Wednesday 26 December 2012

In my 2012...

One performance

Three films



One spoken word artist

One song

One book

And the journey

Click here to see the album.

Monday 17 December 2012

Guest post: "The story of the boy who fell asleep", by Mohamed El Ghawy (Egypt)

The last guest post of the year comes from a dreamer, a story teller, my friend Mohamed El Ghawy. Mohamed is that kind of dreamer that keeps surprising us with the way he manages to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He´s cautious but determined, he always tries to move things a step further, he knows what he needs to do to make the dreams come true and... does it. We talked extensively last summer about the situation is Egypt and his plans for AFCA, the organization he founded in 2004, aiming to bring education to Egyptian children through arts and culture. This is his contribution towards his country´s future, a future populated by creative, imaginative, sensitive and active citizens, who will be able to accept the others and find their way on their own. mv

Visual arts workshop for underprivileged children. (Photo: AFCA)
“Children crowded the hall, and as usual, I was telling a story. Some of them were opening their mouths in imitation and others were wide-eyed with fascination. The interaction was great, I was enjoying stretching my voice to imitate characters and various animals. The children were laughing. They were happy to watch, as I was happy to perform. Suddenly, I noticed a boy who was in the last row, against the wall. His eyes drifted shut and his head bobbed. He fell asleep and I was shocked, it was the first time this had happened to me. Feeling upset for not being able to attract his attention, I continued and in the end, I went to apologize to the teacher. Seeing how it affected me, she laughed and said: «This boy suffers from insomnia and we are working with his parents to help him. The doctor says that he doesn’t sleep because he doesn’t feel safe».”

This didn´t happen to me; a storyteller from Croatia told us about it during a training session in Ireland. For a long time, I have been interested in how to use the arts in the educational approach of the young. In my home country, Egypt, the educational system is very traditional, as children are expected to learn things by heart, without reflecting on what they memorize, thus it tends to become boring. For me Education is a tool and must remain like that.

When I was 25, I went on a boat trip in southern Egypt with a bunch of friends, to get away from the crazy up-tempo life in Cairo. We drifted along the Nile in a small boat for 4 nights. No technology, no stress, just nature and us. One night, the sky was full of stars and one of my friends, Damien, opened a map of stars and started playing with stones. He said that if a wish was made at that moment, it would come true before the end of the following year. Without hesitation, I spoke about my dream to open a place where kids could learn everything through the arts. All my friends got excited about it and we started looking for a name. “It must include French, you adore that language”, said Marwa; and Yasmine said: “You will open it in Cairo right?”. Damien said that in his country (Belgium) they called this kind of projects “art academy” and at that moment we came up with the french acronym AFCA - Académie Francophone Cairote des Arts

Half a year later, we all gathered at the opening of my art academy. Damien was in Europe and came back for Christmas, wearing a Santa costume and singing for the children: “One year ago we were playing with the stars in the sky, now we are playing with you on the real earth…”

AFCA’s mission is to “Educate young people through Arts and Culture in Egypt”.  The activities it proposes are designed to enhance the use of languages - French, English and Arabic - and to encourage every child’s creativity and natural artistry and use it as a means to develop personal skills.

Some people believed in our vision. I remember always Aly’s mother who was a great supporter from the very first day. Like us, she believed that her child could learn and speak a second language without a need for an academic system, relying on just the arts. We chatted two years after AFCA began. She said that Aly was very happy. His personality had changed completely and his social skills had developed a lot - but he only spoke the language he learned at school. Three years later, I received a call from her. “We have been in France for four days, and Aly is our guide, speaking in French. Thank you!”. At AFCA, we played together with languages, painted and even cooked with them. Aly is now 12 and is part of the team planning our tenth anniversary in 2014.

After the revolution, we had positive energy and we felt that we were free. We decided to build bridges with other cultures and we established the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children, with the aim to bring shows from all over the world to perform for the Egyptian children. Exposure to other cultures will support the development of their imagination and their creativity, and open their minds to the world and cultural diversity. We opened this festival to economically underprivileged children who usually have very limited access to the arts. But it is their right, too, to express themselves and to feel accepted by others, even at the international level. We believe that arts and culture are priceless for children, equally important as food and health. Eating is a culture, driving the car is a culture, listening while discussing with others is a culture, cleaning is a culture. Especially now in Egypt, we need these intangible sides of culture.

Second edition of Hakawy Festival with children with special needs. (Photo AFCA)

Some people think that teaching arts to kids is a luxury. It is not; it is as important as anything. It teaches creativity, social skills and imagination. The history of a country, told as a story or performed as a play, will never be forgotten. How often does anyone remember the dates in history if it was only studied to answer exam questions?

Learning through the arts enhances a child’s education greatly. The AFCA team teaches foreign languages through theater or singing, and even more complex subjects, as mathematics and science, can be taught through visual arts. It is more important than ever for the younger generations to possess an array of soft skills. Considering something as simple as baking, an apple pie can surprisingly help a child learn essential team building skills. Art is not a subject on its own; it permeates through the entire curriculum.

Because of the Egyptian economical situation, that stops 28 out of 100 children from finding a place in public schools, we cannot let them be depended on the government anymore. We must train them early on, in a creative way, to think and search. Not only to follow us, but to be in the center, so that we can follow them.

In front of AFCA, one day after Hosni Mubarak´s resignation. (Photo: AFCA)
In order to contribute in the development of our country, and considering that it is the role of independent organizations to be part of the solution, AFCA joined the board of trusties of Heliopolis schools – East Cairo to develop education through arts in public schools. We are spreading this knowledge, we are observing the process and doing assessment after the implementation of every project. We always say that “Education through Arts and Culture doesn't need a PHD; everyone can do it, at home, in the street....with your children or with your friends´ children”. I also cannot forget the role of arts and culture in building the social integration of the underprivileged children or those with special needs.  It can even replace a medicine. I still remember the great impact of our activities on the refugees from Iraq and now from Syria, who found social integration through art. It costs nothing, we only need to believe that, to secure the future of our children, we need to build from a young age. Our aim is to help every egyptian child to be able to accept others and find his way on his own.

It is not easy to work in the arts, especially with the current political situation, but we are moving forward and trying to be creative in solving the problems we face. I always encourage myself and my team by reminding everyone that the boy who fell asleep wasn´t bored with the story; he fell asleep because he felt secure.

Mohamed El Ghawy graduated from the faculty of Arts, French Language and Litterature Department, in Cairo University. He started his career as a drama teacher, actor and storyteller, in several schools and cultural centres. He authored several plays and directed many productions. Trained with the international baccalaureate organisation IBO on how to use the arts in education, he founded AFCA in 2004, an independent arts and culture organisation in Egypt. To spread the arab and egyptian culture around the world, he has toured internationally as a storyteller and trainer in education through the arts. He established Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children in Egypt, under the auspices of the Egyptian ministry of culture, with the support of several embassies and the UNESCO. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Heliopolis schools – East Cairo. He studied at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington. He as participated in many projects with international artists to use arts and culture as a tool for intercultural learning in France, Germany and Algeria. Recently, he became the representative of Assitej International Network for Theatre for Young Audience and Youth in Egypt and is working with other organisations locally to rebuild it.

Monday 10 December 2012

Magic places

Workshop by Ricardo Lopes (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)
Blockbuster exhibitions attract big audiences and a lot of attention. They are perceived as “once in a lifetime” events. In the last twelve months, three of the big highlights were: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Milan Court at the National Gallery in London; the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern (it ran from April to September and by the time it closed it was the most popular solo show in the museum´s history); and there was also The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the parisian Avant-Garde at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (although, in the this case, the big issue was that the fashion exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, also at the Metropolitan, had outdrown the art blockbuster in terms of attendance - read here).

On the occasion of the Leonardo exhibition, the Guardian launched the debate “Are blockbuster art shows worth queueing for?” and Observer writer Miranda Sawyer and Royal Academy CEO Charles Saumarez Smith  - defending the ‘no’ and the ‘yes’ respectively – discussed if and how can one appreciate art in crowded exhibition rooms. At the time, James Page added a more interesting aspect to this debate, by reminding in his blog that the discussion was revealing in a number of ways, not just in terms of the views of the two protagonists, but also as a natural tendency within the cultural sector to ask itself how its audiences think, feel or act rather than go direct to the audiences in question”.

Blockbuster exhibitions also raise the issue of scale. And this seems to be a great concern for a lot of people, since both as citizens in general, and as professionals in particular, they tend to feel small - and by ‘small’ they mean powerless, unable to create an impact.

The issue of scale has been in my mind as well. My thoughts recently have mostly concentrated on ideas and actions that are probably of a small or medium scale, but which still have an impact and can still make a difference in other people´s lives - apart from our own, of course. They are the ideas and actions that are within our reach, but which can still contribute towards a bigger whole.

Workshop by Maria Alcobia (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)
The project “Magic places” is an initiative of the Regional Cultural Authority of the Algarve. It brings together historic sites and contemporary artistic creation; it becomes the ‘magic place’ of an encounter between artists and young people under the care of social services. In concrete terms, this means that artists Maria Alcobia, Vasco Célio, Ricardo Lopes and Miguel Cheta (from the fields of dance, photography, ceramics and design respectively), coordinated by Tânia Borges Nunes (Atelier Educativo), worked together with young people and, inspired by the local heritage, taught them the technics of their art and produced some beautiful pieces together.

After the first edition, in 2010, there was a publication with texts written by all those involved. The second edition, in 2012, resulted in a one-day meeting last month, which brought together those involved and gave us the opportunity to get to know the project in more detail. Right in the start, a rare accomplishment took place in front of our eyes: representatives of the culture, education, and social fields sat around the same table and praised a project which they believe has accomplished a goal common to them all (isn´t this what it´s all about, how it should always be?). The day then went on and through films, photos and debates, we got to understand the huge vision behind this rather small-scale project.

There is no doubt that this has had a significant impact in the lives of all those involved. Listening to them, one realizes that it has been a process of discovery and inspiration and, in some cases, a mind-changing experience regarding ‘normality’ and ‘inclusion’. In that aspect, it seems that the objectives set by Regional Director Dália Paulo – “to allow for different perspectives, dialogues and experiences among the target audience, in a full exercise of citizenship” and “culture [as] an engine for social change” – have been met. I just felt it was a pity we didn´t get to hear the voice of the young people themselves, we didn´t get to hear the story of their participation and what it meant to them in their own words (an indication that the ‘natural tendency’ of the british cultural sector that James Page was talking about, also affects the portuguese cultural sector). Filomena Rosa, president of one of the social institutions involved, did bring some feedback, quoting in her presentation a few of the young people involved: “Photos in the town! I didn´t use to pay attention before, they were just old stones, but through the photos I learned”; or “I learned that a photo has got a lot to say, like a landscape that says something to us, with feelings”.

Workshop by Vasco Célio (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)  
In my final comment that day, I recalled the brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues - who didn´t set up her studio at a Rio de Janeiro slum wishing to resolve the problem of poverty or violence - and Daniel Barenboim – who didn´t create the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra hoping to bring peace in the Middle East (more in my post Places of encounter). The contribution of Culture, in the first place, is not related to issues like poverty, violence, crime, mental health, illiteracy, etc. Artists and culture professionals in general do not aim to take the role of social workers, teachers, politicians, policemen, priests or doctors. Culture, in the first place, is about critical thinking, self-expression (verbal and non-verbal), creativity, sensitivity; it´s about getting to know the ‘other’. So in that sense, when everything (culture, education, social action) comes together – in a ‘place of encounter’ or in a ‘magic place’ - I believe we have more chances of building a more democratic, more tolerant, more inclusive society; a society where we don´t live in compartments and we don´t define the ‘other’ based on their differences, but simply see them as human beings (not ´special´ or ‘disabled’ or ‘different’ or even ‘problematic’). “Magic Places” is the kind of project that brings together the necessary ingredients that can make this happen.

One final note: I was twice in Algarve recently in meetings with culture professionals. I felt there is a clear sense of purpose among them, there is a lot of motivation and dedication to the ‘cause’, there is satisfaction for what has been accomplished and a wish for more. And everything and everyone point towards the Regional Director, our colleague Dália Paulo. There is no doubt for me that it´s her vision, her professionalism, her knowledge and capacities that drive and inspire the whole team. Dália Paulo and the rest of the colleagues I met there are doing things at their own scale, making a ‘blockbuster’ difference in the lives of those living in the region. They are Wangari Maathai´s hummingbirds.

Monday 3 December 2012

Says who?

Giselle Ciulla, 'curator' of Giselle´s Remix. (Photo taken from the website of Clark Art Institute)

uCurate is an initiative by Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, USA. It is a digital application that allows people to design imaginary exhibitions made up with objects from the museum collection. Proposals enter a competition and the winner gets to set up a real exhibition with the museum´s help. In this first edition, and after evaluating almost 1000 proposals, the winner was an 11-yaer-old girl, Giselle Ciulla, who´s inviting us now to visit Giselle´s Remix (more here).

It´s so good to see Giselle´s happy face and we can almost feel how proud she is of her exhibition. This is also the role of museums in society, a role that allows for involvement, active participation, which recognizes that there are more than one versions of the ‘truth’ and creates a place for them to be shared, even if this is about 11-year-old children. The objects´ labels were written by Giselle herself. They convey simplicity and freshness, they demonstrate sensitivity. A few years ago I had seen lables written by visitors at the Tate Britain and I had also liked them a lot. For me, they were, for me, as interesting as the others, the ‘official’ ones. At the time (it was in 2004) Maev Kennedy of the Guardian had found the initiative dubious. On the otehr hand, Tate Britain´s director at the time, Stephen Deuchar, was saying that he would be particularly interested in the contributions of visitors who might know much more on a painting than the museum experts or the artists themselves (read here).

On 12th to 14th of November I was at the conference In the name of the arts or in the name of the audiences, organized by Culturgest in collaboration with the programme Descobrir of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. One of the main concerns of those present seemed to be the issue of ‘authority’ regarding the interpretation of a work of art. When I did my master´s, we were ‘warned’ that people acknowledged authority in museums, they considered the information they found in them as a ‘validated truth’. But even at that time, and it´s been almost 20 years, we were questioning ourselves regarding the possibility (and the obligation) to create the space for more than one story to be told.

Well, there is still a concern and lots of thinking about it. The concept of participatory museum (so well substantiated in theory and in practice by Nina Simon) is being widely accepted. An interesting case, among others, at the above mentioned conference was that of the dTOURS at the contemporary art exhibition dOCUMENTA. These were (paid) guided tours given by people of various ages and backgrounds, the majority residing in Kassel, the city that hosts the exhibition. The dTOURS had taken place for the first time in the previous edition, dOCUMENTA 12, and they had resulted in a number of complaints from the audience. Although the organizers had informed that the tours would be given by non-specialists, participants still felt ‘cheated’, their expectations had been different. Nevertheless, and despite the not so positive evaluation, dOCUMENTA 13 repeted the tours.

A number of issues are raised here: Why repeat an initiative, in exactly the same way, if it was not positively evaluated? Are we ignoring – in the name of experimentation, of exploration, of a wish to do more and better – people´s basic needs, such as listen to what a specialist has to say on a specific subject, such as in a ‘normal’ guided tour, such as in a ‘normal’ label? Are we walking towards an opposite extreme, where “visitors know best” (even “more than the artists themselves”, to quote again the Tate Britain´s former director)?

Clay Shirky´s book Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators  tells us about the pro-am (professional – amateur) movement and how new technologies allow us today to use people´s enormous cognitive surplus. People are eager to contribute with their knowledge (without being paid for it, just because it makes them feel good, useful, involved) towards all sorts of projects, social causes, etc. Wikipedia is such an example. Ian David Moss argued in his blog Createquity that the model of Wikipedia may be applied to culture, in programming or in distributing funds (read here).

People continue looking for information in museums. In an article by Stephen Weil entitled “The Museum and the Public” (included in the book Museums and their communities, edited by Sheila Watson), I read that, after the era of ‘celebratory’ and assertive museums, there was a new trend, that of admitting that what´s being said is not a closed issue, it could be open to different interpretations or the subject of ongoing research. It´s worth mentioning that it was a natural history museum (the American Museum of Natural History) one of the first to present labels which said “what we know so far”, “but we might be wrong, it´s happened before, there is an ongoing reserach”, etc. Maybe because scientists are more at ease than other specialists with testing and error and with admitting that they had been wrong. 

Specialists don´t know everything, but they know a lot, more than we do in their specific areas. We may find them in and out of museums, they may be professionals or amateurs, and together they may contribute in the development of our knowledge. I, as a visitor, still look for their opinion, for their ‘version', not because I wish to accept it as if it was the Bible, but because with it I can build my own opinion, my own knowledge. At the same time, going beyond information, and considering that a museum visit is also feelings, surprises, emotions, sharing, previous knowledge and experiences, memories, the specialist – when also a good mediator or facilitator (or...) – will know how to create that space where everyone can contribute with their ideas, their experiences, their interpretations, their reactions. That space where there are no specialists and non-specialists, right or wrong. Thus, the participatory museum for me is not the museum  which, in the name of cultural democracy, passes the responsibility for one of its main functions over to the visitor. The participatory museum is that which gives ‘Giselle’ (each one of us) the tools to build and admit without fear her tastes, opinions, sensitivities and which creates the space for them to be hosted and shared with everyone.

This text is based on my short intervention during the closing of the conference In the name of the arts or in the name of the audiences, on November 14.

More readings
Museu2.0: a arte de ouvir o público, in the newspaper O Globo (27.11.2012)
Selling a product vs building a movement, by Nina Simon
When painting labels do their job, by Hrag Vartanian in Hyperallergic
Stories from the field: The Walters Art Museum, by Dallas Shelby
"GO", a group show at the Brooklyn Museum, by Martha Schwendener 
The power of non-experts, by Desi Gonzalez

Still on this blog
We are for people. Or… are we?
La crise oblige? (ii) Programming challenges
Building a family: lessons from the social sector
Free to visit an art museum
Museums: new churches?

Monday 26 November 2012

The industry of the vast minorities

Image taken from the website The Long Tail.
In the morning of the 17th of November I changed my plans and went to Centro Cultural de Belém for two reasons: the puzzling title of the international symposium organized by the Lisbon Estoril Film Festival, Art vs.Culture and Cultural Industries; and the fact that writer Hanif Kureishi was going to participate in the first panel discussion.

It ended up being a frustrating experience. I tried hard to understand how what the majority of the speakers was saying was actually related to the symposium´s theme, which I had found so intriguing. In the end, it actually felt like I had attended a private conversation that would have taken place anyway, no matter what the title of the symposium was. Rancière, Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer and others were quoted more than once and it was obvious that some of the panelists were actually having a good time among themselves, while I was trying to control my frustration and the feeling that I had wasted my morning.

I ended up leaving without understanding the “Art vs. Culture” statement, but I do think I understood one thing: some of the panelists were actually regretting the fact that the “industry” dominates creativity, leaving no space for less ‘popular’ or less ‘mainstream’ works to get to be known (and maybe... become as ‘popular’ or as ‘commercial’ as others?). There were moments where the actual complaint didn´t seem to be that they were left with no space to be, but that the ‘industry’ didn´t allow them to have an equally wide audience. Rather confusing, no?

I thought it odd that this could be an issue today. And I also thought that, if this is actually what was meant to be discussed under the title “Art vs. Culture and Cultural Industries”, the panel should have included a couple of speakers that could have brought the average age of the panelists a bit below 65 (Hanif Kureishi did actually try to recentre the debate, mentioning what he´s been noticing among his children and their friends, confident that these times are extremely creative, thanks also to new technologies, but noone followed the lead, so he gave up and, visibly irritated, concentrated on his cell phone...).

I also think that these are very creative times, especially in what concerns niche products. A creativity without boundaries, that can be conceived, produced and distributed without being dependent on the rules of the ‘industry’. Or... which actually has got space thanks to the ‘industry’. Considering the specific case of books (all panelists were writers or scriptwriters), Chris Anderson´s The Long Tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more  tells us of the numbers of books that would have never sold a copy in a normal bookshop (no space to store hundreds and hundreds of books that would sell small quantities), but which actually sell thanks to Amazon and it´s suggestions (“people who bought this, also bought this”...) and the fact that it can ship any book, as it doesn´t have to store it until it´s ordered. Nowadays, books can also be printed on demand, can be made available on the internet, can reach the most distant places (and let´s not forget e-books).

This is also the time where young talents in music upload their work on the internet for anyone who might be interested, making themselves known through “liking” and “sharing”; this is the time where concerts ae organised in people´s living rooms; where film festivals take place on You Tube.

I know this is a much larger issue and that it wouldn´t be possible to tackle here all different aspects of it. But I was wondering, is anyone denied space these days? Isn´t it true that niches are not given but actually create their own space? Could this all be more of a question of who we really try to connect with? ‘Popular’ products (I use the term to refer to sales, not content) probably still need the ‘industry’ and large formal cultural institutions for their distribution, but niche products (which might one day become ‘popular’) seem to be able to live quite independently these days, happy to be who they are. Could it be so?

More readings
A década em que todos puderam ser famosos para 15 pessoas (special report by Público newspaper, 8.01.2010)
Culture and Class (John Holden, 2010)

Still on this blog

Monday 19 November 2012

Guest post: "What kind of old do you want to be?", by Rebecca McLaughlin (Ireland)

The world population is getting older and older. And the Irish Prime Minister´ambition is for his country to be the best small country in the world in which to grow old with dignity and respect. Rebecca McLaughlin, another of my colleagues at the Kennedy Center, is the coordinator of Bealtaine, an arts festival which for the last 17 years old has been examining the role of creativity as we age. Bealtaine hosts a month long programme every May, with over 3000 events, inviting older people to engage with arts and cultural activity as audience, artist, critic and participant. And thus, the conversation Rebecca and I didn´t manage to have last July is now starting on this blog. mv

Bealtaine Festival Launch 2010. Mary Russell from the "Blow the Dust" orchestra (Photo: John Ohle)
What kind of old do you want to be? What kind of society do you want to grow older in? Do you want to continue being creative and enjoy Arts and Cultural activities in your 50’s, 70’s, 90’s? Do you think age is a barrier to creativity?

The Bealtaine Festival is the world’s first festival which celebrates creativity as we age. It takes place every May all across Ireland.  Co-ordinating ‘Bealtaine’ which is now Ireland’s biggest collaborative arts festival, these are questions that come up regularly.  If we are lucky, each of us will enjoy becoming older and continue to live and experience those activities and  life-affirming opportunities which Arts and Culture provide within our communities.

The Bealtaine Festival reaches tens of thousands of people aged 55+ every year, encouraging participation in the Arts as artists, participants, audience and organisers. Through partner organisations ranging from national cultural institutions to libraries, from care settings to hospitals, older people take part in over 3000 events during May including music, theatre, craft, photography, film and literature. ‘Bealtaine’ is the Irish word for May with all its associations with growth, re-birth and new beginnings.

Undeniably, whether you are 5 or 105, access to the arts is a question of equity and citizenship – it is a right, not a privilege.  We know from 17 years’ experience of the Bealtaine Festival celebrating creativity as we age that, amongst other things, greater participation in the arts is important in the development of positive self image and identity for older people. Significantly, it can help build connections and promote social capital.

Ireland is at the forefront internationally of championing creativity as we age and currently nearly 12% of our population is over 65 (over half a million people). By 2041, the number of people aged over 65 is expected to increase by 180% (to 1.3 million). Our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has outlined the ambition to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to grow old with dignity and respect.

‘Old’ is a word many struggle with. In our experience if you ask someone what they consider ‘old’, they will invariably say an age 10 years older than themselves! At the festival, we have become more comfortable talking about the process of ageing rather than ‘old’ as some kind of destination at the end of a journey. It is impossible to place people aged 55-105 into one ‘old’ homogenous category. One of the things the festival aims to do is to challenge those stereotypes and negative perceptions about becoming older. We focus on the abilities of older people and embrace their value and contribution to society.

Working on the "Wandering Methods" project during Bealtaine Festival 2012. (Photo: Lian Bell)

With each Bealtaine Festival, we are inspired and delighted by the creative talents rediscovered or new skills learnt by our audiences and by the passion to make art, which for certain generations of Irish people was simply not part of their formal education or world. For our Bealtaine organisers, May has become embedded as part of their annual cultural calendar as a time to focus on their offering to older people. For many of them, ‘Older people’ has become more than an abstract concept and over time sustainable activities and ongoing relationships have developed between cultural institutions and older audiences on many levels e.g. a permanent older people’s orchestra ‘Blow the Dust Off your Trumpet’ based at the National Concert Hall in Dublin emerged out of an original Bealtaine Festival project in 2010. 

The demographic trends are clear- more than one fifth of the world’s population (22%) will be over 60 years of age by 2050 – double the current population. In the USA older people will outnumber children in ten years time and one in three babies born today may expect to live to 100 years. With many of us struggling for new audiences and juggling challenging economics, it is worth considering that the 50+ age group have 80% of the wealth in the US and 75% in the EU.

As societies, radical thinking is called for across the whole range of public policy issues from jobs and health to pensions. How should we address this ageing demographic challenge? How can we remain responsive to the needs and changing requirements of our older population? The ageing of the population and particularly the growing numbers amongst the oldest old has many age-related implications (e.g. increase in incidence of dementia) which calls for innovative and sensitive responses to be inclusive of this population.  As Arts Managers and Curators, we need to reflect the lives of our ageing population and remain relevant to them.  If we are not already doing so, then we should start investing in access and participative opportunities to engage and build relationships with our older audiences.  We occupy a unique position in shaping this future, one day, you and I will be part of these older audiences. 

So, with this in mind......"What kind of old do you want to be?!"

Rebecca McLaughlin has co-ordinated and developed the Bealtaine Festival, Ireland's largest collaborative Arts Festival which celebrates creativity as we age, for the last 5 years. Previously, she was Exhibitions Curator for the temporary exhibitions programme at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, home to one of Ireland's premiere collections of modern and contemporary art and the unique re-constructed studio of artist Francis Bacon. In the UK, Rebecca was Marketing Manager for the launch of The New Art Gallery Walsall, a pioneering £21 million new gallery space in the West Midlands, home to the UK's first Children's Art Discovery Gallery. She is a graduate of University College Dublin and University of Leicester, UK and is an International Fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at The Kennedy Centre, Washington DC.

Monday 12 November 2012

The "culture fiction" lobby

Fernando Birri (Photo taken from
I am involved in a european project called CETAID – Community Exhibitions as Tools for Adult Individual Development. It brings together partners from four european countries: Hungary, Great Britain, Italy and Portugal. Last month the partners met for the first time in Manchester and London. In three days of intense meetings and exchange of experiences and ideas it once again became obvious how big the distance between actual practices and concerns in Great Britain and the rest of the countries is. Quite often in meetings like these I see expressions of frustration or despair on people´s faces, accompanied some times by comments of self-mockery or self-pity. For our British colleagues, our realities were theirs 10 or 20 years ago (in some cases, maybe even more...). What we are desperately still aiming to achieve, they did it long ago. They´ve already evaluated it, criticised it, took it further forward.

Question nr. 1: What is the point of bringing together realities which are so far apart? What is the point of putting around the same table institutions and professionals with different visions, different priorities or different means?

In a second meeting with the Polish colleague I mentioned in a previous post, we had a long discussion on issues that seem to be common in our countries: a rather short vision in the cultural sector (or total lack of it in certain cases), lack of trained professionals (especially in what concerns management), lack of space to discuss new ideas and approaches, when most people feel the need to launch fireworks just because things happen, without considering how they should have happened and how their future can and should be planned (it´s very much worth reading Ines Fialho Brandão´s opinion text on the announcement of the creation of a new municipal museum in the portuguese town of Peniche; and, once again, it was incredible to see, in the Facebook discussion that followed, how willing – maybe needy too? – people are to launch fireworks just because a municipality had this ‘noble’ idea).

Question nr.2: Do culture professionals who think differently have a place or any impact at all in a sector that seems to be still quite conservative, quite amateur, determined to avoid evaluation, and rather more concerned with guarantees of personal/professional wellbeing rather than serving the purposes of the cultural institutions they work for? 

I´ve given a lot of thought to both questions. And I think they are related too.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano tells the story of a lecture he and his friend Fernando Birri, the argentinian film director, once gave in a university. Apparently, when asked by a student “What´s utopia for?”, Birri answered: “Utopia is in the horizon... I know very well that I will never reach it... But that´s what utopia is for: to keep walking.”

Realities that are far different, far better or far away from our own are that kind of utopia that makes us keep walking. They inspire us, they make us want to be better, they help us dream. It´s true that when I was younger I got frustrated for not reaching them, or for not reaching them fast enough. What I appreciate now when I encounter them is the comfort of knowing they are there, they exist, someone else did make them happen, we can get there too.

There are occasions when what was a utopia the day before becomes a reality the day after. In order to come true, these ‘utopias’ do need people who think differently, who have a vision, who are persistant, hard working and also good at what they´re doing. It might take ages before some actual change happens, but these people can and do have an impact. They can´t do it alone though, especially when they are young, little known in their field, not in a position to take or influence decisions. Thus, they need to identify their peers (and by ‘peers’ I don´t mean people who necessarily think the same, I mean people who are open-minded, open to dialogue, who want to do better and more); they need to create their own space, their own platforms of expression and debate, so that their voice can be heard (and nowadays “liked” and widely “shared”); they need to support each other in order to avoid exclusion and isolation; thus, the “culture fiction" lobby is born.

Monday 5 November 2012

Guest post: "A question of value", by Rebecca Lamoin (Australia)

A few weeks ago, in my post On public value, I mentioned that Kennedy Center fellow Rebecca Lamoin, from  the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, was organizing a two-day forum on the public value of cultural institutions. In preparation of this project, Rebecca asked arts managers three really crucial questions: "What is the most important thing your organisation delivers to your community? Why do your communities love you? What people in your city would miss if your organisation wasn’t there anymore?". As promised at the time, Rebecca is now giving us some feedback on how the forum went. Let´s not forget that this is only the beginning of the project, so we´ll also be curious to know how it develops in the next months and what the final outcome is, so I am sure we´ll be hearing from Rebecca again. mv

In whose interest? ABC Radio National panel discussion with, from left to right, Rhonda White (QPAC Board Member), Mark Moore (Harvard University), Julianne Schultz (Griffith University) and Paul Barclay (Host, Big Ideas, ABC Radio National). Photo: QPAC

In the introduction to On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, Adam Phillips refers to psychoanalysis as a story, or a way of telling stories, that makes people feel better. In making such a statement, Mr Phillips demonstrates his able skills as both a psychotherapist and lauded master of language.  He reminds us that one of the key aims of engaging in storytelling is to make people feel better – about themselves, about others and the world. It strikes me that this is also a key ambition of art.

As arts managers we too seek out stories as a way to cast different light and shadow on people, places and ideas. In developing a recent project, it occured to me that the ability to create a solid and captivating narrative is a skill required of us not only in curating programs for our audiences, but in communicating the fundamental purpose of the organisations we work for.

The public value project

The public value project, although not poetically titled, is nonetheless intended to illuminate the key points in a narrative about a major performing arts centre and its interconnectedness with the communities it serves.

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) is one of Australia’s leading cultural institutions and over its 27 year history has served the people of Queensland, the country’s second largest state. QPAC attracted more than one million visitors in the last year and presented more than 1400 performances that spanned comedy, dance, music, musicals, drama and more. It is financially stable, growing in reputation and capacity. By almost any measure, and certainly the ones applied to it, it is a successful centre. In asking ourselves the question “What comes next?”, in the knowledge that growth doesn’t simply mean expansion, we cast our collective attention backwards to reflect on our mission, our core purpose. What is it exactly that we want to be, what is the story, the overarching narrative of our Centre?
We have constructed a year long project with the principal purpose of shaping a shared story about who we are that doffs its hat to our many past achievements and sets up the coming decade. We have relied significantly on the work of a leading figure in the field of public management, Harvard Professor Mark H Moore. His seminal book Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government impacted on public policy discourse around the world in the mid-90s. Professor Moore’s concept of public is simultaneously simple and complex and I do it no justice by summarising it here, but I offer this: private companies exist to create shareholder value, public organisations exist to create public value. The questions of what constitutes public value and who gets to decide what it is, is where the nuance begins. In essence, he proposes that public organisations create value when they fulfil the social ambitions contained in their missions.

Professor Mark H. Moore

Last week QPAC was fortunate to have Professor Moore spend two days with us discussing what this concept means for a publicly owned performing arts centre. This is not unusual territory for Professor Moore. He spent several years on a work commissioned by Arts Midwest and the Wallace Foundation that looked at how 13 state arts agencies in the United States created public value (see here).

Professor Moore delivered a public keynote address, participated in a national radio discussion and facilitated workshops with our Board and staff that sought to offer a broad introduction to issues and practice relating to public value and to support QPAC in moving forward. Details of his sessions can be found here.

Free public lecture by Mark H. Moore on public value. (Photo: QPAC)

More than 400 people turned out to hear Professor Moore’s introductory lecture. They represented government, business, education, non-profits, and arts organisations large and small. For QPAC, we wanted to share this incredible thinker during his brief time with us; for the rest of the city it was an opportunity to give voice and space to a subject that is clearly timely, relevant and perhaps offers a way to navigate some of the complexities of contemporary public leadership.    

In his time with the QPAC Board and staff, Professor Moore’s expertise and questioning was both provocative and comforting. He challenged us to consider what we are, what those who give us authority want us to be and what we have the capacity to deliver. As an arts organisation, we considered the territory between our accomplishments – great programs, large audiences and financial success – and genuine achievement in creating a better and more engaged citizenry through art.

What next?

QPAC’s public value project continues in coming months with discussion deepening within the organisation and expanding to include rich dialogue with our partners, colleagues and communities. Our thinking and learning will be woven into our next planning cycle and will certainly be evident in all that we do going forward.

In the next phase of the project we face the challenge of defining exactly what kind of value we seek to create and of course the inevitable challenge of how we will measure it. It is a challenge we look forward to tackling.

Large organisations that are created to serve a public almost always benefit from moments of honest reflection undertaken with a genuine desire to be better at what they do. If at our core we are about facilitating ways for people to share stories then perhaps the most significant outcome of Professor Moore’s visit and our ongoing work is that we too will find new ways, our own way to tell the story of how we work with the communities we serve to create public value through art.

Rebecca Lamoin
is the Associate Director, Strategy at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, Australia. She has worked in large and small arts organizations in a variety of roles across multiple art forms, including performing arts, visual arts, literature and festivals. She has a Bachelor of Arts (Journalism) and a Master of Arts in Cultural Policy. She is an International Fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Monday 29 October 2012

What - or who - is the barrier?

Mertola Castle (Photo: Fátima Alves)

A family arrives at the foot of Mertola Castle. They have four children. The mobility of one of them, a 10/11-year-old boy, is quite conditioned. One of his brothers picks up the stroller and runs to the top of the steps that lead to the entrance of the castle. The mother supports her son from the arm and they slowly start going up. Half-way, she suggests they took a rest. The boy prefers to continue. He´s making an enormous effort to place his foot on the next step; he´s tired and his foot is trembling. I don´t want to overtake them; I follow them, I go along with their rhythm. Once at the top of the steps, the boy finally takes a rest. His mother moves on a bit, trying to evaluate the difficulty of the rest of the way.

I witnessed this ‘ascend to the castle’ at the end of a week where I attended two meetings on museums and accessibility: the annual seminar of GAM –Group for Access to Museums, entitled Programming for Diversity, and the 1st Crossborder Encounter of Museum Professionals in Alcoutim.  A few days before GAM´s seminar, I had met with a Polish colleague who asked me: “What do you expect of these meetings?”.

Among museum professionals, accessibility is more and more of an issue. And the concept of ‘accessibility’ constantly grows and widens. It´s not only about being concerned and also obliged to attend to the needs of people with disabilities (physical and cognitive), but to a wide spectrum of intellectual, social and cultural needs of all citizens. It´s also about managing and being able to take advantage of people´s growing wish and need to be involved in the process of decision-making, so that they may feel represented in the final products museums propose to their audiences (my presentation on this subject in Alcoutim is available on the right-hand column).

I am writing this text approximately one week after and I realize that the issues that marked me the most in these two meetings and which made me think more were all related to mentality, our mentality, that of museum professionals.

Fernando António Baptista Pereira, a professor at the School of Fine Arts and curator of a number of exhibitions presented in Portugal and abroad, was the keynote speaker at GAM´s annual seminar. When asked which was his best and worst exhibition, he didn´t hesitate to admit that his worst exhibitions, although extremely beautiful, were those he had done for his peers, those which were not done with the general public in mind. Hearing this from someone who has curated and will curate in the future exhibitions which attract large numbers of visitors is a sign of hope. And just like Fernando António Baptista Pereira, there are surely more professionals in this field (curators and museum directors) who, even though they don´t say it, they know it is so. So, one wonders when we can expect to see in portuguese museums, especially national (public) museums, exhibitions which may be understood by the non-specialists who visit them and form the majority of visitors. When can we expect to see exhibitions which may be a source of new knowledge, true pleasure and discovery, instead of being a means of communication and dialogue among the ‘initiated’ few, while a source of frustration for the rest?

In Alcoutim, we had the opportunity to hear Maribel Rodriguez Achutégui talking about “Writing exhibition texts for all audiences”, which reminded us that it is possible, yes, to write for all, without making it sound childish, without vulgarizing, without compromising the scientific accuracy of the information we present. And to some of us, this brought back memories of GAM´s first annual seminar, back in 2006, “Do you know how to write for all? The accessibility of written communication in museums”, which was marked by two very special speakers: the late Helen Coxall (a museum language consultant – yes, the specialization exists, just like there exists extensive bibliography on this issue, part of it available on GAM´s website) and Julia Cassim (a designer associated to the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Inclusive Design). Later in that same year, Helen Coxall did a memorable workshop, Am I Communicating? Writing effective museum texts, organized by GAM at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. What has been the impact of these initiatives in Portugal? Those working in education services frequently complain that it is very difficult to convince museum directors and curators of the need to write texts in a more accessible language (not just exhibition texts, but texts for all sorts of supporting materials museums produce in order to communicate with people) – I can think of some exceptions, though, like the texts of the exhibition on automobiles at the Transport and Communications Museum in Porto or those at the Batalha Community Museum, to mention just two. One wonders, why is it so difficult to convince them? Have they never heard their visitors´s complaints? Or they don´t mind about them?

Another brilliant and very ‘educational’ presentation was that of graphic designer Filipe Trigo, who brought to us a number of examples we have all encountered during our visits to museums and exhibitions: books on the wall, small font size, labels which are hidden or placed too low or too high, constrasts that make reading impossible, a total anarchy in the presentation of contents (placed wherever it might be more convenient, without any logic), inadequate lighting. This presentation deserves to be seen by curators and museum directors, as well as graphic designers, as there doesn´t seem to exist consensus as to who imposes solutions on whom. There is distrust, though, and maybe also a somehow vague definition of the role of each one and, between the two, that of the museologist and/or education and communications staff. Woudln´t it make sense that each one was heard in the area of his/her speciality, with the final aim of offering visitors a better service?

Today I would be able to give a better answer to my Polish colleague´s question “What do you expect of these encounters?”. I expect that next time there is a meeting to discuss accessibility (any kind of accessibility) there are more museum directors, curators, architects and designers in the audience. This does not concern just the education staff. I would even say that it concerns more and more those who make the final decisions. What is the point of raising awareness among and giving technical preparation in museum studies courses to future museum professionals, who only in 20-30 years from now will be in a position to make decisions, if in the next 20-30 years they will be encountering the greatest barrier of all inside museums themselves? If these meetings go on being an opportunity for those already aware to get together and agree between themselves, their impact will continue being limited, almost inexistant. There is a need to make commitments and not just politically correct statements. There is also an obligation to abide by the law. And it has to be now, not in 20/30-years time. It doesn´t cost anything (and it doesn´t cost more...).

Joaquina Bobes, Textos expositivos y visitantes: ¿hablamos el mismo idioma? (with english translation from minute 14´35´´)
Julia Cassim, Inclusive design