Monday, 28 May 2012

We are for people. Or... are we?

Photo: Thomas Struth
I was in two meetings with museum professionals lately and another one is starting tomorrow in Lisbon (the European Museum Advisors Conference 2012). I thought about what makes me feel so good in their company. I reached the conclusion that it is the fact that these are people who give, whose work makes sense to them because they´re eager to share it, they want it to be useful and meaningful to others. There was not even one award or special commendation in the recent European Museum of the Year Award ceremony in Penafiel (Portugal) that did not mention the special relationship or involvement those museums have established with their communities. Museums are moving, even if still slowly, from collection-oriented to people-oriented institutions.

It might sound strange that I say ‘slowly’. But let´s consider this: it was in 1909 that John Cotton Dana, visionary director of the Newark Museum in the US, expressed the following view on the role of museums: “A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning and thus promotes learning. (...) The Museum can help people only if they use it; they will use it only if they know about it and only if attention is given to the interpretation of its possessions in terms they, the people, will understand”. And it was in 1917 that he wrote: “Today, museums of art are built to keep objects of art, and objects of art are bought to be kept in museums. As the objects seem to do their work if they are safely kept, and as museums seem to serve their purpose if they safely keep the objects, the whole thing is as useful in the splendid isolation of a distant park as in the centre of the life of the community which possesses it. Tomorrow, objects of art will be bought to give pleasure, to make manners seem more important, to promote skill, to exalt handwork, and to increase the zest of life by adding to it new interests.”

Are we, almost a century later, the ‘tomorrow’ John Cotton Dana was talking about? When there are still museum directors who feel they need to make a choice between taking care of ‘their’ collections and sharing them with people, “in terms they, the people, will understand”? As if we had the right to choose which of the five museum functions we are here to fulfill (collect, preserve, research, exhibit or interpret), instead of fulfilling them all as best as we can? I don´t think we are that kind of ‘tomorrow’ yet, but very serious steps have been taken to this direction by many museum all over the world. And this attitude has paid off. Because these museums have become relevant for their communities, they are used and cherished, they are parts of people´s lives, so people are there to defend their existence.

Somehow, these collection-oriented museums made me think about artist-oriented institutions. And Vitor Belanciano´s article “Artists and Cynicism” (Público, 20.05.2012) couldn´t have come at a better moment to give me some more food for thought. In a text that was profoundly felt and appreciated by people who value artistic creation, Vitor reminded us of some truths: of the bad image culture and the majority of artists have in Portugal; of the fact that they are considered parasites; of the fact that – some, not all - 'deserve' the public´s recognition only after they pass away. He also mentioned that scientists, doctors, lawyers or engineers, even if bad professionals, don´t have to justify their existence to society; and that artists are not doing enough to seduce public opinion, probably because they don´t believe themselves in what they want us to believe in: that art doesn´t only create material richness, but also wisdom and emotional richness, which in these times is absolutely essential.

Other professions don´t have to justify themselves because they are already perceived by people as contributing to the common good. And it is clear for people in what way they are doing it. Artists are, first of all, not seen as professionals and they are also seen as working for themselves, though spending public money. Just like the institutions that give them the space to do it. But, just like museums do not exist only to preserve collections, performing arts institutions do not exist only to present artistic projects. The ‘introversion’ that still caracterizes many of them, opening the doors only to the few ‘initiated’, is being contradicted, both by the entry of professionals that bring along new concerns regarding the relationship with society – which is fundamental in order for them to fulfill their mission, as well as inextricably linked to their sustainability - , as well as by the citizens´ demand for access. 

Cultural institutions are for people. They are places of encounter among people who wish to communicate with each other; who are looking for beauty and inspiration and meaning; who wish to share thoughts, experiences, worries, joys. If those who lead them are not conscious of this, then a big part of our society will continue to consider the investment a waste, their offer incomprehensible, their existence irrelevant and, thus, disposable. 

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