On stage at the Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon October 2016

Every so often I am invited abroad to talk about art writing and the art of communication. In 2015 I went to Istanbul, and in 2016 I was privileged to be invited to talk at the annual conference of the Acesso Cultura organisation, held in Lisbon, Portugal. Loosely translated as Access Culture, its work is entirely about issues to do with, well, cultural access. They work across the cultural sector with museums, music, performing arts and libraries.

The conference took place at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and was attended by about 130 arts and museum professionals. It was a beautifully organised day, with visiting speakers and panellists such as Martine Gosseling from the Rijksmuseum. But it also attempted to learn from other sectors who are grappling with the need to communicate to wider audiences than they traditionally have done. So post-doctoral scientist Joana Moscoso spoke powerfully about the lack of science role models when she was growing up, which has inspired her to create the Native Scientist organisation. She runs this not-for-profit organisation voluntarily, with a mission to inspire ethnic minority pupils to consider STEM careers and to build a community of advocates for diversity and equality in education and the workforce.

I spoke about the mechanics of what makes writing excellent, adequate and poor, using some recent examples from my inbox. I didn’t have to go very far back to find five or six examples of terrible art writing, all from professional organisations. Every time I do a talk such as this, or indeed, have a private conversation, people always agree with the need to communicate clearly and excitingly about the arts. We all agree on the importance of writing good English (or other language), and we all vow to do so. But as I pointed out in Lisbon – people and organisations are still sending out, publishing or displaying terrible texts. It’s easier said than done.

I’ve started to become quite didactic in these talks, not just being clear about what makes for poor writing, but also what makes writing excellent. I share some of the tools and mechanisms at our disposal to create short sharp paragraphs that people want to read. In Lisbon this was well-received but of course necessarily fairly short and superficial. A wider exploration of the issues is in The Interpretation Matters Handbook, and I still have some copies available for sale if you want one.

But writing generally, and arts writing in particular, is a big subject and the best learning is a combination of theory and a lot of practice. If you’re interested in providing this for your organisation, please let me know: I have a set of workshops ready to be deployed!


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