Monday 30 June 2014

"Either...or" or simply "and"?

Nicholas Penny, National Gallery director (photo taken from the Guardian) 
Two museum directors in London announced this month that they will be stepping down as soon as their successors are appointed: first, Sandy Nairne from the National Portrait Gallery and then Nicholas Penny from the National Gallery. Two museum directors who are thought to have been very successful in this job.

Although neither has specified some special professional reason for stepping down (at least, my Google search hasn´t brought something up), Guardian´s Jonathan Jones believes the reason might be the increasing pressure on London museum directors due to populist expectations, a media assumption that every exhibition must be a hit and a political belief that galleries should provide not just well-run collections, but entertainment and education for everyone. And he states:

“(…) Are we about to see a new technocrat generation of museum bosses who keep their heads down, put PR first and do all they can to meet goals defined by politicians and the press? (…) That kind of pressure doesn't exactly leave much room to experiment. Museums cannot just be machines for entertaining us. They should have a quieter side where the art comes first, the crowds second and a scholarly side that reveres someone like Penny. This looks depressingly like the end of individuality in the museum world.” (read the article)

It´s getting harder and harder for me to understand why museums are still and constantly faced with dichotomies: objects or people; scholars or technocrats; quietness and reverence or publicity and accessibility. Does it have to be like that? Isn´t it possible to strike a balance? Can´t they be ‘AND’?

When reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s ”Civilizing the museum” a couple of years ago, I remember experiencing a great sense of relief when reaching the chapter “The importance of ‘and’”. She was commenting on the American Association of Museums report Excellence and Equity (a report that was distributed to each and every museum studies student in 1993 at UCL, where I was studying). One reads:

“(...) This report made a concerted attempt to accept the two major ideas proposed by factions within the field – equity and excellence – as equal and without priority.” Further down: “(...) for the museum field to go forward, we must do more than make political peace by linking words. We must believe in what we have written, namely that complex organizations must and should espouse the coexistance of more than one primary mission.” And also: “It has occurred to me that perhaps my whole career was metaphorically about ‘and’.”  

We must believe in what we have written, that´s one point. And the other point is probably that we must go ahead and do what we write or talk about. Because it´s not impossible to do it. Who´s the best person for the job? Can it be one person only? Would teams which involve professionals with different sensibilities manage to reach multiple objectives in a more balanced way? Are we trying to set up this kind of teams? Is everyone heard equally?

“Publicity and accessibility are everything”, Jonathan Jones writes in a negatively critical tone in his article. Publicity might not be everything, but accessibility certainly is. Museums are for anyone who might be interested in them, but not all people approach their contents with the same level of knowledge or interest and with the same kind of needs. It´s a hard job, indeed, but, should museums wish to fulfill their mission, they need to have a quieter side and they need to have a celebration side. They need to please those who know and they need to enchant those who don´t know as much or who know nothing. It was as early as 1853 that British naturalist Edward Forbes wrote: “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.” Those people matter too. Those people might matter even more.

As I write about these dichotomies, one more need emerges for me as a professional, but as a citizen too. I would like to hear the voices of those responsible for managing our museums (and cultural organizations in general) regarding these issues. I would like to hear clear statements, I woud like to feel there is a vision behind them. I would like to know on what kind of plan I may base my criticism. Jonathan Jones is concerned about technocrats who keep their heads down, I am concerned about directors (museum, theatre, orchestra, library directors) who keep their mouths shut. I was in a debate some time ago where someone said “Fortunately, I was never asked to take up positions of directorship and that means I have always been able to say what I think.” Is this fortunate? Isn´t it profoundly worrying?

There is no doubt that there is a great difficulty in dealing with managers or directors with an opinion. In this kind of democracy of ours, someone who takes a certain position is expected to show a kind of ‘loyalty’ that stops him/her from publicly sharing their views (especially when contrary to a government´s positions). I am not defending that each and every issue, each and every disagreement, should be dealt with in public. Nevertheless, there are issues that concern us all. When the State appoints certain people to certain positions, I would like to know what´s expected of them. Once those certain people accept the job, I would like to know what they aim to do and how they plan to go about reaching the objectives. And if they feel that they are not given the conditions to do their job well or if they don´t feel they are up to what´s expected of them, I wish to know about that too. When two museum directors (in London or elsewhere) announce within two weeks from each other that they are leaving, I would like to understand why. When other museum directors (in London or elswhere), keep on staying despite the state of the affairs, I would also like to understand what´s keeping them.

Monday 16 June 2014

Old friends, new friends

Seattle Symphony Orchestra with Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Some cultural organizations are interested in evaluating their programming and the ways they package and prmote it, aiming at diversifying their audiences. On the one hand, this is a necessary step towards accomplishing their mission. On the other hand, it is also a question of survival: how long will they exist for if they don´t manage to renew their relationship with people?