Excellence for All:  Beyond Elitism and Populism

It is a great privilege to be here at Birkbeck for the Social Theory, Politics and the Arts Conference today.  I come armed with a stellar international panel of experts in the realm of culture and public policy who share my interest in exploring ways to create an era that goes beyond elitism and populism in engaging our respective populations in the appreciation and practice of the arts and humanities. Notwithstanding the challenges of this age, both economic and political,  I believe that we have never been in a better position to make a leap forward in giving all people the opportunity to enjoy the arts and humanities and to use their own artistic and intellectual capacities.  We have the skills and the tools to make that leap.  The question is “Do we have the will?”  Through information and communication technologies, we have the capacity to make the best cultural products and processes available to people wherever they are in the world.   Through the lessons we have learned about fostering creativity in the past two decades, we can put culture on the agenda of communities around the world.

Since we are thinking “glocally”—I think I do not have to stress the importance of our local endeavors as well as our global ones, and any that fall in between the two.  We live in an interdependent world, no doubt for better and worse, and what we do in Scranton, Pennsylvania, my home town of some 75,000, can provide a model for people in, let’s say a small city of about 10 million or so, in China.  And for sure we know that when the Metropolitan Opera performs in New York City, I can hear and see the performance in high definition in Scranton, as one can in 1000 other cities on six continents.    There is clear evidence that we have a greater capacity than ever before to dissolve or at least minimize the differences in standards in the world of the arts and humanities—to offer excellence for all; in short to move beyond the dread and hopefully obsolescent dichotomy between elitism and populism.

Of course, even if it were possible to develop the political will to do just that, we would not have arrived in the Garden of Eden.  We know that appreciating excellence in the arts is not our only goal. We are dedicated to integrating the arts into the life blood of our communities—to bring out the creativity in children, to introduce older people, unemployed people, disabled people and homeless people, to the artistic, aesthetic pleasures of being alive.  And on the utilitarian side, we must think of the progress that has been made in using art in various physical and occupational therapies and in retraining jobless people in careers that employ the arts.

It is true that the Metropolitan Opera cinemas have been a terrific prompt for me to think further about achieving the goal of dissolving the dichotomy, but it would be foolish to overestimate the importance of that particular program and not search further for more projects of that ilk and more opportunities to implement them, and examine the challenges we might face in doing so and the still-to-be-determined value of such projects.

I’m in the enviable position today of asking questions rather than groping for answers, and I have a most distinguished and wise panel who we trust will give us some answers—so let me introduce them to you now and get on with the quiz.  After we have had a chance to hear from the panel and engage briefly in an intra-panel discussion, we will invite you to join in with your questions, comments—and hopefully, answers.

Tom Freudenheim has directed a number of museums, including this city’s Gilbert Collection.  He served as the deputy director of the new Jewish Museum in Berlin and as Assistant Secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; Tom is now a cultural consultant with an international portfolio.

Miklos Marschall is the Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia for Transparency International, located in Berlin.  He was the founding executive secretary of Civicus, the world wide association of civil society organizations and deputy mayor of Budapest in its first post communist administration. He keeps his hand in the cultural world as chair of the board of the internationally esteemed Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Jennifer Williams is an artist in many genres and was the founding director of Creative Communities, formerly the British American Arts Association.  Jennifer is a trustee of the International Futures Forum, an organization developing ideas and philosophies for the 21st century. American born, Jennifer has live in the UK for many years.

Questions to the panel:

Tom:  When I speak of the arts and culture reaching beyond elitism and populism, I generally cite the Metropolitan Opera’s simulcasts, offered in movie theaters in communities in the US and in many countries abroad—for a price not very much more than an ordinary movie.  I would like to know more about efforts that reach beyond elitism and populism in the museum world and in the visual arts in general.  Can you give us some examples of museums or programs that reflect this phenomenon—or fail to?

Jennifer:  Your work, for as long as I’ve known you, has focused on the integration of the arts and culture into communities.  How has that fared—and can you give examples of communities and programs that reflect such efforts?  Is this dichotomy between elitism and populism an issue at all in your view of “community arts?”

Miklos:  Your work has involved strengthening culture and global civil society and more recently, monitoring and attempting to decrease corruption in governments around the world. Then avocationally, you have found time to chair the board of one of the world’s very fine orchestras.  I’ll ask you two questions: 1) has the orchestra succeeded in crossing the boundaries between elitism and populism?  and 2) how are the countries in your region developing, culturally speaking?

Question for all:  I know there are many good ideas and examples in all art forms that reflect the movement we’re discussing—and I’ll be opening up the discussion shortly to learn more about that. But before I do, I’d like to ask all of you what you think is being done or can be done to foster the “beyond elitism and populism” mindset glocally?

Make your answers fairly brief so that we can hear from others as well.

Introduction at Social Theory, Politics and the Arts Conference in London, October 2009