Monday, 30 September 2013

Opera and the City

Musical journey in 5 acts, hommage to Maria Callas (Source: Lifo)
In early 2011, the debt of the National Opera of Greece (NOG) was over 17 million Euro and there was a serious threat of closure. When two weeks ago the NOG artistic director Myron Michaelides gave a press conference presenting the 2013-2014 season, the picture was quite different:

Monday, 23 September 2013

Guest post: "Where there is a will, there will be a well", by Sunil Vishnu (Índia)

Sunil Vishnu is the young man who went after his dream: to make theatre. Together with a friend from university he founded EVAM in 2003 in the city of Chennai, India. As an independent arts organization, EVAM is facing a number of challenges in order to survive, to grow and to maintain the quality of its work. What does this mean exactly for a theatre company in India, where governement funding is extremely low, arts philanthropy almost inexistent and there´s a general lack of interest in the arts? Well, Sunil was surprised to find out that there was a ‘well’ of interest, care and money right there for EVAM. He shares this experience and his learnings with us. mv

The EVAM team

As I started writing this piece and looked for a title I thought this inspired by original proverb line would be perfect because, for me, it describes the state of art makers today in the world. The proverb talks about the human will – the only thing which keeps an artist going, despite all the challenges he faces - and the ‘well’ – the means which enable him to create art and share it with the audience, that is funding and resources. Over the years, the will has remained the same, but the wells have eventually dried up. The latest solution is not to dig deeper in the well or find new ones, but to go to every other person in the village who has water and ask them to share it with you, in return for sharing the ownership of the dream with him. This is what the world calls crowdfunding and it’s in this context that I write this article.

So how do the independent artists and arts organizations survive and grow? Let’s look at my organization, EVAM. EVAM is a thriving arts organization with the mission of making a positive impact in the lives of people using the medium of theatre through live performances, managing artistic events and art education. As we turn 10 this year and have successfully evaded the threat of being closed down, I look at the various sources of funding we have had over the years. We started by investing our own money (2 Lakhs – 3000 USD) back in 2003. Six months later, we got our first sponsor (a private bank HSBC) and thought of adopting the advertising-driven model, where brands would look at EVAM as a means to reach out to their potential customers. Ticketing revenue and sponsorship sustained us until 2004. That year we decided to perform shows for other organizations at a given fee and also co-launched the Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest, the managing of live art events/fests becoming the next revenue generator. By 2009 we were into education, doing workshops and adding another source of income. All this without approaching the government - their support for the arts being weak, anyway. This was an option. Call it ego, self-esteem or fool hardiness, we wanted to make it on our own terms, never compromising the artistic output.

Then, we realized.our dreams were getting bigger, but the well was becoming dry. We  looked for different wells, but other fellow artists doing the same. It was around that time that I started my arts management fellowship at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The first big learning was arts philanthropy. India didn’t have a culture or appetite for it. There is a general apathy towards the arts and the educational system itself dubs the arts among the least preferred subjects. Nevertheless, I knew we had a ‘family’ of audiences and important people in the society who would want to contribute financially and to be part of our organization’s journey, not as a full-time investor or sponsor, but more like a ‘special appearance’ actor in a film.

That’s when the learning from the fellowship (dream big - concentrate on great art - share the dream with your family - make them part of it) came to the forefront: my family members could not sponsor a show of mine, but they could give some money as individuals for a specific project if they believed in it. It was at that time, in 2012, that an NGO called Nalandaway launched a new online crowdfunding portal, Orange Street, which offered artists a platform to put up projects related to a cause and seek funding. Initially, I was sceptical about it. Why would an audience member, who currently spends  1000 Rupees (16 USD) a year to watch my plays, give me money to create something if they could give directly to the cause? But we went ahead and made a video explaining what we were doing and why we were seeking funds. Our project was the creation of a play, Shekinah Jacob’s The long way home, which we would perform across India, spreading awareness about child trafficking.

We needed 5 lakhs (8000 USD) to do the project. Within hours from putting it up on the platform, someone invested  5000 Rupees (80 USD) and we were awestruck. Within one day we got 7500 Rupees (120 USD) from people we didn´t even know! At the same time, we started an internal campaign: we started calling, sending e-mails or texting all our stakeholders, people we knew, audience members; we also put an ad on Facebook, Twitter and our website. Slowly and steadily contributions increased, this was actually possible!

But the time came when we had made every possible contact and the well seemed to be drying once again. My staff was busy creating this show and doing many other things and had no more time to run this campaign. The momentum dipped and we thought “OK, maybe this is all we can do”. 

That’s when a music band,  Jersey Rhythms, called us from New Jersey and said: “Hey, we want to contribute, we´ll do a charity show for you!”.  We were stupefied! A group from Jersey who we didn’t know us, was actually following our campaign in India and wanted to contribute! Suddenly, my organization realized that this movement was bigger than just the 9 of us in this office. We picked up once again and made sure this fundraising campaign became part of our daily rigour: we had a bell in the office ringing every time a new donation would come in. In the following 2 months Jersey Rhythms raised more than 75000 Rupees (1200 USD). The long way home was created and performed across India, managing to raise awareness regarding the cause it aimed to support.

We had found a new source of energy, enthusiasm and funds. Our family (namely the audience, partnering organizations, individuals who care for us, sponsors, etc.) was willing to invest in our projects in their own small way, if we were open to sharing our dream with them. A year later, in 2013 and once again through crowdfunding, we were able to send 150 underprivileged children to a summer arts camp. Our aim for 2014 is to launch a crowdfunded film and play which will be purely ‘art for art’s sake and not art for a cause’. This will be a true trust of the theory that maybe crowdfunding is the first big step in the direction of arts philanthropy in India.

In the meanwhile, here are a few of my learnings on this journey:

If you want to create projects based on crowdfunding

a) Create a genuine project – put it on a genuine site, don’t phaff! (people can see right through a fake project);

b) Create a strong ASK – what’s the project, who does it impact and how, why are you doing it and where are funds going to be utilized, and hence why should anyone donate for the project;

c) Always have a limited time frame for the fundraising – depending on the size of the amount to be raised (3 months to 1 year); also, be specific about what you´re asking (egg. “Please invest 500 Ruppess for the project by 15th Jan 2013”);

d) Don’t make this the only source of funding for your project;

e) Use the equity of the platform (the site) to generate more awareness;

f) Note down the names of people who invest and follow up with them, thanking them. Make them part of the project in the way they prefer to (could be as simple as sending e-mail updates to as much as coming and doing backstage for free!);

g) Don’t be ashamed to ask for money – you are asking people to share your dream, it´s an investment they are making; actually they are as good as co-producers of the project;

h) People have a need to feel ‘connected’ and ‘counted’ – make sure you give the people both through this relationship;

i) Create a communications plan and rope in various key game-changers who can endorse your project; celebrities are welcome…;

j) Internally, keep your team motivated, give them incentives to run; reward them, acknowledge them – it’s quite a thankless job otherwise!

People will contribute when:

a) They love you as a person and want to be part of your journey;

b) They love your organization and its mission;

c) They believe in the impact your project will create on people;

d) They can’t do what you do – hence they want to live your life vicariously!

As I said earlier, where there is a will, there is a well.  Go and keep digging wells, but don’t forget the rivers and streams and ponds and seas which are the people around us. Invite your family to be part of your journey, you will be surprised with the love and trust they will shower on you!

Sunil Vishnu K is co-founder, CEO and artistic director of  EVAM, an award-winning theatre entrepreneurship. Founded in 2003 by Sunil and Karthik Kumar, EVAM is today a 10-year-young thriving arts business which performs plays, manages live art events and works in arts education. Sunil receveid the Performing Arts Entrepreneur Award from the British Council in 2010 and completed the Summer Arts Management Fellowship at Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2013.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The reconquest

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Washington DC (Photo: bigbirdz on Flickr)

In Ancient Greece, drama was part of what, nowadays, one would call pop or mass culture. Ancient Greeks would fill their theatres in the thousands. They would bring food with them, as they would spend the whole day at the amphitheatre. They would eat during performances and they would throw food or shout at the actors if they didn´t like what was being presented. They would also intervene, ask questions or express opinions regarding the plot.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Guest post: "Art under siege", by Chaymaa Ramzy El Dessouky (Egypt)

There is a special type of Alexandrian woman: one that is determined, opinionated, confident, full of energy, ideas and dreams and has got an amazing working capacity. Chaymaa Ramzy is that type of Alexandrian. Given all these characteristics, she´s not a person who will step back when encountering difficulties or facing controversy. Among the various projects she´s involved in, one that has really captured her heart is Marsam 301, a project based in Bethlehem, Palestine, involving people from various arab countries and one whose headquarters she´s not able to set her eyes on. For the time being... mv

Street events (Photo: Marsam 301)

“I don't remember when exactly I read my first comic book, but I do remember exactly how liberated and subversive I felt as a result.”
― Edward W. Said, Palestine

How do we define ‘siege’? Is it a physical siege, or rather a psychological one? Are we able as simple people to overcome its boundaries? Is a siege a boundary? Or it is just a limitation to some lands and spaces that we should continuously dream to fly high over?
Questions that may have different answers, which each one of us can interpret according to his or her own situation, place or style of living.
Palestine: The people, the territory, the country and the Holy Land. The experience that everyone is looking forward to. Some of us can and many can’t. One can dream of the beauty of its alleys, the kindness of its people and enjoy the non-ending stories of its houses and streets.
When Monther Jawabreh, a prominent visual artist from Bethlehem, first started thinking about founding a new cultural space, “Marsam 301” (Studio 301), he did not think about promoting art in its traditional spaces, but in different ones, where one can be touched by a story, listen to a local dialect, hear life loudly in spaces like houses, schools, hospitals and maybe prisons.
Marsam 301 is an independent cultural space, located in the city of Bethlehem, Palestine. A place that stresses the empowerment of the Palestinian visual artist and the promotion of the Palestinian visual art in the Arab region and probably in the world! A vision shared with other artists, cultural managers and supporters from Palestine and other neighbour Arab countries.
The name “301” derives from the checkpoint Kabr Rahil (Rahil’s Tomb), which is located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. An Israeli checkpoint known as ‘Barrier 300’ (Stand/Stop for inspection) prevents the crossing of the Palestinians to and from Jerusalem.  Marsam 301 is 2 kilometers away from the checkpoint, right in the center of the city of Bethlehem. So Marsam 301 took this name in order to be the second barrier that will force the Palestinians to Stand/ Stop to see art. 301 is also the number of the building.
Marsam 301, the space (Photo: Marsam 301)
“Raiding houses, kidnapping people, bombing cafés” might sound dangerous! But when you hear it from the Marsam 301 team you understand their mission and eagerness to raid houses with Art, to kidnap people and keep them long in art galleries and to bomb all the cafés of the alley with colors. A vision that is derived from their social surrounding and their daily dialect, to transform the current social and political siege into a sense of happiness and appreciation of the arts.  A vision that would liberate minds and would raise awareness about a true relationship that should exist between the artist and his community.
Marsam 301´s three main programmes include at this stage the promotion of the Palestinian visual art and the capacity building of young Palestinian artists. Another important programme aims to bring arts to the streets and to the non-traditional spaces, even to create art in its non- traditional forms. Finally, an artistic residency hosts other artists who are willing to live the Palestinian art exchange experience, whether from the Arab region or from any part of the world.
Through these three programmes, Marsam 301 team wishes to play an important role in the Palestinian art scene by linking a large number of young emerging artists with other prominent and well based ones. Also, to build a new relationship between these two types of artists that might benefit at this stage from sharing experiences and debating certain topics. An idea that has been confirmed and appreciated by Tamam Al Akhal, a prominent Palestinian visual artist, during the team´s last meeting in Amman, Jordan. Al Akhal strongly shares Marsam 301´s vision and goals.
The team met recently in Amman, Jordan. (Photo: Marsam 301)
This extraordinary experience which, in my opinion (being proudly one of its founders, together with Iman Bachir from Lebanon and Ahed Izhiman from Palestine), will contribute to the Palestinian art scene greatly, with a rich impact on the people and the community. It will allow for access to the arts at any place and at any time. By providing an insight into the arts that reflect the reality of the country and expressing people’s views, opinions and emotions to the outer. An experience that places the artists in the heart of the society.
Marsam 301 will continue with its strategy to help develop the Palestinian community, hoping that, one day, people will draw their own freedom and will never stand or feel under siege!
To contact Marsam 301 please write to marsam301(at) or visit us on Facebook.

Chaymaa Ramzy El Dessouky is the Program Officer at the Anna Lindh Foundation (ALF) in Alexandria, Egypt; an International Fellow of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington DC; founding member of Marsam 301 in Bethlehem, Palestine. Born in Alexandria, she graduated from the Faculty of Commerce - Alexandria University with a Bachelor degree in Business Administration and Strategic Marketing. With her experience as a trainer, she provides strategic support to civil society organizations and emerging bodies in the Arab region, helping them to create strategies that enhance their capacity in marketing, advertising and strategic planning. She brings people together using her networking skills and wide circle of contacts within the Euromed region. Through her fellowship at the Kennedy Center, she wishes to focus on developing a marketing plan that will help engage the press and incorporate social media platforms to empower local events in Egypt. Chaymaa organizes the Alexandria ‘s Annual Intercultural Festival “Farah El Bahr” with the Anna Lindh Foundation. She is also involved in creating the strategic plan for Marsam 301 in Bethlehem, Palestine, being part of a regional team of people from different Arab countries.



Monday, 2 September 2013

The new year

I am on my way back from Washington, on the plane from Paris to Lisbon. I am in the middle seat, so I ask the young man sitting in the corridor seat to let me pass. I don´t take a proper look at him; a dark man, he could be Portuguese.

I start reading my book. Some time later, I feel that the man next to me is a bit nervous. I look at his hands: he´s got a cap, his mobile and a few rolled pages of a text in english. I try to, discreetly, have a better look at him. He´s not Portuguese, he´s of Arab origin. I look again at his hands. His mobile is on and he keeps checking it. The text in the rolled pages is scientific, I can´t understand which area exactly.

The air hostesses pass and offer drinks. He refuses. “Ramadan”, I think to myself. He keeps checking his phone and he makes me nervous too. I look at him again, his eyes are closed and his lips are moving. Is he praying? I am getting even more nervous. I am trying to tell myself that he looks like a perfectly normal man, but there´s another inner voice telling me “Don´t they all look normal?”.

I place my book on the table in front of me, it´s by an Arab author (am I trying to send a message?). Many thoughts are passing through my mind. One of them is to get up and go tell the cabin crew that I have a nervous Arab sitting next to me and that his mobile is on... I´m forcing myself to stay where I am, feeling ridiculous. And then he says:

-          What are you reading?
-          It´s a Moroccan writer.
-          I thought so.
-          Are you Moroccan too?
-          Yes, I am.

He aks if he can have a look. He picks my book up and reads the summary. We then start discussing politics. Religion too. He asks me about Greece, we talk extensively about Egypt and then about Morocco too. He´s on his way to Portugal for a conference on applied mathematics. I´m enjoying the conversation, he has a calm voice and he seems to be a sweet man, but I can´t stop feeling nervous. Whenever there´s a moment of silence, he checks his mobile. “Don´t they all look normal?”, the inner voice insists.

As soon as we land in Lisbon, he tells me: “Do you know that the chances of a plane crashing are much smaller than of two trains colliding?”. He´s not nervous, I am not nervous. I feel relieved. And I feel ashamed.


There are two entrances to the exhibition of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, one with the sign “Prejudiced”, the other “Not prejudiced”. Those who try to enter through the second door, find it closed, they can´t open it. The incident on the plane kept haunting my thoughts. I did feel ashamed. If the man next to me didn´t look Arab, I would have felt different about his nervousness.

Organizations and people working in the fields of racism and discrimination keep reminding us that we are not born racists, we become. And after we become, it seems that we really have to fight hard, consciously and with determination, to avoid discriminating others. After discussing the incident on the plane with some people, I realised how difficult this fight is. Because, in order to fight, we first need to be conscious of our discriminating actions, we need to be aware of our own attitudes. Quite often we are not. We never think of ourselves as racists and a number of excuses are good enough for us to justify our thoughts and actions: the need to be safe, the need to protect the people we love and our communities, the need to preserve our culture and traditions, the need to defend our territory, the need to guarantee our survival... So, if necessary and ‘just in case’, the Other might have to pay the price for it. And “that´s OK, it´s understandable, we´re good people caring for our own”...

This ‘just in case’ has served as an excuse for many simple people in their everyday decisions, as well as for major political decisions. Post-9/11 America inevitably comes to mind. But even there - as I realized by reading Leila Ahmed´s insightful book A Quiet Revolution – The Veil´s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America -, in the middle of the destruction, the pain, the fear, the anger, the violence, people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds were able to take a good look at themselves and to be solidarious to others, determined to preserve their multicultural communities, to maintain ans protect their relatinionships with friends and neighbours, to continue being and feeling human. It´s such a thin line between the civilized and the barbarian; it requires such an effort to be the former and not the latter.

September is more of a ‘new year’ to me than January; it comes from school times. It is the moment where I look ahead and think “Now what?” or “What next?”. At this precise moment, having the ‘new year’ ahead of me, my head is full of questions. I think again of my time at the Kennedy Center, there where Egyptians talk with Israelis; Pakistanis and Indians exchange jokes about their countries; a Serb, a Croat and a Bosnian take photos together; a Greek and a Turk enjoy a meal together. Is this some kind of a ‘safe’ or ‘civilized’ environment? Would it be different if the context was different? Are there places where people are civilized and other places where those same people turn into barbarians? Can culture really play a role in keeping us civilized or are its ‘effects’ easily neutralized by other forces and factors? Can it help create some common ground, where people can co-exist in good terms, not simply tolerating each other, but getting to know each other better; willing to talk, to understand, to accept? Wasn't it Fouad Laroui´s book that helped start a conversation on that plane, that helped control the fear? My ‘new year’ resolutions lie somewhere among all these questions.

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