Monday, 11 June 2012

So, what´s the plan?

To Mónica Calle and Alexandra Gaspar, and also to Luís Tinoco; who might not share these views, but they, nevertheless, inspire them.

Every meeting, seminar or conference I´ve attended in the last months had the words ‘crisis’ and ‘challenge’ included somewhere: the theme, a panel, some communications. It could be a positive sign. It could mean that we are aware of the critical situation we´re confronted with and wish to tackle it, face it. We wish to react and take the future in our hands.

But it could also mean... nothing. Just nothing. As in all those occasions rarely did I hear concrete ideas and proposals. I heard criticism (usually of government decisions); I heard demands (usually addressed to the government); I heard the same things we´ve been saying for years now (usually about the government´s responsibilities and obligations, about how important we are, how underfunded and neglected and undervalued by government and society alike, although they should all know better...).

Could it be that the greatest challenge of all is to put an end to all this? To the repetitions, to our myopia, to self-pity, to our inertia? Because we are illuded if we think that we act when we just demand from others, when we just concentrate on the responsibilities of others, when we just try to keep things from getting worse (that is, even worse, because they had never been that good). What are our responsibilities? What´s our role in all this? What are our ideas, our priorities? In brief, what´s our plan?

It´s our responsibility, part of our role, to contol and criticize the governement. To demand that it fulfills its obligations towards the citizens (although many times it looks as though we forget about them and only demand for ourselves and ‘our’ institutions). It´s easy too, though, if we plan to do just that. But it doesn´t really take us anywhere. Governments, politicians, ministers, do not necessarily have a plan... But we must have one. Not only should we take this on as part of our job, but it should also be expected of us.

Firstly, from everything I´ve seen and heard and read lately, I would say that one of the most worrying things we should think about is that we are still so cut off from society. Comfortable and haughty and sure of ourselves in our role of guardians, we still fail to understand that the people we are supposed to be working for - I am referring to the citizens, many of whom, let´s not forget it, voted for the party that formed the current government and which had announced during the campaign the end of the Ministry of Culture -; so, these people are looking for dialogue and not for lectures; they wish to be partners and not to be ordered about; the want to feel at home and not as if they were trespassing; they want to undestand and not to be dealing with an elite club. Ignoring all this is signing our irrelevance sentence.

A second point I would like to make is the urgent need to consider and start working on alternative sources of funding. Depending on one source has not proved to be a good idea. Insisting that this source continues to flow without looking at the same time for alternatives reveals, at the least, a certain stubbornness, little productive. Overcoming our allergy to talking about making money is an essential part of this process. Cultural institutions are not for profit, but this doesn´t mean they shouldn´t be making a profit. It´s that profit they would be able to reinvest in their activity and manage to go further, to do more.

Both first and second points, which are closely related (that is, the foundations of the financial sustainability of cultural institutions are also based on their relationship with society), lead to a third one: the need for these processes to be led by adequately prepared professionals. Would you trust your defence in court in a non-professional lawyer? Your health in a non-professional doctor? The construction of your house in a non-professional engineer? With all respect to amateurs and enthusiasts, who are absolutely fundamental in our field, how can the cultural sector still not look for the appropriate professionals for each job? How can we ever build trust and confidence in our dealings with other sectors, essential for our sustainability, if we are not adequately prepared?

And one final and indispensable point: speak truth to power. It´s not an exclusive portuguese phenomenon the fact that many (most?) leaders prefer to be surrounded by ‘yes-men’. Some weeks ago, on the occasion of the dismissal of Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council in England, by the Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, Dany Louise was writing in her blog: “The basic principle is that if you want good – or even excellent – governance, you don’t surround yourself with yes-men and yes-women, but with capable intelligent thinking professionals and an environment that values and enables those capabilities. You encourage them to tell you when you are misguided or making the wrong decision, and you expect them to come up with viable alternatives. You do this because it is the critical factor in making you a really good leader, one who makes the best possible judgements.” (it´s worth reading the complete text here).

“Crisis” in greek means, in the first place, a decisive point, a crucial point, a turning point. A crisis presents us with challenges and also opportunities for change. This is the moment to evaluate the situation, to define objectives, to set priorities. All too often, the distance between declarations of intentions and putting those intentions into practice is quite big and rarely covered. This sector needs to identify those able to cover this distance, to move things forward. This sector also needs to identify those who understand the notion of 'accountability'*. Good leaders will need to look for the best consultants. And the best consultants must be given the space to speak their minds up. Freely, objectively, responsibly.

* Accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions and policies, including the administration, governance and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences (Source: Wikipedia)

Still on this blog
We are for people. Or... are we?
Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose culture?
La crise oblige?  (i) Some questions
La crise oblige  (ii)  Programming challenges
La crise oblige?  (iii)  Management challenges
Ministry of Culture: Can we keep the debate going for a second week?

The 21st John Hopkins International Fellows in Philanthropy Conference will be taking place in Lisbon, at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, on 4 and 5 July. The conference theme is Arts and economic crisis – Opportunities for the third sector? (conference programme)

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