Between cultural democratization and the preservation of artistic integrity : constructing cultural mediation for contemporary art
by Marion Viollet, PhD in visual arts, contemporary art mediator
Marion Viollet traces the emergence of cultural mediation in the world of contemporary art. A cultural mediator herself, M. Viollet dates the active development of mediation in the field of contemporary art to the early 2000s. Throughout her presentation, M. Viollet explains the challenges of this intermediary position: the mediator attempts to grant the keys of knowledge to as wide an audience as possible, while respecting the tenets of artistic creation.
M. Viollet begins her discussion with a brief history of cultural mediation in contemporary art. Toward the end of the 19th century, guides were provided in museums, to accompany the visitor as he discovered works of art. These guides were generally women of the bourgeois class, cultivated and eager to volunteer in a museum setting. Come the 1950s, the public education movement initiated arts education programs in schools. The concept of “cultural democratization” is born in 1959, upon the establishment of the Ministry of cultural affairs spearheaded by André Malraux. Two decades later, the Pompidou Center of modern art adopts a civic mission of uniting socially divided groups. In the 1980s, contemporary art continues its struggle to gain legitimacy in the cultural sector. Jack Lang, minister of culture under François Mitterand, encourages the decentralization and diffusion of contemporary art.
Shortly after the year 1983, the notion of “cultural mediation” as articulated as such, appears in France at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. In the 1990s, French universities begin offering training in cultural mediation, including diploma programs and workshops. The Cultural Mediation Association (MCA) is established in 1999, allowing art professionals to think collectively about the future of cultural mediation. In 2000, Catherine Tasca, minister of culture under Jacques Chirac, proposes a “Charter of public service missions for contemporary art institutions”; two years later, this initiative is followed by a law mandating the creation of cultural mediation services in French museums. These services are to be implemented by professionals in the field.
In 2010, Frédéric Mitterrand, minister of culture under Nicolas Sarkozy, reclaims a culture “for each” French citizen, arguing that culture “for everyone” leaves artistic and civic initiatives all too often undifferentiated. In 2012, Aurélie Filippetti, minister of culture under François Hollande, emphasizes the importance of quality in artistic creation and cultural mediation: works of great quality elicit higher reflection from their audiences.
Through this brief historical narrative, M. Viollet concludes that mediation in contemporary art is the fruit of successive efforts to make art more accessible to the French public. Today, the mission of cultural mediators is not only to provide this audience with the tools to understand art, but also to make their interlocutors feel less guilty for not being naturally attracted to contemporary art. The cultural mediator must thus engage in conversation with the public, adapting his discourse to varying age groups, professions, and cultural backgrounds. This cultural specialist must also have the necessary resources at his fingertips to provide further documentation to a curious audience member, which requires great depth and breadth of knowledge.
M. Viollet then attempts to answer the following question: is cultural mediation a tool well adapted to contemporary art? She begins by stating the complexity of art, regardless its time period or genre: a work of art encompasses both a physical representation and a suggested meaning. The added complexity of contemporary art lies in the fact that this dual aesthetic is rarely clear-cut. As such, viewers do not approach a work of contemporary art with similar perspectives; accompaniment thus becomes an imperative. Furthermore, cultural mediators in contemporary art assist in contextualizing a creation, while inviting the spectator to develop his/her own interpretation of the work; they are truly polyvalent professionals. Ultimately, cultural mediation cannot be an imposition on art and must therefore be subtly implemented.
Cultural mediation in contemporary art is therefore important given the complexity of its analysis, yet intermediaries cannot transgress the sanctified encounter between the spectator and the work of art. His/her explanations must be a gateway to understanding, but not an end in itself. S/he is neither teacher nor guide. A cultural mediator is thus placed in a paradoxical position; his mission is clear, yet reaching its fulfillment is a delicate task. The Référentiel Européen des Professions Muséales established in 2008 provides a few guidelines for the cultural mediator: this professional must work for “all current and potential audience members”; “must participate in the conception of permanent and temporary exhibits and implement the initiatives complementing them”; “must participate in the evaluation of these initiatives”; “must inform his higher-ups of the needs and expectations of various audience members in order to develop new programs and new initiatives”1. Finally, all cultural mediators must be recipients of degrees in museum management, education, and/or communication.
M. Viollet concludes her presentation by examining the work of lmac-mp, Laboratoire des Médiations en Art Contemporain – Midi-Pyrénées, a research institution that focuses on the definition of the cultural mediation profession, along with providing training for arts specialists. An important contribution of this center launched in 2002, is the questionnaire it published a decade later on the diversity of backgrounds amongst cultural mediators in contemporary art. The results of this survey also paint a more comprehensive picture of the profession itself. To begin, most cultural mediators benefit from permanent work contracts, rendering the profession less precarious as previously believed. Furthermore, many mediators do not intend to make a lifelong profession of their intermediary position and wish to pursue their own careers in the cultural sector. While most mediators work closely with school groups, they are not instructors.
This is an important nuance, as it allows a wider scope of the mediators’ mission: their work is not solely limited to interacting with younger generations, but can be expanded to engaging with more mature audiences. Adults can equally benefit from cultural mediation, as emphasized by the surveyed professionals.
However, despite these telling results, the cultural mediation profession remains underdeveloped and undervalued. The difficulty in understanding the application of cultural mediation to the world of contemporary art, let alone articulating its exact definition, are manifestations of the inherent complexity of this profession. M. Viollet proposes that by expressing cultural mediation as a complement to the audience’s discovery of contemporary art, rather than an intermediary between the viewer and the work, art specialists might be perceived in a more favorable light. Cultural mediation is undoubtedly an essential tool in cultural democratization, and as such, it is necessary to grant it due respect while granting the profession its proper position in the cultural sector
1 All translations my own.