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Sophie Lauwers and Johan Van Roy share insights on inclusive arts programmes.
Founded in 1928 in Brussels, Bozar is a multi-disciplinary cultural center that has undergone its own little revolution since the nomination of Paul Dujardin as its CEO and Artistic director in the early 2000s. Walls were brought down — both literally and figuratively — in an effort to make this cultural venue a welcoming and dynamic place.
Sophie Lauwers, Director of Arts and Policy at Bozar, joined the institution 16 years ago. She has witnessed and participated in Bozar’s successive transformational waves, including a recent one that brought Johan Van Roy — Head of Marketing and Communications — on board. Together, they will be presenting at the upcoming Communicating the Museum conference. In anticipation to their talk, Alexia Jacques-Casanova talks to them about encouraging participation within museums and adapting to your audience’s needs.
“The bigger the institution, the harder it is to be inclusive and work in an inclusive way, or from the bottom up,” says Van Roy. Hard but not impossible. According to him, for participation to work, it needs to be implemented at the very start of every project: involving non-Bozar people during the planning phase of an exhibition or of an educational program is key. Essentially, it is a transformation taking place within the organization first. “It takes loads of discussions with internal stakeholders,” argues Van Roy “it is a big change in management that needs to happen within the institution.” He stresses the importance of transparency in this process: reflecting on and expressing clearly “why we do what we do”; and also, giving opportunities for everyone — visitors included — to see where and how their input can have an impact. “Bozar has a big agora and a great debate culture,” explains Van Roy, “so we are able to dialogue with our audience often.”
Inclusion can also happen within the works that institutions choose to show. “Many museums are making efforts to be more participative,” explains Sophie Lauwers, “but I think the work of artists, especially, is changing and evolving towards more participatory and inclusive practices.” Encouraging participation is also about giving those artists a platform.
“Our biggest challenge is knowing who our audience is,” confesses Lauwers. To successfully adapt to the needs of their audience(s), cultural institutions must first find out who these audiences are. Unfortunately, many will assume they know the answer and overlook the importance of thorough research. “We all create exhibitions with our audience in mind,” says Lauwers, “but are we really putting ourselves in their shoes, or we asking them the right questions?” Are we asking them questions at all? Lauwers and Van Roy both stress Bozar’s efforts to maintain a constant dialogue with their audience. They are constantly searching for ways to involve visitors before, during and after the event, and to get feedback on all three phases of their experience. “The trick is, you can’t just create a mailing list to collect this type of feedback,” says Van Roy, “you need to install new digital touch-points, and you need people with the expertise to collect, analyse and act on those feedbacks.” He stresses: “you always have to analyse your audience. We have great tools to do so, social media is one of them, it is a platform of measure and feedback. So closely measure everything, do panels. The most important thing is to always bring you results back to the core and mission of your institution.” Which brings us to the next point.
Lauwers warns against trying too hard to please an audience and loosing the institution’s purpose. “You need to give visitors a chance to discover more, and not only offer them what they want. We adapt to our audiences by creating new familiar entry points and then try to take them further.”
“Creating different entry points and flipping the model upside down,” adds Van Roy. He mentions a previous exhibition celebrating 35 years of urban art and hip hop in Brussels. On the occasion, Bozar had partnered with the arts collective Pool is Cool to create an open-air swimming-pool within a container, placed on the grounds of the museum. A way for Bozar to open discussions about urban art, urban development, as well as their role, as a cultural center, to start those conversations. “It was a huge success. Families were coming to the museum because it was sunny and they wanted to have a dive in the water,” Van Roy recalls. “So what seemed at first like something not so connected to our museum attracted new people and the storytelling of hip-hop came along with discussion about what makes the city.”
Almost all the programs and exhibitions mentioned by Lauwers and Van Roy during the interview were carried out in partnership with other, often smaller, local organisations. For instance, with “Next Generation Please”, Bozar put 200 young people from local schools and youth center in relation with European politicians. This on-going dialogue lasted a year and resulted in a series of self-produced films, performance, installations, sculptures, short stories.
Partnerships are key to building more inclusive and participatory projects, but keeping those relationships alive is even more so. “It is not because a project is over that you should stop caring about this audience you served,” says Van Roy. “It is really hard work, but you have to keep the conversation going.” Lauwers adds: “ We must also remain critical of ourselves and stay open to our audience’s concerns.” A recent initiative by BOZAR called “Hacktivate the city” included the creation of temporary STEAM labs within various neighbourhoods of Brussels, with the aim of inviting young people to imagine solutions to current societal issues, using new technologies such as 3D printing. The operation was a success in terms of attendance yet Lauwers stresses the need to remain mindful and open to self-criticism. “We had dialogues with locals expressing that those initiatives could be experienced as colonizing. I was not prepared for this type of feedback yet I think it pushes us to always reimagine ways to meet new audiences without establishing a relationship of dominance.”
Sophie Lauwers and Johan Van Roy will be speaking in more depths about participation, co-creation and interactivity during the upcoming Communicating the Museum conference in Brussels, from the 27th to the 31st of May 2018.
Find this article on ArtsProfessional.co.uk