Monday, 30 May 2011

Ministry of Culture: can we keep the debate going for a second week?

Lux, by Laura Vinci (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

Although names have a secondary importance when big issues are being discussed, but because they do, nonetheless, have their importance and meaning, I would like to start by saying that the country has got to have a Ministry of Culture and that I do not consider convincing the arguments of Pedro Passos Coelho regarding suppressing the Ministry and placing Culture under the prime minister´s direct competence. Having said that, I thank the PSD candidate for the provocation he launched, which resulted in a very interesting debate during the whole of last week. Personally, I feel the need to comment on two issues.

The first issue has to do with the urgency to reformulate the Ministry and the sector as a whole. That is, to create contents so that words may gain a true meaning. Some aspects that I consider important and an absolute priority:

Vision, mission, strategy
In this order and not the opposite one… What is Culture in today´s world? Why is it important in the life of all of us? If everyone has the right to freely participate in it, how can access be guaranteed? Who produces what, where and how? Who consumes what, where and how? How to move beyond the era of the ‘guardians’ (who insist on defining what, where and how) to the era of the 'contemporary cosmopolitans', open to various trends and tastes? How to create conditions so that Culture may become an issue for and of all of us?

Professionalization and networking
The sector cannot continue to be managed with good intensions and amateurism. If its importance (intrinsic, as well as social and economic) is recognized, it is urgent to recruit professionals with solid theoretical knowledge and excellent experience, as well as to guarantee professional training to all those lacking it but wishing to continue working in the field. Apart from that, we cannot continue acting in isolation. It is of extreme importance that culture professionals develop and maintain professional networks – locally, nationally and internationally -, in order to guarantee the indispensable exchange of people and ideas, as well as the sharing of best practices and experiences, which result in professional growth and contribute to the sector´s development.

Healthy management, emancipation, sustainability
Without pretending to excuse the State from its responsibilities towards the citizens, producers and consumers of culture, it is imperative to have a clear notion of reality. The money the State is able to invest is not enough for all and for everything (it has always been embarrassingly little, but, at the same time, the sector has always asked for more without trying to evaluate first if all money was well spent; nobody has ever assumed responsibility for money badly or wrongly invested, either…). The State needs to establish clear objectives and priorities. But the sector cannot stop. There are various business models; we must study them and look for those that are more appropriate for our reality and needs. There is a specificity in Culture, that is true. But it is also true that culture managers do existe, understand and embrace this specificity.

The issue of the reformulation of the Ministry and the sector cannot be resumed, obviously, in these three points, but these are the ones I consider a priority at the moment. If these three points are addressed, they will end up affecting all others. This is why the approach must be based on fundamental principles (almost permanently ignored): honesty, transparency, accountability, meritocracy.

The second issue I would like to comment on has to do with the need for all of us to assume our responsibilities and to maintain a permanent debate at all levels in the sector. We cannot continue to simply react to provocations, cuts announcements, appointments, re-structures, etc. These reactions are normally of a short duration. Once the effect of the provocation is gone, we go back to sleeping or resigning. Nevertheless, all these questions are permanent. Last week, people who are known and respected in the field shared their opinions with all of us regarding a possible extinction of the Ministry of Culture. But the sector is not made only of those people. It is made of many more, maybe less known, but also intelligent, worried, well informed, intellectually honest. Where are they? Why aren’t those voices being heard (with very few exceptions)? Why don´t they feed the debate, they don´t take position, they don´t express their agreement or disagreement? We are not lacking platforms of expression, especially nowadays. It´s not just the consulting councils of ‘men of culture’ that help to make political decisions, each one of us should also contribute. Are we waiting for an invitation to speak up? It might never come and that wouldn´t make us less accountable. To express one´s opinion is one´s right, but it is also one´s duty.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Guest post: 0,4% of ideas, by Cecília Folgado

Portugal vai a banhos, by artist Joana Vasconcelos
In times of elections, one must listen, think, consider. Some consider the debt, others the social benefits, I consider Culture. This is my world. Thus, I decided to look into the proposals of the five ‘big’ parties, trying to find out what were their perspectives of each one of them for Culture in Portugal in the next years.

More than finding out if Culture would be entitled to a Ministry or not (an interesting analysis of this issue was published by Guta Moura Guedes in the newspaper Público on May 24), what I was looking for was to find out what kind of Culture is awaiting us and what kind of Culture we can hope for. The answer is short and taciturn, the future not so bright. In the programmes of BE, CDU, PS, PSD and CDS the weight and the relevant importance of this issue are equivalent to the 0,4% of the government budget that is allocated to it. In the case of BE it is even less than that, it is 0%. For the remaining parties, the value of Culture is between one paragraph or a bit more than a A4 page.

You will tell me that Culture can´t be measured in palms. That´s true, it can´t, but in this case the contents coincide with the palms measured, they are short.

In the above referred article, Guta Moura Guedes asks those who govern us, minister or prime-minister, for a vision. I claim the same: a vision. After that, I claim honesty. Honesty when looking at the sector, in order to make a list of what´s wrong and what´s right and build a policy that would allow us (the sector and the country) to be whole and the Ministry of Culture to be not a mere symbolic conquest but an effective one*.

Regarding what I´ve read and the ideas I managed to put in order, it doesn´t seem important to me to talk about them, they are essentially vague (some) and repeated (others). What seems important to me is to go back to the 2009 list, built at the time of the last parliamentary elections by the collaborators of OBSCENA magazine. That´s it, just that. Two A4 pages (here measured with quite large palms of content).

In the times we are living, I understand the relevant importance Culture might have. And being in this sector involves a faith or militancy that, occasionally, in times like these, breaks. Personally, in these moments of disheartening, I find once again the meaning of art and culture in a phrase of António Pinto Ribeiro: “Art and culture – not necessarily in the same way, nor with the same possibilities – serve, in the life of each one of us, to keep the future present and boredom absent, to make enjoyment happen and to keep barbarism away.”

We cannot surrender to barbarism.

*In today´s Público there is a reflection on the upcoming parliamentary elections under the perspective of the cultural sector. It ´s also worth reading in the Culture section the report on the 100 years of the Chiado Museum, where, as mentioned by Raquel Henriques da Silva, “What is deeply embarrassing in the whole process is the lack of a Policy of State”.

Monday, 23 May 2011


Nuno Santos (Front-of-House), Cidalina Ramos (Box Office Assistant), Sérgio Joaquim (Lighting Technician), Tiza Gonçalves (Director of Production), Rui Lopes (Sound Technician). Photos: Steve Stoer
These are the faces of some of my colleagues at São Luiz Theatre. Colleagues from various departments (communication, technical, production). Some mix with the public, that sometimes knows them personally, others don´t. But they are all people, these and many others, who work so that the final product gets to our audiences.

These photos were inserted in the 2010-2011 season booklet and leaflet, both available to the public, accompanied by our colleagues´ suggestions in what concerns the season programme and also a few words on what they like best about their work in São Luiz. One can also find them in big posters at the theatre façade. Thus, our institution got a face, or rather many faces. At least, that was our intention: to take the first step into making the abstract, concrete; the unknown, known; the impersonal, personal, that is, the institutional, human. We looked for a way to present to the public another dimension of what is involved in the presentation of a performance, the one we talk about the least. The only indicator we have got in order to evaluate this idea are the positive comments of friends and acquaintances, but, most of all, those of members of the audience who, when getting at the box office to buy their tickets, recognized our colleague whose photo was in the booklet.  - when I get to this point, I always think that we should have organized a focus group and tried to get qualitative feedback from some members of the public; but it seems there are always other priorities. Audience studies should be one of them.

The fact is that cultural institutions in general aim to communicate the object (the exhibition or the performance) and the artists who created or interpret it. In the meantime, there is another side, that of the people who work in the theatre or the museum or the cultural institution, which, in my opinion, should be more ‘explored’ in the relationship with the public. Because it´s through them, and thanks to them, that we manage to create a permanent, lasting relationship. And it´s important that this relationship has got a face, becomes personal and concrete.

Risto Nieminen, Director of Music of the Gulbenkian Foundation, during the presentation of the season programme to the public in 2010. (Photo: Márcia Lessa)
I thought that the initiative of the director of music of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Risto Nieminen, to book an encounter with the public last year in order to present the season programme, and through it his vision about the path this service was to follow under his direction, was a marvellous idea. I didn´t manage to go, but I know it ‘sold out’. And I imagine how gratifying it must have been for the people there to get to know the new director – his face, his voice -, to know directly from him what he had chosen to present to them and why. In other words, the kind of relationship an institution normally has, and greatly values, with the media (which then spread the word out to the public), was here created with the public itself. I am curious to know if there were other moments of encounter between Risto Nieminen and the public, if that initial initiative was taken further. And, most of all, I am curious to know if the new director met, at the Foundation or in a different venue, with those audiences he said he would have liked them to attend his programming. How was this encounter? And how is this relationship going?

The presence of a director, the person who manages the team and makes the choices, is something fascinating for many people who visit cultural institutions. These are, unfortunately, rare encounters, sometimes truly gratifying, but also fundamental in the building of bridges. They are, among other things, a way of letting people know how important they are for our institution, or rather for the people working in it. In some occasions, very few, I was testimony to the encounter of museum directors with the public in the exhibitions, the informal conversation - as if they were friends -, the joy in the faces of those people for this unexpected encounter, I dare say the privilege this encounter seemed to be for them. When I was recently searching the web to prepare a class, I came across some photos of the director of the finnish science centre Heureka, Per-Edvin Persson – whom I met many years ago, when I was working in this field – with members of the public: in the first case, with the center´s volunteers that were completing 10 years in the service; in the second, with visitor nr. 6.000.000. Brief encounters that can make all the difference in a relationship.

Photo: Saila Puranen/Heureka
Nevertheless, and going back to the beginning, our institutions are not made only of artists or directors. The truth is that there are many more people, who work in different areas, who may equally fascinate the public and contribute in the creation of a different relationship, more personal, of greater knowledge and understanding. Various times, when the public applauds at the end of a performance, the interpreters thank the lighting and sound technicians, pointing to their direction and applauding. And I have wondered, various times, how many members of the audience might understand the meaning of this gesture, to whom it is directed and why.

Rarely do we promote encounters between our audiences and the people working in our institutions. But whenever I was testimony to such an encounter – usually taking place when a member of staff shows a friend or relative around – I can guarantee to you that I felt the same fascination, the same feeling of being ‘privileged’ as when in the presence of an artist or director. It´s something special, different. It´s a way of making a person feel part of the place, because one gets to know what happens behind the scenes, how it´s done and by whom. This is a relationship. Not between a building and the public, but between the people working in it and the people who come to it or might become interested in coming.

Many thanks to Elisabete Caramelo and Mikko Myllykoski for their help with the photos.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The history museum that makes all the difference

In my last post I commented on the story told (or rather not told) by some of the national history museums I have visited. I remember having visited museums of this type in Athens, Barcelona, Helsinki, Berlin, Washington and, more recently, in Buenos Aires (this one hasn´t got its own website).

There are those that simply tell the story of the struggle for independence (Athens, Buenos Aires); or rather do not tell it, because the mere exhibition of arms, paintings, documents is not enough to tell that story. Normally, national visitors, and more specifically, national visitors with some knowledge of history, have got an advantage in relation to national and international visitors that enter the museum hoping to acquire this kind of basic knowledge.

There are also those national museums of history that go a step further (Barcelona, Helsinki, Berlin), first of all in terms of time, in order to present more recent episodes, but also in terms of depth and diversity in the approach, moving beyond the political/military history in order to approach cultural and social issues (education, health, religion, family/professional/social life, the arts, etc.).

When I commented in my post about the lack of capacity of many of these museums to tell the story of the nation, I was referring to the permanent exhibition, which is the one all visitors have access to at any time. I came out of the majority of those museums feeling either that I hadn´t learnt a thing or that the approach had been quite limited, insufficient for my curiosity, for what I had expected to learn about the country or region (I am referring to Catalunia) I was visiting.

The task is not an easy one. The history of the nation is an extensive, multifaceted, sensitive, controversial story. It requires space and means. But it also requires a vision, because it is not a story that has been completed, but a story in continuous production and this fact affects the museum´s acquisition policy.

I highlighted in my last post the National Museum of American History in Washington as an illustrious exception. I should say in the first place that the material and human resources of this museum (one of the Smithsonian Institution museums) cannot be compared to any other´s. It is true that the scale is infinitely larger. Nevertheless, besides the resources, what distinguishes this museum of national history, in my opinion, is its vision. It´s new, innovative for the museum field, fresh, inspired, in relation to what constitutes the history of the american nation. A vision that becomes obvious once we take a look at the objects exhibited and the texts that accompany them.

In this museum we can find the flag that inspired the american national anthem; the manuscript of Abraham Lincoln´s Gettysbourg address in 1863, one of the most known speeches in american history; the Greensboro lunch counter where in 1960 four black students sat in order to have lunch, defying the “white only” rule. We can also find the red shoes Judy Garland used in the film The Wizard of Oz; Kermit the Frog, from the Muppet Show; Muhammad Ali´s boxing gloves; a series of posters of different periods encouraging the population to vote. Here you can see a few images of objects and texts that better illustrate this museum´s vision on what constitutes american national history (it´s enough to click on the images to see them in normal size and be able to read the texts).

Last February, Brent Glass, the director of the National Museum of American History, was in Portugal and gave a speech at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. We got to know a bit more about the museum´s management and, among other things, about its acquisition policy. The collection includes and is constantly enriched with objects such as cars and musical instruments, presidential campaign materials and furniture, photographs and posters, objects related to agriculture, religion, science, popular culture, the various communities that compose the american nation, among many other things. Brent Glass was in Portugal because in 2015 the museum will present an exhibition on his country´s ethnic cultural heritage, and there will be a reference to Portugal as well.

The objects that in other countries are part of collections of distinctive museums (national museums of history, archaeology, ancient art, modern art, contemporary art, music, cinema, sports, science, natural history, etc.) are gathered here under the same ‘roof’, considering that they all contribute in telling the nation´s story (a fact that doesn´t prohibit the existence of specific museums in those fields; actually, the Smithsonian Institution runs quite a few of them). As I said, not all museum have the material and human resources of the National Museum of American History. But if they shared its vision, they could maybe try to articulate their permanent exhibitions, with the aim to present national and international visitors the different chapters of a unique story. This could also be a way of explaining to the public why they are ‘national’.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The journey to 'the end of the world'

Argentina is an enormous and diverse country. A country that is very rich and very poor. A country that surprises us, touches us, enthuses us, impresses us, saddens us and scares us.

Argentina is a country that is very proud of its past, with particular reference to the struggles that led to its independence in the beginning of the 19th century. Its military, first presidents and governors (San Martín, Belgrano, Sarmiento, Mitre, Dorrega), as well as the most important dates of that history (25 de Mayo, 9 de Julio, 3 de Febrero), give streets and avenues in cities and towns all over the country their name (a brief history of Argentina here). The national flag is an almost permanent presence. Its politicians are still adored. This is a year of elections at various levels, including presidential. Cristina Kirchner is expected to be re-elected.

A poster of the Kirchner couple between the photos of Perón and Evita in the Avenida de Mayo.

Argentina is also a country determined to deal with its most recent past; a past of violence, torture, disappearances. A country (in this specific case, a city-metropolis, Buenos Aires) that demonstrates for one or other cause on an almost daily basis.

Every Thursday, at exactly 3.30 pm, the association Madres de Plaza de Mayo carry out their weekly protest. The first took place in 1977.

The Qom people had camped in Avenida 9 de Julio claiming their rights on their ancestral lands and denouncing persecutions and abuses. There were meetings with the nation´s leaders, but on May 6 they were put on a bus and sent back. Saying goodbye to their supporters was very emotional.
Arriving at Buenos Aires airport, we find an extensive campaign that aims to raise awareness regarding the protection of cultural heritage and against the illicit traffic of antiquities. And this is repeated in many other airports. A series of posters that calls the attention of local residents and tourists alike in relation to that cause. I´ve already been in a number of countries that suffer from the illicit traffic of antiquities but I had never seen a campaign like this. It´s well done, in terms of visual impact and passing a message. It remains to be seen if it s actually effective.

I visited museums of all types and sizes, older as well as recently inaugurated. In the 19th and 20th century, museums in this country had a fundamental role, together with schools, in the preparation of the argentine citizen, including the thousands of immigrants that arrived here, in what concerns the values of the newly born nation, the respect for the personalities that carried out the war for the independence and the knowledge regarding the national past. This is what one reads in one of the two introductory panels at the National History Museum, the one that aims to share with the visitor the vision behind the (re)interpretation of the collections, something that happened very recently, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the revolution (1810 – 2010). The second panes asks us “What kind of museum do we want?”, explaining that reopening the museum to the public didn´t only mean re-interpreting and enlarging its collections, but also allowing for space for the interests and voices of the visitors. It´s very rare for a museum to position itself in the beginning of a visit and to share this vision with the visitor. So, a certain expectation was born in me, which ended up not being satisfied. This national history museum, as the majority of those I have visited (with the honorable exception of the one in Washington), ends up not telling the story. A series of paintings, original documents and other objects are simply identified, but do not present the history of constructing the nation, that started in the 19th century and continues, as it is natural, up to today.

From a general point of view, interpretation is the weakest point of argentine museums, something curious foreigners suffer more from than the locals. In many cases, the lack of resources is obvious and partly explains this failure. Another weakness, in the specific case of Buenos Aires museums, is the opening hours. The big majority opens at noon.

But there were small surprises and discoveries that will stay in my memory:

Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, Salta (north-west)

A small treasure, very well done. In this museum we learn the story of the pre-colombine cult of nature and the rituals carries out by the Inca in high points of the Andes, that involved the ‘marriage’ and sacrifice of children to the gods. The collection (objects in miniature that accompanied the children, clothes and shoes) is extremely beautiful and our encounter with ‘el niño’, the mummy of the 7-year-old boy that was found intact on the mountain, particularly touching. In this museus one also learns about the impressive pre-hispanic road system, that so impressed the conquerors, and the joint effort of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador to classify it as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Museu Provincial de Bellas Artes Rosa Galisteo de Rodriguez, Santa Fe (centre)
I visited the temporary exhibition of painter Lucero Hagelstange Mito: Ángeles en el Paraiso. A style that reminds us of Gauguin, paintings of angels that have the faces of indigenous women. Strong colours in contrast with the grey, but equally expressive, faces of the angels. These ‘creole’ angels reminded me of others I had seen three days before in the church of Uquia, a small place in the north-west. In the church we find paintings of angels painted by the Indians in Cuzco, Peru, in the 17th century. When the Indians asked the Spanish what the angels looked like, the Spanish answered: “They are like us, but they have wings”.

Museo de Arte Popular José Hernández, Buenos Aires
A small museum, with an also small collection (at least, the part that was exhibited), but very interesting and with an obvious lack of resources. Nevertheless, in one of its two temporary exhibitions, I discovered the story of Hermógenes Cayo, and artisan and musician who participated in the 1946 march that took 174 indigenous people from Jujuy, in the north-west, to the capital, asking for their rights on their ancestral lands to be recognized. After they were received by the Government and after negotiations started, one day they were put on a train and sent back. History repeats itself… Hermógenes Cayo was the chronicler of the march.

Museo Etnográfico, Santa Fe (center)

The only museum among those I visited in this ‘hybrid’ country that wished to approach the issue of slaves / immigrants. A small and very interesting exhibition on the African presence in Santa Fe, that questions from the start the notion of the majority of the locals who believe that there had been no black people in Santa Fe. A direct and apparently, to one who´s not a specialist, objective narrative that approaches all the chapters of the lives of those people in the town of Santa Fe and that offers the visitor possible explanations regarding their ‘invisibility’.

Before finishing, a brief note on my visit to Teatro Colón, the theatre that was built to prove that Buenos Aires could compete with Paris (a comparison Argentines keep making when talking about the intense cultural offer of their capital city). This was the theatre of the Buenos Aires elite, that had paid for its construction. Juan Perón opened its doors to the people, not only for watching opera, but also for carrying out union meetings, infuriating its ‘guardians’. Today the theatre is managed by the national government and it is once again a space reserved to the elites. The guide told us that not man people in Buenos Aires watch opera and ballet. She too, although she demonstrated an enormous affection for the building (she always spoke in the first person while telling us its story) doesn´t assist. It also seems that there is not an interest on behalf of the theatre managers to put more people in touch with those arts. The theatre does not have an education service, there are no discounts or other last minute offers and radio tranmissions, that were once made, don´t happen anymore.

Argentina is an enormous and diverse country. And its ‘diversities’ are well separated, just as it happens in many other countries around the world. A journey that started in the national parks of Tierra del Fuego – End of the World and Patagonia, continued in the north-west ‘of the Indians’, went on with a wedding in Santa Fe and ended in Buenos Aires, that seems to bring together all these worlds: from Plaza de Mayo to La Boca, from the rich neighborhoods of Recoleta and Puerto Madero to the Retiro Station and Villa 31 (I didn´t enter the later, but I saw its bright colours – a clear indicator, it seems, of poverty – from the ‘autopista’ that takes us to the airport).