Monday, 27 June 2011

Starting at the Kennedy Center

Photo: mv
I am starting today my one-month training at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The centre opened in 1971, positioning itself as an organization that presents excellent American and international artists and performances, that supports new work and young artists and that is a leader in arts management training, both nationally and internationally.

It is the investment of the Kennedy Center in this later field, training, that brings every year to Washington culture professionals from all over the world. Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center and founder of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, believes that, apart from the need to support talent and artistic creation, there is a need to train good arts managers, watchful and sensitive regarding the changes (social, political, technological and economic) that affect the cultural sector, able to draw strategic plans that can guarantee a healthy and efficient management of the institutions that exist to support artistic creation and make it accessible for the public.

The Summer International Fellowship (SIF), in which I am going to participate, lasts three years and the fellows spend one month in each of these years at the Kennedy Center, having the opportunity to learn with some of the best professionals in the fields of strategic planning, marketing, fundraising and financial management. The training involves seminars, masterclasses, group and individual projects, the integration of the fellows in various departments of the Kennedy Centre, as well as a series of special events, from performances to encounters with arts management professionals and other influential figures in the cultural field.

The fellows of my year come from Africa, Asia and Europe. I will be sharing this experience with the Deputy Director of Kuona Trust (Nairobi, Kenya); the Executive Director of Kwani Trust (Nairobi, Kenya); the founder of Made for Stage Productions (Karachi, Pakistan); the General Manager of Corporate Communications of the Mahindra Foundation (India); the co-founder, Executive Director and Artistic Director of Evam Entertainment (Chennai, India); the founder and Director of Siddharta Art Gallery and Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (Kathmandu, Nepal); the Head of Foreign Affairs of the National Ballet of China; the Director of Dance UK; the Deputy Director of the National Centre of Folk Culture (Kiev, Ucraine); the founder and President of ARS DOR Association (Chisinau, Moldavia); and the Director of POGON – Zagreb Centre for Independent Culture and Youth (Zagreb, Croatia). During our month at the Kennedy Center we will meet and have some common classes with fellows from the two previous years. Thirty six participants from thirty two countries. The Kennedy Center invests on all of them, all of us, in order to train good arts managers all over the world and, naturally, its ambassadors.

I am truly lucky and privileged to be able to participate in the Kennedy Centre SIF. This is going to be a great adventure. I obviously wish to learn, learn, learn. But, in this initial phase in particular, I wish for all my ‘certainties’ to be challenged.

Monday, 20 June 2011

House with a roof but no foundations?

The brazilian portal Cultura e Mercado announced last week that the House of Representatives is going to create a commission in order to analyse the Proposal for an Amendment to the Constitution, that recognizes access to culture as a social right. In the same piece of news they were talking about the Culture Voucher bill, according to which each worker who earns up to five times the minimum salary will get a monthly subsidy of R$50 (approximately €22) in order to be allowed access to products and services in the visual and performing arts, audiovisual, literature, music and cultural heritage.

I was very curious about this project. I thought about practical issues (is it going to be a card from which the value of the products will be discounted, a voucher booklet, will it be exchanged in establishments that accept to be part of the initiative, will workers have to present receipts…?), but I mainly thought about the objectives and expectations of the project.

I found some answers in the final draft of the bill:

“Art. 1 It is hereby instituted, under the management of the Ministry of Culture, the Worker´s Programme of Culture, aimed at providing workers with means in order to exercise their cultural rights and have access to cultural sources.

Art. 2 The Worker’ s Programme of Culture has the following objectives:

I – To allow for access and fruition of cultural products and services;

II – To stimulate the visitation of establishments that provide the integration of science, education and culture; and

III – To encourage access to cultural and artistic events and performances.”

In another article in Cultura and Mercado, entitled Democratização do acesso à cultura (Democratization of access to culture), I read a critical analysis of this proposal. The author, Roberto Baungartner, presented statistics such as: only 13% of Brazilians go to the cinema at least once a year; more than 92% have never been to a museum or art exhibition; 78% have never attended a dance performance. Some of these data are also mentioned in the Culture Voucher official video.

Roberto Baungartner believes that this initiative, apart from benefiting culture itself, will create more jobs and revenue, it will reduce violence and will increase, in what concerns demand, the production chains involved. He also believes that it will make brazilian companies more competitive in the international field.

Once again, I don´t find the objectives and expectations to be realistic and well structured. I always have serious doubts that democratizing access to culture is something one can take care of, first of all, with measures like this one, that seem to be leaving aside the main issues in what concerns access.

In Baungartner´s article we can also read that more than 90% of brazilian municipalities have no cinema rooms, theatre, museums and cultural spaces in general (he actually mentions that the 6000 cinema rooms Brazil once had are now reduced to 200). So, my questions are the following:

- Without the necessary spaces and cultural habits related to the programmes these places normally offer, can we really believe that a R$50 subsidy is what´s missing in order to create access?

- It is very promising that a government is willing to recognize the social right to culture (it is actually a human right) and to consider it in the constitution amendment. Nevertheless, it needs to be clear for all what is ‘culture’, how it is produced, by whom, where, and what is necessary in order to provide access to it (both in what concerns production and consumption). I say this, because the Culture Voucher official video, quite well done, presents, in the meantime, a vision of what culture is quite concentrated in the so-called ‘high culure’, access to which – for the majority of the people who never go to the cinema, to a museum or to the theatre – is not provided, in the first place, with a R$50 monthly subsidy.

At a time when cultural institutions are looking for ways to share the responsibility of managment and programming with actual and, mainly, potential audiences, through the recognition of various forms of cultural fruition and the creation of conditions that would facilitate access to it, the brazilian initiative seems to ignore recent developments and trends and to be limited to issues that, in my opinion, are important but secondary in this discussion. It is, nevertheless, an interesting initiative, probably innovative, that has produced a large amount of consensus among the different agents that will be involved in it and from which many people will certainly benefit. It will be interesting to follow its development and be able to compare the results against the initial objectives.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Silent and apolitical?

Photo: Maria Vlachou
One hundred million sunflower seed made of porcelain, each one created individually by more than 1600 artisans. Do they look inoffensive? ‘Apolitical’? Well, they aren´t. Actually, it was the progressive discovery of the political meaning in this work by Ai Weiwei that thrilled me when I saw it in Tate Modern last October.

Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist and political activist, was detained by the Chinese authorities on April 3, when he was ready to board a plane. Nobody heard of him for weeks. There were no formal accusations, except some rumours about economic crimes. His wife was able to see him more than a month later, in the presence of two guards. He looked well physically, but was visibly nervous.

Photo: Reuters
Ai Weiwei´s world, artists and museums of contemporary art in many countries, reacted to his detention. Among other initiatives, Tate Modern projected on its façade the phrase “Release Ai Weiwei”; artist Anish Kapoor called on museums and art galleries all over the world to close for one day in protest; Cuban artist Geandy Pavon projected Ai Weiwei´s portrait on the Chinese consulate´s wall in New York; the Guggenheim Museum started a petition online that has already been signed by more than 140.000 people (read about the various initiatives here). Last week, Philip Bishop wrote in the Guardian that museums are not doing all they can. Signing a petition is not enough, he was saying, museums should make their support for Ai Weiwei more visible, namely through their homepages. And in the same newspaper, Hari Kunzru was questioning the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts´s silence, which is now exhibiting the famous terracotta warriors, and was hoping that this unique opportunity to raise awareness about the Chinese artist´s detention wouldn´t be lost.

In the middle of all the worries expressed at an international level, the statements of some museums directors that museums “don´t do politics” (read the interview with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts director) or that museums “don´t do protests” and that “they are apolitical” (read here about the statements of the Milwaukee Art Museum director and the reactions of other professionals) are disappointing, to say the least. Of course museums do politics: when they decide what to exhibit or not; when they allow for dialogue or not; when they choose their partners; when they turn a blind eye to issues such as human rights and freedom of speech, claiming to be ‘apolitical’. Both at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Milwaukee Art Museum there will soon open exhibitions on China. Clearly, both directors are doing politics.

There are museums whose nature clearly associates them to political (and social) issues: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Ottawa or the Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos in Santiago de Chile; the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (deeply committed to the prevention of genocide, but where the word ‘Palestine’ is not mentioned even once); the District Six Museum in Cape Town, to mention only some, very few. In general, history museums that cannot (although sometimes they wish and try to…) escape their nature. Nevertheless, any declaration of neutrality would be false.

Are art museums exempt? But… can they be? Neither the nature of their collections (art is not neutral, it´s not apolitical) nor their businesses allow for it. Curiously enough, the Guggenheim Museum, that started the online petition in favour of Ai Weiwei, has found itself involved in a case related to human rights. The New York Times announced back in March, together with a number of other media, that more than 130 artists had decided to boycott the new museum being built in Abu Dhabi, due to the working conditions of foreign workers involved in its construction (conditions that became widely known some time ago through the CBS programme 60 Minutes, but which have also been registered on the site of the Human Rights Watch). The artists demanded an immediate independent inspection and threatened not to participate in any events neither to sell their works to the future museum. The situation isn´t easy for the Guggenheim Museum, that aims to build a collection from scratch for this new museum, mainly dedicated to artists from the Middle East (some of the most prominent figures are part of the protest group). The Museum´s answer may be read here.

In a post I wrote last year, entitled Places of encounter, I quoted David Fleming, president, at the time, of INTERCOM (the ICOM international committee for management): “Gone are the days when museums have to stand aloof, pretending they are not part of the society they are supposed to serve, carrying on oblivious of their surroundings as though the culture they display has no political or social relevance. Museums need not be neutral spaces – they can be so much more”.

Life is not apolitical. Art is not apolitical. How could museums be? Museums that truly wish to be part of society and to get its support are not silent nor neutral nor apolitical. Museums that have a notion of their mission do not become irrelevant.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The difference between "more" and "diverse"

Before talking about the news that come from the other side of the Atlantic, I would like to state once again my conviction that free entries may multiply visits (which is something also desirable), but cannot, on their own, diversify the audiences of cultural institutions, namely museums and performance halls. It doesn´t seem realistic to me that we continue to use the gratuity argument in support of democracy and equality. For the majority of the people that don´t visit museums, it´s not the ticket price (in Portugal, between €2 and €5 with discounts in national museums) that constitutes the barrier. In the same way, there are very good quality performances for €5 and with small audiences and others, much more expensive, that sell out. What makes the difference? The relevance and importance a specific offer has in people´s lives. And also being aware of that offer or not.

Having said that, one cannot ignore that in fact there exist people who wish to participate in cultural activities, but might not be able to afford it. It is an obligation for cultural institutions to consider this need, especially those supported with public funds. Free shows along the season, special prices for all in specific week days or free entries to museums on specific days of the week or the year, joint promotions among institutions – everything duly and widely promoted – are a possible answer for this need. It doesn´t mean access to all offers? That´s true, but things have a price and it´s up to each one of us to decide what is important to invest on and what is worth saving for.

When talking about diversifying our audiences though, cultural institutions must undertake a more complex deed. And the first factor to be considered is not the price. It is necessary to develop an extensive outreach programme. To get to know better the habits, needs and tastes of the people we wish to establish a relationship with is something not primarily related to offering a free entry. And should we consider that this is something that we have to do, among other things, let´s offer free entries to those people. Why extend it to everyone, though, even to those willing and capable of paying?

I presented my arguments against gratuity in two posts last year, one on museums and another on theatres, to which I would now like to add two points. First, even when entry is free, visiting a museum or attending a performance is never totally free: transport (public or private) is not free, parking in many cases neither, a meal before or after, he need to hire a babysitter… There are various costs associated and they may be significant and determinant when deciding to visit a museum/theatre or not. The second point I would like to make is that cultural institutions must pay particular attention in the way they defend and offer gratuity. When being an artist is considered a hobby and not a profession, when a big part of our society sees artists as subsidy-dependant living at the cost of everyone else, what kind of message do cultural institutions send when they offer this work (made by professionals, many times with great sacrifice) for free?

Passing now to that piece of transatlantic news: Mixed Blood Theatre in the city of Minneapolis, USA, announced last month that it will provide free access to all mainstage productions in the next three seasons (read here). The initiative is called Radical Hospitality. In the meantime, the theatre will continue charging for season passes and also for tickets bought in advance in order to guarantee entry to a specific show (the price will be $15). The artistic director stated that “this is a way to be true to our egalitarian mission, which is to be totally inclusive”. A local radio station asked the public: How big a role do ticket prices play in your choice of entertainment options? It´s worth reading the answers (see here). Mainly because, along those who say that ticket prices are prohibitive (and there exist some cases that need to be taken under serious consideration, like the costs for a family), there are also many people mentioning that associated costs are extremely high; that they are don´t know what the programme is or where the theatre is situated; that there exists diverse cultural offer, as well as options and prices for all purses.

I wish to transcribe, though, one of the answers: “The priority of attending live theatre and live concerts is a huge quality of life issue for my husband and me. (…) People need to chose carefully, but be willing to pay for the incredible commitment and talent that´s required to produce quality, live cultural events. We´re willing to have our checkbook lighter so that our lives are not poorer.” The person who gave this answer is probably not poor. But I believe it to be a question of scale and that the majority of people, within their financial capacities, would say the same should they think that what cultural institutions have to offer is relevant and important for their lives. This is the big challenge for those working in the cultural field.

At this time of crisis and cuts, national museums in the UK have started reconsidering the application of entrance fees (see reports on the impact of free entry in my post on museums). The Metropolitan Museum of Art – with free entry, but a recommended admission price of $20 – will be raising this amount to $25 as from July 1 (read here; at the end of the article there is a table of entrance fees to various American museums of art). At the same time, given the success of the Alexander Mc Queen exhibition, the museum will exceptionally open on Monday for those willing to pay $50 in order to visit (read here). There are also theatres in the USA that ask people to pay what they can in order to attend a show.

The need to generate income and work towards self-sustainability is real. The concern to give access to an offer that everyone has the right to enjoy as well. Nevertheless, when it´s access we wish to talk about, I would say that free entry is an easy measure. And that, even though, it doesn´t bring about the desired results in what concerns diversifying our audiences. In order for that to happen, there is a need for a greater effort and, in many cases, for quite a different mentality in the approach. Access starts with the language we use.

Some more reading suggestions

Still in this blog