Friday 4 September 2020

Are we with the bees or with the wolves?


Tania Bruguera, Marquee from Escuela de Arte Útil, 2017-ongoing. 
Installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, March 2020. 
Photo: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

The Golden Dawn trial started in April 2015. The extreme-right-wing-party, holding at the time 17 seats in the Greek Parliament, was accused of being an organised criminal association which had perpetuated the murder of musician Pavlos Fyssas and the attempted murders of the Egyptian fisherman Abuzeid Ebarak and various members of the communist union PAME. In January 2020, the lawyer of Ebarak, Thanassis Kabagiannis, made his closing statement, saying: “Because on that wild night, it was not only the world of wolves that acted, because those who attacked Pavlos Fyssas were a herd of wolves. The world of bees also acted, emerged, the world of solidarity, of humanity, the world that sees a fallen man, covered in blood, in need, and doesn't say 'look, a stranger', but says 'look, my brother.'”

More and more often, we need to ask ourselves who’s side we are on: the bees’ or the wolves’? And since most of us will probably identify with the bees, we also need to ask: What does it really take to be on that side? Is it enough to be a good, moderate person?

In a recent article, Ricardo Esteves Ribeiro, of the Portuguese independent journalism project Fumaça, reminded us of Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1963 wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

The times we live in demand much more of us than lukewarm reactions, being “moderate” or “reasonable”. Bees have got stingers and know when to use them. People who care should know when and how to use them too.

Both the pandemic and the worldwide rise of the Black Lives Matter movement have raised these and other questions for all of us, both as individual citizens and culture professionals. Brazilian cultural manager Beth Ponte believes that Black Lives Matter, in particular, will prove to be an accelerator for structural changes in the cultural sector (read here). At the same time, she expressed her surprise at Louvre director Jean Luc Martinez’s unwavering disbelief at the ongoing transformations. Is it really a surprise, though, that many people heading cultural organisations are happily living in a world of their own, detached from society, condemning their organisations to an inevitable irrelevance?

Nevertheless, we are fortunate to have people in our field that actually want their organisations to have a leading role and can inspire us.

The Dutch Research Centre for Material Culture is organising a series of debates under the general title “A future where racism has no place”. The first one, “Race, Racism, Antiracism – What can/should museums do?”, took place on 17 August and featured Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, as a special guest.

Back in July, in an interview for The New York Times, Lonnie Bunch had stated once again that museums do have a social justice role to play and added that the challenge is “to help the public feel comfortable with nuance and complexity.” As we are all anxiously looking for answers, wishing the world could be an “easy” black or white, Lonnie Bunch, in his conversation with Wayne Modest, on 17 August, challenged us further: “How do you help your audience embrace ambiguity? Help them be comfortable with debate and not just look for simple answers? Help them deal with complexity and shades of grey?”. The world is not an “easy” black or white, Bunch knows it and we know it. There are very demanding times ahead of us, not just in the US, and Bunch wants his organisation to be “not just a place that reflects the debate, but a place that leads the debate”.  

Deborah Cullinan, the CEO of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, has got a similar vision regarding the role of cultural organisations. In her 2018 article Civic Engagement: Why Cultural Institutions Must Lead, she wrote:

(…) our faltering institutions - of governance, health care, service, finance, and culture - were originally imagined as and made to be the delivery systems for democracy. These institutions are ours to make and remake toward the most perfect version of society that we can imagine together - and today, we must radically reinvent them if we want to make good on the promise of liberty and justice for all.

The promise of justice is a challenge that starts from within, just like many others. In most cultural organisations, theory and practice are a long distance apart. Beautiful words may result in quite ugly actions and the pandemic has made this even more evident.

In this sense, I was particularly touched by the way Deborah Cullinan, in one of her frequent communications with the people in YBCA’s mailing list, announced the elimination of 27 staff positions (more than a third of their staff), due to the impact the pandemic has had on her organisation. It was both the words she used and the decisions made and shared with the wider community. She spoke of the people made redundant as “valued team members” and made the “painful acknowledgement that we are losing members of our YBCA family that have given so much of themselves to create an enduring and indelible legacy at YBCA; she said that they “held off on making these changes as long as our finances would allow”; she made clear that these people will have priority as candidates for future openings at YBCA; she informed that regarding “our remaining, most highly compensated team members, we will be implementing tiered salary reductions between 5  to 12 percent, with the highest reductions at the top level of the organization”; and she reaffirmed that “The priority for YBCA continues to be ensuring that we can execute mission-critical programs and support our arts community, our City, and region as fully as possible.” YBCA has given us another lesson on accountability. For those of us who follow their work, this is an honest stand, one we would have liked to see from so many more cultural organisations.

Two of my references in this text come from the US. They are not the only ones, of course. I have one more and it comes from Portugal. On 25 July 2020, 39-yearl-old actor Bruno Candé was murdered in plain view by Evaristo Marinho, who shouted racist insults. The artistic director of the National Theatre D. Maria II (Lisbon), Tiago Rodrigues, attended the funeral. He wrote on Facebook:

I went because I do theatre and Bruno Candé, my colleague, was brutally prevented from continuing his life in the theatre and outside of it. I went because I am a citizen and I believe that in a less racist Portugal than this one of 2020, Bruno Candé would have had many premieres ahead. I went because I am the artistic director of a national theatre and this is a moment for those who have institutional responsibilities to be present and take a stand. I went with modesty, a stranger for the family, fearing to intrude and they received me with warmth and gratitude. And I only write this so that you may share one of these reasons to be present today, at Largo de São Domingos, in Lisbon, at 6 pm or in the various other vigils that take place between today and tomorrow across the country. Every presence counts.

Are we truly with the bees? It takes courage and humility, qualities which I have always valued and appreciated among those whom I consider to be leaders. But, with the world as it is now, being with the bees also means that we have the ability to show empathy, to push our fears back and show that we care: we care about our teams and colleagues, we care about the people next to us and our multiple communities, we care about the world. Cultural leaders and organisations must lead the way.

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