‘Art can help to give a voice to people who have been silenced.’

Leonor Rosas shares her experience of the Youth Advisory Group and reflects on the challenge of attracting young audiences to cultural institutions and on the transformative power of art in society.
29 Feb 2024 11 min
Youth Advisory Group

What made you want to get involved with the Youth Advisory Group (YAG)?

For some time, I had been thinking that I would like to get involved in working with a museum in some way. In an academic sense, I’ve always been very interested in the history of the museum as an institution and studying the various issues of equality and diversity in museums. I was keen to experience the day-to-day life of a museum for myself.

Then I saw that the Youth Advisory Group was inviting applications. I read the guidelines and found out what they were looking for and what they were hoping to do. I was enthused by what I read. In addition to being an opportunity to get to know a museum from the inside, the project itself seemed an interesting way of approaching the question of how art can transform society. It appeared to be closely connected to issues that mean a lot to me, relating to social movements and social justice.

I was glad that they wanted to listen to the public and younger people in particular, in an attempt to reach a younger audience. So I applied. I figured I had nothing to lose.

What was your relationship with CAM and the Foundation before you got involved with this project?

Both CAM and the Foundation have been a constant presence in my life. I’ve always lived close to Gulbenkian and I’ve been visiting it for as long as I can remember. As a child, my parents took me to CAM a lot. I particularly remember having lunch at the CAM cafeteria at the weekend. Those are memories that I really associate with my childhood. I visited the garden a lot, too, even into my teens. I still come here almost every week, often to visit the exhibitions.

It’s great to be able to take part in the Youth Advisory Group because I get the chance to see how everything works in a place that I’ve been coming to all my life, and which I’ve always loved and held in high regard.

The YAG is dedicated to thinking about young audiences. What do you think sets young audiences apart from others?

Some things unite all audiences while others push them apart. I think there’s a lot of young people that are genuinely interested in what’s happening around them. Thinking about my friends – people I get along with and chat to – when I ask what exhibitions they’re going to see or what they’ve been to recently, it’s always exhibitions linked to issues that are the subject of current debate.

The exhibitions Tudo que eu quero [All I want], featuring women artists, and Europa Oxalá, focusing on racialised artists, are just two examples. I think people my age are really drawn to exhibitions that touch on major issues, like social justice and combating inequality. By coming to see an exhibition, they’re engaging with the debate surrounding current affairs, which leads on to discussion among ourselves about the subject of the exhibition: how can women or social minorities be represented?

In the Youth Advisory Group we’ve talked a lot about certain challenges. I don’t have an answer to those and I think it’s not easy to find solutions on how to encourage the younger generations, who are very attached to their screens, phones and computers, to leave the house and come to a museum, or how to get them excited about an art exhibition. In the Group, we’re also trying to work out how to reach out to that audience, which tends to be rather enclosed within the digital realm.

In your application to join the YAG, you stated that you wanted to help open up museum spaces to everyone. What are the main obstacles to this?

I wrote that from the point of view of someone who has always loved visiting museums, but was able to do so by sheer luck and privilege, largely because my parents brought me there. I think that this was very important in my personal development. As I see it, art and the possibility of coming into contact with art exhibitions is so crucial to our personal development that I want this to be something within everyone’s reach.

The fact is that many people lack access to such spaces not because admission isn’t free at the weekend or because there aren’t any discounted tickets, but because they don’t move in the cultural circles where museums are part of the conversation. They simply don’t have access to the information that would prompt them to come here. Or perhaps because they are not interested in what is being exhibited or they don’t see themselves in it.

This is why we need strategies for reaching different audiences, marginalised communities, for example; this is something that the Group has discussed at length. How can we create a space that is more accessible to all kinds of people, with all levels of education? This requires cultural outreach, communication and consideration of themes and provisions that may appeal to more people. In the process, I realised that some of these things are actually already being done, and in a very interesting way. These efforts at outreach and communication need to continue.

You also talk about the central role of art in social change. Why do you think that art is fundamental to this transformation?

I think that the transformation of a society has to include culture. But that cultural aspect isn’t something neutral or transcendental; it involves debate and dispute over ideas. While I don’t subscribe to the view that art shouldn’t have a political purpose, such art is often the only kind that gets attention. I don’t really agree with that; I think all kinds of art are part of an overall discourse, a discussion of ideas. Even if it doesn’t appear that way at first, this is how it turns out.

For this reason, I think art can help to challenge assumptions – which reflect prejudice – in society and bring out the voices of people who have been silenced. Due to their own personal experience, one may feel moved or challenged by a work of art of any kind. This helps to transform ideas. We’ve been talking about this in the sessions, too. These days, with the frenetic consumption of 20-second videos, art can help us tune out from things designed for rapidly consumption, and make us feel and reflect more deeply. In other words, experiencing art is also a way of confronting an increasingly fast-paced world.

You talk a lot about cultural spaces as political vehicles. How can a cultural institution have political agency?

By ‘political vehicles’, I don’t mean political propaganda, not at all! They’re political in the sense that any cultural institution of a considerable scale also has social responsibilities. An institution like Gulbenkian or other large museums, whether public or private (I don’t make any distinction), and which reach large audiences, always have social responsibility. For instance, they shouldn’t spread messages that may be hateful or anti-democratic, or that are insulting to a particular community, at a bare minimum.

I think that sustainability is also a matter of social responsibility, which is simply unavoidable for such a large institution. It must be accountable for its own sustainability. Like all other issues of social justice and combating inequalities, this is a very important issue, and I think that it should be in the forefronts of the minds of the people running this type of institution.

In terms of working with the group and the team dynamics, how has being part of the Group been for you? 

I’m really enjoying the experience. I had high expectations, but it still managed to surpass them.

Firstly, it’s a team that works really well together, because despite our different points of view and backgrounds, our input always ends up converging, at least on fundamental points. We all have a vision of change and belief in the need for social transformation and reflection on social issues. We might come at things from very different angles, but this idea that it is necessary to reinvigorate, change and transform has sparked some fascinating discussions.

We are always open to sharing our thoughts and speaking freely. We love a good discussion, so we work very well together as a group. So far, we’ve mainly been getting acquainted with the various areas of CAM – finding out how they work, asking any questions we may have. From now on, we’ll be starting to implement more ideas.

It’s been a highly positive experience and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do some interesting things, which should also prove useful for the institution that is hosting us.

You said you’ve had several sessions already. Was there one that you particularly liked?

I think my favourite and the one that had the greatest impact on me was when we met with the CAM’s Collection team and we went to the storage area to see the artworks that we had chosen. We talked a bit about their acquisitions policy and I was pleasantly surprised to learn more about the guidelines for acquiring new works. Concerns relating to issues of gender, ethnic and racial identity and sustainability are integral to this policy. I realised there was plenty of discussion about this going on in the background.

The presentation given by Margarida Mafra, the Collections Manager, was very interesting, and having the opportunity to visit the collection storage, where CAM works are held, was a unique experience. Seeing those rooms and the works we had chosen was very special. I really enjoyed that day.

You chose a work by Sonia Delaunay and A biblioteca em fogo [The Library on Fire] by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. Why did you choose those two works?

I chose the untitled printe by Sonia Delaunay, which I ended up seeing in the storage, because I’ve always liked it a lot. When I was little, I remember coming to see an exhibition about the Delaunays at CAM. This piece stuck with me at the time. I also chose Sonia Delaunay because she’s a woman painter that people can really discover here. When the Histórias de uma Coleção [Histories of a Collection] exhibition was held here not long ago, it included a painting of her. She had a fascinating life story and I loved her work, so I was thrilled to see it in person.

I chose Vieira da Silva’s work essentially because it’s a bit of a classic in the collection here, and because I think she’s a must-see artist. I had seen her work recently, too. I love Vieira da Silva, but Delaunay may well be one of my favourite artists.

Taking the title of your book, De quem se esqueceu Lisboa? [Who has forgotten Lisbon?], I’d like to challenge you to think about who has Gulbenkian ‘forgotten’?

Yes, that is a challenge! I think I’m still discovering how Gulbenkian works and what’s going on here, which would enable me to answer this question more appropriately.

I’m certain that they haven’t forgotten about women. I was delighted that many teams that included young women came to talk to us, several of them led by women. There’s a lot of thinking about gender issues and the representation of women. They showed us the early planning for a book that is being written about Madalena Perdigão, who was such an important figure. In other words, they value the role of women. I knew then that they definitely hadn’t forgotten about women. And as a woman, that makes me happy.

Finally, what are your expectations for the reopening of the CAM?

I have relatively high expectations, as we’ve already had the opportunity to talk about some exciting upcoming exhibition projects, and I’m eager to see them come to fruition. We had the opportunity to view a plan of the works and what the building will look like, so I’m curious to see how it turns out. I used to come to CAM a lot before it closed for construction, so I hope to be able to come here even more now.

As part of the Youth Advisory Group, I also hope to gain a greater insight into certain things that I wouldn’t otherwise see. I want to bring friends and family here and get involved whenever I can in the activities put on by CAM in the near future.


Youth Advisory Group

The Youth Advisory Group is a project created with the intention of broadening and deepening its relationship with younger audiences. The group is made up of nine people who reflect on the needs of the new generations, contributing with ideas and participating in the action and design of CAM’s programming.

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