Monday, 25 June 2012

Just like in football

(Photo taken from Page3sportz)
I am not a football fan. Not because I think it´s “the people´s opium” or because I think it is taking money away from culture... I just don´t have enough patience for it. And quite often the enormous sums involved in the transfers of players leave me deeply outraged; I find them totally exagerated, a provocation. Nevertheless, I confess that back in 2004 (and I apologize to my portuguese friends for reminding them of that difficult moment in our relationship) I watched every single game from the quarter-finals onwards. It was impossible to resist the general mood of expectation and enthusiasm. And I still remember the moment I screamed “Goal!!!” in the final, when the whole neighbourhood suddenly went dead silent.

I often think about what is that which makes people all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds, vibrate with football; what is that which, at certain moments, makes even those moderately interested or totally uninterested unable to ignore it. Well, I believe it´s a number of things - both intrinsic to the sport and developed by clubs and federations – and the cultural sector could actually find that there are some lessons to learn here.

Football is emotion, excitement, enthusiasm, expectation, pleasure, joy, pride, pain, satisfaction, disappointment.

Football is also identity, a sense of belonging, of being part of a community that supports the same goals, where all members together celebrate victories and endure defeats.

Football is also sharing and tolerance. One does not only live within his/her own community; the joy and the pleasure are celebrated together with members of other communities, “opponents”.

These are some of football´s intrinsic characteristics and values which make it important in people´s lives (there also exist other characteristics, exactly the opposite of these ones, but it´s the good lessons that matter here). It´s precisely on these characteristics and values that clubs and federations build their ‘collateral offer’, in order to reinforce them and create an extensive family of fans, one of the pillars of their sustainability, both for their direct financial support, but also because they attract sponsorship. I would like to concentrate here on two points that seem relevant for this dicussion:

- Football clubs involve people by sharing extensively and permanently, through their own channels and through the official media, news about their daily life: trainings and games, analyses of strategic decisions, objectives, transfers, injuries, management issues, social events, social work, etc. They also share their feelings, fears, hopes, worries, expectations, wishes and dreams.

- Football clubs also involve people through membership, offering them benefits (mailny some discounts), but also giving them the right to vote, thus sharing responsibility with them of the club´s administration and future. That way, members develop a feeling of ownership, club managers become accountable and members expect them to be so and they often exercise their right to question them, being even able to force resignations.

(Photo taken from FanIQ)
I could now start again and say:

Culture is emotion, excitement, enthusiasm, expectation, pleasure, joy, pride, pain, satisfaction, disappointment.

Culture is also identity, a sense of belonging, of being part of a community that supports the same goals, where all members together celebrate victories and endure defeats.

Culture is also sharing and tolerance. One does not only live within his/her own community; the joy and the pleasure are celebrated together with members of other communities, “opponents”.

Culture is all this and much more. These and many more are its intrinsic values. We know it. Other people (the so-called “general public”) also know it. Especially if we talk with everyone about culture in terms each one understands. Because in that case almost everyone realizes that, one way or the other, each one of us, almost everyone, either produces or consumes some kind of cultural product, one they could actually miss if they didn´t have access to it anymore.

I don´t mean to be simplistic, neither do I wish to ignore the difference in scale, nor do I intend to analyze here football´s dark side (which we all know about). Nevertheless, I do believe that some of the means used by football clubs to involve people and guarantee their support (as well as their own relevance in their lives) could also be used by cultural institutions. Let´s imagine:

A cultural institution that publicly announces its mission and specific short, medium and long term objectives; that allows members from its ‘family’ of supporters to have a say; that shares with everyone interested moments from its everyday life (mounting of exhibitions, rehearsals, moments from the staff´s or artists´ everyday work – joys for the things achieved, disappointments for things that went wrong, funny incidents, small secrets, wishes and hopes -, the visitors´ or spectators´ impressions from the experience they had, managers or directors or curators or programmers sharing their ideas about future projects, VIP visitors, partnerships with other institutions, etc.); a cultural institution that would look for ways to make its offer somehow available even to those who cannot access it, physically or financially. In brief, let´s imagine a cultural institution that is not afraid to demystify itself for people of all sorts of backgrounds; and that is not afraid to become more accountable.

Actually, if we think about it, all this is not exactly new for all cultural institutions. There are museums, galleries, theatres, companies, orchestras around the world, both small and big, which - each one according to its resources and at its own scale - do implement some of this. Maybe the impact is not comparable to that of football (maybe it could never be, we are actually talking about two different fields). But there is an impact. And it actually becomes considerable when this attitude becomes part of our strategic planning; when we realize that sharing (plans, thoughts, feelings, responsibility) is a way of building a stronger ‘family’ and gain its support; when we are sincere in our wish to communicate and to involve. Just like it happens in football.

(Photo taken from The Hindu)

Monday, 18 June 2012

Guest post: “The underground voice”, by Reem Kassem (Egypt)

Reem Kassem is a very determined young woman. Approximately one month after last year´s revolution in Egypt, when the authorities´ main concerns were peace and order in the streets, she managed to persuade the military in Alexandria to allow her to go ahead with an open-air music festival, that brought together dozens and dozens of volunteers, from people painting the stage in one of the city´s abandoned parks to the musicians who performed. I could listen to her telling the story of her dealings with the military again and again. She hasn´t stopped since and I am sure her role will be decisive in the future of the cultural sector in Egypt. mv

In Egypt, it has always seemed that the only thing capable of bringing people together is football. Whenever the national team is in action, everyone feels the same way. Young people gather in coffee shops, others get together at home and others just set up screens outside so that people can watch the game in the street. Change only happens when people cry out and when there is a collective need for it. The Egyptian people were looking for other ways of gathering together, for new tools through which they could express themselves and engage in meaningful dialogue.

Start with Yourself Festival: Exchange to Change (Photo: AGORA)

This is where the cultural sector came in and provided cultural and artistic activities for the general public. In recent years, there have not been enough cultural centers in Egypt and the activities they offer have failed to meet the needs of the Egyptian society. Inevitably, cultural activities are very much centered in Cairo, followed by Alexandria, while the rest of the country is totally ignored. On top of this, traditional forms of cultural activities held in concert halls or conference centers failed to attract new audiences – it’s always the same old faces.

There are two layers in the Egyptian cultural sector: the government-led and the independent. The first is represented by the Ministry of Culture and its associated entities; the second one is the underground scene. Almost all regions in Egypt have national theaters, opera houses, cultural palaces and official dance and music groups of the Ministry. The underground scene, which emerged in 2006 and grew rapidly from 2009 to 2011, is represented by young emerging and young professional artists in all disciplines who are not financed by the Ministry of Culture and are therefore not controlled by the government. They perform mainly in private or in foreign cultural centers and, to some extent, they are the counterparts of the NGOs and non-governmental initiatives in Egypt.

Start with Yourself Festival: Social Change (Photo: AGORA)

Because underground artists were successful in providing what official artists could not, either through their performances in non-governmental cultural centers or through the social media, they have gained a large number of fans who believe in alternative arts. For example, the band Massar Egbari (meaning “compulsory road”) performs songs about social problems, such as unemployment, traffic chaos and bad living conditions. This band, and others with the same mission, engages with the public not just in an artist-audience relationship, but in a kind of connection where the audience can use the band to discharge its negative energy and recharge with hope. The audience feels comfortable communicating its problems through the band‘s songs and music. This is how the independent layer of the cultural sector started influencing the country’s youth; mainly through the underground scene. It has therefore become an urgent priority to fulfil the need for more and more cultural events, theatres, venues and projects to meet the growing needs of the people.

In 2009, artists and cultural operators noticed the growing community desire for public events and street art. Cultural managers started their fight to get permits. There were many attempts to organize public space events that were either hindered for security reasons or stopped in the planning stage by policy makers. The process ended with what has become known as the “Cultural Revolution”. When the protests started on 25th January, a new window opened, giving artists a sign that they should take the lead. In less than five days, songs were composed, poetry was written, theatre productions were initiated, photography exhibitions were prepared and short films were made. Stages were built in public spaces for artists to give revolutionary artistic performances. As a result, the underground scene officially became the ideal representation of contemporary culture and, in a way, served to shape the new cultural policies.

During the past year, independent cultural entities have been very active. Many of them are newly established with a mission oriented towards public space and street art. The creativity to bring the arts to non-traditional spaces has astonished the Egyptian public and has changed a lot the way they perceive things. Funding organizations have dedicated special attention to projects working on engaging new audiences and promoting free access to culture. The last thing we need at the moment is to treat the public as mere spectators. The current phase of political transition is a time for participation and social change and the cultural institutions should be taking the same line.

Start with Yourself Festival: Dream... Achieve... Change  (Photo: AGORA)

Art in the public space can be perceived as a reflection of our identity and collective culture. It has the highest potential to celebrate the diversity within a society and strengthen its sense of belonging. However, in the past years there was hardly any public engagement or interest and so the separation between the individual and the community have increased. The current cultural realities in Egypt are changing with the use of public space by independent artists, the reinvention of public space by multi-arts festivals and the presentation of new art forms in public.

Reem Kassem joined the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Center in 2003. In 2010 she became the Head of Performing Arts Programming. She programmes and coordinates the monthly performing arts program and the performing arts festivals, she manages the membership of the BA Arts Center in international networks and she promotes its performing arts productions internationally. In 2011, she established AGORA for Arts and Culture, an independent organization connecting arts practice and non-formal education with social development. In 2012, she established AGORA International, a new branch based in Marseille. She has participated in a number of cultural forums in european and northern african countries.

Monday, 11 June 2012

So, what´s the plan?

To Mónica Calle and Alexandra Gaspar, and also to Luís Tinoco; who might not share these views, but they, nevertheless, inspire them.

Every meeting, seminar or conference I´ve attended in the last months had the words ‘crisis’ and ‘challenge’ included somewhere: the theme, a panel, some communications. It could be a positive sign. It could mean that we are aware of the critical situation we´re confronted with and wish to tackle it, face it. We wish to react and take the future in our hands.

But it could also mean... nothing. Just nothing. As in all those occasions rarely did I hear concrete ideas and proposals. I heard criticism (usually of government decisions); I heard demands (usually addressed to the government); I heard the same things we´ve been saying for years now (usually about the government´s responsibilities and obligations, about how important we are, how underfunded and neglected and undervalued by government and society alike, although they should all know better...).

Could it be that the greatest challenge of all is to put an end to all this? To the repetitions, to our myopia, to self-pity, to our inertia? Because we are illuded if we think that we act when we just demand from others, when we just concentrate on the responsibilities of others, when we just try to keep things from getting worse (that is, even worse, because they had never been that good). What are our responsibilities? What´s our role in all this? What are our ideas, our priorities? In brief, what´s our plan?

It´s our responsibility, part of our role, to contol and criticize the governement. To demand that it fulfills its obligations towards the citizens (although many times it looks as though we forget about them and only demand for ourselves and ‘our’ institutions). It´s easy too, though, if we plan to do just that. But it doesn´t really take us anywhere. Governments, politicians, ministers, do not necessarily have a plan... But we must have one. Not only should we take this on as part of our job, but it should also be expected of us.

Firstly, from everything I´ve seen and heard and read lately, I would say that one of the most worrying things we should think about is that we are still so cut off from society. Comfortable and haughty and sure of ourselves in our role of guardians, we still fail to understand that the people we are supposed to be working for - I am referring to the citizens, many of whom, let´s not forget it, voted for the party that formed the current government and which had announced during the campaign the end of the Ministry of Culture -; so, these people are looking for dialogue and not for lectures; they wish to be partners and not to be ordered about; the want to feel at home and not as if they were trespassing; they want to undestand and not to be dealing with an elite club. Ignoring all this is signing our irrelevance sentence.

A second point I would like to make is the urgent need to consider and start working on alternative sources of funding. Depending on one source has not proved to be a good idea. Insisting that this source continues to flow without looking at the same time for alternatives reveals, at the least, a certain stubbornness, little productive. Overcoming our allergy to talking about making money is an essential part of this process. Cultural institutions are not for profit, but this doesn´t mean they shouldn´t be making a profit. It´s that profit they would be able to reinvest in their activity and manage to go further, to do more.

Both first and second points, which are closely related (that is, the foundations of the financial sustainability of cultural institutions are also based on their relationship with society), lead to a third one: the need for these processes to be led by adequately prepared professionals. Would you trust your defence in court in a non-professional lawyer? Your health in a non-professional doctor? The construction of your house in a non-professional engineer? With all respect to amateurs and enthusiasts, who are absolutely fundamental in our field, how can the cultural sector still not look for the appropriate professionals for each job? How can we ever build trust and confidence in our dealings with other sectors, essential for our sustainability, if we are not adequately prepared?

And one final and indispensable point: speak truth to power. It´s not an exclusive portuguese phenomenon the fact that many (most?) leaders prefer to be surrounded by ‘yes-men’. Some weeks ago, on the occasion of the dismissal of Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council in England, by the Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, Dany Louise was writing in her blog: “The basic principle is that if you want good – or even excellent – governance, you don’t surround yourself with yes-men and yes-women, but with capable intelligent thinking professionals and an environment that values and enables those capabilities. You encourage them to tell you when you are misguided or making the wrong decision, and you expect them to come up with viable alternatives. You do this because it is the critical factor in making you a really good leader, one who makes the best possible judgements.” (it´s worth reading the complete text here).

“Crisis” in greek means, in the first place, a decisive point, a crucial point, a turning point. A crisis presents us with challenges and also opportunities for change. This is the moment to evaluate the situation, to define objectives, to set priorities. All too often, the distance between declarations of intentions and putting those intentions into practice is quite big and rarely covered. This sector needs to identify those able to cover this distance, to move things forward. This sector also needs to identify those who understand the notion of 'accountability'*. Good leaders will need to look for the best consultants. And the best consultants must be given the space to speak their minds up. Freely, objectively, responsibly.

* Accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions and policies, including the administration, governance and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences (Source: Wikipedia)

Still on this blog
We are for people. Or... are we?
Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose culture?
La crise oblige?  (i) Some questions
La crise oblige  (ii)  Programming challenges
La crise oblige?  (iii)  Management challenges
Ministry of Culture: Can we keep the debate going for a second week?

The 21st John Hopkins International Fellows in Philanthropy Conference will be taking place in Lisbon, at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, on 4 and 5 July. The conference theme is Arts and economic crisis – Opportunities for the third sector? (conference programme)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Guest post: "Year one as a museum director... Survived!", by Nina Simon (USA)

I am a big fan of Nina Simon´s blog Museum 2.0. I discovered it a couple of years ago and there are two things that particularly attract me: her concern with community involvement and the way she manages to put theory into practice. One year ago, she took over as director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Her self-evaluation of her first year at the post is a lucid, objective and realistic report by someone who has a clear notion of her mission, responsibilities and capacities. Nina Simon knows where she´s going and is ready to do what needs to be done to get there.  The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is lucky to have a director with her qualities.

Image taken from Museum 2.0 blog

Today is my one-year anniversary as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. A year ago, I put my consultant hat on the shelf and decided to jump into museum management (a sentence I NEVER would have imagined writing five years ago).

It’s been a wild and wonderful year—without question, my most challenging and stimulating yet. We went through a dramatic financial turnaround and redefined our relationship with our community through a series of experimental participatory projects and new programmatic approaches. We have come out the other end with dramatic increases in attendance (62%), membership (30%), and financial stability (priceless). We have new support from foundations and individuals who care about innovation in audience engagement—and even more importantly, participants who are excited to experiment with us. People are showing up, getting involved, and sharing their enthusiasm in droves. Personally, I’ve learned to work in whole new worlds, from fundraising to management to community development. It is incredibly rewarding work. I feel lucky.

I'm open to any questions you want to raise in the comments. In the meantime, here are some of the...


- Redefining our role in the community. I’ve always been interested in the social mission of museums, and I feel strongly that the MAH will be successful if we are not only a great cultural or learning organization but a great community organization—one with compelling relevance to the issues that matter most in Santa Cruz. I’m proud of our partnerships with the Homeless Service Center, Second Harvest Food Bank, UCSC, the Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations that are at the heart of the Santa Cruz identity. I look forward to more strategic partnerships that support community development broadly in our county.

- Just doing it. We didn’t go through an extensive planning process followed by deliberative, careful steps forward. We had a vision, a short list of goals for the first year, and an energetic (if underfunded) attack. Over the past year, we’ve developed several planning methodologies and approaches to our work—such as our exhibition philosophy and community program development process - and we did it iteratively through a series of experiments. We tried and tested and played and worked our way forward, and we’re still doing it. It is, as Kathleen McLean puts it, “museum as prototype,” and it is exhilarating, thoughtful work for all of us.


- Using the F word. When I arrived, the MAH was incredibly close to the brink financially - we had less than one week of cash in the bank. In the early days, I would say to donors and to the media that the museum was failing and that we needed their investment and commitment to turn it around and thrive. This narrative worked well in the press - especially when we had early impressive results - but it was demoralizing and offensive to some of the staff and volunteers who had worked hard to deliver the best museum experiences possible in the years prior. Staff members led us in reframing our language to talk about the museum as transforming from a “traditional model to a 21st century model” instead of failing and then succeeding.

- Conflating financial trends with financial position. When I came, I saw an institution that had a multi-year pattern of operating in the red. We had to reverse the trend, and I made drastic, immediate cuts and changes to cut expenses. Everyone made sacrifices. I thought it was the only option. We had layoffs and all remaining staff took 20% salary cuts across the board (which were restored over the following six months as we raised an operating reserve). Then, the turnaround happened faster than I expected, and I now see the situation a little differently. Maybe instead of thinking about needing to turn around the monthly cash flow, I should have thought about the net cash required to put us on more stable ground. If I were in this situation again, I might make the same choice, but I think I’d put more options on the table in the decision-making.

- Not acknowledging enough the stress that comes with disruptive change. While I think I did a decent job communicating my vision for the turnaround and changes with staff, I did a poor job responding to the spoken—and mostly unspoken—stress that came with it. While effective as a tool for rapid change, “embrace the chaos” is not a comfortable management strategy. I credit everyone on our team for adapting and leading with extraordinary enthusiasm and optimism.


- The central role of event-driven experiences. From day 1, I believed that we needed to focus in our first year on creating new participatory events to engage the community. My theory was that visitors would be introduced to the museum through events and then return for daytime visits to the galleries. Instead, we find that they do return—for more events. 85% of our visitors attend through events. Events generate media, focus public attention, and catalyze social energy. The jury is still out on how we will negotiate the relationship between events and casual visits when it comes to hours, pricing, and resource allocation—but this is something we will definitely keep exploring.

- The cumulative effect of participation. I often talk about audience participation as a deployable tool—one among many—to enhance engagement. While I still think of it that way, at the MAH, we’re seeing some of the surprising effects of lots of participatory techniques all under one roof. Our message to the community about getting involved, coupled with policies that encourage flexible collaboration and stations throughout the building that invite participation is generating striking levels and types of co-creative activity in all arenas. It's comparable to the difference between a place with a few interactives and an interactive science center - it changes the way people engage and who comes. I’m not suggesting that every institution can or should move in this direction, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in action and I’m struck by the distinction.

- The speed and extent of the community response. We still have a long way to go to make the MAH the “thriving central gathering place” of our vision statement. But it’s kind of amazing how quickly our role in the eyes of community members changed. Visitors, members, donors, volunteers, and the media have been effusive about what they describe as the “new energy” at the museum. I didn’t imagine that would happen in such a short time frame, and I think it’s going to help all of us - staff, board and community members—continue the conversation about how to keep the energy going.

- The possible determinism of cultural geography. I used to say that participation can work in all cultures and institution types - it’s just a matter of finding the right type of participation for that community. While I still believe this, I am frequently struck by how “Santa Cruz” a lot of our story is. Free hugs for new members, collaborative sculpture projects, fire festivals… these things could work in lots of places, but I’m not sure they would evoke the same interest, passion, and almost universal enthusiasm that we enjoy. I talked about this with international museum friends at AAM and they had mixed responses—some bought the Santa Cruz niche concept, others didn’t. Again, the jury is out.

Here’s to the coming year, which will hopefully be as full of learning, engaging, and experimenting as this past year. And more sleep. That would be good too.

[Text initially published in Nina Simon´s blog Museum 2.0]

Nina Simon is the executive director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. She designs and researches participatory museum experiences. She is the author of The Participatory Museum and of the blog Museum 2.0, with more than 30000 weekly readers.