Monday 31 May 2010


A new artwork was revealed last week on Trafalgar Square´s fourth plinth, London. It´s called “Nelson´s ship in a bottle” and it´s the work of contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare. I read various articles about this work in the Guardian, but the one that mostly caught my attention was entitled “Do black artists need special treatment?. The author of the article, Munira Mirza, was questioning if it still makes sense today talking about ‘black art’, why it is that we still assume that to be black is to be marginal, what is the benefit for art and artists (and the public, I would add) to continue debating ‘diversity’, thus defining culture in rigid categories, limiting its fluidity, its freedom.

The search for diversity and representativeness has been a great concern in countries like the UK, and especially, but not exclusively, in the city of London. A multi- and inter-cultural city, where each one takes one´s world and mixes it with the others´. The search for diversity and representativeness has defined public policies in he last decades in many areas. Nevertheless, Munira Mirza questions if, after all these years and the world having changed quiet a lot, it would make more sense to stop classifying diversity based on colour. “Barriers today”, says Munira Mirza, “are largely class-based – income, networks, education. And those affect many white people as well.”

While I was reading the article, I was thinking: now substitute the word ‘black’ by ‘disabled’. And I ask: Do disabled artists need special treatment? By coincidence, on that same day there was an article in Le Monde entitled “Danse avec des béquilles” (Dance with crutches).
“What is the space of dance in your life, of disability in your dance”, they asked dancer Ali Fekih. “I´ve been dancing for twenty years”, he answered, “and facing the stigma of disability. It´s always the same story and obviously a danger to be caught in disability. It´s a reality, but this doesn´t stop us from doing our job. We are artists before being disabled, and that´s what some people forget”.

Many of us look at disabled artists with a mixture of admiration, for their struggle to get where they want, and compassion, for the limitations we believe disability will always impose on them, not allowing them to reach the level of other artists. Those working in Communication, rarely do they resist the temptation of highlighting disability in order to call the attention of the media and the public. What are the expectations of the latter? Normally, not as high as if it involved ‘normal’ artists.

Who benefits from this approach? Noone probably. Because disabled artists, as we saw, want to be seen first as artists. Their struggle is the struggle of all those who want to get somewhere. With some differences, no doubt, but nothing they are not used to. Frequently, programmers also miss the opportunity of presenting an excellent show because they had already programmed a performance with disabled people in a certain season and, quotas fullfiled, they will not programme another. In the end, the public, ready to express its admiration/compassion, ready to be less demanding, not so interested, though, in attending a performance they expect to be disturbing, in a way, and of a lesser quality.

But, sometimes, we win. We win when we attend a marvellous performance, that opens a window to a new world, that subtly questions our prejudices and makes us fly, fills us with happiness.

The four videos that follow are the works of foreign and portuguese artists and they can better illustrate what I am talking about.

The cost of living, by DV8 Physical Theatre

Duo improvisé, by Brahem Aïache and Nicolas Fayol

Menina da lua, by Dançando com a Diferença

O Aqui, by CIM – Companhia Integrada Multidisciplinar (this performance will represent Portugal at the International VSA Festival
in Washington in June 2010)

Monday 24 May 2010


Last week, I was invited to give a short lecture on audiences to a group of students of the Higher School of Theatre and Cinema. I started by questioning: Why do we talk about audiences? Why do we worry about them? Because they give our work meaning. At least to my work. Without visitors, there are no museums. Without audiences, there are no theatres. We practice, assist and engage in cultural activities because we all want to communicate, share, discover, entertain ourselves: museum professionais, performing arts professionals, audiences. This communication and sharing would not take place if one of the agents was missing.

For those who work in Communication, the relationship fostered with the public is fundamental. To get to know them well, to slowly create personal relationships, even friendships, is a way to build up on the relationship and also to reach further, to non-audiences. In the last ten years I´ve worked in two relatively large institutions. ‘Large’ also in the sense that there is a lot to do and few people to do it. I have often felt frustrated for having to spend much of my time in an office and not to be able to be closer to visitors and spectators, in the front-of-house spots, during the preparation of a visit, in the exhibitions or during the performances. I believe it´s mainly at these moments that we manage to evaluate, even empirically, the impact of our work, the way it is accepted and judged. It is also in this way that we can create closer relationships, at times personal, with the people we are working for.

Many times I thought that institutions dealing with smaller audiences are lucky to be able to work in such a personalized way, thus creating a feeling of sharing, of community and also of belonging, that influences a lot the quality of the experience, the way people experience both the space and its offer. And it is particularly compensating and comforting for those working so that can happen. That way, things make sense.

We can have this experience, even though less frequently, also in larger institutions. A think that, although I cannot remember the faces, I will never forget the experience of receiving the first group of children for the launch of the activity A Night at the Museum at the Pavilion of Knowledge. The way we all, employees and children, shared the adventure during the whole night, the way we came closer, making it so hard to say goodbye the next morning, the pleasure of meeting again on other occasions in the Pavilion´s exhibitions.

Also at São Luiz, in the almost four years I´ve been there, my most outstanding and fulfilling experience was one I could share with the public. It was in 2008, when together with CCB we organized the Pina Bausch Festival. One morning we assisted a workshop at the Centre for Animation and Pedagogy (CCB) on Café Müller, the piece Pina Bausch herself was going to perform that night in São Luiz. The workshop was attended by a dozen of children from dysfunctional families. When it was finished, having experienced the enthusiasm, interest, pleasure and creativity of the children, we thought that they should have the opportunity to see the performance live. So, in a practically sold our room, we managed to bring a few extra chairs and the children were able to assist. It will be impossible to forget their shining eyes, their fascination, the joy, but also their awe, mixed with fear, when they were allowed to go backstage after the performance and meet Pina herself, who signed all their programmes.

In this context, I particularly liked Nina Simon´s last post in her blog Museum 2.0 , entitled Complicity, intimacy, community.
I enjoyed it the way we enjoy when something is in our head and finally someone manages to put it into words and make it concrete. In her text, Nna Simon reminds is that even larger institutions have ways of allowing for experiences of complicity between the audiences and the institution, creating at the same time a feeling of intimacy and community. It is not necessary to provide a personalized service, the way we idealize it. It is enough to create the conditions for the visitor / spectator / participant to feel, first of all, orientated (to know where they are, what they can or cannot do) and to be able to have and share comfortably with the others the experience. People they know or complete strangers.

It is so beautiful the exchange of a smile of complicity.

A note aside: As I said, it gives me special pleasure to find things that I have in my mind, worries, ideas, put into words. And when I do find them, I can´t even think of not mentioning the name of the person who put them together, so that I can use them as well. In this blog there are no original ideas. There are opinions and feelings, the result of my studies and experiences, that I am looking to structure and share in this space. Even though, it would be nice if, when my words are being quoted, the person quoting also mentioned his source. I was asked by a museum to indicate the link for my post on free entry to museums.
Last week, I read my words in a newspaper, in the statements of that museum´s director. Maybe the director mentioned the source, but the newspaper did not include the reference in the article. Maybe not.

Monday 17 May 2010

On Berlin museums

Four days to discover Berlin and, inevitably, its museums. There is no doubt that in this city e can find some of the best collections, mainly from the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations. At the same time, there is no doubt either that a great collection is not enough to guarantee a good experience during a visit. Some of the factors that can frequently spoil the experience in this city´s museums:

- Berlin is now the third European city, after London and Paris, attracting more tourists. Nevertheless, guards in its museums only speak german. Thus, not only do they find it difficult to give information when asked, but also they are constantly giving visitors instructions they are unable to understand.

- Some museums attract large numbers of visitors. To visit the recently reopened Neues Museum people have to purchase their tickets in advance for a specific time slot. I got mine on a Thursday and the first vacancy was for the following Saturday. Queues at certain moments are quiet big, but people with free access (ICOM card or city card holders, etc.) are unable to avoid them. They are obliged to join them in order to get a free entry ticket. In many cities there are separate queues or entrances for these people. Not in Berlin.

- There where audio-guides in every museum, almost always at no extra cost. Although they are an excellent means for those interested in a more detailed visit, they shouldn´t substitute introductory panels and labels, with brief and well written texts. In the majority of Berlin´s large museums either we are experts or we have no idea what we are looking at (apart from the object´s name, date and provenance). There is a total lack of explanations and a minimum of context. There are excellent exceptions: the Neues Museum, the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

- Many times there seems to exist a greater worry with design and less with functionality and access. I saw some very beautiful solutions in a few museums in what concerns showcases and written information (Jüdisches Museum, Neues Museum). At the same time, though, I saw parents carrying their young children for the most part of the visit, in order for them to be able to see the exhibits. Wheelchair users, as nobody carries them, are immediately excluded.

Four days and thirteen museums later, here´s the balance:

The absolutely favorite
- Neues Museum. It has a marvellous collection and, as it was recently refurbished, it took the chance to better exhibit and interpret it. It creates thematic units and gives basic information on each one of them in panels, allowing for more information through other means. The architectonic intervention in the exhibition area is impressive. The highlight of the visit: entering Queen Nefertiti´s room.

- Pergamon Museum. There are many flaws in exhibition design and interpretation, among them, the fact that it allows visitors basic information on the exhibits only through audio-guides. Even though, what makes it a favorite is the Pergamon altar and the Ishtar Gate. Imagine what the experience would have been if these two monuments had been properly interpreted.

- Jüdisches Museum. I had meant to visit this museum for years. I discovered that after all it is more of a famous building by a famous architect. It seems that it aims to keep us in a permanent state of disorientation, both in what concerns the space an the narrative. I didn´t know where I was or what part of the story they were telling me. Many times I was unsure which path I was to follow. This was also one of the museums that used various solutions in terms of design for the presentation of the objects and for making written information available, most of them not accessible.

- Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin´s contemporary art museum. It is a private collection. I came out the same person I had gone in. I didn´t learn anything, because they didn´t explain me anything. Do they think that I know everything or that I like feeling less intelligent?

- Checkpoint Charlie – Mauermuseum. That is, the Wall Museum, conveniently located in one of the city´s most emblematic – and touristic – spots. A ‘museum’? I wouldn´t say so. It is more of a house where a fascinating story is told through texts, that were written 30-40 years ago, and copies of photos. Very few objects. Hundreds of visitors packed in this space, making me wonder whether it is legal to keep so many people in a building under these conditions. It was like a procession. But the aim here is to make money, so crowd control and the quality of the visit are not a big worry. An adult pays €12.50 (the most expensive ticket in a state museum costs €10). Someone should warn innocent tourists off. The visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is free, much more interesting and the documentation centre is next to one of the remaining fragments of the wall. This is a different experience, much more touching and decent.

Monday 10 May 2010

In order to evaluate we need objectives

“What is quality in a national theatre?” was the title of an opinion article by Christoph Dammann, ex-artistic director of the São Carlos National Opera House, published in the Público on the 3rd of May. I found the article very interesting. On one hand, because Dammann presented a number of indicators that could be useful for evaluating his performance as director of the national opera house in the last three years. Among them, the amount invested by the State on each spectator, something rarely discussed here and thus rarely considered as a performance indicator in our evaluations. But also, the increase in spectator numbers, the number of performances by portuguese singers, the number of co-productions with other countries. On the other hand, because in this article Dammann raised the question of the objectives, which should be defined by the Ministry together with the directors of cultural institutions. 

“The Theatre proprietor – the State – must discuss the following questions with the Director: how many productions should be presented in a season, with how many performances, at what cost for the State for each ticket sold? How many shows, concerts, rehearsals should me done by each element of the orchestra and the chorus?”. The numbers presented by the ex-artistic director of São Carlos seem valid. But, before discussing evaluation, we need to know what the initial objectives were. Only then should we be able to tell if he was successful or not. 

A few months ago, I heard of a museum director who was suddenly warned by his superiors that visitor numbers were low in relation to their expectations. What can one do when receiving such a warning? Easy: accept more school bookings and numbers will rise instantly. But will the quality of the visit be the same? Will the education service be able to receive numerous students with the same efficiency and care?

It is not difficult to arrange some useful numbers when necessary. If we are to take evaluation seriously, though, it is obvious that there can only be evaluation when there are objectives. These objectives must be discussed between the Ministry and the Directors, accepted by both sides and then communicated to the respective teams. Thus, everybody is clear regarding the final aims and the role each one has in the collective effort. The next step is to define performance indicators for the final evaluation. We can then say that we are all speaking the same language.

There are two very useful documents regarding this subject, both published by the British Department for Culture, Media and Sports. The first dates from 2006 and is entitled Understanding the Future: Priorities for England´s Museums (available here). The second is Balancing the Scorecard: a review of DCMS Performance Indicator Framework (available here). Another interesting element is that in the UK there are funding agreements between the State and, for example, National Museums, available on the DCMS site (see the example of the British Museum). In this document, there are clearly defined objectives the museum is proposing to reach within the three years covered by the agreement and the way it proposes to monitor its performance. Most important of all, they are available to anyone wishing to consult them.

Monday 3 May 2010

Let´s talk business

On the 28th and 29th of April, on the occasion of World Dance Day, REDE – Association of Structures for Contemporary Dance organized a meeting to discuss the Economic Sustainability and Financing Policies in the Performing Arts.

The english model was presented by Betsy Gregory, the Artistic Director of Dance Umbrella
, one of the most important promoters of contemporary dance in the UK. Starting her presentation, Betsy Gregory made clear that she feels uncomfortable when asked to speak about art in business terms, that she doesn´t like talking about fundraising, that she doesn´t like being presented with the british government´s social agenda. “It seems that we have forgotten art”, she said. “It seems that we only talk about dance as a means to fight child obesity…”.

I kept thinking about this statement, while the speaker went on with her presentation. The issue of financing the arts and culture in general – the why and how – is too big a chapter to be briefly commented in this blog. And even in countries like the UK, where everything seems to be more linear, more clear, there is a lot of criticism regarding the unconditional support for the ‘big ones’ and the struggle of the ‘small ones’ to get the precious support. So, I am not planning to open this debate here, but I do want to comment on Betsy Gregory´s words.

I agree with her that we cannot forget what is our core business. What arts know how to do best is to marvel, inspire, surprise, entertain, make us look at the world, face our problems, forget about them…I believe this is exactly why we shouldn´t feel uncomfortable talking in business terms; or when we are presented with a social agenda.

In the UK, where State funding is made against objectives, cultural structures are obliged to negotiate with the government representatives the way they do it when negotiating funding with private institutions. If they aim to be successful, they have to study the ‘sponsor´s’ agenda and adapt their language. As I said in my post Places of encounter
, we are not social workers, nor therapists, peace forces, politicians, lawyers or priests. But we are relevant. And we have to be able to show our relevance, promote our work and… talk business.

“We have to prove we are good in what we are doing”, said Betsy Gregory, “and they ask us to do it only with numbers. Thus, even structures that promote bad art are eligible for funds because they can tick all the boxes”. I believe this is where usually there is a misunderstanding, as it was proved by the question of a member of the audience: “How can quality be evaluated?”. Museums and artists are frequently annoyed when asked to prove the value of their work. Nevertheless, what is being evaluated is not the quality of the work (good/bad exhibition, good/bad performance), but instead its impact on the community, that same community of tax payers that financed it. So in my opinion, what should be revendicated is that evaluation should be based both on quantitative and qualitative indicators. Numbers are important, they are good indicators, they allow us to follow trends, they are fundamental. Nevertheless, the interpretation of the information they give us gains a whole different content, a different depth, when they are supplemented with data regarding the quality of the experience. “How do we do it?”, many people ask.

I believe that one of the simplest ways of doing it is by registering the reaction, emotions and opinions of the public. They are the final recipients of our action and they are the ones to give us who can give us feedback on the experience they had, the way it touched them, the questions it raised. A simple video by Dance Umbrella shows the basic way of doing it, on the occasion of a project called Bodies in Urban Spaces (this project was presented yesterday in Alcobaça during the celebrations of World Dance Day).

Another way of doing it, many times used by museums, would be by registering the memories of people who attend performances, participate in events and activities or visit exhibitions. Meeting them months or years later and finding out what stayed from the experience is also an indicator of the impact it had on them. A very interesting book on memory is Dream spaces: memory and the museum, by Gaynor Kavanagh
, apart from all the bibliography on visitor studies that includes projects and experiences related to memory.

On the other hand, in countries where state funding is given without asking for anything in exchange, this support is taken for granted, it doesn´t ask for performance indicators. The State must finance because culture is good for us. Because culture is important. Simply because. A “simply because” that sometimes shows a certain arrogance, as well as lack of understanding and commitment.