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.   

No comments: