Monday, 20 January 2014

The ultimate measure

Bill De Blasio's inauguration (photo taken from the portal Hyperallergic)
Bill de Blasio is New York´s 109th Mayor. He’s married to poet and activist Chirlane McCray. His inauguration was on January 1. Two days before that, the New York Times (NYT) published the article A new mayor brings hope for a populist arts revival. I was curious. The newspaper referred that the new mayor has got a populist brand and that, considering his cultural and artistic preferences, one may expect him to get interested in a part of the city´s cultural life that is quite different from the one that attracted his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. The NYT actually referred that the new mayor was never seen at the Lincoln Center and that his family rarely visits the city’s big art museums. On the contrary, there are usually seen in small neighborhood museums and galleries. Chirlane McCray frequents reading sessions, was member of the jury of a number of poetry competitions and arranged for the poem of a young poet to be read on her husband’s inauguration day. De Blasio’s transition committee (that is, the people who will help him form his team) includes experts from the Public Theater, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as the director of Studio Museum in Harlem.

A few days later, Hyperallergic published an article by Mostafa Heddaya entitled De Blasio and the mythology of a new arts populism. Heddaya comments on the NYT’s considerations, but concludes that the cultural interest of the new mayor and his wife are of little relevance, just like the ones of his predecessor. Heddaya, together with other commentators he quotes in his article, is more concerned about how the new administration will support the arts, in a constructive and fair way, and whether they will manage to attract donors in order to compensate for the support given by Bloomberg to a number of cultural institutions in the city, by investing his own millions.

Problems with funding and permanent problems because of the lack of constructive and fair cultural policies. New York doesn’t seem to be facing a different situation than that of a number of other cities. Nevertheless, and apart from this discussion, I was left thinking about two other things: the fact that the new mayor’s cultural preferences are considered “populist” by the NYT (is there some other meaning to the word that I am not aware of?); but, mostly, the fact that these preferences and habits are an issue, discussed publicly, in newspapers and blogs. I know little or nothing about the cultural habits of the men and women who govern us. Rarely is this an issue among us, before or after elections. And rarely did I see them at the places I used to work or go to, except when their presence was required by protocol. (There are some bright exceptions; few. It´s the case of those politicians who also didn’t ask for an invitation to come and watch a performance; they paid the ticket).

I was once again left with this in mind, I was left thinking if it matters what books our politicians read, which plays they see, what music they listen to, what were their favourite films in 2013. Another event in the US reminded me of this issue.

Photo: Witness Against Torture (taken from Flickr)
On January 11, the day of the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, Witness Against Torture activists did a protest at the National Museum of American History in Washington (see here). Using the characteristic orange jumpsuits and black hoods, they assumed detention poses near the museum entrance. Others delivered a speech, asking President Obama to free the remaining 155 prisoners and close the camp. Later, they moved to the exhibition “The price of freedom: Americans at war”, they assumed the same detention poses and exhibited signs saying “Are these the price of freedom?” or “Civil liberty?”.

I saw in the choice of venue a more favourable symbolism for the museum than the one the organizers actually aimed to assign. “We came here today because we want to see Guantanamo relegated to a museum”, they wrote in a press release. But they also said: “(...) we want it to be shuttered and condemned, but also understood as an example of where fear, hatred and violence can take us.”

It was in Tzvetan Todorov’s book “La peur des barbares: Au-delà du choc des civilisations” that I first read about the Torture Memo, a document prepared by the  legal office of the American Ministry of Justice, which was used to present a “new definition” of what constitutes torture and to defend the legitimacy of acts committed by the american government. A language that was very well elaborated by someone who knows how to use (or abuse?) words. A shocking public document which was used to justify inhuman, humiliating and shameful acts (this is why I thought that the choice of National Museum of American History had a more profound meaning than seeing Guantanamo ‘relegated’ to a museum”).

I was once again left thinking: what kind of books do they read, what kind of plays do they see, what kind of music do they listen to, what are the favourite films of those politicians, lawyers, security agents, economists and others who, taking advantage of and nurturing our fears, find justifications for barbarity and wish to turn us into their accomplices. From torturing prisoners who have never been formally accused, to promoting referenda on fundamental rights, cutting already miserable pensions, increasing the number of students by class and reducing the number of teachers and subjects, putting at risk the good functioning of cultural institutions and compromising access to them, human rights are being violated every day, ‘for a good cause’, in our ‘civilized’ countries.

Distribution of food and clothes, Portugal, Christmas 2013 (Photo: Bruno Simões Castanheira for the Projecto Troika)
Martin Luther King said that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” So maybe it does not really matter what are the cultural habits and preferences of those who govern us and of those who support them. Books, theatre, music do not have super-powers. What matters is that a man has got strength and consciousness, so that he’s able to use what he encounterd in them against his own, always underlying, barbarity.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Guest post: "Artistic vision and economic patronage", by Filiz Ova-Karaoglu (Turkey)

When I first met Filiz and heard her presenting her work, I remember I smiled. Although quiet and rather reserved, she seemed to be bursting with ideas and looked like if she didn´t know how to deal with them all, what to do about them. In this post she writes about her work at the Is Sanat Concert Hall, funded by the Is Sanat Bank. Balances are not easy to maintain, especially at times like this, but Filiz is creating a path, constantly learning, constantly experimenting, clear about her goals. mv 

Buika Symphonic on 24 May 2013 (Photo: Ilgın Yanmaz)
Financial difficulties in cultural institutions are an ever-present topic in our business. Especially in countries where cultural philanthropy is still a matter of private institutions mostly, with scarcely any support from the government. Even the most successful pioneers of the art profession are not always economically eloquent. We often tend to forget we run a business, even though, as nonprofit organizations, we need to keep our institutions moving. Just recently we witnessed a forerunner in the culture and arts scene of Turkey almost losing their building due to a big hole of depths. Saved by their founders – a large family corporation – at the last minute before losing a wonderful building, the question being how much involvement economic institutions should have in the culture and arts: should they remain as the provider or directly interfere into our work?

The increasing involvement of corporations directly into the cultural institutions doesn’t seem so far-fetched. No longer acting as the sponsor, kept as a distant friend invited to join the party, but as an essential part of our strategic planning and decision-making.  In an environment of a booming cultural industry with huge investments in different art genres, from modern art galleries to museums, multi-stage concert and performance spaces to arenas, the question is if arts professionals have enough know-how in economic, sociological and marketing issues? Do we need to?

Yes, indeed. I see a model where the direct involvement into the economic and marketing strategies is a vital point and a great advantage. Being sponsored by a large corporation, and at the same time being part of their internal structure, does bring along a stable sustainable structure of marketing and communication strategies that strengthen and allow to adapt to the changing environment, sociologically, strategically and economically. Although this may include a dependency on certain corporation doctrines and expectations, I think we can make a compromise as long as our artistic wok can flow freely. These doctrines do not have to be restrictive necessarily. There are excellent examples, such as the successfully delivered International Istanbul Biennial which, no doubt, acts among the most courageous, most innovative and forerunning in its field at an international level. Already addressing a delicate socio-cultural topic, especially the last edition has faced a very difficult socio-political reality and Zeitgeist in Turkey.

Still I would separate a mere sponsoring relationship from an interacting business relationship. I would see the sponsoring kind as an external support into an existing artistic viewpoint, whereas within an interacting business relationship a coherent artistic vision is developed. By no means should this be based on any kind of commercial success related principals, although we have to oversee our feasibility. Since it takes time and patience, especially if the artistic institution is build up at a time and within an environment that has not yet proven itself as a proper ground for anything, but a profitable space for a business center. A new initiative, with no guarantee of success, needs patience but above all a vision based on a solid mission. Although we can not record very large numbers, luckily there are a few examples in different fields, such as art galleries, museums and performance spaces. 

L.A. Dance Project, 10 May 2013 (Photo: Ilgın Yanmaz)
Adopting a long-term vision based on principles of sustainability results in a stable institution that is rooted on a solid commercial and artistic ground. If this could be combined to go hand in hand with creativity and artistic freedom, we would be in a perfect world of artistic Utopia. But still, there are working models. Is Sanat was founded in 2000 as a concert space that would gather different culture and arts genres under one roof. Since then, it has hosted a large variety of artistic genres, from classical music to jazz, world music, children’s activities, poetry recitals, traditional Turkish music, pop, acoustic rock concerts, a series for young emerging artists and more. The space also includes an Art Gallery hosting four retrospective exhibitions each year. As a forerunner in an area, which has become one of the most popular business and shopping districts in the city, with emerging new arts institutions and a variety of cultural events, it remains the only institution of its kind in many ways until today.

Based on certain principals that were set out during the foundation of our institution, in coherence with our patron’s doctrines of sustainability and long livedness, being the artistic team, we develop a package, an artistic ‘cocoon’ around these principles, which we offer our patrons as a suggestion, which they are kind enough to accept. In return we develop the right strategies for our ‘artistic cocoon’ including marketing, communication. It is a mutual interacting, a model of giving and taking from each other. In this respect, openness to change is an important factor of our work. We re-invented ourselves in many ways during the years. Witnessing the changing demography of our audiences led us to include new genres into our program, such as children’s theatre, a Rising Stars series or acoustic Rock concerts, which proved successful after a certain period of time. But again, they needed time to evolve and set. Together we embrace a changing artistic, economic and social environment year after year. Staying true to our principals we evolve and grow. Next year Is Sanat is celebrating its 15th year within this model of collaboration. As we are constantly evolving, we never know if this will not change. But for us it has proven successful for the last 14 years and we can only hope that there are many years to come.

When reviewing this article, my dear colleague and friend Maria, who kindly asked me to write for her blog, rightfully asked: “If we as arts professionals need to gain interest and know-how in economics, do the corporations which participate into our work need to know about art?” I would argue that an understanding of the artistic content is required for sure. But if communicated thoroughly and correctly by the artistic team, this should not cause a problem. As mentioned above, as our artistic work has  flown freely and we have been working around the artistic concept, in our case we have witnessed that most of our strategies work well. It has not been flawless and within the years we have faced obstacles in understanding each other. After 14 years, however, we have grown into a unity.

Filiz Ova-Karaoglu is the artistic director of Is Sanat Concert Hall. Is Sanat is a 800 capacity concert and performance hall hosting a 7-month seasonal program providing a wide range of performances, from classical music to jazz, world music, Turkish music, modern dance, children activities and many more. Working as Is Sanat’s Assistant Director since 2008, Filiz Ova-Karaoglu was appointed Artistic Director in January 2013. She holds an M.A. in Art History and American Studies from Eberhard Karls University Tubingen, where she continues to pursue her Ph.D. studies. She is currently also a Summer Fellow at the DeVos institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Monday, 6 January 2014

So that they may live happily ever after

I remember feeling a bit surprised when I read the news about the collaboration of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA) and the agency Everything is New in the production of the Prado exhibition in Portugal. Little after the Joana Vasconcelos exhibition at the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda and despite the issues this first partnership had raised (perhaps not publicly and formally, but certainly among colleagues), here’s another partnership of the Portuguese Government (and of a national museum) with the same partner. From what I read in the newspapers, Everything is New funded the production of the exhibition with €380.000. The income from tickets and other sales up to this amount will be 100% for Everything is New; above that, it will be divided equally between the agency and the MNAA.

I do believe in these public-private partnerships and I think they will become more and more frequent. Apart from that, in the specific case of Everything is New, a particularly liked reading the statement of the director, Álvaro Covões, last November, about the results of the Eurobarometer regarding the cultural participation of the Portuguese. At a time when the majority of the reactions in the sector blamed the Portuguese for their ignorance, lack of interest and culture, Covões said that the results of the study did not scare him and that they were, on the contrary, an opportunity and a social responsibility. I also think the same.

When last week I entered the MNAA, one of the first things I saw was an acrylic stand with leaflets: of the temporary exhibition of Prado in Portugal; of the Beyonce concert; and of the Cirque du Soleil show “Dralion”. Thus, I understood that this was Everything is New´s publicity stand. This mixed offer made me smile. To put side by side Rubens´, Brueghel´s, Lorrain´s nordic landscapes and Beyonce, at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, may be a way of challenging our prejudices regarding “high” and “low” culture, of acknowledging that one who likes the former may also enjoy the latter and that cultural participation varies and does not only occur within moulds pre-defined by the professionals of the sector. I know that their coexistence on the acrylic stand was simply the result of benefits given to Everything is New in return for their investment and not a conscious attempt to challenge our notions of “culture” and “art”. Even though, it’s a collateral result of this partnership, a positive one, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, after the initial smile, I started having doubts. And this is because, the more I look at the details of the communication of this partnership, the more I feel that I did not visit MNAA’s new exhibition, but rather Everything is New´s exhibition at the MNAA. Details? Maybe yes, maybe not.

The exhibition leaflet is a neutral leaflet. ‘Neutral’ in the sense that it does not identify, as it should, the promoter, the organization that presents the exhibition and invites us to visit (this usually happens with the inclusion of its logo at a visible spot). In the case of the MNAA and the rest of the national museums, this is nothing new. These organizations have been condemned to discretion, they may not appear as the big promoters of their own initiatives, their logo being placed in the footer of the promotional materials, mandatorily preceded by those (two in this case) of their tutelage and at the same level as the logos of the supporters. In the promotional materials, the reference to national museums is first of all a reference to the venue – just the venue – of an exhibition. What’s new in the leaflet of this exhibition at the MNAA is that the museum is actually identified as “the venue”. It’s not just an interpretation of the way the information is referred, but there is the actual designation “Location” and not “Address”, as one would expect. Details? Maybe yes, maybe not.

The discreet position of the MNAA within this partnership is also confirmed online. When clicking on the image of this temporary exhibition on the museum website, we are taken to a page with just three links: 1. Press release + info (where we find information just for the press); Promotional video (on the MNAA You Tube channel and with the title “Nordic Landscape from the Museo del Prado” and not “Rubens, Brueghel, Lorrain”, which is the formal title of the exhibition – rather deceiving, but for a good cause, I suppose, since these names are attractive, although not that dominant in the exhibition, as the title suggests); 3. Tickets and information (we are taken to the exhibition’s specific website – Why does this exhibition have a specific website? Why can´t we find all relevant information on MNAA’s website?). Details? Maybe yes, maybe not.

Image taken from the website Portugal Confidential
What am I trying to say? One of the things I’ve learned, and learned well, in this profession is that everything, ‘everything’, communicates: what we say and what we don’t say; and we do and what we don’t do. What is being communicated to me, when looking at some promotional materials and when reading the news, is that Everything is New is the agent that made this exhibition possible and that, for this reason, it may benefit (or even demand?) from special conditions in its presentation and representation.

“But what is really bothering you?”, a friend insisted.

What bothers me really is that partnerships like this one are, in fact, seen as some kind of favour on behalf of those who have got the money and not as true partnerships, counting with the contribution of both sides (more than two, in this case). Everythings is New invested in this exhibition, and before in the Joana Vasconcelos exhibition, a significant amount of money which undoubtedly made it possible for the project to go ahead. It invested not because it felt sorry for the limited conditions national museums are operating in, but because it could gain from it, both in financial terms, but also in terms of prestige, in this field that is not - yet – its own. This is why it did not invest in any exhibition, but in an exhibition that resulted from the partnership between the MNAA and the Prado. On the other hand, the MNAA did not just receive. It also contributed in the production of this exhibition. It contributed with its space, it contributed with the whole infrastructure, it contributed with its expertise and it contributed with its prestige. This exhibition wouldn’t have been the same thing if this museum was not involved. Further more, how much did the insurance of the paintings cost, for example, totally supported by Lusitânia? Or the edition of the catalogue, offered by the Casa de Imprensa? This is a true partnership and it should be seen as a win-win situation and not as a risk generously and unilaterally taken by Everything is New. This exhibition wouldn’t have happened just with the €380.000 the agency invested, isn’t it true?

Image taken from the site Museus de Portugal
But even before that, what bothers me really, and mainly, is that the government went ahead with this new partnership with Everything is New without discussing, clarifying and evaluating the issues raised by the Joana Vasconcelos exhibition at the Palácio da Ajuda. Issues related to the handing over of the space to the partner / funder; with the impact on the Palace´s own collection and the building itself, due to decisions / impositions that disregarded the advice given by the museum staff; with the conditions of hiring and preparing the exhibition staff. I am not able to say if these issues were right to be raised; I also haven’t got concrete information on the conditions of the partnership, although I searched for them.

The Government has got responsibilties and the obligation to be transparent when entering this kind of partnerships. We, the professionals of the sector, have also got responsiblities and the obligation to demand transparency and to intervene decisevely, which is something more than talking among colleagues and commenting on Facebook. Public-private partnerships are fundamental. What is also fundamental, though, is that the conditions of these partnerships are known to the public, so that we are not left with that uncomfortable feeling – by interpreting signs, conversations, rumours and the news in the newspapers – that the national museums are handed over to external agents and used simply as stages. Details? Certainly not.