Saturday, 9 May 2020

Quarantine readings #2 and a first version of my wishlist

Photo: Maria Vlachou

Since our confinement started, I had the opportunity of reading many thought-provoking articles and participating in dynamic online debates. There is a frequently expressed concern regarding the opportunity this crisis presents to rethink our practices, redefine our values and the system of valuing our work, develop relationships of proximity, respect and care both within our organisations and with our communities.

Will it happen? Will we manage to defy the usual (known) barriers and promote a new and necessary way of being and acting? Will we be able not to win the war (of changing the world), but a few decisive battles? Franco “Bifo” Berardi warned us back March that, when the quarantine ends, humans “will get the chance to rewrite the rules and break any automatism. But it is good to know, this won’t happen peacefully. We cannot foresee the shape the conflict will take, yet we must begin to imagine it. Whoever imagines first wins - one of the universal laws of history.”

A number of cultural organisations seemed rather disorientated in the first days or weeks. It is normal, perhaps. Nevertheless, when this kind of disorientation persists and a plan doesn’t seem to exist, it becomes a trap. Organisations without clear missions and a sincere, humane relationship with their diverse communities must be feeling an even bigger pressure at this moment. A plan is needed. It’s not an option, though; it’s a must.

In a recent post on Engaging Matters, Doug Borwick asked the question:Do you consider your organization’s deepest responsibility to be to art or to people? I don’t mean what is your mission. (That’s a question for another time.) Rather, in extreme instances, what is most important? If many in your community are hurting, is your focus on art?”

It was a rhetorical question, we know it. Borwick went on:The tendency to focus on art almost exclusively is one reason people outside of the arts view our work as insular, out of touch, and/or irrelevant. In times of crisis, such focus on art comes across as tone deaf.”

This is a fact further explored by Dan Spock on Wunderkammer, when he asked the question: “Museums: essential or non-essential?”. Spock reminds us that in the early 2000s Stephen Weil urged us to make museums matter , to create a reciprocal relationship with “the public”, to be for someone, to have a purpose (or rather purposes). Most of us - museums and cultural organisations in general - have not managed to move much forward, have not worked in that direction. Our discourse  may have changed, no doubt (we talk more about being “with” - and not “for” or “about”), but our practice shows otherwise. In times of crisis, our true priorities become even more obvious: this is mainly about us and our peers, no matter how hard we profess our commitment to people, other people, the society.

This crisis places us before our responsibilities and the sincerity of what we say we wish for. “Whoever imagines first, wins”, wrote “Bifo”. This is the time to do it. This is the time to decide which battles must be won and imagine the way forward.

In the last days, I realised that, slowly, a wishlist is being formed in my head. I'd like to share a first version of it.

Time to work and time to enjoy. Doing less for more, rather than more for the same. In the chapter “Perda” (Loss) from his book “Uma beleza que nos pertence” (A beauty that belongs to us), Father Tolentino Mendonça reminds us that God created the world in six days and on the seventh day he took a rest. “Now the rest is not an appendix or a circumstantial finish of the creation. The rest, this Shabbat, is the moment of joy and contemplation; it is the moment of falling in love and enjoyment; it is the moment of rejoicing.” We need time to contemplate what we do, enjoy and rejoice, together with others.

Regain or start applying the quality of being human and of being humane. As cultural organisations started shutting-down in mid-March, my inbox got full of emails announcing cancellations or postponements. Almost all displayed a formal, factual language. No expression of feelings (God forbid!), no empathy. And then, in the middle of all that repetitive wall of cancellation announcements, an email with the title “A love letter to a caring community”. It was a message from Globe Aroma, a space for the arts in Brussels that brings together immigrants and locals. The letter expressed sadness, concern, confusion. And it clearly stated that the decision to close was not made out of fear, but out of love and care. This is a relationship between people, not between organisations (buildings) and people (see previous posts on this here, here and here).

Care and respect
What kind of values should orientate our work, our practice? John Holden recently wrote that “Post-Covid, the twin pillars of cultural policy should be social justice and environmental concern. Justice starts from within. Care and respect start from within. As big cultural organisations announced to their education staff that they were being dismissed (and MoMA went as far as to inform that  “It will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services), the treasurer of Play on Philly said that this was the moment to support their freelance teaching artists and this would be “an investment in our future [since] they represent the core of what we do.”

Not everyone in a team is good at what they are doing (although, sometimes, it’s only a question of finding a more suitable place for them – and other times it’s just a loss cause). But quite a few people are. And not only are they good; they are interested, informed and dedicated. And, all too often, they are set aside... Being interested, informed and dedicated also means that one has ideas and opinions and wishes to use them (how inconvenient…). Too many people, too many of our colleagues, are trapped in organisations that want nothing from them - that is, apart from silence and obedience. This becomes a collective loss. We need, we depend on, all of them having the conditions to be the best they can. Mediocrity doesn’t make us move forward.

Some cultural organisations are run by charismatic people, who give them a clear, thoughtful direction. However, this is not just a matter of charisma. All organisations should work on their missions, all (all members of their teams) should know what their purpose is, why they do what they do and who for. There is no doubt that, although no one is ever properly prepared for a crisis, although there is always an element of surprise, organisations that were previously informed about their purpose and their way of being have been able to respond in a more sensible, coherent and oriented way.

One last note: some, if not all, of these issues, in order to function as we dream, need knowledgeable, committed, intellectually honest people who will not turn their backs on the small or large conflicts that are always part of any attempt at change. They all require working in a different and, a more demanding way. Do we really bother? It’s that this won’t happen without us.

More on this blog:

What have we got to do with this? Part 1 and Part 2

More readings

François Matarasso, What are we saving and why

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