Monday, 17 February 2014

On 'multi' mode before the debate

Thought #1: On May 5, 2013 the Arab American National Museum was the first among various American museums to wish its orthodox friends Happy Easter Sunday on Facebook. I remember smiling and thinking that I’ve been living in Portugal for 18 years, but no museum ever acknowldged my being in this country also as an orthodox, celebrating special days together with dozens of other Greeks and probably thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians or Serbs; permanent residents in Portugal whose visit the museums would be very happy to receive, I am sure, but whose culture is not reflected in the museums’ collecting, programming or communicating policies. What kind of a relationship could/should be developed between the parts?

Thought #2: In Canada, immigrants acquiring Canadian citizenship give their oath as “new Canadian citizens” in a ceremony taking place in museums: the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, for instance, or the Canadian Museum of History (formerly known as Canadian Museum of Civilization - more readings at the end of this post) in Quebec. I have no idea what the content of the oath is, but when I first heard about this, I was touched by the symbolic choice of place, museums being (ideally) places that may be representative of our identity (or rather, our multiple identities) and those of others, allowing us to learn about each other, be with each other. I imagined these people’s stories, the stories of the new Canadian citizens, becoming part of the history of Canada. Could this be one way of forging a relationship?

Image taken from the website of the Canadian Museum of Immigration.
Thought #3: A couple of years ago, in a conference entitled “Programming for Diversity” which took place in Portugal, I was convening a panel that included an Iranian refugee. I remember him saying how much he felt at home when visiting the Gulbenkian Museum, where he could see objects coming from his country. I liked that idea of feeling at home, but I was left thinking if this is the only way of getting people interested and involved, by showing them what’s known to them. Can there be a relationship when one only looks for what is familiar to them? Is it a lack of curiosity regarding one’s “new home”? Or maybe the fact that the new home doesn’t feel like “home”? And why doesn´t it?

These loose thoughts and many more questions are coming up as I am preparing to moderate a debate this week regarding the relationship of Portuguese cultural institutions with the communities of immigrants and those of refugees now living in the country. Living in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse, I am often asking myself if there is actually a relationship, if there is an interest, to start with, on either side to come together, to be part of each other´s lives and if yes, what´s the best way of developing and maintaining this relationship. I am saying this because it seems to me that most iniatiatives (at least among the ones I am aware of) are one-off projects, assigned to a specific period of time that eventually comes to an end. The “festival-kind” of project, where ones come to perform and the others to watch the exotic and never meet again until... next time; if there is a next time. Is this worthwhile? Does it have any kind of impact? Should we aim for something else, something that might last more? Why? Who’s interested? And whose initiative should this be?

Museu d' Història de Catalunya, Barcelona. Catalonia in the 21st century, part of the permanent exhibition. (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Looking abroad, we see big institutions operating within large multicultural societies (the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or the Kennedy Center in Washington, to name just two) dedicating big exhibitions and special programmes to specific communities and their cultures. The aim is to present a people’s culture and arts to anyone who might be interested, to promote learning and hopefully also some understanding about them. The aim is also to make that specific community feel included, and the truth is that this kind of exhibitions and festivals do attract large numbers of representatives of the celebrated culture. The question that remains is: then what? What happens to those people who came to learn and enjoy? What stays with them? Are there any changes in the way they perceive the culture they just learned about? And do people from the communities involved come back for something else? I gave the example of big institutions abroad, but the same could apply to smaller institutions within our borders. Are we developing projects and policies that might answer the question “Then what”?

Are immigrants and refugees a special group, different from others? Maybe not. They might be interested in what cultural institutions have to offer or not; they might have a habit of visiting / attending or not; they might feel represented or not; they might feel that this is for them or not; they might feel welcome or not; they might come or not; they might have the money or not. Just like anybody else. Unlike certain other groups of (underepresented) people, though, some cultural institutions – or projects - feel the need, from time to time, to ‘deal’ with immigrants or refugees. Maybe out of genuine interest, maybe because it is politically correct. My concern is that, most times, it seems to be a one-off thing, a “special event” or a “special project”, something that eventually makes the people involved also stand out as a “special group”, instead of promoting their being acknowledged as an integral part of our society, with whom the relationship should be of a more permanent nature. What once was “special” might not be anymore, things change. Are we following the change?

Ideally for me, cultural institutions are the place where a newcomer (like I was 18 years ago) can get to know what existed before his/her arrival, what is being produced at the moment and how he/she can leave his/her mark as well. They are places of constant negotiation and update. In order for this not to be something “special”, the work must be continuous so that the inclusion may come naturally.

Can it be? Is it possible? Is it happening? What does it take? These are questions for which I hope to be able to get some clues in Thursday’s debate.

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Monday, 3 February 2014

The rules of love

Kent Nagano, Music Director of MOntreal Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Körber Foundation)
When the Vice Chairman of the Körber Foundation, Klaus Wehmeier, opened the 4th Symposium on the Art of Music Education last week in Hamburg, he quoted someone from a previous edition of this symposium who had said “I want to share what I love”. I thought that this is precisely what brings most people, professionals, of different cultural/artistic fields to this kind of meetings: their love for something and the wish to share it.

I was still thinking about this love sharing when Kent Nagano, music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, took the stand. He told us about the state of the orchestra when he took up his position: a 12-million-dollar debt; an audience with an average age of  65+; an occupancy rate of 35%. Nagano told us that he promised the city to present exceptional works at the highest possible quality the musicians could achieve. “So”, he said, “we have now sold out performances, the average age of the audience is 35 and the concert hall looks like the streets of Montreal.”

The maestro didn’t convince me; in the sense that I saw much more in his word than what he was prepared to acknowledge. I don´t believe that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra enjoys sold out performances because of its exceptional repertoire and high quality – or, at least, mainly because of that. These are the characteristics of a number of other orchestras that are struggling to survive. I believe that the Montreal audience might have heard the ‘promise’ of an orchestra leader prepared to commit, to engage with them; a theory also supported by the fact that Kent Nagano was pleased to see the concert halls looking like the city streets, revealing a somehow larger vision and that he was really serious about his commitment. This fact may have played such an important role in the orchestra´s turnaround as the exceptional repertoire and the quality of the interpretation. Nagano wished to share his love with the city and has worked in doing just that. 

Photo: Körber Foundation
The question of “How do we share our love” was always at the back of my mind in the following two days. When listening, for instance, to the inspiring musician and composer Kathryn Tickell saying that teaching young people to play the northumbrian pipe doesn´t mean that she wants to turn them into virtuosi; she wants to make them aware of their heritage, the music becoming a statement of who they are. Kathryn truly left a mark on the participants. Although dealing with tradition, she was precisely able to show that this is not something frozen in time. “One needs to go deep into it, use the knowledge and then move on fearlessly”, she said. And by moving on she meant to experiment, to reinterpret, to enrich, to get into a dialogue with other art forms, not for the sake of ‘innovation’, but because of one’s need for expression and for... sharing what one loves.

And I kept on thinking about what it is that we love and how we share it when seeing the genuinely puzzled expression of a participant when he heard me saying that there is quality also in other musical genres, not just in classical music; when listening to some people saying that music education is the school´s responsibility and to others stating that musicians should be obliged to get involved in education activities because they can do it best; when some of the participants were trying to remind us that we were moving away from what really matters – the music and our core audience -, while others were advocating for greater access and the willigness to listen to the people and adapt.

Photo: Körber Foundation
Most of these issues were somehow summarised in the last panel discussion, involving Nick Herrmann (senior producer at Touch Press), Martinh Hoffmann (general manager of the Berin Philharmonic) and Karsten Witt (general manager of karsten witt music management). It was beautiful listening to Karsten Witt talk about his love for classical music, about that very special experience of attending a concert, the concentration, the details, the feelings. “Listening to music via media is a separate thing; we should be concerned with the real thing”, he said.

Is it? Should we be concerned only with the real thing? How about when the closest a person can get to the real thing is a CD or a DVD or the You Tube? Shouldn´t we also be concerned in keeping these doors open and use them to make content available? Does everyone have to listen to classical music with the same degree of concentration in order to have a meaningful experience (for himself, not for the others...)?

I remembered an article I had read a few days before in the Guardian regarding digital access to performances. The journalist, Lyn Gardner, remembered the early 20th-century conductor Thomas Beecham who believed that the radio would keep people away from concert halls and “chided the ‘wireless authorities’ for doing ‘devilish work’. In the 50s the ‘devil’ was probably the television; in the 90s the websites; in the early 2000s the You Tube, the apps, the livestreaming of performances.

So, although I share Karsten Witt’s love for the ‘real thing’, I am also concerned with what ‘real’ means for other people, what is meaningful to them, what they can have access to and how, and also what they can afford. Because I know that technology allows for different points of entry, for different ways of participation and enjoyment and that it doesn´t keep people away from the real thing. On the contrary, if they have the chance, they do want to taste the real thing.

But there is one more point to make here: even when people come to enjoy the real thing, it doesn´t mean they´ll enjoy it the way another person wants them to. They´ll enjoy it their own way. Love may have many, different rules, but there is definitely one: it cannot be imposed, can it?

With very special thanks to the Körber Foundation, for their kind invitation and hospitality.

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