Monday, 26 May 2014

Is it sad when a museum closes? Why?

Toy Museum, Sintra, Portugal
About a year and a half ago, my Australian colleague Rebecca Lamoin wrote in this blog about the Queensland Performing Arts Centre´s effort to understand what was the institution´s public value. Crucial questions were asked: What is the most important thing we deliver to our community? Why does our community love us? What people in our city would miss if we weren’t here anymore?

There are a number of cultural institutions around the world collecting data (more than quantitative data) that may help them define and prove their importance in people´s lives. Why? Because it might not be obvious to everyone, especially tax payers and political decision makers. It would make sense, though, even if it was just an internal mental exercise to undertake such an assessment. It´s worth taking a moment from time to time and evaluating the success factors of our projects and the relevance of our offer for the people we aim and are supposed to serve.

These thoughts came back once the news broke of a possible closure of the Toy Museum in Sintra (greater Lisbon Area). It seems that the museum is no longer sustainable, due to cuts in State funding and a sharp decrease in school and family visits. Culture professionals were quick to react. “It´s a shame”; “It´s sad”; “A tragedy”; “A misery”; “My favourite museum”. And every time I was reading a statement like that, I was asking myself: “Why?”. Why is it a shame? Why is it sad? Why is it a tragedy? Why is this someone´s favourite museum? What lies behind this kind of statements? What is their substance? Who knows? Does the museum and the foundation running it know?

But these were not the only questions in my mind. I would be also interested to know what normal visitors – not just culture professionals – think of the possible closure. How many times have they visited this particular museum? Why do they value it? What will they miss if it does eventually close? And beyond museum visitors, what does the population of Sintra think and feel regarding the closure of a museum in the town centre? Are they worried? Are they upset? Are they ready to fight for it and demand support from the municipality and the State?

Questions are also raised regarding the museum´s management. How long has this been going on? Did the Foundation take into consideration the changing - and rather hostile - political and economic context in which it is operating? What kind of measures has it taken so far? What is their plan B?

I haven´t found answers to these questions so far in public forums. I only know of a public petition on an online platform which, at the time I am writing these lines, has got approximately 2600 signatures. The text focuses on the collection and quotes only the collector, for whom, naturally, the objects are of great importance. It´s really a statement in the first person singular. The photo illustrating the petition shows an empty museum with series of objects behind glass, reaching almost the ceiling. I was left wondering how someone could have thought that this - quoting exclusively the collector and showing an empty museum - is the right approach at such a difficult moment. An approach that might convince those who know and, especially, those who don´t know the museum of its value and importance.

The Toy Museum is not an isolated case, unfortunately, in a country whose government does not consider culture to be a priority. A couple of years ago, the case of the Cork Museum in Silves (South Portugal) was handled in much the same way. A museum that once won the Micheletti Award of the European Museum Forum (an award for innovative museums in the world of industry, science and technics), ended up closing and I have no information regarding the destiny of its collection. Other projects, also in the performing arts field, are struggling or even disappearing. I suppose my ultimate question is “What are culture managers in this country doing about this?”. There must be more than “Such a shame” and “Such a pity” statements, there must be more than petitions. This is simply not enough, our organizations deserve more from us. People in this country deserve more from us.

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Monday, 12 May 2014

Notes of despair

Cannabis was legalised in the State of Colorado in 2012 and the first shops commercializing it opened in the beginning of this year. According to The Independent, more than half of Colorado voters believe legalizing recreational marijuana has been good for the state. At the same time, the newspaper reports that the authorities have got serious concerns due to the consumption of inappropriate dosages, either by inexperience or confusion. A college student died last month when he jumped from his balcony, after consuming six times the recommended dosage.

In the middle of all this, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has announced their brand new “Classical Cannabis: the high note series”. This is a series of concerts at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where patrons will be allowed to consume cannabis. Not in their seats and during the concerts, though, but in a separate area. And it´ll be a BYOC policy (meaning, a “Bring Your Own Cannabis”). And people are also advised not to drive, “due to the nature of the event”, but to use alternative ways of transport. Actually, it is worth reading the disclaimer on the orchestra´s website:

"Attendees of the event must be at least 21 years of age and must read and agree to the Event Disclaimer. The purchaser, holder and/or user of this reservation acknowledges that this event is being held on private property and, only individuals with paid reservations may enter. Participant understands that attendees may use marijuana at this event, as is their right under Colorado law. Cannabis will not be sold at the event, however, and the price of the reservation is entirely unrelated to whether one chooses to use cannabis or not. Those who choose to use cannabis assume any and all risk associated with such use. Information about the health effects of marijuana are available on the State of Colorado website. Participants are advised that it remains illegal under Colorado law to drive while under the influence of marijuana. Participant hereby agrees to release, hold harmless, and indemnify the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and their owners, partners, employees, directors, officers, agents, affiliates and related entities from any and all claims by or on behalf of Participant arising directly or indirectly out of Participant’s use of THC and premises. This release includes claims and liabilities arising from any cause whatsoever, including, but not limited to, negligence on the part of CSO. This release is effective on the date Participant purchases the event reservation.”

Red Rocks Amphitheater
Why would an orchestra want to do this, I kept asking myself as I was reading all this. Well, according to its executive director, “Part of our goal is to bring in a younger audience and a more diverse audience, and I would suggest that the patrons of the cannabis industry are both younger and more diverse than the patrons of the symphony orchestra”.

Well.... didn´t this younger and diverse audience go the CSO´s concerts before because they couldn´t consume marijuana? Did they love the music but kept away from it because they couldn´t BTOC – Bring Their Own Cannabis? Was this the barrier?

The sponsors of the series are – surprise, surprise – corporations related to the cannabis industry. The Huffington Post interviewed two of them:

Richard Yost of Ideal 420 Soil, a New Hampshire company that sells soil and other cultivation products to marijuana growers, sees sponsoring the concerts as a chance to link his company to one of the best orchestras in the nation and to make the point that pot consumers can be clean-cut and sophisticated. ‘You can be intelligent and savvy and enjoy cannabis as well,’ said Yost, adding that he plays Mozart while he works on business plans.

Another sponsor, Jan Cole, said her Boulder-based pot retailer The Farm has helped fund arts events in her hometown and a concert by Ziggy Marley in Denver. She said she hoped for a long-term association with the symphony, because its audience was ‘our crowd ... people who like art and music and alternative products.’"

I believe we get to know a person (or an institution) better in moments of crisis. By looking at their values, their priorities, the way they make decisions, the kind of decisions they make, the way they keep (or not) focused on their mission. I find more honesty in the words of the sponsors than in those of the CSO executive director’s. Through its association to the orchestra, the cannabis industry is looking for prestige and a more sophisticated look. Through it´s association to the industry the orchestra is looking for.... desperately needed money. They might actually get the younger and diverse audiences too. This is an event that might very well attract them, this is a happening. But will it be more than a happening? Will they come back? Will the CSO manage to keep them on board? I have serious doubts about that, for two reasons: because happenings like this have no long-term effects if there is not a long-term plan that will aim at eliminating barriers, the real ones, and establishing and nurturing a relationship with people; but also, in this case, because the CSO is not being honest regarding its objectives and “the younger and diverse audiences” know it.

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