Monday, 28 February 2011

Changes: are we paying enough attention?

One cannot exhaust a subject in one post. Actually, one needs some discipline in order not to turn a simple post into a long treaty. Many things are left to say, to analyse, to explain better. The task becomes more stimulating when we are able to exchange thoughts with other people. This blog has not become a platform of public discussion yet, but in private I have already received, on a number of occasions, the feedback of friends, as well as of people I do not know personally.

This is what happened with the post on new audiences. It poured down questions, as well as arguments. Why is culture important today? How does it relate to society, to life, to a city? Is talking about new audiences just a fashion? Why should someone go to the theatre? Is live experience more valuable than home consumption? Is a person that does not attend live performances less cultured? What can surprise an audience that is not used to ateending performances? What is the programme that can motivate people to go to the theatre?

I shall not try to answer here each one of these questions. I shall try to pick up from where I left it in the post on new audiences, that has a lot to do with these and other issues. And I hope this will bring up more questions and debate. Who knows, maybe in public.

The existence of museums, galleries, theatres and cultural centres would not make sense if there were no audiences. These are places of encounter among artists and people. They are places of incitement, dialogue, confrontation, emotions; places of discovery, learning, enjoyment. They are also places where people go of their own free will and not because they are obliged to; and they are also free to like the experience or not, to come back or not. The concern to create access to these experiences for an ever growing number of people has to do with their mission, with the reason they exist; but it is also e necessity.

The enjoyment of the arts is a right of the people. Our institutions are at the service of this right. They exist not only for those who have the habit of attending, but also for those who don´t have it, either because they prefer other forms of cultural participation or because this kind of participation was never a part of their lives, so they don´t know it or they don´t consider it relevant. Building bridges, talking with people, getting to know them better, showing them what we have to offer, trying to adapt it to different needs and levels of knowledge are some of the ways through which cultural institutions seek to fulfil their mission. On the other hand, it is also a necessity. If we are not concerned about renewing, enlarging and differentiating our audiences, we are going to stagnate. We shall be all working for the same people and there will be a moment, if it isn´t here already, that offer will be greater than demand. There will be not enough audiences for all the performances, exhibitions, concerts and other events we produce.

There are not more or less legitimate ways of enjoying and creating art and culture. People are free to choose the ones that better respond to their needs and interests. But we are in the live experience ‘business’, we believe in its value, we want to keep it alive, we work so that people can enjoy it. However, the way we have been doing it still shows a certain detachment and ignorance regarding ‘the other’. We take up the role of the only and absolute gatekeepers of ‘true culture’, the culture of quality and value. Many of us are still happy to be working with and for the “few, but good ones”, those who understand, who have been initiated; and those #2few, but good ones" enjoy this status, as well, and quite often they react negatively to any attempt on the part of the institution to open up, they react to what they consider popularization and dumbing down. On the other hand, there are also many of us who advocate ‘access’, but access to what we define as valid culture. But what if we tried to get to know better the communities in which we are inserted? What if we opened up our spaces (which are also theirs), involving them, creating comfort (physical, psychological and intellectual) and a feeling of belonging? What if we programmed together with them? What if the artists were them?

I recently read two very inspiring texts, which call for culture professionals to pay attention to the changes that have taken place in the forms of cultural participation and their impact on our institutions. John Holden, in Culture and Class, and Diane Ragsdale, in The Excellence Barrier, talk about the urgency, importance and necessity to look outwards; to try to understand the habits, tastes and expectations of the communities we aim to serve; to try to create a relationship with them, making our offer more relevant to their lives, creating demand together with them.

John Holden defends in his text a neo-cosmopolitan attitude, as opposed to the attitude of the cultural snobs (who embrace just certain forms of artistic expression and try to condition access to them) and the cultural neo-mandarins (we wish to share their enthusiasm, who advocate access for all, but want to be the ones who define what constitutes quality culture). “The new cosmopolitanism”, says Holden, “involves action, production and participation. Whereas the old cosmopolitan felt at home in the elite cultures of different cities, the new cosmopolitan is at ease with different cultures in her own city”. Thus, he defends an eclectic attitude, that seeks to open up the definition of what quality culture is to different forms of artistic expression, and not just to those traditionally associated to the so-called “high culture”, thecreation and enjoyment of which involves today various means (especially those made available on the internet) and places (including our own homes).

Diane Ragsdale presents an interesting and amusing analogy to the slow food movement, in response to fast food, which adopted three strategies: the defense of biodiversity in the enjoyment of excellent food; 2. taste education so that people could re-discover the joy of eating, the interest in knowing where the food came from, who did it and how; 3. linking producers with consumers, in the fairs, markets and other special events. In a ‘slow arts’ movement, our cultural institutions would understand that they are only a part of the making of art and culture; they would encourage participation and involvement of all people; they would make available the means and tools that would allow to demystify the experience; they would create social networks in which new participants would feel integrated and comfortable; they would know the community in which they are inserted and they would seek to propose a culturally relevant programme; they would be concerned with their impact on people´s lives, and seek to achieve both excellence and equity; and they would permanently pay attention to the changes that take place around them. “To attract and retain new audiences, arts organizations may need to stop selling excellence and start brokering relationships between people and art(ists).”

More food for thought for our thinking on cultural enjoyment and new audiences. Which we don´t exhaust here.



Note
Happy coincidence: The New York Times published yesterday an article on the director of Lehman Center in Bronx, New York, Eva Bornstein. The title is Bridging Cultures Onstage.




















Monday, 21 February 2011

Museums: new churches?

Recently, in his programme A Point of View on BBC Radio 4, Alain de Botton talked about museums. More specifically, he was asking why museums are so uninspiring (the full text of the programme is available here).

De Botton compares museums to churches and identifies some similarities: they both enjoy an unparalleled status; they are spaces where we would take a group of foreigners to show them what delights us and what we revere; we wander around museum galleries with the same sort of quiet reverence as we manifest in churches.

And this is where similarities end for De Botton. He considers that religions give people the orientation they need, not only the tools to develop a critical thinking; and they use religious art as a means to inspire us to faith, to remind us to be healthy-minded, good and godly people. “Christianity”, says De Botton, “never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for. (...) Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like. Look at that painting of the cross if you want a quick lesson in courage. Look at that Last Supper and train yourself not to be a coward and a liar.”

Contrary to churches, says Alain de Botton, museums are notoriously incapable of establishing a connection between the objects they hold and the needs of our soul. They present them in an academic way that fails to engage with the real potential of art, which is to change us for the better. Instead of neutral labels, they should put beneath each picture a set of commands telling us “look at this image and remember to be patient” or “use this sculpture to mediate on what you could do to bring about a fairer world”. And he concludes: “Curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live: to achieve self-knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever troubled species and its urgently imperilled planet. Only then will museums be able to claim that they have properly fulfilled the noble, but still elusive, ambition of becoming our new churches.”

I confess, I hadn´t read something so uninspiring about the role museums and art can play in our lives for a long time. Something so patronizing, so limiting. Something that even reveals a certain ignorance regarding the mission museums themselves have taken on in society and which many (no, not all...) have managed to put into excellent practice.

Following September 11, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York registered an increase in visitor numbers. The terrorist attack had taken its toll in tourism, but many New Yorkers looked for shelter in that museum. They looked for beauty, peace; they looked for their ‘humanity’. And they didn´t find it because labels gave them instructions to find the way. They found it in their direct contact with art in a safe place.

It is true, though, that not all art speaks for itself to all of us. My frustration is huge in many contemporary art exhibitions, from where I come out the same as when I walked in, because I don´t know how to appreciate it, while those who do are not worried about helping me to discover it. But I can also remember of how much my experience was ‘enhanced’ when visiting certain exhibitions, which I could have simply enjoyed without ‘extra help’, but where museums were able to present the contexts around the creation of the works and the artists themselves, a work that goes beyond writing labels that indicate the title of the work, date and materials used.


I´ll never forget the experience of visiting the Gwen John and Augustus John exhibition at Tate Britain in 2004. I knew nothing about the two siblings up to then. And I would have probably liked their work anyway. Nevertheless, what made the experience unforgettable was the whole story the museum told me about them: about their childhood, their love affairs, their family and friends, their relationship with other artists and with their time. There were photos, books, personal letters that helped the works of art gain a different dimension in my mind and in my heart, without them losing one bit of their artistic value.


And I shall also never forget the way the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza revealed to me (through the simple exhibition of works side by side and with short texts, using a language accessible to all those lacking a degree in art history or a similar science) the way Amedeo Modigliani developed his personal artistic style and the influence of his contemporaries. Thus, what reminded me in the beginning of Cézanne, Picasso, Brancusi, an african sculpture, slowly got transformed, in front of my very own eyes, into a Modigliani and Modigliani alone. It was the exhibition Modigliani and his time in 2008.


Alain de Botton is right about one thing: probably the majority of museums don´t know how to tell a story. Not only art museums (to which De Botton confines his analysis, maybe because for him, like for many others, ‘museums’ means ‘art museums’), but also history, natural history, social history, science and technology museums. But there are already many - many indeed - those that understand the importance of interpretation for the general public. Those that recognize that not everybody knows or is supposed to know everything. Nevertheless, they are not aiming at telling me what I should or should not feel, what I should or should not think. This is between me, the visitor, and the work of art / the object. This is not up to any curator or museum educator. This is not a forced or directed relationship. And it´s even legitimate that a relationship doesn´t come to exist at all. The visitor will not be less intelligent, less of a good person because of that or the work of art less valuable.

I don´t know who told Alain de Botton that museums aim to be our new churches. And, frankly, I doubt whether religions themselves, or at least their most illuminated and inspired priests, aim to assume the role De Botton described in his radio programme. The most intelligent mediators, those who know how to do their job best, are not the ones giving us the answers. They are those who know how to help us look for them.

 

Note
Charlotte Higgins commented on Alain de Botton´s ideas in the Guardian, in her article Museums: bland, academic and failing to speak to our souls?  . Although I disagree with some of the points she´s made (in what concerns the main role of museums or the relevance of the methods of interpretation used by modern museology), in general terms I agree with her arguments.

Still regarding museums-churches, I suggest reading two texts on the decision of Musée d´Orsay to prohibit taking photographs in the museum: La carte postale contre le téléphone portable e La photo au musée, ou l’appropriation. I thank MP for these references.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Talking about 'new' audiences...

Very frequently, we hear those responsible for cultural institutions talking about ‘new audiences’, their ‘creation’ (in the english-speaking world it´s called ‘development’), about ‘doors open to all’. I´ve been thinking about what this means in practice. ‘New’ meaning young or ‘new’ because they might be coming for the first time? They are ‘created’ because they didn´t exist before? We open the doors and wait for them to come?

I feel that in many cases ‘new’ mainly means ‘more’. More of the same. An effort to bring more people to our exhibitions, shows and activities, people whose socio-demographic profile, though, is not far from the usual. Because if we wanted it to be different, our work would have to be something more than simply reinforcing the promotion and publicity of our offer; it would have to be a joint effort on various fronts.

Cultural participation, let´s call it like this, takes various forms and develops at different levels of involvement:

1st level through the media, such as TV, radio, DVDs, CDs, the Internet.

2nd level attending live events, such as theatre or opera plays, concerts, visiting exhibitions and participating in activities that complement these activities, such as conferences, debates, educational programmes, etc.

3rd level through greater personal involvement in what concerns cultural /artistic practice, as it happens with amateur artists, volunteers in cultural institutions, board members, etc.

Having said that, we may conclude that the big majority of people do participate, one way or another, in cultural experiences. So, they are not exactly non-audiences. At the same time, the big majority prefers to - or is obliged to -participate from a distance. One of the challenges for culture professionals it to manage to convince more and more people to consider ‘changing levels’ and to have the chance to do so, should they wish to. ‘Changing levels’ not because one form of participation is more valid than the other, but because the experience, when crossing from level 1 to 2 or 3, may be more profound, enriching, liberating. And also because it can bring about a different and better understanding between the professionals and the public.

We do not lack today studies and reports on cultural participation, on the motivations and expectations of people when choosing one form of participation or another. Or none. (The links to some of my most recent readings are listed at the end of this post). Respecting everybody´s choices of participation, but wishing to promote and facilitate ‘the changing of levels’, I thought about what ‘new audiences’ can actually mean, after all, and how it can affect our work.

Enlarging existing audiences is one part of our work. ‘New’ in this case would mean ‘more’; more people among those with a predisposition for the consumption of culture, but who very often stay away for practical reasons: lack of information, problems in what concerns access/parking, opening hours / timetables, presence of young children in the family, etc. Issues related to styles of life, which we need to understand better in order to look for answers, and be able to facilitate the participation of those interested. This is about eliminating practical barriers, really.

But ‘new’ can and should also mean ‘different’. Another part of our work should be about diversifying audiences, making an effort to reach those people whose socio-demographic profile and habits of cultural participation (or lack of them) keep them away from our premises. In this case, barriers are not practical, they are mental and psychological, resulting from lack of previous experience, knowledge and practices. In these cases we usually speak about ‘creating’ (developing) new audiences. If we take a look at the various forms of cultural participation, though, we cannot exactly say they did not exist before. They are not ‘our’ audiences, they are not consumers of our offer. Our aim is to create the conditions for them to be able to taste it: raising curiosity, showing its relevance to them, making it somehow tangible, creating confort (mainly psychological), well, building bridges, as Donna Walker-Kuhne would put it. In many cases, we will have to open the doors; not only for them to come in, but also for us to go out, to leave our confort zone and go to meet them.

Still, another part of our work is about deepening the experience, in the sense of a greater involvement, with both cultural and social aspects: involving or training amateur artists, integrating volunteers in the teams, involving members of the public in the programming, including non- professionals in the boards, attracting sponsors, etc. ‘New’ in this case would mean... ‘in a new role’? Yes, I believe we can say that.

The work of ‘creating' (developing) new audiences in culture is mainly associated to education and communications (that is, when ‘new’ doesn´t mean ‘children and teenagers’ and when we do not consider this to be the responsibility of schools...). Nevertheless, if we could just leave aside the idea of ‘creation’ and concentrated on that of ‘building bridges’, I believe it becomes obvious that this is a work that involves the whole institution, and in particular the joint effort of programming, education and communications.

These three objectives – enlarging, diversifying and deepening – make sense in our work; somehow, they are an obligation we must take on. They make sense, but they also give it a sense. Among the three, the one that most appeals to me, that motivates and touches me the most, is the second. When four years ago São Luiz had its first theatre session with interpretation in portuguese sign language, the television interviewed a deaf lady when leaving the theatre, visibly emotional. She had just seen Moby Dick. “I am 74 years old”, she said. “It´s the first time I came to the theatre. Why?”.

That´s what it´s all about.


Readings

Holden, J. (2010). Culture and Class. Counterpoint

McCarthy, K.F. and Jinnett, K. (2007). A new framework for building participation in the arts. RAND

National Endowment for the Arts (2009). 2008 survey of public participation in the arts.


Walker, C., Scott-Melnyk, S. and Sherwood, K. (2002). From Reggae to Rachmaninoff, How and why people participate in arts and culture. Urban Institute

Walker-Kuhne, D. (2005). Invitation to the party: building bridges to the arts, culture and community. Theatre Communications Group

Wallace Foundation (2009). Engaging audiences.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Where is everybody?

Rocco Landesman (Photo: Arts Marketing blog)
I´ve been following with great interest the debate provoked in the USA by Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). On January 26 Landesman attended the presentation of the seven projects selected by the initiative New Play Development Program. In his speech (that may be seen here), he referred to the decrease in arts audiences (5%) and the increase in not-fot-profit arts organizations (23%), and said: “There is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously. (…) You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply”.

It was these words that triggered an immediate and passionate discussion in the american social media and newspapers. A few days later, with the controversy at its peak, Landesman went back to this issue in the NEA blog, taking the opportunity to better explain his point (read here). He clarified that a decrease in supply was a possibility, but it shoundn´t be the only possibility on the table. Other points that could be considered:

1. Increase arts education, because this is one of the main guarantees in future audience building;

2. Consider related demand, in order to make the supply more relevant;

3. Offer free samples, for example through the broadcasting of shows on the outside of the buildings;

4. Take advantage of new technologies, since research indicates that people who ‘consume’ art via the Internet or electronic media are nearly three times as likely to attend live events, that they attend a greater number and a greater variety of events;

5. Examine the infrastructure and try to make it less institutionalized, in order to bring more creativity to more audiences more often and even be able to pay the artists more.

Rocco Landesman believes that they are there to ensure the survival of the most creative and most dynamic.

At the end of this post, you will find a series of articles and posts that have been published in response to Landesman´s remarks, words of support, but also of total and ferocious disagreement. My intention, though, is not to comment on those, but on the debate itself.

We could say that Rocco Landesman is the equivalent of the Director-General for the Arts in Portugal. I think it is extremely important that he´s the one who, through his provocative and controversial remarks, has triggered, encouraged and fed this debate, wishing that the NEA played a role in the conversations.

On the other hand, I admire and I envy the involvement of various culture professionals, more or less known, in this discussion and its intensity. It makes me think of our reality. Of the fact that it doesn´t exist a permanent debate on issues that are permanent themselves, bur rather reactions – at times intense, but almost always brief – to ministerial announcements.

At present, who is actively and constructively debating culture funding? Studying foreign models and their possible adaptation or making concrete proposals prepared locally? Who is supposed to provoke the debate, create working groups, bring together and analyze ideas and opinions, prepare proposals? Are previously published and/or publicly shared opinions and suggestions being put to use? Why do voices become silent almost as suddenly as they are heard? And what does this mean: resignation, forgetfulness, conformism, tiredness, lack of hope? The crisis, I said in a previous post, may and should be an opportunity. But if we lay back and wait for the intervention of a Deus ex machine, I am sure that in twenty years from now we´ll be exactly where we are today.


The debate in the USA
You´re mad - What are you going to do about it?, Arts Marketing
Dear Rocco Landesman, We Don't Want Your Theater Death Panels, Arts Dispatch
Landesman Comments on Theater, The New York Times
Fighting Words from Rocco Landesman, Arena Stage Blog
On Rocco Landesman, Theatre Ideas

Dear Rocco, 2AMT
The fewer, the thinner, The Artful Manager
Theater talkback: What Rocco Landesman should speak about next, The New York Times
Which demand is which, Mission Paradox

Also
Overstocked arts pond: fich too big and fish too many, Jumper