Launching a project in a new place? Go to a museum! (or watch tv series)

woman contemplating a painting

Photo credit: markdrasutis (CC)

Please note:  In this blog post I am advocating for (contemporary) art, because this is what works for me, but please be mindful that the following refers equally well to broadly understood culture, including or maybe even beginning with TV series (in Polish), and that everyone should choose the area they want to explore based on their own preference.

There has always been something about experiencing art that helped me progress. Back in Warsaw, Sunday museum walks were what kept me inspired, plainly happy, but most importantly understanding.

Understanding in the sense that over and over again I was being reminded that there are levels of communication and interpretation. Keeping things simple, day in and day out, is what allows us to survive in our work, at home, in our relationships. As helpful as it can be, though, limiting the number of dimensions does not allow us to progress and get things right, not when we are entering new communities and introducing projects that interfere with the status quo.

But why art [except for the fact that it’s simply enjoyable]?

In short, local art is a part of an ethnographic research, which (I’m sure you’ll agree) is a must-have when designing an intervention in a new community, ethnic group, etc.. Delving into it brings two categories of information:

  • the character of the people we are about to work with: their major fears, taboos, biggest dreams, most rigid stereotypes;

  • people’s tastes – in other words, what are they more likely to accept and internalize based on the way it looks or sounds.

Understanding the character of the people

There is a popular exhibition in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw called BRITISH BRITISH POLISH POLISH: Art from Europe’s Edges in the Long ’90s and Today. I saw it last Sunday and I can tell you this: no study, no survey, no focus group, no observation can tell you more about the generation that was becoming adults in the ‘90s than this exhibition. It’s spot on.

There is a fiction book about my hometown (in Polish), Konin, that is now getting viral, so to speak. A woman met randomly sent it to my mum, my mum gave it to her neighbour and bought two more to share, her neighbor did the same and so on…

Why is getting so popular? One of the reasons is that in a way it explains how Konin became what it is (and I’m saying this with love): a city with almost abandoned old town, with people year after year voting on left-wing parties in a predominantly right-leaning country, with one of the highest number of shoping malls per capita in Poland.

I don’t think I need to say that getting to know these things opens your eyes to dimensions that can make or break your project.

Getting to know people’s tastes

The two worlds of humanitarian innovation – a working paper by the Refugee Studies Centre – lists “five gaps” that create bottlenecks for transferring innovation between emerging economies and the rich world [see PS]. The last gap, somewhat timid and seemingly not really heavyweight, goes this way:

Each country has its own preferences and tastes.

Copying a brilliant solution from one corner of the world to the other  has a big chance to fail miserably because of local preferences and tastes. More, transferring solutions from one neighbour to the other is no less likely to fail for the exact same reason. And what better way there is to learn all of that than by immersing yourself into the local culture?

Jaap Warmenhoven in his article Working with the Undercurrents. What tomorrow’s leaders can learn from artists says:

“[artists have] developed a skill or asset that most of us haven’t: a fascination for the undercurrent in our society, in our social encounters, in our practices, in our organizations.”

I concur and say: go to a gallery, read a novel, watch tv series, and never skip this part of learning about your new destination.

PS I’d strongly argue that we should not only be talking about transfers from developed countries to the developing ones but also the other way around as well as from one developing country to another.


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