Monday, 30 June 2014

"Either...or" or simply "and"?

Nicholas Penny, National Gallery director (photo taken from the Guardian) 
Two museum directors in London announced this month that they will be stepping down as soon as their successors are appointed: first, Sandy Nairne from the National Portrait Gallery and then Nicholas Penny from the National Gallery. Two museum directors who are thought to have been very successful in this job.

Although neither has specified some special professional reason for stepping down (at least, my Google search hasn´t brought something up), Guardian´s Jonathan Jones believes the reason might be the increasing pressure on London museum directors due to populist expectations, a media assumption that every exhibition must be a hit and a political belief that galleries should provide not just well-run collections, but entertainment and education for everyone. And he states:

“(…) Are we about to see a new technocrat generation of museum bosses who keep their heads down, put PR first and do all they can to meet goals defined by politicians and the press? (…) That kind of pressure doesn't exactly leave much room to experiment. Museums cannot just be machines for entertaining us. They should have a quieter side where the art comes first, the crowds second and a scholarly side that reveres someone like Penny. This looks depressingly like the end of individuality in the museum world.” (read the article)

It´s getting harder and harder for me to understand why museums are still and constantly faced with dichotomies: objects or people; scholars or technocrats; quietness and reverence or publicity and accessibility. Does it have to be like that? Isn´t it possible to strike a balance? Can´t they be ‘AND’?

When reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s ”Civilizing the museum” a couple of years ago, I remember experiencing a great sense of relief when reaching the chapter “The importance of ‘and’”. She was commenting on the American Association of Museums report Excellence and Equity (a report that was distributed to each and every museum studies student in 1993 at UCL, where I was studying). One reads:

“(...) This report made a concerted attempt to accept the two major ideas proposed by factions within the field – equity and excellence – as equal and without priority.” Further down: “(...) for the museum field to go forward, we must do more than make political peace by linking words. We must believe in what we have written, namely that complex organizations must and should espouse the coexistance of more than one primary mission.” And also: “It has occurred to me that perhaps my whole career was metaphorically about ‘and’.”  

We must believe in what we have written, that´s one point. And the other point is probably that we must go ahead and do what we write or talk about. Because it´s not impossible to do it. Who´s the best person for the job? Can it be one person only? Would teams which involve professionals with different sensibilities manage to reach multiple objectives in a more balanced way? Are we trying to set up this kind of teams? Is everyone heard equally?

“Publicity and accessibility are everything”, Jonathan Jones writes in a negatively critical tone in his article. Publicity might not be everything, but accessibility certainly is. Museums are for anyone who might be interested in them, but not all people approach their contents with the same level of knowledge or interest and with the same kind of needs. It´s a hard job, indeed, but, should museums wish to fulfill their mission, they need to have a quieter side and they need to have a celebration side. They need to please those who know and they need to enchant those who don´t know as much or who know nothing. It was as early as 1853 that British naturalist Edward Forbes wrote: “Curators may be prodigies of learning and yet unfit for their posts if they don´t know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing.” Those people matter too. Those people might matter even more.

As I write about these dichotomies, one more need emerges for me as a professional, but as a citizen too. I would like to hear the voices of those responsible for managing our museums (and cultural organizations in general) regarding these issues. I would like to hear clear statements, I woud like to feel there is a vision behind them. I would like to know on what kind of plan I may base my criticism. Jonathan Jones is concerned about technocrats who keep their heads down, I am concerned about directors (museum, theatre, orchestra, library directors) who keep their mouths shut. I was in a debate some time ago where someone said “Fortunately, I was never asked to take up positions of directorship and that means I have always been able to say what I think.” Is this fortunate? Isn´t it profoundly worrying?

There is no doubt that there is a great difficulty in dealing with managers or directors with an opinion. In this kind of democracy of ours, someone who takes a certain position is expected to show a kind of ‘loyalty’ that stops him/her from publicly sharing their views (especially when contrary to a government´s positions). I am not defending that each and every issue, each and every disagreement, should be dealt with in public. Nevertheless, there are issues that concern us all. When the State appoints certain people to certain positions, I would like to know what´s expected of them. Once those certain people accept the job, I would like to know what they aim to do and how they plan to go about reaching the objectives. And if they feel that they are not given the conditions to do their job well or if they don´t feel they are up to what´s expected of them, I wish to know about that too. When two museum directors (in London or elsewhere) announce within two weeks from each other that they are leaving, I would like to understand why. When other museum directors (in London or elswhere), keep on staying despite the state of the affairs, I would also like to understand what´s keeping them.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Old friends, new friends

Seattle Symphony Orchestra with Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Some cultural organizations are interested in evaluating their programming and the ways they package and prmote it, aiming at diversifying their audiences. On the one hand, this is a necessary step towards accomplishing their mission. On the other hand, it is also a question of survival: how long will they exist for if they don´t manage to renew their relationship with people?

When the issue is the diversification of audiences, a certain concern usually emerges: and what if, by trying to establish a relationship with new people, we alienate our old friends, those who have followed and supported us for a long time?

When this question arises, two examples come to mind.

Starting in the US, and now also in Britain and Australia, theatres promote the so-called “relaxed sessions”. They were first introduced to allow families with autistic children to enjoy a play together, as a family. Lights and sound are regulated, absolute silence is not required, people are allowed to leave the room in the middle of the play. Small adaptations which ultimately make these sessions accessible also for parents with younger children, people with mental disabilities and their carers, people who are new to a space or art form, etc. Relaxed sessions are clearly advertised, not only with the aim to promote the offer, but also to inform other people that these sessions will present slight changes to the usual presentations. Thus, the latter may choose to attend them or opt for another day.

The issue is somehow the same when it comes to popular museums or blockbuster exhibitions which attract large number of audiences, many people being first comers. Queues, lots of people in front of the artworks, photos being taken, loud conversations, a constant buzz. Not exactly some museum lovers´ cup of tea. What to do? Apart from controlling the number of visitors through the online issuing of tickets for specific time slots, maybe also let people know when things might be calmer, allowing for a different kind of experience? Like early in the morning and, especially, late in the afternoon; during late night openings; in some cases, at lunch time; in the middle of the week; on beautiful days rather than rainy days? A number of museums and travel guides are already giving this kind of tips.

I guess the real issue here is: is there only one way, some people´s way, of enjoying an exhibition, a play, a concert? Is there a ‘correct way’ of doing it? Does this offer belong only to a specific kind of audience? Are we really sending old friends away by trying to make new ones?

I would like to stress at this point that I am not suggesting altering an organization´s mission or product in order to establish new relationships. A different product would mean a different organization, a different mission and a different relationship, not the one we are concerned about. This means – in order to give a recent example - that when the Seattle Symphony Orchestra boasts of holding a unique place in the world of symphonic music since 1903, its concert with Sir Mix-a-Lot, altough it seems to have been fun, does nothing special towards fostering a relationship with new people for the love, understanding and enjoyment of symphonic music. The orchestra is simply moving into a different territory in order to bring more (and different) people in - although we have to take into consideration the fact that the lady who seems to have enjoyed the concert the most declared that she was thinking of returning and had got the orchestra´s schedule – she will return for what, though?) - read the article in the New York Times.


The cultural offer is not the property of certain audiences, does not belong to a restricted number of people. It belongs to everyone interested and also to everyone that could be interested but hasn´t had the chance to taste it. Thus, I believe that cultural organizations can and should provide for more than one type of audience and by this I mean that they can look for different ways of presenting a specific product. Sometimes, it might not be possible to do this simultaneously, pleasing everyone at the same time; but it´s possible to do it separately so that everyone may find what they are looking for. Other times, it might bring together old and new friends, allowing each side to possibly discover new aspects of what they thought was known to them.


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