Reflections on increasing public value created by publicly funded universities and cultural institutions
My work focuses on the key question of how the publicly funded universities and cultural institutions in Romania could use their resource to create more public value, and foster collaboration among the increasingly dynamic, but rather cellular, civic actors. In this respect, I am setting up the first community service and outreach program of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), and conducting multi-disciplinary live projects with students and social/cultural stakeholders, to explore and use the transformative powers of collaborative artistic and architectural processes, and of mutual learning environments.
In 2014, 55% of people in Bucharest never went to a museum, 7% went twice, and only 4% more frequently. This is symptomatic of a systemic ignorance and apathy towards the public sphere in its entirety, despite the emancipation of the self-motivated few. In the rapid privatisation of the public space and economy in the 1990s, the public institutions let go of their control over urban development and over their responsibility to help citizens to exercise their right to the city. Apathy and ignorance took over all aspects of life, as shown by a 2009 national survey that registered alarming levels of non-consumption of: cinema 91%, opera 93,7%, theatre 88%, museum 86,8%, local celebrations 63,1%, variety shows 76,8%.
After 2010, the balance has started to shift, with the establishment of a growing network of civic groups raising awareness about localised issues and building the foundations for more individuals to act in their own communities. Similarly, in 2014 the cultural non-consumption levels have dropped: cinema 62,2%, opera 79,1%, theatre 62,3%, museum 55,8%, local celebrations 34,3%, variety 55,4%.Despite the shifting trends, the inhabitants and civic groups are still ill equipped to structure and tackle the complex issues of our society. This momentum needs real support from public institutions and professional circles. A more democratic society needs culture, and non-consumption is still very high: 80,6% symphony, 80% built heritage, 79,2% library, 71,1% sports, etc.
Despite the crisis of our cities, shrinking economically, socially, and culturally, Bucharest is witnessing a growing minority of civic innovators and socially-minded entrepreneurs. My work navigates this realm to find the best suitable individuals, groups, and organisations to involve in making public institutions (university and museum) more engaged with the society, as curators of complex programs and places that foster open exchange of ideas and refined sociability. Vacillating between the situated mutual learning environments for students, educators and inhabitants/communities in places around the city, and the aerial view from the curatorial position of a national museum, my work challenges pre-defined and at times antagonistic roles, and proposes a transversal collaboration between professionals, public institutions and activists driven by a common interest: to support the development of vibrant and proactive communities. The art of living and the art of building are inseparable, so I am taking students outside the ivory tower and making them engage with ‘real world’ issues and beneficiaries, promoting politics and tactics of engagement around the experience of urban public space and to the care of oneself (of self-definition) and of the other.
Actions that have made the museum more inclusive and more open, although operating in the perplexing legacy of dictatorship, the Palace of the Parliament:
- Setting up spaces for encounters and informal debates / open-access community centres (cafeteria, library, co-working space)
- Establishing a fellowship programme for artists, educators and civic workers to invite and accompany first-time museum-visitors, to help them get comfortable and engage with the museum professionals
- Generating exhibitions and performances that tackle social or health issues like forced evictions, depression, disability, or complex phenomena like shrinking cities
Actions to make the university commit to public service:
- Fostering student-led projects to the benefit of MNAC and other institutions like the Metropolitan Library,
- Advocating for live projects to be integrated into the curriculum, to involve students in the research, design and establishment of citizen-led hubs for engaging with local
My inspiration draws from Cicero’s writings about eloquence and the ideal orator, and the role of “urbanitas” in his overall attempt to salvage the Roman Republic and its way of life. Prompted by the curiosity towards the ambiguity of “urbanity”, my PhD dissertation surveyed the assertion that this notion is a cultural construct that expresses and gives human scale to the desire of the urbs (material reality) and to the willingness of the civitas (body of citizens). This construction is central to the European urban renaissance and to the re- foundation of the global metropolis as a place of modes of life. The desk and field research into the facets of this concept have proven to be very useful complements to the various grassroots initiatives for participatory local development that I have helped to develop over the years.
One project that illustrates and synthesises the ideas and questions raises by my work is URBOTECA, a mobile lab for participatory urbanism in and about Bucharest, created in 2015. It is basically a truck which brings professional knowledge into the spaces of the everyday life, through games and interactive pedagogical instruments which engage citizens in conversations about processes of urban development at al scales. So far, it has reached a total audience of over 1000 people in public places around the city, and has performed as “guest” facilitator of consultation events created by other organizations in Bucharest and Sibiu. Over the following three years, URBOTECA will focus on a single neighbourhood, to develop social mapping methods to document local patterns of urban change. This fieldwork is part of the Urban Education Live (UEL) project, which aims to create and test a new model of collaboration between universities and urban communities, by bringing together strategic and applied research done in partnership with the Tampere School of Architecture, The University of Sheffield School of Architecture, and the Institute for Spatial Policies and the Centre for Spatial Sociology at the Ljubljana University.