Maria Vlachou is an amazing, passionate woman with whom I’ve had the privilege of working and sharing a friendship for a decade and a half.
She was one of my first mentors when I lived in Portugal and she made a profound impact in my life, both professionally and personally, as an example of the mark a fully-expressed woman can make in the world.
I grew up surrounded by women who suppressed their power in different ways. So when I met Maria – I was young, fresh out of University, bursting with dreams – she was such a breath of fresh air! Her fiery, unapologetic way of living, chasing and expressing what she believes in struck me so hard that it paved the way for my affirming my place in the world and believing in myself, especially professionally.
Maria is Greek and lives in Portugal since 1995, after a stint in London. She’s an expert in museums and arts management, with a rich career that includes leadership roles in prominent Portuguese cultural organisations, including the Pavilhão do Conhecimento – Ciência Viva and Teatro São Luiz, both in Lisbon. She’s also the author of the book Musing on Culture, following the success of her personal blog with the same title.
She has worked as a teacher, served on boards of organisations, completed a fellowship at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, and is an international speaker.
Five years ago, she took the leap and created her own organisation, Access Culture, which is rapidly growing to improve and promote access (physical, social and intellectual) to cultural participation.
She’s mother to Aléxandros and wife to Dino and all around magnificent Goddess. In this interview, we talk about what it takes to create your own project, how to balance motherhood and what we can teach our children with our own example.
Thank you, Maria, for the inspiration! Goddess, read on…
What has been your personal journey with self confidence?
I think when it comes to self confidence, I owe a lot to my mother and the way she was as a mother, as a professional, as a citizen. She was very much involved in many things. And I think she made me understand that I could trust myself and I should make an effort to be the best I could and to contribute as much as I could to society.
There are moments when we lose our self-confidence. We feel that maybe we are fake or we’re not what we think we are. And I think that is natural and that is also healthy that these moments exist, because they are the moments that make us reflect on who we are, what we do, how we do it. Then we go back to the battle.
Every since I was a child or a teenager, I learned to be confident or to show confidence even if I didn’t feel it as much.
You’ve had the courage to create your organisation and a really interesting career before that. You’ve worked in different countries, in great organisations; you’ve done courses overseas; you’ve got a rich career and life – you’re someone who gives themselves permission and a lot of us women aren’t so good at it. What did it take you to actually make the step to create Access Culture after everything you’ve done? Tell us the good, the bad and the ugly…
Frustration. [laughs] That’s what made me take the steps. Because when you feel that your environment does not allow you to be the best you can, when you feel you have the potential and you want to do something with it, and you want to be able to contribute… Really the fact that you know how much you have to give and you want to share that.
You want to make it useful, to yourself and to other people. So when our environment wants less of us, I believe different people react in different ways. In my case, to take these steps finally, took some time, because there was some insecurity there. And to say no, that’s not why I studied, that’s not why I did what I did so far; I want to leave so I can be useful and be the best I can.
And then suddenly, although it’s difficult to take that step, you start working hard on what you want to do, things come together; you feel you’re building something… You have the opportunity to get to know and work with incredible people. Things really come together and you start feeling really useful. It’s definitely worth it.
Tell me more about Access Culture and your vision for the world.
Access Culture is an association that was founded by 17 people, who are culture professionals. We knew each other before; for ten years we worked as an informal group dedicated to access to museums.
Then eventually, I realised that the culture sector is very diverse but the concerns are the same underneath. So it didn’t make sense to be focused only on museums because theatres and orchestras and dance companies face the same issues. Their obligations are also the same, which is to offer services to the citizens to be informed, involved, knowledgeable. And access to culture is a right. Being a right, it becomes an obligation to a cultural organisation.
So we took that step and made the proposal to my colleagues to take the step to become a formal association which promotes access, not only physical access, but also social and intellectual to culture.
We created the association nearly four years ago; we’ve been working very, very hard. The applications are growing; we are about 130 associate members today. I believe that people really value what we do and are really excited and have realised how serious we are about this. And it has become whole, with many people around it.
Do you mainly operate in Portugal?
Yes, mainly. We have plans for the future. But for now we are very small. We take it a step at a time and only do the things we are able to do well. So it’s growing slowly, but steadily.
After carrying forward a project like that (and it’s a non-profit), very different from your past career experience, a change in lifestyle, how do you stay in touch with your inner power and your personal beliefs when things don’t flow so well or you come across challenges?
I would say that now, when it happens, it’s easier to deal with. It’s completely different being in an organisation that has a hierarchy, and when problems come up, sometimes we feel completely helpless and hopeless because it’s somebody above us who might make the decision; it might not be an informed decision, and we’d have to live with it because there’s nothing you can do about it.
This is a much more open structure, where we are able to discuss and even fight over issues. And I think in my role as executive director, I have the opportunity to deal with all the people who wish to fight also – fight in a good sense. And who also keep me focused, because I can be really stubborn and it’s through this discussion that sometimes we get to hear the other’s point of view.
These discussions with other people in the association are not to say “I am the leader here”. Here we all know that we are serving the same cause, we discuss because we want to do a good job.
This is a much healthier context, in order to help with problems and try to solve them. So I think the people who I work with help me keep focused and to be genuine, and maybe even make me change opinion from time to time…
What about in your personal life?
Well, what I learned so far… I’m sure you’ll understand me, because we worked together, and we’re very similar in other things too: when we’re into something, we’re really into something and we put everything into it. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s still good.
It’s just that what I’ve learnt in these past few years is that the only people who are always there are our family; no matter if we’re feeling up or down, they will be there. They are the base. They are what supports the whole structure on top of it. And I learned to value them more and more.
Today, when I have to make a decision between something professional and family, family comes first. Everything else will come together. Our family, good friends and good colleagues too are your safety net.
In moments when you feel less “Goddess-like,” how do you get centred again?
I am not sure I ever feel like a Goddess, but let’s say that when I feel less “Goddess-like”, it’s back to family. Getting closer to them. Because they understand who we are, why it is we do what we do, and they know what they like about us, what they appreciate in us.
I call it “Goddess”- because that’s my expression of it. Many people have their own version. I guess I know what you’re saying about family. They don’t see the recurring, nasty thoughts we have in our heads. They only hold that vision of who we truly are. We’re not that other stuff…
They’re also one of the main reasons we want to do what we do and be good people. They’re one of the reasons why we want to be involved in this world, why we want to contribute.
When I need to refocus, I turn to them.
In your view, what do we need to do as women, to make sure we create the freedom we need to live a life of our own design? You’re obviously someone who’s always lived life in your own terms. So what do you think womankind needs to do more of, or help each other with, to make sure more and more women can make their mark in the world, whatever that looks like for them?
You know I don’t think of this question in these terms. I tend to think of people, more so than women specifically.
Believe it or not, the issue of women and feminism has only come up recently in my life, after I got to talk more with women friends who are feminists. This didn’t use to be an issue for me, because I grew up in a family with a very feminist mom; I was a teenager in the 80s and that was the model I saw in my own small world, in my family. So that’s what I saw, that’s how it should be and there were no other versions of it in my mind.
Sometimes I think that if anybody ever discriminated me for being a woman probably I wasn’t aware of it, because it never crossed my mind that anybody could do that.
I’m much more aware of things now. The whole discussion around Islam and women’s place in Islam, etc., what it has actually done for me, is make me pay much more attention to women’s issues in what we call “the western world.” I realised that, even if I think that it is not an issue for me directly, it is an issue for all of us.
My next question is about motherhood, because you’re the mom of a wonderful boy. First, how did you reconcile your personal dreams, especially career-wise and motherhood? Because I know it’s always something a lot of women question themselves over.
For me personally, when I became a mom for the first time, and the first thing that comes up was – how do I make sure my children are well looked after and my dreams and needs are met at the same time?
I never worried much about how this could affect me as a woman. I felt there would be a balance, that I would be able to do things without thinking that I was “sacrificing” something.
I’m not trying to do everything, but I am not abdicating from things that are important for me either. I am trying to be aware of my son’s needs, of the kind of support he needs from me. Sometimes he likes a drama and says I’m not home enough… But just like I am trying to be there for him he needs to learn when and how he has to be there for me.
Just like he has to learn how to be more independent and organise his life. He has needs, I have needs; he has responsibilities and I have responsibilities, and I think the most important thing for us is, when we’re together, to make that real quality time.
I had this discussion with different friends and I think it’s not about just being together in the same space for as much time as possible. I think that even if we’re going to have an hour together in a day, we need to make sure we’re really together. He comes home from school at the end of the day — those two-three hours, between coming back and having dinner and going to bed, should be spent together.
Anyway, it’s a balance. I don’t think that he’s more important than everything else I have to do in any given moment, but, at the same time, he is extremely important and I want him to know it. At least I try to make him know it.
Oh, I think you do, because he’s a really happy, self-expressed boy and he’s a deep thinker – he gets a lot of that from you, and from Dino as well, your husband. But I think you’re also demonstrating to him that, when he wants to chase what’s important to him, that it’s OK to do that. So it’s really great.
The other thing I wanted to ask you around motherhood, is – what do you hope the generation of men that he belongs to will learn about women?
And I ask you this because you are Greek, living in Portugal; there’s a specific context over there as well about how women are viewed by men, and the same here in New Zealand, and every country will have a narrative for how men should look at women.
So could you speak to that?
Well, the world we live in has an extreme influence on us. So it’s not only up to me and what I wish him to be. Up to a year ago, he would sometimes come home saying things that truly surprised me, because they had nothing to do with our way of being and thinking as a family. But that’s it, he goes out of home; he’s in school; he talks to other children; he hears stories. So I’m not really sure how to answer this question.
I think it’s through the way we live, through the things we do, the way we do them, that I believe he gets his own understanding of what it is to be a woman, and what the relationship between women and men should be. But I realise that it is completely out of my hands. Because society has an extremely powerful influence.
I should say, though, that he seems to be more and more aware of things, he is becoming more critical, he questions actions and statements and he seems to be extremely sensitive to questions of equality. A couple of days ago we were filling in the forms for his enrolment in the new school year and he commented that the school takes it for granted that a pupil has a mother and a father. The forms do not consider same-sex parents…
What do you wish every woman on the planet would learn? Again, I know you’re a global thinker, but… If you were thinking about women specifically…
I think that each one of us should learn how to be the best she can. We only live once; this is our only chance to do something for this world, and I’m not thinking big, or small world. People around us. So we have got one chance, we won’t have another. We better be the best we can.
Now I’d love to hear from you! What was your main take away from my interview with Maria? What is your unapologetic self wanting to create in the world? Drop me a comment below and let’s start the conversation.