Monday, 26 November 2012

The industry of the vast minorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still on this blog

Monday, 19 November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 12 November 2012

The "culture fiction" lobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

The public value project

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

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

Professor Mark H. Moore

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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