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Belarus doesn’t get many tourists

In Museums, Places on November 13, 2017 at 2:20 pm

“Why have you come here?”

“Tourism.” I smiled a hopefully at the Belarussian border guard.

He inspected our passports at length, only the creaking of his leather boots and the crackle of his cigarette breaking the seemingly endless silence. This uneasy welcome was to be repeated during our stay in Belarus.

It gets perilously cold in Minsk in the winter and the windows of most bars and restaurants in the city are covered over, meaning tourists can’t peek in to see if a venue has any customers, or even if it’s the kind of place one would want to be in anyway. I lost count of the number of times I turned on my heels at the door, realising I’d stumbled into yet another strip club or casino. As soon as we found a place where the waitress wasn’t dressed in underwear we’d use basic Russian and melodramatic pointing to order dumplings and cheap beer.

At the National Art Museum we managed to communicate – via schoolboy French and yet more pointing – that we wanted to enter and, despite the reservations of the cashier, purchase tickets. The only person we found who spoke English in the otherwise empty gallery was the cloakroom attendant. As she took our coats she asked, “Why have you come here?”

“Tourism and museums,” I proffered, and, now emboldened by a few days in the city, “and to see your many beautiful buildings.”

She shrugged. But the buildings are part of why I was there.

Minsk is an architectural time capsule. Looking down the central highway of Nyezhavizhimosty Avenue that links Independence Square and Victory Square you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Soviet Union’s plan for a grand boulevard to rival the Champs-Élysées had been realised. Despite being essentially flattened in the Second World War, Stalin rebuilt the city at speed and in a modern, yet grandiose, style.
The huge concrete blocks don’t quite fit with the classical columns though, the garish colour choices aren’t in keeping with the grand European vista they seek to imitate, and the prominent KGB head office is slightly unnerving. But the endeavour is impressive.

It turns out that even the most hardened fans of lurid concrete and Brutalism can have too much of a good thing. In a moment of weakness we ventured into the Grand Café, somehow untouched by the Belarussian design palette, where we happily found smoked salmon, sirloin steak and Italian espresso for just a few roubles. We also found a bored waitress who spoke fluent English.

“Why have you come here?” she asked, while we gorged ourselves on treats. Sensing she was the first person we’d met who wasn’t an informant we replied honestly, explaining our fascination with Soviet design and architecture and with museums in the post-Soviet world.

“I would love to go to London one day,” she told us, while acknowledging quietly that a trip outside Belarus would be highly unlikely.

“This is a dictatorship,” she concluded while preparing us more martinis. “I still don’t understand why you’ve come here.”

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The arts are thriving across the north

In art, galleries, Museums on October 31, 2017 at 3:48 pm

For a few years the predominant news story about the UK arts sector has been about constraints, cutbacks and cost-effectiveness (i.e. doing the same but for less money). But a clutch of new and refurbished art galleries opening across Yorkshire and the north of England have given us all hope that the future for the cultural sector is brighter than might have been thought. Indeed, there’s a sense of optimism in the air. Investment in the region is paying off …

Leeds Art Gallery has just reopened after an extensive refurbishment at a cost of £4 million. While restoration work on the Victorian building was underway a barrelled ceiling was uncovered and has been transformed into a beautiful top-lit space for displaying sculpture. The gallery is once again at the heart of the civic centre of the city, sandwiched between the library and Henry Moore Institute.

Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery also reopened in October after a £3.8 million redevelopment. Here Edwardian architecture has been polished up and combined with new spaces for exhibitions and public events. Their opening exhibition Pioneers of Pop seems to be as fresh faced as the institution now is.

A few miles south, the town of Bishop Auckland is home to a brand new arts venue. The Mining Art Gallery is the first institution of its kind to celebrate art made by miners who worked underground. In an area that has seen so much uncertainty and necessary economic diversification since the decline of coalmining in the area, celebrating the mines and their creative output is seen as a hugely positive step. It’s the first venue to open as part of The Auckland Project which will see more exciting museums and galleries opening in Bishop Auckland in coming years.

Developments such as the revamped The Piece Hall in Halifax and the refitted JORVIK Viking Centre in York are creating economic income for the region from increased tourism, which always benefits the wider arts sector.

And while Hull’s year as UK City of Culture is coming a close this part of the country is also looking forward. The Great Exhibition of the North in summer 2018 will be another focus of artistic talent and activity to keep momentum in the region going.

So rather than doom and gloom, the artistic future of the north is looking rather positive.

Keep the funding, and the visitors, coming.

Celebrating rejection

In Museums on August 17, 2017 at 3:46 pm

The life of a consultant means regularly pitching for work.

My freelance CV over the last decade or so in the museum sector looks pretty good. But I don’t win every project I apply for and sometimes the news of an unsuccessful pitch can be a blow.

Rather than glossing over those projects that I didn’t win or hiding them away in the corner, I thought I’d share them, in the spirit of being open and honest.

Today, I stuck my rejection emails to my office door, in an act of celebrating my own failures.

Why am I doing this?
It’s partially in response to a twitter post by Nick Hopwood @NHopUTS and subsequent blog post sharing some of his rejections for academic papers and research projects.

He says:
“the effect of not sharing our rejections publicly is that we (often unintentionally) uphold the illusion of uncompromised success.”

And I think Nick is right.

Challenging perfection
There’s a belief held by some that we consultants are problem-solvers. We swan in, offer a solution to a problem and swan away again. Well yes, we do do that – especially the swanning.

That doesn’t mean we know all the answers, though. This might come as a surprise to some, but it turns out I’m actually not completely perfect.

By choosing not to explore our own vulnerabilities or failures we consultants are, I think, contributing to an idea that we’re actually any better than anyone else working in the heritage sector. Often, museum consultants simply have wider experience, not better experience, than their clients. We offer perspective and we try to share the best practice that we’ve gathered by moving around within the sector, but we certainly don’t know all the answers.

Being humble
I’d like to think that by sharing a list of projects that I didn’t manage to win, it shows I have at least an ounce of empathy for others when things don’t go quite to plan – your rejected exhibition proposal, your failed HLF bid, your disappointing visitor numbers or shop sales. Life’s a competition, and sometimes we don’t win. We have to learn to deal with that.

It’s also good to take a dose of humility sometimes, and to learn some compassion for when I have to let others down gently. Some of the recurring phrases in the feedback listed here are a rather trite and I’d like to think that in the future I’ll be conscious of how I present negative feedback to others.

Celebrating failure
It turns out there’s nothing new in taking time to reflect on our failures within the heritage sector. There’s even a twitter account already dedicated to museum gaffs. @Museum_Oops is well worth a visit. And, of course, the Museum of Failure is a lesson in eating humble pie.

Go on, have a gawp
For clients of mine, potential clients, and other museum consultants, this post is perhaps a moment to enjoy some schadenfreude while looking at the bids where I wasn’t successful – especially if you won some of these nice gigs. If you did, my wholehearted* congratulations.

If you want to know about my successes, it’s very easy to see. My CV is right here for anyone to view – a half-decent array of projects over the years, I think, and I’m justly proud of it.

But if you want to see the other side of it, then here are my rejections.

Celebrating rejection

*half-hearted