Monday 28 June 2010

About the Culture Minister´s interview

Culture Minister, Gabriela Canavilhas, gave an interview on the 25th of June to the newspaper Público (read here in portuguese only), announcing significant cuts in the area of culture, that will affect all sectors.

I believe there are various points that should be better explained. The fact that the reactions of various cultural agents obliged the Ministry to issue a press release on the day the interview was published (read
here in portuguese only) indicates that there has apparently been little dialogue and sharing of information. Everybody has manifested solidarity, but they don´t like being taken by surprise and feel that they should be more involved in the search for solutions. It makes sense.

I believe that the Culture Minister is someone who knows what she wants, confident, courageous and focused. She was very fast briefed on the situation of the various cultural sectors and took initiatives in order to initiate processes aiming to tackle issues that have been on standby for a long time.

This is why I feel disappointed every time the Minister seems to avoid answering certain questions and even gives information to the general public that is not precise. She is using the ‘tricks’ of politicians, which do not work with people that have a more profound knowledge of the field and, I repeat, keep the general public misinformed.

There are two moments in the interview that caused me this feeling, both related to museums. First, when the Minister was questioned about the controversial transfer of the National Museum of Archaeology, she answered:

“The public visibility of the controversy, if we look carefully, has been motivated by two or three people. It doesn´t have a large dimension. It´s the restricted movement of a restricted group. The fact that it has gained a lot of visibility in the newspapers doesn´t mean that it emanates from a significant civil force”.

“Rarely in culture do we see movements from large civil forces”, insisted the journalist Vanessa Rato.

“It is not so”, answered the Minister. “Look at the case of the Popular Art Museum. This was really a movement, with a very interesting strength. In the case of the Museum of Archaeology, it is the director and two or three more people…”.

I don´t want to believe that the Minister is not aware of the disagreement of a large part of museum professionals, of the intense activity of the National Museum of Archaeology Friends Group, of the heated debate in this group´s
blog, of the declaration of the Assembly-General of the National Committee of ICOM (International Council of Museums), that originated a petition. All these people are not simply against the transfer of the museum. They are against the transfer of the museum while there is not a study that can guarantee that the Cordoaria has the necessary conditions in order to receive a collection of great national importance.

But I would say more. Even if there were only two or three people against the transfer of the museum, even if it was only one, the Director, the fact that these people are museum professionals should be enough for the Minister to pay more attention and not try to minimize or ignore the validity of their opinions an actions. Because Luís Raposo is an excellent professional. Because he is a man of dialogue, looking for consensus. Because he´s not just whining. He´s fulfilling his responsibilities, trying to guarantee, in the name of all of us, the conditions for the preservation of the National Museum of Archaeology collection.

The second point in the interview that left me feeling uncomfortable was when the Minister was questioned about the efficiency of the articulation between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Economy, giving as example the case of the exhibition “Encompassing the Globe”.

“I didn´t follow that process. I was in the Azores”, answered Gabriela Canavilhas.

Well, we all know now that the exhibition´s objectives are far from having been achieved and that the costs for the State, for the tax payers, have been considerable. The details were published in the newspaper Público in the 21st of April (read
here in portuguese only), Gabriela Canavilhas being already Culture Minister. In my post of the 26th of May, entitled NMAA in the news, I was commenting on the fact that former Culture Minister, José António Pinto Ribeiro, the minister responsible for the exhibition coming to Portugal, declined to comment on the news. I considered that it was his obligation towards the citizens to assume his responsibilities and answer the questions. Similarly, I don´t think it was correct on behalf of the actual Culture Minister to avoid answering when questioned about the efficiency of the partnerships between her Ministry and the Ministry of Economy. Even if she was still in the Azores, she would have surely heard the news. The question asked is very valid and what I would expect from a Minister who knows what she wants, confident, courageous and focused, would be a clear answer, guaranteeing that cases of bad management of public money, as the one of the exhibition “Encompassing the Globe”, will not be repeated.

Monday 21 June 2010

News from the greek crisis

Petros Tatoulis, greek former Vice Minister of Culture, stated on the 9th of May to the newspaper Kathimerini: “The Ministry of Culture needs a hard reset! The timing couldn´t be better. As there is no money, it is a unique opportunity to implement radical reforms. If they don´t happen now, they´ll never happen! And the sector will become extinct."

At this time of crisis, everybody is looking at the Ministry of Culture (more precisely, after the last elections, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) and at the organisms under its tutelage. According to Iota Sykka´s article, it is mainly the orchestras and the museums that will suffer major changes and fusions. Too many orchestras for a country of the size of Greece, some being ghost-orchestras, overlapping responsibilities, the same musicians playing in many of them.
In what concerns museums, the first fusion to be announced is that of the Cinema Museum with the Greek Film Centre in Salonika, Greece´s second largest city. It is almost certain as well the fusion of the Hellenic Culture Organization and the Archaeological Receipts Fund. There has been talk for years about their overlapping competences, nevertheless, the supporters of the party in government continued to be given jobs at the Organization. The income of both is disappointing, their services mediocre or inexistent. The actual Minister of Culture, Pavlos Geroulanos, aims to create a new organism that wil combine "the Hellenic Culture Organization´s orientation for development and the Archaeological Receipts Fund´s commercial profile". There is also the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, that, although it doesn´t present a deficit, the Ministry would like to redefine its profile and is already studying the fusion of its offices abroad with the Tourism offices.
Changes still in the theatre sector. National theatres have already been warned that, should they go above their annual budget, they should be looking for alternative sources of funding (shouldn´t this happen anyway, under any circumstances...?). The future of the Municipal Peripherical Theatres is also under the microscope. This is a network created in the early 80s by the then Minister of Culture Melina Merkouri, aiming at the decentralization and the enrichment of the cultural life of local societies. Thirty years later, the 16 theatres officially present the two productions and one children´s play they are obliged to annually. The rest of the time they function as commercial theatre companies, presenting productions of dubious quality around the country during the summer months. according to an article by journalist Sandra Voulgari (Kathimerini, 23/05/2010), apart from a few exceptions, the majority of the Municipal Peripherical Theatres are decadent. The artistic directors of the most successful theatres defend their continuation, but are asking for reforms. Actor Panos Skouroliakos, artistic director of the theatre of the region of Roumeli, speaks about an excessive number of employees, whose salaries absorb 80% of the annual budget, leaving a mere €60.000 for production. Yiannis Karachissaridis, artistic director of the theatre of the town of Kozani, defends that priority should be placed on productivity, while reducing at the same time state funding by 30%, stimulating true development. Without closing down any of the 16 theatres, he proposes a fusion into 6 anonymous societies. Nobody would get fired, but there would be fewer artistic directors. He also believed that with a €370.000 funding the six anonymous socities would be able to fullfil their missions.
Still in the sector of the performing arts, in an attempt to finish with the payment of subsidies directly by the Minister´s office (a common practice), there was created an Online Register of Cultural Structures. Any structure interested in getting a subsidy may register. All applications will be made available online, together with each subsidised structure´s history and financial situation. Applications will be evaluated by a jury specific for each sector.
In what concerns the owners of art galleries, according to an article by Elias Maglinis (Kathimerini, 02/05/2010), the majority feels there is mainly a psychological effect from the crisis on medium and new buyers. It´s not so much the lack of money, but the uncertainty about the future. Angeliki Antonopoulou, owner of, decided together with her artists to cut proces down by 30%. "We need to adapt", she said. On the other hand, Elisa Grigoraki, owner of Athens Art Gallery, believes that there may be people interested in investing in works of art as a means of protecting their cash. "Even during the german occupation [1941-44] the art market was very active", she says. A more positive note comes from Kalfayan brothers, owners of the homonymous galleries. They consider that the situation is under control. They have new buyers and they´ve been in art fairs in Cologne, Bologna, Dubai, Los Angeles and New York. "It´s a pity there were no more greek galleries present in those fairs. The market in Greece has flourished and they could have made that investment and help themselves (...) This is a great opportunity to promote our artists abroad." In this environment of crisis, Kalfayan brothers are expanding their space in Athens and opening up a new gallery in a peripherical town.
The statements of the President of the Board of Megaron, the Athens concert hall, are less alarmist, more realistic, pragmatic and at the same time show a certain sensitivity: "At a time of economic, social and moral crisis, culture is the antidote", says Ioannis Manos (Kathimerini, 09/05/2010 - read the interview in english here). He believes in institutions that know how to combine the visionary dimension with a correct management, programming with imagination. The Megaron is under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, which funds 38% of its annual budget, registering nevertheless a decrease of 35% in relation to last year. The rest of the money comes from ticket sales, conferences, space hire and sponsorship, which in 2010-2011 will be higher than in the previous period. A proof of the sponsors´s trust in the institution and its perspectives. Even though, before the government´s announcement of austerity measures, the Megaron´s directors had decided a 10% cut in their salaries and the members of Kamerata, the resident orchestra, a 20% cut. Ioannis Manou said that the Megaron will adopt a more aggressive in order to attract conferences and will create a system that will guarantee multi-annual sponshorship.
Going back, to the ex-Vice Minister of Culture Petros Tatoulis´s interview (Kathimerini, 09/05/2010), let´s see his definition of those that should be the main objectives: "First objective: a new organization, open to the society. Second: provide institutioanal tools that will allow for greater flexibility and decentralization. Third: identify alternative sources of funding. Four: establish priorities. Five: select cultural 'steam engines' that will pull the rest."

Obvious things, it seems... But we are talking about years and years of bad management, lack of vision, lack of courage, lack of discipline, a budget and many public orhanisms at the service of the interests of the parties and the needs and demands of their supporters. A vicious circle, which, in fact, the country in general, and culture in particular, might be forced to abandon. Is it going to happen? How is it possible to change the greek mentality, the greek way of being and acting?
A time of crisis, of little money, is, in fact, ideal for 'forcing' reforms and changes. It is an opportunity that Greece, in the middle of all its problems and because of them, should not miss.

Monday 14 June 2010

Art, politics and boycotts

The news regarding the israeli attack on the flotilla that aimed to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza strip, on the 31st of May, were followed by news of successive cancellations of various concerts of international artists that were going to take place in Israel (read article in the New York Times here). The american group The Pixies, whose first concert in Israel had been long awaited, apologized to the fans but “events beyond all our control have conspired against us”. On the other hand, Elvis Costello, who initially seemed that he would go ahead with his decision to perform in Israel, justified, through a press release on his website, his change of mind and the cancellation of his concert as “a matter of instinct and conscience”.

At the same time, french newspapers informed the public that the network of cinemas Utopia had decided to cancel a film by an israeli director, a romantic comedy, a decision that resulted in a public statement by the french Minister of Culture and that was later reversed (read article in Le Monde here).

Through these readings, I discovered the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
, launched in 2004 by a group of palestinian intellectuals and academics who call for a boycott considering that the big majority of israeli intellectuals and academics have directly contributed to the occupation or at least have been accomplices through their silence. On the other hand, I read the editorial of the 9th of June in Le Monde, entitled Ne boycottons pas les artistes israéliens (Let´s not boycott israeli artists), that considered this kind of boycott a dangerous and unacceptable response, that will contribute in weakening israeli voices and views, that are among the most uncompromising in what concerns their country´s government.

In situations like this, we usually hear that we shouldn´t mix art and politics. I would say that what we shouldn´t do is to put art at the service of politics, we shouldn´t instrumentalize it. But art isn´t created in a vacuum. This is why I nurture enormous respect for artists who are not unaware of what happens around them, who take a stand. While reading the statements of The Pixies and Elvis Costello, I felt there was something missing in their arguments, that they were rather more 'instinct' and less 'conscience'. Nevertheless, the cancellation of their concerts, among various others, has undoubtedly raised awareness regarding a tragic, unfair and revolting situation. I suppose the israeli public has mixed feelings about them. Actually, the New York Times article talks about people who see in them a clear sign of their country´s increasing isolation, while others feel misunderstood by the rest of the world. Anyway, these famous artists, even somehow unconsciously, have caused a debate among their audiences, and not only their audiences. In that same article, the music agent that had promoted The Pixies concert in Israel classified the cancellation in the New York Times as “cultural terrorism”. Well, many Israelis have a very particular way of defining ‘terrorism’ (but they are not the only ones).

In the meantime, a foreign artist´s decision not to perform in Israel is not the same as the boycott of israeli artists and intellectuals. Greek journalist Katerina Voussoura spent the last week of May in Israel and got to know the country´s contemporary cultural scene, presenting a number of artists in an article in the newspaper Kathimerini, entitled Israeli artists challenge identity issues
. In this article we get to know the work of those who live and work in Israel, little promoted by the media, and thus little known and little heard, who constantly question israeli identity, developing their own peace processes, in an infinately smaller scale, but not less significant.

Thus, we get to know Acco Theater Center
, situated in the city of Acre in Northern Israel. Considering that theatre has a fundamental role in stimulating an individual and collective catharsis, this group has promoted for more than twenty years encounters between jewish and arab artists, creates performances based on the stories of the locals, challenges apathy, fear and isolation and invites the local community to open their hearts and minds and to consider alternatives. Smadar Yaaron, co-founder and artistic director of the group, has recently presented her latest work, Wishuponastar, where, through her marriage to the Star of David, evokes and then breaks down a number of stereotypes of the contemporarry israeli-jewish identity.

Other cases presented in the greek newspaper´s article are the Arab-Hebrew Theater of Jaffa
, made by two groups that produce plays together or apart, with jewish and arab artists, in both languages; and also the Ruth Kanner Theater Group, in Tel Aviv, which, through hebraic texts – literary works, texts resulting from the research on local traditions and documentary materials – aims to reexamine the official israeli narratives and question the relativity of truth and its dependence on the views of the observer.

Idan Raichel is another artist mentioned in the article. His musical project, the Idan Raichel Project,
was presented in 2002 and promotes artists from various areas, producing songs in various languages. This project brought for the first time the music of the minorities to israeli mainstream radio stations. “It is also important for people to know about the cultures of Syria and Lebanon, to know there is a neighbor across the border, not an enemy”, said Idan Raichel.

These artists, and others even more famous (for instance, the project East-Western Divan Orchestra), have no illusions regarding the impact of their work. Neither theatre, nor music, nor litterature, nor cinema will bring peace to the Middle East. They don´t work with this objective, anyway. But they work, they exist, they think, they question, they challenge, they take a stand. In a constant fight against ignorance. To boycott them, because of their nationality, would be to discriminate them, them who work against discrimination. It would be to censor them, them who work for the freedom of speech. It would be to weaken them, as mentioned in the Le Monde editorial, them who are so many times seen as ‘traitors’.

Two reading suggestions:

- Our sacred land: voices of the palestine-israeli conflict, by Kenize Mourad. A journalistic work that presents the stories of people who live on both sides of the conflict.

- The attack, by Yasmina Khadra. A novel about an arab-israeli doctor who discovers that his wife, who had died in a suicide attack, was herself the suicide bomber.

Monday 7 June 2010

Writers and museums

Last week I read in Intelligent Life magazine and article in the Authors on Museums series. It was a text by mexican writer Carlos Fuentes on the Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa, México, entitled Moving in Time and Space. It started like this:

“I have always tried to visit a museum that I love as though it was the first time. Sometimes the attempt is successful, sometimes not. When the revisited museum makes me feel that I am just repeating an experience, I rush away to the nearest café. Museums, like lovers, can lose their charms. But the next time can always be the first time.”

I found the introduction marvellous, that way of speaking about one´s relationship with a museum. I read the rest of the article, a beautiful report about the places the author saw on his way to Xalapa, in the company of two south american writers, and then his new encounter with the museum. After that, I didn´t resist and read the rest of the texts in the Authors on Museums series, that started in September 2008.

British writer and journalist Allison Pearson
wrote the following introduction in her article on Musée Rodin, entitled Rodin´s sonnets in stone:

“You never forget your first kiss. Mine happened on a school trip to Paris over 30 years ago and it was either a happy coincidence or a divine joke that, during that same Easter, I encountered another unforgettable Kiss. (...) The other Kiss—by Auguste Rodin—started a love affair with a small museum on the Left Bank in which “Le Baiser” sits among the sculptor’s sublime works and several fine pieces by his mistress, Camille Claudel. The kisses bestowed by art, unlike those of men, are set in stone. It was in the Musée Rodin that I first realised what Art was capable of.”

Another interesting text was that of british writer William Boyd
on his favorite museum, Leopold Museum in Vienna, entitled William Boyd´s debt to Rudolph Lepold:

“This largely explains why the Leopold Museum in Vienna is my favourite art gallery: not only does it house the world’s outstanding collection of Schiele’s work—with many masterworks on its walls—but it is also, haphazardly and wholly inadvertently, a storehouse of my own youthful ambitions to live the life of an artist. Seeing Schiele’s work acts as a kind of infallible Proustian trigger for me, providing a fast rewind to my teenage years and their fervid dreams. Whenever I’m in Vienna I visit it, even for ten minutes or so, and it never fails to entrance, delight and, because the hang of Rudolf Leopold’s collection is forever changing in subtle ways, there is always some new revelation.”

What passionate, involving, profoundly human texts on people´s relationship with museums. How beautiful it is to see the way they can touch us for ever e how we go back to them looking for shelter, comfort, passed but not forgotten feelings, surprises, new discoveries. One of the most significant increases in visitor numbers in New York museums was registered after 9/11. And it didn´t have to do with tourists.

But, going back to writers and museums, reading the articles in Intelligent Life magazine I remembered a project of the National Portrait Gallery
in London. In March, I had read in the Guardian that the Gallery had invited seven popular writers to imagine the lives hidden behind the portraits of uknown people, that were part of its collection (read the article here). For more than 50 years, these 16th and 17th century portraits were in the museum stores, not seen by anyone. The initiative resulted in an exhibition called
Imagined Lives: mystery portraits
. Some of these portraits may be seen here. Among the writes invited, there was John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize, the popular Joanna Trollope and Tracy Chevallier, author of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

I confess, I love museums with imagination and with original ideas. Museums that think constantly of their collections and find new ‘pretexts’ to re-exhibit them, to group them in a different way, looking for new stories. Stories that do not necessarily have to be those of the curators.

The names of the writers invited by the National Portrait Gallery must have helped a lot in promoting the exhibition. In the meantime, at the time I read the news I remember having thought that this could have been an excellent opportunity to involve people. Some of the labels in Tate Britain´s
permanent exhibition have been written by visitors. They bring a new perspective, but equally interesting and, some times, surprising, about the works exhibited. So I thought that, in the case of the portraits, the National Portrait Gallery could have promoted a writting contest for the general public. (Still) anonymous writers on the anonymous sitters. Looking for new talents.