Thursday, 15 February 2018

Let's set Mark Deputter free

Image taken from the newspaper Público. Photo: Nuno Ferreira Santos

It was a good exercise for all of us the with conversation with the Municipal Councilor for Culture Catarina Vaz Pinto (CVP) yesterday at the Maria Matos Theatre (MMT). As it has been a good exercise all the discussion generated after the announcement of her decision to lease MMT and turn it into a for-profit space with programming for a larger public.

The meeting began with an introduction by CVP. She spoke of her responsibility, as Councilor for Culture, to look at the city of Lisbon as a whole, understand the cultural ecosystem and identify gaps. She said that the Municipality has got two priorities: the preservation of memory and cultural diversity. So far so good. Weaknesses in the argumentation began to emerge as questions about these statements started being asked.

Time and time again, when citizens took the floor to express their appreciation for and connection to the MMT project and the MMT space (inseparable, of course, for those who attend it), CVP replied: "But the project ended with the departure of Mark Deputter and the other programmers. It's the people who make the places and it would never be the same. We had to think things over." CVP was sympathetic to what she called "your mourning”, but she reminded everyone that things change, that there is resistance to change, but we need to face it and she, being responsible for culture, has to look for better solutions and to guarantee cultural diversity. She said we think just about ourselves, but she thinks about the city as a whole. When questioned about municipal investment in creating an identity for MMT, CVP responded that MMT has had several identities: the one of the time it was being managed by Miguel Abreu, then the time of Diogo Infante and now of Mark Deputter.

I don’t know how the public reacted to Miguel Abreu's departure in the early 2000s neither do I know the identity MMT was projecting at the time. I know that the announcement of Diogo Infante's departure did not cause any negative reactions - as people quietly followed him to the D. Maria II National Theater, since the identity was that of the artistic director. What we see now is quite different, however, and deserves to be evaluated in a different way by those responsible for Culture in the city, its ecosystem and cultural diversity.

The MMT audiences did not regret Mark Deputter’s departure when it was announced in August 2017. Noone’s griefing, at no time did anyone beg for him to stay, nor did anyone ask for more of the same. Personally, I thought "How good for him and how good for MMT". How good for us, ultimately. On the one hand, curious to see what he shall do at Culturgest (contrary to CVP’s repeated claims, he has already said that he's going to be doing something different than what he did at MMT, as one should expect). On the other hand, with high expectant regarding the way a new artistic director at MMT would respond to the challenge of the unique positioning this theater has in the city.

The crucial point for me is here: the unique positioning of MMT in the city of Lisbon, which currently defines its identity and makes it different from every other cultural space. CVP believes there is something to gain from the decision she made, that we shall all be better served. This is because she thinks in "technical" terms, she says that there will be better conditions for the "experimental and emerging" and for "children-youth programming." But we, the citizens, do not go after genders. Should this weigh on our decisions, there is a big choice in Lisbon. As a citizen, I accepted an invitation from a municipal theater that assumes a political position. This, in my view, is unique. This is something that I cannot find in other cultural spaces in Lisbon – at least not clearly assumed, developed in a coherent and permanent way and with my participation.

Therefore, it is not at all obvious or natural to assume that the departure of an artistic director from a municipal theater puts an end to its mission. It is the responsibility of the Municipality to guarantee this mission, to guarantee cultural diversity, to identify gaps, which it is now creating. As I have already said, I am not discussing genders. I am talking about the distinct invitation this municipal theatre launched to the public, an invitation which was accepted by some (not few) and which resulted in the creation of a community: the MMT community. I would say more: it is irresponsible to destroy a project in which so much was investigated with the excuse that the artistic director has left. I deeply respect Mark Deputter, Liliana Coutinho and Pedro Santos. But I do not think they are the only competent, sensitive, knowledgeable people to serve the MMT mission. Neither the city, its ecosystem, is limited to the questions raised by them. The Municipality has an obligation to be able to distinguish between mission and content and to preserve the vocation of a cultural space which, as citizens clearly said, is much needed. Perhaps even more so than preserving the space left empty by the Cornucopia Theater (that is, if they had to choose).

Several citizens yesterday reaffirmed their appreciation for the MMT project (even without Mark Deputter). Their appreciation is not for the "experimental" or the "emergent" or the "contemporary" - no one used these terms - but for a coherent, solid project that invites them to reflect together and gives them something that no other cultural space provides them with at this time. I feel that they were not really heard, I feel that they were regarded with some condescension for being "sentimental" (rather patronizing, for my taste). In October, other citizens accepted the invitation to come and talk with artist Grada Kilomba and many entered this municipal theater for the first time. CVP was not in that meeting. Those citizens made it clear that they exist, they are thinking and interested inhabitants of this city, yet largely invisible. More sentimentalists? After all, who does the Councilor for Culture accept listening to?

We talked about a lot of other things yesterday. I was a little disappointed to see that CVP was not prepared to discuss numbers (numbers of spectators, investment values, leases, etc.), questions that were certainly expected to come up. She also showed some lack of knowledge about the type of programming of the MMT, which is worrying considering the decision she has taken. However, the question that interests me the most is this:

If one of the responsibilities of the Councilor for Culture is to study the ecosystem, identify gaps, seek to preserve cultural diversity, I ask myself: which citizens did the Councilor for Culture listen to in order to conclude that what is lacking in the city is a space with a programme for "the general public" that can be profitable? Who expressed this need? And why is this need, should it was expressed, more important in the plans for Culture of the Lisbon City Council than the one expressed by those who attend the MMT?

Let's set Mark Deputter free. Let’s not hold him accountable for things he is not responsible for. Let’s allow him to do what he does best and surprise us (hopefully, this is not an "unconditional love"). Let’s be more demanding with the Lisbon City Council. The city’s cultural policy is their responsibility. Just like listening, feeling (yes, also feeling), valuing dialogue with the citizens. The MMT project does not end because Mark Deputter left. But will the Lisbon City Council be able to manage the challenge of giving it continuity? A much greater challenge, much more demanding than leasing the space, a challenge which they clearly have to assume.

More on this blog:

Still on Maria Matos: a theatre's ethos

What Maria Matos means to me (or why did I sign the petition)

The person we need to listen to

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