Monday, 16 December 2013

Guest post: "Museums in Ukraine: Learning to be with the people", by Ihor Poshyvailo (Ukraine)

My friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo´s museum, the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv, published the following post on Facebook on 30 November: “Ivan Honchar Museum supports the national protests against the government policy and police crimes against the student protesters, and encourages people to join the current people movement for the democracy. Do not be indifferent - come to the Maidan! We can only win being together!". I was deeply impressed with such a bold statement by a national museum and asked Ihor to share with us his thoughts on the role museums can play in their societies at historic moments, such as the ones currently going on in Ukraine. I have no words to thank Ihor for this beautiful text. mv

Photo: Bohdan Posyvailo
On December the 1st, my American colleague and friend Linda Norris published the post If I ran a museum in Kyiv right now in her blog The Uncataloged Museum. It was a prompt response of this museum expert, well-known in Ukraine, to the riot police night attack on the peaceful protesters, mostly students, in Kyiv. A wave of demonstrations and civil unrest began in late November due to a massive public outpouring for closer European integration in Kyiv and was named ‘Euromaidan’. It was claimed by Guy Verhofstadt, Member of the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Belgium, to be the biggest pro-European demonstration in the history of EU. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary at the United States Department, underscored that Euromaidan is symbol of the power of civil society: “It is about justice, civil rights and the people’s demands to have a government that listens to them, that represents their interests and that respects them.”

In her post, Linda puts herself in a Ukrainian museum director’s shoes and offers a program of action in three museum spheres: representing community values and ethics, serving the community, and collecting. In particular, she would make a public statement, take a look at the ethical practices and transparency of her own museum, throw open the museum doors and invite the public in for free.  Keeping the museum open early and late, she would have cups of hot tea ready, provide a warm place for reflection and contemplation, and find a space in the gallery for people to write or draw about their hopes and fears; encourage participants to think about Ukraine as a nation, about beauty, truth and complicated histories. Even more – she would permit and even encourage the staff to take part in the protests if they so desired. If Linda was the director of a history museum, she would be out collecting lots of potential exhibits for the future, starting from Tweets and Facebook postings, oral histories, flags, banners and hand-made signs and photographs to metal barriers,  face-masked helmets and police uniforms, and even home-made antidotes for tear gas.

Photo: Bohdan Posyvailo
Indeed, a simple, effective, and seemingly common reaction for a typical American or Western Museum. A museum which is 'about', 'for' and 'with' people. Such was the topic for discussion proposed by my another great colleague and friend Maria Vlachou at the European Museum Advisors Conference in Lisbon last year (here). Serving the community is especially important for modern museums, which are becoming active agents of communication, operating not only explicitly at the level of objects of history, science, culture, education or entertainment, but also at an implicit level, approaching spheres of power, ideology, values​​, and identity.

But for me, in the context of recent events in Kyiv, the combination of words ‘museum with people’ gains a new, special meaning. This seems quite a clear, even banal, phrase. But is it common for Ukraine and other post-Soviet nations? Do our museums want, can and know how to be with people today? Especially in a period of social uprisings and political tensions, in unusual situations, which require from a museum an open and honest look into the eyes of its current and potential visitors, of the communities it represents.

It happened historically that most museums in Ukraine are state-run and, therefore, they depend ideologically, economically and administratively on the government. So, how should they behave in a deep conflict between government and society? I hope for many museums the answer is theoretically obvious – same as for army and riot police soldiers who took the oath “to serve their people”. Do Ukrainian museums remain indifferent observers of the breath taking and internationally covered events at Independence Square? How can they be responsive and inclusive to the needs of the society and communities they represent and serve?

Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo
Ironically, at the moment the President of Ukraine Yanukovych was visiting the Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors in China and writing a review in the book of honourable guests, ICOM Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian museums were issuing public statements condemning unexpected crackdown on peaceful protesters and the pulling out of an association pact with the EU. The Directors Council of Lviv Museums coordinated protest statements of a number of Lviv museums. One of the oldest ethnographic museums in East-Central Europe – the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts in Lviv – displayed a banner on its balcony saying "We support the demands of Euromaidan". In Kyiv a dozen museums made their public statements, including the Museum of Kyiv History which is run by the City Hall and depends upon the Mayor of Kyiv, whose headquarters were taken by the protesters. Pavlo Tychyna Memorial Museum (located closely to Maidan) opened its doors to protesters and proposed them tea, rest and cultural programs. The Historical Museum-Preserve "Tustan" in the Lviv Region asked people on facebook to bake honey-cakes, "Knights of Goodness", write a message of support and send them to the freezing activists. The Ivan Honchar Museum, which glorifies the eternal traditional virtues of the Ukrainian people – freedom, faith, honour, democracy and humanism, shifted its educational programs to Euromaidan. It launched a series of flash mobs (such as the installation and decoration of the main Ukrainian traditional symbol of Christmas – Didukh ("the spirit of ancestors") - at the foot of the monument of Independence) and organized folk celebrations, dancing and singing at the epicentre of the protest area.   

Virtually all museums in Ukraine are government run and funded. Of course, there is a worry regarding possible repercussions. We know about the director of the famous Territory of Terror Museum in Lviv, who was summoned for questioning at the Investigation Department of the prosecutor's office as "a witness" to events at Euromaidan. We heard the story of a Kyiv metro driver who was fired just for telling his passengers how to find the shortest way out of the blocked central stations and join the protesters. We heard about dismissed commanders of the riot police forces in some regions, whose soldiers refused going to Kyiv and attack the protesters.

Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo
Of course the Tahrir Square syndrome is still vivid in the memories of many museum professionals, but I think the Ukrainian Euromaidan is a great chance for many museums to test their ability to be with the people. I saw this need in twinkling eyes of peaceful protesters in the past three weeks.  And I drew the conclusion that in order to be with people our museums should not necessarily do extraordinary things, the should firstly listen carefully to the pulse rate of their nation and open their doors to frozen hearts.

Ihor Poshyvailo is an Ethnologist with a PhD from the Institute of Art Studies, Folklore and Ethnology, National Academy of Sciences(1998). He is the Deputy Director of the National Center of Folk Culture “Ivan Honchar Museum” (Kyiv). Co-moderator and co-organizer of international museum management seminars (since 2005). Participant in the International Visitor Program (USA, 2004), Global Youth Exchange Program (Japan, 2004) and The World Master’s Festival in Arts and Culture (Korea, 2007). Curator of international art projects, including the traveling exhibition “Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Culture Of, By, and For People” (2011), “Interpreting Cultural Heritage” (2011), “Home to Home: Landscapes of Memory” (2011-2012). He was a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage (2009-2010) and a Summer International Fellow at the Kennedy Center (2011-2013). Ihor wrote another post for this blog in 2012, entitled Reinventing and making museums matter.

Monday, 9 December 2013

'Paideia': where education and culture meet

Field trip at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Photo: Stephen Ironside, taken from the site Education Next)
Lately, I've been thinking often of the results of the 2008 National Endowement for the Arts survey on cultural participation, which indicated that childhood arts education has a potentially stronger effect on arts attendance during adulthood than age or socioeconomic status.

I thought about this again after reading an article in the New York Times which presented a study at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art that aimed to evaluate the effects of field trips, their educational value. Among various other interesting things (related to the capacity for critical thinking, empathy, tolerance, interest in the arts – read details here), there were two that really drew my attention:

1. The benefits observed were significantly larger for students from minority groups, low income families and those residing in rural areas, many of them visiting an art museum for the first time.

2. Having been given the possibility to return to the museum (through the distribution of vouchers that had a code), students that had participated in the survey showed a bigger interest in coming back than students that hadn’t participated (more 18% than other students).

These studies were carried out in the US, but I don’t think the results would have been much different in what concerns our countries, so, we need to look at them carefully, as they reaffirm the importance of childhood arts education as a determinant factor in arts participation in adulthood, as well as the importance of the school and school visits to cultural venues as a means of promoting equal access to culture.

The school has always had a determinant role in bringing about contact with arts and culture. The result hasn’t always been the best (still isn’t). We have all had really boring experiences during school visits in cultural venues, either because of the lack of preparation on behalf od our teachers or the lack of quality in the offer (for example, unwelcoming and uncomfortable environments, a formatted speech that is quite inappropriate for the interests and specific needs of the students /spectators, etc.). Nevertheless, he also have memories from school visits that left us amazed, enthusiastic, inspired; visits that showed us new ways and, quite often, determined the decisions some of us made as to what we wished to do in our lives.

The role of school and school visits to cultural venues becomes even more determinant in the case of those students whose families do not provide them with certain opportunities, because of a lack of habit or means or knowledge. School visits are probably the only possibility certain children and teenagers have of entering a museum or theatre. What does this mean at a time when arts education is given less and less space in the school curriculum, in this and in other countries, and the cuts in funding increasingly limit the possibility of schools to oganize such visits?

This means that those children and young people whose families don’t provide them with certain opportunities (visits or artistic practices) are deprived of having access to an offer, an experience, that may contribute a lot for their cognitive and emotional development, overcoming barriers and limitations imposed by their socioeconomic status.

It means that children and young people in general have got a more and more limited training as future citizens that may be active, thinking, emotionally and intellectually rich.

It means that our society will be composed of citizens with less paideia (a greek word that I like a lot and that expresses the result of the joint action of education and culture).

One might think that, given the fact that schools have got little space for action, cultural institutions could try to reinforce their role. They could be the ones to go and meet the students at their schools. Actually, this wouln’t be something new. There are a number of mobile projects (like “the museum goes to the school” or “the theatre goes to the school”) that have aimed to serve this objective. Nevertheless, the current situation – a situation marked by severe cuts both in the cultural and educational sector – does not seem to be the right moment to intensify and multiply this kind of initiatives.  

So, where does this leave us? Is this a deadlock?

We cannot let this become a deadlock. And I say this although I haven’t got a concrete solution to propose at this moment. I can only suggest the natural, obvious, way: to recognize the seriousness of the situation and, rather than reacting with short-term actions, to plan and to establish the kind of partnerships that may allow us to resist and overcome governmental decisions that jeopardise the quality of the future of many generations. We owe it to our children. Especially to those for whom, if it’s not this way, there’s hardly going to be another. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Guest post: "Building memories", by Ricardo Brodsky (Chile)

Ricardo Brodsky, Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago de Chile opened the Museums Association conference in Liverpool on 11 November. The photo posted by the museum on Facebook made me feel sorry for not having been able to listen to his speech. But I got in touch with Ricardo and he was kind enough to send me his text and to authorize the publication on this blog. Here we present an edited, shorter, version, but there is a link in the end for those wishing to read the whole speech. mv

This is our September 11, the starting point of the story to which I will refer and which inspired the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (MMHR) in Chile.

1. Memory

Memory is not a nostalgic exercise about the past. Memory is our identity, what we are. We could say that memory inhabits us in such a way that it defines our ideas about the present, our values and our perception of the future.

In his text La Muralla y los Libros (The Wall and the Books), Jorge Luis Borges talks about Emperor Shih Huang Ti, who built that Chinese Wall and instructed, at the same time, that all books prior to him be burned. With the Wall he intended to protect his country from external enemies and he burned the books because his opponents turned to them when it came to praising their ancestors. We witnessed this during the Pinochet years, when the country’s institutions were destroyed, people disappeared, books were burned and the people linked to the popular culture and history were banned because, in a way, it all represented an epic which had to be abolished.

I use the word “abolish” and not the word “oblivion” on purpose. The kind of memory we are talking about is not equivalent to the storage capacity of a hard drive disk in a computer where everything is registered with no hierarchy. The opposite to memory is not oblivion but abolishment, elimination. Memory works with exemplary events, with what allows us to reap lessons, give a sense to the experience lived. Memory is, therefore, a higher step beyond trauma and the feelings of despair, loneliness and depression that memory can cause. Memory is what allows life to continue, for hope to come back, for us to get back on our feet again. With a narration about our past and a bet on our future.

2. Connections

At the MMHR we work with material that is extremely complex and sensitive: truth, justice, victimization, memory, reconciliation, repairing. These are all ideas that question us permanently and force us, over and over again, to go over the concepts that are the basis of our work. It is impossible, though, to understand our institution if we do not understand the process from which it originated, as well as the social and political needs that were meant to be met.

On September 11, 1973 began one of Chile’s most traumatic political experiences. The armed forces, headed by a military junta of commanders in chief, staged an armed uprising against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, installing a cruel dictatorship which lasted 17 years, suppressing legal rights and committing grievous human rights violations, resulting in the death and disappearance of more than three thousand people and the political arrest and torture of around forty thousand more, plus exiling almost a million Chileans.

Seventeen years later, following the opposition’s victory in a plebiscite held in 1988 to prolong the Pinochet government, a complex and difficult transition to democracy began, which included facing the thorny debts left by the dictatorship, not only in the social and political sphere, but especially in the area of our society’s moral recomposition, that is to say, the sphere of truth, justice and human rights. The democratic government’s human rights policies have centered around four basic pillars or demands: Truth, Justice, Reparation and Memory.

3. Truth

Once democracy was recovered, the first effort in human rights policies in Chile was the quest to establish the truth about the most serious human rights violations committed during the Pinochet dictatorship. Two Commission were established, involving people with high credentials, which affirmed that the human rights violations committed by state agents were massive, systematic and had been approved at the highest level of government at the time. This affirmation, supported by the existence of proof and irrefutable testimonies, allowed the country to know the truth about the existence of more than 3.000 detained-disappeared and executed and also allowed a very relevant second step to take place, which was the opening of the possibility to establish reparation policies for the victims and their families. In 2003, a second commission, set up to investigate the cases of people who suffered political imprisonment and torture, recognized 38.254 victims of torture.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile (Photo: MMDH) 
4. Justice

The struggle for justice in the transition process has been the most difficult and polemic aspect. Since the end of the military regime and until 1998, judicial investigation made, as a general rule, scant progress and it was normal for the courts to apply an amnesty decree law passed by the military dictatorship. In 1998, in the wake of Pinochet’s arrest in London, ordered by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón, new conditions began to be generated which have produced, slowly but gradually, some progress in judicial investigations, which have allowed for the identification of those directly responsible for human rights violations. Today there are 1,426 active cases, of which 1,402 deal with disappearance or killing. However, only 66 agents are serving prison sentences, among them key figures in the DINA (National Intelligence Department) and CNI (National Intelligence Agency); 173 agents have been sentenced but are not in jail, for various reasons, and there are also 528 agents whose prosecution has been completed, but have still not received a definite sentence.

5. Building memory

In this context, the government of Michelle Bachelet created in 2010 the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, as a project of moral or symbolic reparation to victims of the dictatorship and as an educationial project, in order for the new generations to understand the value of respect for human rights.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights, where Chilean society symbolically fulfills its duty of memory, looks directly at its past and responds to the right of memory for victims of the dictatorship. Its origin can be found in the recommendations of the report of truth of 1991 and in the 2004 statement by UNESCO that the archives of various human rights organizations in Chile are part of the world’s memory.  In addition to this, there is a demand by the organizations of relatives and victims of human rights abuses. It holds the largest collection of documents, photographs, objects, testimonies and films about the dictatorship in the country and exhibits them to the public, trying to produce empathy with the victims and the revival of values and lessons from the experiences of human rights abuses. The victims groups are actively involved in its life and they feel included.

The MMHR’s mission is to “make known the systematic violations of human rights on behalf of the Chilean State between 1973 and 1990, so that by ethically reflecting on memory, solidarity and the importance of human rights, the national will is strengthened, in order to prevent actions which affect human dignity from ever being repeated again”.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile (Photo: MMDH)
What is the place for this museum in Chile’s society today?

Pierre Nora has said that the Places of Memory are constructions that seek to “stop time, block the work of oblivion, fix a state of things, immortalize death, materialize what is immaterial in order to lock up the maximum number of senses in the minimum number of signs”. In that sense, the MMHR has the mission to recover and preserve the tracks of that traumatic past, give testimony of the sufferings, so that public knowledge about what happened may break into the circle of silence and impunity and emphasize the need to prevent something like that from happening again. In other words, the Museum of Memory, as an expression of a public policy of reparation, is the State’s main gesture of moral reparation to the dictatorship’s victims: this is where the history or the biography of each one of the victims is found or built and where their dignity, that was snatched away from them, is given back to them. The MMHR has turned into a reference point for our country and our region, similar projects being constructed in Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.

Having said that, I must also say that it is a project located in a land of controversies. Every museum that deals with traumatic stories is aware of the tension between history and memory, between the explanation of the events organized chronologically and the subjective experience of memories backed up by a testimony. The museums of memory have, precisely, the challenge of conjugating that tension, so the testimonies may be exemplary and representative, transcending the mere personal experience or that of the groups directly affected. Only by solving that tension in a positive manner can the message be universal and link the demands of truth and justice with a broader democratic imaginary.

According to some, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights’ museography coincides with what Pierre Nora calls the memory’s transformation into history, that is, “it completely relies in what is most precise in the track, what is most natural in the remains, what is most concrete in the recording, the most visible in the image”. Certainly, visitors face the tracks of the past, the faces of the disappeared, the La Moneda bombing, the testimonies of those who were tortured, the anguish of the families. They are forced to live an experience of apprehension, of compassion, empathy and emotion. But they also find the documents, the legal files, the bands and decrees that lead to an experience of confrontation, of analysis, of comparison, of visualizing the context in which violence took place. The museum, in this sense, proposes a tale, a narration able to convey sense, starting from a feeling of empathy with the victims.

The founding of the MMHR generated a wide controversy in the country from day one. These are precisely the topics of this conference. How do we deal with sensitive and controversial issues in an institution which must present a story that is still alive in Chilean society, since many of its main actors are still holding public posts and the Chilean families are still watching or suffering the consequences of that period?

The critical attitudes toward the Museum of Memory either deny the existence of the violations of human rights or justify them, invoking the need to fight an alleged war against a threat represented by marxist parties. There is lighter criticism from other groups, accusing the museum of distorting history by showing only one aspect of the dictatorial period (human rights violations) and fragmenting time, thus, not allowing people to visualize the causes of the military dictatorship. In brief, the critics point to the museum’s partiality when it includes only one vision of the period, that of the victims. This would mean that the narration is not as objective as it should be and, most of all, it would not allow us to know why the political crisis of 1973 took place, culminating in a coup d’état and in human rights violations.

Installation by Alfredo Jaar at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Photo: Cristóbal palma for the newspaper El País)
For us, the issue is summarized by stating that the Museum´s mission is to promote public awareness about the seriousness of the human rights violations during the Pinochet period, and that awareness does not have a political or electoral purpose but a moral one, that is, to transform the respect for human rights into a categorical imperative in our coexistence, whatever the context in which it takes place.

The museum cannot pretend to establish a univocal reading of the past. On the contrary, its perspective is to open multiple reading possibilities. It is important to emphasize that the MMHR is perceived as a living museum, open to the reinterpretation of experience and, therefore, provides an important space for contemporary art. Proof of this is the presence of artwork in the permanent exhibition, such as Jorge Tacla’s poem written by Victor Jara in prison and Alfredo Jaar’s work “The geometry of conscience”, that suggests that dialoguing is a tribute to the victims.

Read the whole speech here.

Ricardo Brodsky Baudet is the Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile since May 2011. He developed a project at the Museum of Memory as a space for reflection and extensive public education, giving more importance to the collection and the permanent exhibition and giving a prominent position to the visual arts and various cultural events related with memory and human rights. He was the first Secretary General of Federation of Students under the dictatorship. Executive Secretary of the Foundation "Chile 21" in 1992 , the Foundation "Proyectamérica" in 2006, and founding director of the "Foundation for Visual Arts Santiago"; organizer of the first Triennial of Chile (2009). He was a consultant for cultural policy of the National Council for Culture and Arts, Chile (2004-2007). He has held positions in government from 1993 to 2010. Head of the Division of interdepartmental coordination of the Ministry General Secretariat of the Presidency (2007 -2010), Chilean Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg (2000-2004).

Monday, 25 November 2013

Gone with the wind?

On 15 November I participated in the seminar “Museums and Monuments: communicate, innovate, sustain”, organized by the Directorate General of Cultural Heritage at the Convent of Christ in Tomar. There were four panels: Mass media: mediating or turning median?; Strategies of communication; Marketing and branding; Funding sources, management models. For me, it was a very interesting seminar, especially because of the inclusion in the panels of people who don’t work in museums and monuments and who can bring to the debate points of view which are very relevant for all of us. That is… if we are interested in listening, in being confronted with our practices, in acting in order to change for better.

I would like to discuss two moments of that seminar. The first, was journalist Paula Moura Pinheiro´s speech in the first panel, “Mass media: mediating or turning median?”. Paula referred to the journalist’s work and his/her role in the communication with and for a large audience. For her, the journalist has got the role of the translator. It’s someone with a good general culture, but aware that he/she doesn’t know everything and who, thus, looks for the specialists and various other sources, in order to collect information. This information is then analyzed and ‘translated’, in order to be presented to the larger audience of non-specialists. “My programmes are not for the specialists”, said Paula Moura Pinheiro, “and the specialists don’t need my programmes. My programmes are for those who don’t know.” She inevitably reminded me of the British naturalist Edward Forbes who wrote in 1853: “Curators may be prodigies of learning and yet unfit for their posts if they don´t know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing.” She also reminded me something I had read a few years ago in The Manual of Museum Management by Barry Lord & Gail Dexter Lord: that an exhibition is like a TV programme, it may raise awareness, but it doesn’t turn anyone into an specialist.

Another presentation in the first panel of the afternoon, “Marketing and branding”, came to test the comprehension and relevance of Paula Moura Pinheiro’s words. Advertiser Pedro Bidarra, who ran for years the advertising agency BBDO, talked to us about “The wall of words”. He showed us extracts from texts he had encountered in exhibitions and which transmitted nothing to him, because… he didn’t understand them. His examples caused much laughing in the audience, but Pedro insisted: “How come you want me to see your exhibitions if you create yourselves such barriers to communication? It’s no a lack of interest on my part, I would really like to visit, but I feel that your offer is not for me, it was not produced with me in mind.”

Pedro Bidarra’s texts were very well chosen; which doesn’t mean they are hard to find. The discourse of the majority of our museums is a conversation among specialists. A enormous effort is being made in order to gain our peers’ approval and applause. Where does this leave the audience, the people, and our relationship with them?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the way the euro-barometer results were received by many in our sector and I was asking if these results are ever going to make us question our practices or if we will continue blaming people for lack of culture, ignorance and lack of interest.

I think of the seminar in Tomar and the impact those two presentations, Paula Moura Pinheiro’s and Pedro Bidarra’s, may have had (or not) on the way museum professionals, especially those being directors, think about their daily practice. What was the meaning of all that laughing in the audience when Pedro was showing us his examples? Because in that audience there were certainly some people who had been the authors of similar texts to the ones shown on the screen. As the Portuguese Sandra Fisher Martins, founder of the Plain Portuguese campaign, was saying in her TEDx talk “The right to understand”: “These documents (she was referring to public documents) don’t fall from the sky, they are written by someone”.

In order for change to happen, there is a need for courage to face the criticism; openness to admit that there are things which are not right; determination to offer a better service. There is also a need for some sense of humour, a need to know how to laugh at our own mistakes, as long as laughing helps relieve the – probably inevitable – sour taste of the negative criticism and strengthen the will to do things in a different, better, way. If the laugh is nothing more than just a laugh, I feel there’s a Rhett Butler behind it thinking: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Monday, 18 November 2013

Guest post: "Circles of support", by Kateryna Botanova (Ukraine)

My two Ukrainian friends and colleagues, Ihor Poshyvailo and Kateryna Botanova, are the living respresentation of what their country is today. A country wishing to preserve its traditions and, through this, mark its distinct cultural identity; a country determined to look forward and outward, to mark its position in the contemporary world free of controlling ideologies and offers of “protection”. Ihor wrote a post for this blog last year . It is now Kateryna’s turn to share with us her views, anxieties and, most of all, the enormous and consistent work she and the rest of the small team of the Center for Contemporary Art have been carrying out, determined to fight their insecurities and to overcome the obstacles in order to fullfil their mission and to fully assume the responsibilities they’ve set for themselves in their country’s cultural sector. mv

SPACES: Architecture of Common, CSM, 2013. Photo by Kosti​antyn Strilets, © CSM
Ukraine is a peculiar country where the word “independent” means something quite different than elsewhere in Europe. Here, “independent culture” and “independent cultural organization” are not just free from the ideological and/or political control of the government or any other public bodies, they are also defined by being not dependent on any public financial support - because there is none.

To be an independent cultural institution in Ukraine means to write your own mandate for serving the community, to be brave enough to see the gaps in public policy in the cultural sphere and to try to fill them as best you can, and to be fully responsible for your own future - financial as well as professional.

At the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art (CSM), Kyiv, Ukraine, we start our monthly planning & sharing meetings with the question - whom are we doing this for? Our mission statement says that we work to create a platform of possibilities for cultural workers - artists, critics, architects, writers, etc. - to foster interdisciplinary communication, experimentation and innovation. But how do you do this? How do you sustain their work when there is low access to, and therefore appreciation for, culture and no public or private funding available? Who can create circles of understanding and build support for this kind of art?

CSM is an independent not-for-profit institution established in 2009, a successor to the Center for Contemporary Art established by George Soros in 1993, as part of the Soros network of art centers throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Very few of them have survived till today, mostly because of the lack of funding. CSM outlived its peers thanks to a major restructuring - from a large institution with a focus on showcasing works and artistic education to a small and mobile curatorial team aiming at experimental productions, critical discourse and audience development.

In 2010, within a year after our transformation, when we had to suddenly leave our premises at one of the capital city’s main universities and literally go underground, renting a small space at the basement level of an apartment block, Art Ukraine, one of Ukraine’s leading art magazines, included CSM in its list of top 10 art institutions in the country, highlighting “the true renaissance that CSM has gone through to again become one of the most active institutions”. We understood that the uneasy decision to continue as a small institution, based on the belief that it is possible and necessary to work in those areas that neither the corrupt state institutions, nor offensive private capital wanted to enter, was right.

SEARCH: Other Spaces. Workshop by Anton Lederer, CSM, 2012. Photo by Dmitro Shklyarov, © CSM

The idea to keep working - doing multidisciplinary projects in public spaces, launching educational and self-educational initiatives and programs, creating new spaces for artist/audience co-working, doing research in art history and cultural policy - was important. CSM was and still is an example of both resilience and producing change. As long as we work, independent cultural institutions in this country can work. It’s tough, but possible.

The further we go, the more we understand that, for the time being, major change lies in the field of creating circles of support and understanding of audiences: support of contemporary culture and the ideas it is articulating - opening access not only to cultural products, but to thinking about and understanding the world we live in through culture.

It was in 2010 when we, at CSM, also came up with the idea of launching a platform for critical reflection and understanding of contemporary cultural developments – the online journal Korydor. First created as a tool for the arts community to write and debate on events, issues and problems, within three years it grew into a journal with a monthly readership of more than 6000 people. When the decision was made this summer to launch a crowdfunding campaign for Korydor, there was much doubt and fear. Who are we talking to? Do readers of an intellectual magazine in a country with no tradition of paying for cultural products need it enough to financially support it? If we succeed, what will that support mean for Korydor? How will it change Korydor? How will it change us?

More than 200 people supported Korydor, exceeding the goal set for the campaign. In three months of campaigning we increased readership by 20%, getting more and more out of the arts community to give to the community of people who want art to be a part of their lives. Contributions were often accompanied by the following remark: “(even if we did not read you before) you are doing such an important thing, please keep it up!”

Korydor was the first media in Ukraine supported through crowdfunding. It was followed by others, like Public Radio, an independent initiative that just hit its crowdfunding goal a few days ago.

Project "Working Room", Anatoliy Belov, CSM, 2013, photo by Kost​iantyn Strilets, © CSM
CSM is taking yet another step to widen its circle of support. In three weeks, in collaboration with Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, we will launch the first special program for MBA alumni that will allow business leaders to talk with, look and listen to, and learn from Ukrainian artists of different genres and generations. We will try to think about our future together and to see how all of us can stay independent from any narrow interests and dire needs in our thinking, expression and understanding of each other.

Kateryna Botanova (Ukraine) is an art critic, curator, contemporary culture and cultural policy researcher, translator. Since 2009 she has been the director of Foundation Center for Contemporary Art (Kyiv, Ukraine), founder and chief editor of the online cultural journal KORYDOR. Member of the Board of the FLOW festival (since 2009), European Cultural Parliament (since 2007), Vienna Seminar steering group (Erste Foundation, 2012), Public Council of Junist at Andrijivsky project (since 2012), Expert committee of PinchukArtCenter Prize for Young Ukrainian Artists. Kateryna works with issues of social engagement of art and the role of art in societies’ transformative processes. She lectures on and writes about contemporary art, cultural management and cultural critique. Kateryna holds an MA in Cultural Studies from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (Kyiv, Ukraine). In 2009 her Ukrainian translation of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism received the Ukrainian Book of the Year award.

Monday, 11 November 2013


All photos taken from the Facebook page of Accion Poetica.
The Eurobarometer carried out a new survey on Cultural Access and Participation (full study and executive summary). The previous one had been in 2007, before the crisis hit Europe, so this recent study may give us an insight into the possible effects of the crisis on peoples habits and practices.

Speaking in very-very general terms, and in what concerns Portugal, the study shows that Portuguese participation is under the European average in all activities considered in the survey, both in terms of attendance and in terms of involvement in artistic activities. The biggest differences refer to reading a book (EU: 68%; PT: 40%), visiting a historical monument or site (EU: 52%; PT: 27%) and going to the cinema (EU: 52%; PT: 29%).

The main barrier to access referred by Europeans is lack of interest or lack of time. For the Portuguese, lack of interest was the main reason for not participating, marking a higher percentage than the european average in all activities considered in the survey. The activities that least interest the Portuguese in comparison to the rest of the Europeans are reading a book (PT: 49%; EU: 25%), visiting a museum or gallery (PT: 51%; EU: 35%) and visiting a historical monument or site (PT: 44%; EU: 28%).

The reason I want to write today about the study of the eurobarometer is not to analyze graphics and results. It is to question how we are going to interpret them and what we are going to do about them, being professionals in the cultural sector. 

The results were primarily met on Facebook and the blogosphere with pessimism or a certain fatalism; with statements such as “We are a country of uncultured” or “The Portuguese don’t want to know about it, they are not interested, they think it´s not worth it” - with some kind of implicit accusation, I thought, of the kind “Is it worth doing anything for those ignorant and ungrateful people?”.

I confess that I was full of questions, some of them permanent ones, frequently discussed in this blog, regardless of the existence of formal studies. Trying to summarize them here, I would like to consider two main issues:

Question 1: How large was the definition of “cultural participation” in the study? Did it only consider attendance and involvement in what we may call “formal cultural institutions”?

Having access to the full report and questionnaire, I was happy to see that the definition was not a narrow one (it did consider participation through the internet, activities like dancing or doing photography or handicrafts), I am just not sure if, the way the question was asked, it also helped those surveyed consider their activities in such a broad sense (how many people, for instance, would have thought that dancing at a wedding or club is a form of cultural participation?). The “Public Participation in the Arts” surveys of the American National Endowement for the Arts, carried out every four years, do give is this kind of details regarding the “what exactly; where exactly; how exactly” – all reports are available online, but check, for instance, the last full report, referring to 2008 (some highlights here), or the highlights of the 2012 survey, the full report expected to become available  2014.

Regarding especifically participation on the internet, one should highlight that the Portuguese mark above the European average in what concerns playing computer games (+11%), putting their own cultural content online (+3%), listening to radio or music / dowloading music / reading or looking at cultural blogs (all +1%). 

Question 2: Are people little interested in culture in general or in the kind of culture “formal cultural institutions” offer them? Do we programme bearing in mind people’s interests, concerns, existing knowledge, questions, needs, practical and psychological barriers that might be keeping them away? Are we ever going to question the way we are doing things and the sincerity of our statement “We are here for the people”?

Some personal facts: some times I look at the agenda of exhibitions in museums and, judging from the titles, nothing sounds exciting or interesting enough for me to go all the way and visit them; a number of concerts and interpreters, of all musical genres, are promoted as “the best in the world”, but this is simply not enough for me to make the decision to buy the ticket, as the world is so full of “best” artists; in what concerns lesser known artists, the big majority of the institutions presenting them behave as if we should already know about them, adding absolutely nothing to the title and/or name.

So this may be my problem as culture consumer. But it might also be a problem for cultural institutions that wish to communicate with me (at least, they say they do):  a problem of choosing interesting and inspiring titles; a problem of choosing subjects (meaning stories) that might appeal to a more diverse, less specialized, audience; a problem in trying to attract more using basic information that is only understood by few; and also a need (I would even say obligation) to understand what people choose to do in their free time and why. Because, when I, as a person /consumer, don´t go to your exhibition / concert / theatre play / festival, it’s not “simply” because I am uncultured, uninterested, ignorant or ungrateful (and frankly, I don’t appreciate hearing you say this about me...). It might be because someone else was more sincere in wishing to communicate with me and engage me and did a better job in getting my attention, interest and precious time.


In 1996 Mexicans would, in average, read one book a year. Writer Armando Alanis Pulido, concerned with the decline of literature and poetry and with the widely held idea that poetry is opaque, difficult to read and understand, turned to city walls in an effort to make it part of people´s everyday life. He initiated a movement called Accion Poetica (Poetic Action). Since then, it has spread in about 20 Latin American countries and even crossed the Atlantic. The other day the newspaper Le Monde had this title: The walls in Latin America speak of love. Only one, unique, signature: Accion Poetica.

Still on this blog

Monday, 4 November 2013

Guest post: "Choreographing a management strategy", by Dóra Juhász (Hungary)

When I was invited to see X&Y by Compagnie Pál Frenák in Budapest last April, I didn´t know that the company´s new artistic manager would be one of my new colleagues at the Kennedy Center fellowship in the summer. So, the first time I saw Dóra Juhász in Washington it was like meeting an old friend. Dóra is a young woman full of energy, ideas and ambition. I asked her to write for this blog, not only because I loved the company´s work, but also because of their special connection to deaf audiences. mv

InTimE, Compagnie Pál Frenák.
Choreographer Pál Frenák has a special French expression for explaining to his dancers what he wants to see and what he wants to reach during the creation process: the fragile balance of juste. When the movement, the presence and the emotional content on stage is just right; not more, not less; enough and precise; not created by routine, not shy or forgettable, nor over-expressive or exaggerated. “Juste” the intensity that is needed in that moment, created after deep research in the dancers body and soul, after weeks of improvisation and experimentation. When you reach this moment, you have to recognize, catch it and keep it, because it is exactly what we need. “Juste.”

After working in a big contemporary arts institution for 6 years, with clear and defined frames and ready-made structures, it was really inspiring to arrive to the French-Hungarian contemporary dance company, Compagnie Pál Frenák (here and here), an internationally acclaimed, independent company, that has existed for 15 years and has got a rather small management team. I arrived at a moment when the Hungarian cultural politics is changing, when the contemporary dance and theatre scene is losing a huge percentage of its annual budget and government funding,  while there is no tradition in private funding in the country for contemporary performing arts at all. Step by step, I had to realize how crucial it is to find a fragile balance, in this case, to create a management strategy which is exactly right and suitable for my organization in this specific moment, appropriate, adequate, understandable for my own artists, but innovative, brave and adapted for the needs and context. A management strategy which is just right. “Juste.”

How can we do this? How can all our management knowledge be transformed into something which may be new, provocatively new, and at the same time sustainable, because it is breathing together with your company? Going deeper, exploring the patterns in the way your artists work and use them as a source of inspiration to create a strategy, a certain campaign or project.


Pál Frenák’s childhood was marked by the fact that his parents were severely hearing and speech impaired, making sign language his first means of expression. This rendered him especially receptive towards mimicry and gestures and all other ways of expressing content with the help of the human body. For Pál Frenák, the great technique is just the minimum. He tries to, literally and physically, unbalance his dancers and motivate them to step out from their comfort zone and totally forget their learned technique.

Sign language, leaving the comfort zone, creating physical and mental circumstances where the moments of (self)reflection necessary happen (of course working together with people with hearing disabilities is an important part of the company’s mission from the very beginning), but how could these components and way of thinking influence the strategy-building of our audience engagement projects and long-term education strategy?

The team in Kunstahalle.
We created an education package for our Twins performance, where we invited teenagers with and without hearing disabilities; during the preparation workshop of the performance in schools, we worked intesively with them in separate small groups playing associative games, movement exercises based on the choreography of the performance and the main theme of the piece - and all the groups worked together with a drama peadagogy expert with hearing disabilities communicating with sign language, a translator and a dancer of the company. Finally, all the groups met at the show and there was a post-show workshop as well, where everybody participated, combining sign language and verbal-vocal expressions and using the scenario of the show. After this, our dancers visited them again is their schools for a follow-up.

We regularly organize post-show discussions, where groups of people with hearing disabilities also take part, communicating directly with the choreographer in sign language – there is an interpreter for the rest of the audience. Why is it so important? Because, just like in the rehearsal room, we are physically creating a thought-provoking disbalance for the majority of the people in the audience, when they need to face a situation where they organically become the minority. This is the logic and framework for building our audience engagement and audience development projects at different levels, based on what is happening in the rehearsal room with the artists, always focusing on finding a strong link between the artistic part and the structural part of our projects.


In our marketing strategy, we involve our own dancers and invite photographers and filmmakers to create personal and unique backstage materials as promotional content one one hand, it is an exciting way of involving our audience and bring them closer to the everyday life of Compagnie Pál Frenák; on the other hand, it organically fits the team: as in the creation process, the choreographer composes the elements of the piece based on the dancers personality, and they become more emotionally attached, involving them in the marketing strategy opens up the possibility of a very honest and unique way of communicating our art product as well, and it is more than inspiring to figure out together how deep we can go together.

The same thing happens in the development and membership strategy. Our company doesn’t  have a venue of its own, so we collaborate with different venues. This means that we can mainly offer our sponsors an insight of the life of the company, rather than, let’s say, discounts for parking. But, in order to have a sustainable structure, when we choose a form and event to involve our future donors we need to see clearly who we are as a company, to keep ourselves true, honest and free. If the company never wanted to organize a new year’s eve party, but there is a nice tradition of a 2nd of January get-together event, it is important to use that as a development event. In some cases, we go for open-air picnics with site-specific choreographies in the park, instead of formal dinners, because that’s what and who we are; a fashion designer’s tote bag collection about a piece, instead of pencils or magnets with logos as a merchandising; because this is our way.

We are, of course, in the very middle of this process, but exploring the identity of the company together and finding management tools for these elements is a long-term team-building activity in a way, and also a fantastic challenge. In this case, strategy building in management is a real creative process parallel with the artistic one. And when it comes together, when the management strategy is synchronized with the artistic field and the two become inspired by each other, when it is just right.. not more, not less than what we need... Thats what we call you know “juste”.

Dóra Juhász is Artistic Manager for Compagnie Pál Frenák in Budapest, Hungary. She oversees strategic planning, international networking, branding, tour management, artistic coaching, audience development, sponsorship and fundraising. From 2006 to 2012, she was Press and Communications Manager for the Trafó House of Contemporary Arts (Budapest). She is a member of the Hungarian Theatre Critics´Association and regularly gives lectures and participates in conferences around the world.