Monday 24 September 2012

Guest post: "Inspiring a love for the arts in younger audiences", by Consuelo Hidalgo (Ecuador)

Consuelo Hidalgo is a person full of energy and enthusiasm that makes you feel that everything is possible. And she works hard enough to actually make things happen. Right now she is the right person for the right job. Being the Executive Director of Fundacion Niños con Futuro, she brings together her love for the arts with her love for children. In this text, she is sharing with us the story of her contribution to Ecuador´s future. She is dreaming of and working for a country populated by citizens who are sensitive, creative and genuine critical thinkers. mv

A pre-school student at Guayaquil Symphony Orchestra´s concert for kids. (Photo: Consuelo Hidalgo)

I remember the first time I heard my grandmother tell me in a very enthusiastic way the story of La Traviatta. I was five and very impressed by the plot and the way this passionate music and voices narrated this drama in such a magical, but incomprehensible, way.  This is how I was introduced to the opera, a grandmother’s storytelling game that developed a new way to perceive and understand this art form.

Every art form has a story to tell. For me, having worked for several years in audience development projects for younger people in museums, symphony orchestras and children’s foundations, taught me the importance of the way, quality and frequency of the stories we tell children to get them involved in the arts.

In Ecuador, most of the performing arts activities are free for children, so why are ecuadorian younger audiences so detached from the artistic environment? I think the problem starts with the ‘willingness’ of educational institutions and parents to bring them to a performing arts show or rehearsals (which are almost all open on specific days to the public). My question now is, what is the story we are telling educators and parents about the benefits of attending a performance, and how do local arts institutiosn plan their activities to serve younger audiences? And how sustainable are arts institutions going to be in the years to come, since the arts and music is no longer a mandatory subject in schools and when other kinds of entertainment are being consumed by the population?

Maestro Ivan Fabre (Guayaquil Symphony Orchestra´s first violin) giving a concert for kids at Fundacion Niños con Futuro. (Photo: Consuelo Hidalgo)
We still haven´t got any formal studies on the impact of arts education programmes on younger audiences in Ecuador. Our parametre to measure results is the feedback given by parents and teachers. I clearly remember when my first ‘formal’ arts education programme was taking shape, “Cultura para todos” (Culture for everyone). I was working at the colonial art Museum Nahim Isaias and, as you can imagine, getting kids excited about colonial arts was a very tough call. So, I started playing with concepts used by our curators in our exhibitions that could be presented as a parallel story in a familiar language for pupils. For example, based on a permanent exhibition inspired in iconography, we created a special programme, in accordance with the academic standards established at national and local levels. Each teacher received a worksheet to guide students and was supposed to implement the programme in the classroom, while specific art and iconography concepts were taught during the museum visit.  The programme was designed to support arts learning in classrooms. The purpose of this, as well as of the following young audience development programme at the Guayaquil Symphony Orchestra, was to engage students through a creative approach to education, provide arts experiences for children and empower students with tools of self expression. This experiences included visits to the museum where the children received a special workbook with fun activities, like, crosswords, riddles, and clues to play a mistery game guided by the staff, and visits to the symphony orchestra and strings quartet concerts at their schools, also with a workbook focused on their experience after the concerts. The response we had from teachers and parents was very positive, since they could clearly see an increase in students’ engagement in learning and a more active and sustained appreciation for the arts. The most rewarding experience for us was to see these children coming back with their parents on the weekend (and letting us know they came back), as well as to know that schools that participated in our programmes were know including arts and culture fair in their academic calendar (we were invited to inaugurate eight of these fairs).

This was how, eight years ago, I started developing community-based partnerships, as a means of building the audience required to ensure high-quality arts learning for young people, and settled my goal to improve schools and community capacity to embrace the arts, which would hopefully develop a systemic demand for arts education in the future.

Children from Fundacion Niños con Futuro visit the theatre in Guayaquil. (Photo: Consuelo Hidalgo)
So, what is the story we should be telling society about the importance of arts in children’s lives? Art is a relevant strategy for education in all areas. In early childhood, it enhances creative, reflective and critical thinking. It is a learning tool that stimulates the ability to create and innovate. So, we can certainly say that, through art, children can express their feelings and creativity as they develop critical thinking skills.

The question we are now facing is not one of "education minus art" versus "education plus art," but, rather, what is the quality of the core skills set with which we hope to - and must - equip future generations? Will it be a tool kit designed for the performance of simple practical tasks? Or will it promote, instead, the sort of flexible, imaginative and critical thinking that is required to deal with the complex and ever-shifting challenges posed by the contemporary world? Will it limit its compass to the classroom? Or will it, instead, become a lifelong resource for personal growth and enrichment? Will it make us more aware of the subtle details of life, instead of hungry for all quantifiable consumers’ gratification goods?

Being involved with the arts as a child changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be so active working on this specific matter if it wasn’t so. This is the story I want tell you and, hopefully, I will find similar stories in the future from the generations to come.

Consuelo M. Hidalgo is a journalist. She is currently working as the Executive Director at Fundacion Niños con Futuro. Before that, she worked for 4 years as cultural promoter at The Guayaquil Symphony Orchestra, where she was responsible for audience development programmes, international relations and educational programmes. She started her professional career as PR Manager at the Colonial Art Museum Nahim Isaias, in Guayaquil. During the time she worked at the museum, she developed multiple cultural projects that pursued the integration of people with fewer resources in the museum´s the cultural activities. This project was called Cultura Para Todos and it has been taken to other cities in the country. In 2006 she was offered a position at the MAAC, an anthropologic and contemporary art museum, to manage a new project called Vivir La Cultura - offering free performing arts presentations to the citizens by using regenerated areas of the city as their main stage. In 2008, she participated in the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts International Cultural Exchange Fellows Mentoring Program for Performing Arts Managers. She just finished her Arts management fellowship at the DeVos Arts Management Institute at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Monday 17 September 2012

On public value

Image taken from
There already exists extensive litterature regarding the value of the arts and culture. The issues related to its instrumentalization by governments or its intrinsic character have been on the agenda for many years now, especially in countries such as the US, the UK or Australia. There was a moment when, considering all the ‘proofs’ one had to give, I thought that culture professionals are exactly and only that: culture professionals. They are neither teachers nor therapists or doctors or priests or policemen... If their work has a positive impact on other areas, this impact must be registered e professionals in those areas, as well as their ‘users’, must become our ambassadors. More than any study on, for example, the impact of the cultural sector on a country´s economy (there are various, governments use them or ignore them), more than any argument we might present in defense of our cntribution to society, there is a need for the testimonies of those who are the ‘direct beneficiaries’ – even of ‘colateral’ benefits – of our work. And let´s not forget, these are the people who vote in elections.

Nevertheless, more than once I´ve expressed here my concern regarding the fact that culture professionals are keeping a distance from society, from the people. Whenever we debate the importance of culture, the reasons why it should be state funded, our arguments are only good enough for internal consumption. It´s us talking to our peers in defense of our ‘small corner’. We even give the idea that we are defending personal issues and not the common good.

People defend and support with their taxes the existence of public hospitals (even if hoping never to set foot in them, but because they recognize in their existence a common good). What needs to be done in order to think and talk in a similar way regarding culture? So that everyone, users and non-users, envisages it as a common, indispensable, good?

Approximately two years ago, I came across for the first time in my readings with the term ‘public value’, in a text by John Holden, dating from 2004, called Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool for government policy. In this text, ‘public value’ is defined as the value added by government and the public sector in its widest sense. It is the difference between what citizens give to and what they receive from public bodies. Citizens recognize value when they give something up in return (in culture that might be, for example, money – for buying tickets or in donations -, time, energy, voluntary work, etc.).

Last month, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) became news when it suceeded in convincing the residents of three counties in Michigan to vote for a new property tax which will benefit directly the museum. Thus, the DIA will be receiving $23 million per year for the next 10 years (91% of its annual budget), while at the same time it will try to raise $400 million for its endowment so that, after the 10 years pass, it can continue its operations. After the tax had passed, the museum offered free entry to all residents in the three counties.

In what concerns this event, Diane Ragsdale, author of the blog Jumper,  did an excellent analysis (read here), with links to more texts, where she raises sime extremely relevant questions: has the museum calculated the impact (in the sense of reduction) on citizens´s usual contributions (donations, admissions, membership, etc.); would it have been a more intelligent and ethical solution to try and support various institutions rather than only one; is the DIA putting itself in an awkward position, having to renegotiate its relationship with the community in ten years’ time; what motivated people to pass the tax and how mat those who voted ‘no’ be feeling; how should one interpret the tripling of attendance in the week after the tax was passed; and, finally, what will the impact of this quid pro quo deal will be in what concerns the benefits a community may (and will expect to) receive in return for its support to a cultural institution?

This last question takes me to another excellent text, by Nina Simon, author of the blog Museum 2.0, who focused on the public discussion during the museum´s campaign (read here). Nina analysed more than 300 comments in the Detroit Free Press Online and once again raised  questions regarding the way people perceive culture´s public value and the way these debates can and should be conducted by cultural institutions themselves. Nina quoted a very interesting study, The Arts Ripple Effect: A research-based strategy to build shared responsibility for the arts, which identifies, among others, three main assumptions regarding the arts: the arts are a private matter (they are about individual tastes, experiences and enrichment ans also about individual expression); the arts are a good to be purchased (thus, they should succeed or fail as any other product in the market); the arts are not a priority (even among those who value them). The study suggets that, knowing of these and other assumptions, it is possible to build arguments in defense of culture which may be understood by the majority of people, acknowledging its impact on their lives and that of their community. A common good requires a common language and a common frame, shared by all.

Rebecca Lamoin, Associate Director of Strategy at Queensland Performing Arts Centre and my colleague at the Kennedy Center, is currently working on a project about the public value of cultural institutions. As part of a two day forum, she is organising a national radio programme, open to the public. In this preparatory phase, she is inviting culture professionals from all over the world to make brief statements, answering the following 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?

I believe that trying to answer these questions, especially the last one, would be a good exercise for all of us. And it would also be interesting to know how many institutions in Portugal have already got the answers, because they actively collect and register these data. In the beginning of November, Rebecca Lamoin will be telling us in this blog of how things went in Australia.

Still in this blog:

More readings
Public Value and the Arts inEngland: Discussion and conclusions of the arts debate

Regarding other tax schemes benefitting cultural institutions in the US, do read this post by Ian David Moss on Createquity.

Monday 10 September 2012

Guest post: "Reinventing and making museums matter", by Ihor Poshyvailo (Ukraine)

Ihor Poshyvailo is a very discreet man, but, once we get to talk to him, we discover a wealth of knowledge and experience. In these conversations, it becomes obvious how concerned he is with the opening up of his country, Ukraine, to the world and the role museums can play in this period, which is still one of transition, especially in what concerns the encounter of folk culture and contemporary artistic expression. In this post, he shares his thoughts on the present and future of museums in his country. mv

Parade of "vyshyvankas" on Independence Day in Kiev. (Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo)
Arts and culture were embedded in the environment I was brought up in. My grandparents were prominent folk potters who founded the first home-museum in Ukraine, the one which happened to be a predecessor of the National Museum of Ukrainian Ceramics in Opishne, a small village that boasts the title of “Capital of Pottery”.

I have been working in the cultural sector for over twenty years, but I should admit that the last three were especially favorable for me. I became a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Institution and a Summer International Fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. These generous opportunities have provided me with new knowledge and empowered me with new ideas and visions.

Our world is becoming smaller and globalized. Nevertheless, it remains unstable. The cultivation of multicultural respect and mutual understanding between different communities can be one of the solutions to the biggest challenges and threats of the 21st century. In this process, special roles are given to arts and culture organizations, and especially to museums, which today turn out to be not only classical institutions for the preservation and presentation of historical, cultural and natural values, but important communication facilities. They have the power to profoundly alter our knowledge and sense of ourselves and of the world around us by transmitting information by means of presentation of objects and concepts, and their interpretation. As a number of researchers have suggested, museums also implicitly communicate messages about authority, power and the values of the dominant culture. Museums help us to reconstruct the past as well as provide an essential background for the understanding of the present.

In the last decades, museums in the United States have become more responsive to a diverse public by shifting focus from the presentation of objects to their interpretation and the production of experiences, while exhibitions have become people-centered, idea-oriented and contextualized. As envisioned by Stephen E. Weil, “The museum of the near future as an intricate and potentially powerful instrument of communication…will make available to the community… its profound expertise at telling stories, eliciting emotion, triggering memories, stirring imagination, and prompting discovery.”

Performance by a famous ethno-chaos group, DakhaBrakha, at Ivan Honchar Museum. (Photo:  Bohdan Poshyvailo)
The expansion of cultural heritage boundaries in the second half of the 20th century prompted new answers in what concerns the relations between heritage objects and their consumers. ‘Heritagization of space’ – a process of reinterpretation of one’s environment – puts heritage objects and cultural institutions in line with other popular leisure facilities, including circuses and casinos, restaurants and resorts, even television and the Internet. This phenomenon has had an impact on contents and methods of presentation and interpretation of cultural legacy and has inspired the transformation of museums into special and important grounds for a dialogue about the role of cultural heritage in the development of democracy and civil society. According to the famous futurologist Rolf Jensen, the present society, characterized by scientific approach and rationalism, will inevitably return to emotions, history and values.

In this context, it should be mentioned that the social role and popularity of a museum in Ukraine are quite small, unlike in the Unites States and other developed countries. There are numerous reasons for this. The genocide policy of the communists in Ukraine and the cultural oppression of the last 80 years resulted, of course, in a considerable loss of historical memory for the Ukrainians. During the repressive years of Soviet culture, much of the distinctively Ukrainian heritage lay dormant, hidden. This was unfortunate in many ways, but our cultural isolation preserved our traditional culture as in a time capsule. Since 1991, new freedoms have come providing access to new markets and cultures. Along with this access came the flood of global cultures. Although there may be many economic advantages, in Ukraine this flood of global cultures meets a vacuum of cultural memory. For our nation, charting a distinctive course into the future and the democratic open society requires some memory of who we have been.

The Ivan Honchar Museum, as well as many other museums, can uniquely provide these cultural bearings. The only problem is how to shift from the still dominant communist model of museums - which served only as depositories for imprisoned cultural and ethnic treasures and for ideological purposes, for the ceation of a new nation, the Soviet people. Today, hundreds of museums in Ukraine can boast unique and rich collections, but they are not inspired for transition, to reinvent and make themselves matter. The museum field in Ukraine is at a critical juncture confronting daily challenges. This happens because of a lack of professional knowledge and international co-operation, outdated methods of operations, policies, and programs, that prevent them from becoming leading centers of learning and education, shaping, creating and interpreting values. Their collections, libraries, archives and other documentation resources are still not open to the broad public. New forms of art expression and new segments of the cultural sector are starting to emerge in Ukraine. But there is no effective professional management in this field and no efficient cultural policy. And the Family – an important element of The Cycle model, crafted by Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s President – has not been built in Ukraine yet.

Fashion show during the Lion Fest in the galleries of the Ivan Honchar Museum. (Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo)

But I believe in cultural diplomacy and entirely agree with my DeVos fellow-mate Caroline Miller from London, who suggested in her post for this blog that a big cultural or sport event can effectively communicate to a mass audience more about the host country “in just one show than politicians have achieved in decades”. In my recent trip to Tunisia I was so surprised that many local people (even at the “gate to Sahara” south region) smiled friendly when finding out I was from Ukraine, admiringly saying “Ukrajna. Shevchenko!”. Of course, I wish they meant our national icon ­– the legendary poet, philosopher and artist Taras Shevchenko, who lived in the 19th century -, not only our famous football player Andriy Shevchenko. Nice illustration of how this Euro 2012 Football Championship has served as a great cultural diplomat for Ukraine.

And I do believe that foreign experience in the cultural field can be of critical importance and value for Ukraine. It will help us find a way to comprehend and advance the use of our cultural legacy and of new forms of artistic expression in a rapidly-changing environment, focusing on why museums are important to our culture, what they can contribute to the quality of human experience and welfare, how they can enrich lives through engaging emotions, enhancing experience and deepening the understanding of people, places, events, ideas, conceptions, and objects from the past and present.

Ihor Poshyvailo is an Ethnologist with a PhD from the Institute of Art Studies, Folklore and Ethnology, National Academy of Sciences(1998). He is the Deputy Director of the National Center of Folk Culture “Ivan Honchar Museum” (Kyiv); the Chairman of the Kyiv Regional Branch of the National Union of Folk Art Masters; a founding board member of the Ivan Honchar Foundation. He is an expert in the State Art Commission of the Ukrainian Ministry for Culture, as well as in the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2009). He is the author of the award-winning book Phenomenology of Pottery (semiotic and ethnological aspects). Co-moderator and co-organizer of international museum management seminars (since 2005). Participant in the International Visitor Program (USA, 2004), Global Youth Exchange Program (Japan, 2004) and The World Master’s Festival in Arts and Culture (Korea, 2007). Curator of international art projects, including the traveling exhibition “Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Culture Of, By, and For People” (2011), “Interpreting Cultural Heritage” (2011), “Home to Home: Landscapes of Memory” (2011-2012). Holder of the International Charitable Fund “Ukraine-3000” Scholarship (2005–2006), he has also got the title of Honorable Man of Arts (2008). He was a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage (2009-2010) and is currently a Summer International Fellow at the Kennedy Center (2011-2013). 

Monday 3 September 2012

Clash of cultures

Aung San Suu Kyi in the burmese parliament on May 2, 2012. (Photo taken from

I have been thinking about fear and the way it imprisons us, it restricts us, it makes us constantly accept compromises, it stops us from dreaming, it keeps us where we are, turning us into mediocre and ‘small’ human beings; the way and the reasons it is being cultivated. The culture of fear.

I ´ve recently read the book Freedom from Fear, a collection of texts and public speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi, the burmese activist, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who spent a number of years under house arrest, but who´s recently become a member of the burmese parliament. This meant a lot to me. The first petition I ever signed, I was 19-20 years old, was a petition of the International Amnesty for the liberation of Suu. One of the speeches I now read in the book started like this: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

With this sentence, my thoughts flew from Burma once again to the countries of the Arab Spring. I confess that, since all this started, I never looked at them as if they were countries which are now, ‘finally’, joining us – the ‘countries-guardians of democracy’, the ‘free’ west. On the contrary, following the developments of the Arab Spring and everything that followed, I felt that we should be paying a lot of attention, because there are a number of lessons here for us. What I saw in this revolution were people who joined forces to overcome the fear, who acted as one for the common good, who fought for democracy – for the rights it grants, but taking on the obligations as well. I´ve read articles in newspapers, texts in blogs, I´ve talked to some people who come from those countries and what I´ve encountered are citizens who feel responsible for maintaining the ideals which guided this action, who are perfectly conscious that the struggle is not over and that they must be on constant alert in order not to go back. Knowing the course we took, is it a total utopia to wish that they may remain like this? And that this actually works? Because I do confess that there were moments I felt ashamed: for the things we take for granted; for being part of the vicious circle of the culture of fear – sometimes in the position of those who wield it, other times subject to it -, unconscious of the ideals and values we have sacrificed on the way, or rather conscious, but acquitting ourselves with such excuses as “these are the rules of the game”, “it´s beyond me” or “I am following orders”. The words of Wassyla Tamzali, an algerian writer and activist who participated in a debate in Lisbon on the Arab Spring, sound extremely relevant, for all of us. Tamzali quoted Michel Foucault, who said that “Revolution is to say ‘no’ to the king”, and added: “In Algeria there was not this magic junction [as in Tunisia] among all elements of society. [In Tunisia] there had always been resistance, resistence to the ruler had always existed and within various social categories (the artists, the intellectuals, women, judges, miners...), but never had there been this junction of all categories. There is a revolution only when all social categories come together and take a stand.”  

In this context, the interview of the portuguese Secretary of State for Culture (SEC) to the french newspaper Le Monde last month caused me some consternation. Although he did not give the interview in his capacity as SEC, it is not possible to separate the man from the role, especially since his statements are deeply related to issues concerning a people´s culture.

Francisco José Viegas said: “(...) I belong to a generation which at a certain moment must answer ‘yes’. And accept compromises. When our country is going through a terrible crisis, writing in newspapers and blogs about what culture and society should be, how to help cinema overcome stagnation or save the libraries, is not enough anymore. (...) And he added: “We live in a society which has lost its dreams. The portuguese are afraid of the future, of speaking. And this is happening after the Inquisition, which was 300 years ago, and 50 years of Salazar´s fascist regime. Today, with the crisis, it´s still going on. It´s terrible.” (read the interview here).

It´s true, the Inquisition was 300 years ago and the country went through 50 years of a fascist regime. But there have also been 40 years of ‘democratic’ regime. What have they produced? A culture of fear; a culture of yes men; a culture of compromise, which makes even some heads which are sticking out to bend, to align with mediocrity, in order to survive (it´s very much worth reading an article by greek journalist Nikos Demou, The alliance of the lesser; the ‘democratic’ regime has nurtured similar attitudes in countries like Greece, with a different historic and political background from that of Portugal, which makes one think that the Inquisition and Salazar might not be the only ones to be held responsible). 

It might not be enough to write in newspapers and blogs about what culture and society should be. But it is, undoubtedly, enough to be governed and manipulated, at all levels and in all environments, by those who belong to the SEC´s ‘generation’, the ‘generation’ (which actually embraces different generations, including the younger ones) which nurtures the culture of fear, which thinks that it must say ‘yes’ and accept compromises. Is it not time, also here, in our ‘countries-guardians of democracy’, to confront the culture of fear by recovering our culture of democratic thinking and practice? Is it not time to say ‘no’ to the kings and their courts and to declare certain compromises to be unacceptable, intolerable? Is it not time to dream of something more than mediocrity? To educate citizens who are attentive, sensitive, tolerant, demanding and critical, who are involved in the affairs of the polis, who may express their opinion freely and with a sense of responsibility, without being afraid of getting punished for it? To nurture the imagination, to support creativity, to reward effort and merit? To expect those whom we trust with an executive power to be accountable and all of us, as citizens, to take on the right and obligation to demand it? Especially because, as the SEC reminded us, this country (as others) is going through a terrible crisis, one that is not just financial. And this is also a question of Culture.