Sunday, 31 January 2016

Peacocks, ostriches and a third way

Anne Pasternak, Brooklyn Museum Director (Photo: Erin Baiano for the New York Times)

A few weeks ago, I read about six curators at the Canadian Museum of History who expressed ethical concerns about the purchase of artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Empress of Ireland. These concerns included the manner in which the artifacts were collected and the fact that the museum paid for artifacts from an archeological site. Not only were their objections dismissed, but the museum hired a lawyer and threatened them with legal action, were they to repeat their concerns to anyone else. According to the museum President and CEO Mark O’Neill, “Internal discussions like this are normal, and frankly, making them public is not” (read more). This statement left me thinking which would be the ‘OK’ subjects to discuss in public and, frankly, how come the conditions of acquiring objects for the museum collections is not one of them.

On the same day I read the Canadian Museum of History story, I also read another, concerning the Louvre and the planned restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist. The museum had faced heavy criticism in the past regarding the cleaning of Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. So this time, it opted for total transparency, acknowledging that this is a sensitive subject and that it should be openly discussed (read more).

Cultural institutions are not very used to discussing their policies, plans and decisions publicly. Perhaps because many of them operate within a closed circle of peers, friends and habitués among whom there is some kind of ‘understanding’, so it seems that nothing needs to be explained. Some organisations even avoid answering questions directly put to them, through newspaper articles, blogs, emails or comments on the social media. It’s as if the nuisance would go away if they kept low and quiet (and, let’s face it, most times it does…). Other organisations, either because they realise they cannot avoid public scrutiny or because they honeslty value transparency and accountability, they don’t wait to be asked, they take the initiative to open the debate.

The signs of transparency and accountability, of the wish to establish an open honest relationship with the society, can be quite small, but hugely significant. It can be something as simple as Miguel Lobo Antunes, the Director of Culturgest in Lisbon, signing the editorial of the quarterly brochure; or Risto Nieminen, the Director of Music of the Gulbenkian Foundation, also in Lisbon, presenting the season programmes not only to the press, but also to anyone who might be interested to hear, in a special event open to the public (and usually sold out).

But transparency and accountability can go even further in order to deal with management, planning and programming decisions. Crossing the Atlantic, a good example is that of Thomas P. Campbell, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum, who used all the museum’s channels (newsletter, website, social media) to answer the critics regarding the rise in Met’s suggested entry fee (read more). Nearby the Met, MoMA director Glenn Lowry did not shy away from criticism regarding the Björk exhibition. While defending exhibitions engaging with popular culture and the overall museum policy, he admitted that this particular exhibition was rather weak and that the museum would have to learn to do this kind of exhibitions better (read his interview for the Art Newspaper). 

Across the bridge, at the Brooklyn Museum, the recently appointed Director, Anne Pasternak, did an open consultation with the public regarding the museum’s past, present and future. And she actually got back to the people who sent their thoughts and suggestions, sharing the main topics that had come up and asking once again whether she had missed anything… (read more). Further west, back in 2012, Nina Simon shared a beautiful and honest account of her first year as Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the only such account I have ever read (read here). We need more of that.

In the European south, we tend to believe that this kind of openness has got a northern ‘touch’, it doesn’t form part of our culture, we wouldn’t know how to deal with it. It’s certainly more comfortable not dealing with it.

I remember how puzzled and upset I felt when ex-Culture Minister, José António Pinto Ribeiro, was questioned about the costs of the exhibition “Encompassing the Globe” at the National Museum of Ancient Art. The exhibition had been presented as a huge opportunity and a project that would attract significant amounts of sponsorship. It wasn’t and it didn’t: when visiting, it was not clear what the relevance of the exhibition was, and thus, the opportunity; and it didn’t attract sponsorship, increasing the costs for the Portuguese State, for the tax payer. When the Minister who backed the project was questioned, he declined to comment. Comfortable indeed (read more).   

More recently, I was equally puzzled with the fact that the Directorate General of Cultural Heritage didn’t bother to answer professional concerns regarding the installation of the Joana Vasconcelos exhibition at the Palace of Ajuda in Lisbon and the details of the partnership with the agency Everything is New. When the partnership moved to the National Museum of Ancient Art, the Director-General presented it as a “model of success”, although he didn’t explain why (read more). When this and the following partnership with a private agency were discontinued and the press revealed data regarding the fall in the museum’s visitor numbers (read more), once again, nobody cared to discuss how ‘success’ is defined and evaluated.

It´s either fireworks or total silence. It’s either peacocks or ostriches. Apparent ‘successes’ are a public issue; questions and objections must be ‘kept in the family’ or not be discussed at all. Thomas P Campbell, Glenn Lowry, Anne Pasternak, Nina Simon – four museum directors - show us a possible third way. One that deals with both the good and the bad news, with honesty and with a sense of purpose and responsibility. They all seem to be doing just fine, their museums too. Is it cultural? Is it “too American”?

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