Marco Antonio Chavez-Aguayo is one step away to complete his PhD degree. He is going to be the first graduate of the new PhD programme in Culture and Heritage Management of the University of Barcelona (Spain) -one of the fewest PhD programmes in the world with this major and especially in the Spanish-speaking world. He expects to defend his doctoral thesis in January 2012. Marco is from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, living in Barcelona since 7 years. He has worked at the University of Barcelona as lecturer and researcher, studied at this University a Master’s degree in Cultural Management, and another one in Comparative Studies at the University Pompeu Fabra, also in Barcelona. He has been also visiting researcher at the University of Glasgow (UK) and at the University of Guadalajara (Mexico), doing research for his PhD thesis. Currently, he is a lecturer at The Open University (UK) in an online course of the BSc (Hons) of Psychology, and is looking for new projects to undertake.
1. Marco, the PhD thesis you just finished and are about to defend is on comparative cultural policies at a subnational level. How did you get interested in this topic and what are your main research questions?
First of all, thank you very much, Lidia, for this interview. I follow up the online forum since a long time and I wish that this becomes a great place to share and to build networks between young researchers on cultural policies around the world. I am very keen to see how it looks the refurbishment of the website and all its new features. I hope many more people gets involved from different parts of the world and in different stages of their research lives, so we can have a rich environment with the help of new technologies.
My PhD thesis is about arts councils and the arm’s length principle, but my main interest was to carry out a comparative research between three local institutions at sub-national level. I discovered there was an arts council in Jalisco (the state in Mexico where is my birthplace) and I started wondering if it was set up on the same principle as the arts councils in the UK and in other parts of the world. Then I wondered what would be the differences and similarities between the arts councils. At the same time, in Catalonia, Spain, a public discussion started about creating an arts council. So, I asked myself: why arts councils are apparently so important bodies and what is their uniqueness? That’s how I started my research.
I knew that the arts councils are intended to work under the arm’s length principle (or at least, this was the original intention), but I wanted to discover is it so. I also wanted to find out what was the main reason that in Jalisco, Mexico, the arts council was created more than 20 years ago if there seems not to be any connection in that time with the European or other countries’ arts councils. I am very intrigued about how cultural policies from one country influence other countries and are there policies copied from one context to another without adapting them.
One of the findings in my thesis is that an arts council and an “arm’s length principle” are two different things, and the second one is more of a theoretical character. An arts council does not necessarily mean a body operating under the arm’s length principle, as it seems. Of course, there are many more findings in the thesis, but this can be one of the most important.
2. I read that you had the chance to carry out fieldwork in Mexico and UK, as in Spain, to study the cases you were researching. Did you find many differences between cultural policies in those three countries?
My research focused on the sub-national level, so I paid attention to governmental bodies in Jalisco, Scotland and Catalonia, trying to find out how their cultural policies match the reality. I expected to find a lot of differences, as I chose to compare different countries: one from the Anglo Saxon context, one from Continental Europe and one from Latin America. But beyond the differences they can have, I have found interesting similarities: all the three places seems to admire public policies or projects from other place. And they try to incorporate those policies into the specific context, which doesn’t seem to be a problem. The problem is when they just “copy” policies from other places and do not try to adapt them to their specific context. I mean that most of the time they don’t do the appropriate research to find out if the policy can work properly there. One policy can be successful in a specific place, but this doesn’t mean that implemented in a different context would become successful as well in the same way. This happens at least with the arts councils. They started as a concept in the UK, and then spread over the Commonwealth countries as well as beyond. There are public and academic discussions in the last decade about their suitability und usability. In some cases of countries in Continental Europe or Latin America, the idea of arts councils is just “imported”, focusing in their “pros” and ignoring the discussions about their suitability and critical perspectives. I have found such evidences in Catalonia. They looked at other countries arts councils’ (specially the UK) and wanted to introduce an arts council in Catalonia. The result was not very successful and it is even in danger to be almost eliminated after just a couple of years of existence.
On another hand, in Scotland there is criticism about the dependency of the local cultural policy to London – shifting the focus of public policy support in the last few years from “culture” to “creative industries”.
Finally, in Jalisco there seems to be no connection to other countries’ experiences in relation to creation and running of arts council. Mexico has a lot of influence from the USA in their policies, but the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) seems to be not the only inspiration. There is an overall intention in the country to have arts councils: at federal level, the main public body for culture is called an “arts council” (the National Council for Culture and Arts, CONACULTA), but it works completely like a ministry. And both a Ministry and an Arts Council exist in Jalisco. From my point of view, there are traces of influence from European cultural policies as well.
There are other similarities of public policies for the arts: some politicians seem to be similar everywhere; culture is the “Cinderella” of the public policies; there is always a few money for cultural projects, and now even fewer: considering the unfavorable global economic context.
There is still a lot to research. I am still intrigued by many things. I am aware that my PhD thesis is just at the beginning of my research career.
3. What was the methodology you used in your research?
I used mainly a qualitative methodology in my research. I found out that this approach was not very much applied: at least not here in Barcelona. My degree is in Psychology, so I feel more comfortable being surrounded by humans rather than numbers. Luckily I could find very interesting bibliography supporting qualitative research in a comparative study, and case study analysis was the best method to reach my objectives. I did interviews, observation and documentary work in the local contexts.
I can say that working on a PhD thesis is certainly very stressful and tiring, but it is also enjoyable and satisfactory. I really enjoyed working on it. One of the things of my thesis that makes me feel happy with the result is that I pursue my actual interests and I was quite motivated. This gave me the energy to go on and to complete it. Choosing a methodology that made me feel comfortable is another reason to be happy with the result.
4. One of your areas of research and professional interests is “creativity and cultural production in the virtual world”. How, on your view, the digitalization era changes the ways in which we create and disseminate cultural and artistic content nowadays?
I think digitalization and new technologies are changing and challenging many things: our profession, our researches, our teaching, and even our relations. If we are able to chat, speak or watch a person online on real time, who is probably in the other side of the world, why are we not going to be able to perform and share artistic content online on real time as well? And where there is an artistic or cultural content, there should be a job for cultural managers: with changing functions and responsibilities, considering also the online space and the role of users as active participants.
I have tested this thought with a project in Second Life which I have been developed with a team since 2007. Although Second Life does not seem to be the ultimate platform for a virtual world (I hope to see other initiatives progressing in further years, like those based in OpenSim, for example), a developed virtual world could become for many people a stage or a gallery to share their creations or their performances. I think this is one of the many doors that the new technologies are opening to our profession and we have to keep our minds open, as well to face the constant changes and find how to cope with them.
5. What is your project in Second Life about?
We run a virtual land that shows the cultural heritage of Jalisco (Mexico). We have there virtual replicas of tangible and intangible heritage such as representative buildings, landscapes, monuments, sculptures, nature, tours, markets, handcrafts, furniture, dressings, food, drinks, music, etc. As Second Life is a virtual world where you can interact with the environment and even contribute with the content which you can create, the virtual representations of the users, the “avatars”, can enter the buildings, visit the places, play, interact, meet people, party, etc. What you can do there is indeed very interesting!
I also work with “Opera Joven”: a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and diffusion of culture and arts. It specializes mainly in the cultural heritage of Mexico and the State of Jalisco. It has been recognized and awarded with prizes and scholarships from various governments, public and private entities. We put on stage in Jalisco diverse original plays. Also, we organize in Second life live music concerts, ballet, poetry readings, dance parties, exhibitions, etc., with artists from all around the world. In addition to organizing events and art projects, it is also dedicated to educational and research activities about culture, arts and cultural heritage.
6. Do you think cultural managers efficiently use Web 2.0 tools and other new technologies in their daily operations? What are the opportunities and restrains in this respect?
I think we should use it much more and much better. New technologies are constantly evolving and it is better if we keep updated and take advantage of them. They can be a great help and a very useful tool. For example, we can start thinking of how to use Facebook, Twitter, etc., and other social networks not just for leisure, but also for professional reasons. Many institutions, organizations, governments, media, politicians, and even academics post daily useful information on real time. This is a very inspiring way to keep track on the topics and issues which we want to mutually update each other. There is always a way to keep your private information and professional affiliations separately and to decide whom and how to contact: the online platforms give options for such a choice.
7. What is your hobby and affiliation with an art form?
I love music. I am an opera singer, a tenor “leggiero”. I studied opera performance in Mexico for more than 11 years. I also studied other subjects like theatrical performance, piano, harmony and counterpoint. I performed in several theatre plays and operas in Mexico. Now in Barcelona I focused a lot in my studies and could not do much about my singer career. But in the meantime I found the way to perform and to reach a specific audience for my art: again, in Second Life. My virtual “personality”, Brent Renard has performed live opera concerts since 2007 and has a considerable number of followers from around the world and a fan club. For me, as an artist and as a cultural manager, as well as researcher, it has been very interesting to find a way and learn how to plug in a microphone in a console and then in a home-made-server to stream my voice live – singing for an international audience, who “attends” my concert and listens in a real-time-basis, providing feedback. And all this happens from home! This is just one of the many examples of what you can do with the new technologies.
8. Once you have finished your PhD, are you going back to Mexico or going to stay in Barcelona?
That is a difficult question! I don’t know at this stage. I love my country and I am always thinking about it. That is why in my researches and projects, I always try to involve the city and the region where I was born. (My Master’s thesis was an analysis of the legal framework of Jalisco concerning the cultural heritage protection) On another hand, there is no reason for not loving Barcelona, right? It is just an amazing place. I believe in both places there are big challenges for a cultural manager and in both places our profession is very much needed – maybe in different ways. So, the time will tell. My best option would be to be in both at the same time. Can this be possible?!
Read the interview also on the Young Cultural Policy Researchers Forum.