Post Institutional Stress Disorder (PISD) - Part I
Podcast with: Sarah Bahgat, Engy Mohsen and Mohamed Al Bakeri
Mohamed Al Bakeri: Good evening. I am Mohamed Bakeri, one of k-oh-llective’s members and with me is Engy Mohsen, another member of the collective. Our guest for today’s podcast is Sarah Bahgat, a director of cultural programmes. Sarah, let’s kick things off with an introduction about your job and what it entails.
Sarah Bahgat: My name is Sarah Bahgat, I am originally from Alexandria but I have been residing in Cairo for almost ten years now. As you mentioned I am a cultural programme manager, but I am currently self-employed, or independent as they often say, literally and metaphorically. I worked in the arts and culture sector with various institutional forms, and I am fortunate to have previous experience in many fields including visual arts, music, film, literature and so on. My job involved the implementation of projects and grants applications, but also reviewing artists' production grants and deciding on which projects/ideas are most appropriate for funding. In recent years, I have been focusing on working closely with artists or institutions through their ideas, and developing them till completion.
Bakeri: Okay, if we consider that the institutions you worked in (or any institution in general) consist of several individuals who play different roles, or that they are responsible for coordinating programmes, what do you think are the key components/experiences required to help them make informed decisions? The decisions can range from the selection of topics, to the artists participating in the programmes, places for implementing projects, and so on..
Sarah: That depends on the scale of the institution, and whether it is in its initial phases or has been around for a while. But let's say that it is crucial to be contextually aware, at least locally. It is of course an advantage to keep up to date with trends and what is happening regionally and internationally, so that an institution can plan their programme in advance and avoid ….
Sarah: Surprises, that can be good or bad. I mean, plans might still change and shift, so then it’s useful to have a flexible structure to adapt, but also to be always ready and accepting of criticism. Of course, everything I will say today comes from a personal experience or situations I went through, but I find criticism to be constructive and useful for self-development. I believe these are the basic requirements needed. After that, the more the institution grows, the more the employees tend to decide on studying cultural management. I, for example, did not come from an arts background, I studied languages, but I decided to pursue a career in arts and culture as I always liked to attend cultural events and wanted to work in an environment that kept me inspired. I think however that there are specific programmes available now - at least in the Arab world.
Engy Mohsen: By programmes do you mean training, workshops or studies? Because if we think about it, whether cultural management, or curation, all of these fields are considered non-discipline to a large extent. I mean, until very recently, curation wasn't a course to study at universities worldwide. Curators studied art history.
Engy: As you said you studied languages, do you mean that there will be more programmes in the Arab world in this respect? Or more programmes that need the presence of those who are cultural directors?
Sarah: Both. For example, you can now get a masters degree in cultural management in Morocco. I think this is an important programme initiated by Mawred if I am not mistaken.
Sarah: This becomes an option that is available, but it depends on the individual and what they intend to specialise in. For instance, in my case I learnt entirely from work experience, primarily trial and error in several institutions to find out what works best for me and developed it further. This however depends on the institutions’ directors and how much they allow for their employees to experiment and grow, which is something I was fortunate to have. As you guys know, in the last five or six years, things began to merge; culture management started to become a part of curation, event planning, communication, etc. which makes it difficult to situate them individually.
Engy: I also think the reason we thought of that question is because we’re considering it from our perspective as artists, trying to reach a middle ground between us. For instance, one of the examples Bakeri brought up was: what are the must-haves expected from individuals to be able to select artists, or as you said at the start that makes projects worthy of funding? Very often we are faced with an important question which is: is there a certain individual who has the responsibility to make the final choices? And if so, on what basis or experience? Is there a certain calibre that enables the said person to make decisions? And how can they remain free from any personal bias or opinions?
Bakeri: Another thing is, I don't know whether this is an individual or a collective decision.
Sarah: Okay, very good question. I think it is never an individual decision, at least again in my own experience. When I worked for foreign cultural centres in Egypt, they offered productions grants for artists and programmes, and it was usually according to a greater strategy that all institutions put in place at the beginning of the year. For example, let's saymthat this year we want to invest in three major projects, and within these projects we will have many fields, meaning we wouldn’t only fund cinematic projects. This would be the vision at large, then we’d start receiving proposals, whether through an open call or not. We would then have meetings to figure out how a proposal could relate to our criteria and contexts, what are the benefits, could it be for the purpose of production or merely through the cooperation itself, or could it be the starting point for a much larger project. That all depends on the vision of the larger institution, and it remains related to our experiences. If there are three cultural workers within a department, they each focus on one sub division based on their own research and experience. It is a very, very big responsibility, because one then decides on who will be able to go forward with their proposals and implement them ,and who won't. And to be completely honest, it is not always those people to make these decisions.
Bakeri: Okay got you, I just have a quick question. Do you think it makes a difference if there is some sort of an internal research that takes place where an institution discovers that a certain project has been previously funded? Does that impact the decision making or not? Could it be that the project is in more need of funding because it has no previous support? Could it make it more susceptible to be granted the opportunity? Or is it that the final decision inevitably comes down to the proposal regardless of any external factors?
Sarah: I see internal research as a crucial part of the process as it also depends on the network an individual has generated throughout their career. This helps keep track of relevant topics, contexts and where grants should be granted. It is also one of the requirements - the must-haves you asked about required in cultural workers - to always be well-informed and all round knowledgeable. That being said, it all goes down to the type of institution. Are we talking about donor institutions? Donors who, for example, state that a grant has a specific motive, like individuals affected by covid, or to support cultural places, etc. There is however another type, which are foreign cultural centres, and their main principle is the cooperation between Egypt and the so called country. Cultural cooperation and collaboration then becomes the main criteria for selection. This is then followed with questions like has the project been previously implemented? Has there been an inventive and significant progression that adds to it if it has been supported before, and so on? The rest of the criteria is based on the kind of institutions we are addressing.
Engy: I think we could talk about how regardless of the type of institution, in most cases, part of an institution’s core is its access to certain money or from certain sources, and also the responsibility to distribute to individuals, projects, or other smaller institutions, and so on. The question was not necessarily directed at donor institutions, but your answer responds to a large part of the thinking about these institutions, which makes me want to go back to a point you spoke about earlier. You mentioned that you worked under different management methods as a result of moving between several forms of institutions, and in some cases, management methods even within the same institution due to the change of place, institution, the form of the institution, and so on. And so my question is, who do you think is actually responsible for making such decisions, or to be more precise, to what extent are cultural managers involved in this? I mean whether directly, or indirectly, is the responsibility distributed, or all are these scenarios probable?
Sarah: No, of course managers can make your experience heaven or hell, literally. I consider myself really lucky to have worked at Townhouse gallery from 2014 to 2018, which were part of its golden years, I mean not like it was before, but it was an important moment in my career and also in Egypt’s art scene. I was also fortunate that I was part of a large institution where I was able to switch roles. At first I was an application manager then moved on to be in programming, and eventually remained as a programme director throughout the four years of my time there. Part of what made this a great experience was the room I was given to experiment and discuss ideas with colleagues as well as my manager at the time William Wells, to find out what is appropriate at the time and what isn't. It was never a case of “no this won't work”, or maybe if it did happen it was near the end when there were pressures and restrictions on all cultural institutions in Cairo’s downtown. Overall, this gave me the opportunity to learn and try things out, do you know what I mean? Of course the final decision always comes down to the founder or the director of the institution, and so they have a great responsibility to cultivate a suitable personal experience for their employees. This is to make them feel that they have an ownership as well, not only because they are employed by the workplace but because they are part of it and represent it, which extends beyond the space of work, for example when attending external exhibitions etc. Also when an individual is always involved and informed about projects, they are usually open-minded about outcomes and don’t have that terrible fear that they are doing something completely outside the mandate. So the idea of this openness sometimes helps an institution avoid being stuck in a certain aspect with no escape. That is not to say that all my experiences have been pleasant though, I’ve had “no sorry but we have a strict strategy we have to follow” thrown at me several times, or other times I had space for experimentation but it was very limited. That was also useful for me on how to be disciplined and work around restrictions. At the end of the day, the manager or the director are the ones who have a responsibility. The nature of their work differs massively based on their interests. The management methods themselves also differ, for example, if they allow that space for their employees or those who work in the place, or if it is a purely hierarchical relationship.
Bakeri: Okay Sarah I want to go back to the period when you worked at Townhouse, because this is a completely different period to now. I want to know what are the challenges that an institution can be faced with, and how it can affect the audience’s reception of their projects? Whether that is in the form of internal management or orientation, or because of problems that could let the organisation's orientation affect people's receipt of projects? Does that happen? How do consequences occur basically?
Sarah: I think this is one of the main reasons why Townhouse had such a great name and legacy, from the first moment they decided to invest in the public. I think what they did very well was their understanding of the surrounding community and allowing the nature of the programmes to attract different kinds of people. I mean, let us say that there was a bit of confusion in the beginning years but then it got better.
Bakeri: Of course, there was a learning curve.
Sarah: Exactly, and to be honest there is a sentence I remember very well that was said by one of the creators of townhouse (Sarah Rifky); “Townhouse is like a train, people always come and go but the train never stops.” I mean this is the case except when there is a run of unfortunate events, like when the place shuts down, or the death of a partner or the travel of the other partner. During my time there we faced many obstacles, for instance the place was shut for sometime and when we returned back to work, part of the building collapsed. All of this had a dramatic change in the entity of the institution. A moment I remember very well was when we opened an exhibition in 2016 in the factory and we had a great turn out of audiences that had no interest in contemporary nor visual arts, and their reason for joining the show was the reopening of Townhouse. They saw that their presence in this significant moment was a way of saying we support you.
Engy: It is as if they are saying we are here.
Sarah: Yes, and that they want the space to be active again. These were the moments where I felt like okay what we do here is necessary, and not only for the elite or the contemporary art circles, but also for the general public. There is a lot I can share with you about those four years, but overall I believe that the audience is extremely smart, if the institution does the homework of knowing who their target audience is. That is what Townhouse succeeded in: “Rawabet” was for the theatre audience, the library had its own audience and so did the exhibitions, and there were individuals that overlapped them by coincidence. For example, if there was both a film screening and a concert on, people decided to attend both. I don't mean to be nostalgic or sentimental, but that was honestly my experience.
Engy: I have another question and it's mainly to satisfy my curiosity, but I have been thinking about it all my life. I feel that the working conditions in the arts in general are fragile and unstable, and that phrase Sarah Rifky said about the train where people jump on and off, that means that the conditions are in constant flux and unsteadiness. I feel that we, as artists, bear that state because at the end of the day our practices are personal and subjective. On the other hand, I wonder why cultural practitioners (in all forms and types) accept this precarity? What is the motive or incentive that makes them continue working in these difficult conditions? Because at the end of the day this is a day job for them where they start in the morning and leave at a certain hour, so what keeps them going?
Sarah: I think this is what I said at the beginning when you asked about the components/skills needed to work in such a role, that the workers need to understand that part of the job means that plans don't necessarily go as planned. I don't know about others but for me the motivation is usually that the work I do is necessary and rewarding. In 2014, part of our programme was to have an exhibition every month, as well as an artist talk, a show and film screenings at the library in addition to a party. That would be the schedule every single month, and with a small team that consists of 5 members with the technicians and technical managers. It was still a lot of work to the extent that we would question “why every month”. It also meant that the audience were not given enough time to view and interact with the exhibitions. However, with that being said, when the shows are installed and are about to take place, I always get the sense that it was worth all the hard work and fatigue. Without me being too idealistic, I always feel that it is rewarding when projects are completed, that is my silver lining..
Engy: The point?
Sarah: Yes. It surely won't change someone's life but does it matter at all? Is the exposure to risks related to an institution's closure, security, or lack of funding worth it? What if a programme becomes smaller, will the public understand, show up and interact with what is on view? I believe this is what makes us do what we do.
Engy: I want to go back to what you just said, if we suppose a dream situation then lets propose a completely hypothetical scenario. Let's say you one day find yourself in the position of a director, what would you do differently or what are the approaches you’ll follow? You will have complete freedom and power in that scenario, the sky's the limit really.
Bakeri: Forget reality too.
Bakeri: I mean don't think that because reality is this, my choice is that.
Sarah: I don't hope for this, but if it happens I would do what worked best for me which is investing in people I work with. As I said, to have a personal experience in which they feel they have space to experiment, trial new things, make mistakes and learn, and so on. This will help design programmes that are beneficial to a wider community. I don't think I will embrace the idea that I am the founder or the director of a space, because I think if we take a case study in Egypt, most of the issues stem from the one man or one woman show. This often affects the longevity and continuity of the institution, since if that said person decided to travel or died or whatever, that causes it to fall even if they try to think of other forms. At the end of the day, when people talk about “K-oh-llective” they will refer to it as the group Engy Mohsen and Mohamed Bakeri are part of. I think we are all guilty of this habit, whether in the arts or culture or even other fields, where we associate the institution with the people. I try to avoid doing that as much as I can and keep it horizontal as they say.
Engy: But do you feel that the issue exists when the institution is linked with a singular individual, and so it completely collapses when that person does not exist, or is it because the institution is linked to several individuals? For example, for us five in “K-oh-llective” we try (and I am not saying we succeed in this) as hard as we can that the collective does not stop with us. So if I am tired today and I have a headache that won't allow me to attend a meeting, I know that another member would replace me to fill this need, as the responsibility is divided equally amongst us. Do you see this as a one man show model or do you think that having several members within an institution will always have their names associated with it regardless of the circumstances?
Sarah: No of course, the institution will inevitably be linked with the names of the people working for it. It is part of what it is, you know the saying “You make the job, the job doesn't make you”, we all try to achieve this but it is a difficult task. I don't think it is a matter of linking x or y, I mean this is the big crisis, and they are usually the founders or co founders who are the representatives of an institution everywhere. If anything happens (and I think we have many experiences with these models without having to mention names) or if they disappear, that's it. Everything is gone.
Sarah Bahgat is a Cairo-based cultural manager with extensive experience in the fields of film, literature, visual arts and music. While curating the public programs at Egypt’s flagship art institution Townhouse Gallery (2014-2018), she initiated the Townhouse Salons, a monthly series of literary conversations held with artists, writers, cultural historians and critics. Following that period and over the past three years, Sarah was working as a project manager at the arts and culture unit of the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Initiative (DEDI), an intergovernmental organisation established to promote cross-cultural exchanges between Egypt and Denmark. Her position as a film programmer at the Netherlands- Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) allowed her to pursue her passion for independent audio-visual productions. At the moment, Sarah is working independently with artists and institutions on developing a diversified portfolio of cultural programs that are critical, relevant and socially engaged.