Monday, 6 January 2014

So that they may live happily ever after

I remember feeling a bit surprised when I read the news about the collaboration of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA) and the agency Everything is New in the production of the Prado exhibition in Portugal. Little after the Joana Vasconcelos exhibition at the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda and despite the issues this first partnership had raised (perhaps not publicly and formally, but certainly among colleagues), here’s another partnership of the Portuguese Government (and of a national museum) with the same partner. From what I read in the newspapers, Everything is New funded the production of the exhibition with €380.000. The income from tickets and other sales up to this amount will be 100% for Everything is New; above that, it will be divided equally between the agency and the MNAA.

I do believe in these public-private partnerships and I think they will become more and more frequent. Apart from that, in the specific case of Everything is New, a particularly liked reading the statement of the director, Álvaro Covões, last November, about the results of the Eurobarometer regarding the cultural participation of the Portuguese. At a time when the majority of the reactions in the sector blamed the Portuguese for their ignorance, lack of interest and culture, Covões said that the results of the study did not scare him and that they were, on the contrary, an opportunity and a social responsibility. I also think the same.

When last week I entered the MNAA, one of the first things I saw was an acrylic stand with leaflets: of the temporary exhibition of Prado in Portugal; of the Beyonce concert; and of the Cirque du Soleil show “Dralion”. Thus, I understood that this was Everything is New´s publicity stand. This mixed offer made me smile. To put side by side Rubens´, Brueghel´s, Lorrain´s nordic landscapes and Beyonce, at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, may be a way of challenging our prejudices regarding “high” and “low” culture, of acknowledging that one who likes the former may also enjoy the latter and that cultural participation varies and does not only occur within moulds pre-defined by the professionals of the sector. I know that their coexistence on the acrylic stand was simply the result of benefits given to Everything is New in return for their investment and not a conscious attempt to challenge our notions of “culture” and “art”. Even though, it’s a collateral result of this partnership, a positive one, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, after the initial smile, I started having doubts. And this is because, the more I look at the details of the communication of this partnership, the more I feel that I did not visit MNAA’s new exhibition, but rather Everything is New´s exhibition at the MNAA. Details? Maybe yes, maybe not.

The exhibition leaflet is a neutral leaflet. ‘Neutral’ in the sense that it does not identify, as it should, the promoter, the organization that presents the exhibition and invites us to visit (this usually happens with the inclusion of its logo at a visible spot). In the case of the MNAA and the rest of the national museums, this is nothing new. These organizations have been condemned to discretion, they may not appear as the big promoters of their own initiatives, their logo being placed in the footer of the promotional materials, mandatorily preceded by those (two in this case) of their tutelage and at the same level as the logos of the supporters. In the promotional materials, the reference to national museums is first of all a reference to the venue – just the venue – of an exhibition. What’s new in the leaflet of this exhibition at the MNAA is that the museum is actually identified as “the venue”. It’s not just an interpretation of the way the information is referred, but there is the actual designation “Location” and not “Address”, as one would expect. Details? Maybe yes, maybe not.

The discreet position of the MNAA within this partnership is also confirmed online. When clicking on the image of this temporary exhibition on the museum website, we are taken to a page with just three links: 1. Press release + info (where we find information just for the press); Promotional video (on the MNAA You Tube channel and with the title “Nordic Landscape from the Museo del Prado” and not “Rubens, Brueghel, Lorrain”, which is the formal title of the exhibition – rather deceiving, but for a good cause, I suppose, since these names are attractive, although not that dominant in the exhibition, as the title suggests); 3. Tickets and information (we are taken to the exhibition’s specific website – Why does this exhibition have a specific website? Why can´t we find all relevant information on MNAA’s website?). Details? Maybe yes, maybe not.

Image taken from the website Portugal Confidential
What am I trying to say? One of the things I’ve learned, and learned well, in this profession is that everything, ‘everything’, communicates: what we say and what we don’t say; and we do and what we don’t do. What is being communicated to me, when looking at some promotional materials and when reading the news, is that Everything is New is the agent that made this exhibition possible and that, for this reason, it may benefit (or even demand?) from special conditions in its presentation and representation.

“But what is really bothering you?”, a friend insisted.

What bothers me really is that partnerships like this one are, in fact, seen as some kind of favour on behalf of those who have got the money and not as true partnerships, counting with the contribution of both sides (more than two, in this case). Everythings is New invested in this exhibition, and before in the Joana Vasconcelos exhibition, a significant amount of money which undoubtedly made it possible for the project to go ahead. It invested not because it felt sorry for the limited conditions national museums are operating in, but because it could gain from it, both in financial terms, but also in terms of prestige, in this field that is not - yet – its own. This is why it did not invest in any exhibition, but in an exhibition that resulted from the partnership between the MNAA and the Prado. On the other hand, the MNAA did not just receive. It also contributed in the production of this exhibition. It contributed with its space, it contributed with the whole infrastructure, it contributed with its expertise and it contributed with its prestige. This exhibition wouldn’t have been the same thing if this museum was not involved. Further more, how much did the insurance of the paintings cost, for example, totally supported by Lusitânia? Or the edition of the catalogue, offered by the Casa de Imprensa? This is a true partnership and it should be seen as a win-win situation and not as a risk generously and unilaterally taken by Everything is New. This exhibition wouldn’t have happened just with the €380.000 the agency invested, isn’t it true?

Image taken from the site Museus de Portugal
But even before that, what bothers me really, and mainly, is that the government went ahead with this new partnership with Everything is New without discussing, clarifying and evaluating the issues raised by the Joana Vasconcelos exhibition at the Palácio da Ajuda. Issues related to the handing over of the space to the partner / funder; with the impact on the Palace´s own collection and the building itself, due to decisions / impositions that disregarded the advice given by the museum staff; with the conditions of hiring and preparing the exhibition staff. I am not able to say if these issues were right to be raised; I also haven’t got concrete information on the conditions of the partnership, although I searched for them.

The Government has got responsibilties and the obligation to be transparent when entering this kind of partnerships. We, the professionals of the sector, have also got responsiblities and the obligation to demand transparency and to intervene decisevely, which is something more than talking among colleagues and commenting on Facebook. Public-private partnerships are fundamental. What is also fundamental, though, is that the conditions of these partnerships are known to the public, so that we are not left with that uncomfortable feeling – by interpreting signs, conversations, rumours and the news in the newspapers – that the national museums are handed over to external agents and used simply as stages. Details? Certainly not.    

1 comment:

@MuseumsGirl said...

Thank you for being bold enough to raise this issue in a public forum and to publicly address the discomfort that many of us, especially those who work in the public sector, and are wither left to our own devices with paltry management, or put at the service of private interests for whom nothing is denied, feel before these situations.

The lack of transparency is astounding, but clearly EIN must have had positive returns, since they did come back for a second event. So my question is, how much money is the state making form this "concession"; what is it spending on?