Monday 28 February 2011

Changes: are we paying enough attention?

One cannot exhaust a subject in one post. Actually, one needs some discipline in order not to turn a simple post into a long treaty. Many things are left to say, to analyse, to explain better. The task becomes more stimulating when we are able to exchange thoughts with other people. This blog has not become a platform of public discussion yet, but in private I have already received, on a number of occasions, the feedback of friends, as well as of people I do not know personally.

This is what happened with the post on new audiences. It poured down questions, as well as arguments. Why is culture important today? How does it relate to society, to life, to a city? Is talking about new audiences just a fashion? Why should someone go to the theatre? Is live experience more valuable than home consumption? Is a person that does not attend live performances less cultured? What can surprise an audience that is not used to ateending performances? What is the programme that can motivate people to go to the theatre?

I shall not try to answer here each one of these questions. I shall try to pick up from where I left it in the post on new audiences, that has a lot to do with these and other issues. And I hope this will bring up more questions and debate. Who knows, maybe in public.

The existence of museums, galleries, theatres and cultural centres would not make sense if there were no audiences. These are places of encounter among artists and people. They are places of incitement, dialogue, confrontation, emotions; places of discovery, learning, enjoyment. They are also places where people go of their own free will and not because they are obliged to; and they are also free to like the experience or not, to come back or not. The concern to create access to these experiences for an ever growing number of people has to do with their mission, with the reason they exist; but it is also e necessity.

The enjoyment of the arts is a right of the people. Our institutions are at the service of this right. They exist not only for those who have the habit of attending, but also for those who don´t have it, either because they prefer other forms of cultural participation or because this kind of participation was never a part of their lives, so they don´t know it or they don´t consider it relevant. Building bridges, talking with people, getting to know them better, showing them what we have to offer, trying to adapt it to different needs and levels of knowledge are some of the ways through which cultural institutions seek to fulfil their mission. On the other hand, it is also a necessity. If we are not concerned about renewing, enlarging and differentiating our audiences, we are going to stagnate. We shall be all working for the same people and there will be a moment, if it isn´t here already, that offer will be greater than demand. There will be not enough audiences for all the performances, exhibitions, concerts and other events we produce.

There are not more or less legitimate ways of enjoying and creating art and culture. People are free to choose the ones that better respond to their needs and interests. But we are in the live experience ‘business’, we believe in its value, we want to keep it alive, we work so that people can enjoy it. However, the way we have been doing it still shows a certain detachment and ignorance regarding ‘the other’. We take up the role of the only and absolute gatekeepers of ‘true culture’, the culture of quality and value. Many of us are still happy to be working with and for the “few, but good ones”, those who understand, who have been initiated; and those #2few, but good ones" enjoy this status, as well, and quite often they react negatively to any attempt on the part of the institution to open up, they react to what they consider popularization and dumbing down. On the other hand, there are also many of us who advocate ‘access’, but access to what we define as valid culture. But what if we tried to get to know better the communities in which we are inserted? What if we opened up our spaces (which are also theirs), involving them, creating comfort (physical, psychological and intellectual) and a feeling of belonging? What if we programmed together with them? What if the artists were them?

I recently read two very inspiring texts, which call for culture professionals to pay attention to the changes that have taken place in the forms of cultural participation and their impact on our institutions. John Holden, in Culture and Class, and Diane Ragsdale, in The Excellence Barrier, talk about the urgency, importance and necessity to look outwards; to try to understand the habits, tastes and expectations of the communities we aim to serve; to try to create a relationship with them, making our offer more relevant to their lives, creating demand together with them.

John Holden defends in his text a neo-cosmopolitan attitude, as opposed to the attitude of the cultural snobs (who embrace just certain forms of artistic expression and try to condition access to them) and the cultural neo-mandarins (we wish to share their enthusiasm, who advocate access for all, but want to be the ones who define what constitutes quality culture). “The new cosmopolitanism”, says Holden, “involves action, production and participation. Whereas the old cosmopolitan felt at home in the elite cultures of different cities, the new cosmopolitan is at ease with different cultures in her own city”. Thus, he defends an eclectic attitude, that seeks to open up the definition of what quality culture is to different forms of artistic expression, and not just to those traditionally associated to the so-called “high culture”, thecreation and enjoyment of which involves today various means (especially those made available on the internet) and places (including our own homes).

Diane Ragsdale presents an interesting and amusing analogy to the slow food movement, in response to fast food, which adopted three strategies: the defense of biodiversity in the enjoyment of excellent food; 2. taste education so that people could re-discover the joy of eating, the interest in knowing where the food came from, who did it and how; 3. linking producers with consumers, in the fairs, markets and other special events. In a ‘slow arts’ movement, our cultural institutions would understand that they are only a part of the making of art and culture; they would encourage participation and involvement of all people; they would make available the means and tools that would allow to demystify the experience; they would create social networks in which new participants would feel integrated and comfortable; they would know the community in which they are inserted and they would seek to propose a culturally relevant programme; they would be concerned with their impact on people´s lives, and seek to achieve both excellence and equity; and they would permanently pay attention to the changes that take place around them. “To attract and retain new audiences, arts organizations may need to stop selling excellence and start brokering relationships between people and art(ists).”

More food for thought for our thinking on cultural enjoyment and new audiences. Which we don´t exhaust here.

Happy coincidence: The New York Times published yesterday an article on the director of Lehman Center in Bronx, New York, Eva Bornstein. The title is Bridging Cultures Onstage.

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