Monday 20 February 2012

I think of Luis Soriano

Image taken from
Last week my son told me that Jesus only allows ladies to have children when they are married and when they and their husbands love each other very much. Information given at school. It seemed a bit too early to present him with other versions regarding the second part, but I didn´t hesitate regarding the first. After all, his best friend is the daughter of a single mum. I then remembered that this single mum, when her daughter entered the kindergarten, was careful enough to explain the situation to the teacher and to clarify that her daughter had never met her father. What did the teacher do on Father´s Day? She asked the children to sit in a circle and talk about their dads. Probably, this is what she had done in previous years. She repeated the ‘activity’ without the least adaptation to her class´s new reality, to her class´s diversity. A few days ago, a friend told me also about a couple of lesbians who had great trouble in convincing the school to allow the mother´s partner, the mother´s wife, to pick up the children.

All this made me think of how slow the school is in reacting and adapting to new realities. A slowness which is sometimes difficult to understand, considering that homosexual couples are still a novelty, but single mothers (or single fathers) not really. The school´s reaction to the changes that take place around it, the adaptation, would mean a greater inclusion of people (in this case children and teenagers), a greater connection and relevance to their lives, greater tolerance and openness towards the richness diversity brings to everyone´s life.

And this is exactly what one would wish for cultural institutions too. Or rather – to avoid talking about ‘institutions’, a word that makes us think of something devoid of people, lacking a soul, for which no-one is responsible - for the people who think, manage and work in cultural institutions. Yes, I am referring to all of us, “cultural snobs” or “new mandarins” (to quote John Holden once again), who continue doing everything the way we´ve always done it, alien to the changes, incapable or not willing to identify, understand and integrate them. Which quite often condemns us to irrelevance.

An article recently published in The Telegraph presented the results of a survey Visit Birmingham carried out with 2000 children aged between 5 and 12, which indicated that: 4 in 10 children have never seen the inside of an art gallery; 17 % haven't visited a museum with their parents; 25% haven't been to the theatre; 6 in 10 have never heard or been to a classical music concert; 1 in 10 kids hasn't left their hometown to visit other cultural sites in the UK. The newspaper referred to a “culture starved generation”. The results of the survey were also published in the Arts Journal and the first comment was the following: “Perhaps 20 years ago, I was a ‘visiting artist’ in an upstate New York middle school. I asked the students how much disposable income they had to spend on ‘culture’ and what they spent it on. The answers fascinated me: these 13-year-olds thought nothing of dropping $50 on a ticket to a rock concert, or buying CDs. (...) I think that in 2012 the situation would be even more extreme. All the disposable income would go to supporting their smartphones, which make them cultural ‘producers’ as well as consumers”.

I found both the presentation of the survey results and the above comment worrying. Because they confirm the persistence of those old issues regarding access to culture, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Because they confirm our slowness (or resistance) in reacting and adapting our thinking and practice to new realities.

Should the survey results had been read in the opposite way (let´s do the exercise and see, for example, that 6 in 10 children have entered an art gallery; 83% have visited a museum with their parents; 75% have been to the theatre; etc., etc.), I believe we would have concluded that this is not exactly a “culture starved generation”. But there are still other issues here. Are children, young people and adults considered to be cultured only when they visit museums and art galleries; only when they go to the theatre; only when they attend a classical music concert? So, what should one think about those people who, for various reasons (lack of time or money, lack of cultural institutions in their place of residence, having young children, etc.) watch theatre only on TV or DVD, listen to music (classical and other) only on CDs, know certain works of art only through books? When the encounter with culture does not occur within the walls of an ‘official’ institution, is it less valid? And what should one think of those people who nowadays watch opera and theatre transmitted live to cinemas? Of those who enjoy sharing the experience of a live performance through twitter and facebook? Of those who attend live concerts through the internet? Of those who see in detail works of art exhibited in various museums around the world through the Google Art Project? And there are still some more issues: a person who knows a lot about classical music is more cultured than someone who knows nothing, but knows a lot about the contemporary pop musical scene? And vice versa? The work of a musician or a filmmaker distributed through the You Tube has less quality than that which is exhibited in large cultural institutions, is their art less valid? And if a person admits not to like visiting museums or a specific form of art, is this a less cultured person?

Creator, producer, curator, programme director, distributor, spectator: nothing is what it used to be even just a few year ago. The way culture and the arts (in all their diversity) are being created, distributed and enjoyed, as well as the spaces where this takes place, is today as diverse as the people involved in them. A recent article by Susan Jones in the Guardian, Pitching up: Where is the place for art?, was a stimulating and refreshing contribution to the development of the thinking regarding the role of cultural institutions and people´s involvement in culture and the arts. At the end of this post, a number of articles show how new technologies have also contributed to these changes.

Culture, in its most diverse manifestations, is important in the life of most people. It opens windows to the world, it liberates the mind, it helps interrogate and look for answers, it entertains, it brings relief. It introduces us to the ‘other’, it is able to bring closer people who come from different backgrounds, who even speak different languages, it is something that can be shared. 

The times we live in and those that are approaching are difficult, critical times. They are times that are able to kill hope, to finish with many people´s world, the way they knew it, the way they liked it and wanted to preserve it. They are times of great changes, times that feed the fear of what is different, that turn diversity into a threat. In times like this, it is even more urgent and relevant to be paying attention to the changes, to create conditions for a greater cultural development and involvement of the people themselves, to invest more in “culture per capita” – an expression of the greek thinker Christos Yannaras -, to defend diversity. I am thus thinking a lot of the responsibilities this reality brings for culture professionals. I am thinking more and more of the children and young people whose families haven´t got the possibility to give them access to that extremely rich world that surrounds them, to those extremely diverse cultures. And I am thinking more and more of the decisive role the school, a teacher, can play in the lives of those people, the future adults. I think of Luis Soriano.

Still on this blog
Changes: are we paying enough attention?
La crise oblige? (ii) Programming challenges

More readings
Beyond live: Digital innovation in the performing arts
Arts Council England and BBC launch online arts channel
The free MOMA iPad app (video)
Introducing the new MOMA iPhone app (video)
Theatre for twits
More theatres reserve seats for tweeters
Drip-fed up: why don't theatres get Twitter?
Text your encore at the Mann
Broadway Actors Use Twitter to Connect with Friends, Fans, Industry

Monday 6 February 2012

Building trust

Image taken from the article Sixty museums in search of a purpose in The Art Newspaper
Last summer, in one of the sessions of the fellowship at the Kennedy Center, we did a very interesting exercise. We participated in a sort of brainstorming regarding certain projects the DeVos Institut for Arts Management should get involved in. The criterion was not the interest of the projects themselves. They all were. But not all of them fit in the Institute´s mission, which is to train, support and empower arts managers and their boards locally, nationally and internationally. Just that. Clear, concise and complete, as all mission statements should be.

A concrete mission statement is the basis of every stategic plan. In the manual Strategic planning in the arts. A practical guide, written by Michael Kaiser, the author identifies six elements that should be considered when defining an institution´s mission. I consider three of them to be basic, applicable to all cases: the product/service; the audience; the geographic scope. Kaiser also mentions repertory and education, but I don´t think they are applicable to all cultural institutions and, anyway, they are part of the broader product/service definition. He also refers to quality, in the sense of the level of performance desired, but I believe that this issue is mainly related to our capacity (and obligation) to be realistic when defining our mission´s three basic elements.

It was very interesting to read András Szántó´s article Sixty museums in search of a purpose, where he analyses the mission statements of 60 american art museums. Apart from a semiological analysis, he raises questions like: “Should a mission describe what a museum is doing, or what it should be doing? Is it about tangible goals to which institutions are held accountable, or platonic ideals to which they merely aspire? Should a museum’s mission offer an inventory of assets and activities, or will it work best as a crystallisation of core principles? How will it reflect a museum’s take on cultural progress, audience demographics, funding sources and technological opportunity?”.

Going back to what I said before, a mission statement must be clear, concise and complete. Coherent, as well. It may not allow for different interpretations; it must be easily remembered (and ‘recited’) by all employees as well as external ‘customers’ (audiences, partners, sponsors); it must refer to all the areas in which the institution develops its activity; and it must be coherent, because it must make sense and be realistic. Thus, I would say that the mission should not be limited to what is actually being done, but it should also refer to what an institution realistically aspires to, in the short or medium term. And it shouldn´t be an exhaustive list of the concrete actions to be developed in order to reach the announced objectives (this should be part of the strategic plan). I had previously touched on this subject, in the post Vision, mission, strategy, where I was suggesting the reading of the mission statements of the Gulbenkian Foundation programme “Descobrir” and of the Casa da Música Education Service. They are still two of my favourite, mainly because of the choice of words and the vision they both transmit. Nevertheless, if we asked the people who are working to make them come true, would they be able to repeat them?

Writing a mission statement is not an easy task, should we want (and we must want) it to meet the above mentioned requirements. Fulfilling it is equally, or even more, difficult. There is a need for discipline, persistence. But, is there another way of tracing a clear path, following it (without unnecessary and/or harmful deviations) and evaluating our success? Following our mission is also a guarantee for an efficient and effective management of human and financial resources. And finally, an advantage in the creation of a distinct identity in the market; in other words, the definition and fulfillment of the mission are a branding instrument.

In this sense, I stronlgy recommend the article The cure for the not-for-profit crisis. The authors maintain that the decrease in the value of donations for not-for-profit sectors (such as the social and the cultural), registered in 2010, did not affect all institutions the same way. They talk of a “crisis of coherence”, of the lack of a strategy that connects the mission of some (many) institutions to their ability to deliver a specific service. Those who suffered the most from the decrease in donations were actually those that were more versatile in terms of mission and objectives (often in order to please possible sponsors). On the other hand, those which demonstrated that they had and followed a clear mission, which orientated their whole activity, which allowed them to demonstrate coherence and rigor, have not felt the same impact. A clear mission, coherence and rigor build trust. And, quite probably, the wish to ‘be part of’. Is this a surprise?