by María Villa, 2013-2014 President Néstor Kirchner Fellow

villaWhen I submitted my paper for this fellowship I had little expectation of what my real chances of getting it would be. I’ve been working in the cultural field, in public office, with case studies and experiments emerging around programs for social engagement and critical initiatives in art venues — far from academia and more traditional approaches to public policy based on hard data and technical debates. Despite all of that, I gave it a try because this program seemed unique in encompassing public office concerns regarding public policy design and implementation, actual social and community experiences, as much as the intellectual production related to them. On top of all, the call was open-ended enough to welcome research on a field rarely studied or prioritized in development policy debates in Latin America: arts and culture.

I had struggled for years trying to decide whether to invest my energy in social/philosophical research, or to be out in the world working with communities as cultural promoter. I finally managed to keep both in motion through projects in the public office fostering the arts in Bogotá. OLA’s fellowship seemed to offer a suitable environment to discuss many questions and hypothesis raised from practice in public office with leading and high profile people in different fields in New York. And that’s exactly what happened in the two weeks I spent exchanging with them and presenting the outcomes of my work.

The PNK Fellowship was an unprecedented learning experience for me in several ways. Organizing my own arguments and research data in a brief and compelling way to present them at the New School triggered my awareness of many aspects I had previously overlooked or underestimated. Debating with very relevant peers and scholars in the two preparatory seminars and receiving their feedback reshaped many ideas I had before, presented completely new questions to me, and raised important issues necessary to take my research to a next level. Also, the discussions provided an opportunity to explain my ideas in a challenging context: they gave room to contrast my research with many projects developed in New York, both in and outside academia, that deal with similar questions or concerns in different ways. Finally, the fellowship stressed the importance of investing more time and energy developing my inquiry (and so validated my initial, more intuitive, approach to the matter) and encouraged me to explore possibilities of collaborating with other initiatives, researchers and project managers in the future.

A major appeal of this fellowship lies in the meetings with peers and experts that the OLA coordinators arrange for you; they were a huge source of reflection and discovery. Two things really made these meetings exceptional: I invested significant time in providing the OLA staff with names of people whose work I had read or whose institutions/projects were key references to me; also, I tried to include not only scholars of different fields, but also educators, curators and cultural managers in the city. This varied selection responds to my particular topic, which is directly related to field work with contemporary art audiences, encompasses innovative methods for critical thinking and creative engagement, and deals with qualitative impact assessment. The debate on arts, education and civil practices is relevant both to contemporary museums, artists, curators, teachers and social researchers, all of which I had the chance to meet with and discuss aspects of my research related to their own practice.

The basic issues I work with can be summed up in two questions: How can we build a meaningful dialogue among artists and audiences? And what does that dialogue tell us about the social impact of the arts in multicultural and urban communities? My paper suggests the answers might often arise in that crossing point of specialized agents and scaffolding for critical debate. The Observatory of Latin America at the New School was the perfect context to address this subject matter from many perspectives (not only cross-disciplinary, but also cross-institutional) and provided an invaluable platform to strengthen and spread my work.

Bogotá, Colombia, March 2014

 Read more about the President Néstor Kirchner Fellowship Program

This program is supported by the JULIEN J. STUDLEY FOUNDATION