At the recent National Digital Forum held at Te Papa, the concept of 'access' was a recurring theme. Though manifesting itself in many ways, it was a common thread that wound through every presentation I saw and every conversation I had over the course of the two day conference. But what does access mean in the cultural sector? Does it mean providing engaging and absorbing digital access to collections and exhibitions? Does it mean reaching out to your communities and asking them to actively contribute to your institutions research and exhibitions and be the content providers? Does it mean collaborating with other cultural organisations, broadening the net? Does it involve loosening our grip, letting go of control and allowing the public free and unrestrained use of our collections? Does it mean providing inclusive and innovative education programmes, ensuring young people grow up knowing that the museum/gallery/archive is their place? Access is about a lot of things but the sum of all of these parts is something so simple. Fundamentally access is about connection.
This issue was highlighted recently by Matariki in her thought provoking piece 'Barriers to Access,' where she wrote of the important role cultural institutions play in nurturing our young people's connection to both their past and present, as well as their sense of agency for the future. Without a feeling of connection or cultural ownership it's hard to encourage deep and repeated engagement with our collections and exhibitions. At NDF, Claire Amos, Deputy Principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary School, spoke about the changes that need to happen in the education sector in New Zealand in order to inspire and encourage a deep connection with learning in young people. She also spoke of the role that the cultural sector can and should play achieving this by creating 'communities of learning,' where museums/galleries/archives play essential and active parts in the education process. Amos reminded us that this is nothing new for the cultural sector - we that have been involved in this kind of 'free-range' learning for years. However the point is about connection, about the museum or gallery not being seen as separate from the school, or just a nice added bonus to the regular curriculum but rather as an essential component. Access is about connection.
In Christchurch we recently had a mild public furor over the purchase of an Anthony Gormley sculpture for the city. There were the usual letters to the editor about what a waste of money public art is when there are much more pressing matters of the infrastructural kind to attend to, and my tires would likely agree. But this got me thinking, given that art and creativity is a fundamental aspect of human expression, why is it so difficult to prove it's worth? Art can be confronting, confounding and isolating. There's a general misconception that you need particular cerebral tools to access art and specific language to engage. Galleries are often viewed with suspicion – that the contents of the white cube are reserved for a certain few. IanWilliams55 had this to say in the comments section in a Christchurch Press piece about the Gormley purchase, “… 'Art Experts' suck chardonnay and snort coke while living in a cloud cuckoo land of privilege and plunder.” Pretty crazy stuff but it is an example of the damaging idea that art (and people in the arts) is separate from the rest of society. Access is about connection.
So what is access all about? Well, yeah, so many things. Over the next month several of TUSK's contributors will share their views on this theme. Stay tuned!