A Question of Relevance

From Story Act 2, 2017

Maria Vlachou looks at cultural institutions as sites of resistance.

Cultural organisations have claimed for a long time to be ‘safe’ or ‘neutral’ places which do not get involved in politics and welcome everyone. However, more and more voices among culture professionals are questioning what ‘safe’ and ‘neutral’ actually mean. Does it mean that we should favour anodyne and meaningless narratives, afraid of being challenged and criticised for our views? Does ‘safe’ actually mean ‘safe for us’ rather than ‘safe for them’? Could it be that we would rather not bother and be bothered? Does ‘safe’ rather mean ‘easy’?

There is no easy way to deal with life in society. Living in society, finding ways of sharing a common space and acting in it involves tension, and history, art, science reflect this tension. This is why it must also have a place in cultural organisations. However, the question of when and how to take a stand is very pertinent. The danger of getting entangled in partisan politics and personal agendas is real. We do believe, though, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and most cultural organisations’ mission to promote understanding, dialogue, tolerance and respect, as well as much needed critical thinking, can provide the necessary guidance in making decisions. Should cultural organisations wish to remain relevant in people’s lives, can they remain silent in front of social injustices, intolerance, hate and discrimination?

In 2015, a number of US museum professionals and museum bloggers issued the ‘Museums respond to Ferguson’ statement, questioning the role of cultural organisations, museums in particular, in promoting greater cultural and racial understanding. “New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network.” The movement did not manage to involve many museums and questions were raised whether this was not an issue that referred specifically to museums with African American collections or situated in the communities where black people had been shot by police. Was this not a reason for concern for citizens in every American community and everywhere in the world, considering that the US aspires to be the “leader of the free world”?

A major concern among culture professionals is whether taking a stand would alienate many people. Taking a stand isn’t inherently riskier than remaining silent and irrelevant, but it is worth looking at some examples of cultural organisations that have not lost people’s support for assuming their political responsibilities.

When in 2014 the Victoria and Albert Museum presented its new Rapid Response collecting program, curator Corinna Gardner explained: “The Rapid Response gallery is about the museum looking outwards and engaging with topics that are in the news. It's an opportunity to think afresh and respond in a more agile way, rather than just buying more chairs." In that same year, the museum presented the exhibition ‘Disobedient objects’, the first to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change. Other organisations followed suit and it was particularly interesting to see how promptly some museums reacted to Women’s March protests last January, putting out calls for placards, photographs and objects. Glasgow Women’s Library was perhaps the first to receive a pink pussy hat.

In Europe, the House on Fire network brings together, since 2007, 10 theatres and festivals which have pursued an international programming and co-production policy, conscious of the place culture may claim in the public debate about social, environmental and political issues, offering a valid source of knowledge and experience. More recently, political events such as the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election made other theatres and professionals question their role.

In the UK, shortly after the referendum, the National Theatre was embarking on a major project to tell the story of modern Britain. The theatre conducted hundreds of interviews about life in the UK in different cities and towns, conscious, according to its Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, that “part of the rancour, the protest, was about the dominance of metropolitan, London-based voices telling us this is how we do things”, and that the National Theatre was at the heart of this metropolitan elite. "We've got to try to do what little we can to address the complete vote of no confidence in our system", Norris said. "I don't believe 17.5 million people are racists or idiots. I categorically don't. I think we've got to listen." The oral archive created has been the source used by playwrights to create new plays.

On the other side of the Atlantic, it took award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan one week to write Building the Wall.

“We no longer live in a world that is business as usual – Trump has made that very clear – and if theatre is going to remain relevant, we must become faster to respond. We cannot hope to be useful if we can't respond until 18 months after the fact”, Schenkkan said.

The first theatre to present the play was Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, last March. "We had our season in place, with another production planned, but as soon as I read the script I knew we had to move fast”, said Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “It's a raw, passionate warning cry, and I knew we had to be bold and make this statement." Along the same line, Public Theater announced a new discussion series titled ‘Public Forum: A Well-Ordered Nation’, exploring what it means to be responsible citizens during a Donald Trump presidency.

Trump’s election caused many more reactions from cultural organisations. On the weekend right after the election, a number of museums invited people to visit in the hope that “visitors will explore the museum as a great and timely learning resource, especially our newly installed American Art galleries, which embrace an inclusive view of history and recognize the shifting demographics of our richly diverse country” (Brooklyn Museum). More cultural organisations made open statements against the President’s executive order banning citizens, as well as refugees, from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country (MoMA, Davis Museums at Wellesley College, Seattle Symphony Orchestra) or his plans to scrap funding for arts and humanities organisations.

The question is no longer whether cultural organisations should take part in the political discussion. This would be like questioning whether cultural organisations should take part in life. The question is whether they can react with the urgency required by certain events and, most of all, whether they can do it responsibly and efficiently, not with an opportunistic intent, but because they honestly wish to be places where people can come together and discuss, respectfully challenge each other’s views, and reflect on the art of living together in society. Cultural organisations can, and should, be a place to resist barbarism and enjoy humanity.

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Maria Vlachou

Maria Vlachou is a Cultural Management and Communications consultant. Founding member and Executive Director of the association Acesso Cultura. Author of the bilingual blog Musing on Culture, where she writes about culture, the arts, museums, cultural management and communication access. She is the manager of the Facebook group Museum texts / Textos em museus, manager of the Facebook page of ICOM Europe and co-manager of the blog Museums and Migration. In the past, she was Communications Director of São Luiz Municipal Theatre and Head of Communication of Pavilion of Knowledge – Ciência Viva (Lisbon), Board member of ICOM Portugal and editor of its bulletin (2005-2014), and Alumna of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center in Washington (2011-2013). She has a MA in Museum Studies (University College London, 1994) and a BA in History and Archaeology (University of Ioannina, Greece, 1992).

Image Credit: Courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College