In Madrid from 12-16 September 2016, European research teams from universities, museums and community organizations met at the conference Art, Cultural Mediation and Diversity. Divercity: diversity in the musem and the city.
This week-long conference has two parts to it. Panels of speakers show images and videos and speak of their work. The conference also includes participative sessions, where instead of a more formal, seated, exchange of knowledge and examples, we take part in activities such as those one might do with a museum, a school, a social refuge, or a cultural centre. Alongside people from all corners of Europe, who work in places from prestigious museums to women’s refuges, we explored personal connections to public art, practiced methods to encourage empathy, and improvised creative responses to confront stereotypes.
I don’t know if I would have thought of it had I been involved in planning a conference on this topic, but it seems obvious in retrospect that a stencil workshop is a great thing to offer. I enjoyed all talks and activities, but I really went into that wonderful flow mode while making my stencil.
My stencil work, with a Janus head intended to be turned upside down.
Urban guerrilla warfare was not the aim of the workshop, but by showing how to draw, cut and spray a piece of stencil art, the seeds are planted for us to contemplate inserting stenciled image-messages into cities. I don’t feel any desperate need ‘to be heard’ by the city, so personally I’m not planning to spray my thoughts on brick walls just yet. Instead, I went for the wearables market, and sprayed my message on a shopping bag. Thus, my message will be advertised from my person, as and when I choose to silently shout out in the public sphere.
The making of Death of the Arteacher, by Cristina Nualart.
Death of the Arteacher is the little sentence I came up with to sum up a lot of the ideas churning in my head as I reflect on art education, something that for years I’ve been involved with in multifaceted ways. I reference Barthes’ Death of the Author, with its suggestions that readers (or by implication, viewers) have agency in a meaning-making process. My message also comments on some stereotypes that weight on art educators, unfairly assumed, sometimes, to be not very skilled/talented/’useful’, either by ‘professional’ artists or by the public at large. (In a future blog post I will cover some funny anecdotes from my personal experiences).
An important overarching fact that transpires from the conference presentations is that institutions, in this case mostly art museums, are continuously reaching out to NGOs and grass roots or social organizations to get ‘diverse’ people involved in their activities. There is clearly an institutional drive to look for people who may be at risk of social exclusion and to set up initiatives specifically for these people to take part in. Many of the conference speakers were constantly improving and/or questioning their review systems and ways of evaluating their work and getting feedback to help ascertain the impact it may have had.
Social change is often a slow process, and no one is deluded that any cultural project is going to make radical improvements to the social fabric, but the feeling amongst conference participants is that these small changes that are activated by one person doing something in collaboration with a museum’s education department will bring long term benefits to that person and those in their circle. If the start of social change is merely that the elitist aura that hangs over museums is dispersing, that alone, we can imagine, is going to improve the world a little bit.
Another commonality is that large institutions are increasingly reaching out, working outside of the museum walls and taking their staff to the periphery of the city, or simply working in a public space which may be perceived as ‘neutral’ or has a connection to the participants of a project.
No institution works in vacuum; ideas cross-pollinate; museums and schools feed off each other. Given that museums seem to be increasingly developing similar projects to those offered by schools and other education providers, the question that I reflect on is what is the role of the museum, beyond the obviously great work of making art less ‘scary’ and more inclusive. I ask myself if museums shouldn’t be aiming to create situations where the various canons and power structures of the museum itself are questioned. In no way wishing to demean the value of any educational programme in a museum, my question did raise a few feathers among some panelists, but one beautiful answer was simple: that is the next step, but first we do we need to get people from all sectors of society comfortable enough with art and museums that such a question can be debated. We shall all keep working and reflecting on this!
YouTube channel on one of the feminist research projects: Madrid Ciudad de las Mujeres
The Divercity word play reminds me of DomestiCity, my photo essay on domestic use of public space Vietnam (and some unusual examples of domestic work in private spaces).