Saturday 22 June 2019

First thoughts on the National Plan of the Arts

There were two occasions for a first appreciation of the National Plan of the Arts (NPA): its public presentation, on 18 June, and the reading of the document. I'll start by sharing my thoughts on the first.

The room where the presentation took place was packed. Many colleagues, journalists, people representing private organisations that support the cultural sector and the arts. One could feel the good mood and the expectation, mixed with some distrust (“Will this be it?”). I believe that that moment of encounter and everything one felt in the air was a positive sign that the sector is made up of professionals who are still very much interested and ready to get involved in a common effort that may value, support and strengthen their work and their contribution to society.

Having said that, it would be impossible not to notice the large absence of museum professionals. We could count them on our 10 fingers. This truly strengthened my concern that this part of the sector has been experiencing moments discouragement, demotivation, lack of vision and, consequently, some disorientation in relation to its role in society. The absence of those colleagues in moments of reflection and action, big and small, formal and informal, has been notorious in the last months. I believe it is urgent to recognise the signs and to think about the future, near and far (this may be a task for the newly-constituted Group for Museums in the Future).

The of the first impressions I had from the public presentation of the NPA was the indiscriminate use of the words "culture" and "arts" (later, the word "heritage" was also added). In recent months, in meetings and conferences I attended both in Portugal and abroad, the indiscriminate use of these words has been much questioned. Personally, I consider it a worrying sign, because if the confusion persists among the members of the sector, its impact on the relationship between professionals and citizens, the distancing of a large part of the Portuguese society, will intensify.

Another issue that came up on the day of the presentation was the focus on the school. My criticism is not dissociated from the previous point. It is more than natural, and desirable, for a national plan of the arts to identify the school community as one of its main target audiences. One among others. Although there were references to inclusion, access, to so-called "vulnerable" communities, there is no doubt that attention was mainly given to the school. And it made me, precisely, think about the school, especially when the Minister of Education took the floor. I thought of my 14-year-old son, of the cultural and artistic experiences provided by his schools (three of them: 1st, 2nd and 3rd cycle), as well as of the opportunities he had to develop his critical thinking. I don’t think any of this happened at school. On the one hand, because many teachers are not prepared or interested in assuming this responsibility. On the other hand, because those who are prepared and interested (and they exist and should get all our support) have seen their working conditions deteriorating significantly. I ask myself if there was a diagnosis on behalf of the Ministry of Education before working on the plan. Also because the speech of the minister was inexplicably triumphant regarding what is happening today, when I often think of the many children and young people whose parents do not provide them (for a number of reasons) with a series of opportunities. Today, we cannot pretend to ignore the impact certain opportunities given (or not given) to young people may have on the construction of the society of the future. And its Culture.

Moving to the second moment, today I had the opportunity to read the NPA. I believe it is the result of a good reflection by people who are knowledgeable on these issues – colleagues whose experience we recognise and respect. Thus, they managed to bring together in the NPA those principles that move us and a vision shared by many among us. The assumptions and values ​​(pages 15-17) and the strategic indicators announced (page 19) demonstrate the existence of a clear path, which may result on solid action. The reactions of several colleagues, as they were reading the document, showed great enthusiasm and motivation to become involved and contribute. A promising start, a set of ideas which, although not exactly new, create some hope when they are built into a plan of action for the short and long term.

Reading the NPA confirmed some of the concerns felt on the day of the presentation and brought up others still. Because the sector (and the country) urgently needs to see the good theories put into practice, I would like to share them here.

The indiscriminate use of the words "culture", "arts" and "heritage", referred in relation to the public presentation of the NPA, comes up in the document too. I think that at this early stage it would be useful to re-think them and clarify the meaning of each one of them, because this will affect the action on the ground, the objectives set and the evaluation of the results. The confusion in relation to these words decisively contributes, in my opinion, to a certain arrogance projected by several members of our sector and the lack of a relationship with the citizens. An arrogance that, in many cases, goes against the idea of ​​"for everyone and with each one".

Although there was no clear reference to the construction of a cultural democracy on the day of the presentation, it is clearly mentioned in the document (page 16), hand in hand with the "democratisation". The country (many countries) today needs us to work conscientiously and honestly in the construction of a cultural democracy. The democratisation (often associated - also in this government's programme - with free entries and digital contents) perpetuates practices that guarantee access to a culture defined by some experts as being "of merit", reinforce the distinction between "high" and "low" culture, demonstrate an understanding of culture as a product of some consumed by others. Once again, the principle "for everyone and with each one" is contradicted and this document also shows signs of having more concrete ideas about the democratisation of culture (page 16, as well as the commitments and actions proposed on pages 25 and 26) and more vague ideas about building a democratic culture. I believe that this part can and should be better developed under the NPA.

The focus on school is also confirmed in the document. Although there are references to senior citizens or "vulnerable" (I put the word in quotation marks because I question its use in this context) or excluded communities, the school continues to occupy a predominant place, to the point of questioning whether the reference to other groups will be, in practical terms, somewhat residual. This feeling has been reinforced by the way school-related objectives are not sorted out on page 19 in a block, admitting that it is a specific target audience, but are constantly mingling with others, presenting a confusing version of the objectives of the NPA (with the school influencing its subconscious and limiting its action?).

Although the NPA seems to be aware of the obligation and need to work for the "vulnerable" and excluded, I hope that in practice it will also be aware that culture itself as a sector has got some issues in terms of its relationship with many other groups and in terms of its representativeness; and that the "vulnerable" and excluded may even have a strong culture, but one that becomes marginalised and invisible by the system itself.

Finally, the budget. I believe I heard something in the presentation about €500,000. Is that it? Will this not be too little considered the - legitimate and long awaited - ambition? And because the smaller the budget, the better must be the use of existing resources, when, for example, another portal is announced, we must ask: what happened to the Portal of Cultural Experiences, presented in June 2015 as part of the National Strategy for Education and Culture and that we could previously find on

I came out of the NPA presentation (and I finished reading the document) feeling that I would like to understand better: What do the Ministries of Culture and Education mean by "inclusion", "access"? What is happening in the Portuguese society today and what issues do these two ministries believe must be addressed and why? The NPA is a response to what? I believe that the concrete actions that will be developed will soon answer some of these initial doubts.

"A permanent relationship with the arts and heritage of different cultures also teaches us to respect the experience of the other, to be more receptive to their culture, their interpretation of the world, promoting sharing, argumentation, knowledge of the criteria of judgment of taste and their historical evolution", one reads on page 16. I smiled because I remembered the public discussion around the Museum of the Discoveries or racism in Portugal; the opinions shared by many influential figures (some belonging to the area of ​​heritage and culture) and the way in which they received and reacted to the opinions of the "other" - who has not been the "other" for a long time now, but continues to be treated as such . To what Education of the past (?) do we owe this Culture of the present? And how to deal with it?

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