I, along with 100+ Egyptian and resident cultural and arts leaders, attended an Arts Management Symposium earlier this month, hosted by the US Embassy Cairo, facilitated by Brett Egan from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. The DeVos Institute has a mission to train, support and empower arts managers locally, nationally and internationally. I guess that international part is a big reason they were here in Egypt.

Mr. Egan based his ideas on a specific context/model: the traditional 501c3 non-profit arts organization in America…with an executive director, artistic director, board of directors, tax incentives and volunteers. Not too common in Egypt. In any case, the ideas of defining mission and connecting fundraising and marketing efforts to a family of support could definitely be applied to many different contexts and thus could prove to be vastly helpful in strengthening the arts in Egypt.

At the top of the symposium, Mr. Egan asked the attendees to share some of the challenges and opportunities their organizations were facing. My husband, an independent Egyptian artist, stated that he believed the arts in Egypt are now facing a lack of vision, a lack of leadership, corruption, disconnection between the Ministry of Culture and the independent artist sector, and serious generational issues, the need to have new blood flowing through the arts.

Mural street art on Mohammed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square, repainted scores of times in the last three years and whitewashed by authorities several times as well.

Mural street art on Mohammed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square, repainted scores of times in the last three years and whitewashed by authorities several times as well.

Mr. Egan responded, “Today’s session is only three hours and we will focus internally, on things we can control.”

And this last statement is what got me thinking and inspired this blog post.

“things we can control”

This summer, artists in Cairo took over the Ministry of Culture with a 33-day sit in. Egyptians know they have an influence. They lost the fear. There was a movement of artist power, people power, controlling the governance for the common good. This was just one example of many, Egyptians acting outside their assumed sphere of influence, using their assets and abilities to demand change and hopefully to soon create change themselves.

Since the coup/not-coup in July, artists have reacted in different ways to the military control, bio-politics, Egypt Fighting Terrorism campaign, curfew, emergency law, injustices and human rights violations.  But all in all, there has been little push back or demonstration. People have generally bowed down and settled back in to their sphere of influence, to their bubbles of sectors, polarization or isolation.

And an obscene number of people have built a dangerous level of hero-worship for military man ElSisi. The country feels like it is more safe, more stable, more likely to succeed in his hands they say, so they hand over their hard fought rights. ElSisi will provide: he will clean up this place for us. On our behalf. He and the army will make nice monuments and parks. And upon hearing this, a true artist’s heart sinks.

As Tina Turner once sang, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

The military led referendum for the Constitution last week came out with a 98% yes vote. Folks putting up “vote no” posters were arrested.

Sadat station has been closed for nearly 7 months with no clear reason why other than “safety.” It is the central station and I am fed up personally.

"Vote Yes" sign over beautified Tahrir Square

“Vote Yes” sign over beautified Tahrir Square

So when I hear someone telling Egyptians in any field to focus only on what is within their control, I cringe. We American artists, art managers, and arts leaders can learn a lot from our Egyptian counterparts. Just as they are learning from us. But it is critical to not simply replicate the other models and tools. In the world of arts management, our cultural differences must be acknowledged, with no one way inherently better than the other:

Egyptian

American

-mobile phone numbers, word-of-mouth -e-mail addresses, promotional codes
-buy tickets at box office, cash society -buy tickets online, credit society
-celebrate friendships and partnerships / swallowed by ancient  and dramatic history -celebrate organizational anniversaries / 10 years or 25 years in business is impressive
-admiring seniority and experience -admiring youth and beauty
-regime change for the common good -focus on what’s within our control
-the artistic family is the start, organizational sustainability is not the top priority, most work is project-based -art is the start, have to be aggressive in building a family of supporters in order to support the organization with in turn allows for the making of more and better art
-planning as we go, quick and nimble -5 or 10 year plan
-wasted time, money, energy – inefficiency, corruption, high administrative costs, unemployment and under-employment especially with the young and women -no time, money, or energy to waste / transparency and low administrative costs are valued / do more with less
-charity is a religious requirement -charity is a tax incentive
-expectation to personally help the poor via your own pocket or mosque/church -shelters, soup kitchens, and other organizations are created to serve the poor
organic and existing social networks -membership & subscription programs
a general understanding that the current political and societal instability have an effect / room for trial & error -must do pretty much exactly what you proposed or planned no matter the changing circumstances
-a tradition of Orientalism, racial and ethnic stereotyping remains yet to be challenged / Egyptian & Arab culture is not yet valued to the level that Western classical culture and training are valued and showcased -performances and programs are targeted to certain racial and ethnic demographics, causing segregation and inequality of access
-arts organizations typically rent space and very few own their own spaces -privately owned arts venues
-Elitism, even with ties required to enter the Opera House / Artists just now starting to look to expand the awareness of the people -a rich history and quickly intensifying expectation of community engagement, or out/in reach
-narratives, documentation -statistics and analytics, evaluation

 

Artists at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC), formerly part of the Ministry of Culture and now an independent organization.

Artists at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC), formerly part of the Ministry of Culture and now an independent organization.

Yes, we all need a mission. We need to know the who, what, where, why of our art making. Yes, the artists and the arts managers are problem solvers, creating what Mr. Egan defined as the “conditions required to make the best art.” But we need to define the best art by new criteria, relevant to our particular time and place. Is it the most popular, critically acclaimed, innovative on a technical level, impact socially, politically, internally or massively, educationally, economically or developmentally?

In any case, I hope all American and Egyptian artists and arts managers see The Square, the Oscar-nominated documentary out of Egypt. Just to remember the atrocities, the resilience of the artists and of the people, and get re-inspired by their power.

 And let’s all redefine…
“things we can control”

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