Monday, 27 January 2020

Seven days in New York

MoMA entrance (Photo Maria Vlachou)

I was flying to the ISPA Congress earlier this month with some concrete expectations: an opportunity for intense political thinking regarding the cultural field worldwide; visiting the new MoMA and its People’s Studio; attending Public Theater’s “Under the Radar” festival and watching Jess Thom performing Beckett’s “Not I”, as well as Guillermo Calderon’s “Feos”. I got all of this and much more (oh… so much more…). And still, I came back with a bittersweet feeling about our field and our self-image.

The first big impact came right on the first day of the Congress. One of the people invited to take part in the first panel was Lebanese artist Hamed Sinno. There was a moment when he turned to the audience (over 600 delegates from 57 regions, we were told) and asked: “How many of you here know about the revolution that is taking place in Lebanon in the last three months? Please raise your hand.” I didn´t dare to look, but Sinno was quick to calculate that about 10% of those present had raised their hands. “It’s OK”, he said. Is it really? 

Here we were, more than 600 people passionately believing in culture and its power to bring about change (revolutionary change, even), help people re-discover their empathy and humanism, promote dialogue and understanding. And yet, 90% of us had not heard about the revolution in Lebanon. Some blamed it on the media… But all the international mainstream media I follow (and some specific to our field, as Hyperallergic and The Art Newspaper) reported on Lebanon, a revolution in which artists and artistic organisations have been extensively involved and taken a stand. Is it the media or is it us? Our lack of curiosity, the little time we invest in reading? Which is the world we shall help change, make better, if we are unaware of such mainstream events (not forgetting other, less known and talked about stories - such as the oppression of the Sámi People by the Swedish state, which many found out about thanks to the next panel and Åsa Simma, Director of Sámi Teáhter)?

ISPA Congress, Dau 1: Second from left, lebanese artist Hamed Sinno (Photo: Ira Fox)

The second big moment for me in the Congress was a panel with Madani Younis, whose resignation from the Southbank Centre last October, only 10 months after he was hired to be the Creative Director, raised legitimate concerns. Months before, I had read about Younis asking for “a much more disruptive moment”, criticising this “new paternalism” of mainstream, conservative institutions deciding what the pace of change should be. “For me that is perverse”, Younis said. “Because how can the very institutions that have been so stagnant and so slow in their response, then feel the responsibility is on them? For me, that has to change.”

Approximately six months later, Younis resigned from the Southbank Centre. Apparently, things would not change. Theatre critic Lyn Gardner was loud and clearIt is likely to fuel concerns that while many of the UK’s biggest and best-funded arts institutions are eager to talk loudly about increased diversity and the importance of being embedded in their community, they remain less willing to actually walk the walk when it comes to changing themselves. Because real change isn’t just cosmetic, it comes from within.” When questioned on his resignation at the Congress, Younis was clear too: “I am not anyone’s mascot”, he said. “Noone decides my values for me.” Thus, he resigned. And although his co-panellist Alicia Adams (dear Alicia, fondly remembered from our time at the Kennedy Center) questioned what would happen if people didn’t stay to fight, still, we do need resignations like Madani Younis’ and professionals like him, lucid, conscious, ready to state and stand up for their values. Many, too many people in the cultural field remain silent, because of fear or because they find it more comfortable. Younis is now starting as chief executive producer at The Shed, in New York. A rather controversial space, where front-of house staff recently unionised, wishing for their hard work and labour to be properly recognised. Curious to see how Younis will fit into this.

ISPA Congress, Day 2: First from right, Madani Younis (Photo Ira Fox)

Further from the Congress, my attendance of three shows at Under the Radar festival (all three with or about people with disabilities) were the highlight of this trip. Apart from “Not I” and “Feos”, mentioned in the beginning, I also had the opportunity to see “The shadow whose prey the hunter becomes”, with the Australian Back to Back Theatre. It’s not just a question of being great art. It’s different art, and I discovered how much I need it and how much it fulfils me. Public Theatre director´s, Oskar Eustis, words in the programme completed my feeling of bliss: “It’s a blessed, utopian couple of weeks in the dead of winter, in our own artistic spring, renewing and rejuvenating both ourselves and our ancient beloved art form.”

I left my visit to MoMA for the end. The day before, my friend and colleague Chiara Organtini (a great companion both at the Congress and also at the RESHAPE project) reminded me of an article in The New York Times last December called “How the superrich took over the museum world”. This is an uncomfortable article, reminding us that US museum boards are inhabited by superrich people “in an age of mounting anger over income inequality.”  MoMA is no exception. Most board members, according to the article, work in finance, the corporate world, real estate or law, or are the heirs or spouses of the superrich. At the same time, unionised members of staff have been publicly protesting low wages and minimal overtime pay, trying to break ‘the culture of silence and fear’ in the industry”.

The article weighed on me as I walked to the museum on a cold Saturday morning, my last day in New York. I´ve found a full house, people of all ages and of different colours seemed to truly enjoy the space, the artworks, each other’s company. I don’t think anyone was worried at that moment about the staff’s low wages or the superrich dominating the museum.

A visitor in front of Kara Walker's "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem", 2017 (Photo Maria Vlachou)

But we should. This is not just about the MoMA and it’s not just about its staff. And Culture and the Arts are definitely not a world apart or untouched by such realities. These things matter in a world where we are all interconnected. These things matter because people matter. The culture of silence and fear, the culture of self-censorship, the culture where we - happily or painfully - let go of our values and principles in order to have money for one more project, is not unknown to us, no matter which country we live in. We need to create community, stand together, empower ourselves, come out of our bubble and get exposed to other realities and views in order to have a better look at our own. There is no way we may truly serve the field of culture and the arts if we don’t look within, if we don’t manage to reconnect to our values and principles, if we are not truly curious, if we do not invest time and effort in getting to know the world around us and beyond and doing something about it.

I participated in the ISPA Congress for the second time thanks to the ISPA Global Fellowship. I am grateful to them for their generosity and hospitality.

MoMA, People's Studio: Collective Imagination (Photo Maria Vlachou)

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