Greece: transform museums to transform communities

Greece is known for its history and culture, and trademark designs from classical Greek architecture and art make an appearance throughout the U.S. and other countries, in everything from public buildings to mass-produced women’s accessories. The new Acropolis museum infused a new energy to the celebration of this culture and gathered over 300,000 fans on Facebook.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

New plans were announced over the past year to help the Greek capital preserve and showcase this cultural heritage, as well as its contemporary creative arts. Many of these plans are not new, but the announcements may be a sign that they will soon get underway. The discussion should not end at how we showcase history, culture and art, however.  Museums and art venues have a higher calling and a greater value to contribute to society. There is vast potential for Greek museums, historical sites and art venues to find new ways to deliver the past into the creativity and imaginations of Greeks and the world’s visitors, from where it will emerge back into communities as new forms of art, design and social interactions.

Greece’s Central Archaeological Council (KAS) announced a plan for a new Archaeological Museum of Athens to showcase the full timeline of the city’s history. This plan will involve an international architectural design competition, as with the new Acropolis Museum, and a two million euro grant from the City of Athens. The first stage in this new city archaeological museum plan is a project to improve the Plato’s Academy, an archaeological site in the center of Athens previously described as neglected: “Eroding walls, rusty fences, haphazard collections of ancient stones, and a lack of explanatory signboards characterize a place that should be a world heritage site.” The Plato’s Academy renovation is estimated at one million euros, though existing funding is enough to cover the call for design proposals.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art is also preparing for a new home. By October 2013, with funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERFD), it will be housed in the old Fix brewery, Greece’s first major brewery.

There are signs that steps may soon be taken toward a more comprehensive strategy to making important cultural sites accessible. The Onassis Foundation announced Rethink Athens, a plan to improve central Athens through urban development, including pedestrian roads connecting archaeological sites and museums, bicycle lanes and an extension of the tram line. The Foundation is funding a European architectural design competition, with the hope that the urban development project will be funded from EU structural funds (ESPA).

Can Athens adopt a comprehensive strategy to integrate art and culture with the community – a strategy that goes beyond initiatives to upgrade museums and make archaeological sites more accessible? Questions remain. Funding for museum security is scheduled for significant cuts, event after two museum robberies this year, one at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in January, and one at the National Gallery in February. The existing National Archaeological Museum of Athens, renovated ahead of the 2004 summer Olympics, still has insufficient space to showcase its entire permanent collection and insufficient funds to keep all the wings open and fully staffed. Outside its walls, part of the neighborhood has been a gathering place for drug users, and the streets around the museum, the nearby National Technical University of Athens and the nearest metro station, Omonia, are dirty and graffitied.

Further, another portion of the Altar of the Twelve Gods was discovered in February 2011 under the electric railway (ISAP). The Altar, near the Acropolis and ancient Agora, is a significant site for understanding ancient Athens: it was the central point from which distances were measured. KAS granted ISAP permission to rebury the Altar, and Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Council of State, ruled in July to allow burying it so that the electric rail continues to run over it, despite a petition by a citizens’ initiative requesting that this action be suspended and that the government consider an alternative solution of constructing an underground line for the train. In this example, relevant authorities (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Regional Authority of Athens, City of Athens) failed to act to adopt and implement a solution that would allow the site to be excavated and integrated into a network highlighting and better utilizing sites of ancient Athens, including the Acropolis, the Agora and Kerameikos.

It takes more than beautiful physical structures, clean streets and easy public access for a museum or site to help us connect with our past and inspire our future. Museums are trying out innovative ways to connect with people and communities through social media and interactive educational programs. Examples of this exist in Greece and throughout the world:

  • The Municipal Art Gallery of Larissa/Georgios Katsigras Museum has a learning center that offers free workshops for children and adults.
  • In 2009, the Portland Art Museum – one of the oldest museums in the U.S. – brought in the China Design Now exhibit and invited the community to be a part of the exhibition by creating and contributing content and hosting events throughout the city. (More at FastCompany.)
  • A competition in 2011 sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded grants to 12 U.S. libraries and museums for proposals to create facilities where teens can explore digital media, technology, art and literature through hands-on learning experiences.

There are also international networks that help museum teams meet and learn from each other in these areas. The MuseumNext 2012 conference in Barcelona May 23-25, for example, will focus on Digital Participation, Digital Marketing and Digital Challenges through presentations and interactive or hands-on sessions.

Common Threads: Tribute To Philadelphia’s Youth. Mural by Meg Saligman.

Local communities can also take an active role in creating opportunities for museums to be a part of the community. Since 1959, Philadelphia’s Percent for Art program takes one percent of a construction contract paid by the City to fund art in public spaces, which has helped fill today’s streets, squares and parks with art. Boston landed on the Fast Company’s Fast Cities Fast Cities 2010 for its innovative approach to supporting the arts community through a housing program. The Artist Space Initiative (ASI) supports the creation of spaces for artists to live and work in industrial areas or emerging neighborhoods that meet artists’ needs.

In Greek cities, visitors will see buildings, long occupied with residents and small businesses, that have unfinished or unpainted outer sidewalls. Ask local residents about this phenomenon, and they will tell you that tax policies create an incentive for owners to leave the building unfinished to avoid property taxes that kick in when a building is completed. Greece’s municipalities and central government should be exploring tax reforms that will make it beneficial for property owners to not only fix this aesthetic disgrace, but to invite and commission local artists to turn gray concrete blobs on the cityscape into canvasses for work that will speak to or reflect the community.

Athens, and indeed, all of Greece, has a wealth of art and culture – historic and contemporary. In addition to showcasing such treasures, the country has the potential to explore innovative ways to help culture, art and community come together. If culture and art institutions, local communities, national authorities and private businesses all enter this discussion and learn from successful examples around the world, Greece can develop a strategy to transform its heritage into an inspiration and a pulse for its modern communities.

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Destination Greece: Sun, Studies and Service

As summer approaches, some us are fortunate enough to look forward to a visit to Greece. There are several study abroad or learning opportunities for students that would like to learn about and experience Greece – both classical and modern Greece. Programs are increasingly incorporating elements of local volunteering and community service to help their students establish deeper connections with the local communities that welcome them for the summer. I highlighted some of the stories of young visiting volunteers and interviewed a couple Greek organizations that offer volunteering opportunities for Reinventing Greece.

Journey to Greece students prepare for their volunteer service with the 2010 Special Olympics.

Here is part of that story and the link to the full feature (which is the best part!).

Young people are volunteering while visiting or studying in Greece.

The next generation in the U.S. – young adults from adolescents to about 30 years of age, often referred to as the millenials – want to change the world. Young Americans of Hellenic descent are among them. There are young people from this country volunteering while visiting or studying in Greece. In the process, they are gaining new understandings of Greek society, establishing relationships with people in local communities, deepening their ties to their heritage, and learning important lessons about teamwork, community, leadership and citizen diplomacy.

U.S. millenials volunteer more than any previous generation, according to USA Today, and corporations have found that one of the best ways to attract this next generation as employees is to offer paid time-off to volunteer.

National leaders are recognizing that this desire to have an impact and change the world for the better extends beyond borders. In May 2011, The Next Generation Initiative participated in the Global Diaspora Forum, hosted by the State Department and other partners. We saw national leaders and donors of international programs recognizing and discussing the value of diaspora organizations in strengthening U.S. relations and partnerships with other countries in many fields. One areas of discussion was youth volunteering. Young people are seeking opportunities to go back to their countries of heritage, or other countries, to volunteer.

This trend is evident among Hellenic American youth. In a national student research study conducted by the Initiative in 2010, young Greek and Cypriot Americans overwhelmingly expressed an interest in traveling to Greece for volunteer, internship, study and work opportunities. Students and young professionals report that it is challenging to find information, in English, on community organizations and businesses that offer volunteer or partnership opportunities for diaspora youth.

To address this interest, The Next Generation Initiative would like to help its next Reinventing Greece student and young professional team find opportunities to join their peers in Greece and give back to local Greek communities.

Welcome to phase one in this effort: ask questions and learn.

We asked local non-government organizations (NGOs), community action groups, educational institutions and others about their volunteer programs and community service experiences to learn about opportunities for diaspora Greeks or friends of Greece to give back while they are visiting or studying in Greece. We found that study and travel abroad programs are increasingly incorporating service work in their programs. We are sharing some of their stories here.

As we search for opportunities for our team, we invite you to read about the initiatives we are discovering, and reach out to them to join their efforts if you will be visiting Greece this year. We also invite you to share more of your experiences with us and our readers in the comment section below.

See the stories of young volunteers and read interviews with Greek organizations that offer volunteering opportunities on Reinventing Greece:

https://www.hellenext.org/reinventing-greece/2012/05/destination-greece-sun-studies-and-service/

Discussion with an artist in Larissa: art in a hospital and art in a crisis

Melas Karagiannis is a Greek painter in Larissa, a city in central Greece. He recently produced some paintings for the radiology clinic at the Larissa University Hospital.  “I’m actually working there as a cook, because as a painter you can’t survive. Don’t try this at home,” he jokes.

Art can have specific purposes, and this is certainly the case in a hospital. As an artist, Melas says, “If you want to do something, I mean artistically, in a hospital, you should really think, ‘In that place there are people who are not well.’ It’s not a gallery, so you can’t put whatever you want, or whatever you like. There are people who are sick, are ill, and they want to get better, so you should really take care. Be careful of what you are going to produce.”

Cancer patients, their families, hospital staff and visitors all have access to the corridor lined with Melas’s paintings.

“You should talk to the people who are working in the hospital,” he advises. “You should get their advice so they can help you have a better result. That’s all.”

While working at the hospital, Melas wanted to do something for the clinic’s patients. The psychiatrist and psychologist working in the hospital clinic advised that the paintings include cool colors, like blue and green, and remain abstract – that is, without representations of people, animals or other objects. “It cools them down; they relax while they walk. They don’t just see a naked wall, they see something, but it’s nothing in particular. It’s great. The reactions are good. And I’m happy for that.”

Melas is a painter. He has several influences: “Salvador Dali, and also pop art, this kind of mixture…colors, strong colors. I’m trying to provoke in a way, the people around me, to show them something that will wake them up from their routine reality.”

He says that most people either like his work or hate it – which indicates that his work has an effect on people. “These are the reactions which I like – either love it or hate it – because it is very important. The people that are neutral…it means [the piece] didn’t touch them.”

“I’m working on several paintings now, because I can’t work on one. I’m just mixing colors and seeing the result, that’s all. If I don’t like it, I just put some more color on it until I like it, and it stays.  That’s the way it works.”

As an artist in Larissa, he is not alone. There are many creative people in Larissa, professional and amateur, producing art. They paint, sculpt and write.

“Sometimes I think that this city can’t really see what is going on, and it is unable to give all the artists a chance to show their work.”

According to Melas, the state should play a role in helping artists create and display their art. “This is the only way. Nobody else will [do this]. And the artists, by themselves, it’s not a matter of courage, it’s a matter of money, strictly. They can’t afford to pay to have shows.”

He acknowledges that the Greek state will not likely take on this role anytime soon given the economic crisis.

Yet art has an important role to play during this crisis. “To provoke. To wake up. There’s no other role now, it’s the times. Art now should wake up the people, should make them think ‘why’ when Greece is like this: why is the situation is like this, why are we like this. And to show them, every day art should be like a mirror. Around the misery which we are living. Nothing else. There’s no time for beautiful paintings, or flowers somewhere and sunsets. To provoke, nothing else. To wake them up. We ended up like this because we were sleeping. And it’s time to wake up.

When asked if he has any message for aspiring or working young artists in Greece, he says he cannot understand young artists in Greece.

“I understand that it is very difficult to live, just to survive, from art.  It is very easy to say, ‘I have to do what the people want me to do or paint, just to pay my rent.’

But the only message I can give them is: don’t give up. Do what you want to do. This is the only thing that is going to change the world. If you give up, nothing is going to change. It is going to stay the way it is. And you see the results; they are obvious. So don’t give up. And if the younger generations don’t give up, maybe a better future will come. If they give up, then for sure it’s going to be the same.”

Sounds like a message for more than just young artists. We’ll take it.

View some of Melas Karagiannis’s work on his website: http://www.melas-karagiannis.eu/

This is the first in a series of interviews from Larissa. Read the introduction here and stay tuned for the rest!

Greek elections and governance: Debating the rules, selecting the players, but no referee in sight

Greek elections are scheduled for May 6, after former Prime Minister Lucas Papademos resigned in early April, after former Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned in early November 2011.  Papademos was appointed as part of an interim coalition New Democracy and PASOK government.

Early elections are most directly a result of the decision to accept the bailout loan agreements and implement severe austerity measures with no strategy to promote economic growth. Two women are trying to take the Greek government to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for implementing austerity that deprives people of their freedoms. The accusations may not lead to a trial in this court, but it is a sign of the frustrations and absence of accountability that exists within the country.

For anyone laughing at this effort, perhaps this will be less amusing: the Athens Bar Association went to the Council of State, Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, over the bailout loan agreements, which it views as “anti-constitutional since they were not voted upon with a high parliamentary majority vote, but also because they violate the constitutionally reserved rights of the citizens.” The Council judged the government’s decision to enter into the loan contract as constitutional in June 2011, in time for the parliament to approve the second bailout loan agreement. The Council may have ruled in favor of the government, but there was enough doubt in the legality of the decision-making process for an association of lawyers to move on it.

As elections approach, Greek voters must reflect, think clearly, take new action. This is not easy, given that the political system makes it different for new people to enter the system, some of the new political parties that have emerged – for a total of 32 parties on the upcoming ballot – were started by former members of the two main parties, and some are extremist and racist.

The main parties do not appear to have spent much time reflecting, thinking clearly or taking new action. The platforms (using this term loosely) are stale, unclear, contradictory, full of inflammatory and dangerous rhetoric (particularly in mongering fear against migrants and immigrants) and empty of true vision or real plan of action.

Voters have shown signs that they want to change their behavior to change the country.  There are a growing number of citizen groups dedicated to community action, volunteerism and social causes. A new political movement, Koinonikos Syndesmos (Civil Association), also launched in October 2011 with the release of a founding declaration expressing the goals of goals of engaging civil society, furthering political dialogue and facilitating political action in an effort to reform the country and to maintain its European identity.

Voters in the country may want to change their behavior in order to change the country, but are there enough substantive choices to allow for a change in behavior in a snap election?

To the world outside of Greece: pay attention.

If you think what is happening in Greece is unique to Greece, a simple matter of financial mismanagement of one country’s government now facing the consequences, or a result of ‘culture’, you are mistaken.

This European crisis is one of economic issues, an immigration and border policy that leaves responsibility distributed unevenly among member states, and, most frighteningly, of democratic governance issues:

From my earlier post: After the Greek prime minister announced a referendum on whether to accept the debt agreement, EU leaders insisted on the referendum question being ‘stay in EU or leave EU’ when there has been NO serious dialogue in Greece on this issue and polls show that 70 percent of Greeks do NOT want to leave the EU. And they set the date for December 4, leaving no time for a real debate. This is not a minor point. This is absolutely critical. A referendum alone is not democracy. A referendum is one part of a process. If you spring a referendum on people without facilitating an informed debate process, you are simply manipulating and insulting those people, and they would be right to believe that you are hiding something. Whether EU leaders were sincere or also calling Papandreou’s bluff, it is a destructive message to send throughout a union of democracies and to the rest of the world.

Undemocratic proposals are also coming from Europe regarding the level of control EU officials should have in a country’s domestic economic policies: see Myth #2 in this Forbes piece.

All of these proposals, in addition to the very real austerity measures, stand in the way of democratic reforms that remain unresolved in Greece. The system needs referees – institutions to ensure oversight, transparency and accountability. Such reforms would have helped Greek institutions combat or limit government financial mismanagement if the EU had pushed for them long ago.

Former Prime Minister George Papandreou recently told TIME magazine “We were a lab rat, an experiment,” in reference to Greece being forced to accept the bailout loans and austerity measures. There was no experiment. Do we really want to pretend that there is no example in history that shows that straight austerity does intense damage to the implementing country and its people? Do we want to pretend that decision-makers in Europe, the IMF and even Greece thought this path was the wisest for Greece because they had no precedent to look back upon? The public should believe that Europe and the IMF are amateurs, rather than ask what motives these actors have besides the welfare of the Greek population or sustainable reform in the country? Seems  a little insulting.

If you believe that Greece’s crisis is purely its own, look at Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Czech Republic and then keep looking.

If Greece was an experiment, where’s the lesson that is supposed to be applied to subsequent cases?

Additional info on 2012 elections in Greece:

Profiles of the parties running in the election:
Kathimerini English Edition: http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite3_1_03/05/2012_440466
Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/05/20125120322955327.html

Policy paper on the Greek elections, written by Nick Malkoutzis for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id/09061.pdf

A voter’s guide to the elections (Athens News): http://www.athensnews.gr/issue/13494/55209

Greek Elections: A Practical Guide (Greek Reporter): http://greece.greekreporter.com/2012/04/30/greek-elections-a-practical-guide/

IFES Election Guide: http://www.electionguide.org/country.php?ID=85

Greece Elections – Graphic of the Day: http://blog.thomsonreuters.com/index.php/greece-elections-graphic-of-the-day/

Thank you!

Hi readers,

After nearly two years, I am finally writing a post to introduce myself and send out a thank you. When I started this blog, I wanted the focus to be on the stories I wanted to highlight – stories of how people in Greece were trying to improve their communities in different ways – not on me or my background.

I started this blog May 2010, in the midst of the “Greek crisis” (quotes because it is actually a European economic crisis), but it was not a response to all the crisis coverage. This blog is something I thought about for quite some time before I finally launched it. As a student and a young professional in the field of international affairs and development, I was interested in what young adults like me were doing in Greece. I wanted to know what programs and initiatives existed in Greece that would draw the interest of young adults looking to create global connections and better societies, and I wanted information in English that I could share with friends, colleagues and associates.

So I launched the blog simply as a young professional. In my original About Me, I described myself as “an early-career Greek-American who wants to connect my interests in my day job to my love of Greece. I work in an international non-profit organization based in Washington, DC and am interested in how women, youth, non-government organizations, businesses and other actors are finding innovative ways to make their communities better.”

Now I am introducing myself a bit more on my About page. Since the launch of the blog, my day job has changed. I wanted to use my experience to introduce new programs and new ways of interacting to the Greek-American community. I joined the team of The Next Generation Initiative (Hellenext) because I appreciated their approach for building a solid foundation for a dialogue with young adults: to begin by asking and understanding. Hellenext conducted a national online survey to give students a voice on how they connect to their heritage and what are their interests and needs. I joined their team to develop programs based on the results of the survey and other feedback from students and recent graduates – programs to help put young adults in the center of community engagement, within a network of leadership and mentorship connections.

So that is me.

Now I want to send a big THANK YOU to all the amazing people in Greece that began discussions with me because of this blog. You took the time to correspond with me via email or social media introductions, to share your experiences, describe your initiatives and discuss common interests.

These exchanges were an inspiration that helped me shape one of the programs I direct with Hellenext: the Reinventing Greece Media Project, a three-week fellowship in Greece, based on youth-led, solution-oriented journalism. This project was founded on a similar principle with the motivation behind this blog:

“This project was founded first and foremost on an effort to ask, listen and understand. Whatever we build together moving forward can only be built on this foundation of understanding and communication.”

The full message is here.

Traveling between cities to meet people. View from a bus.

 

I look forward to building stronger relationships with all the people in Greece that I have met through this blog, my role with the Reinventing Greece project, and other work, community and networking activities. I will continue my efforts to create more opportunities for all of us to deepen these connections, and keep expanding the network.

To everyone reading this blog, and everyone collaborating with others to have a positive impact on their community and beyond: thank you. Let’s keep connecting!

Aphrodite

 

Note: The views expressed on this blog are my own.

Time to play: Which is Real, Which is Parody!

The rules are easy, just guess which Item (1 or 2) is real and which is parody. Careful though, the game itself may not be as easy as you think!

Item 1:
«Solidarity Fund of Greece», A bank account for donations to the Greek government, to pay off the country’s debt

Excerpt: “a call to all Greeks worldwide to support the campaign for the “*Solidarity Account for Greece*” which was established for the repayment the nation’s public debt.

…we are calling Hellenes worldwide to take action.

We consider that it is our duty, that each and every one of us and all together as one, support and contribute actively to the Solidarity Fund Campaign, which is led by the President of the Hellenic Republic…”
Item 2:
The Official Kickstarter Page for Greece! A crowdfunding page to pay off the country’s debt.

Excerpt: “our creditors are demanding €14.5 billion ($18.6 billion) by March 20. We do not have this money, nor do we think we can raise it in time… And so we come to you, our friends, for help.

A donation of any amount is appreciated, and gifts are available for those who give at premium levels. We promise these funds will be used only to pay down debt, and any funds received above the requested amount will be rolled over to our next, inevitable Kickstarter campaign.”

Image by New Diaspora. New Dialogue. illustration contributor.

 

Did you make your selection? Have you given up?

Here is the answer:

Option 1: Real!

The excerpt is from a message from an organization focusing on strengthening ties between Greek diaspora communities, in 2010. 

Option 2: Parody! (For now.)

This was published recently in McSweeney’s, a San Francisco-based publisher that publishes – among other things – the literature and humor site McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Did you get it right? Did you get it wrong? Its ok, no one wins. We all sit down for a good laugh and a cry!

I’m not sure if the author of Welcome to the Official Kickstarter Page for Greece! was aware of the 2010 Solidarity Fund account. The parody Kickstarter page is humorous either way, but the comparison highlights the question of whether leaders in Greece and the diaspora communities fully acknowledge the causes and the deep impact of the political crisis that is intertwined with the country’s economic crisis.

The political crisis is that Greek society does not trust its political leaders and people have difficulty trusting each other after decades of ineffective or completely lacking transparency and accountability institutions. For years, Greece has lacked strong government or independent institutions with an ability to combat corruption and ensure that laws were implemented or reformed as necessary.

So why would people contribute to a fund that goes to the government – whether for the repayment of the debt or any other reason?

Here is what is most interesting to me: I have not yet seen any comments regarding the McSweeney’s post from the Greek diaspora community organizations or individuals that commented on the November 2011 Saturday Night Live skit portraying the gods of Olympus attempting (unsuccessfully) to address the economic crisis. Maybe they just don’t know about McSweeney’s.

In case you forgot about that SNL skit, here’s a little reminder:

‘Zeus’: “Wait, there is a Greek god of finance, right, there has to be…”

There isn’t. ‘Zeus’ calls on each of the gods/goddesses, none are responsible for finance. Later in the dialogue:

‘Hermes’: “It’s the party god’s fault, he’s been overseeing all the Greek banks.”

The skit shows that the ancient stories of Greek culture are still fun and pretty well-known in mainstream American culture. The ancient Greek gods and myths continue to be interesting and relevant today because they represented a spot-on understanding of human nature. There was also humor, satire and irony throughout the ancient myths, probably based on an understanding that sometimes humor – bright or dark – is the most effective way to get your point across.

When the laughter or giggles die down after reading a parody Kickstarter page, two thoughts will likely remain:

1)     It is absurd for anyone to imagine that people would trust the government or its international lenders enough at this point to donate money, when there has been little progress in making the political and economic systems in Greece or Europe more fair.

2)     How many Kickstarter pages would the EU actually need…?

All politics and parody aside, there are some interesting, creative projects on Kickstarter, even in Greece or relating to Hellenic culture, so check out the real page: http://www.kickstarter.com

A global public art project allows local communities to be a part of their local art

This GOOD article describes how artist JR took his project to a global level, thanks to his vision and the 2011 TED prize. His InsideOut Project allows whole communities to be a part of local art.

Check out the Inside Out Project trailer, Episode 1, and other videos on the project’s YouTube channel.

In Greece, MELD | Athens invited six Greek photographers to lead a Group Action as part of this global art initiative. They created portraits of children from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds in Athens and posted them in side-by-side pairs in the city’s public spaces on October 15, 2011. This Eyes of Truth Group Action was a parallel event with the October 10, 2011 TEDxAcademy.

TEDxAcademy Talk by Corinne Weber, Creative Director & Producer of MELD and Yvonne Senouf, Creative Concepts Producer of MELD: