her intervention was totally inappropriate. The director should have equally acknowledged that the play was too long and that there should have been an interval, giving the spectators, whom she forgot to thank, a chance to take a rest or…to run away, without regrets.

Monday, 1 November 2010

In London

During half term week, London was full of people. Apart from the thousands of foreign tourists that fill every day its streets and museums, english families travel to the capital to visit its museums and exhibitions.

Museums looked like shopping centres during the sales. The queues, the noise, the quantity of people turned the visit into a torture in museums like The Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museu or Tate Modern. The parks, less sought after by tourists but very much appreciated by Londoners, allowed us to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the marvellous colours of autumn.

Among everything I saw, I would highlight two things. The first is the sculpture “Sunflower seeds” by Chinese artist
Ai Weiwei, installed in Tate Modern´s Turbine Hall.
Mao Tse Tung was depicted as the sun and the Chinese people as sunflowers turning towards him. At the same time, Ai Weiwei remembers the sharing of sunflower seeds as a gesture of friendship, compassion and kindness at those times of pain, repression and uncertainty. The museum takes it even further: What does it mean to be an individual in today's society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future? More information on this work here and also a video about its creation here.

The second highlight goes to open air sculptures by artist
Anish Kapoor, which compose the exhibition Turning the World Upside Down.

A hundred million porcelain seeds, each sculpted individually by more than 1600 chinese artisans. A work that could be classified as ‘beautiful’ or ‘impressive’, but which, as we discover it through texts and videos, gains a whole different dimension. “Art is a tool to set up new questions. To create a basic structure which can be open to possibilities is what is more interesting in my work. I want people who don´t understand what art is to understand what I am doing”, says the artist and known activist. This piece bears reference to the ancient chinese art of porcelain, but also to the Cultural Revolution, during which

Set up in Kensington Gardens, the sculptures reflect the sky, the trees, the people that walk around and pause to contemplate them. It seems that they re-dimension the space around us and project it once again. The sculptures will be exhibited until spring and will follow the changes of weather and of the seasons. More information on this exhibition

Monday, 25 October 2010

Logos size XXL

In the previous post I discussed the inclusion of the logos of sponsors and supporters in promotional materials. Something that is asked and given in return without giving it any special thought and which usually results in a footer full of tiny logos unable to serve the interests of those involved, namely the visibility they seek among consumers.

This time the issue is exactly the opposite. In the beginning of the month, The Art Newspaper published an article called
Ads of Sighs, informing of a protest of Venice in Peril, The British Committee for the Preservation of Venice, against the huge billboards covering many monuments and other public buildings in that city. The people undersigning the protest, which may be read here and is directed to the Italian Minister of Culture, are almost all directors of large international museums. Not only do they raise the issue of aesthetics, but also those of ethics and legality.

We read in the article of The Art Newspaper that, in accordance with the 1924 Convention between the Italian state and the city council, public buildings are “to be shown without objects that in any way might damage its beauty and majesty, mask its virtues, paintings and other characteristics of its history and art”. In some cases, it may be allowed to affix ads in heritage listed buildings as long as they “do not damage the appearance, decorum and public enjoyment of the said building or area”.

Images taken from the blog Museum Strategy

The local authorities complain for the lack of funding and stand by their decision, claiming that without the support of the large brands it wouldn´t be possible to undertake the conservation and restoration of buildings and monuments. In an article in the Guardian we read that a spokesman for the mayor said that “Venice, which is obliged to maintain these precious monuments, is forced to adopt this system”.

What is intriguing is that the sums made available by the sponsors / advertisers are relatively low. We read in the article of The Art Newspaper that they pay €40,000 a month (less than the price of two ads in a daily newspaper) for three years. And even though, it hasn´t been possible yet to raise the whole sum of €2,8 million necessary for the conservation of the buildings.

So, is Venice really obliged to allow for these ads in return? And is the final result the one the brands involved are wishing for? The controversy has intensified since it has been authorized to lit the ads by night.

Last year, and regarding the Sisley ad covering the Bridge of Sighs and the Palazzo Ducale, the
Museum Strategy blog published a post entitled Sponsorship debate: Venice´s “The Bridge of Sisleyand launched a survey among its readers: Is the Sisley advertising campaign in Venice: a) an unwanted eyesore which is ruining the city’s cultural beauty; or b) a clever sponsorship project which can facilitate much-needed renovations? More than a year later, 58,8% of the people who took part in the survey have given the campaign a negative mark, choosing a). In that same post we can read some of the opinions expressed on online forms, as well as comments to the post. Although some admit that the state of the buildings and monuments is equally heart-breaking, the big majority express feelings of distaste and irritation towards the city authorities and the brands alike. More than once we read statements like “I´ll never buy from them again”.

Let´s imagine that, instead of the huge ads, they had printed an image of the buildings under restoration. And that in a corner they had placed, discreet but visible and legible, the logo of the brand that is funding the works. Let´s imagine they had printed that same logo on the entrance tickets. The same with the catalogues, guidebooks, leaflets and, why not, exhibit labels. Let´s imagine space had been given to the sponsor for creating special events for its customers. Let´s imagine that during the press conference the sponsor had been seated next to the municipal authorities and the monument director, and that they had publicly thanked him for his support. Would it have been acceptable to give these things in return, guaranteeing visibility among the consumers for the brand´s involvement in the conservation and restoration of the building and for the expression of gratitude on behalf of those responsible for it? Would the objectives of both parties have been reached?

Sponsorship is not the necessity to advertise a specific product. It´s the wish to communicate to consumers the adoption of certain principles, to demonstrate social responsibility. The way Sisley, Coca-Cola and now Bulgari are shouting their involvement in the preservation of Venice monuments (the way other brands have done it in other cities) might become a boomerang. As for those responsible for the monuments, they needn´t have 'prostituted' in such a way, they should rather have looked for other ways of expressing their gratitude. They exist.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Let´s get rid of the logo dictatorship

The inclusion of the sponsor´s logo in all promotional materials is what cultural institutions usually give in return when looking for support for the production and promotion of their projects. The inclusion of their logo in all promotional materials is what institutions interested in sponsoring a cultural project usually expect in return. The cultural institution aims to give recognition to the importance of the sponsorship. The sponsoring institution aims to guarantee visibility for its brand among consumers.

The logo is a brand´s visual extension. A brand represents and identity, it aims to transmit a set of values. Organizations interested in sponsoring our projects are not aiming to take on the role of a charity. They are not supporting us because they feel sorry for us for not having enough money. They are doing it because the association to a specific event reinforces the value of their brand in the eyes of the consumers.

Many cultural projects rely on sponsorship and different kinds of support, both for production and promotion. Rarely, nevertheless, is this support hierarchized in terms of its ‘value’, monetary or other (but which should be somehow quantified). Thus, instead of this hierachization, that would aim to give in return something proportional to the ‘value’ of each partner´s contribution, what we usually see is an egalitarian treatment, limited to the inclusion of the partners´ logo in all promotional materials. Thus, radio station X, which supports the promotion of a cultural event at 100% (producing and transmitting a publicity spot, interviewing those involved and making other references), receives in return the same thing radio station Y gets for offering a substantial discount for a publicity campaign, but getting, nevertheless, paid for it. To give another example, company of transport X, that supports producing and putting up in its vehicles / carriages / boats posters of the event gets in return the same as transport company Y, that puts up posters produced by the promoter of the event, many times in smaller quantities. Why would then the Xs be interested in continuing to fully support if they would be able to get in return the same with a smaller contribution, similar to the one of the Ys? Aren´t cultural institutions losing in terms of negotiation when they treat al partners equally?

The result of these undifferentiated negotiations is normally a forest of logos in the footer of promotional materials, which leaves both sides very satisfied: the cultural institution because it shows its appreciation to its partner; the sponsor because its brand becomes associated to an event it considers to be of quality. Let´s see some examples of this in the ads of this weekend´s newspapares:

Let´s put ourselves for a while in the consumers´ shoes. After all, we are all consumers. Do we ever really notice the tiny icons accumulated in the footers of posters, newspaper ads and flyers (unless, of course, we are ourselves looking for partners for a specific event, so we take out the magnifying glass and try to identify possible partners in the materials of the others)? Isn´t it true that our eyes simply pass over all this? Is a cultural institution being honest with its partners when it´s promising them visibility and recognition in this way? Are sponsoring institutions being realistic when they are aiming at all costs for the inclusion of their logo in promotional materials as a means of reinforcing their brand´s value in the eyes of the consumers? I would particularly like to draw your attention to some logos in these ads that are not known to the general public. Are they really creating awareness among the consumers in this way? Does anyone know who they are and what they represent?

In my opinion, it only makes sense to include logos in promotional materials when there are up to three important sponsors, to whom visibility can be really guaranteed and which will be able to reinforce their brand´s value by being associated to a specific event. Here´s a good example:

Another way of managing the situation when there are many supporting institutions, which is still very little used, is, instead of including the logo, to make a written reference to the supporting organizations. Our consumers´ eyes pass over the tiny icons, but we still have the tendency to insist on reading. Here´s an example that worked with me, although I might be considered subjective here:

(Unfortunately, the image cannot be sufficiently enlarged in order for the contents to become legible. I am happy to send the document by email to anyone interested.)

The aim of this post is to draw attention to a practice that is being perpetuated without being really evaluated, when, in my opinion, it does not serve the partners´ true objectives. One fundamental issue remains open: so what can we give in return to the institutions whose support, larger or smaller, is fundamental for our projects? This issue will be discussed in another post.

Suggested reading on branding:
Klein, N. (2010). No logo. Fourth Estate (10th Anniversary Edition)
Olins, W. (2007). On brand. Thames and Hudson
Wheeler, A. (2006). Designing brand identity. John Wiley & Sons

Monday, 11 October 2010

Freedom of speech

On the 4th of October I had the opportunity to attend the symposium Identity, Fredom and Violence, that brought together at the municipal library of Santa Maria da Feira Iranian lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, author of the Mohammed cartoon that caused a huge wave of violence in 2006.

(Photo: NFactos - Expresso newspaper)
I confess that my expectations were high. Freedom of speech (and its limitations) is something I think about frequently, without being able to reach definite conclusions, that may be applied to every case. It seems that when we discuss this issue each case is a case. Thus, I was very curious to see what direction would be given to this debate between an artist that ‘dared’ to represent the Prophet Mohammed and a muslim and human rights advocate.

My expectations were not fulfilled. Shirin Ebadi and Kurt Westergaard gave two parallel speeches. And both the convenor, journalist Carlos Magno, and the audience (including some journalists) did not notice (or did not understand) a statement by Shirin Ebadi that could have created a touching point between the two presentations and resulted in an interesting debate. Shirin Ebadi clearly said: “The Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of speech for everyone, but there are exceptions: when it refers to racist propaganda, hatred or incentive to war. Thus, a cartoon representing Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in the place of the turban constitutes a human rights violation. The same with the reaction of part of the muslim world towards the cartoon.” This statement was somehow ‘ignored’. Both Carlos Magno and Kurt Westergaard referred to the clash of civilizations, the conflict between christianism and islam, the need to defend our way of living (the european).

Since then, I´ve been thinking that, instead of taking advantage of incidents like the one of the cartoon in order to take a step further towards meeting the ‘other’, we continue to opt for simplistic and convenient interpretations and to talk about the clash between cultures. Am I, a European and a Christian, in conflict with Shirin Ebadi, Iranian and muslim? Isn´t she fighting for freedom of speech much more than I am? Isn´t this a value we share, one that defines and unites us?

I read again excerpts from a book I had read last year and enjoyed a lot, because I thought it was enlightening and balanced. It´s called
The Fear of the Barbarians: beyond the clash of civilizations and it was written by Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian philosopher living in Paris. The chapters of the book are: Barbarism and civilization; Collective identities; The war of the worlds; Steering between the reefs (here he analyzes events such as the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the publication of the Mohammed cartoons by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten or Pope Benedict´s speech at Ratisbon University); European Identity.

So, Todorov says in his first chapter: “A civilized person is one who is able, at all times and in all places, to recognize the humanity of others fully. So two stages have to be crossed before anyone can become civilized: in the first stage, you discover that others live in a way different from you; in the second, you agree to see them as bearers of the same humanity as yourself.” And he continues: “Getting those with whom you live to understand a foreign identity, whether individual or collective, is an act of civilization, since in his way you are enlarging the circle of humanity; thus scholars, philosophers and artists all contribute to driving back barbarity.”

Knowing the ‘other’ means at the same time respecting him. And to respect is to exercise self-regulation. It doesn´t mean denying our rights (such as freedom of speech), but learning how to exercise them responsibly. “Responsibility limits freedom”, says Todorov. Between having and exercising a right there is a long way, in which one must consider possible consequences within a certain context.

The cartoons published by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 had been commissioned by culture editor Flemming Rose, a kind of a manifesto against self-censorship caused by fear of the Muslims. They came at a time where xenophobic, and especially anti-muslim, feelings were becoming more and more obvious in Danish society. Four years earlier, parliamentary elections had led to a coalition supported by the Danish People´s Party, which proclaimed “Denmark to the Danes”, “Islam is a carcinoma, a terrorist organization”, “There´s only one culture, ours”. Thus, we have on the one side the right of a cartoonist to provoke through his art (what is the art of the cartoon if not criticism through provocation?) and, on the other the responsibility the exercise of the right of freedom of speech brings to the editor of big newspaper within a certain context.

Does this discussion demonstrate a clash between cultures? Could we ever say that among Europeans and/or Christians there are no acts of barbarism and among Asians (in this case) and/or Muslims acts of civilization? Wouldn´t it be, thus, more correct, considering Todorov´s definition, to talk about a clash between civilized and less civilized people, regardless of their nationality or religion?

By way of epilogue: I read on the internet that in February 2006 that same culture editor, Flemming Rose, told CNN that his newspaper was going to publish satirical cartoons with reference to the Holocaust that were going to be published by an iranian newspaper. Jyllands-Posten was trying to get in touch with that newspaper so that the publication would take place simultaneously. Later that day, the editor-in-chief of the danish newspaper informed that under no circumstances would Jyllands-Posten publish the Holocaust cartoons and the following day he announced that Flemming Rose was taking an indefinite leave.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Who ‘deserves’ to be funded? (II) Some conclusions

The relationship of many people with the cultural sector, perhaps of the majority, is the one described by John Holden, in page 32 of his text Capturing Cultural Value, as 'non-use values'. That is, they appreciate the fact that it exists (existence value), regardless of using it or not; they keep open the possibility of using it in the future, although they do not use it in the present (option value); they think it is important to bequeath something to future generations (bequest value).

Thus, while I was reading a series of
texts on the value of culture and its funding, I kept asking myself: does it make sense to continue focusing the debate on how to prove the value of culture? Is this what we need to convince people – audiences and non-audiences, politicians, sponsors-, of the ‘value of culture’? Who´s questioning it?

Culture has an intrinsic value, largely intangible, unmeasurable. Culture touches us, marvels us, make us grow as people, help us become more tolerant and demanding, less ignorant and arrogant. It makes us think about ourselves and the world. Each one of us lives this relationship in a very personal way; and each one of us can speak for themselves. These testimonies, many times recorded, are not exactly a ‘proof’, but they help us understand, and show others, how the cultural offer is received, understood and felt.

When discussing cultural funding, rarely do we use this kind of arguments. Because they are not easy to ‘prove’ and because they do not seem to be sufficient. They are not the expected indicators. In the meantime, in our ‘apology’ we often refer to the results of culture´s ‘collateral effects’, that is the ones related to economy, urban regeneration, social and health problems, etc. These exist and have already been proved in various reports.

It seems to me, though, that we shouldn´t be evaluating culture in general, and the arts in particular, based on these indicators. Monitoring these results is the job of the agents who represent each one of those sectors, which interact with the cultural sector because they find the interaction to be beneficial. I think that the cultural sector should concentrate on proving that it aims and manages to create bridges with the other sectors, so that its offer can be more promoted, more accessible and more ‘used’, resulting in more and more people getting in touch with its intrinsic value – the one that is hard to prove and measure, but which each person feels and understands, in his/her own way, when experiencing it. In my opinion, it is in these terms that the value of the cultural sector should be debated and evaluated. And it is also based on these terms that funding criteria should be established.

When considering the distribution of money, it seems to me that, generally speaking, we could identify three types of beneficiaries: artists who work individually, who produce; artists with a supporting structure; cultural institutions.

The job of the artists is to create; to create art of excellence. And the State should guarantee the conditions for that to happen. Artists do not create because it is beneficial for the society. They create because this is their way of breathing, of communicating. It is not up to them to prove that their art helps to solve health or social or other problems. The decision to fund them should be based on the quality of their work. Nevertheless, it seems legitimate to me to expect that an artist financed by the State would be open for collaborating with the mediators (education, outreach, communications staff), who aim to open the way for the public to come to the encounter with his/her art. Audiences, politicians, sponsors find it difficult to attribute value to something they don´t know it exists or something that looks strange to them, incomprehensible, and, thus, apparently useless and at times frightening.

In this context, we should pay particular attention to the fear and discomfort the words ‘contemporary art’ exercise on people. Noone protests against the funding of museums, companies with classical repertories, artists whose work does not defy the established canons… These are proposals the importance of which the general public accepts, even if they never use them. On the other hand, people´s relationship with experimental contemporary art, the art that aims to question the canons, to create new ways of looking at ourselves and the world, is less peaceful. Why? Because the majority of the people do not possess the necessary tools in order to be able to attribute value and importance to it. Apart from the obligation to guarantee the conditions so that this art cab happen, there is another obligation: to ‘educate’ the public so that it can learn to appreciate it (and then accept it or discard it), to give them the necessary tools in order to discover and explore it. And this cannot happen without the artist´s collaboration.

In what concerns the structures supporting an artist or the companies or cultural institutions in general (museums, galleries, cultural centres, performance halls), I am not at all uncomfortable with the idea of setting objectives (some common to all and some specific, decided by the funder and the cultural organization, according to its mission – see
post on the establishment of objectives in the funding agreements between british museums and the government). It seems legitimate to me that the decision to fund gives priority to those interested in pursuing those objectives. If we value the establishment of education departments or the establishment of a relationship with under-represented target-audiences, should priority be given to those who aim to follow that direction? If we value the elimination of physical barriers, so that disabled citizens may enjoy the cultural offer, wouldn´t it be legitimate to expect that publicly funded institutions provide access to them? Just to give two examples.

I believe that development can only be achieved with the establishment of concrete and measurable objectives, in the medium and long term. This is how we can manage to eliminate, little by little, the barriers of access to culture - mental, physical and financial. This is not about the value of culture, it is about access to it.

These and other issued will be discussed on the 6th of October in a debate that aims to provoke and is entitled Just what are the arts good for?”, organized by the Institute of Ideas in partnership with Culturgest.

Note on the 6th of October:
Being this a very relevant issue for the cultural sector, it is being discussed in various forums in many countries. Artsblog published today the post Proving what we know is true, that informs us of a study that is going to be undertaken by Theatre Bay Area with the objective to create a service that will allow them to quantify the intrinsic impact of their work. More information on this here.

Finally, it´s worth reading an article by Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and one of the most influential people in the british cultural sector, published in the Guardian on the 5th of October and entitled A blitzkrieg on the arts. Here´s an excerpt that I consider fundamental should we really wish to change the terms of the debate: "With the ruthlessness of a blitzkrieg the coalition is threatening the stability of an entire system for cultural provision that has been built up by successive Conservative and Labour governments: a mixed economy of public and private support that has made Britain a civilised place to live, where all have an opportunity to enjoy the arts or celebrate our heritage, and have been doing so in increasing numbers."

Monday, 27 September 2010

Who ‘deserves’ to be funded? (I) Readings

Following my post on Mark Ravenhill´s article, I read or re-read a number of texts and reports on cultural value and financing. Here´s a brief presentation.

In 2004, British Culture Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, published a text entitled
Government and the Value of Culture. She was saying: “Too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas – education, the reduction of crime, improvements in wellbeing – explaining, or in some instances almost apologizing for, our investment in culture only in terms of something else. In political and public discourse in this country we have avoided the more difficult approach of investigating, questioning and celebrating what culture actually does in and of itself. There is another story to tell on culture and it´s up to politicians in my position to give a lead in changing the atmosphere and changing the terms of the debate”.

In that same year, the think-tank
Demos published Capturing Cultural Value, by John Holden. In his report, Holden identified a feeling of discomfort in the cultural sector due to the necessity or obligation to prove its value and justify the money spent on it based on objectives drawn by other sectors. He analyzes the difficulties in the evaluation of the intrinsic values of culture and suggests that the solution is the creation of a new language “capable of reflecting, recognizing and capturing the full range of values expressed through culture”. Thus, he looks into other areas and presents concepts expressed through the language of economics (commercial values and other), anthropology (historical, social, symbolic, aesthetic and spiritual values), environmentalism (sustainability, biodiversity, intergenerational equity, fairness of distribution of benefit), as well as through the language of the evaluation of intangible goods (brands, knowledge) and of public value (an emerging concept in the UK at the time, related to the value citizens attribute to public bodies, based on what they are willing to invest on them – for example, in terms of money or time). Holden thus defends the necessity to find ways of calculating cultural value able to also reflect characteristic elements that are affective, subjective, intangible.

Two years later, in 2006, there is a new publication,
Culture Vultures, edited by Munira Mirza. Another book that questions the instrumentalisation of culture and the rules for evaluating it and financing it. Texts by six different authors who defend culture´s intangible and intrinsic values, who protest against culture being placed into the service of other agendas and question the data collected in order to prove its social impact, who are afraid that the criteria for financing might result in poor art, since artists will try to answer requirements that may guarantee a better reception of their work and financing.

In 2007, a new report was published,
Public Value and the Arts in England, that explores that new concept of 'public value'. It presents the results of a survey carried out by Arts Council England with artists, arts managers, funding bodies and members of the public. I thought it was interesting that here we can find the points which all these different actors agree upon, as well as those that create tension among them. Issues like the definition of the arts, why the arts matter, what is quality, the importance of taking risks, access and inclusion, the principle of public funding, gather consensus, contrary to what I would expect in certain cases. In what concerns the points of tension, here there were no surprises: a right to express or the need to engage; benefit to the public or artistic development; accountability in theory or bureaucracy in practice; expert judgment or inclusive consultation. What was the conclusion? People involved in the survey tried to come up with a common position in what concerns the priorities and principles of public funding. “They concluded that the ultimate end of public funding for the arts should be the creation of ‘public value’ in terms of (…) strengthening capacity for an experience of life in a wide range of contexts. (…) …this sort of value will be created naturally if as many people as possible experience arts that excite, enlighten, move, stimulate and challenge. As such, they would like the public funding system to focus on enabling widespread quality of artistic experience.”

Finally, I read a series of short texts that the
Irish Arts Council asked from a number of commentators, following a study called The Public and the Arts (2006). These are: The Case for Elitism; The Siren Alps; The Feel-good Gulag; We´ve Built It; Why Won´t They Come?; and The Pursuit of Glorious Failure. Interesting points of view, some expressed with a sense of humour, others a little exaggerated.

All these texts helped me put my thoughts in order and raised questions:
- Does culture today need to prove its value? To whom? And in what terms?
- Is it legitimate to ask an artist whose work is publicly funded to give something back? And a company or another cultural institution?
- If yes, who defines what can/must be asked in return and how?

(to be continued…)

I thank CF for telling me about Culture Vultures and MLA for sending me Capturing Cultural Value.