Monday 28 October 2013

Please define "danger"

Musée d' Orsay (Photo taken from Louvre pour Tous)
Last week's debate on photography in museums, organized by Acesso Cultura and ICOM Portugal, did not fullfil my expectations. And I consider this to by partly my own fault. I took my role as convenor to be mainly one of a regulator. Having shared my own positions on this subject publicly – in this blog, in the blog Mouseion, in the portuguese newspaper Público and also in the portal Louvre pour Tous - I thought that this should be the moment to give the opportunity to our guest speakers and to our colleagues in the audience to exchange views, clarify ideas, share their vision for museums in the 21st century. Because the current context of discussing photography in museums is that of discussing museums' relationship with people in the 21st century.

The Metropolitan Museum campain "It's Time we Met" used photos taken by visitors in the museum.
The debate took a different turn, concentrating mainly on copyright issues and the commercial interests and pressures behind the EU directive for Free Access to Public Sector Information. Very little was asked or said about visitor-photographers and how current portuguese legislation limits (or not) their contribution in promoting museums. There were some concrete questions regarding this issue – such as “What is meant ‘promotion’ in this recent regulation (here) and do visitors who take and share photos in the social media are actually criminals?”; or “Isn’t current legislation incompatible with the fact that two national museums and two national palaces are now on Google Art Project?” – but they were left unanswered. The lack of direct answer might be an indicator itself of an incapacity or unwillingness to consider these fundamental points, but, as a convenor, I should have insisted for a clear answer - that was the purpose of the debate, after all - but I thought I would engage in a personal dialogue with the speakers, so I didn't (mea culpa).

Images widely available on the internet. Authors unknown or... not easy to find.
Towards the closing of the debate, another very relevant question came up: can the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage actually control what people do with their photos and is this the actual purpose of the new regulation? What is today the society museums are supposed to serve? At this point, we were informed that it is very difficult to control and that the regulation has mainly got a dissuasive purpose.

Posters made by Musée Saint-Raymond, Musée des Antiques de Toulouse.
So, once again, visitors, people, ended up not being the focus of our discussion. Objects were. In line with this, another interesting moment in the debate was a question regarding the manipulation of images of works of art – like the image used for the promotion of the debate. Opinions differed: from seeing absolutely no harm in this kind of creative use of works of art, as masterpieces have got their one life; to identifying a danger in making available good quality images – like Rijksmuseum and other museums around the world are doing at the moment – highlighting the responsibility of museum professionals to safeguard and protect.

I enjoy museums which make us feel welcome, free, inspired, part of. I appreciate museums which have got a good sense of humour and are not afraid to show it. I admire museums which are not cut off from what´s going on around them in society. I respect museums wishing to connect with the outside world, to discuss and not to impose. I see no danger in this, I see no lack of respect; I simply see relevance and a sense of mission.

But, most of all, I feel so pleased when seeing people enjoying museums and sharing their joy (more or less creatively). Is there a better sign of a mission accomplished?

KLM ad. The Rijksmuseum was the first to share it on Facebook.

Monday 21 October 2013

Guest post: "Arts organizations and communities: Perfect partners", by Karen O'Neill (UK)

There’s nothing more inspiring than listening to Karen O’Neill talking about the community engagement programmes of the Lawrence Batley Theatre, where she is the General Manager. Mainly because we feel how focused, serious, honest and sincere the intentions are. This is much more than words; these are the actual actions of a cultural institution that is clear about its role in the community it finds itself in. This is much more that advocating access and the building of relationships; this is actually doing it. It’s this wealth of experience that Karen shares with us today. mv

We’ve all felt it, that odd sensation in your stomach, a mixture of excitement and nerves. The sense that something new, something big is about to begin. Well right now at the Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) that’s how we feel because we have a new significant other, yes that’s right we have partnered with a new community!

For an arts organization, engaging with a new community is a lot like starting a new romance. There are all the same stages, getting to know one another, the wonderful honeymoon period, growing together and of course the inevitable breakup.

Getting to know you
At the LBT we have worked over the last 5 years to develop a community engagement programme and strategy that, just like a true gentleman, puts communities at the center with focus on encouraging them to lead and to inspire the work. We work with them to create pathways through which people are able to explore their own creativity and equip them to navigate the arts. We have learnt the immeasurable importance of communities feeling confident in the terms of the engagement, we must be patient and understanding allowing them to move at their own pace. We respond to the wants and the desires of the community we partner with through time spent talking and discovering together. What is learnt during this time is vital to shaping the nature of the engagement and building a good foundation on which the relationship can flourish.

Drama taster sessions for adults (Photo: Peter Boyd)
Arguably the best moment in any relationship, the time when things are moving along nicely and, quite frankly, you just can’t get enough of one another. The LBT is currently delivering a number of different workshops, programmes and projects addressing and focusing on all the things we have learnt about this community, its needs, strengths, hopes and weaknesses. With a dedicated project manager focused on the area, the LBT is looking to make strong connections with the community and use creativity as tool for change. Through a range of initiatives, from creative play workshops for young parents to inter-generational drama projects, the LBT uses creative practice to raise aspirations and encourage cohesion. 

The Couryard Circus - a celebration event for a community project producer by young people from the community (Foto: LBT)

Growing together
Once the newness has worn away, it is important that both parties take the time and energy to look towards the future and face the obstacles that may cause the relationship to falter. As many relationship experts will tell you, this can be a make or break moment. Repeatedly arts organizations parachute into communities and do not think beyond initial delivery. It is vital that a pathway from participation to performance is developed.

Arts organizations must work with communities to recognize and overcome the barriers they face when it comes to sustained arts engagement. From experience working with communities, I know these barriers can often be complex and emotive, they can center on transport, confidence, access, economic issues and the list goes on. Only by overcoming these barriers can communities move from short-term low commitment engagement (free arts activities in their local area) to either a committed engagement (buying a ticket for a show) or even an extended engagement (joining a youth theatre programme).  It is vital that arts organizations work with communities to move through these engagement steps. Just because someone came to a drama workshop in their local center does not mean that they will automatically be purchasing season tickets for their local theatre. At the LBT we work with a number of mechanisms to overcome barriers, from organized theatre trips, tours and staff talks, bringing together different community youth theatre groups, structured ticket pricing, behind the scenes sessions and so on.  Our experience has taught us how this stage of our engagement is key to success. Understanding the important role community engagement plays in audience development helps the LBT to develop audiences for now and the future.

Re:Volt - professional produced play featuring a full community cast, performed on the main stage at the LBT as part of the theatre season (Photo: Peter Boyd)

Breaking up is hard to do
All good things must come to an end and unfortunately there always comes a time when you have to walk away. The LBT always commits to a minimum of 3 years with any community. Some would ask why not stay longer and the ugly truth is simply that the need is great and the resources small. We believe that focusing our work in a community over a sustained period delivers the best result for both the community involved and the LBT.  The LBT builds the sustainability of the any community programme into the work from the start, delivering a range of capacity building projects alongside the creative programme. We understand that part of our role is to equip communities with the skills and tools they will need to sustain the creative practice after our time is over. We work with the community to develop an exit strategy tailored to their ambitions and plans for the future.

Can we still be friends?
Yes, of course! A key function for any community engagement programme is that it serves as an audience development tool.  Community engagement builds a strong and active audience who are hugely engaged with the organization, understanding its values and worth. Through the deep connections made with communities through sustained engagement, the LBT has created audiences that are both passionate about the arts and understand the value of creative practice; an audience that advocates for the LBT in forums and conversations we would never be able to gain access too, we want them to kiss and tell!

As funding cuts continue to bite and local authorities start to scale back their delivery, it is vital that arts organizations embrace and partner with communities. Through sustained and well thought out engagement programmes, arts organizations can create a zealous and involved audience base that is already convinced that the arts and culture are not a luxury but, like relationships, are an essential part of life.

Karen O’Neill is the General Manager of the Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) in Huddersfield West Yorkshire in the UK. The LBT, a outstanding multi-arts venue, presents the very best in live performance and works closely with the local community. As General Manager Karen oversees the strategic development of the venue from securing its financial future through fundraising and income generation to creating a place where creativity can flourish. Karen began working in the arts as a manager in community theatres, focusing on developing both community engagement with the arts and financial stability for the venues. She then moved on to work in the large scale venues within the commercial theatre sector. She is currently an International Fellow at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C., joining arts manager from across the world for one month each year in Washington D.C to learn, create, empower and inspire each other and their organisations.

Monday 14 October 2013

The Louvre, my son and I

Photo: Thomas Struth
My son was 7 the first time I took him to Paris. The deal was that we would only visit one museum per day (memories of my 5-year-old brother constantly whining and complaining that he was tired or hungry, until he declared to our parents “No more museums!”, made of me a more ‘calculating’ mother...). When the time came to go to the Louvre, the deal became even more specific: we would stay for one hour and we would see three Greek things I had chosen for him and the Mona Lisa, his choice, as they had talked about her at school.

I was talking about this in a class last week, when we were discussing if it's a good or bad thing that people might just wish to take a walk in a museum. And are all people who seemingly take a walk actually doing just that? If anyone had observed us in the Louvre, they would have seen a mother rushing her son from one room to the other, paying no attention to the wealth and beauty that was surrounding them. The truth is that we had a plan, a very personal and specific plan. And when we eventually got out of the museum, we were happy to have done what we had planned to do.

This is a recurrent issue in this blog: the quality of the museum visit, as wished by curators and by the people themselves. When John Holden defined the three types of guardians in his essay Culture and Class, he wrote about the cultural snobs, the neo-mandarins and the neo-cosmopolitans. He defined the neo-mandarins as those culture professionals who advocate for access, but they want to be the ones to decide what is worth having access to. I believe this is the category most of us fall into. We wish the best for visitors, but we are not ready to admit that visitors also know what´s best for them. We wish to impose an agenda, when visitors come with their own, one we don´t always accept as valid and significant, unless it somehow fits our own standards.

Wishing the best for visitors and doing our best to deliver it is what we are really here for. But there are two different ways of doing and expressing it. There is the neo-mandarin version and the neo-cosmopolitan one. It was during the course of the above mentioned class that two very concrete examples came to my mind.

In the beginning of this year, soon after he took the post of deputy director at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, João Fernandes was interviewed by the spanish newspaper ABC. There was a statement that particularly drew my attention: “We want the spectator to be more lucid, demanding and critical when he is confronted with the work of art, [we want himt to] think and [we want] this not only to serve the purpose of saying that he was there.”

I understood, of course, what he meant to say, I just didn´t like the way he said it. I didn´t like the use of the expressions “we want” and “spectator”, I felt that ever so present wish of the neo-mandarin to dictate, to impose.

A couple of months later, I was reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s Civilizing the Museum. And I came across this: “We are no longer preachers to the great unwashed; we are united as partners with our publics and their families. We must help our audience, which touchingly believes and trusts us, to become more skeptical and demanding.”

So, it seems to me that the wish is the same expressed by João Fernandes. The words, and eventually the ways of doing it, are quite different. Heumann Gurian speaks of a partnership; she takes the role of the helper and casts away that of the preacher; she feels the responsibility deriving from the trust placed on museum professionals by the public.

In what concerns the relationship between museums and people, it isn´t like there is a checklist and visitors have to do or learn a number of things before their visit may be validated as worthwhile by some higher authority. Even when curators aim to do that, they don´t actually succeed, they just keep many people away because they don´t feel comfortable and welcome. The museum is a place where people go to learn, be inspired, get surprised, be moved, have a good time. Museum staff is there to make sure they do their best to create the conditions for this to happen. It may all happen at once or partly or not at all and not necessarily the way museum staff had planned it. I believe though that the final evaluation should consider the needs and expectations of the visitors themselves and not just those of the curator. The museum is a shared territory.

Monday 7 October 2013

Guest post: "What culture? Whose Culture?", by Farai Mpfunya (Zimbabwe)

I met Farai Mpfunya a year ago at the Kennedy Center and had the pleasure of sharing the seminar room, and some lunch breaks, with him in two consecutive summers. What I appreciated the most in our conversations or listening to Farai´s comments in class, was his solid knowledge of the cultural sector in Zimbabwe and abroad, as well as his well-thought and balanced opinions. Farai speaks when he has really something to say and I feel very fortunate to have met him. mv

Mai Musodzi Cinema Hall, Mbare (Photo: Farai Mpfunya)

Mbare, suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

Most little boys and girls growing up in this neighbourhood in the 1970s were five minutes away from a cinema, library, sports centre, church and school. A rich educational and cultural environment for the little ones to grow up in, you would say. To top it up, it was one of the most cultural diverse multi-ethnic communities. Many from all over the country and from across the border wanted to live in the thriving capital city of a rich small country. While the local residents had brought these amazingly rich cultures and their arts, the city infrastructure imposed an urban Culture and encouraged certain types of Arts.
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

Before Zimbabwe’s independence from British rule in 1980, Mbare was an area where black people lived. No white people lived there, except the occasional Catholic parish priest. The white police officers and local authority superintendents only came in the morning to work and left in the evening. They lived in the white suburbs or neighbourhoods buffered by the industrial and commercial areas.

A couple of main roads connected the neighbourhood to the rest of the world and these roads could be sealed off by police when the little children’s parents started making noise about human rights and conditions of living in the area. Judging from the way the police carried themselves, the sporadic episodes of them chasing black people with dogs, motor bikes and anti-riot vehicles sometimes seemed like a big-people game to the children. It was all part of the urban cultural landscape. A small white community of European descent had ruled Zimbabwe since 1896 and had ‘built’ a new ‘nation’ called Rhodesia, culture included.
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

In the 70s, little ones in Mbare had fun at the cinemas. They watched James Bond’s Gold Finger and James Coburn in A Man Called Flint and played guns and spies after. They watched cowboys and Indians and hunted down Indians in the neighbourhood after the film. They watched Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon and fancied themselves martial arts experts.

In the local library, some read Shakespeare. At school they were recited Christopher Columbus and David Livingstone’s journeys of discovery of new worlds and cultures. At home they were told that Livingstone had discovered and named the mighty Victoria Falls in honour of his own queen. The same falls were their own heritage and known at home as Mosi-oa-Tunya (Tokaleya Tonga: the Smoke that Thunders). Black teachers taught new history and culture while parents and grandparents taught the old history and culture.

In the 70s, the little ones in Mbare had fun in the public swimming pool named after one of the early European settlers who had moved their ancestors off their land. In the chlorinated swimming pool they dreamt and trained to become the 1972 seven-times gold medalist and American, Mark Spitz,.... together with the Speedo swimming trunks! They played football and gave one another new names like Pele and Socrates after the football giants of Brazil. They embraced global culture before global became trendy.
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

Mbare Municipal Library (Photo: Farai Mpfunya)
Zimbabwe held harmonised elections in July 2013, as it does every five years or so. These elections were declared peaceful by the whole world. Many Zimbabweans had prayed for peace to prevail, partly because, the last time round, elections got violent in some areas and development stood still. Zimbabweans also have a genuine culture of peace. While the ruling party, ZANU (FP), was obviously over the moon with the results of the elections, because they won overwhelmingly, some were surprised and others angered. Nonetheless, the morning after, life in Zimbabwe continued as peaceful as it had started before electioneering. The will of the diverse people of Zimbabwe had been expressed. End of story, right?

Not so for my country. The result was dissected for its fairness and credibility. Internally, the major opposition party contested both the fairness and credibility of the process and result. African regional and continental political bodies that had sent monitoring observers on the ground were quick to endorse the results as a credible representation of the will of the people, while some powerful western countries, who had not been allowed to send official monitoring observers on the ground, were quick to hold their judgment on the credibility of the result as a true representation of the will of the people.....of Zimbabwe.
The culture of voting in Zimbabwe had not impressed them. 

National Gallery Visual Arts School, Mbare Department (Photo: farai Mpfunya)
The sitting President of Zimbabwe, a hero of the war of liberation against colonial rule, has had a decade of diplomatic fights with western countries. They put him under targeted sanctions together with about a hundred of his comrades, also heroes of the war of liberation against colonial rule. While all this was going on, the little ones in Mbare played their new games in not-so-looked after spaces. They blame the sanctions. While a new culture of poverty pervades the landscape, deep resilience reigns.

Undeterred by his critics, the President claimed victory in the harmonised elections, was inaugurated into power by the Chief Justice and proceeded to appoint a new cabinet and form a new government. Government ministries where reduced, a new Ministry of Sports, Arts and Culture was announced. Many in the Arts and Culture sector who had lobbied for a separate ministry for years were surprised. They got more than they had expected, though they have to figure out what to do with their sporty sisters.

The little boys and girls of Mbare are anxious that their run down facilities, following years of targeted sanctions, will be refurbished, their neighbourhood will be regenerated. New energy will certainly return in their cultures.....Facebook, Twitter............
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

Farai Mpfunya is the founding and executive Director of the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust, the biggest local funding organisation in Zimbabwe’s Arts and Culture sector.  Farai Mpfunya served on the Arterial Network’s Cultural Policy Task Group that created a framework for enabling African governments in cultural policy making. Educated in Zimbabwe, France and England, he started his professional career in the public and then corporate sectors, having studied electronics engineering and then business administration (MBA) before career shifting to filmmaking and then arts and culture administration. Farai is a Chevening Scholar, a fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar (Session 490) and DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center.