Have you ever wondered who exactly the Mona Lisa was? Or have you ever been curious about the many references of Basquiat’s work? With as their main goal to make art history more accessible, the new online platform Heni Talks provides bite-sized lectures on relevant topics of art history. We caught up with Munira Mirza, the founder and a driven woman that is set on democratising the art world.
Before you founded Heni Talks, you were deputy mayor of London for culture and education. How did you get involved with the arts and culture?
I studied English at university so was always interested in arts and culture, but I became a bit of a ‘museums junkie’ in my early twenties. My first job in the arts sector was at the Royal Society of Arts, where I became especially interested in the politics of culture – why we value what we do, how to make the arts more accessible, and why public interest in the arts matters. From there, I started a PhD in Sociology, looking particularly at the politics of culture.
From there, you took the step from the broad topic of culture and education to focus on the art world specifically, what inspired this change?
Prior to working at the Mayor’s Office, I worked briefly at Tate and so actually I was really excited to return to the visual arts sector.
How did you come up with the idea of Heni Talks? How did it evolve from a first thought to the platform we can visit now?
In a funny way, it started whilst I was at Tate over ten years ago. I conducted a piece of research for them examining the lack of diversity in their curatorial teams and realised early on that this was partly due to the lack of art history education in British schools.  Fast forward to 2017, one of the school examination boards announced it was going to axe the only A Level qualification in art history so I became involved in the public campaign to try to save it. After discussing the issue with my Heni colleagues, we realised we had the capacity and skills to do something to help popularise the subject and bring it into the 21st century - hence Heni Talks was born.
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Who is Heni Talks for?
It is aimed at anyone who wants to learn about art and art history. Our audience ranges from school students who may be unfamiliar with academic terms or historical context, to more academic audiences who are interested in hearing experts on their chosen fields. We want it to be accessible and engaging to everyone. We have even started translations (first in Mandarin, with other languages to follow). I think it’s interesting that TED has generated a massive audience for science and technology related content, who would never ordinarily identify as science ‘boffins’. If you have great speakers with great stories, you can really build engagement.
From Van Gogh’s olive trees to the revolution of the black square, your videos are not your average art history topics. What is the angle for your content?
We’re looking for ideas and arguments that spark an interest or help illuminate an aspect of art. We feature artists who are household names but those less well known too. Our starting point is: why is this worth ten minutes of someone’s time? I know I started to enjoy visiting art galleries more when I had some understanding of the people and the ideas behind the artworks. Something like Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square is intimidating until you understand the context. David Batchelor’s film on colour is a brilliant lateral look at something we probably all take for granted.
You have a variety of speakers explaining several topics. How did you select them and what qualities must they have?
We started with people we knew or had worked with and then researched others we felt would bring expertise and passion to the films. All our speakers are engaging and because they cover a diversity of topics, there is something for everyone on the site.
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For those who still haven’t watched a Heni Talks video, could you recommend us your personal top three?
So difficult to choose! I’d recommend for variety: Ralph Rugoff (Director, Hayward Gallery) explaining what is contemporary art, Alison Cole (Editor, The Art Newspaper) on Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, and Damien Hirst interviewing Peter Blake, which is a brilliant insight into the minds of two great artists. 
Being so involved in arts and culture in London, do you feel like there is a lack of art or art related projects in the city? Because, to me, it’s one of the most artistically important cities in the world.
London has no shortage of great arts organisations and projects! I am on the board of the Royal Opera House and also the Illuminated River project (a charitable public art scheme to light the bridges of central London), so I feel very connected to the city and its cultural landscape. It’s important to maintain our international reputation in the future and ensure more Londoners especially can enjoy the arts on offer.
I can see that a large part of your work is orientated towards making the art world more accessible. Why do you believe this is a necessity? In what way do you feel like the art world is inaccessible right now?
I think the public interest in the arts – especially in the United Kingdom – has grown considerably and the digital realm opens up exciting possibilities for engagement. There has been a big push to make ticket prices more accessible, increase education programmes and use online platforms. But of course, there is more still to be done. And whilst broadcast television remains vital, I think museums and galleries could start to think of themselves as broadcasters too.
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Internet and especially social media have greatly influenced the art world. What are some up and downsides to this?
Information can be found at the touch of a button, but knowledge can take years to acquire. They are not always the same thing. The journey on the Internet is never-ending and can go in so many directions, which is exhilarating but also daunting to many. The key – I believe – is trusted experts who can tell the story, provide a narrative, and help guide people through their own journey. Heni Talks was conceived as almost a fantasy team of tour guides who can do just that.
Heni Talks started a few months ago. Where do you hope the platform will be in a few years?
I hope we will grow our audience and our range of speakers, and create a responsive community. Obviously, it takes time to develop this, but I do think the potential is there. Eventually, I would also love the films to be used in classrooms and art history clubs in schools, by teachers and students who are not experts, but who use it as a prompt to explore their own feelings about art.
And what about yourself, what are your plans for the future?
I want to grow Heni Talks, of course, but I am also enjoying my wider role in the Heni business looking after our film and digital services for artists and estates. It’s an exciting time to be in the company. I also enjoy occasional writing and remain involved with many great organisations and initiatives in London’s cultural scene – when asked to do something, I always find it hard to say no!
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