This brief report summarises the main outcomes of the fifth Brokering Intercultural Exchange Network meeting held in Belfast. Participants from all over the world focused on the future of arts management education.
International exchanges on arts management – Belfast 2018
Introduction: Braving the storm
Following the meeting at Goldsmiths University in London in November, the fifth session of the Brokering Intercultural Exchange Network again took place in the UK, but in quite particular circumstances. Call her Emma, call it the Beast from the East, it surely felt cold and snowed over in Belfast at the end of the February 2018. All participants, once again hailing from as far as Florida and Philadelphia, various German universities, Moscow, Singapore and China, together with the organisers, Dr Tori Durrer at Queen’s University Belfast and Prof Raphaela Henze at Heilbronn University, deserve extra thanks for mobilising their skills and interests and contributing to a very open and honest, while intense, exchange of best practice in relation to the present and imagined futures of arts management.
Cultural contexts in arts management education
In light of and in solidarity with the academic strike over pension rights affecting UK universities (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/university-lecturer-strikes-ucu-uuk-pensions-protests-students-a8231846.html), the meetings took place at the Crescent Arts Centre (https://crescentarts.org/), a beautifully converted historical building that provided a creative shelter from the storm for the duration of our exchanges. The mixture of performing spaces and lecture halls was quite apt, since Dr Durrer immediately plunged the twenty-strong group in the debate about how arts management education has attempted to bridge practice with reflection leading to varying results. Since arts is the focus, yet culture is the larger context, different behavioural and conceptual approaches to the teaching of skills addressing the administration, organisation and structuring of the arts have a clear influence on shaping different styles adopted in universities, and other higher education institutions, across the world.
Remaining relevant to the field
One of the main issues raised a number of times by different participants related to the need for arts management educators to be able to offer skills that are relevant to today’s practice in a way that balanced detail with flexibility. Like many areas of management in today’s globalised world, in themselves influenced or formed by changes in technology, teaching material that goes in depth into practices that are somewhat outdated may be of limited use. On the other hand, anecdotal and surface-level experiences that are not grounded in sound, critical and forward-looking analysis may be of little worth and not particularly useful to developing the necessary skills in students of arts management. The balancing act, between detail and adaptability, experience and up-to-date transfer of skills, is a challenging one. As commented by Antonio C. Cuyler, from Florida State University, in an earlier publication:
The need to create a body of discipline and profession specific knowledge has provided Arts Management with an incredible harvest ripe with opportunity for research. However, to benefit from and protect the enterprise of its intellectual capital, Arts Management should respond to [these] critiques in order to foster self-reflection and self-initiated change with regard to research. (https://www.encatc.org/media/394-encatc-journal-vol-4-issue-1.pdf P9).
Intercultural models in the making
The cultural variances expressed in the meeting were insightful into the cultural context of what is taught, where, and why. Experiences in the UK vary among themselves, and in turn are different to other Western models practiced, say, in the US. The variety in experience and cultural understanding in today’s classes also influences the development of taught material. The contribution of Dr Jerry C.Y. Liu on the different cultural frameworks which Asian and Western cultural researchers and policy makers operate in was of particular relevance (2009, “Unity vis-à-vis Diversity: The Cultural Logics of Chinese and European Cultural Strategies through Macro-History”. In Stephen Chan and Cerwyn Moore (Eds.). Approaches to International Relations, Volume 4. London: Sage, 186-212). Lecturers and practitioners engage with students that have cultural references and expectations that do not always match the traditions of the teaching institutions themselves. This is particularly true of the large intake of Asian, particularly Chinese students, on campuses in the US and the UK. The transfer of knowledge, and the development of teaching materials and skills, is better when mutual, rather than uni-directional and somewhat devised by one source and imposed on the students. On the other hand, participants discussed whether a canon should be referred to, and possibly in the absence of one, created through particular sources that may stand out due to critical thinking criteria, rather than easily surpassed technical practices.
The input of students at Queen’s University was valuable in light of this discussion. Northern Irish as well as Chinese students shared their expectations and experiences of what their current studies are providing in terms of reflective skills and practical ones. The challenge of being able to act critically and meaningfully was highlighted. Another point which stood out was the application of skills to the staff of cultural organisations, and their audiences, in ways that resonated with identifiable reference points that somewhat made efforts invested pay off, both financially as well as culturally. On the other hand, the importance of challenging both staff and audiences with an approach to arts management that defined best practice in innovative ways was also highlighted.
Beyond a mission to serve?
This aspect invoked the mission of arts management institutions, as well as arts organisations, in a way that tries to push boundaries in the practice of professionals today. It was felt that simply serving people, in a form of artistic customer care of service provision, was not enough, and that the intellectual, academic rigour of approach management critically remained an imperative for university courses in this field. Related to this aspect was the engaging, even entertaining element inherent to the teaching of arts management skills, somewhat trying to embed the fun and inquiring elements of the arts, and cultural practice in general, in terms of approach, style and attitude, to the content and sources of teaching themselves. Directly and indirectly, participants evoked Corina Suteu’s 2006 seminal text on the challenges inherent to arts and cultural management (in Europe) by professionals attempting to establish recognised and recognisable standards amidst rapid change (see Rich, J Dennis).
Aiming to challenge practice and expectations
Many elements, of an urgent nature, are being conflated within contemporary approaches towards arts management. Diversity in people’s cultural references and expectations, requirements set by business environments and patrons, be they private, public or civil society-based, conventions and the duty or calling of the arts not to pander to current taste but take audiences on journeys of discovery, possibly outside one’s comfort zone, do come together. The organised visit to the MAC arts centre in central Belfast, featuring an ad-hoc exhibition by Gilbert & George addressing current cultural values in Western society in irreverent ways, somehow was a fitting addition to the meeting programme, allowing the participants to discuss what is by now an institution of the UK arts scene, yet still novel to large sections of society including visitors to the MAC, as explained by the very helpful and well-briefed guides (It seems that the intended controversy was not lacking either: http://www.irishnews.com/arts/2018/01/25/news/gilbert-george-on-their-new-exhibition-at-the-mac-belfast-1240915/).
Conclusion: the Network’s way forward
On a concluding note, the meeting once again allowed practitioners and academics, as well as students and researchers, to orbit between outward analysis and internal observation. As cultural operators, along the analytical-to-practical spectrum, the meeting allowed for thorough mental exchanges and exercises to take place in a way that directly addressed current and foreseeable practice. What has been described by Aleksandar Brkić as a Janus-like disposition towards management and the arts is being approached by the Network participants in a dynamic and invigorating way. While participants take home many new angles on what has been discussed, the network will also be moving ahead, primarily by keeping the exchange of best practice going also through a revamped meeting calendar and a website to be overhauled and brought up-to-date with all latest development and media inputs. Participation will also be rendered simpler, with current members that are happy to continue being part of the Network being able to do so, while offering the chance to others who wish to step up their contribution to do so too to the benefit of all participants.