Sunday, 30 October 2016

MAAT, a generator of expectations

Image taken from the website of MAAT.
I am still amazed at the way the recently inaugurated MAAT - Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, designed by Amanda Levete, is integrated into the landscape. When I approach that area or when I cross the bridge from Lisbon, I always expect to see a huge building overlapping or hiding the Central Tejo power plant. But no... The Central Tejo still emerges majestically and the new building stands at its side as a smooth and fluid note.
My first contact with the new museum was back in June. In fact, it was the reopening of the "old" museum (Museum of Electricity in Central Tejo), after its renovation, and the MAAT brand was launched. Afterwards, I followed the campaign for the inauguration of the new building and I read some interviews of the museum director, Pedro Gadanho, thus forming an initial opinion / expectation. The various criticisms that arose with the opening of the building, as well as some discussions with colleagues, brought me more "food for thought", just like my first visit to the new building.

The opinion of Pedro-Manuel Cardoso, "MAAT: an architectural project devoid of a heritage project", presented in three parts in the list Museum (first, second, third part, in portuguese) brought me, as it is almost always the case with this colleague, new points of view or, rather, obliged me to consider those points of view that do not, usually, come first in my line of thinking. Very briefly, PMC questions the design of the building and the advertised content of the new museum and considers that neither one nor the other allow to create a differentiation in relation to what is seen in many other cities. Also, he believes that they do not add anything to the understanding of Portugal and the project as a whole is characterised “by the absence of a heritage project which could be relevant for a specifically Portuguese Culture. Built on one of the best sites for the dissemination of Portuguese culture 'to the world that visits us' in this case because of the scenic beauty of the Tagus estuary. "
These concerns seem legitimate, but I do not share them. The new building of MAAT is a work of the 21st century, such as the Central Tejo is an industrial building of the 20th century (and from this point of view, identical or similar to many other power plants in Europe). They are both buildings of their time and Lisbon is city which alive and lived. As I had the opportunity to say, I find the integration of the new building into the landscape beautiful and it is undoubtedly the one I like most among those recently erected in the river area (Champalimaud Foundation, Altis Hotel, National Museum of Coaches). With regards to the relevance the project should have to a specifically Portuguese Culture, I find this to be a rather restrictive expectation. Pedro Gadanho’s interviews suggest that the museum will aim to show Portugal to the Portuguese and Portugal to the World, but also the World to Portugal. I'll be glad to see certain exhibitions, as announced, in the city where I live, as they will be coming to us, instead of us (those of us who can) going to them. I'm also happy to be able to know Portuguese artists – both known and new - in the collection of the EDP Foundation, which appears to be a clear and firm commitment on behalf of the museum.
Pedro Gadanho’s interview to the magazine Contemporânea (August-September 2016) reveals the role this new museum aims assume. "I imagine a museum less expected to deal with the art field itself, in the strictest sense - art for the sake of art, and more a museum that uses art as an engine for public debate," said the museum director, “(...) [one offering] not only an aesthetic contemplation, but which also takes an active role in the production of critical thinking." Pedro Gadanho also said that the programme will support Portuguese artists using international artists as catalysts in order to create a platform for meetings between both realities. And the audience, domestic or foreign, will always find two or three exhibitions of national artists. MAAT will also create exhibitions in partnership with foreign organisations that can itinerate, as well as displays that can exist simultaneously in four places, built with local resources, a model that can help overcome the economic problem of travelling exhibitions and invest in the art rather than in transportation. The plan seems to good to me. And it also seems to meet the environmental concerns of the the EDP Foundation.
Which brings me to another criticism regarding the creation of the museum. In his opinion article EDP, MAAT and social irresponsibility, José Vitor Malheiros questions the concept of the "social responsibility" of companies, considers that this investment is made just for propaganda purposes, it is "used frequently to try to clean the image of polluters or to whitewash immoral tax practices", as well as to hide "a thought according to which assisting the poor, protecting the environment or funding culture may be seen as a benefit for the private sector and therefore the State can discard its own responsibilities." I share JVM’s concerns and, just like in the United Kingdom with BP funding certain cultural organisations, I think we should all keep a critical eye on this kind of investment. But unlike Malheiros, I do not think that this kind of investment should not even exist or that, when it exists, it allows the state to discard its own responsibilities. One does not exclude the other and certainly does not prevent citizens from continuing to be demanding with the State. Samuel Rego, in response to JVM, reminds us of the lasting support of the EDP Foundation for the National Ballet Company and the artistic creation in general. Like Rego, I see no harm in this investment, it makes me happy, it doesn’t make me feel that the EDP Foundation is treating me as "poor" and, above all, it does not neutralise my critical evaluation of the performance of EDP as a company or that of the state in the cultural sector. It is worth remembering here another reference Pedro Gadanho made in his interview with Contemporânea magazine: "EDP Renováveis ​​is the third largest renewable energy company in the world. It is a very important fact but which is little talked about. In this sense, I like to line up these themes with those of the museum and present the work of artists also concerned with these issues.” Again, it seems to me to be a good plan, a good and necessary link between the positioning of the company, the Foundation and the Museum.
All this will be put to the test, however, from the moment the museum start working in full. There are, however, some points about what was done or said so far on which I would like to comment:
First of all, I do not understand and I disagree with the latest "fashion" of inaugurating unfinished museums. Inaugurations which obey political agendas and show no respect for the citizens (from this point of view, I found a little unfortunate the fact that Samuel Rego chose to remind us in his article of the inauguration of the - still unfinished - National Museum of Coaches, which charges a ticket in order to present an "exhibition of coaches" in a warehouse). In the case of MAAT, I think it was, above all, an error of judgment and a consequent failure of communication. It seems fine to open the new building of a museum for people to get familiar with it, but not with the pomp and circumstance with which one inaugurates a finished museum and, above all, making it very clear in the advertising campaign that it is the opening of the building only. The installation "Pynchon Park" in the museum’s central area is not enough, obviously, to solve the frustration of those queued for a long time and then came out questioning: "Is this all?".
Another issue, which initially seemed to be well handled, is the new brand. In June, with the reopening of Central Tejo, the MAAT brand was firmly presented. To me, the whole complex became MAAT and everything I saw from there onwards reinforced this image, the new identity. In a recent visit, however, I realized that the question of identity is far from being solved internally, which is something rather serious at this point. I was at the museum ticket desk at Central Tejo, clearly marked as "MAAT", when I heard a member of staff explaining to two visitors that "This is the Electricity Museum" and that MAAT (the new building) is next door. There is still work to be done and it is fundamental. Teams must (and deserve) to be informed, aware, confident in what they do. Considering the investment made in communications (with regard to promotion), it is a pity not to have given the necessary attention with regards to the internal communication. Quite often, less investment in advertising spots and posters and more in the adequate preparation of the Communications team brings better results for the institution as a whole, and at all levels and points of contact with the exterior.
I left for the end a point that makes me think the most and which is also connected to communication: the way the new museum (which aims to be the "engine for a public debate" and have "an active role in the production of critical thinking") will relate to the Portuguese, to the local community. What worries me is that when the question is put to the museum director, he invariably responds by mentioning the membership scheme. So Pedro Gadanho told Contemporânea magazine that the museum aims to "win a local audience and its loyalty" and that its responsibilities "have to do with the fact if we wish to create real access to contemporary art. " Hence the membership programme, which he considers pioneer, designed to "create loyalty and a sense of community." Also, in an interview with the Agenda Cultural he talked about the "responsibility to democratize access to art, make art more understandable, more attractive for wider audience. There is also a responsibility to help people understand that art can bring something to everyone and that is not only a strange and very elitist language, just for a group of connoisseurs.” Soon after, though, when asked about how he plans to attract the Portuguese audience, Gadanho once again answered that "(...) we have created a membership, not as a form of economic return, but as a way to integrate people and make them feel that the museum is theirs. Thus, through an annual symbolic price, people can bring someone else with them, young people and children come already for free, so the whole family can come with a membership card, which allows them to return to this place as many times as they wish."
It will be a mistake, an already too common mistake, to consider that the main barrier to access is the ticket price and that relevance, the sense of community, are created with discounts. It takes a different kind of work, it takes humility and courage (as it was recently said at Access Culture’s annual conference), as well as an honest and genuine desire to communicate with people, for museum professionals to be able to overcome their own psychological taboos and communicate in a simple, engaging and relevant way with people with different backgrounds and kinds of knowledge. The way to make the connection between what is being proposed by an artist or an exhibition and the lives of the inhabitants of this city, as well as all other visitors, will be a key issue. The language (usually "strange and very elitist," as Gadanho says) can be (and usually is) the first barrier. More than thinking that the Education Department will solve it afterwards, because it will "explain" to those who do not understand (another common mistake and a very narrow view of the role of the education service in a cultural organisation), there will be a need to communicate at all levels (from the website to the promotional materials to information available in the exhibition itself) in a clear and understandable way, with relevant content. The first temporary exhibitions at the Central Tejo show no indication that this is the intention of the museum. If the wish to make this museum an engine for public debate and an active agent in the production of critical thinking, also for those who enjoy television and football, is genuine, the course to take will have to be quite different.
I´ll be waiting for the next steps with renewed expectations.

Read also:

Maria Isabel Roque, MAAT, a montanha e o rato
Ana Carvalho, Museus e Pessoas: Pedro Gadanho. In Boletim ICOM Portugal, série III, n.º 6, Maio 2016

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