Friday, 26 June 2015

The message, the language, the options

Paula Sá Nogueira on the TV programme "Inferno".
The discussion that was generated after the announcement of the allocation of subsidies from the Directorate General for the Arts (DgArtes) made me think once again about the way this sector communicates with the public, citizens and taxpayers. There is a larger issue, of course, that of the subsidy itself: the system of application, the evaluation of the proposals, the monitoring of the entities, the purpose and duration of the subsidy. But today, here, my reflection focuses on communication.

Paula Sá Nogueira (PSN), from the Company Cão Solteiro (which, for the first time in 20 years, did not get a subsidy from DgArtes) was interviewed earlier this month by the TV programme "Inferno". When the presenter asked het to try to explain to "the majority" her claim that the State has an obligation to fund the arts, PSN explained:

"The arts promote thinking; thinking promotes the evolution of man; so there must be investment in thinking and the arts. (...) Maybe the arts are what prevents us from giving a shot in the head in the morning. So either you invest in the arts or in cemeteries." (video)

PSN’s interview was shared and commented by people in the field, especially by other artists. The general opinion is that she spoke very well. However, for me, the issue was the message, the language and their suitability for the medium (in this case, the television). I also thought about the choice of the person who should speak to the public, to “the majority", at a moment like this. How did the ordinary citizen, the taxpayer who supports the work of Cão Solteiro and others, receive PSN’s statements? Was he clarified? Angry because Cão Solteiro did not receive the subsidy, even if he had never heard of this company before? Did he consider giving a shot in the head?

I do not mean to be ironic. I also liked PSN’s interview. But I work in this field, I understand what PSN means to say, I know the context, I know the specificities of operating in this sector. And in that capacity, I would say that the message does not come across and that we should show a greater concern when addressing the "majority". Our arguments, when it comes to mass media, can not be those used for internal consumption, appreciated and understood by our peers, but ineffective with many other people, who are also stakeholders. And maybe it should not be the artist himself speaking; at least, not always.

In 2012 I had written about another interview, conducted shortly after the announcement of a 100% cut in annual and occasional subsidies (Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose Culture). At that time, the interviewee was Jorge Silva Melo (JSM) in one of the morning TV news programmes. He said: "I, as a spectator, will not be able anymore to discover young talents. (...) The subsidies do not support the artists, they support the spectators. Because if I want to see a play by theatre company Truta, and if they don´t get a subsidy, I´ll have to pay approximately 100 Euro per ticket and I haven´t got that money. But I have the right to see what young creators are doing, what´s preoccupying them, what they are thinking about. It is this kind of support that has been taken from me, as a spectator. (…)”..

I considered, and still consider, JSM’s response to be very intelligent and, more than that, appropriate to the context in which it the interview took place. He put himself in the shoes of the spectator, he tried to explain how the cuts affected him, as a citizen, and others. He set aside the usual, somehow egocentric, argument of the artist, whom many people see or hear once in their lifetime, when he loses the support of DGArtes, an intervention that might only serve to reinforce the idea of ​​subsidy-dependence.

It is urgent to think the way we communicate with the outside world more strategically, choosing the most suitable speaker, message and language for each context. The British campaign "I Love Museums" shows a possible way: it allows for the voice of ordinary people to be heard, those who will be affected by the cuts (read the testimonials). I think that makes sense, considering that the message is supposed to reach the government and the political parties and that politicians evaluate everything based on the votes they can lose or gain. The campaign also encourages people to write directly to the MP of their constituency and graphic materials are made available online in various formats to facilitate spreading the message on social media and other platforms. I must also say that the fact that it is organized by the National Museum Directors' Council was a pleasant surprise for someone who lives in a country where the voice of national museum directors is not heard publicly, regarding the impact of the cuts on the functioning of the entities for which they are responsible.

This type of feedback, a qualitative indicator of our impact on society and on people's lives, is not unknown to us. But I think that we don’t actively seek it, we don’t register it and we don’t know how and when to use it. I Love Museums reminded me of the case of Casa Conveniente, which in 2011 was the first Portuguese theater company, if I remember correctly, to resort to crowdfunding, with the campaign "Be a patron of Casa Conveniente for €12". When in November 2011 Mónica Calle and Alexandra Gaspar participated in a conference on financial sustainability, organized by ICOM Portugal, they shared with the participants wonderful and powerful testimonies that people who wished to support (many with more than €12) sent by email, along with their donation. Several times after that I wondered if those testimonies were later used in some way. I didn’t see them when the company renewed its request or in promotional materials or on Facebook.

However, these are examples involving people who, a priori, like a certain cultural or artistic project, who are already related to it. I return to my initial concern, that of "the majority", as the host of "Inferno" put it, which also includes those who don’t know or don’t relate. How to talk to ordinary people about the need to support with public money work that they might not enjoy or understand or even know about? How to make "the majority" consider that this support goes to a common cause, an indispensable cause, one that brings benefits to those who enjoy and those who don’t directly enjoy it? It would be easier, perhaps, if we were talking about a school or a hospital, but we are talking about the arts. Our task is quite complex, we know it. What are we going to do about it?

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