AMQF Holds a Discussion Session on Building Audiences for the Visual Arts Field
In Ramallah, on Wednesday, April 18th, 2018, the “Visual Arts: A Flourishing Field” (VAFF) Project of the A. M. Qattan Foundation (AMQF) held a discussion session on the question of ‘the audience’ in the visual arts field. The session brought together representatives of a number of art organisations and collectives active in the visual arts scene: these included Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Palestinian Art Court (Al Hoash), Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, Tamer Institute for Community Education, Visual Arts Forum, Birzeit University, Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research (Bethlehem), and Sakiya Art/Science/Agriculture (Ein Qiniya). From the Gaza Strip, Shababek Studio for Contemporary Art, representing the General Union of Cultural Centres, and the Eltiqa Group also took part in the session via video-conference.
The discussion was geared towards creating a better understanding of the needs of the visual arts field in relation to creating and broadening audiences, and deepening the impact of organisations working in the visual arts. It was decided that an intervention or training programme about responding to such needs will be designed in participation with the various organisations and collectives.
Discussion revolved around the different intricacies and levels of the audience for the visual arts. Based on their particular programmes and events, each organisation defines its target audience differently. Representatives for each organisation explained that ‘the audience’ could not be viewed as a single homogeneous unit. As well as the diversity of the audience(s), there are different levels of audience interaction with visual artworks. Similarly, the impact the visual arts organisations have in society is multi-layered and complex; such impact is cumulative and requires long-term work.
Visual arts organisations face numerous challenges, particularly in building a strategic audience in the field of the visual arts. Various possible reasons behind these challenges were raised. Perhaps first and foremost, it is the political situation that hinders the ability of organisations to reach a wide segment of their target communities. Restrictions on work in public spaces imposed by the official authorities and different social limitations all hinder the ability of art to reach a wider segment of society. This amplifies the challenges faced by all the organisations, especially when the broader society is already being targeted by all forms of visual invasions, through the impact of the market, for example, as well as the increasing cultural conservativism. The deterioration in the socioeconomic conditions of Palestinians has also pushed the arts and culture down the list of priorities for some segments of society, as appreciation of cultural productions and the different forms of the arts is closely related to the economic status of communities. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, arts and culture organisations, as well as artists themselves, have not only uncoupled their ties with the national political project, they have also become critical of it. Consequently, art productions have developed aesthetics and forms that are not necessarily popular or aligned with the taste of the general public. Organisations have thus been confronted with new questions and challenges in relation to the content and form of their productions and programmes, and their relevancy to the general Palestinian context and to matters of public concern.
Participants concluded that any real and strategic effort to garner a vibrant audience, one that will interact with different art forms and practices, must be initiated at the level of schooling and in the home. The role that the Ministry of Education has played so far has not been helpful. Visual arts education in the school curriculum has not been a priority for the decision-makers. This has been compounded by the lack of focused educational resources, which could be put to use particularly by young children and school students. Challenges also include the inadequate level of financial resources allocated to the visual arts and support for artists, and especially the funds required to support strategic audience building. In addition, the promotional content of visual arts institutions often impedes the creation of needed linkages to, or raising interest in, the visual arts, consolidating the prevalent perception that this is a genre limited to the elites.
The discussion highlighted that the accumulation of a qualitative impact on a diverse audience over a long period of time is a key indicator of an organisation’s success in the visual arts field. Participants stressed the need to further discuss the current and traditional concept of the success indicators of visual arts events. A new concept and working tools and indicators more expedient to the visual arts scene, should also be developed.
At the end of the discussion session, a set of recommendations was formulated. The most notable one was that a dialogue should be initiated with the Ministry of Education and art teachers about art education in the school curriculum. The content of any art curriculum and pedagogy should be deliberated upon, with an emphasis on the role education plays in creating a critical visual culture.
The importance of developing a strategic plan to improve organisational performance in building and integrating the audience for the visual arts was also highlighted. Such a plan will measure the long and short-term impact of audience engagement and propose more successful methods for maintaining and garnering wider and diverse audiences.
Discussants highly recommended developing the capacities of journalists in writing and of the value of criticism in the field of culture and visual arts, in order to motivate the production and publishing of high quality media materials on visual art programmes and events. Additionally, art organisations need to work on new promotional tools for their work.
It was asserted that children should be taken into account when visual arts organisations plan and develop their respective programmes. Children are a solid entry point to revive their families’ interest in visual arts. Examples from the field of music provided a concrete illustration of this.
The need for art organisations to evaluate their programming methods was stressed. Serious consideration should be given to the potential of introducing a change, albeit slow and incremental, in order to attract, expand and increase audience interaction with visual arts programmes and events at multiple levels. Organisations should facilitate audience participation in the process of art production.
It was agreed that further discussion sessions should be held. This will contribute to enriching debate, encouraging organisations to reflect on their experiences and methods of operation, and facilitate networking and collaboration in order to create a broader and deeper impact and confront various challenges.
VAFF is a project of the AMQF’s Culture and Arts Programme funded by the Consulate General of Sweden represented by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). A $4 million subgranting project being implemented over a period of 6 years (2017–22), it aims to enhance the capacities and sustainability of visual arts organisations to develop their artistic and educational programmes, facilitate learning and research opportunities, and enable art organisations to extend support to artists and art professionals for the production of innovative works and community-based art projects and the garnering of broad audiences.
The project is funded by the Consulate General of Sweden represented by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).