Monday 26 April 2010

NMAA in the news

The National Museum of Ancient Art (NMAA) made news three times last week. First, it was the interview with its new director, António Filipe Pimentel, to the newspaper Público (read here in portuguese only). Two days later, it was the news about the costs of the exhibition Encompassing the Globe (read here in portuguese only), complemented the next day with a new article (read here in portuguese only).

Starting by the news regarding the exhibition, they were commented by many readers of Público online. Some of those defending the investment for the presentation of the exhibition in Portugal made the ‘inevitable’ comparison to the money invested on football (really, I think we should give up on this argument that doesn´t serve any purpose; in any way, football, apart from being profitable, mobilizes, excites and entertains thousands of people, not just some “illiterate who have never visited a museum”). Other comments in favour referred to the benefit for the country from the fact that the exhibition was presented at the NMAA, to the fact that it attracted more than 70000 visitors, to the works undertaken that benefited the museum and are there to stay, to the opportunity for the museum staff to get in touch with international museums and for the museum to open up to international museography.

It´s all a question of options, priorities, objectives. So there are many ways of evaluating the impact of the exhibition. My comments are the following:

I didn´t like it. Because I have stopped enjoying exhibitions that simply present beautiful objects, but they don´t help us appreciate them, they don´t tell a story. Encompassing the Globe was a traditional exhibition in terms of museology and thus didn´t make any sense to many of the people who visited it. I confess, I was one of them. I guess, because I haven´t got any concrete data, that if it managed to attract so many visitors it was because it was heavily advertised and presented as an exhibition that could not be missed. Because the subject was Portugal and the Portuguese, which interests both the national population and foreign tourists. Because “Smithsonian” is an important name that was used, as it should, in the promotion. These are my empirical explanations. I would be interested to know, though, if the large number of visitors was also the result of word-of-mouth, a sign that people who visited had liked the exhibition and recommended it to family and friends. I didn´t recommend it to anyone and noone recommended it to me.

In relation to the investment, I would say that, although we lack experience and also tradition in what concerns cultural sponsorship, we should at least know that, if six months before the exhibition opening we haven´t got the necessary funding (according to a statement by the then Minister of Culture José António Pinto Ribeiro), we are not likely to get it. This kind of business takes place well in advance. It´s also difficult to undestand why organizations that had sponsored the exhibition in Washington were not contacted regarding the presentation at the NMAA. And if the works in the museum or staff contact with international museography are so valued, as they should be, then we should admit their importance and invest directly on them, instead of through the pretext of a very expensive and, really, not so distinguishing exhibition.

In the meantime, I ask myself once again why it´s never part of the plan a summative evaluation of the impact of such expensive initiatives and a visitor survey, instead of each one of us giving a hint about it. On the other hand, I feel very disappointed when, in moments like this, those responsible for the decisions taken claim the right to be unavailable for comments, instead of considering it an obligation towards the citizens to answer the questions they are being asked.

Moving on to the first piece of news, I liked the interview with NMAA´s new director, António Filipe Pimentel. Because he claims to believe in the “middle way”. The one that does not give preference to any of the museum´s five fundamental functions (to collect, preserve, study, exhibit and interpret), setting them as opponents, but aims to establish a balance between them (see also his opinion article in the ICOM.PT bulletin available here in portuguese only
). And I quote: “There is a need to bring into harmony the two sides: to have a strategic and instrumental view of preservation and study, but not limiting it to just that. It must be put to the service of the community, which, nevertheless, can never sacrifice it, cannot jeopardize its security and safety.” Bringing harmony is not easy and depends a lot on the resources available, human and financial, the lack of which makes it many times compulsory to make options and establish priorities. But is seems to me that it is also a question of mentality. António Filipe Pimentel also refers to the museum as a stage, “the space for mobilizing a community making use of the objects exhibited, behind which there are always stories”. And he goes on: “A museum is not the National Archive. In an archive we have a treasure of information which is kept, preserved and consulted. Ours must be exhibited and permanently shown in stories and narratives”. I was very pleased to read these words. I see behind them what I consider to be the right mentality. I hope NMAA´s new director and the museum staff can put them into practice, can manage to transform them into concrete actions. We are attentive and full of expectations.

Monday 19 April 2010

Places of encounter

Photo taken from the website Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Danças

Last Saturday I saw Pororoca, the latest work by brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues, presented at Culturgest. Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Danças was formed 20 years ago. In 2007 it started a new project, Centro de Artes da Maré, at the Maré favela (slum area) in Rio de Janeiro, a place deprived of cultural institutions. That´s where Pororoca was created (an indian word for a natural phenomenon caused by the meeting of river and sea water, known in english as a bore) and that´s where the programme Dance for All takes place, offering free lessons of corporal expression and contemporary dance.

Monday 12 April 2010

Invitation to the party

“Suppose you hear about a party being held every week, but you are not invited. Judging by the buzz around town, this party is the hip place to be, so even if you are not given a formal invitation, you decide to go. When you get there, although it is exciting, you feel awkward, self-conscious. You wonder whether the hosts are whispering about why you are there. You wonder if other guests know you weren´t invited. No one speaks to you or acknowledges your presence. Finally, you get the hint. You leave. You decide you´ll never go back. Eventually you lose interest in the party, and then finally you don´t even remember that the weekly party is going on.”

This is one of my favourite passages from Donna Walker-Kuhne´s book Invitation to the Party. The author has vast experience in audience development and most eloquently describes here the way people who are not used to visiting museums, theatres, etc., must feel when among the ‘initiated’ and those hosts who do not assume as their responsibility inviting new people to the ‘party’ and making them feel welcome.

Regarding the ‘invitation’, I recall two very distinct actions, carried out by different organizations, with different objectives and different means. The first was the campaign of the Royal Opera House in 2008, that offered tickets for the premiere of the season´s first show, Don Giovanni, at very low prices (attention, they were not invitations…) through the populist newspaper The Sun. The Sun´s campaign was very big, editorial coverage, with very suggestive photos ans titles, also (read here). The public´s response was huge and among the people who attended the premiere there were many who were going to the opera and the Royal Opera House for the first time. Charlotte Higgins, culture journalist of the Guardian, talked to those responsible for the campaign and to the public as well (read article here). The first impact indicator? The fact that there was not a mass exodus during interval… The second indicator? Peoples impressions after the show. “It made all the hair on the back of my neck rise up”, said a 50-year old lady. “I just wanted to see what it was like - and now I'm hooked”, said a 25-year old man. Some of the tickets, that had costed between 7.50 and 30 pounds, had been purchased by opera lovers who wanted to introduce opera to their friends. Ir remains to know how many of those people wanted to go back. And also how many managed to go back. Because ticket prices are usually quite prohibitive for a large number of people. Campaigns like this one, than manage to capture the public´s attention and awaken their curiosity, should also think in ways of giving the initiative continuity and creating loyalty among new audiences.

The second action I recall is quite different, more discreet, but, in its own scale, equally efficient. It is carried out by Vale Museum, a contemporary art museum in the brazilian city of Vitória. The Apprentice Programme, part of the Programme Art Education, involves disadvantaged young people, members of the communities living around the museum, in the mounting of temporary exhibitions, allowing them for professional training in carpentry, lighting, painting, etc.; giving them the chance of having a direct contact with the artists; and also raising curiosity and 'educating' their taste for the art exhibited. The Museum manages to create a link with the local community in general and those young people in particular, a feeling of belonging among the people involved and their families and friends, and, most pobably, with some of them, a long-lasting relationship.

I was preparing this text when I read the interview of João Carlos Brigola, Director of the Institute of Museums and Conservation, in the L+Arte magazine, where he was saying: “…The museum´s fundamental mission is to be the repository of memories and to work on its heritage, but this identity seems to be passed over by functions of greater media visibility, where what counts is the number of visitors, the public buzz…”. I felt once again that, when we are facing issues like visibility and increase of visitor numbers we feel compelled to defend “the museum´s fundamental mission”. The functions a museum has to carry out in order to fullfil its mission are five and none should be consideredmore fundamenta than the others. Are functions related to collections and those related to the public mutually exclusive? Why do we feel obliged to defend one against the other? Why do we feel we have to opt for one or the other? Why do we seem to feel uncomfortable when receiving suggestions for actions that might gain media visibility (something we seem to consider synonymous to populism and low quality)?

João Carlos Brigola reminds us also, in the same paragraph, that in the Institute´s Strategic Planning there is not one single objective related to visitor numbers. Why is that? In order to justify the option? Increasing visitor numbers, diversifying their profile should be a museum´s permanent objective. Just as museums do not exist without collections, they do not exist without people either (see discussion on mission in my second post here) In that sense, visitor numbers are a performance indicator, we can´t ignore it. It can´t be the only one. And it can´t be presented without an analysis of what it represents, especially in what concerns visitor profile.

In my opinion, not giving this issue priority means that we are satisfied with what we already have. That we are happy for having, as we sometimes hear people say, “few visitors, but good ones”, what Richard Sandell calls, in his book Museums, Society, Inequality, “the good enough visitor”. It´ll be a pity if, once again, ‘invitations to the party’ are not to be given priority.

Monday 5 April 2010

Free entries (II) Theatres

Still regarding the issue of free entries, and moving on to the performing arts, the situation becomes a bit more complex. According to Alexandra Prado Coelho´s article (available here in portuguese only), based on statistical data recently made available by OAC and GPEARI, paid entries to the two national theatres (D. Maria II and São João) were, in 2008, slightly higher than free ones, while 66% of the spectators of the Companhia Nacional de Bailado attended the performances without paying.

In what concerns theatres and performing arts halls, it is important to distinguish between free entries that relate to invitations and free entries that relate to events, activities and performances where people don´t have to pay to attend. The data made available by the D.Maria II National Theatre did not allow for this distinction. In the case of São João National Theatre, though, among the 49% of those who attended without paying, 85% had made use of an invitation. Moving on to the Companhia Nacional de Bailado, among the people who had attended without paying in 2008, 62% had an invitation for events with paid entry.

We should clarify here who are the people that have access to invitations. In the majority of the cases, they are not low-income or new audiences; offering invitations is not part of a marketing plan that targets them. The big majority of those who have access to invitations are people invited to premieres, government and local authority dignitaries, performing arts professionals, as well as a vast number of collaborators, friends and acquaintances of theirs. Considering the invitations for the premiere a means of promoting the show - through what is still the most best and most trustworthy channel, the word of mouth -, we should think a bit more about the invitations given for the remaining sessions of a long-run show or, and above all, for short-run shows or shows taking place on a single day. In these cases, the objective not being the show´s promotion, what´s the reason for giving invitations? First of all, it´s the habit among us. Why pay if, through friends and acquaintances, we can get tickets for free? It is also a concern in having the room full, a certain fear or discomfort in admitting that a show is not selling. It is also, in some cases, not the majority, an interest in facilitating access for people who don´t have the financial means to pay for a ticket.
In the meantime, the institutions that offer the invitations are obliged to pay the corresponding VAT tax. Thousands of euros paid in VAT so that certain people can attend performances, many of which have already been subsidised by the State. In other words, we produce and on top of everything else we pay so that people come to see. People perfectly capable of paying for their ticket. Does it make sense? What´s the purpose of this practice? What objective or strategy does it serve? Couldn´t the money paid in VAT be invested in a better way? Nobody questions the loss of revenue?

So, contrary to the case of museums, free entries in theatres and performing arts halls are not usually related to audience development. But pricing policies in general are, namely the importance of offering cheap tickets so that the public comes to the performances. The majority of the institutions in this field offer the usual concessions (young people, senior citizens, students, etc.). Culturgest was the first to introduce €5-tickets for the under 30s and its example was followed by many more institutions. I don´t know of any visitor study aiming to evaluate the efficiency of this option. Nevertheless, I would be interested to know if these young people developed the habit of attending performances thanks to the €5-tickets; if they attend more performances than it would be expected because the ticket is cheap and if they would see less if it was more expensive (say €10); in which other events and activities they invest their money and time and how much they pay for them; and, finally, if the measure contributed to audience development.

Based on my experience in this field, I would say that, once again, cheap tickets alone do not the means for developing new audiences. They make access easier for people who attend frequently, but they are not an incentive on their own so that new people come to the theatre. Just as it happens with museums, audience development is the combined result of the artistic direction, the action of the education service and of the marketing strategy that aims to create the right ‘package’ for the offer. People are willing to pay to attend performances they feel they cannot miss. Even at this time of economic crisis, sold out shows are not rare.

Thus, concluding, I would say that, on one hand, it is necessary to know our market and establish the right price for each product. And the right price is the price people are willing to pay. On the other hand, we should question the efficiency of free entries as a means of developing new audiences. Both visitor studies and empirical observations point to a different direction in order to reach this end.
Special thanks to CF and RC for their previous comments on this text.