Monday, 6 September 2010

The 'burden' we insist on carrying

Following the announcement by the british government of cuts in the area of culture, the Guardian published on the 25th of July an article by playwright Mark Ravenhill, whose plays have been presented also in Portugal. Ravenhill´s proposal (read the article here) is to cut in marketing and development, so that artistic production is not affected. According to the author, marketing and development have not been able to demonstrate any results in the last years, although they receive a considerable part of the budget of cultural institutions. Ravenhill goes on to consider the costs of outreach work a burden for the arts, since Labour government pressed the arts to prove their social worth.

Ravenhill´s proposal is frightening. Not so much because he uses arguments that are not very precise regarding the results demonstrated by marketing and development departments in his country (on this point, Colin Tweedy, of
Arts and Business, answered Ravenhill´s claims in his article of the 30th of July). It is frightening because it shows, once more, that marketing and communication in general are still considered by many artists dispensable accessories, a burden, an evil imposed.

What I see in Ravenhill´s statements is an artist centred in himself and his art. And that´s how it should be. But I also see an artist who counts with the State´s support in order to be able to develop his work with better conditions, but who would feel offended should the State asked first “And why should we support you with the tax payers´s money?”. I also see an artist who wishes to communicate through his art and who, although he´s delighted – aren´t they all? – with sold out performances, he´s unable to value the importance of the work of those who aim to make his art more accessible for more people. Because what he does is good and important. Because what he does speaks for itself and everybody should be able to understand it. Because he doesn´t have to explain, much less prove, himself to anyone.

We often encounter this attitude of “I am important because I am” in museums as well. Where the ‘superior’ functions of collecting and preserving outweigh the ‘lesser’ functions of exhibiting and communicating. Where politically correct statements regarding “doors open to all” and the relationship with the community do not become concrete practices towards accessibility and audience development. Where the word ‘marketing’ is not pronounced, it bothers.

Personally, I see marketing and communication (and within them development, education and outreach) as integral and indispensable parts of the work developed by cultural institutions. Their role is to support the mission of these institutions (and also the artists they present, the collections they house) and they do it by looking for the financial support they need in order to operate and by investing in a long-term relationship with the audiences they aim to address, with the permanent objective to enlarge and diversify them, so that more and more people may discover and enjoy the offer.

I don’t wish to be simplistic in what concerns complex issues. We all know that the ways of financing the arts may raise issues of artistic freedom. We all know that the parameters for evaluating the impact of arts and culture in life are constantly debated and controversial. That´s why I find Mark Ravenhill´s arguments dangerously simplistic, as they see marketing as a waste of money and outreach as a burden.

On the 14th of September Michael Kaiser, President of
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, will be in Lisbon for a seminar on Cultural Management. His book The Art of the Turnaround is a delicious, and at times scary, account of his professional experience as manager of cultural organizations in trouble that he helped turn into healthy institutions. Among them, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, the American Ballet Theater and the Royal Opera House. The role of marketing, both programmatic and institutional, was fundamental. Michael Kaiser keeps saying it. I wonder what his relationship was with the artists.

An artist does not create because it´s useful for society. But society (the State and the sponsors) have come to value the social worth of the arts and culture. And more and more people are touched, marvelled, transformed by the experiences they have, by the discovery of things once unknown or hardly understood. I have no doubt this is due to the contribution of those working in marketing or development or communications or education or outreach departments… There are many terms, but only one wish: to bring the arts closer and make them accessible. And this is a burden we insist on carrying.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

I have to agree with you. Ravenhill's proposal to cut marketing and development may leave more money available for artistic production but will this production then be production for the sake of production and not for an audience?