Monday, 25 November 2013

Gone with the wind?

On 15 November I participated in the seminar “Museums and Monuments: communicate, innovate, sustain”, organized by the Directorate General of Cultural Heritage at the Convent of Christ in Tomar. There were four panels: Mass media: mediating or turning median?; Strategies of communication; Marketing and branding; Funding sources, management models. For me, it was a very interesting seminar, especially because of the inclusion in the panels of people who don’t work in museums and monuments and who can bring to the debate points of view which are very relevant for all of us. That is… if we are interested in listening, in being confronted with our practices, in acting in order to change for better.

I would like to discuss two moments of that seminar. The first, was journalist Paula Moura Pinheiro´s speech in the first panel, “Mass media: mediating or turning median?”. Paula referred to the journalist’s work and his/her role in the communication with and for a large audience. For her, the journalist has got the role of the translator. It’s someone with a good general culture, but aware that he/she doesn’t know everything and who, thus, looks for the specialists and various other sources, in order to collect information. This information is then analyzed and ‘translated’, in order to be presented to the larger audience of non-specialists. “My programmes are not for the specialists”, said Paula Moura Pinheiro, “and the specialists don’t need my programmes. My programmes are for those who don’t know.” She inevitably reminded me of the British naturalist Edward Forbes who wrote in 1853: “Curators may be prodigies of learning and yet unfit for their posts if they don´t know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing.” She also reminded me something I had read a few years ago in The Manual of Museum Management by Barry Lord & Gail Dexter Lord: that an exhibition is like a TV programme, it may raise awareness, but it doesn’t turn anyone into an specialist.

Another presentation in the first panel of the afternoon, “Marketing and branding”, came to test the comprehension and relevance of Paula Moura Pinheiro’s words. Advertiser Pedro Bidarra, who ran for years the advertising agency BBDO, talked to us about “The wall of words”. He showed us extracts from texts he had encountered in exhibitions and which transmitted nothing to him, because… he didn’t understand them. His examples caused much laughing in the audience, but Pedro insisted: “How come you want me to see your exhibitions if you create yourselves such barriers to communication? It’s no a lack of interest on my part, I would really like to visit, but I feel that your offer is not for me, it was not produced with me in mind.”

Pedro Bidarra’s texts were very well chosen; which doesn’t mean they are hard to find. The discourse of the majority of our museums is a conversation among specialists. A enormous effort is being made in order to gain our peers’ approval and applause. Where does this leave the audience, the people, and our relationship with them?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the way the euro-barometer results were received by many in our sector and I was asking if these results are ever going to make us question our practices or if we will continue blaming people for lack of culture, ignorance and lack of interest.

I think of the seminar in Tomar and the impact those two presentations, Paula Moura Pinheiro’s and Pedro Bidarra’s, may have had (or not) on the way museum professionals, especially those being directors, think about their daily practice. What was the meaning of all that laughing in the audience when Pedro was showing us his examples? Because in that audience there were certainly some people who had been the authors of similar texts to the ones shown on the screen. As the Portuguese Sandra Fisher Martins, founder of the Plain Portuguese campaign, was saying in her TEDx talk “The right to understand”: “These documents (she was referring to public documents) don’t fall from the sky, they are written by someone”.

In order for change to happen, there is a need for courage to face the criticism; openness to admit that there are things which are not right; determination to offer a better service. There is also a need for some sense of humour, a need to know how to laugh at our own mistakes, as long as laughing helps relieve the – probably inevitable – sour taste of the negative criticism and strengthen the will to do things in a different, better, way. If the laugh is nothing more than just a laugh, I feel there’s a Rhett Butler behind it thinking: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Monday, 18 November 2013

Guest post: "Circles of support", by Kateryna Botanova (Ukraine)

My two Ukrainian friends and colleagues, Ihor Poshyvailo and Kateryna Botanova, are the living respresentation of what their country is today. A country wishing to preserve its traditions and, through this, mark its distinct cultural identity; a country determined to look forward and outward, to mark its position in the contemporary world free of controlling ideologies and offers of “protection”. Ihor wrote a post for this blog last year . It is now Kateryna’s turn to share with us her views, anxieties and, most of all, the enormous and consistent work she and the rest of the small team of the Center for Contemporary Art have been carrying out, determined to fight their insecurities and to overcome the obstacles in order to fullfil their mission and to fully assume the responsibilities they’ve set for themselves in their country’s cultural sector. mv

SPACES: Architecture of Common, CSM, 2013. Photo by Kosti​antyn Strilets, © CSM
Ukraine is a peculiar country where the word “independent” means something quite different than elsewhere in Europe. Here, “independent culture” and “independent cultural organization” are not just free from the ideological and/or political control of the government or any other public bodies, they are also defined by being not dependent on any public financial support - because there is none.

To be an independent cultural institution in Ukraine means to write your own mandate for serving the community, to be brave enough to see the gaps in public policy in the cultural sphere and to try to fill them as best you can, and to be fully responsible for your own future - financial as well as professional.

At the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art (CSM), Kyiv, Ukraine, we start our monthly planning & sharing meetings with the question - whom are we doing this for? Our mission statement says that we work to create a platform of possibilities for cultural workers - artists, critics, architects, writers, etc. - to foster interdisciplinary communication, experimentation and innovation. But how do you do this? How do you sustain their work when there is low access to, and therefore appreciation for, culture and no public or private funding available? Who can create circles of understanding and build support for this kind of art?

CSM is an independent not-for-profit institution established in 2009, a successor to the Center for Contemporary Art established by George Soros in 1993, as part of the Soros network of art centers throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Very few of them have survived till today, mostly because of the lack of funding. CSM outlived its peers thanks to a major restructuring - from a large institution with a focus on showcasing works and artistic education to a small and mobile curatorial team aiming at experimental productions, critical discourse and audience development.

In 2010, within a year after our transformation, when we had to suddenly leave our premises at one of the capital city’s main universities and literally go underground, renting a small space at the basement level of an apartment block, Art Ukraine, one of Ukraine’s leading art magazines, included CSM in its list of top 10 art institutions in the country, highlighting “the true renaissance that CSM has gone through to again become one of the most active institutions”. We understood that the uneasy decision to continue as a small institution, based on the belief that it is possible and necessary to work in those areas that neither the corrupt state institutions, nor offensive private capital wanted to enter, was right.

SEARCH: Other Spaces. Workshop by Anton Lederer, CSM, 2012. Photo by Dmitro Shklyarov, © CSM

The idea to keep working - doing multidisciplinary projects in public spaces, launching educational and self-educational initiatives and programs, creating new spaces for artist/audience co-working, doing research in art history and cultural policy - was important. CSM was and still is an example of both resilience and producing change. As long as we work, independent cultural institutions in this country can work. It’s tough, but possible.

The further we go, the more we understand that, for the time being, major change lies in the field of creating circles of support and understanding of audiences: support of contemporary culture and the ideas it is articulating - opening access not only to cultural products, but to thinking about and understanding the world we live in through culture.

It was in 2010 when we, at CSM, also came up with the idea of launching a platform for critical reflection and understanding of contemporary cultural developments – the online journal Korydor. First created as a tool for the arts community to write and debate on events, issues and problems, within three years it grew into a journal with a monthly readership of more than 6000 people. When the decision was made this summer to launch a crowdfunding campaign for Korydor, there was much doubt and fear. Who are we talking to? Do readers of an intellectual magazine in a country with no tradition of paying for cultural products need it enough to financially support it? If we succeed, what will that support mean for Korydor? How will it change Korydor? How will it change us?

More than 200 people supported Korydor, exceeding the goal set for the campaign. In three months of campaigning we increased readership by 20%, getting more and more out of the arts community to give to the community of people who want art to be a part of their lives. Contributions were often accompanied by the following remark: “(even if we did not read you before) you are doing such an important thing, please keep it up!”

Korydor was the first media in Ukraine supported through crowdfunding. It was followed by others, like Public Radio, an independent initiative that just hit its crowdfunding goal a few days ago.

Project "Working Room", Anatoliy Belov, CSM, 2013, photo by Kost​iantyn Strilets, © CSM
CSM is taking yet another step to widen its circle of support. In three weeks, in collaboration with Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, we will launch the first special program for MBA alumni that will allow business leaders to talk with, look and listen to, and learn from Ukrainian artists of different genres and generations. We will try to think about our future together and to see how all of us can stay independent from any narrow interests and dire needs in our thinking, expression and understanding of each other.

Kateryna Botanova (Ukraine) is an art critic, curator, contemporary culture and cultural policy researcher, translator. Since 2009 she has been the director of Foundation Center for Contemporary Art (Kyiv, Ukraine), founder and chief editor of the online cultural journal KORYDOR. Member of the Board of the FLOW festival (since 2009), European Cultural Parliament (since 2007), Vienna Seminar steering group (Erste Foundation, 2012), Public Council of Junist at Andrijivsky project (since 2012), Expert committee of PinchukArtCenter Prize for Young Ukrainian Artists. Kateryna works with issues of social engagement of art and the role of art in societies’ transformative processes. She lectures on and writes about contemporary art, cultural management and cultural critique. Kateryna holds an MA in Cultural Studies from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (Kyiv, Ukraine). In 2009 her Ukrainian translation of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism received the Ukrainian Book of the Year award.

Monday, 11 November 2013


All photos taken from the Facebook page of Accion Poetica.
The Eurobarometer carried out a new survey on Cultural Access and Participation (full study and executive summary). The previous one had been in 2007, before the crisis hit Europe, so this recent study may give us an insight into the possible effects of the crisis on peoples habits and practices.

Speaking in very-very general terms, and in what concerns Portugal, the study shows that Portuguese participation is under the European average in all activities considered in the survey, both in terms of attendance and in terms of involvement in artistic activities. The biggest differences refer to reading a book (EU: 68%; PT: 40%), visiting a historical monument or site (EU: 52%; PT: 27%) and going to the cinema (EU: 52%; PT: 29%).

The main barrier to access referred by Europeans is lack of interest or lack of time. For the Portuguese, lack of interest was the main reason for not participating, marking a higher percentage than the european average in all activities considered in the survey. The activities that least interest the Portuguese in comparison to the rest of the Europeans are reading a book (PT: 49%; EU: 25%), visiting a museum or gallery (PT: 51%; EU: 35%) and visiting a historical monument or site (PT: 44%; EU: 28%).

The reason I want to write today about the study of the eurobarometer is not to analyze graphics and results. It is to question how we are going to interpret them and what we are going to do about them, being professionals in the cultural sector. 

The results were primarily met on Facebook and the blogosphere with pessimism or a certain fatalism; with statements such as “We are a country of uncultured” or “The Portuguese don’t want to know about it, they are not interested, they think it´s not worth it” - with some kind of implicit accusation, I thought, of the kind “Is it worth doing anything for those ignorant and ungrateful people?”.

I confess that I was full of questions, some of them permanent ones, frequently discussed in this blog, regardless of the existence of formal studies. Trying to summarize them here, I would like to consider two main issues:

Question 1: How large was the definition of “cultural participation” in the study? Did it only consider attendance and involvement in what we may call “formal cultural institutions”?

Having access to the full report and questionnaire, I was happy to see that the definition was not a narrow one (it did consider participation through the internet, activities like dancing or doing photography or handicrafts), I am just not sure if, the way the question was asked, it also helped those surveyed consider their activities in such a broad sense (how many people, for instance, would have thought that dancing at a wedding or club is a form of cultural participation?). The “Public Participation in the Arts” surveys of the American National Endowement for the Arts, carried out every four years, do give is this kind of details regarding the “what exactly; where exactly; how exactly” – all reports are available online, but check, for instance, the last full report, referring to 2008 (some highlights here), or the highlights of the 2012 survey, the full report expected to become available  2014.

Regarding especifically participation on the internet, one should highlight that the Portuguese mark above the European average in what concerns playing computer games (+11%), putting their own cultural content online (+3%), listening to radio or music / dowloading music / reading or looking at cultural blogs (all +1%). 

Question 2: Are people little interested in culture in general or in the kind of culture “formal cultural institutions” offer them? Do we programme bearing in mind people’s interests, concerns, existing knowledge, questions, needs, practical and psychological barriers that might be keeping them away? Are we ever going to question the way we are doing things and the sincerity of our statement “We are here for the people”?

Some personal facts: some times I look at the agenda of exhibitions in museums and, judging from the titles, nothing sounds exciting or interesting enough for me to go all the way and visit them; a number of concerts and interpreters, of all musical genres, are promoted as “the best in the world”, but this is simply not enough for me to make the decision to buy the ticket, as the world is so full of “best” artists; in what concerns lesser known artists, the big majority of the institutions presenting them behave as if we should already know about them, adding absolutely nothing to the title and/or name.

So this may be my problem as culture consumer. But it might also be a problem for cultural institutions that wish to communicate with me (at least, they say they do):  a problem of choosing interesting and inspiring titles; a problem of choosing subjects (meaning stories) that might appeal to a more diverse, less specialized, audience; a problem in trying to attract more using basic information that is only understood by few; and also a need (I would even say obligation) to understand what people choose to do in their free time and why. Because, when I, as a person /consumer, don´t go to your exhibition / concert / theatre play / festival, it’s not “simply” because I am uncultured, uninterested, ignorant or ungrateful (and frankly, I don’t appreciate hearing you say this about me...). It might be because someone else was more sincere in wishing to communicate with me and engage me and did a better job in getting my attention, interest and precious time.


In 1996 Mexicans would, in average, read one book a year. Writer Armando Alanis Pulido, concerned with the decline of literature and poetry and with the widely held idea that poetry is opaque, difficult to read and understand, turned to city walls in an effort to make it part of people´s everyday life. He initiated a movement called Accion Poetica (Poetic Action). Since then, it has spread in about 20 Latin American countries and even crossed the Atlantic. The other day the newspaper Le Monde had this title: The walls in Latin America speak of love. Only one, unique, signature: Accion Poetica.

Still on this blog

Monday, 4 November 2013

Guest post: "Choreographing a management strategy", by Dóra Juhász (Hungary)

When I was invited to see X&Y by Compagnie Pál Frenák in Budapest last April, I didn´t know that the company´s new artistic manager would be one of my new colleagues at the Kennedy Center fellowship in the summer. So, the first time I saw Dóra Juhász in Washington it was like meeting an old friend. Dóra is a young woman full of energy, ideas and ambition. I asked her to write for this blog, not only because I loved the company´s work, but also because of their special connection to deaf audiences. mv

InTimE, Compagnie Pál Frenák.
Choreographer Pál Frenák has a special French expression for explaining to his dancers what he wants to see and what he wants to reach during the creation process: the fragile balance of juste. When the movement, the presence and the emotional content on stage is just right; not more, not less; enough and precise; not created by routine, not shy or forgettable, nor over-expressive or exaggerated. “Juste” the intensity that is needed in that moment, created after deep research in the dancers body and soul, after weeks of improvisation and experimentation. When you reach this moment, you have to recognize, catch it and keep it, because it is exactly what we need. “Juste.”

After working in a big contemporary arts institution for 6 years, with clear and defined frames and ready-made structures, it was really inspiring to arrive to the French-Hungarian contemporary dance company, Compagnie Pál Frenák (here and here), an internationally acclaimed, independent company, that has existed for 15 years and has got a rather small management team. I arrived at a moment when the Hungarian cultural politics is changing, when the contemporary dance and theatre scene is losing a huge percentage of its annual budget and government funding,  while there is no tradition in private funding in the country for contemporary performing arts at all. Step by step, I had to realize how crucial it is to find a fragile balance, in this case, to create a management strategy which is exactly right and suitable for my organization in this specific moment, appropriate, adequate, understandable for my own artists, but innovative, brave and adapted for the needs and context. A management strategy which is just right. “Juste.”

How can we do this? How can all our management knowledge be transformed into something which may be new, provocatively new, and at the same time sustainable, because it is breathing together with your company? Going deeper, exploring the patterns in the way your artists work and use them as a source of inspiration to create a strategy, a certain campaign or project.


Pál Frenák’s childhood was marked by the fact that his parents were severely hearing and speech impaired, making sign language his first means of expression. This rendered him especially receptive towards mimicry and gestures and all other ways of expressing content with the help of the human body. For Pál Frenák, the great technique is just the minimum. He tries to, literally and physically, unbalance his dancers and motivate them to step out from their comfort zone and totally forget their learned technique.

Sign language, leaving the comfort zone, creating physical and mental circumstances where the moments of (self)reflection necessary happen (of course working together with people with hearing disabilities is an important part of the company’s mission from the very beginning), but how could these components and way of thinking influence the strategy-building of our audience engagement projects and long-term education strategy?

The team in Kunstahalle.
We created an education package for our Twins performance, where we invited teenagers with and without hearing disabilities; during the preparation workshop of the performance in schools, we worked intesively with them in separate small groups playing associative games, movement exercises based on the choreography of the performance and the main theme of the piece - and all the groups worked together with a drama peadagogy expert with hearing disabilities communicating with sign language, a translator and a dancer of the company. Finally, all the groups met at the show and there was a post-show workshop as well, where everybody participated, combining sign language and verbal-vocal expressions and using the scenario of the show. After this, our dancers visited them again is their schools for a follow-up.

We regularly organize post-show discussions, where groups of people with hearing disabilities also take part, communicating directly with the choreographer in sign language – there is an interpreter for the rest of the audience. Why is it so important? Because, just like in the rehearsal room, we are physically creating a thought-provoking disbalance for the majority of the people in the audience, when they need to face a situation where they organically become the minority. This is the logic and framework for building our audience engagement and audience development projects at different levels, based on what is happening in the rehearsal room with the artists, always focusing on finding a strong link between the artistic part and the structural part of our projects.


In our marketing strategy, we involve our own dancers and invite photographers and filmmakers to create personal and unique backstage materials as promotional content one one hand, it is an exciting way of involving our audience and bring them closer to the everyday life of Compagnie Pál Frenák; on the other hand, it organically fits the team: as in the creation process, the choreographer composes the elements of the piece based on the dancers personality, and they become more emotionally attached, involving them in the marketing strategy opens up the possibility of a very honest and unique way of communicating our art product as well, and it is more than inspiring to figure out together how deep we can go together.

The same thing happens in the development and membership strategy. Our company doesn’t  have a venue of its own, so we collaborate with different venues. This means that we can mainly offer our sponsors an insight of the life of the company, rather than, let’s say, discounts for parking. But, in order to have a sustainable structure, when we choose a form and event to involve our future donors we need to see clearly who we are as a company, to keep ourselves true, honest and free. If the company never wanted to organize a new year’s eve party, but there is a nice tradition of a 2nd of January get-together event, it is important to use that as a development event. In some cases, we go for open-air picnics with site-specific choreographies in the park, instead of formal dinners, because that’s what and who we are; a fashion designer’s tote bag collection about a piece, instead of pencils or magnets with logos as a merchandising; because this is our way.

We are, of course, in the very middle of this process, but exploring the identity of the company together and finding management tools for these elements is a long-term team-building activity in a way, and also a fantastic challenge. In this case, strategy building in management is a real creative process parallel with the artistic one. And when it comes together, when the management strategy is synchronized with the artistic field and the two become inspired by each other, when it is just right.. not more, not less than what we need... Thats what we call you know “juste”.

Dóra Juhász is Artistic Manager for Compagnie Pál Frenák in Budapest, Hungary. She oversees strategic planning, international networking, branding, tour management, artistic coaching, audience development, sponsorship and fundraising. From 2006 to 2012, she was Press and Communications Manager for the Trafó House of Contemporary Arts (Budapest). She is a member of the Hungarian Theatre Critics´Association and regularly gives lectures and participates in conferences around the world.