Monday, 29 November 2010

Is it only the term that bothers?

When 17 years ago I started my MA in Museum Studies and I discovered the world of cultural marketing, that is, the world of marketing for not-for-profit institutions, there was an intense controversy going on regarding this subject. For the big majority of museum professionals, marketing was incompatible with the mission and objectives of these institutions. There were warnings regarding the danger of ‘museological prostitution’ or the creation of ‘cultural super-markets’.

In 2002 I wrote an article for the Portuguese Museum Network bulletin entitled Museum Marketing: after all, is it only the term that bothers us? I read it again now, eight years later, and, although today I would have probably constructed my arguments in a slightly different way, there are certain points I still defend: the need and interest of museums in using marketing as a means that allows for a consistent and efficient communication and that contributes in fulfilling their mission; the awareness that museums were already developing various marketing initiatives – but in an isolated, unarticulated way, that was not part of strategic planning -, which could lead to the conclusion that it was mostly the term that bothered and not the use of those techniques; the need for the profession (of museologist) to qualify its own specialists in marketing, people that would be sensitive towards the sector´s specifications, able to help in fulfilling the mission, knowing at the same time how to respect it.

The conference Economics and theatre: challenges in times of crisis, that took place last Thursday at the D.Maria II National Theatre, made me think again about all this. I couldn´t go to the conference, so I just read a partial report about what was said in an article in the newspaper Público, entitled Managing a theatre is not like managing a company, quoting Miguel Lobo Antunes, one of the speakers of the panel “What should theatre directors know about economics?”.

The economics debate, that at times seems to be dominating everything and everyone, is a concern common to many cultural agents, probably the majority. Especially when economic indicators become the main performance indicators for our institutions. Nevertheless, when reading the article I felt that there were many analogies to the way a few years ago we were discussing marketing for the not-for-profit institutions.

Cultural activity is also an economic activity. And, just as I argued in the case of marketing, the sector can only benefit from the inclusion of professionals specialized in that area, that is, people who, apart from their knowledge in economics, understand the sector´s specificities and may contribute in fulfilling the its mission. The starting point for achieving this specialization is either the studies in economics with further specialization in cultural management or the studies in social and human sciences or the arts with further specialization in the economics of culture. In Portugal there are people qualified in this field and I don´t consider them a ‘threat’. On the contrary, those of us working in marketing and cultural communication recognize in them someone who speaks the same language.

This issue, though, takes us to another, which I don´t know whether it was discussed during the conference at D. Maria II National Theatre. Who is, or should be, the director of a theatre? The Artistic Director? A Manager? A General Director from the performing arts field with a knowledge of economics or a General Director from the economics field with a knowledge of the performing arts? Or maybe a bicephalous management?

Monday, 22 November 2010

"Get a job!", they say...

I was reading the various comments on Publico online regarding Luis Miguel Cintra´s interview to Tiago Bartolomeu Costa entitled “There is a concrete aggression against the companies”. On many occasions in the last months I felt uncomfortable, even shocked, with the violent, furious way some of the ‘commentators’, the majority anonymous, expressed their opinion against funding for culture, the arts and the artists and their contempt for them, demonstrating in certain cases – like in this one – big ignorance.

The ‘phenomenon’ is not exclusively portuguese. At the time the cuts were announced in the UK, some comments left by newspaper readers demonstrated the same fury, the same contempt, a lot of incomprehension and ignorance.

Given my profession, I tend to read these opinions from the point of view of communication. And I feel more and more that there are two issues the cultural sector, and the arts sector in particular, should address.

First of all, ‘institutional’ marketing (in quotes, because I use the term referring both to institutions and individuals). It is not enough to promote and communicate our programming. Nevertheless, because of the lack of resources and time, this is exactly what we all concentrate on. Only that in this way we end up reaching mainly existing audiences and not conquering non-audiences. Institutional marketing is a tool that would allow to communicate a vision, it would raise awareness regarding the values we defend, it would show the way a project is being built, it would try to define an accessible language, it would present ‘proofs’ as an answer to the concerns expressed by the public, it would create the basis for a relationship, it would help get support (I am not referring to financial support, but that also), it would commit into making evident the relevance of what is being created for the lives of all of us.

The second issue, very much related to the first, is that of the professionalization of those working in the area of communication and cultural marketing. It is curious that Luis Miguel Cintra himself, when he refers to the multiple tasks his small team is asked to carry out, he highlights the importance of two of them, both related to marketing: choosing photos and writing a press release.

Very often, the people working in this area are there by chance. Not questioning for a moment their commitment and dedication, many times we feel there is a lack of professional training, lack of general and specific knowledge that would allow for rigorous, consistent, relevant, innovative work. In order to work in this field, just like in any other, it is important to be well prepared, to have the knowledge and tools that would allow us to question, test, adapt, evaluate what is being done and at the same time offer good counseling to those dedicated to a different art.

It is not exactly the comments mentioned above that made me think about solutions and ways of reacting. It is very little honest on behalf of someone who believes to be informed and who pays to see the shows of Broadway, to claim that Luis Miguel Cintra does not convince anybody to go and see his shows. Although the number of spectators is not exactly a proof of quality, as we all know, the fact is that Luis Miguel Cintra, apart from having many shows sold out at the small Theatre of Bairro Alto, he manages to sell out day after day much bigger rooms when he moves to other theatres, mixing traditional and non-traditional audiences, those who follow him faithfully and others that are being exposed to his art for the first time. And that means something.

The above mentioned comments reminded me once again that ignorance exists and in the majority of the cases it is not intentional (like in these comments), but genuine. The challenge for those of us who work in the cultural sector - not only communications professionals, but also education professionals, without forgetting of course the artists themselves, programmers, artistic directors, museum directors, etc. – is to recognize it, to understand its causes, to fight it. And that means, in the first place, that we need to have adequate training in the field we are working. It also means that we should rethink and adjust our strategies and priorities.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Article 27

This week I came across Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights twice in my readings. The artivle says: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

The first time, it was in the book
No Culture, No Future by Simon Brault. Brault in the director of National Theatre School of Canada, Vice-President of Canada Council for the Arts and President of Culture Montréal. His book concentrates on issues related to cultural participation. In the first chapter, “Culture as a forward-looking sector for the future”, the author presents the development of cultural policies in countries such as France, Great Britain, the United States, as well as Canada, he reflects on the conditions of artists, on the economic impact of culture and on its funding. It is in this context that he refers to Article 27 and the right to freely participate in cultural life, a right that justifies governmental involvement in supporting culture.

The second chapter of the book, entitled “Culture as an essential dimension of the human experience”, presents the author´s vision of culture, as a lifeline, as not only a factor that forms and defines every human being, but also one of civilization and progress. Brault refers here to
The Values Study, carried out by the Connecticut Commission on Culture and with the support of Wallace Foundation, that presents the results of approximately one hundred interviews with citizens with different levels of cultural participation. The aesthetic experience, as well as cognitive, political and spiritual values are common among the interviewees, but they also give importance to the impact of cultural participation on the connection between mind and body, gaining an appreciation of ethnic and generational differences, also mentioning notions of identity, self-esteem, pride and dignity. Brault reflects on all those factor that form barriers to cultural participation (social, educational, financial and other practical – lack of time, transport, etc.) and presents a number of examples of cultural institutions that aim to provide better access, contextualizing their offer, simplifying the language they use, promoting encounters between artists and the public, but also using surtitles in opera, with live transmissions of the shows at cinemas, performing outdoors and completing the experience on the social point of view (restaurants, bars, shops, etc).

I found out in this second chapter about the Belgian Association Article 27, that brings together a number of cultural institutions and whose role is considered exemplary in the area of cultural democracy (I did not find the association´s site, but there is a reference to it
here). The Association offers free tickets or tickets at a very low price, in many cases tickets that hadn’t been sold, to all those that have financial difficulties and cannot attend the performances. Currently, the Association is considering extending the offer to other types of cultural and artistic activities, apart from the performing arts. This is an initiative that makes sense and may even generate some revenue, but it concentrates in the elimination of the financial barrier, which doesn´t seem enough to me in order to consider its action fundamental for cultural democracy. The big issue here is not money (it may also be part of it), but mental and cognitive barriers.

Simon Brault embraces the declaration “Elitist culture for all”, by French director
Antoine Vitez, and claims that, apart from supporting, protecting and funding excellence in art, it is important not to forget to develop the demand. In the third chapter of his book, he presents the city of Montreal as a case study of the creation of a cultural development policy in a city that wishes to be seen as a metropolis.

Simon Brault´s book didn’t tell me something new. But it is a well-written book, by someone who believes in what he´s doing and does it with passion and dedication.

I found the second reference to Article 27 in Sharon Heal´s editorial in the October issue of Museums Journal (the monthly journal of
Museums Association). In September it took place in Liverpool the inaugural meeting of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums. The Federation brings together museums that deal with issues of slavery, human rights or the Holocaust, museums whose mission is also to educate and campaign for the respect and against the abuse of human rights. In her editorial, Sharon Heal claims that dealing with these issues should not be the exclusive responsibility of museums whose subject is directly or obviously related to them. Evoking Article 27, Heal reminds us that cultural rights are human rights and believes that all museums must look at their local communities and try to understand if there are people in them that are financially, intellectually or socially excluded. And if there are (we know there are), don´t museums have the obligation to do something about it?

Up to now I had not thought about the issue of cultural participation and audience development with reference to Article 27. We are all so worried about proving the value of culture and convincing governers, sponsors and the society in general of the importance and need to support it, that all too often we forget that cultural participation is a declared right. Thus, the starting point, as I claimed in my post
Who deserves to be funded? (II), should be different: it should be about facilitating access (physical, cognitive, financial).

Monday, 8 November 2010

The 'comfort' factor

It was in the book The Museum Experience, by John Falk and Lynn Dierking, that I first read about the ‘comfort’ factor, associated to the quality of the experience of visiting a museum. The two authors identify three contexts in the interaction of the visitor with the museum:

1. The personal context: previous experience and knowledge, interests, motivations and concerns that each visitor brings along and that define his/her personal agenda in what concerns the visit.

2. The social context: the type of group of which the visitor forms part, as well as, even in what concerns solitary visitors, the interaction with other visitors and members of staff, influence the visitor´s perspective of this experience and help us understand different behaviours.

3. The physical context: the architecture and ‘feeling’ of the building, exhibition design, shops, cafés and restaurants, WCs, areas to take a rest, are all factors that determine the quality of the visit.

Falk and Dierking consider that visitor experience is a constantly changing interaction among the personal, social and physical contexts. In what concerns the physical context, George Hein, in his book
Learning in the Museum, refers specifically to visitor comfort as a prerequisite in the construction of a learning environment and experience.

Who can enjoy an exhibition when they feel tired and cannot take a rest, when they are hungry, warm or cold, when they cannot find the WC or when its conditions are not as they should be? These are all apparently secondary elements, but significant for the quality of the experience we aim to provide, because they condition it.

I believe that we find the same three contexts in any cultural experience, the ‘comfort’ factor also having an impact on the quality. The author of O Blog do Desassossego published a post last month entitled "On Theatre", where we can read: “(…) The problem is that the plays are always an hour longer than they should. Generally, when it´s time for interval they should actually be finishing. But no, we go on chewing for another hour and a half a story that could be told in less time. And then I can´t find a comfortable position in the seat, everything hurts, I yawn and I only want to get out from there (…)”. The duration of a play, the possibility to know about it beforehand, the existence of an interval, the room temperature, the seats being comfortable or not are elements that determine the quality of the experience as much as, or for some people even more than, the quality of the play. I confess that once or twice I opted not to see the productions of Cornucopia knowing that, given the duration, from a specific moment onwards I would be unable to follow the action taking place on stage and I would be thinking of how uncomfortable the seats are, the pain in my legs and I would be noticing other people constantly changing position in search for some comfort. Also at CCB, I am always trying to get a ticket for an aisle seat, since there is not enough space for the legs of a medium stature person, as myself; I also don´t forget to take a jacket, as the air conditioning is usually cold. The same occurs when opting for a tier of benches on the stage of Culturgest or Maria Matos Theatre, where, apart from the lack of space for the legs, we are forced into a physical proximity with stangers that not everybody wishes for. (I let other people talk about the comforts and discomforts at the theatre where I work. I know they exist.)

There is another possibility still: when the long duration of a bad play contributes to our total discomfort: physical, psychological, intellectual. Last Thursday, the comfortable chairs of the main auditorium of Culturgest where not able to ease the total discomfort caused by the play
O Inferno by Mónica Calle. And while the evaluation of the quality of a play is always subjective, we cannot say the same about its duration (3 hours) and the lack of interval. Half of the spectators abandoned the room during the play. Those who resisted and didn´t leave, either because they enjoyed the play or because they felt ashamed to leave or out of respect for the actresses´s effort (which was clearly my case), they saw the director jumping on stage as soon as the play had finished. She acknowledged that half of the spectators had left, given the duration of the show, and then she turned and thanked the actresses. Extremely tired and upset, I thought her intervention was totally inappropriate. The director should have equally acknowledged that the play was too long and that there should have been an interval, giving the spectators, whom she forgot to thank, a chance to take a rest or…to run away, without regrets.

Monday, 1 November 2010

In London

During half term week, London was full of people. Apart from the thousands of foreign tourists that fill every day its streets and museums, english families travel to the capital to visit its museums and exhibitions.

Museums looked like shopping centres during the sales. The queues, the noise, the quantity of people turned the visit into a torture in museums like The Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museu or Tate Modern. The parks, less sought after by tourists but very much appreciated by Londoners, allowed us to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the marvellous colours of autumn.

Among everything I saw, I would highlight two things. The first is the sculpture “Sunflower seeds” by Chinese artist
Ai Weiwei, installed in Tate Modern´s Turbine Hall.
Mao Tse Tung was depicted as the sun and the Chinese people as sunflowers turning towards him. At the same time, Ai Weiwei remembers the sharing of sunflower seeds as a gesture of friendship, compassion and kindness at those times of pain, repression and uncertainty. The museum takes it even further: What does it mean to be an individual in today's society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future? More information on this work here and also a video about its creation here.

The second highlight goes to open air sculptures by artist
Anish Kapoor, which compose the exhibition Turning the World Upside Down.

A hundred million porcelain seeds, each sculpted individually by more than 1600 chinese artisans. A work that could be classified as ‘beautiful’ or ‘impressive’, but which, as we discover it through texts and videos, gains a whole different dimension. “Art is a tool to set up new questions. To create a basic structure which can be open to possibilities is what is more interesting in my work. I want people who don´t understand what art is to understand what I am doing”, says the artist and known activist. This piece bears reference to the ancient chinese art of porcelain, but also to the Cultural Revolution, during which

Set up in Kensington Gardens, the sculptures reflect the sky, the trees, the people that walk around and pause to contemplate them. It seems that they re-dimension the space around us and project it once again. The sculptures will be exhibited until spring and will follow the changes of weather and of the seasons. More information on this exhibition