Wednesday 7 August 2019

For us and for our friends

From left to right: poet Odysseas Elytis, composer Manos Hadjidakis, theatre director Karolos Koun, Theatro Technis 1957, rehearsals of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"  © Manos Hadjudakis Archive

News that Warren Kanders resigned from Whitney Museum Board left me truly pleased. After months of protests, the owner of Safariland (a company that produces “law enforcement products” – in other words, weapons, including the tear gas used against immigrants at the US border) was forced to leave, as many people felt that making money out of producing weapons and then philanthropically investing that money in culture and the arts is an oxymoron (to say the least).

I shared my satisfaction on Twitter. Michael Rushton, professor of Arts Economics and Policy, commented that “targeting a single individual from that system, leaving all else intact, is adjacent to what is really at stake.” I am more optimistic. The bigger the scale of things, the more hopeless and powerless people feel to do something about them. One needs to start from somewhere and I value enormously these “smaller” gestures, which I don´t see as being “adjacent” to what is really at stake (they are part of it) and do not leave the system intact.

In my view, this case at the Whitney Museum forms part of a much larger public questioning regarding museum sponsorship and fundraising, in general. A number of museums in the US and UK (among them, the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, Tate, National Portrait Gallery and Serprentine Gallery) have announced that they will not be taking any more money from the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma – and its product OxyContin -  is considered responsible for the opioid epidemic in the US.
Money and moral issues have put other museums on the spot. Ahdaf Soueif recently resigned as a Trustee of the British Museum claiming “it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged”, namely issues such as the BP sponsorship and repatriation (she personally explains her reasons here and she got the support of many British Museum staff and their union). On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Museum of Natural History was also under pressure, first from scientists and curators for having a climate change denier as a member of its Board and later for renting its space for a gala honouring Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (the museum eventually cancelled the rental).

In a recent article, Michelle Wright (founder of Cause4, working with different Boards in developing ethical fundraising policies) reminds us that “Patronage has a long tradition in arts and culture. Many of the exhibits in today’s museums were commissioned, donated and/or paid for by the rich and powerful. Commissioning art, buildings and events brings kudos and immortality – plus the added benefit of a kind of ‘cultural carbon offsetting’ for some of the less ‘societally enriching’ aspects of how the donors arrived at this position of largesse in the first place. As patronage moves from kings, popes and landed gentry, on through Victorian industrialists and into multinational corporations, the relationship between institution and donor has changed and museums in 2019 are having to think very carefully about the full cost analysis of entering into those relationships.” She also states that “The bottom line is that museum Trustees need to decide whether entering into a funding partnership will help further the work of their institution but also whether the association can genuinely align with core values.

I didn’t visit the exhibition “Roads of Arabia: Archaeological Treasures from Saudi Arabia” at the Benaki Museum in Greece, but the subtitle made me check their sponsors. Among them, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. I felt appalled, I love the Benaki Museum… This knowledge came at a time the world was informed of another brutality of the Saudi regime, the beheading of 37 people (among them a boy in his early 20s who was arrested when he was 17). I wrote to the museum director, asking whether they had taken into consideration their funder’s human rights abuse record and what the museum had considered to be positive in this collaboration, which greatly served the regime’s public relations. A month later, having received no answer, I insisted. The museum director eventually answered to me. After apologising for the delayed response, which I found polite, he thanked me for sharing with him my views on justice delivery in Saudi Arabia. Then changing paragraph (and, apparently, subject) he informed me that:
  • the mission of museums is to present the diverse expressions of world cultures by promoting mutual understanding. The Benaki Museum was assisted in this by the Saudi Committee on Tourism and Cultural Heritage, which carries out important work in educating the Saudi public and promoting the country’s archeology outside its borders. He also mentioned the sponsorship of Aramco, the main pillar of economic and social development within Saudi Arabia (which is strangely not mentioned as a sponsor and which forms an island within the Saudi Kingdom – worth reading Manal al-Sharif’s “Daring to Drive”).
  • The museum director also mentioned that the exhibition also enhanced the cultural education of Saudis, through a special reading of archaeological material with emphasis on Hellenistic tradition.
  • He concluded by saying that, together with his colleagues, he was convinced that the exhibition and its catalogue (!) have succeeded in “widening the range of knowledge about Saudi Arabia in Greece and in opening up another channel of communication between the two countries, which for decades have maintained excellent diplomatic relations.”

What kind of knowledge was “shared”? What kind of “understanding”? Why did the Benaki Museum accept money from a brutal regime? Where does the Benaki Museum (an organisation promoting “culture”) stand regarding human rights and specifically the actions of the Saudi regime? And how can it not see the connection between Culture and Justice?

I wrote to the museum, twice. What have I achieved? Probably very little. Could it be a small doubt in the museum director’s mind regarding his decisions and their public justification? That would be something. Could it be a small question in the mind of one of the members of the Benaki Museum staff who followed the exchange? That would be something. Could it be a small point to include in the discussion among my Greek colleagues? That would be something too. All small things, all adjacent to what is really at stake. But still, my small contribution.

A friend told me recently that when my beloved Greek poet Odysseas Elytis asked my beloved Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis  “Why did we do it, Manos?”, Hadjidakis answered: “We did it for us, Odysseas, for us and for our friends”.

No comments: