Monday 26 September 2011

Back to numbers

Photo taken from the website of the newspaper Público.
The Secretary of State for Culture is absolutely right when he says “I don´t think it´s fair that a company, a director or a producer does not express concern regarding the audiences”. But this is where our understanding ends. Because concern regarding the audiences is not only and in the first place proven based on box office results. And because "the creation of new audiences” has become yet one more politically correct, but empty, concept.

I feel less and less comfortable with the expression ‘creation of new audiences’. Because it comes to reinforce the role of ‘god’, of ‘guardian’, taken on by many of us working in the cultural sector. We are the owners of cultural institutions, we (and only we) know what should be presented in them, what is of quality, interest, value. What the others, the ‘audiences’ we aim to ‘create’, should see and appreciate.

We know a lot of things, that´s true. We shouldn´t be working in this field if we didn´t. But there is a lot of knowledge, many experiences, visions and ways of enjoying culture and the arts also on the ‘other side’, among the ‘audiences’ out there, who exist and with whom we haven´t established contact yet. Thus, when I think about these issues now, I prefer the concepts of ‘participation’ or ‘involvement’.

Having said this, to express concern regarding the audiences doesn´t mean, in the first place, to consider box office results. Because, in the first place, a company or a director or a producer doesn´t express concern when he´s not conscious or insists on ignoring the specificities of his socio-cultural environment; when he´s out of touch with the different realities existing in it, with the art and culture that is created and consumed there; when he does always… what he´s always done, without any sort of adaptation to new trends or needs; when he sees Communication as an accessory, sometimes an ‘inevitable’ one; when he´s concentrated in creating, as he should, but is not available to consider the necessary timings in order to communicate to the outside world (the one we want to buy tickets…) what´s the dream, the aspiration, what´s being done, how and by whom; when he refuses to give interviews, when he doesn´t go to TV Show X or Y (because he considers it to be representative of ‘low culture’), when he makes the press wait, when he does not allow filming and photographing during rehearsals, when he does not collaborate in the scheduling of interviews and dress rehearsals (just as all technical aspects and those related to production in general are scheduled in advance). A company, a director or a producer do not express concern regarding the audiences when they don´t want to realize that it´s not enough to create, there is a need to communicate as well. It´s part of their job.

But because I am not only concerned with theatre and cinema box office results, but with museums as well, I don´t think they should be left out. Because a museum director or curator as well must express concern regarding the audiences. And he doesn´t when, just like other culture professionals, he´s concentrated in his museum without considering the surrounding environment; when he doesn´t know or ignores the motivations, interests, concerns of the people he´s supposed to serve; when he doesn´t find ways of involving them in the museum´s activity; when he writes texts (that elementary means that all museums possess) that are understood only by him and his peers; when he´s only worried about exhibiting an object - beautifully and elegantly, placing (or hiding…) a minimal label -, but at the same time does not give the visitors the means to interpret those objects, discover their story, to become fascinated, touched, surprised, to surrender; when there are no channels for visitors themselves to be able to contribute to the choices, interpretations and approaches that are being made; when he doesn´t put people at ease in the museum environment (physically, psychologically and intellectually). Museums that are mystical, closed in themselves, that communicate only with those who know them already and appreciate them, become irrelevant for a large part of their community and they are not ‘used’, even if entrance is free or tickets very cheap.

The answer to give when concern is related, in the first place, to box office results is not at all complicated, neither for theatres nor for cinemas nor for museums: we programme what is more popular; we distribute more invitations; we allow for more school group visits. And thus we strangle the experimental; we put aside what is not known; we finish off with quality in museum visits. Spectator and visitor numbers are important, yes. But before they become performance indicators (and they don´t indicate anything just by themselves), there is a lot to do in the way cultural institutions relate to people. Let´s take care of the relationship first, with respect and honesty. And let´s not forget that the State itself has got responsibilities in building this relationship, in what concerns the objectives it must share with culture agents and the resources, both human and financial, it must make available. As well as we cannot forget that a support with public money should also result in certain responsibilities regarding the 'public', namely in what concerns access – physical, psychological, intellectual.

It´s a good thing that evaluation, numbers included, takes place a bit later and relates to all those involved.

Still in this blog

Monday 19 September 2011

The long distance between California and Jerusalem

One of the images that would be part of the exhibition canceled by MOCHA.
MOCHA (Museum of Children´s Art) is a museum in Oakland, California. Open since 1989, its mission is to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of the lives of all children through hands-on art experiences, arts training and curriculum for educators, and advocacy for the arts. On the 12th of September, Hyperallergic announced (read here) that, under the pressure of jewish groups, the museum had decided to cancel the exhibition A Child´s View from Gaza, that brought together works by palestinian children created during art therapy sessions (some of the works may be seen here). The President of the museum´s Board of Directors, in an open letter to the community published on the MOCHA website (read here), clarified that the museum had made that decision in an attempt to balance the concerns of parents and educators who did not wish for their children to encounter graphically violent and sensitive works during their visit. What did the museum expect children who had lived through the 2008 and 2009 israeli bombardments to draw? Were the scenes of violence a surprise? Hyperallergic commented that it wouldn´t have been the first time that the museum would exhibit children´s works depicting violent scenes. The fact that the decision was made less than two weeks before the exhibition opening also indicates that the reason was not that museum personnel suddenly realized that they had to review their exhibitions policy regarding the representation of violence, but rather another kind of pressure.

Eyad Baba, Gaza, Palestine, 2009 (Photo from the exhibition HomeLessHome at the Museum on the Seam)
The Museum on the Seam is a museum in Jerusalem. It is located in the street that separates the jewish sector in the western part of the city from the arab neighborhoods in the eastern sector. Founded in 1999, it defines itself as a socio-political contemporary art museum, which, in its unique way, presents art as a language with no boundaries in order to raise controversial social issues. At the centre of its temporary exhibitions stand the national, ethnic and economic seam lines in their local and universal contexts. In its mission statement, the museum also refers that it is committed to examining the social reality within the regional conflict, to advancing dialogue in the face of discord and to encouraging social responsibility that is based on what we all have in common rather than what keeps us apart. The current exhibition, West End, explores the conflict between Islam and the western world and it is the result of the museum´s intense efforts to convince artists from the Middle East to exhibit in its galleries. Among the 28 muslim artists involved, 7 come from the Middle East, some from countries that prohibit any kind of contact with Israel (read here). In the past, the museum had presented exhibitions such as The Right to Protest, Bare Life or HomeLessHome, among others. Whatever pressure the museum might be going through (and I guess it must be considerable), it doesn´t seem to be tackling it by canceling exhibitions.

I like to think of museums as spaces for the confrontation of ideas; spaces that bring us out of our comfort zone; spaces that confront us with realities we didn´t know about; and, also, spaces that raise some controversy. I am not referring to ‘cheap’ controversy; neither to the one caused by cowardness, silence or a supposed ‘apoliticism’. I am referring to the controversy caused, with intelligence and honesty, by expressing one´s opinion, by assuming a stance, by the museum´s genuine wish to be a place of encounter.

Still on this blog

Monday 12 September 2011

Building a family: lessons from the social sector

In the last years, we´ve witnessed the solidarity generated at an international level when disaster strikes a country, even a distant one, affecting the lives of thousands of people. I could mention the tsunami in Indochina, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan and, more recently, the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. People with more or less money, sensitive to human pain, try to contribute, within their possibilities, in order to help relieve that pain, but, also, in order to feel good themselves, in order to feel human, useful, solidary. In the last weeks, I´ve been following closely the efforts of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in raising public awareness as well as funds for the Horn of Africa. And I´ve been thinking that the cultural sector has got a lot to learn with the social.

In the last years I have supported the WFP on a number of occasions. A few days after my last donation I received this email. It wasn´t just a ‘thank you’ email. It was something more. The WFP informed me on the impact of my contribution; it brought me news; it shared personal stories; it explained what the next steps would be. All this in a very personal, informal, clear way, that obviously aimed to give the receiver proof of the WFP´s effort and efficiency, as well as of the importance of the donor himself in the process.

At the same time, the WFP was communicating with the public through its website, as well as through regular posts on Facebook. They shared news, good and bad; they showed photos and videos from the affected areas; they reminded people of how they could help (not only by donating money); and, in the end of July and for one week, they had a correspondent in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in Kenya, doing reports and interviews, as well as answering people´s questions posted on Facebook (watch here the video from day 1 and follow the rest on You Tube). It was also at that time that Josette Sheeran, the head of WFP, gave a powerful and deeply inspiring TED Talk, Ending hunger now, which was seen by thousands of people.

During that campaign, which is unfortunately not over, the WFP:

- constantly reminded everyone, through all the means and channels available, of its mission (The WFP fights hunger worldwide, saving lives during emergencies while building a better future for next generation. WFP is funded solely by voluntary donations).
- it shared its vision, objectives, next steps;
- it was telling stories from the field of action;
- it was giving proof of its work and interventions;
- it used a direct, colloquial, comprehensible language;
- it made available on all digital platforms the ‘Donate’ button (one of the campaign´s big objectives), facilitating the process as much as possible;
- it never forgot to say ‘thank you’ and… ask for more.

Photos from the series "A family arriving in Dadaab", taken from the WFP website.

Culture, for a number of reasons, does not appeal to people´s hearts and minds the same way human pain or the lack of essential goods do (such as food, a house or even education). But it is essential. “Why?”, many people might ask. Well, that´s exactly the question.

- How many cultural institutions in Portugal have missions that are something a bit more exciting than “X is a cultural institution of a european scope at the service of the national community” or “Y is managed by a private and public utility Foundation, aiming to promote culture”?
- How many cultural institutions use their channels to permanently assert and share their mission with the public? Or their vision?
- How many cultural institutions publicly commit to specific objectives and give feedback on the process of achieving them?
- How many cultural institutions tell stories on their day-to-day activities, the people working in them and the people they are committed to serve, demystifying what´s going on inside their walls and showing their impact?
- How many cultural institutions have a human face?
- How many cultural institutions speak a comprehensible language?

The person who managed to summarise all these questions with great insight and sense of humour was Adam Thurman, founder of Mission Paradox and Communications Director of Court Theatre in Chicago, in his talk Power and the Arts, which I had the opportunity to watch last week. Actually, an inspiring talk on the power of communication in the way we relate to other people, our ‘audiences’. In the way we create our ‘family’ and make it grow.

It was also last week that Casa Conveniente took an initiative that is unique, as far as I know, in Portugal (but I believe that this is the way forward for our cultural institutions): it launched on Facebook the campaign Be a sponsor of Casa Conveniente for €12. The friends of Casa Conveniente responded promptly and, as one would expect, very positively. They will support the project with this modest amount (or even more) and they will spread the word. Because they believe in the project; because it´s something that moves them; because they want it to continue providing them with unique, unforgettable moments; and because they want to be part. I believe that Casa Conveniente´s next step should be to communicate with those who don´t know them: to share their vision; to show what they´ve been doing; and to show their impact. And for that, I think it would be a good idea, among other things, to ‘use’ also their friends, more or less famous, registering and sharing their thoughts and feelings about the project. People (and not institutions) sharing what moves them with other people. And thus the family grows.

Still on this blog

More readings

Monday 5 September 2011


E.Hopper, People in the sun. Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

In physics, a body which does not move is said to be at rest, motionless, immobile, stationary.


Grants supporting mobility in the cultural sector are normally for artists and curators. Many other culture professionals (those working in the fields of management, communications, education, etc.) – who also feel the need to invest in training during their careers, to travel, get to know colleagues from other countries, promote projects of cooperation – are rarely considered. In the beginning of August I was informed that the Organization of Ibero-American States (OIS) had launched the 2nd Call for Mobility Grants. Some of the objectives announced: to help ibero-american creators, managers, promoters and other professionals in the cultural field who wish to enrich their work by getting to know other professional contexts which allow for the exchange of distinct cultural scopes in the ibero-american space; to strengthen the work of public institutions; to stimulate the building of a culture of peace, based on the exchange, intercultural dialogue and cooperation, favouring a better understanding of the different ibero-american cultural realities. However, candidates could only be of a ibero-american nationality. Given the objectives announced by the OIS, is the candidates´s nationality truly relevant? Should it be a condition? In a world where people, culture professionals, constantly travel, increasingly develop their professional activity in countries different from those of origin, collaborate in international projects, does it make sense, within the scope of an initiative as the one launched by the OIS, to exclude candidates that do not have an ibero-american nationality? Is the country issuing the passport more relevant than the country and the institutions where one develops for years his/her professional activity? I asked the OIS these questions, via email and Facebook. I didn´t get an answer. The deadline for applications finished a few days ago.


For family reasons, a friend decided to leave her job at one of London´s major museums and return to Greece. After one or two short collaborations with museums in Athens and many years of unemployment, she decided to go back to London and try again. Within two weeks she was hired by another big museum. Two or three years later, she moved to another. Three more years and she was at another. All those jobs had been publicly advertised, attracting a large number of candidates. In every case, it involved a national museum.

I thought of my friend many times in the last months, when, talking to various people working in the cultural sector, I realised there are many professionals and institutions ‘trapped’ in rather unproductive situations. On one side, people who occupy the same post for a number of years, tired – of routines or frictions -, eager to face new challenges; on the other side, institutions that naturally go through phases too, which could and would like to benefit from some sort of renovation in their teams.

I thought once again of my friend when, a few weeks ago, I found out that a post in a public cultural institution, a post that does not involve functions that would require political trust, was ‘discretely’ occupied by invitation. It´s common. But until when? It´s true that there are few jobs in the cultural sector. But it is also true that rarely, very rarely, are they publicly advertised, in a way that could guarantee (and allow to benefit from) more diverse applications and, thus, the mobility and renovation one whishes for, promoting - and defending, at the same time - the equally desired transparency and meritocracy. Anyhow, both in the public and private sector, neither the professionals nor the institutions benefit from this kind of stagnation. What to do once the ‘honeymoon’ is over?

“And what if there was an exchange system”, I said joking to someone who´s been in the same post for 10 years. And what if there was? A public, open, transparent system, that would allow for the exchange of professionals between two institutions for three-year periods – which seems to be the maximim duration of the ‘honeymoon’.