Monday, 29 July 2013

Kennedy Center: the end of the adventure

Photo: Ihor Poshyvailo
I don´t think I would be exagerating if I said that the Fellowship at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was the most significant professional experience I had in the last years.

It opened up new worlds for me, it showed me new ways and different realities, it helped me breath, get inspired, think.

Thanks to the Kennedy Center and DeVos Institute staff,  thoughts, ideas, doubts, convictions and practices got organised and started making sense, turning me, I believe, into a better, more knowledgeable and capable, professional.

Further more, thanks to the great opportunity of meeting and working with arts managers from all over the world, intelligent and inspiring people, my knowledge got deeper and so much more diverse.

And there´s more: being among all these very special, dedicated and determined people, I was reminded that, if we allow others to make less of us, we´re not the best we can be, we´re not doing the best we can do; they helped me overcome the fear and do what I had to do.

My profound thanks to the Kennedy Center / DeVos Institute staff and to all Fellows: for everything I learned with and from you and which will stay with me, forever.

My equally profound thanks to Rui Catarino, Cecília Folgado and Rui Belo: I wouldn´t have done this without you.

Posts written during the Fellowship




Meet Rosa Shaw

Graduation Day

Monday, 22 July 2013

Meet Rosa Shaw

Rosa Shaw (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Meet Rosa Shaw. She’s the first person to greet us when we enter the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She’s one of the memorial’s guards and one of the institution’s faces. She’s polite, she has a good sense of humour, she’s helpful. If someone looks lost or confused, she doesn’t wait for them to ask for help, she approaches and tries to see if she can be of assistance. The uniform could cause some inhibition to the visitors - a permanent concern among those of us working in the communications field – but, looking at Rosa and the way she does her job, it becomes clear that, more than a question of aspect, it’s a question of attitude.

Rosa makes me think of many guards I have encountered in museums. People who look terribly bored and tired; or people who avoid eye contact when we enter a room and then follow us closely, although we are the only visitor in that room; or people who might be loudly discussing family or union problems, paying no attention to visitors. Guards of this kind make me think of how much more interesting their job could be, and how big the benefit for the museum or the cultural institution they serve, if they were given appropriate training and different responsibilities - more responsibilities - than just sitting on a chair or standing at a corner, looking stern and bored, having as little interaction with visitors as possible.

Guards at the Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
I am saying this, because I’ve also had other kinds of experiences. A couple of years ago, I joined a guided tour to the Pastrana Tapestries exhibition at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon. As soon as the tour was over and as I was heading for the exit, I overheard a guard having a conversation with two ladies, explaining everything one needed to know about those works of art, but with an enthusiasm and commitment that equaled those of the education department staff. And in a language that was much more accessible than that of the texts on the panels. More recently, while visiting the El Anatsui exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I overheard two guards exchanging views regarding one of the works of art on display. It was a pleasure listening to them. Later on, one of them greeted a small group of visitors and offered to take their photo in front of one of the works, so that they could all be in it. The whole atmosphere was light and friendly and informal, I felt that it made such a big difference.

Museum guards might look silent and stern, even threatening some times, but they have eyes and feelings and opinions regarding the works that surround them. The Washington Post published a very interesting piece on Washington museum guards a few weeks ago (read here), where they would talk about their favourite work of art and the reasons why it is their favourite. One of them also mentioned how working in a museum awakened her interest in art and consequently made her look at all things in a different way. Reading their interviews made me think of how much I would have enjoyed having a direct conversation with them, both as a visitor and a professional.

Front-of-house staff in cultural institutions (whether guards, ushers or box office assistants) are some of the most important people in the team, in terms of institutional marketing. They are the face, they are the voice, they are the attitude. They are the ears too, as they get closer to the visitors/audiences than most of the administrative staff ever get. Front-of-house staff have a decisive role in the shaping of the quality of the whole experience of visiting a cultural institution. A disappointing exhibition or a performance that turned out to be a disaster will not make people keep away for ever; people take a risk and know that it might not fulfill their expectations. On the other hand, if someone is not well treated, if they come across staff who are impolite or in a bad mood, who lack information, who are unhelpful or show that they don’t care, this might definitely determine if someone will come back or not. Even when we have to make a choice between two interesting exhibitions or two interesting shows, it’s very probable that customer care, the place where we feel that we are better treated, will make all the difference in our decision.

Despite their strategic position and role, though, front-of-house staff get to be very neglected by management; underestimated too. They are not given the appropriate training in public relations and customer care; they are not given information about what it is that they are guarding or selling or taking people to their seats to see; quite often, they are not even given important information about what’s going on in the institution, in terms of programming or timetables or prices/discounts or other practical information the public might be looking for (have you ever experienced the discomfort and embarrassment of a Front-of-House member of staff who can’t answer a logical question or, worse, who is informed by a visitor on what is happening in the institution he/she is working for?); they feel frustrated by the fact that their opinion is not taken into consideration, even when it concerns visitor opinions or comments which they are simply passing on, as they are the ones who hear or receive them.

Front-of-house staff don’t ‘just’ guard or ‘just’ sell or ‘just’ answer the phone or ‘just’ take people to their seats. They are a valuable part of the team, they are the most visible part. They are the ones that welcome people in, talk to them, promote the institution – not only its contents but also its vision and principles. It seems only too obvious and natural to me that they would be given the tools to do their work and to do it well. Rosa seems to be pleased in doing her job. And it’s  certainly a pleasure to watch her doing it.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Guest post: "Cultural Chile or the attempt for decentralized management models", by Eduardo Duarte Yañez (Chile)

Eduardo Duarte Yañez is a chilean cultural manager. In this post, he shares with us his concerns regarding what he calls his government's obsession with the impact of culture – a concept which he thinks has been very little or even not defined at all by those using it. At the same time, he places his trust on local communities which, together with international cultural cooperation and local political authorities, are building management models aiming to blaze a trail for actually making cultural programmes happen. mv

Opening of the First International Meeting  Mujeres por la Cultura, that took place last week in Chile.

To talk about cultural processes in Chile, from the perspective of registering city management models, where the role of culture, although not that of a protagonist, is of vital importance in public policies of local development, is not something very exciting for cultural managers, artists and community cultural movements, the organized civil society.
There is, of course, an approved national cultural policy up to 2016, where we are offered a series of mainstream concepts, where the value of Intangible Cultural Heritage is mentioned for the first time, a number of measures and lines not associated, almost transversally, to a management plan that will take them forward.
Moving beyond this landscape, we’ll try to focus, in a general way, on the local realities of the different communities. In the last four years, there was no advancement with any concept or criterion that would help us understand what the Culture Ministry of Chile (without a ministerial classification, yet another contradiction) means by “impact” and its obession with it. What’s the impact of a poem or a musical composition? The number of people who read or listen to it? The quality of reading or hearing? And what’s the deadline for measurig it? How many decades for Gabriela Mistral’s work having an “impact” on national culture, if it’s actually having one...? How to quantify the “impact” of a painting? By the number of eyes that viewed it in a specific period of time (months, years?) or by its value in the art market? I am afraid that the legitimate concern regarding the results of a certain public policy (in this case, a cultural public policy) obsessed with “impact”, if one is not careful, might end up in a dead-end.
On the other hand, also the debate regarding gratuity or not for cultural activities (access to culture) is taking place in a marginal way, and not as a debate among citizens. Most of the cultural offer is free, and in many cases it is mixed and confused with entertainment shows for the masses, which can cost as much as the annual budget of the Municipal Department for Culture.
There are 345 municipalities in Chile. According to the second national survey on culture (carried out by the National Councilfor Culture and the Arts), the artistic form that draws the largest number of chilean audiences is cinema (34%), followed by concerts (29,3%). This situation prompts an interesting debate regarding the cinematographic contents, where traditional cinemas were substituted by rooms in big shopping malls, and where the programming is based on Hollywood’s cinematographic industry, in which “choosing” the film to see actually means “choosing among the films I oblige you to see”, there is no variety in content where there can also take place independent cinema festivals or cinema events in public and private universities.
The promotion of reading is another chapter, even longer, of ambiguities. Chile has got 19% tax on books, something that drains publishing houses, emerging authors and authors in general, and mainly the common citizen, who’s not able to buy books which, quite often, equal a 20% or 30% of a monthly salary, with which one must sustain his/her family. A worker cannot buy books with quality contents, it’s become prohibitive.
Contrary to everything that has been said so far, local communities, as is the case of Coquimbo, together with international cultural cooperation and local political authorities, are designing cultural management models as flexible tools built together with all local cultural agents, in order to be able to draw a navigation route which will result in the delivering of cultural programmes, sustainable and with a larger number of indicators, through the registration of every action. There have been projects such as the Sociocultural Mapping of Popular Neighborhoods of Coquimbo and School Ethnography, following the successful models of Heritage Education of Brazil and Colombia. In 2012, with funding from the municipal budget for culture, there was the starting of the Seminars and Debates of the Microneighborhoods experience, in order to include, following a disciplined and scientific way in the gathering of data and also with multiple formats for aquiring those indicators, without being necessarily academic, issues that arealso important to take into consideration.
In this way, the municipalities are creating a world visualization of their principlal biocultural assets and they move forward with experimenting city cultural management models, in an inclusive way that involves the community. It’s a large task and it has, for sure, many ups and downs, nevertheless, the most important thing in the cultural process of the Coquimbo region – from which originated the first woman to win a Nobel prize, Gabriela Mistral – is that there is an inter-relation between its cities and the wish of all manages, artists and political authorities to work together in an articulated way. We hope to have by the end of 2013 the first register of this process, which is being adapted and receives many impulses on behalf of the local community.
Eduardo Duarte Yañez is a writer and cultural manager, creator of various cultural projects and programmes for local development or cultural integration. In 2006 he received a national award for Municipal Cultural Management in Chile. He has a degree in Cultural Management from teh Arts Faculty of the University of Chile; he has a postgraduate degree in International Cooperation and Cultural Management from the University of Barcelona, Spain. He publishes in various media in Latin America and Spain.

Monday, 8 July 2013

'Just' a museum, 'just' an artist?

Artist Ahlam Shibli at Jeu de Paume (Photo: LP/ Philippe de Poulpiquet, taken from the newspaper Le Parisien)

I had written here before about my experience twenty years ago visiting a history museum in the town of Halifax (UK). I was totally shocked when, in one of the photos on display, I saw Cypriot resistance fighters against British rule being identified as “terrorists”. At the same time, I suppose I realised at that moment – I was 23 then – that there existed people who told that same story in a totally different way. The men on the photo coudl have killed their loved ones, who had been sent there by their country to defend a legitimate, in their view, authority.

Anyway, no matter how shocked I was, I didn´t threaten to put a bomb in the museum, I didn´t even start a petition to close the exhibition. Which is exactly what has been happening in Paris in these last weeks as a response to certain photos on display which form part of the exhibition Phantom Home, at Jeu de Paume, by Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli. Why? Because certain people feel that exhibiting photos of Palestinian suicide bombers, and referring to them as ‘martyrs’, is a way of glorifying terrorism. Needless to say, I find the reactions and threats of the pro-Israeli groups totally unacceptable. But I must also say that they don´t come as a surprise, do they? The topic is sensitive, it is controversial, and those who claim to be surprised by the fierce reactions of certain circles or who are warning us about the return of censorship (read Emmanuel Alloa´s article La censure est de retour) are naive, to say the least, or simply not honest with themselves and with others. There´s nothing new or surprising in these attempts of censorship, they happened before and they´ll happen again in the future. But this is not what I wish to talk about.

I praise museums that have the courage to tackle difficult and controversial subjects. Museums should be doing exactly that: challenge our ‘stories’, present the ‘other side’, provoke debate, make space for it. Frankly, I am not sure if this was Jeu de Paume´s aim.

One reads on the museum website regarding the exhibition: “Death, Ahlam Shibli´s latest series, especially conceived for this retrospective, shows how the palestinian society preserves the presence of ‘martyrs’, according to the term used by the artist. This series witnesses a vaste representation of those absent through photos, posters, panels and graffitis exhibited as a form of resistance.” The museum seems to be perfectly aware that the use of the term “martyr” might be controversial and attributes it to the artist herself. On the other hand, the artist is being quoted in Emmanuel Alloa´s previously mentioned article as claiming that “My work is to show, neither to denounce nor to judge.”

Exhibitions, in my opinion, don´t ‘just’ show. Artists don´t do that either. Exhibitions and artists make statements. The French Minister of Culture seemed much more affirmative to me in her public statement and didn´t seem to run away from what was really the issue: “This claimed neutrality may be shocking in itself”, she said, “and give rise to bad interpretations, since it doesn´t explain the context of the photos, which is not just that of loss, but also that of terrorism.” (read the full press release here).

Death nr. 37, by Ahlam Shibli (Photo taken from the blog Lunettes Rouges)
The Ministry asked the museum to complete the information made available to the visitors in order to, on the one hand, clarify and better explain the purpose of the artist and, on the other, to distinguish the artist´s proposal from that of the institution. The Minister was under attack from all sides. Personally, I don´t see why a museum should set itself apart from its choices in the way the French Ministry seems to be suggesting. What should be really clear is why it chooses to present its audience with exhibition A or B, how it fits in its mission and programme, what it aims to communicate, what kind of thinking and discussion it aims to promote.

I can´t say it´s clear for me what Jeu de Paume really aimed to do through this exhibition or why it has chosen to present an artist who ´just wants to show´. I checked again and again on the museum website, looking for a parallel programme that would complement the exhibition with talks and debates. Nothing. Finally, a debate was announced, organized by the Museum and L´Observatoire de la Liberté de Création, “in reaction to the controversy caused by the exhibition”, that would discuss issues such as the freedom of artistic representation, the responsibility of the institution that exhibits works that cause a controversy, the freedom of the visitor to have access to the works and the the freedom of expression in all its components (read here).

This is all great. This is exactly what should have been planned beforehand and not as a reaction to a controversy. And it should have gone even further than a general discussion of freedom to create, freedom to exhibit, freedom to visit. This exhibition raises other important and very specific issues.

I would expect Jeu de Paume not to pretend that it had not expected a huge controversy when Palestinian suicide bombers are referred as martyrs. I would expect the artist to wish not “just to show”, as if she was ‘just’ a reporter, as if she didn´t take and exhibit these photos with the purpose to make a statement. I would expect both the museum and the artist to truly wish to provoke a debate, to push the boundaries, to create the space to discucss what is history, identity, conflict, justice, resistance, a terorist act or a terrorist state. This is about the palestinian issue and there´s nothing ‘just’ about it.

More on this blog

The stories we tell ourselves

Silent and apolitical?

The long distance between California and Jerusalem

More readings

Marie-José Mondzain, Artiste palestinienne : liberté pour l'art au Jeu de Paume (Le Monde, 21.6.2013)

Chez soi : la photographe palestinienne Ahlam Shibli au Jeu de Paume (on the blog Lunettes Rouges, 7.6.2013)

G.W. Goldnadel, France/Jeu de Paume: double honte (Israël Flash, 21.6.2013)

Marta Gili: Je refuserai toujours la censure au Jeu de Paume. Interview of the Director of Jeu de Paume (Le Figaro, 24.6.2013)

Monday, 1 July 2013

Guest post: "From 'Museo' to 'Useo'", by Jorge Barco (Colombia)

Medellín is Colombia´s second largest city. For some, it´s still synonymous of the drug cartel. For others, it´s the example of a city which, through cultural and social policies, managed to lower its criminality rate and show its inhabitants new paths for their development, as individuals and as a community. Recently, I read an interview by Jorge Barco, Director of the Education and Culture Department at the Modern Art Museum of Medellín. I was very pleased when he accepted to write for Musing on Culture and to share his thoughts on the role cultural institutions, and museums in particular, may have in the development of a new relationship between creation, heritage and life in community. mv

Colectivo Impar (Photo: Andres Sampedro)
“La estabilidad que estamos construyendo ahora es afectivopráctico y no material, un inmenso laboratorio de la imaginación, aprovechando de toda grieta que se puede encontrar para dar cuerpo a lo que sentimos dentro” Las Grietas

Maria Vlachou´s invitation to write for her blog, as well as ICOM´s invitation to participate in its next conference in Rio de Janeiro, is an opportunity for me to start organizing some ideas which have motivated big part of my thinking as manager, educator and activist in the museums of the Antioquia region (Colombia) in the last seven years. 

Today, it makes sense to think about the role cultural institutions – museums in particular – may have as places where one may redefine a new relationship with creation, heritage and life in community. Museums – in a role that is definitely becoming close to that of ‘cultural centres’, in the case of Medellín – have an important role in the promotion of educational, cultural, and exhibition programmes, which go beyond the walls of the institution and reach slums and distant settlements; while in their interior, they continuously reinvent the forms of relating to their visitors through expanded education (Edupunk), the new focuses of cultural management and networking.

On its part, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (MAMM) – located in the last four years at an old iron foundry workshop – has been consolidated as a strategic place in the country, for its exhibitions, but, mostly, for its educational and cultural programmes. It´s the appropriate place to ask the following questions:

What are the guidelines for this work? What are the elements in order to start creating a new institutionality and definition of what we historically call a ‘Museum’?

Looking for answers for these questions makes me suggest the construction of trust as one of the guiding principles: a fine, persevering and delicate work of texture and community involvement, which is being developed together with collaborative projects and by working in network, which may be registered in the mapping of a more and more expanded cultural scene. The LABSURLAB project is just one example of how an initiative which originated in MAMM was converted into an international network of activists who work around the notions of art, science, technology and communities with a biopolitical focus.

LABSURAB (Photo: Checho)

Through the mapping of the projects being developed on the ground, we are creating relationships between the cultural agents of the city, the region, the continent and the world, trying to bind social, identity and professional groups, as well as institutions, universities, enterprises, projects and communities, for the mobilization of ideas. The mapping of cultural projects is a fundamental instrument in the processes of contemporary cultural creation.

Another line of action is directed to the exploration of new definitions of what we normally call ‘cultural management’, aiming to attribute to it its whole creative power, through open models which allow to reinvent the relations of creation, circulation and appropriation; recognizing that – just like it happens in the case of artistic practices – in cultural projects a big part of the work is based in the same management. Inevitably, this situation makes us also rethink the roles and relationships – between those who create, those who receive, those who educate, those who exhibit and those who manage –, while there is, at the same time, a transformation of the disciplinary fields.

There is one more element which links our work as cultural activists to the technologies, apart from the mere technical aspects: the tools offered to us by this movement involve new formats for collaborative creation, education, management of projects, activism, reorganization of the work and the production of common goods. The cultural and artistic processes related to digital culture are today territories of limits, fronteers and exchange and the museum is a strategic place, from which one can activate these processes.   

An additional guiding line has been taking us towards the generation of creative dialogues between the museum and the independent movements and initiatives, from artistic residencies to music circuits and bars, to non conventional spaces of non formal education, with the objective to carry out projects from cooperation and mutualism.  The purpose has been to generate environements of dialogue, co-creation and opportunities for both spheres (institutions and movements).

MAMM Education and Culture team (Photo: Clara Botero)

From this perspective, the function of the museum is global and, at the same time, local, offering a place of encounter between multiple layers and occupations of contemporary creation, making possible the development of sujbectivities. A place of encounter, work, production and research, apart from a place for exhibiting and promoting, where all elements mix and feed and from which a new institutionality and space may emerge, which I propose to provisionally call ‘Useo’.

Jorge Bejarano Barco works in the museum sector of the Antioquia region (Colombia) since 2007. He is the Director of tghe Department of Education and Culture of the Museu de Arte Moderno de Medellín. In the past, he worked in the Museo de Antioquia, in the Museums Network and in the Municipal and Departmental Councils of Culture. He participated in the creation of independent projects and networks which brought together the arts, sciences, technologies and communities (see here and here and here). He was invited to lecture at the Cátedra Medellín-Barcelona, the Encuentro Internacional los Museos en la Educación organizaed by the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid, at the Master en Gestión Cultural y Economía de la Cultura de la Universidad de Valladolid, at the Facultad de Diseño y Arquitectura da Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Festival de Cultura Digital de Rio de Janeiro, the Festival Internacional de la Imagen (Manizales) and the Universities of Antioquia and Jorge Tadeo Lozano (Bogotá). His interests today focus on the research on cultural production, philosophy of the media, expanded education, proposing dialogues between institutions and movements, from collaborative networking or the redefinition of a series of actions which join arts and cultural activism.