The symposium marked the end of a four year programme supporting the development of outreach programmes in Swiss cultural institutions. The lively day was oversubscribed and included valuable contributions from Lois Hetland (on arts education research), Janna Graham (on the Serpentine Gallery’s education programmes) and Christoph Deeg, (on new media and outreach), among others.
Francois Matarasso’s contribution can be downloaded here as a PDF.
Excerpt of his blog post:
“The development of outreach programmes—the wide range of activities by which publicly funded cultural institutions seek to reach new audiences—is an important aspect of post-war European cultural policy. It is usually described within a concept of democratisation, in which cultural services are designated a public good, like education and health services that the state should provide to its citizens. The good reason for cultural institutions to extend access to their offer is the belief that the art they care for or create is an enriching human experience, which is true. The less admirable reasons are to secure greater political legitimacy for activities used mainly by a small and privileged part of a society or to promote unquestioned acceptance of elite forms and values. In other words, to use art as a form of state-controlled social instruction.
Whether these justifications for outreach programmes bear much relation to the experiences participants actually get from them is another question. The people who are—in the violent metaphor often used by cultural institutions—‘targeted’ by such initiatives are autonomous human beings, actively engaged in forming their own sense, taste, values, ideas and judgements. They are not passive blanks onto which cultural agents can stamp their impressions. Each of us responds to an artistic experience differently. Our character, past experience, present feelings, education, social position, age—these and many other things that make each of us unique, determine how we respond to experience.
Art offers powerful, complex experiences whose effects we cannot fully understand even in ourselves, still less in other people. Crucially, those experiences are particular to ourselves. An artist creates a work of art. A spectator, reader, listener or participant recreates it through the filter of their own selves in the auditorium of their own mind. But what the spectator, reader, listener or participant recreates is not what was in the artist’s mind, only something new that is enabled by the work of art. That is why no two people have ever read the same book. That is why people can have such violently different reactions to a film , a play or a concert. That is why people can have a fine musical sensibility and manage a concentration camp.
This is a fundamental problem to politicians who like to believe that their policies and spending decisions are based on reason and evidence. Seeing, as they increasingly do, that art has an important place in people’s lives and that it can also lead to positive changes, they have turned to evaluation both to reassure them about something they do not really understand and to give them more power over how it is used. They have used scientific method as the most politically legitimate knowledge system, but without asking how appropriate it is to understanding arts practice and experience. In fact, since people’s experience of art are essentially individual, it is all but impossible to meet the first criteria of scientific method, namely that experiments should be replicable and lead to the same results, in assessing arts programmes.
Where does this leave us? First, and most simply, it seems evident to me that cultural institutions financed through public taxation have an underlying responsibility to ensure the widest possible access to their work by those who pay for it. That seems straightforward enough: in the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right freely to participate in the culture of the community and to enjoy the arts. On that level, no further justification of outreach programmes should be required.”
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