Monday, 16 February 2015

Welcome, neo-cosmopolitans!

Photo: Adriano Vizoni/Folhapress (taken from Folha de S. Paulo)
"Black Presence" is an action promoted in São Paulo (Brazil) by black artists, writers and activists who visit exhibition openings in art galleries in group. They arrive one by one, they become numerous and attract the uncomfortable stares of other visitors. Because the presence of blacks (as artists and public) is not usual in these contexts. Not everyone agrees with these actions (as can be seen in the comments in the Folha de S. Paulo), but to me, this act of claiming by citizens caught my attention.

And it reminded me of another. At a conference last year, I heard Sylvain Denoncin, of the French company EO Guidage, tell the story of the Louvre - Lens. The museum was designed by Japanese architecture studio SANAA. The inhabitants of the city threatened to take the project to court if the new museum was not accessible. At that point, EO Guidage was called to intervene and remedy something that should have been thought from the first moment. In an exchange of views with a colleague on Facebook, we shared the same concern: how many generations for the citizens of this country to become more demanding in relation to access to the cultural offer of public cultural institutions?

These are two cases which raise once again the question of what is meant by "access to culture"; what culture professionals mean when they say "our doors are open" or "we are here for everyone"; the difference between the concepts of "democratization of culture" and "democratic culture".

John Holden has been quoted more than once on this blog, specifically his identification of the guardians of culture in the essay "Culture and Class" - the "cultural snobs" and the neo-mandarins (see references at the end of the text).

First point: we are still suffering from the mentality of the "cultural snob", which considers the cultural offer - certain cultural offer – to be only for the initiated. In what concerns the others – the non-initiated, the non-cultured - the option (defended less and less publicly, but present in the way we programme and communicate) is to exclude, there being nothing really one can do, since neither the family of these people nor the school had the capacity to educate them, to prepare them for this experience.

Second point: the neo-mandarins have changed the context created and defended by "cultural snobs", and have come to promote access, the democratization of culture. Although it is a different attitude, more open and inclusive, in practice it also reveals another kind of guardian. The neo-mandarins defend access, but they want to be the ones to define what is worth having access to and how. In more than one meeting lately, when the issue of "inclusion" was raised, the need for cultural spaces to be more representative of the societies in which they are inserted and more welcoming for the diverse people that make up this society, the answer varied little: it usually referred to initiatives of the education service, guided tours or shows which people attend as part of specific groups (people with disabilities, seniors, immigrants, children and adults living in social institutions, people from “underprivileged” backgrounds , etc.).

Third point: the emergence of the neo-cosmopolitans in the cultural sector, willing to give up their role as guardian and to truly open the doors for a greater collaboration and involvement of "outsiders", for making the cultural offer more representative and relevant, has also come to change this relationship with people and the way they perceive and gain ownership of cultural institutions. The goal of the neo-cosmopolitans is to move towards a more democratic culture.

In order for change to occur, the contribution of various agents is required. I will concentrate on two of them: the associations representing the groups of people referred above; and the professionals of the cultural sector.

Undoubtedly, we need to have more participative citizens, who know their rights, who ask for what’s theirs, who want to have a say on cultural institutions and access to the cultural offer. The role of associations representing certain groups of citizens is crucial here, because their voice is sometimes stronger and more respected. These associations must promote and defend the rights of their members, should intervene whenever necessary, should take into good consideration the solutions they propose and those they accept. A few months ago, an actor who would represent in a municipal theater reacted negatively to the presence of sign language interpreters in front of the stage. The theater sought alternatives and asked the Federation of the Associations of the Deaf what they thought of the solution to broadcast the play in another room, from which deaf viewers could follow the performance. The Federation considered the solution to be acceptable. It was not. No solution that discriminates against citizens and their right of access to culture is acceptable and associations should be the first to defend it.

However, there must also be a movement from within. A movement that allows to counteract snobbish attitudes; a movement that allows neo-mandarins to develop and to become neo-cosmopolitans. I believe that we will not have more demanding citizens if we have snobbish cultural professionals, professionals only prepared to repeat past recipes, without questioning them, without thinking about the next step: promoting inclusion in the medium and long term.

Citizens need to feel and see in practice that there is a different mentality on the part of the professionals, a mindset that seeks to foster the relationship with people, many people, not just the initiated, and create space for this relationship to exist and to grow, to be real and lasting. We will be more inclusive if citizens, in all their diversity, feel that the programming of public cultural institutions is relevant to them; if they feel represented and the representation entails an increased involvement; if communication is developed with a view to getting accross to them, to engage in a dialogue using a language understood by all; if our action does not promote access to the cultural offer by maintaining people in segregated groups, but by taking steps every day so that people can co-exist in the same space, enjoy the same offer. If culture professionals fail to convince people of their honest intentions to foster this relationship and to work towards a democratic culture, the offer (not culture) will continue irrelevant, and therefore non-existent, for them.

Essays by John Holden:

Monday, 2 February 2015

What we know and what we don't do about it

In the last few weeks, I had the chance to talk to a couple of colleagues regarding some accessibility issues in their exhibitions. Things like poorly illuminated labels, bad contrast between letters and background, labels placed too low, objects exhibited at a high level and without inclination, long and complicated texts. I believe that these are issues that can easily be solved, without any further investment in money, just with some forward planning and the concern not to exclude. Actually, when exhibitions are designed to be inclusive, not only do they not cost more, but they can actually bring more money in, as more people will be able to access them.

I felt a bit puzzled when the people I approached told me that they knew all about those problems. Why did things happen that way, then? Is it possible that we are consciouly creating barriers to our exhibitions’ content? What do we do them for, then, if not for people to enjoy them?

I feel the same kind of puzzlement in conferences or training courses, when we discuss issues of management, communications, marketing, visitor services, education, etc. Quite often, some colleagues approach me and say: “We’ve been telling our superiors what you’ve just said to for years and years.”

Thus, it seems that there’s no lack museum professionals (including museum guards) who are aware of a number of small and big management or communications problems.  We have also got feedack from visitors themselves, through visitor books, comment cards, visitor studies, etc. Finally, there is also the contribution of academics, thinkers, bloggers, such as Maria Isabel Roque - who recently reminded us of some of the things that are still to happen, in her insightful post Acerca do que (ainda) falta ao património - or Luís Raposo - one of the few museum professionals in Portugal who regularly share their views publicly, his latest opinion article concerning the opening of the new Coaches Museum and future plans for museums in Lisbon’s Belem area.

So, we can’t complain that we haven’t already got truly valuable feedback – both from insiders and outsiders - which can help build strategies, correct mistakes, make decisions, register trends, understand changes and developments. Why don´t decision makers and those directly responsible for museum management act on it? What´s stopping us, what kind of barriers are we dealing with? Why are we going after more studies, new studies, if we haven’t done anything yet about the things we already know? Why existing knowledge seems to have no impact whatsoever on museum management and practices?

Here’s my attempt to identify some reasons:

It might be because, despite politically correct statements that museums are at the service of society, they are rather at the service of those who manage them. People – those who come and those who don’t come – and their interests and needs are actually not our principal concern. Objects are and it’s enough that they look beautiful for those who know how to appreciate them.

It might be because in this field we work with very short-term plans, which follow the electoral circles and which may easily be abandoned, with no further explanation or responsibilities taken. Thus, big and small issues remain and their discussion is perpetuated without brining any concrete developments.

Finally, it might be because we tend to settle for what’s “good enough”. We know what the problems are, but there comes a moment when we cannot insist anymore: either because we can’t get our arguments across or because we feel that we cannot expect or demand more from other people. Only that “good enough” is not good enough and the argument of “one step at a time” doesn’t always take us as far as we should go. In fact, it often keeps us just where we are.

More on this blog