Monday, 26 December 2011

2011 was special also thanks to...

Two books


Three documentaries



One film

Two performances


The 'encounter' with Ousmane Sow at the National Museum of African Art in Washington

Photo taken from

And the journey to the marvellous 'end of the world'

Monday, 12 December 2011

Crise oblige? (ii) Programming challenges

"Community relevance is the first and foremost element of sustainability.”

I was asking myself a few months ago if we were paying enough attention to the changes that are taking place in the socio-cultural environment in which we are acting. I had just finished reading two texts that showed me new ways and helped me structure my ideas regarding the relationship between cultural institutions and their audiences: Culture and Class by John Holden and The Excellence Barrier by Diane Ragsdale. There were both defending the urgency, importance and need to look outwards; to try and understand the habits, tastes and expectations of the communities we are here to serve; to try and relate to them, making our offer more relevant to their lives, creating demand together with them. Engaging them.

A photo from the exhibition In Your Face (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2007), an exhibition of portraits collected from the general public to celebrate the inividuality and diversity of Canada.

I have now read a third text, a report on a research that was undertaken in the USA, UK and Australia, called Getting in on the Act: How arts groups are creating opportunities for active participation. It presents the various ways in which we can get the audience involved (from the spectator who´s simply a receiver to the member of the audience who gets involved as an artist) and brings to us a number of case studies from various institutions and initiatives. It also presents some conclusions which stengthen some of my ideas and confirm some intuitions regarding the way forward for us here as well:

- It is believed that, now more than ever, the arts organizations that will thrive in our current environment will be the ones who create new and meaningful opportunities for people to engage (p.2);

- Culture is not ‘being shaped’ by someone or something else. We all are shaping our culture. We all are creating what is meaningful, vibrant and real – the amateurs and the experts, the institutional and the individual, the privileged and the disenfranchised, the mainstream and the alternative (p.4);

- Technology has fundamentally changed the way people interact, learn and think about culture. What is different now is the unprecedented ability of the average oerson to access, make and share art and ideas on a global scale (p.6);

- It is important to recognize that the young people entering today´s cultural scene are not aesthetically bankrupt. More often, their creative interests lie elsewhere – beyond attendance (p.11);

- It is becoming more difficult to satisfy everyone with one experience. Audience development, therefore, is not just a marketing problem. Primarily, it is a programming issue. Attracting the new generation of audiences and visitors will require a transformation in programming, not just better marketing (p.11).

In my previous post I raised some questions regarding the impact the currebt crisis might have on the way cultural institutions are being programmed. Even in periods where there is no crisis, any institution, any business, any sector knows that there are factors that affect their activity and force them to re-evaluate and adapt. These are external factors – social, political, economic, technological – which are beyond our control, but which we cannot ignore, since they present us with opportunities and threats. These are realities we must always be aware of. Thus, I would say that the crisis ‘simply’ makes it urgent for us to wake up, to react, to not continue doing everything the way we´ve always done it.

I don´t think the crisis will make people less willing to partiicpate and get involved in cultural activities. On the contrary, demand might even grow. There is no doubt that people are being much more careful in the way they invest the, little, money they have. But they continue to invest on what they consider essential, unmissable, relevant, entertaining, inspiring. There is no doubt that, due to the crisis, audience numbers have recently decreased, but there are still shows that sell out or sell a significant proportion of their seat capacity. And it is also at this time of crisis that people form a long queue to visit the dinosaur exhibition currently showing in Lisbon, despite the high ticket price (and bad quality of the exhibition).

The question here is: do we know what is essential, unmissable, relevant, entertaining, inspiring for the people we aim to serve in order to, through our programming, keep the relationship with them alive? Maybe not... I believe the majority of us belong to the group John Holden calls “the new mandarins”: we fight for access to culture, but to that culture which we consider valid; we fight for the ‘democratization of culture’ but haven´t realized that this concept has developed into another, that of ‘cultural democracy’. Can the crisis force us to become aware of what has been happening, for quite some time now, around us; to abandon our role of ‘guardians’ and also consider what our audiences crave to experience, discuss, debate, create, share? Can the crisis make us share the responsibilty of programming? Would we be compromising its quality?

The idea of sharing this responsibility is not completely new for cultural institutions. All over the world, there are museums that choose the subjects of new exhibitions and create contents for them with the help of members of the communities they are serving - their opinions, knowledge, memories and objects; when I visited Tate Britain a few years ago, next to the labels written by curators I found those written by visitors – equally interesting and, in some cases, more understandable and touching; and, to give one more example, Concord Museum in the USA is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a temporray exhibition – with the suggestive title Crowdsourcing a Collection -, where members of the public were asked to choose and talk about objects from the museum collection that have a special meaning to them. Also in the field of the performing arts we can find this kind of experiences. For example, in 2009, the Theatre Royal Statford East (known as 'the theatre of the people') started consulting the audience for the preparation of the programme of the first semester of 2012 (read here).

Nevertheless, and although these initiatives demonstrate great willingness on behalf of cultural institutions for a more active involvement of the public, these are still decided and ‘guided’ by them. It´s not exactly sharing the responsibility of programming. The change that is occurring at this moment demonstrates a willingness to co-curate. Just as the public is willing to finance cultural projects (crowdfunding initiatives are multiplying all over the world), there are lots of knowledgeable and interested people willing to contribute for selection or creation of a cultural product. It´s the so-called crowdsourcing. Ian David Moss and Daniel Reid, authors of one of the most inspiring texts I have recently read, Audiences at the Gate: Reinventing Arts Philanthropy Through Guided Crowdsourcing, explore this idea and suggest a wikipedia-like system in order to discover and finance new artistic projects. In this context, I found extremely relevant for the future of theatres a piece of news I read a few days ago about the Slowbizz network, which aims to connect talented musicians and music fans for small, in-house concerts (read here).

Join the artists community from slowbizz on Vimeo.

Does this path towards shared responsibility for programming make sense for our cultural institutions? Probably more than ever, especially in what concerns public institutions. Because the changes in the way arts and culture are being created, distributed and consummed (and the place where this occurs) are a reality; because the volume of production is so big that we would not be able to know and follow everything, in order to remain updated and relevant; because there are, indeed, people, non-professionals, but with an excellent knowledge and experiences, willing to share them. And because, at a moment where people are forced to make choices, the cultural institutions that will win the race are those that will better engage their audiences in their activity and remain relevant for them. We don´t know everything, but I am sure we know enough to be able to manage with honesty, intelligence, creativity and quality (and also with humility) the sharing of such a responsibility, as the programming of a cultural institution, with those we are here to serve.

More readings

And more
Gripsrud, J., Hovden, J.F., Moe, Hallvard, Changing relations: Class, education and cultural capital (report on Norway)

Monday, 28 November 2011

Crise oblige? (i) Some questions

In times of crisis, financial or other, many people find in the arts, and culture in general, a shelter. A book, a film, a theatre play, a song, dance, painting, writing open windows, show us the way, help us find a sense, bring beauty, serenity, inspiration, enthusiasm, motivation. In countries like Argentina or Greece, theatre attendace rose significantly during the times of crisis. Not only because people looked for that ‘shelter’, but also because theatres and theatre companies were able to address that new reality ‘repositioning’ themselves, adapting to their socio-economic environment. Yorgos Loukos, artistic director of the Athens Festival, when interviewed by The New York Times last summer together with the directors of other festivals, referred to the sale of an extra 35.000 tikets (a 24% rise compared to the year before; the performance of Richard III with Kevin Spacey sold out at the Epidaurus theatre, with a 10.000 seat capacity) and to the greek governement´s commitment to support the festival again in 2012. Other festivals also registered high attendances last summer, but their directors are conscious of the impact the financial crisis will have on culture and the need to face it.

A year ago, after the first announcement of cuts, many of us were saying that the crisis could (and should) be an opportunity. Twelve months have passed and we are probably at the same point: reacting to the cuts, asking (as we must) the State for more and better, but not duscussing, at the same time, alternatives to a model which, just as it is, it hasn´t been functioning for a long time. The hope expressed by some people responsible for portuguese cultural institutions that the cuts will affect ‘just’ the programming, makes us think: what kind of relatiosnhip can these institutions maintain with the audiences, with society, should they abdicate, in the first place, from their main activity, from their true mission, from their raison-d´-être? And what are the alternatives?

In these difficult, confusing times, that bring about a certain desorientation, that force us to adapt in order to survive, it´s good to go back and read Michael Kaiser. His structured and clear thinking reminds us of what is essential to remain healthy and relevant.

Michael Kaiser has been responsible for the ‘rescue’ of a number of dying cultural institutions, about to close their doors due to financial trouble. In his book The art of the turnaround: Creating and maintaining healthy arts organizations (which I read for the first time three years ago as if it was a novel) he shares his vast experience and presents five case studies: Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Foundation, American Ballet Theater, Royal Opera House e The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Michael Kaiser´s experience does not only relate to the american and british realities. He has worked as consultor in many countries around the world. From his book, I would highlight here three important lessons:

- The problem with most arts organizations is revenue and not costs. Actually, arts organizations have learnt how to do a lot with little. Organizations that focus simply on reducing costs will continue to get smaller and smaller and will never create the economic engine that is required for long-term stability and growth (p.6).

- When one cuts artistic initiative and marketing, one cuts the very reason people supply revenue to the arts organizations – buying tickets and supporting them financially. Audience members and donors are attracted to exciting work. When art and marketing are sacrificed to balance budgets, the organization virtually always suffers a loss in revenue (p.xi).

- Many arts executives have suggested it would be foolhardy to plan further into the future since the future seems so uncertain. And yet, if one does not plan far into the future, it is virtually impossible to develop the large, exciting projects that will reinvigorate the audience and donors (p.7).

How can Michael Kaiser´s lessons help us face our specific reality? I believe that some of the questions we should be considering are the following:

- Just like it happened in other countries, many people will continue attending cultural activities, live performances in particular. Actually, as Argentina and Greece have shown, the willingness may even grow and ‘infect’ more people. Nevertheless, due to the lack of money, they will be even more careful when choosing where to invest. And in cities like Lisbon, they have a lot to choose from. How is the current crisis going to affect programming? Considering the needs and interests of people implies limiting, conditioning the quality of the programming? Would it make sense to share this respinsibility, of programming, with people who represent actual target audiences and who have the knowledge that is necessary in order to contribute? Would we be risking becoming populists, compromising our mission?

- Michael Kaiser believes that the main problem in most arts organizations is revenue and not cost. Especially, I would say, in countries like Portugal, where public cultural organizations are not particularly worried about it (neither about income from ticket sales nor about fundraising from individual donors, for which there is no tradition). Will the cuts force us to consider different management and funding models? Can we do it without compromising (financial) access to our offer? What should we demand from the State?

- We do want to plan in advance. But how, when we don´t know how much money we are going to have? When, even after we have committed to the production of certain projects, we are surprised with cuts? Where to cut and how to cut? Should we sacrifice the programming in the first place? Could employees themeselves have a role in the development of a trategic plan for the future?

These questions, which are not new, came up once again when I heard the news about the cuts and the increase of VAT for live performances (from 6% to 23%). I am thinking about them and they are raising even more questions. Mission, funding, programming, management are issues which interconnect. There are urgent aspects, which need to be handled in the short term; but there are also structural aspects, that refer to a more distant future (but which is still going to be our future) and should start being considered right away.

This 'coming back' post, written a few weeks ago, is especially dedicated to AL, CF, CR, HH, MP, MS, MT, NS, SA. With my most sincere thanks.

Monday, 10 October 2011

To be or not to be (free on Sundays)? That is not the question

Once again, I couldn´t agree more with the Secretary of State for Culture. “Free entry is not a good principle”, said Francisco José Viegas when he announced the end of free entry to museums on Sundays. But, once again, his arguments in defense of this position seem to be extremely fragile.

The Secretary of State actually explained that the percentage of paid entries to museums is currently 36% and that the ideal level for these institutions´s sustainability would be 80%. He also said that paid entries are necessary in order to preserve museums and they would allow for the generation of more income in order to fund longer opening hours.

I haven´t got any concrete data at the moment, but wouldn´t it be true that the biggest part of the 64% of free entries to museums refers to school groups (probably the most significant visitor group in portuguese museums) and not to those people visiting on Sunday mornings? Because we shouldn´t forget that entry to museums is free on Sundays until 2pm. Can we really believe that putting an end to half a day of free entry per week will solve the problem of funding necessary for preserving museums? And why to consider longer opening hours if the big majority of the Portuguese don´t visit during the actual opening times? Was there a study that inidcated that people don´t visit because opening hours are not convenient?

Neither the revenue from Sunday morning visits will make museums sustainable nor is there a need, for now, to consider longer opening hours. The big priority, and a long-term objective, is to create a relationship with the portuguese society that will become strong and lasting and could be the base of museum sustainability in general, and their financial sustainability in particular. Museums that are irrelevant and incomprehensible for the majority of citizens, that continue to work with and for the same people, that are not sufficiently promoted, haven´t got a great future ahead of them. On the other hand, museums that see themselves as live units inserted in a specific socio-cultural environment, that pay attention to the changes taking place around them, to the needs and anxieties of their audiences, museums that are involving, surprising and accessible at all levels, are museums capable of creating their own ‘family’. A family composed by those people who love what museums do, who feel good in them, who take ownership and are ready to support them: paying the entry fee; becoming volunteers and placing their time and knowledge at their service; and, why not, supporting them financially in a more substantial way than simply paying the value of the ticket.

The base of sustainability are the people we relate to and exist to serve. Which doesn´t mean that the State is exempt from any responsibility. The responsibility to create long-term objectives that don´t change every time the Minister changes; to contribute so that museums can have the financial and human resources to carry out their functions; to value access; to reward good practices and good results.

Once again, political leaders go ahead and make announcements that reveal quite a superficial analysis of reality. Once again, one starts from the end. Maybe because one is thinking about the next four years (and in the area of culture they are not usually as many...), instead of the next ten or twenty. In the last years, there was not even one Minister of Culture who shared a vision for the cultural sector (museums included), who announced long-term objectives and was able to translate them into concrete short and medium-term actions that would help achieve the ends. There has been a complete lack of strategic and structired thinking. There has been a lack of visionary political leaders, concerned not only about their immediate reputation (usually, short-lived), but about the dreams and the way to make them come true. And there is a constant lack of a sector that vindicates, that acts and doesn´t react, that is permanently on the alert.

Note: The ICOM Portuguese National Committee is organizing on the 7th of November, at the Soares dos Reis National Museum (Porto), the conference Museums and Financial Sustainability.

Still on this blog

Monday, 26 September 2011

Back to numbers

Photo taken from the website of the newspaper Público.
The Secretary of State for Culture is absolutely right when he says “I don´t think it´s fair that a company, a director or a producer does not express concern regarding the audiences”. But this is where our understanding ends. Because concern regarding the audiences is not only and in the first place proven based on box office results. And because "the creation of new audiences” has become yet one more politically correct, but empty, concept.

I feel less and less comfortable with the expression ‘creation of new audiences’. Because it comes to reinforce the role of ‘god’, of ‘guardian’, taken on by many of us working in the cultural sector. We are the owners of cultural institutions, we (and only we) know what should be presented in them, what is of quality, interest, value. What the others, the ‘audiences’ we aim to ‘create’, should see and appreciate.

We know a lot of things, that´s true. We shouldn´t be working in this field if we didn´t. But there is a lot of knowledge, many experiences, visions and ways of enjoying culture and the arts also on the ‘other side’, among the ‘audiences’ out there, who exist and with whom we haven´t established contact yet. Thus, when I think about these issues now, I prefer the concepts of ‘participation’ or ‘involvement’.

Having said this, to express concern regarding the audiences doesn´t mean, in the first place, to consider box office results. Because, in the first place, a company or a director or a producer doesn´t express concern when he´s not conscious or insists on ignoring the specificities of his socio-cultural environment; when he´s out of touch with the different realities existing in it, with the art and culture that is created and consumed there; when he does always… what he´s always done, without any sort of adaptation to new trends or needs; when he sees Communication as an accessory, sometimes an ‘inevitable’ one; when he´s concentrated in creating, as he should, but is not available to consider the necessary timings in order to communicate to the outside world (the one we want to buy tickets…) what´s the dream, the aspiration, what´s being done, how and by whom; when he refuses to give interviews, when he doesn´t go to TV Show X or Y (because he considers it to be representative of ‘low culture’), when he makes the press wait, when he does not allow filming and photographing during rehearsals, when he does not collaborate in the scheduling of interviews and dress rehearsals (just as all technical aspects and those related to production in general are scheduled in advance). A company, a director or a producer do not express concern regarding the audiences when they don´t want to realize that it´s not enough to create, there is a need to communicate as well. It´s part of their job.

But because I am not only concerned with theatre and cinema box office results, but with museums as well, I don´t think they should be left out. Because a museum director or curator as well must express concern regarding the audiences. And he doesn´t when, just like other culture professionals, he´s concentrated in his museum without considering the surrounding environment; when he doesn´t know or ignores the motivations, interests, concerns of the people he´s supposed to serve; when he doesn´t find ways of involving them in the museum´s activity; when he writes texts (that elementary means that all museums possess) that are understood only by him and his peers; when he´s only worried about exhibiting an object - beautifully and elegantly, placing (or hiding…) a minimal label -, but at the same time does not give the visitors the means to interpret those objects, discover their story, to become fascinated, touched, surprised, to surrender; when there are no channels for visitors themselves to be able to contribute to the choices, interpretations and approaches that are being made; when he doesn´t put people at ease in the museum environment (physically, psychologically and intellectually). Museums that are mystical, closed in themselves, that communicate only with those who know them already and appreciate them, become irrelevant for a large part of their community and they are not ‘used’, even if entrance is free or tickets very cheap.

The answer to give when concern is related, in the first place, to box office results is not at all complicated, neither for theatres nor for cinemas nor for museums: we programme what is more popular; we distribute more invitations; we allow for more school group visits. And thus we strangle the experimental; we put aside what is not known; we finish off with quality in museum visits. Spectator and visitor numbers are important, yes. But before they become performance indicators (and they don´t indicate anything just by themselves), there is a lot to do in the way cultural institutions relate to people. Let´s take care of the relationship first, with respect and honesty. And let´s not forget that the State itself has got responsibilities in building this relationship, in what concerns the objectives it must share with culture agents and the resources, both human and financial, it must make available. As well as we cannot forget that a support with public money should also result in certain responsibilities regarding the 'public', namely in what concerns access – physical, psychological, intellectual.

It´s a good thing that evaluation, numbers included, takes place a bit later and relates to all those involved.

Still in this blog

Monday, 19 September 2011

The long distance between California and Jerusalem

One of the images that would be part of the exhibition canceled by MOCHA.
MOCHA (Museum of Children´s Art) is a museum in Oakland, California. Open since 1989, its mission is to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of the lives of all children through hands-on art experiences, arts training and curriculum for educators, and advocacy for the arts. On the 12th of September, Hyperallergic announced (read here) that, under the pressure of jewish groups, the museum had decided to cancel the exhibition A Child´s View from Gaza, that brought together works by palestinian children created during art therapy sessions (some of the works may be seen here). The President of the museum´s Board of Directors, in an open letter to the community published on the MOCHA website (read here), clarified that the museum had made that decision in an attempt to balance the concerns of parents and educators who did not wish for their children to encounter graphically violent and sensitive works during their visit. What did the museum expect children who had lived through the 2008 and 2009 israeli bombardments to draw? Were the scenes of violence a surprise? Hyperallergic commented that it wouldn´t have been the first time that the museum would exhibit children´s works depicting violent scenes. The fact that the decision was made less than two weeks before the exhibition opening also indicates that the reason was not that museum personnel suddenly realized that they had to review their exhibitions policy regarding the representation of violence, but rather another kind of pressure.

Eyad Baba, Gaza, Palestine, 2009 (Photo from the exhibition HomeLessHome at the Museum on the Seam)
The Museum on the Seam is a museum in Jerusalem. It is located in the street that separates the jewish sector in the western part of the city from the arab neighborhoods in the eastern sector. Founded in 1999, it defines itself as a socio-political contemporary art museum, which, in its unique way, presents art as a language with no boundaries in order to raise controversial social issues. At the centre of its temporary exhibitions stand the national, ethnic and economic seam lines in their local and universal contexts. In its mission statement, the museum also refers that it is committed to examining the social reality within the regional conflict, to advancing dialogue in the face of discord and to encouraging social responsibility that is based on what we all have in common rather than what keeps us apart. The current exhibition, West End, explores the conflict between Islam and the western world and it is the result of the museum´s intense efforts to convince artists from the Middle East to exhibit in its galleries. Among the 28 muslim artists involved, 7 come from the Middle East, some from countries that prohibit any kind of contact with Israel (read here). In the past, the museum had presented exhibitions such as The Right to Protest, Bare Life or HomeLessHome, among others. Whatever pressure the museum might be going through (and I guess it must be considerable), it doesn´t seem to be tackling it by canceling exhibitions.

I like to think of museums as spaces for the confrontation of ideas; spaces that bring us out of our comfort zone; spaces that confront us with realities we didn´t know about; and, also, spaces that raise some controversy. I am not referring to ‘cheap’ controversy; neither to the one caused by cowardness, silence or a supposed ‘apoliticism’. I am referring to the controversy caused, with intelligence and honesty, by expressing one´s opinion, by assuming a stance, by the museum´s genuine wish to be a place of encounter.

Still on this blog

Monday, 12 September 2011

Building a family: lessons from the social sector

In the last years, we´ve witnessed the solidarity generated at an international level when disaster strikes a country, even a distant one, affecting the lives of thousands of people. I could mention the tsunami in Indochina, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan and, more recently, the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. People with more or less money, sensitive to human pain, try to contribute, within their possibilities, in order to help relieve that pain, but, also, in order to feel good themselves, in order to feel human, useful, solidary. In the last weeks, I´ve been following closely the efforts of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in raising public awareness as well as funds for the Horn of Africa. And I´ve been thinking that the cultural sector has got a lot to learn with the social.

In the last years I have supported the WFP on a number of occasions. A few days after my last donation I received this email. It wasn´t just a ‘thank you’ email. It was something more. The WFP informed me on the impact of my contribution; it brought me news; it shared personal stories; it explained what the next steps would be. All this in a very personal, informal, clear way, that obviously aimed to give the receiver proof of the WFP´s effort and efficiency, as well as of the importance of the donor himself in the process.

At the same time, the WFP was communicating with the public through its website, as well as through regular posts on Facebook. They shared news, good and bad; they showed photos and videos from the affected areas; they reminded people of how they could help (not only by donating money); and, in the end of July and for one week, they had a correspondent in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in Kenya, doing reports and interviews, as well as answering people´s questions posted on Facebook (watch here the video from day 1 and follow the rest on You Tube). It was also at that time that Josette Sheeran, the head of WFP, gave a powerful and deeply inspiring TED Talk, Ending hunger now, which was seen by thousands of people.

During that campaign, which is unfortunately not over, the WFP:

- constantly reminded everyone, through all the means and channels available, of its mission (The WFP fights hunger worldwide, saving lives during emergencies while building a better future for next generation. WFP is funded solely by voluntary donations).
- it shared its vision, objectives, next steps;
- it was telling stories from the field of action;
- it was giving proof of its work and interventions;
- it used a direct, colloquial, comprehensible language;
- it made available on all digital platforms the ‘Donate’ button (one of the campaign´s big objectives), facilitating the process as much as possible;
- it never forgot to say ‘thank you’ and… ask for more.

Photos from the series "A family arriving in Dadaab", taken from the WFP website.

Culture, for a number of reasons, does not appeal to people´s hearts and minds the same way human pain or the lack of essential goods do (such as food, a house or even education). But it is essential. “Why?”, many people might ask. Well, that´s exactly the question.

- How many cultural institutions in Portugal have missions that are something a bit more exciting than “X is a cultural institution of a european scope at the service of the national community” or “Y is managed by a private and public utility Foundation, aiming to promote culture”?
- How many cultural institutions use their channels to permanently assert and share their mission with the public? Or their vision?
- How many cultural institutions publicly commit to specific objectives and give feedback on the process of achieving them?
- How many cultural institutions tell stories on their day-to-day activities, the people working in them and the people they are committed to serve, demystifying what´s going on inside their walls and showing their impact?
- How many cultural institutions have a human face?
- How many cultural institutions speak a comprehensible language?

The person who managed to summarise all these questions with great insight and sense of humour was Adam Thurman, founder of Mission Paradox and Communications Director of Court Theatre in Chicago, in his talk Power and the Arts, which I had the opportunity to watch last week. Actually, an inspiring talk on the power of communication in the way we relate to other people, our ‘audiences’. In the way we create our ‘family’ and make it grow.

It was also last week that Casa Conveniente took an initiative that is unique, as far as I know, in Portugal (but I believe that this is the way forward for our cultural institutions): it launched on Facebook the campaign Be a sponsor of Casa Conveniente for €12. The friends of Casa Conveniente responded promptly and, as one would expect, very positively. They will support the project with this modest amount (or even more) and they will spread the word. Because they believe in the project; because it´s something that moves them; because they want it to continue providing them with unique, unforgettable moments; and because they want to be part. I believe that Casa Conveniente´s next step should be to communicate with those who don´t know them: to share their vision; to show what they´ve been doing; and to show their impact. And for that, I think it would be a good idea, among other things, to ‘use’ also their friends, more or less famous, registering and sharing their thoughts and feelings about the project. People (and not institutions) sharing what moves them with other people. And thus the family grows.

Still on this blog

More readings

Monday, 5 September 2011


E.Hopper, People in the sun. Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

In physics, a body which does not move is said to be at rest, motionless, immobile, stationary.


Grants supporting mobility in the cultural sector are normally for artists and curators. Many other culture professionals (those working in the fields of management, communications, education, etc.) – who also feel the need to invest in training during their careers, to travel, get to know colleagues from other countries, promote projects of cooperation – are rarely considered. In the beginning of August I was informed that the Organization of Ibero-American States (OIS) had launched the 2nd Call for Mobility Grants. Some of the objectives announced: to help ibero-american creators, managers, promoters and other professionals in the cultural field who wish to enrich their work by getting to know other professional contexts which allow for the exchange of distinct cultural scopes in the ibero-american space; to strengthen the work of public institutions; to stimulate the building of a culture of peace, based on the exchange, intercultural dialogue and cooperation, favouring a better understanding of the different ibero-american cultural realities. However, candidates could only be of a ibero-american nationality. Given the objectives announced by the OIS, is the candidates´s nationality truly relevant? Should it be a condition? In a world where people, culture professionals, constantly travel, increasingly develop their professional activity in countries different from those of origin, collaborate in international projects, does it make sense, within the scope of an initiative as the one launched by the OIS, to exclude candidates that do not have an ibero-american nationality? Is the country issuing the passport more relevant than the country and the institutions where one develops for years his/her professional activity? I asked the OIS these questions, via email and Facebook. I didn´t get an answer. The deadline for applications finished a few days ago.


For family reasons, a friend decided to leave her job at one of London´s major museums and return to Greece. After one or two short collaborations with museums in Athens and many years of unemployment, she decided to go back to London and try again. Within two weeks she was hired by another big museum. Two or three years later, she moved to another. Three more years and she was at another. All those jobs had been publicly advertised, attracting a large number of candidates. In every case, it involved a national museum.

I thought of my friend many times in the last months, when, talking to various people working in the cultural sector, I realised there are many professionals and institutions ‘trapped’ in rather unproductive situations. On one side, people who occupy the same post for a number of years, tired – of routines or frictions -, eager to face new challenges; on the other side, institutions that naturally go through phases too, which could and would like to benefit from some sort of renovation in their teams.

I thought once again of my friend when, a few weeks ago, I found out that a post in a public cultural institution, a post that does not involve functions that would require political trust, was ‘discretely’ occupied by invitation. It´s common. But until when? It´s true that there are few jobs in the cultural sector. But it is also true that rarely, very rarely, are they publicly advertised, in a way that could guarantee (and allow to benefit from) more diverse applications and, thus, the mobility and renovation one whishes for, promoting - and defending, at the same time - the equally desired transparency and meritocracy. Anyhow, both in the public and private sector, neither the professionals nor the institutions benefit from this kind of stagnation. What to do once the ‘honeymoon’ is over?

“And what if there was an exchange system”, I said joking to someone who´s been in the same post for 10 years. And what if there was? A public, open, transparent system, that would allow for the exchange of professionals between two institutions for three-year periods – which seems to be the maximim duration of the ‘honeymoon’.

Monday, 1 August 2011

4+1 reading suggestions and 1 pause


Nobility of Spirit – A forgotten ideal
, by Rob Riemen

Rob Riemen is an essayist and philosopher, founder of Nexus Institute in the Netherlands. When reading this book, I felt I was missing some basic knowledge in order to be able to fully appreciate it. But it was none the less inspiring. Thomas Mann “talked once of nobility of spirit as the sole corrective for human history. Wherever the ideal vanishes, culture vanishes with it”. Truth, justice, humanism, freedom, democracy. A book that, in my opinion, helps put into perspective events such as the greek crisis or the egyptian revolution.

Arts, Inc., by Bill Ivey

Bill Ivey was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA between 1998 and 2001. Insightfully, Ivey analyzes the cultural policies (or lack of them) along the 20th century and up to our days and launches an alert regarding the way the development of copyright laws, the control of these laws by private companies and the incapacity (or lack of willingness) of the american government to safeguard citizens´ cultural rights have seriously undermined everyone´s expressive life. In this book, Ivey proposes a Cultural Bill of Rights in defense of six fundamental cultural rights. Chapters, referring to the rights, have the following titles: Heritage; Artists; A creative life; America, art and the world; Art of lasting value; Strong, responsible institutions. There is a final seventh chapter: The failure of government.

Cognitive surplus, by Clay Shirky

This book´s subtilte clearly explains the subject: “How technology makes consumers into collaborators”. Shirky presents the most diverse case studies in order to show how new technological means (and the fact that they are cheap and accessible) have allowed citizens to share their free time and their knowledge in order to promote common causes, support projects, supervise their governements. And they aren´t doing it to make money. The motivations are intrinsic: the need to communicate and share, to be useful, to make the world a better place. Implications (and benefits) for the cultural sector are more than clear to me. The near future is becoming more and more interesting.

Bicycle diaries, by David Byrne

London, New York, Buenos Aires, Berlin, among others. Cities David Byrne has explored on his bicycle and a ‘pretext’ to talk about arts, culture, politics, people. I am highlighting four lines that capture the Istanbul I have in my heart and I have not visited for almost twenty years now: “I love its physical location – bounded by water, dispersed across three landmasses, one of which is where Asia begins. Its way of life, which seems Mediterranean, cosmopolitan, and yet tinged by the deep history of the Middle East, is intoxicating”.


I read this book very slowly, because I didn´t want it to finish. And, at the same time, I couldn´t keep away from it. So, I was reading each page more than once.

1 pause. Until September.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Reminders - After four weeks at the Kennedy Center

I was asking myself a few months ago Why things aren´t happening?. Well, they are. It´s true that ideal working environments do not exist and the Kennedy Center is no exception. But it is, without any doubt, a great school.

The face of the Kennedy Center in the last decade has been Michael Kaiser. A charismatic leader, who knew how to translate his vision into a concrete mission that orientates the Center´s activity. He also knew how to bring into his team an excellent group of professionals – intelligent, experienced, hard working, dedicated – who embrace his vision and collaborate with him in order to make the dreams come true. This team´s cohesion is truly impressive. This is what happens when there is a clear mission, determination, tenacity, a true sense of responsibility (see post On leadership).

Another impressive thing is the clear notion that everyone´s time is valuable and shouldn´t be wasted. The Kennedy Center invests little time in meetings and a lot of time in action. Further to this, punctuality is a rule rarely ignored. The President meets with the Vice-Presidents once a week, for ten minutes, and this doesn´t seem to have a negative effect on internal communication or the team´s efficiency when carrying out their duties. There´s a lot to do and... it´s done. This is what happens when work is vey well planned, procedures clear and each member of the team knows what he/she has to do and takes responsibility for it (see post On planning).

There is also the pleasure, enthusiasm, pride and dedication we feel in those people who support the Kennedy Center, either financially or with their work as volunteers. Because they ‘form part’. This is what happens when an institution is aware of the importance of the ‘family’ for its future and knows how to take care of it (see post On family). The majority of the fellows are now going back home determined to build their own.

What has been referred so far are concepts and practices that form part of the Kennedy Center philosophy and were transmitted to us during the seminars and meetings we had with a number of people, both members of the Kennedy Center team and special guests. But there was one thing I believe was not exactly part of the curriculum. Among all the people we had the opportunity to hear, there were some who spoke with such passion about what they do, with such energy, with such shining eyes, that they reminded us that this is what happens when a person, a professional, is at the right place; when one has the possibility to give, everything one knows and everything one can; when one is availed; when one feels that he is learning and growing; when one feels challenged; and when one feels aknowledged.

At the International Summer Fellowship we learn a lot thanks to the generosity with which the Kennedy Center staff share their ideas and experience with us. But we also learn thanks to the contributions of the fellows themselves, intelligent, interesting and enterprising people. Sharing with them brought pleasure, inspiration and enrichment. What I wished the most before starting this fellowship was for my certainties to be challenged. They were not. I would rather say that many of my certainties were confirmed. There were not exactly discoveries in the last four weeks. There were reminders that turned into great lessons which had a great impact. This is what I am carrying back with me; this is what will guide me until I come back to the Kennedy Center next year.

Monday, 18 July 2011

On planning - Third week at the Kennedy Center

Michael Kaiser (Photo: Raphael Khisa)

Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, is not afraid of dreaming high. Because he knows how to plan his dreams. Michael Kaiser dreams five years in advance. He thinks of the things he would like to see the Kennedy Center presenting and, together with his team, he gets to work in order to see them materialize.

One of the greatest efforts the Kennedy Center team has to undertake is raising the money that is necessary for the dreams to come true. The State is not a factor to be considered here. Being the Kennedy Center a memorial for President John Kennedy, the federal government covers maintenance and security costs. Money for programming and operational costs must be generated, through fundraising (a responsibility of the Development Department) and earned income from box office and other services provided by the Center (a responsibilty of the Marketing Department). The Kennedy Center´s annual budget is $150.000.000, of which $75.000.000 are raised by Development.

Cultural institutions are not a business like any other. Not only because they are not-for-profit, but mainly because they do not become more ‘productive’ year after year, the way the term is generally understood. Costs are constantly increasing. A specific theatre play is not performed nowdays with less actors than 100 years ago. A symphony cannot be interpreted with less musicians than 200 years ago. The number of people involved stays the same, the costs of production increase. In what concerns earned income, on the other hand, and ticket sales being the main source, the outcome is also rather stable. A room with 500 seats will have the same number of seats tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next year. We cannot make a room larger in order to have more people in and make more money and, anyway, in our kind of business, ticket prices could never be as high as to allow us to recover our investment in production. Thus, in that sense, culture is not a profitable business. In order for us to continue doing what we are doing, we need to fill the gap between costs and income, that keeps growing. This is why cultural institutions need financial help. Where shall we look for it?

Something that becomes immediately obvious is that it is not very intelligent on the part of a cultural institution to rely only on one source of funding. If, for any reason, that source disappears or weakens, the institution´s future is joepardized. It is necessary and compulsory to look for multiple funding sources, able to guarantee sustainability. The results of the almost exclusive dependence on state funding are felt by many cultural institutions in various countries. Financial support from corporations has also seen better days. Not only because of the economic crisis, but also because the interests and priorities of corporations change and there is no way of guaranteeing a permanent or eternal relastionship. What can, on the other hand, gain a permanent character is the relationship with individuals, more or less wealthy, who embrace our mission, share our vision, want to be part of our family. Without neglecting or undervaluing the support of corporations and foundations, the Kennedy Center invests on the development of its relationship with individuals (see previous post).

As Michael Kaiser explained in a deeply inspiring seminar he gave last week, a plan is not a wishlist. A plan is concrete actions and measures for the dreams to come true. Forward planning has various advantages: it gives enough time to the Kennedy Center to stimulate interest and enthusiasm among people and organizations that might contribute financially; it allows to negotiate better with potential partners, since there exists a large array of ‘dreams’, some of which might be more relevant to them than others; it allows to organize and produce everything having enough time and keeping calm. Staff at the Kennedy Center are always very busy, but they are not desperate or disorientated.

Apart from the seminar with the Kennedy Center staff, we also had the opportunity to hear two very inspiring ladies: Sandra Gibson, former CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters who spoke about the challenges the cultural sector faces today (independent of country, although it´s obvious that some countries are paying more attention than others); and Julie Simpson, Executive Director of Urban Gateways, a reference in what cocerns arts education in the USA.

The projects presented by the fellows last week came from four continents and were quite diverse:

Archa Theatre (Czech Republic)
Kwani Trust (Kenya)
Eifman Ballet (Russia)
Evam (India)

Word becomes flesh, by The Living Word Project (Photo: mv)
On Friday night the fellows had the opportunity to be at a very special place in the washingtonian cultural scene. Dance Place was founded 30 years ago and, apart from presenting shows every weekend, it also offers dance classes and various educational programmes. We attended Word becomes flesh, a performance that was part of the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival of Washington, which celebrated its 10th anniversary. The Kennedy Center is one of the festival´s partners.

2nd Annual DC African Festival (Photo: mv)
The ‘extracurricular’ weekend programme included the second edition of the Annual DC African Festival, organized by the Mayor´s Office for African Affairs aiming this year to celebrate africa´s cultural and economic contributions to the District of Columbia; the Corcoran Art Gallery, which is now presenting the exhibition Washington Colour and Light – bringing together artists of the Washington Colour School -, as well as the exhibition Renunciation by photographer Mads Gamdrup, whose works explore the desert as a “space of unexpected promise”; Freer and Sackler Art Galleries of Asian Art, where we can now see the exhibition Family Matters, which presents 16 portraits of members of the Qing Dinasty; and returning to the National Museum of African Art to see once again the extraordinary video on senegalese artist Ousmane Sow.

And thus we have entered the fourth and final week of the fellowship for this year. On Wednesday, July 20, the Kennedy Center and the DeVos Institute of Arts Management are organizing a debate with all the fellows and 13 executive directors of cultural institutions from New York on the subject The International Context: The Changing Role of Governments in Arts Funding and Advances in Audience Outreach and Development. I´ve heard it has 'sold out'.

Special thanks: Faisal Kiwewa

Monday, 11 July 2011

On family - Second week at the Kennedy Center

Sk(in), by A. Balasubramaniam. The Phillips Collection (Photo: mv)

It is very frequent to hear the Kennedy Center people talking about ‘the family’. This is how they refer to all those people who support the Center´s activity, contributing with their time, knowledge, experience and money.

The nucleus of the Kennedy Center family are the members of the Board. A group of influent, well connected people, who believe in the Center´s mission and want to contribute actively to its success and growth, using all their means, including financial. Another part of the family is composed by hundreds of volunteers, who feel the Center as home and put at its service their time, qualifications and experience. There are also part of this family all those people who buy tickets to the shows or become members and funders (individuals, corporations, foundations), contributing with sums that go from $60 to thousands or millions of dollars annually.

What motivates these people? What makes them contribute so generously? There are various reasons, among them, prestige, social status, visibility, tax benefits, privileged access to some of the Kennedy Center´s offers, opportunity to meet or spend time with people with common interests. I believe, though, that the principal force that brings all these people together around the Kennedy Center is the art that is being produced and presented there: art which enthuses, surprises, touches, inspires. It´s upon this base that everything is built, including the family.

The Kennedy Center is totally conscious of the importance of the family for its sustainability (the fact that the Center is the memorial to President John Kennedy means that the federal government covers the costs of maintenance and security, but that´s all). By permanently investing on the quality of the experience (a total experience, that goes beyond the performance and includes all visitor services), the Center aims to maintain its family, but also to make it grow year after year. As I was saying in a previous post, this is not a relationship between a building and the people who come to it. It must be a relationship between the people who work in it and the people who come or might be interested in coming. At the Kennedy Center we become witnesses of this effort that involves everyone, from the President to the security guard and the volunteer usher. But we also become witnesses of the mutual wish of those people to be part of this family.

The Kennedy Center Millenium Stage.
Among all the seminars we attended last week, I was particularly interested in finding out more about the Kennedy Center´s programme Millennium Stage, which offers 365 free entry shows every year, that is one per day, always at 6 p.m. Talking about family and sustainability, and because I believe that the sustainability of cultural institutions also depends on the diversification of audiences, I wanted to understand better if the programme lives up to its motto, “Performing Arts for Everyone”. I always get a bit suspicious when I hear the people involved using the expression “for everyone”, especially when it seems that “for everyone” is mainly associated to “free”. I was surprised to find out that the Kennedy Center has no data on the people who attend these performances. Thus, we are unable to know if they are people who come for the first time or if they attend frequently; if they only attend free entry shows (and why) or if they also buy tickets (thanks to the opportunity of access created by this programme, or not); if they are people whith whom contact was established thanks to the Kennedy Center´s community partnerships or if there is no connection to them. Independent of the understanding the Kennedy Center has of the expression “for everyone” and based on the programme´s objectives, I believe that this kind of data is necessary in order to be able to evaluate its success.

Last week there were more presentations of projects the fellows are involved in in their countries. Very diverse projects, ranging from cultural institutions with national status to small individual initiatives:

Gateway Arts Society (Nigeria)
Agora (Egypt)

Wolf Trap: "Lawn people" waiting for the concert to start. (Photo: mv)
On Saturday night, first year fellows had the opportunity to participate in a truly american experience. We went to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and attended the concert of Debbie Gravitt, Christiane Noll e Jan Hovarth, three Broadway divas, with the National Symphony Orchestra. People of all ages come here quite early, carrying pic nic blankets, chairs, food and drinks, and enjoy the most varied performances. The place was packed. The experience was very-very special, even for those who are not great musical funs.

The weekend plans outside the Kennedy Center included a visit to Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center. Publicised as the second oldest latin community museum in the US (after the Museo del Barrio in New York), aiming to represent and foster the diverse cultures of the Americas and the Carribean, it is nothing more than a house smelling of must that contains an agglomerate of objects, badly exhibited and badly interpreted. Fortunatley, we have The Phillips Collection around the corner, when we can breath and marvel at Sk(in), by indian artist A. Balasubramaniam; at the The World Series photographs (2010-2011) which Allan deSouza (of indian origin, born in Kenya and raised in England) created in response to The Migration Series (1940-41) by american artist Jacob Lourence; at the Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence exhibition, which explores and analyses the process that led to Painting with White Border.

Mount Vernon: cultural interpreter. (Photo: mv)
Another surprising and unfrogettable experience was the visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington´s estate. Apart from the beauty of the house and the surrounding areas, what enriches the experience are, undoubtedly, the cultural interpreters, some of whom dress up in costumes and play their role in the first person. All of them very-very well prepared in order to answer the visitors´s most diverse questions. Another important complement to the visit is the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which, through objects, interactive experiences and films presents the extremely rich story of the life of George Washington and his wife Martha.

It was a full week. Another one is starting.