Monday 28 May 2012

We are for people. Or... are we?

Photo: Thomas Struth
I was in two meetings with museum professionals lately and another one is starting tomorrow in Lisbon (the European Museum Advisors Conference 2012). I thought about what makes me feel so good in their company. I reached the conclusion that it is the fact that these are people who give, whose work makes sense to them because they´re eager to share it, they want it to be useful and meaningful to others. There was not even one award or special commendation in the recent European Museum of the Year Award ceremony in Penafiel (Portugal) that did not mention the special relationship or involvement those museums have established with their communities. Museums are moving, even if still slowly, from collection-oriented to people-oriented institutions.

It might sound strange that I say ‘slowly’. But let´s consider this: it was in 1909 that John Cotton Dana, visionary director of the Newark Museum in the US, expressed the following view on the role of museums: “A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning and thus promotes learning. (...) The Museum can help people only if they use it; they will use it only if they know about it and only if attention is given to the interpretation of its possessions in terms they, the people, will understand”. And it was in 1917 that he wrote: “Today, museums of art are built to keep objects of art, and objects of art are bought to be kept in museums. As the objects seem to do their work if they are safely kept, and as museums seem to serve their purpose if they safely keep the objects, the whole thing is as useful in the splendid isolation of a distant park as in the centre of the life of the community which possesses it. Tomorrow, objects of art will be bought to give pleasure, to make manners seem more important, to promote skill, to exalt handwork, and to increase the zest of life by adding to it new interests.”

Are we, almost a century later, the ‘tomorrow’ John Cotton Dana was talking about? When there are still museum directors who feel they need to make a choice between taking care of ‘their’ collections and sharing them with people, “in terms they, the people, will understand”? As if we had the right to choose which of the five museum functions we are here to fulfill (collect, preserve, research, exhibit or interpret), instead of fulfilling them all as best as we can? I don´t think we are that kind of ‘tomorrow’ yet, but very serious steps have been taken to this direction by many museum all over the world. And this attitude has paid off. Because these museums have become relevant for their communities, they are used and cherished, they are parts of people´s lives, so people are there to defend their existence.

Somehow, these collection-oriented museums made me think about artist-oriented institutions. And Vitor Belanciano´s article “Artists and Cynicism” (Público, 20.05.2012) couldn´t have come at a better moment to give me some more food for thought. In a text that was profoundly felt and appreciated by people who value artistic creation, Vitor reminded us of some truths: of the bad image culture and the majority of artists have in Portugal; of the fact that they are considered parasites; of the fact that – some, not all - 'deserve' the public´s recognition only after they pass away. He also mentioned that scientists, doctors, lawyers or engineers, even if bad professionals, don´t have to justify their existence to society; and that artists are not doing enough to seduce public opinion, probably because they don´t believe themselves in what they want us to believe in: that art doesn´t only create material richness, but also wisdom and emotional richness, which in these times is absolutely essential.

Other professions don´t have to justify themselves because they are already perceived by people as contributing to the common good. And it is clear for people in what way they are doing it. Artists are, first of all, not seen as professionals and they are also seen as working for themselves, though spending public money. Just like the institutions that give them the space to do it. But, just like museums do not exist only to preserve collections, performing arts institutions do not exist only to present artistic projects. The ‘introversion’ that still caracterizes many of them, opening the doors only to the few ‘initiated’, is being contradicted, both by the entry of professionals that bring along new concerns regarding the relationship with society – which is fundamental in order for them to fulfill their mission, as well as inextricably linked to their sustainability - , as well as by the citizens´ demand for access. 

Cultural institutions are for people. They are places of encounter among people who wish to communicate with each other; who are looking for beauty and inspiration and meaning; who wish to share thoughts, experiences, worries, joys. If those who lead them are not conscious of this, then a big part of our society will continue to consider the investment a waste, their offer incomprehensible, their existence irrelevant and, thus, disposable. 

More readings 

Monday 21 May 2012

Guest post: "Jos Repertory Theatre: Living and working in Nigeria", by Patrick-Jude Oteh

Patrick-Jude Oteh was my colleague last year in the Kennedy Center Fellowship. I remember remaining speechless after his presentation of the work carried out by Jos Repertory Theatre, which he founded in a small and now divided nigerian town called Jos. How can a theatre company fulfill its mission in a place where people´s safety is one of the first priorities? And what is the role of that same company when operating in an environment defined by terrorism, curruption, ethnic and religious divides?

Emeka Nwabueze's When The Arrow Rebounds, the stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe's novel Arrow of God, directed by Patrick-Jude Oteh for the 2011 national tour and 2012 Jos Theatre Festival.  © The Jos Repertory Theatre Archive

I live and work in a state with a population of 3.5m people, the bulk of whom are self-employed and government workers. The people of Jos, which is the capital of Plateau State, are hardworking, energetic and welcoming. In the city, there is a healthy mix of people from other parts of Nigeria, which has 36 states, and the federal capital territory, Abuja. Plateau State used to be the only state in Nigeria where you could easily find other tribes and nationalities co-existing peacefully. Until twelve years ago.

Due to a mix of politics, economics, religious and ethnic intolerance and mass unemployment, all the various segments of this once vibrant and beautiful city now live in segregated and dividing enclaves all round the city. There is mutual distrust, agony and pain in relationships which, barely a decade ago, were being built across various divides.

Our theatre company, The Jos Repertory Theatre, started operating in this city a little over a decade ago. Then it was fashionable to hold productions at 7pm in the evening and audiences were feeling safe in a night out in the city. Not anymore. It is termed risky if we start a production by 5pm. These days most people are indoors by 7pm. The last festival in 2012 saw productions finishing at 6.30pm. We had to cancel the post performance discussions, which gave people a channel for their voices to be heard, so that people could go home on time or be in the comfort and safety of their neighbourhoods. Commerce and schools have also taken the same path. It is sad to see schools populated only by pupils of the same faith or pupils of the same ethnic stock. The markets, once vibrant spaces for social interaction and relationships, are also not spared.

Lonne Elder III´s Ceremonies In Dark Old Men, directed by Osasogie Efe Guobadia for the 2012 Jos Theatre Festival.  © The Jos Repertory Theatre Archive
The reason for this unfortunate development in the affairs of our nation, of which Jos is only but a tiny fraction of a larger malaise, is the struggle for power and for the control of national resources, as the person or group that holds political power in Nigeria is also the one responsible for sharing national resources. People are struggling to rule not because they want to serve but because they want to be the ones to decide who gets what and when. There is also a lot of mind-bending corruption, in a country so richly endowed, which has killed off so much of our time honoured values.

In the last two years, it has become very challenging to work in the theatre. We pulled off two theatre festivals, but it was done under very hard and challenging circumstances. Part of the objective of our recent work has been to use the theatre to foster dialogue and interaction amongst the various people and sides of the unending conflicts.

Due to the fact that we are being confronted with a lot of issues that seem to defy solutions, most of the time our work seems like a consistent and constant failure. You get this feeling that you are not doing enough. But then, what can you do in a situation where a lot of people do not see the need to give to worthy causes like the theatre? Five years ago, we started an initiative whereby if we could not work within our host city we would work in the nation’s capital, Abuja. Our capital has not been spared either. It is almost like we are in a perpetually boiling cauldron.

How do you keep hope alive in this environment?

We have been fortunate as a company to work with a group of young people who simply want to create and don´t want to know where or who they are creating with. They simply want to know the human being. It is not always easy keeping everyone safe within the different enclaves, but it does help to know that their generation is keen on working with each other, forging friendships and closeness that no amount of politics, religion or ethnic differences can erase. These are the future leaders of this society. They are vibrant and they are resilient. When hopes and morale are at a low, they are the ones who keep us going by their unspoken words and deeds.

Barrie Stavis´s The Man Who Never Died, directed by Patrick-Jude Oteh for the 2012 Jos Theatre Festival.  © The Jos Repertory Theatre Archive
The rise of terrorism in our country simply added another dimension to our woes. Like everything Nigerian, whenever we take on something, we always build a better model. That is what has happened with our terrorists. They are getting more and more sophisticated and along with this sophistication has come a new sense of daring. They are willing to take on everything and everyone. The government and the press are not spared. The unfortunate aspect of this presently is that there is nowhere safe in the country, except in the south, which has not experienced terrorist attacks.

This has definitely affected all aspects of our work. We cannot do any work now without thinking of security issues. When searching for a space, in an area where spaces for performances hardly exist, we have to look for upscale venues which are more expensive, which means that we have to charge our patrons enough to cover our costs, though this has the potential of driving patrons away from the theatre. They have other concerns than theatre! Another sad dimension, which is fast posing a huge challenge, is the fact that people try to avoid crowded places. So having an audience is no longer guaranteed.

Our hope is that our country will go back to what we used to know, not the present aberration that we can hardly recognize. Our hope is that one day the government will translate its words into action, especially in the provision of employment for a crucial sector in our economy. Thus far, the government has not been able to match words and rhetoric with actions. The President had promised a $200m arts intervention fund which would be made available to all arts sectors. Almost two years later, we are yet to hear of anyone who has been able to access the fund. Even the very existence of the fund has been involved in controversy, with the government now saying that the money was to build infrastructure for the arts sector. We have not seen any structure or support system for the arts in place. As an organization, we have continued to rely on individuals and some support from the corporate sector.

This is the country where I live and work. Is this the country where my kids will realize their potential? It is doubtful. However, we are a very hopeful and prayerful people.

Patrick-Jude Oteh is the Founding Artistic Director of Jos Repertory Theatre, an independent not-for-profit theatre organization in Nigeria. He studied Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan, where he also got his Masters degree and he is currently a Doctoral candidate. He briefly taught African Drama, Directing and Acting/Speech in the Department of Theatre and Communication Arts at the University of Jos. He has been involved in theatre related projects in the USA, UK, Italy, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and South Africa. One of his on-going involvements is the stringing together of a group of touring theatres as well as creating a database of companies and actors in the West African sub-region. He was a Summer International Fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C. He is involved in the formation of the 1st Arts Management Center in Abuja and writes a weekly column on Arts Management, called From the Live Stage, for the Peoples’ Daily Newspaper.

Monday 14 May 2012

What´s the problem with classical music? Apparently, none...

Gustavo Dudamel (photo taken from the blog Opera Fanatics)

Gustavo Dudamel is, at this moment, the face of classical music´s popularity. I recently read that his latest album is nr. 3 on the swedish pop chart (ahead of Madonna). I don´t know whether I am wrong, but I think that we hadn´t seen something like this since the time of the three tenors. I do believe it is fortunate when one can count with the contribution of such ‘phenomena’, who, through their art and their great capacity to communicate, manage to open windows for thousands of people to things they had never experienced before. Thanks to them, this world (and also those of opera and ballet) – seen by many as closed, elitist, incomprehensible, uninteresting, ‘stuffy’ – becomes demystified, surprises, enthuses, touches, gets a place in people´s lives. In the meantime, there are many more professionals (artists, but also programming directors, managers, communication and education professionals) who also contribute, although at a different scale, so that more and more people may get in tuch with the world of classical music, discover it, share it.

Monday 7 May 2012

Guest post: "Me, you and the others", by Eva-Kaia Vabamäe (Estonia)

I met Eva-Kaia Vabamäe during a training course last September. A few days ago, she surprised me with a text she wrote, inspired by a recent post of mine, on the challenges faced by estonian museums when presenting the history of their 20-year-old country. I asked for permission to re-publish her text. This made me think that there are always so many realities we don´t know about, so in the next few weeks there will be more texts from Spain, Brazil, Egypt, Ukraine, the USA and Nigeria. And I hope more will follow. mv

Model of the National Museum of Estonia´s new building (image taken from the website - New European Architecture)
Maria Vlachou, a Greek museologist who currently lives and works in Portugal, raises the topic of telling stories in the museum context in her blog Musing on Culture. She focuses primarily on how one story can sound totally different depending on the nation that is telling it (for example the never-ending conflict between neighbouring countries Greece and Turkey). This reminded me of the important role museums play when it comes to rethinking and explaining history to the public.

Coming from a tiny (although, of course, huge in spirit) country like Estonia, with a population of less than 1,5 million, we are used to imagining that we are in opposition with other nations. It’s been a survival strategy through various occupation periods, when the oppressors tried to absorb us into other, bigger, nations. Our history mostly consists of battles for our identity; battles for the opportunity to have our own republic and our own culture. Of course, that means that there has often been someone else to be opposed to, someone who has won the game by just being heavier. Therefore, success stories in Estonian history usually consist of tales about a nation that is clever as a fox, incredibly persistent and wins the fight with incredibly simple tricks (who would believe that a nation can sing itself free, but yet it’s a true story). As US anthropologist Paul Firnhaber pointed out in the Estonian NationalMuseum’s latest museums masterclass, we’ve only had one military hero, Lembitu, who lived in the 1200s and didn’t actually accomplish much.

When this background is taken into account, it is in fact not a great wonder that usually we just tell stories from our own, Estonian, point of view. We’ve only been independent again for a bit more than 20 years and before that it was the Soviet occupation, known for its habit of rewriting history to suit political ambitions. Obviously then, the historians have had their hands full with setting things right and there’s still a lot to re-evaluate. But how often do we think about how other nations have seen the same events? What would the stories of our ethnic minorities be like? What would the stories of our neighbours be like or how did it all look like on the other side of the ocean? We are only beginning to tell these stories and it will be a great challenge for a tiny nation that has mainly been fighting for its own survival.

Volunteers gathering on the pathway to Raadi Manor to clean the territory. Raadi is a place that could tell very controversial stories. Among fields and meadows, it became a Baltic German manor in the 19th century; then the Estonian National Museum’s first exhibition hall in the 1920s; then a Soviet military airfield during the cold war; and finally, in the 2000s, the area designated for the ENM building, the construction of the main building is to begin shortly. (Photo: courtesy of NME).

Like Maria Vlachou also writes, people used to turning to museums to find the “truth”. Museums have the authority to decide what and how will be displayed. This places a huge amount of responsibility on the shoulders of museum specialists, because, as I am sure each and every one of us has noticed,  there’s rarely only one ‘right’, objective, view on world history. Current museology already tells us that museums shouldn’t be the dictators of truth, but offer a variety of different narratives.  More simply put, this theory is similar to the proverb that says: “Don’t give the hungry man a fish, but a fish hook”, which means that the museum must trust its visitor enough to let him, based on these different narratives, decide for himself.

The Department of Ethnic Cultures of the National Museum of Estonia is currently helping Valga Museum with developing an inclusive exhibition project with and about the local Roma community. The start has been quite rocky, especially on the ‘inclusion’ side. We’ve had to do a lot of explaining that we’re not making any money with this project, because the Roma community has had negative experiences with former projects, when they’ve felt that they’d only been used for statistics and no real input was expected of them.

As part of the preparation process, my colleague and I attended a seminar last week. It was a seminar for teachers and a Roma woman, who runs the local cultural Roma NGO, was asked to speak about their culture. This time, like before, she again asked the question: “Why now? Nobody cared about us for hundreds of years, why now?”. I think it’s because we’re finally ready to tell more stories than just our own. And based on the question that one participant (let me remind you that they were teachers!) asked: “Why should I respect you, when I know nothing about you?”, I’d say it’s more than necessary to start telling them!

[Text originally published in the Eesti Rahva Muuseumi blog (National Museum of Estonia)]

Eva-Kaia Vabamäe currently works for the National Museum of Estonia (NME) in the Department of Ethnic Cultures. Her job is to assist different types of museums in the fields of museum education, exhibitions and communication strategies. This includes organizing workshops and courses, but also working in a variety of other museum development projects. Current projects include developing a community-inclusive exhibition hall for the NME´s new building, creating a summer programme on ethnic cultures for children, creating workshops for museum educators, the above-mentioned exhibition about the Roma community, etc. Born and raised in Estonia, she has formal training in design and conservation and lately graduated from the University of Tartu with a Master´s degree in Art History and a thesis concentrating on the elaborate historic interiors of Baltic Germans, formerly a very significant minority group, both in cultural and economic terms.