CONECTA conference 2019: report from the BCU research team

14.05.2019 by Jerome Turner

Keywords: CONECTA, conference, recap, Research

This report comes from Dr Dave Harte, Associate Professor in Journalism and Media Studies, Birmingham City University, and a colleague of Prof. Paul Long and Dr Jerome Turner who are more permanent members of the smARTplaces research and evaluation team. 

The second conference of the smARTplaces project took place on 14th and 15th of March 2019 at the Etopia Center for Arts & Technology in Zaragoza. The event brought together academics, artists, curators, cultural workers and managers to ask critical questions about developing audiences for art and culture in a dynamic digital era.

As an attendee of the conference and an observer of the project, this review offers some reflections on the presentations and debates that took place over the two days and sets out some further thoughts on how the smARTplaces project might take forward the issues raised during the event and task itself with ensuring the project achieves its intended impacts.

‘Translating’ culture for partners and audiences, offline and online

The first day began with a conversation between Digital Identities founder, Abhay Adhikari, and Cleo Schoeps, an art historian whose work for global financial services company UBS involves developing sponsorship partnerships between the company and arts organisations. She described herself as something of a ‘translator’, creating mutually beneficial opportunities for both parties. Cleo argued that a lot of cultural institutions have little idea of what they are looking for and tend to rather randomly ask corporates to support them without articulating clearly what they want to achieve.

Cleo identified that the key focus for cultural organisations should be on ensuring they share values with the corporate partner they seek to work with. After all, the partner “wants a bit of your content that they want to share”. She was refreshingly critical of firms that engage with the cultural sector as a form of ‘art-washing’, seeking to use the arts to gloss over their corporate indiscretions.

Whilst collections might be mediated as “content marketing” by corporate partners, the majority of conference speakers were more concerned with ensuring audiences were connected physically or virtually to collections and were empowered to bring their own cultural perspectives to them.

Javier Sainz de los Terreros from the Museo Nacional del Prado saw the opportunity in social media to open up the museum to everybody through the creation of specialist video content, placing expertise from the museum into social media. He wanted users to acquire the habit of engaging with the museum through social networking, a space he recognised as highly competitive but where the museum has a chance to “humanise the technology”.

Javier noted how social media offered detailed analytics of audience engagement, something that Sonia Sin from Zaragoza City Council used to demonstrate that the shift from more traditional communication channels has tangible impact in improved physical participation in culture. ‘Big data’ enabled her to fulfill her ambition to “democratise culture” through a holistic social media campaign of ‘Zaragoza is culture’.

Inevitably, discussions of the role of digital technologies were a core element of the conference’s agenda. Dick Van Dijk, Creative Director at Waag, reminded us that we have to understand our guiding values in developing technology. He showed examples of how augmented reality technologies can be used in a creative way within the museum and gallery, helping to put ‘emotions’ into heritage and culture.

Martin Adam, from Menschortweb Mobile Solutions guided through the issues in developing apps for cultural mediation and also highlighted augmented reality examples, this time from outside the museum, bringing heritage to life on the streets. Abhay Adhikari launched the project’s Cultural Engagement Manifesto, seeking to de-mystify the digital by shining a spotlight on the work that cultural organisations are doing at a human scale.

Bringing culture to communities

There were also examples of projects focused on bringing art to the places where publics are. Laure Dalon from Musée de Picardie in Amiens is bringing the museum to the people by way of a ‘cabinet of curiosity’ placed in local high school. François Lajuzan, Director General of Culture in Toulouse, offered up many examples of “participatory artistic projects” within communities, focusing on cultural forms that he argued need mediation in order to improve their appreciation: “In France, we have made a success of cultural mediation but it’s always the same people who come. If people won’t come to us, we go to the people.”

The theme of co-creation and participation recurred throughout the conference with Giada Calvano from University of Barcelona discussing the co-creative and participatory aims of the Be SpectACTive project on the conference’s second day.

However, when it comes to developing audiences through community building activities, Sharna Jackson, Artistic Director of the Site Gallery in Sheffield, UK, made clear that sustaining participation requires a lot of work: “Don’t do them unless you really have to”. Sharna had valuable lessons for arts educators and mediators, learnt from her experience of creating digital activities with children. Critical to her success was building the right partnerships (such as with schools) to help increase your influence and, in what was becoming a second key theme at the conference, to “go to where they are”.

Further examples of innovative working with young people came via a panel discussion: ‘What it is to be young, culture and participation with teenagers’. From camping within the Dortmunder U, to creating spaces that teenagers can work outside norms of the museum at CA2M in Madrid. These were useful critical examples of how to see young people as partners rather than audiences that asks us to move away from established knowledge hierarchies.

Precarious mediation

In hearing about the various inspiring examples of good practice in cultural mediation it was appropriate that the conference would take time to reflect on the nature of such work, via an excellent panel chaired by arts educator, Pepa Enrique. The Association of Cultural Mediators of Madrid (AMECUM), represented here by Ana Folguera, are clear that there is a need to fight against precarious working conditions for cultural mediators. They organise networking events and have developed a code of good practice for cultural mediation.

Ana saw it as vital to engage with critical research on cultural mediation, as did David Lanau from Pedagogías Invisibles, who moved from academia to ‘action’ in an attempt to create projects which impact on policy and society. Jordi Ferreiro, an independent artist and mediator, talked candidly about his frustrations with impact measurements that were too often quantitative in nature and which fail to capture the richness and complexity of the mediator’s role in cultural organisations.

The panel agreed that low salaries and precarious working conditions need to be addressed. Mediation needs to be integrated into the institution in a way that it isn’t currently, they argued. It is often outsourced and should instead be earmarked as part of the cultural organisation’s budget for education. Cultural mediators are too often not consulted as exhibitions are developed but are hired afterwards. From the outset, the panel agreed, there should be closer working between the curator and artist.

Inclusive and accessible culture

The conference’s second day began with a call from Marleen Hartjes, of Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, to ensure that museums are accessible spaces. Not just accessible in physical terms, but also open to new perspectives being brought to collections. Marleen’s intention is for the museum to become ‘open source’, allowing new audiences to re-work and rethink culture from their own perspectives. The ‘Werksalon’ project is explicit in its aim to move away from mediation that only tells stories from privileged perspectives.

This theme of placing audiences more at the centre of institutions continued in Alessandra Garibaldi’s outlining of the Adeste+ project. Cultural institutions must look to place audiences at the centre if they are to grow participation levels and support the wider challenge of creating a more inclusive and open society. Alessandra made clear the task ahead: “It’s not developing audiences, it’s developing cultural organisations.”

As the conference drew to a close there was a note of caution about using the digital to support institutions to transform and become more inclusive. Inés Bebea from Ondula reminded us that technologies are not neutral but are owned by large global corporations. There was therefore a need for “critical digital thinking” by institutions

Rethinking the role of European cultural institutions

In closing the conference, Fernando Pérez, director of Azkuna Zentroa in Bilboa, reminded us that the cultural institution plays a critical role in society: “creating connections between art and society in order to create a more creative, critical and diverse society.” The conference offered ample evidence, direct from the institutions themselves, that they are meeting the challenge of becoming flexible, critical spaces.

The smARTplaces project, through this conference and its various activities, has offered an important space for reflection for European museums and galleries to think about their relationship with audiences, both offline and online. The challenge for institutions, and perhaps also for the project, to ask how the many examples of participatory, co-created, often radical, engagements with audiences, move from the precarious edges of institutional practices to the centre. As one conference speaker put it: “How do we fight against precariousness for these kinds of projects?”