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About Cultural Flagships

Nordic embassies in Berlin held recently a seminar about the rôle of the cultural buildings that are being built in all the Nordic countries these days. Keynote speakers were the heads of those houses and all of them made a good job in conjuring up enthusiasm about their venues and their impact on the society around.

Only in the course of the discussion one could hear details that didn't fit in the picture: in one country, as the elections approached, virtually all the parties had made a point that as nice as the new theatre house was, they'd rather give it back to its generous donor, thank him for the past two years and close the whole thing down in order to save the money that its operating takes every year.

How should we read this? Should we conclude that classical arts are and will remain an elitist phenomenon that only a small group of people enjoy, while it takes everybody's tax money to maintain? Or should we consider them as part of nation building, as we regard schools and education? If we opt for the latter - as I certainly do, not just because it has to do with my profession, but because I believe in Maslow's thesis of the hierarchy of needs and I think that a healthy society should respond to that in some ways - then we also should pay great attention to making classical art forms accessible to the society. By that I mean both in terms of venue, but also in terms of explaining their "language" to people so that they get the idea, what this all is about.

If I sound like young Maurizio Pollini who brought piano recitals into factories (to the dismay of the workers, I hear), please excuse me. His attempt was certainly sincere and worth undertaking. I would rather point out the responsibility of cultural institutions to develop ways to bring their art form into the media. Here is why: wouldn't you agree that media has the most significant role in shaping our values and thus our lives. If you take the people who have no connection to classical arts or are even hostile to them: how do they spend their leisure time? They very often consume media. What kind of media, you might ask. Possibly people don't always select. That brings us a certain random factor: if you put your content and your message out there, you are likely to reach some people. The more active you are, the more people you are likely to reach. The more people you reach, the more they talk to each others about your content. This way, if you work persistently, you will little by little gain some impact in the society. And if you get financed by tax money, you really should make your importance and value understood by the people that pay you.

There are some good examples of arts institutions reaching out to the society, e.g. the education programme of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. "Okay", you might say, "they get financed by the Deutsche Bank and a generous society of friends and fans". That's true. They started early and they've got pretty far by now. Plus they have a reputation that makes many things much easier for them. But there must be other ways doing this, too. First of all, the head of your institution should agree with me about the importance of public relations, if this is to work at all. Secondly, why not trying to get the editors of your local paper involved in your institution? Where do their kids go to school? Why not providing that school or kindergarten with a workshop and a joint performance? If you are a theatre, offer evening classes that aim at a joint performance with the by now enthusiastic amateurs. They will come to your professional performances and bring their colleagues and friends with them - most of whom pay the full ticket price.

Think your underpaid staff is overloaded with tasks? See if you can rethink your priorities of the house. And remember those voters who are going to either willingly finance you by their tax money or call for your closure by the next election term.

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