Access Culture Board at the press conference table

On the occasion of the 6th edition of Access Culture Week (June 17-23), after six years of continuous work and convinced that cultural participation is closely linked to the quality of our democracy, Access Culture decided to give this press conference with the aim of:

  • Taking stock of these six years of work, in partnership with several public and private entities throughout the country;
  • Celebrating the significant improvements achieved;
  • Reflecting on the passive or active contribution of different agents, cultural and others, in the perpetuation of discriminatory practices that prevent access to cultural participation.

We are an association of cultural professionals and cultural organizations whose mission is the promotion of access – physical, social, intellectual – to cultural participation.

Our main objectives are:

  • To place access – physical, social and intellectual – at the centre of the reflection and practice of the cultural sector;
  • To contribute to the technical preparation of culture professionals in issues of access, in order to promote change;
  • To promote dialogue and reflection on issues of access in public forums;
  • To publicly intervene whenever people’s right of access to culture is not respected.

Firstly, we would like to highlight three projects, carried out with the support of other organisations, which we believe have created conditions for the necessary change of mentalities and practices:

  • The conference Access to the arts: a question of management, organised on 9 March 2016 at the D. Maria II National Theatre with the support of the British Council. It was a meeting that brought together about 100 professionals and helped raise awareness among members of boards of directors and directors of cultural venues, which resulted in concrete changes in some of these organisations.
  • The encounters Beyond the Physical: barriers to cultural participation in 2017, with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. We had the opportunity to organise a number of sessions in all the intermunicipal communities of the country and in the autonomous regions, taking our conversation beyond ramps and adapted bathrooms and exploring other barriers, also social and intellectual, for which the cultural sector is also responsible. The report on those encounters is available on our website and can be used by local authorities, cultural managers and other culture professionals wishing to get to know better the country’s reality and to establish priorities.
  • The launch of the website Cultura Acessível (Accessible Culture) in September 2018, with the support of the Millennium BCP Foundation. This website seeks to gather all information regarding accessible cultural programming in Portugal. The aim is, on the one hand, for access to this information to be more immediate and easy for the people who need it; on the other hand, to give greater visibility to the Portuguese cultural organisations that strive to create conditions of access to their programming.

The three organisations mentioned here have also supported our activity at other times and we would like to, once again, express our gratitude.

  • It was the Millennium BCP Foundation that helped us introduce the relaxed sessions in Portugal. These are sessions of theatre, dance, cinema or other type of cultural offer that take place in a more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere and with more tolerant rules regarding movement and noise in the room, thus allowing the participation of individuals and families who prefer or benefit from a more relaxed environment in a cultural venue (e.g. people with attention deficit, people with intellectual disabilities, people with autism, people with sensory or communication disabilities). The first theatres to join were São Luiz Municipal Theatre, Maria Matos Municipal Theatre and D. Maria II National Theatre, all in Lisbon. São João National Theatre in Oporto, LU.CA Luís de Camões Theatre in Lisbon and São Jorge Cinema (in the case of the festivals MONSTRA, Indie and Doclisboa) joined later.
  • It was thanks to the British Council that Access Culture held its first course on audio-description in 2016. Audio-description is an additional narrative track for the blind and the visually impaired in general, users of visual media, including television, film, theatre, dance, opera, and the visual arts. It consists of a narrator who speaks during the presentation, describing whatever is not perceived through hearing, during the natural pauses of the audio. The 2016 course was followed by a seminar with English experts. Later, in 2018, Access Culture invested in the training of more audio-describers, given the increase in the demand for this service.
  • It was with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation that in 2017 we presented the publication The Inclusion of migrants and refugees: the role of cultural organisations, in addition to the Foundation hosting several of our annual conferences, which is also a significant support for us.
  • It is also worth mentioning another partnership that, in 2017, allowed five dance and theatre companies, representing the diversity of Portuguese society, to be brought to the IETM – International Network for the Performing Arts conference in Brussels. This happened thanks to the Portuguese Arts Council (DGARTES) and the companies were CRINABEL Teatro, Dançando com a Diferença, Sociedade Artística e Musical de Pousos, Teatro Griot and Vo’Arte. This meeting was repeated in Porto in 2018 and has resulted in several other partnerships and projects for the companies involved.

Apart from this, there have been multiple partnerships with public and private entities (museums, theatres, galleries, libraries and other cultural organisations throughout the country) that allow Access Culture to conduct courses, debates and seminars, through the provision of space. The list is extensive, but they all have our deepest thanks. We have no doubt that we would have achieved very little if it were not for these partners. Thanks to them, we have carried out:

  • Many training courses, in various parts of the country, aimed at culture professionals, as well as internal trainings, at the request of various cultural organisations;
  • In 2019, we introduced the format of seminar, through which we seek to explore with our colleagues some more political issues related to access to cultural participation. To date, we have organised five: Culture and Human Rights; What has Brazil got to tell us: artistic practices and participation; The black presence in Culture in Portugal; Decolonising museums: this in practice…?; Queer? LGBT narratives in Portuguese museums;
  • Public debates, which are currently being held in eight different cities (Castelo Branco, Évora, Faro, Funchal, Lisbon, Ponta Delgada, Porto, VN Famalicão);
  • An annual conference, which addresses various themes related to access (social media, clear language, architecture, participatory projects, open access, LGBTQI+ heritage);
  • Access audits (D. Maria II National Theatre, Centro Cultural de Belém, Casa Fernando Pessoa, LU.CA Luís de Camões Theatre, National Railway Museum) and other consultancies for the implementation of accessibility services in cultural programming (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Indie, Doclisboa , Route of the Romanesque, among others);
  • Studies and publications available online: Participação: partilhando a responsabilidade (2016); House on Fire at Maria Matos Municipal Theatre: Qualitative evaluation of some initiatives presented by the network (2017); The Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees: the Role of Cultural Organisations (2017); Beyond the Physical: Barriers to Cultural Participation (2018).

Six years later, what’s the state of the art?

  • There is no doubt that we there are a number of colleagues in the field very much aware of what constitutes a barrier to cultural participation. Projects with a significant impact are being developed (some of which have received the Access Culture Award, which is our contribution to creating greater visibility for good practices). It is thanks to these colleagues – who occupy different positions in the internal hierarchies of cultural organisations – that Acceso Cultura has managed to work on multiple improvements and also to introduce some new practices in Portugal.
  • Having said that, we very much feel the absence of involvement of those who have the capacity and power to decide. Managers / artistic directors / boards of directors / municipal counsellors for culture rarely join us in our moments of reflection (courses, seminars, debates, annual conferences). Thus, because one is dealing with different sensitivities and knowledge, the first barrier is the internal barrier – something repeatedly mentioned during the encounters Beyond the Physical.
  • The question of mentality is central. Not all improvements involve financial investment. Of course, many (especially those that have to do with physical access) are not made without money. Once again, we had the opportunity to confirm that our colleagues are very much aware of what needs to be done (which has resulted in numerous funding applications from cultural organisations to the Turismo de Portugal). However, many other improvements do not need this type of investment. They need to have a good look at what we do and how we do it. We are responsible for numerous psychological barriers – for example, the way we communicate convinces people that “this place is not for me.” But there are other barriers, social and intellectual. We need to be aware of them, look at how we work and adapt our practices. We consider that it will not be the free entries or digital contents, which always appear as obvious and first measures, that will allow us to overcome these barriers.
  • Another issue we should be concerned about is that, as in other countries, we are a sector that is very little representative of the society. At the same time as we strive to attract what we call “new audiences”, it seems to go unnoticed that among these “new audiences” there may be people who, given the opportunity, could consider a career in Culture, bringing to the sector multiple looks and different, new, narratives. We must ask ourselves: who directs the Portuguese cultural organisations? Who works in Communications and Education? And in the technical teams? Who does exhibitions, writes plays, creates dance performances, makes movies? Who has a voice in the cultural sector and which voices are missing? Access Culture has sought to address some of these issues in its seminars proposed this year and will continue to do so.

Finally our physical spaces and access to our programming.

  • There are many, too many, cultural venues in Portugal that still do not comply with the law of accessibility. Many of us are responsible for this: architects, designers, municipal councils (having a duty to inspect and issue licenses), public organisations (Directorate General of Arts, Inspectorate General for Cultural Activities, National Institute for Rehabilitation). We have to do our job. There can be no more projects for new or renewed cultural venues that do not include, as they should, the accessibility plan. We cannot continue with “whites only” spaces, as in the Apartheid.
  • That said, the directors and authorities responsible for managing cultural venues must abide by the law. It is not an option, it is an obligation.
  • In the same way, we count on the collaboration of artistic programmers (festivals, biennials and other initiatives): we ask them not to programme anymore in spaces that exclude many citizens. This is a way of contributing to discrimination.
  • There is so much that is not yet accessible. Portuguese Sign Language interpretation, audiodescription, relaxed sessions are little used in museums, theatres, cinemas and concentrated mainly in Lisbon and Oporto.

Access presupposes a proactive stance from all of us: professionals in the cultural sector, public and private collaborating with the sector, and citizens. We must be demanding and critical (as well as self-critical). Access is not an issue for some, it is an issue for all of us, it requires a collective effort.

In the words of one of our colleagues, “There are many, too many, people locked up at home because they are different.” Access Culture will continue to work to promote access – physical, social and intellectual – to cultural participation. So that people can leave their homes, so that they can dream without barriers about what they want to be, where they want to be, what they want to do. We work so that difference may become mainstream.