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.

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