Monday 15 December 2014

The educational dimension

Last October, during the intermission of a performance of Brahms' “Requiem” by the Saint Louis Symphony, twenty three protesters sitting in various parts of the auditorium stood up and sang “Requiem for Mike Brown” (the black unarmed youth that was shot by a policeman in Ferguson). Some members of the audience were shocked, others applauded, the same happened with the musicians on stage. Noone interrupted the protesters, noone called the police. Maybe because what happened made sense, at that place, at that time, in that specific context. Music being an integral part of protest in Ferguson, this, acoording to one of the organizers, was an attempt to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable. You have to make a choice for just staying in your comfort zones or will you speak out for something that’s important? It’s not all right to just ignore it”. (read full article)

The recent killings of black people by police in different US cities have provoked an intense soul searching among cultural institutions in that country. In a recent joint statement from museum bloggers and other culture professionals regarding Ferguson and related events, one reads:

“The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)? (...) Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission. (...) As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case.”

Last August, serious controversy involved the decision of Tricycle Theatre not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival, for the first time in eight years. The reason was that the festival received support from the Israeli Embassy in London and, given the ongoing assault on Gaza at the time, the Board felt it was inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved”. They offered to provide alternative funding, but the Festival did not accept (read full article). The conflict in Gaza was also the reason why participating artists in this year’s São Paulo Bienal (later supported by the bienal curators) called on the organizers to return funding from the Israeli Conusulate. Negotiations resulted in the removal of the conusulate logo from the general sponsors and its association only to the Israeli artists that had received that specific financial support (read full report).

We may agree or disagree with the decisions taken by these organizations. But the questioning of the role of cultural institutions in today’s society, especially their educational role, must be permanent, constant. Just like Rebecca Herz, I believe that they shouldn´t act irrespective of their mission (as it is suggested in the above mentioned statement of the US museum bloggers), but any museum collection or theatre /orchestra / festival programme can have a connection to contemporary life and help shape the kind of society we need or dream of. As the work of many contemporary artists is a response to contemporary life issues, it is not unusual to find this kind of connections, and the fertile thinking associated to them, in the programming of theatres, companies or galleries (the Maria Matos Theatre, the Gulbenkian Programme Next Future or the alkantara festival are the first to come to mind, among the organizations whose programming I follow in Portugal, but there are others). Museums or orchestras presenting works that are not contempoarary are not used to linking their collections or concerts to contemporary life though or, if they do, it does not become obvious to me. Quite often I find myself thinking “What is the point of this exhibition or concert?”, “Why is this relevant?”, “How does this connect to contemporary portuguese society and its diversity?” (the inspiring work of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment comes to mind once again...)

This brings me once again to a recurring issue on this blog: accountability and responsibility. I don´t see cultural institutions as islands, cut off from what is happening around them. I believe they should make it clear for people how what they have to say or show can be relevant to them and a way of finding meaning; they should share their vision and objectives publicly and take responsibility for fulfilling them; they should be a public forum, where people can find comfort, but also the necessary discomfort. They clearly have an educational role (in the sense of providing what the Ancient Greeks called “paideia”), one that I wouldn´t necessarily make depend on what happens (or doesn’t happen) at school or at home and one that doesn’t firstly depend on an education department, but on the director him/herself.

Two museums directors and a curator will be with us next Tuesday, 16 December, at the Gulbenkian Foundation conference “What places for education? The educational dimension of cultural institutions” (more information). Charles Esche (Director of Van Abbemuseum and one of the curators of this year’s São Paulo Bienal), David Fleming (Director of National Musems Liverpool and President of the International Federation of Human Rights Museums) and Delfim Sardo (Curator, University Professor and Essayist) will challenge us to think on our responsibilities and practices in the current social and political context.

Note: For those who cannot be in Lisbon, the session will be livestreamed from 10am Lisbon time. The link for the livestream as well as a number of papers, posts, interviews in english may be found on the conference webpage (in “Oradores” and in "+Info")

More readings :

More on this blog:

No comments: