Monday 29 April 2013

Safety net(working)

Photo taken from My Firefighter Nation.

When in 2006 I started working in the performing arts field, and as this was a whole new world for me, one of the first things I did, apart from ordering new books, was to look for associations, professional groups, conferences and seminars that would allow me to become better and faster integrated, meet other professionals, find support, ask questions, exchange ideas, acquire new skills. But, apart from a couple of american associations, one of which was organizing an annual world conference on management, I didn´t find anything that could be of help.

I was coming from a very much organized and connected world in that sense, that of museums, where one can find all sorts of models: international associations, national committees, regional and local networks, networks by subject (management, conservation, education, communications, access, etc.); there is also a number of conferences, meetings, seminars, workshops, training courses, where one can get the necessary skills, meet other professionals, extensively share information, get support, build projects, put other people in touch. 

I remember how scary and lonely it felt (apart from very exciting...) when I started working for Lisbon´s São Luiz Municipal Theatre. It was thanks to the help and support of the manager, Rui Catarino, that I managed to find my way. Even though, I did feel the lack of a more extensive and organized professional network - that sense of community, of family, with common concerns and goals - that one finds himself in when entering the museum profession.

Even though, here in Lisbon, those of us working in Communications in different performing arts venues formed a couple of years ago an informal discussion group, called Rehearsal Room. The functioning of the group was rather simple: we would meet once a month, for two hours, in order to discuss a previously chosen subject and many times we would invite a special guest, someone with specific knowledge and experience on the subject to be discussed. Once we exhausted the “big and urgent issues”, our meetings, a bit less regular, served as a get-together, a space and time where we could discuss our concerns and difficulties with colleagues that knew exactly what we thought and felt, that could give advice, share information or simply listen...

I remember once when the subject of the month was publicity. Our guest was a specialist in this field. She was surprised to see that, unlike what happens in other sectors (where competition means that almost everythings is a top secret, unthinkable of sharing with anyone else), we were there mainly to share information, to debate and to help each other. And this is actually one of the specificities of the cultural sector, both in what concernsmuseums and the performing arts. I don´t mean to say that we are not competing with each other, we do. But there is so much more competition for all of us from outside the field, that, in what concerns our primary audiences (and by “primary” I mean those people who usually attend cultural events, who are interested and who like to be informed), we become stronger when we share information and develop common strategies rather than turning our backs to each other.

I strongly believe in networks and I´ve already mentioned some of the reasons why: they can help us be better professionals by providing a (both real and virtual) space of encounter, a space for asking questions, exchanging ideas, acquiring new skills, getting support. This is what they have always meant to me. But I now see more benefits in them.

First of all, they can be the right-scale platform for the younger to express themselves. More than once lately I heard younger colleagues talk about their reticence or discomfort in expressing their views or even asking questions in the big forums (like conferences and seminars) where the “established” and respected specialists in our field are taking part. I´d say it´s natural. Smaller specialist networks and working groups can be just the right size for them to feel more at ease in order to informally discuss their concerns and ideas. And we do need those ideas.

They can also be the most appropriate means for people who share a specific mentality and feel strong about a number of issues, to push their case forward, independent of formal and rigid hierarchies or, I dare say, despite them. Networking means stronger and more decisive lobbying, no matter where individuals stand in a given hierarchical pyramid, in a given structure. Networking means stronger collective leadership.

In life, there are a number of things we simply cannot do alone. Either because we´re not strong enough; or because we haven´t got enough preparation, knowledge, experience or self-confidence; or because our voice is not strong enough. Professional networks may be the cannon that ejects us high and far; and they´re undoubtedly our safety net. This is why I believe that the performing arts have got a lot to learn with museums, and not just in Portugal. Management, communications, education, access are all areas that need to be better developed in order to promote critical thinking and good practices, support newcomers in the field, create the conditions for greater professionalism in areas which are all technical and build a firmer discourse.   

Monday 22 April 2013

Guest post: "Bombay gets the Blues", by Jay Shah (India)

A blues festival in Bombay? “But why?”, one might think. Or maybe... “Why not?”.  The fact that the festival is organized by the Mahindra Group, though, with my friend and colleague Jay Shah being the driving force behind it, explains that this is not a decision that came about by chance. It´s part of a global company´s strategy, as it relates to more than 100 nationalities of customers and employees, to promote art and to enable conversations across culures. mv
Walter Trout at the Mahindra Blues Festival 2013, Mumbai, India (Photo: Ritam Banerjee)
Mehboob Studios, the iconic Bollywood studios in the heart of Bombay (now known as Mumbai) have been coming alive with the best Blues talent the world has to offer during the Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF) each year for the past three years. Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal were here, so were Robert Randolph, Poppa Chubby, Shemekia Copeland, Ana Popovich, Jimmy Thackery and many more. The Best of Blues, in an unusual venue, in an unusual city, you may surmise.
The MBF is a celebration of an art form in a festival far away from the Mississippi Delta, its place of origin.  In a culture so seemingly different, astounding commonalities have emerged. Bombay is a tough city – but a city of dreamers. Struggle and strife is as abundant as triumph and victories. There may not be a better connect between this genre of music with any city in the world as there is with Bombay. Our audacious vision is to create the biggest destination festival for the Blues outside of the United States. We would like to make Bombay to the Blues what Montreaux is to Jazz.
In the absence of a practice of individual giving to the arts and the preoccupation of the government with greater compulsions of providing basic living essentials to the masses, art and culture have seldom been supported in India. Sporadic acts of benevolence for a particular artist or an art event do occur but this lacks a holistic long term plan or vision. We are convinced that corporate houses must help bridge the gap.
The Mahindra Group, is a USD 15.9 billion federation of companies spanning international geographies and straddling businesses as diverse as automobile and tractor manufacturing to retail finance and holiday resorts. We engage with over a 100 nationalities of customers and employees present in all continents except the Antarctic. As a global company we believe we are in a unique position to enable conversations across cultures and have taken a long term view of promoting art and culture as an  enabler of admiration of our brand. Moreover, our cultural outreach activities are directly linked to business strategy, hence are sustainable. They help create shared value between our brand and our stakeholders, securing a positive mind space for our brand.
For greater success in exploring alternate funding sources, Art institutions may wish to closely analyze business plans of specific companies and help them identify ways in which they can derive long term advantage by supporting a particular art form. If one sees a strategic connect and business benefit, funds will flow and art will thrive.

Dana Fuchs at the Mahindra Blues Festival 2013, Mumbai, India (Photo: Ritam Banerjee)
And what strategic connect does the Blues have to our business you may wonder? Mahindra is the largest manufacturer of tractors in the world. The hobby farmers of the Mississippi Delta are our most discerning customers in the United States. They have begun to relate to us on a different plane. We are not just another foreign company trying to sell them a product. They view us as a brand that takes pride in their heritage, celebrates their culture and helps propagate it in distant lands. Our market share has risen and our customer satisfaction levels are amongst the highest. Our products are of course the best one can buy. But our culture connect has significantly boosted our brand’s likability, there is no doubt.
The most endearing by-product of this festival has been the enthusiasm in which the Bombay audiences have adopted it. The connect they feel with the music is intense. The audience comprises of citizens from all walks of life, age brackets and demographics. As Anand Mahindra, Chairman & Managing Director of the Mahindra Group observes, over the years, this festival has become a movement and has garnered a cult like following. The audiences have become believers, a tribe of followers.
I invite you to watch glimpses of the Mahindra Blues Festival and hear the audience testimonies:

Jay Shah has been with the Mahindra Group for the past 15 years doing a variety of assignments. His current charge is to innovatively use art and culture to connect with Mahindra’s stakeholders throughout the world. He oversees the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards and the Mahindra Blues Festival and leads internal programs such as the Global Recruit Program, Mahindra Rise Awards and Mahindra Has Talent. He is an International Fellow at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC. 

Monday 15 April 2013

Guest post: "Orchestras in trouble: a think-piece", by Simon Fairclough (UK)

It´s a great pleasure to hear Simon Fairclough talking passionately both about classical music and his job. Simon is an intelligent and committed young professional who wants to make sure that more and more people are able to discover and enjoy the pleasures of classical music. In this post, his analyses the troubles orchestras all over the world are facing nowadays and points out causes and possible ways forward. Among them, the need to find new ways to engage with audiences. mv

Bach´s St. Matthew Passion re-imagined for younger audiences with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and  a virtual choir. (Photo: Vocal Futures)

Monday 8 April 2013

Say "click"!

When I visited the Museum of Vienna a few weeks ago, what mostly caught my attention was Unter 10, a temporary exhibition of objects from the museum collection that measured under 10 centimetres. I thought it was an original subject for a city museum exhibition. When I arrived at the exhibition entrance, I was very pleased to read the well-written introductory text, to contemplate the excellent graphic design and also a visually impressive panel with rows of hanging magnifying glasses, waiting to be picked up by visitors in order to explore the miniatures exhibition.

I asked two guards near the entrance if I could take a photo of the panels. They looked at each other not really knowing what to answer. The younger one said “I guess so, why not. But again... I am new around here.” The other guard went inside to ask a colleague of his and came back with the verdict: ‘no’. Visitors could not take photos of the exhibition, but, if I wished, I could buy the catalogue... I explained that I didn´t want photos of objects, I just wanted a photo of the entrance panels for my classes. They seemed to feel sorry, but... ‘no’. The next day I wrote to the museum director. I explained what had happened, I said it was a pity the museum wouldn´t allow visitors to take photos and I asked if they could send me a photo of the entrance panels from the museum archive to use for my classes. Not even that, a question of copyright... (?)

It´s a great thing to be able to take photos in museums. In my particular case, because  I am always looking for (good and bad) examples to illustrate my classes. I suppose that many more people take photos for professional reasons (and no, bying the catalogue is not an answer to our needs...). In most museums I visited in the last years, photography was allowed and it was a big relief. I immediately felt more at ease. In some cases, though, when I explained I wanted the photos for my classes, I first had to sign a paper that I wouldn´t use them for commercials purposes. In other cases, museum staff couldn´t make up their minds, asked me to wait until they could talk to someone else and by the time I was leaving the museum thay hadn´t had an answer for me yet...

But I also like to see other visitors taking photos in museums: of a famous work of art, of a favourite work of art, of an exhibit that particularly drew their attention or touched them in a special way or raised their curiosity or will be a reminder of their experience (and no, buying postcards is not the same thing...).

When discussing photography in museum, It´s Time We Met immediately comes to mind: the brilliant initiative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where photos taken by visitors in the museum enter a competition and are then selected for the museum´s promotional materials. What a great way to engage visitors, to share their enthusiasm, to promote the museum itself (at no cost...). Here in Portugal, our colleague Inês Fialho Brandão also organized a competition on Flickr in 2010, called Museus de Portas Abertas (Museums with Open Doors) for the Municipal Museums of Cascais. Following the success of the initiative, the Municipality decided to lift the ban on museum photography. They don´t seem to have regretted it... At the same time, the Powerhouse Museum shows to be quite understanding with the visitors´ needs to take photos, for personal or professional reasons, and actually encourages them to share them with the museum... (see here) It´s a matter of attitude.

Some museums around the world adapted quickly to the new realities created by digital technology and social media in the way people of all ages experience museum visits. Others are now in the process of adapting, feeling the need to keep up and engage in new ways with their visitors. Other museums stubbornly go against the tide and in some cases, if we ask ‘why’, the museum guards are not able to explain anymore. It seems it´s because it has always been like this and nobody has told them otherwise. One of the funniest moments for me lately was at the National Museum of Ukrainian Art, where at the entrance of each room there was a clear sign (the usual icon of the camera) that photography was not allowed. So, a young visitor was taking photos of every painting with his cell phone and the guards looked at him but didn´t interfere... Does this mean, cameras no way, cell phones OK? I din´t dare to take my camera out...

The case that has intrigued me the most in what concerns photography in museums is that of France. On the one hand, because professionals in the field had actually to address the Ministry of Culture and propose a working group to reflect on this issue (read here and here). I was surprised that there was a need for all that... On the other hand, the rather fundamentalist attitude of Musée d´Orsay – which since 2010 prohibits photography both of objects and the museum building itself - probably explains why things had to be discussed at the highest level. The prohibition at the Musée d´Orsay is officially justified by the fact that guards were finding it hard to control the use of flash, because visitors taking photos were slowing down the pace of everyone else and because there was a danger for the art works. To all this, the President of the Museum, Guy Cogeval, added another – highly questionable – reason: the fact that visitors taking photos would not actually look at the works of art and would not allow others to do so either. “My God”, one may read in a interview published in an exhibition catalogue, “we are going back to a time of barbarity.” (read here).

Photo taken 'unlawfully' by the author at the Musée d´Orsay. Couldn´t resist...

Photography in museums may actually pose some practical problems, but many museums (and even the visitors themselves) seem to have found ways to solve them. It may also raise issues of copyright in what concerns contemporary art - although it´s quite funny to see sometimes that one work of art may not be photographed in one museum, but may be in another... But the fact is that allowing photos has brought a number of benefits both for the museum-visitor relationship and, eventually, for the promotion of the museum itself, through the advertising channel that has always worked best: word-of-mouth. I definitely don´t see an act of barbarity in it. I see people who wish to register an experience (hopefully, a good one), to share it with others. The way one lives this experience may have nothing to do with what the curator had idealised, but that has always been the case in museums, hasn´t it?


Visiteurs Photographes au Musée
, edited by Serge Chaumier, Anne Krebs et Mélanie Roustan, was published in February and brings together a number of very interesting essays grouped in three parts: I. Interdire / autoriser. Le juridique au centre de la controverse?; II. Du côté des visiteurs. Pratiques photographiques et usages des photographies; III. La photographie comme instrument des politiques des publics. Read the presentation of the book by Mélanie Roustan here.

Further readings

Orsay Commons, an interview with Julien Dorra (also in portuguese in Reprograme, p.130)

Monday 1 April 2013

Guest post: "The arts in everyday life", by Tim Joss (UK)

A few months ago, my friend Caroline Miller forwarded to me Tim Joss´s Christmas message, where he was sharing his thoughts on the challenges the cultural sector faces today in its relationship with people. Tim is the founder of Public Engagement Foundation which aims “to open up markets for the arts in daily life”. In this post he explains to us why he thinks the arts have such a powerful role and value in our everyday lives. mv

5 Soldiers, by Rosie Kay Dance Company (Photo: Brian Slater,
Soon after taking office, the current United Kingdom government announced that it wanted to start measuring people's happiness, bidding to be among the first countries to officially monitor psychological and environmental wellbeing. It would add to purely economic measures, such as gross domestic product. The UK Office of National Statistics got to work and, last September, published the list of the ‘domains and measures’ to be used to assess the wellbeing of the nation. It was then that we heard that the arts are unimportant to the UK’s national wellbeing. The statistics office took no notice of representations and decided that there would be no measure specific to the arts.

We need to be much more articulate about the powerful role of the arts.  So here are three promising signs and stories about the value of arts in our daily lives.

1. For those outside the arts and not engaged with them, ‘the arts’ often mean high art in plush venues for the better off – opera houses, national theatres and major galleries.
Through the Rayne Foundation I meet many charity chief executives working inside and outside the arts. Steve Wyler is the Chief Executive of Locality, a nationwide network of over 700 community-led organisations, each helping community enterprises grow, increasing community ownership of local assets and backing social action within their communities. Early in 2011, Locality won a £15 million government contract to train 5,000 community organisers and set up an Institute of Community Organisers. Steve thinks of ‘the arts’ in this exclusive sense. I asked him about his plans for training all these community organisers: ‘You’re about culture change, aren’t you?’ Steve agreed. I asked: ‘Do you use culture to achieve culture change?’ Steve said no. It led to a breakfast together. I avoided talk about ‘the arts’ and instead took Steve through some of the roles different artforms can play: music for celebration; drama for exploring conflict; photography for documentation … Steve was excited by storytelling and its power to pass experiences and wisdom between community organisers. I introduced Steve to Hugh Lupton, one of the UK’s leading storytellers (I knew Hugh from the Bath Literature Festival which I founded in the mid-nineties.) The Rayne Foundation gave a small grant for three diverse storytellers to contribute to a summer gathering of community organisers. It was a success. Reflecting on it, Steve highlighted not only the value of storytelling but also the importance and potency of artistic quality. He didn’t need to be an arts specialist to understand the power of expert storytellers.

2. Those working in the arts talk often about the arts’ transformative power. Realising that power is largely limited to experiences in concert halls, theatres, cinemas and art galleries and at home listening to music  on the radio and watching television. Where people spend their daily lives away from home – in the workplace, in hospital, in local communities and in schools – the arts are thought of as low priority, nice-to-have ‘fluff’.  

Arthur Koestler is best known for his novel Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work which won him international fame. He is also remembered for founding the Koestler Trust and its awards programme to recognise the artistic skills of offenders, secure patients and detainees. It was the first arts in criminal justice programme and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Today, 200 organisations belong to the Arts Alliance, the national body for promoting the arts in the criminal justice sector. As well as the Koestler Trust, notable members include Clean Break women’s theatre company and Music in Prisons (in a typical project, a group of around 10 to 12 participants will be encouraged to try out different instruments, develop song ideas and write lyrics as part of the process of creating of new and innovative music). The work relies heavily on fundraising (little is paid for by prisons) and is vulnerable. For example, in 2008, the then justice minister Jack Straw cancelled comedy workshops in Whitemoor Prison and circulated an order that similar activity was to stop.

But evidence of interventions being more than ‘fluff’ is growing. Arts charity Good Vibrations uses Indonesian gamelans (beautiful, calming percussion orchestras) to work with the most difficult prisoners: violent men and prolifically self-harming women. An evaluation by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology of its work with women who prolifically self harm was able to demonstrate long-term reductions in their self harming.

Too often mainstream arts organisations – subsidised and commercial – give low or no status to participatory activities. Despite financial encouragement from Arts Councils, the work is still the poor cousin of professional work in arts venues. Some artists adopt a patronising tone, talking of ‘giving something back’. ‘Outreach’ can have patronising connotations too.

Talking to artists and reading about them has led me to a different view. At best there is a dialogue between artist and context, enriching the artist, the context and the artist’s creations.
I created Rayne Fellowships for society’s ‘bridge-builders’. The first wave addressed a problem identified by senior dance figures: choreographers are too often caught in a dance bubble, not connected enough with the rest of the world. One Fellow, Rosie Kay, had a placement with the 4th Rifles Battalion and Headley Court (a centre for the rehabilitation of soldiers). She created a work about soldiers in Afghanistan who told her ‘You got it! You got it! You understand what it’s like.’ Rosie became, I suspect, the first choreographer war artist.

This year is the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. In 1945, he and Yehudi Menuhin performed a concert for Bergen Belsen survivors. Britten later revealed that the experience coloured everything he had written subsequently.

The Hepworth Wakefield gallery currently has an exhibition of Barbara Hepworth, one of the greatest British sculptors of the 20th century. The exhibition is of her hospital drawings. They were the result of Hepworth spending many hours in operating theatres. The experience helped crystallise her view of abstract painting: “Working realistically replenishes one’s love for life, humanity and the earth. Working abstractly seems to release one’s personality and sharpen the perceptions ...”
Artists’ experiences away from arts venues and other artists can have a profound effect on their work.

Tim Joss is Director of a charitable foundation, the Rayne Foundation. In 2008, Tim wrote ‘New Flow – a better future for artists, citizens and the state’. He was appointed visiting Senior Fellow in cultural policy at City University and created the Public Engagement Foundation which aims to open up markets for the arts in daily life (in community development, schools, prisons and so on). The first focus is on health. Previously Tim was Artistic Director & Chief Executive of festivals in the city of Bath where he revitalised the Bath International Music Festival and founded the Bath Literature Festival. He is a graduate of The Queen’s College, Oxford (in mathematics) and Royal Academy of Music (in piano and composition). The French Government appointed him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2005.