Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Introducing: The Art of Relevance

Kid-tested, nonprofit-approved.
It's official. My new book, The Art of Relevance, is now available and ready to move from my computer to your hands.

I suggest at this point that you stop reading this post and go buy it. Right now.

Not convinced? Here's more about the book and what you can expect.


I've been simultaneously energized and mystified by how often the word "relevance" comes up in the nonprofit world. Is it a fad? A core value? A revelation?

My institution has been waving the flag of relevance for years now. Relevance is one of our five engagement goals. We put a lot of work into developing ways to expand local relevance--to make meaningful connections with diverse people in our community. And yet, the more convinced I became about the value of relevance, the more unsure I was of what it actually means. I wanted to get beyond the buzzword. I wanted to learn more.

Last summer, a powerful encounter with two 130-year-old surfboards spurred me from curiosity to action. I dove into research and talked to dozens of people doing inspiring, surprising work around the world. I worked feverishly to translate their stories into a tight, poetic, enjoyable, useful form. The result is this book.


The Art of Relevance is about how mission-based institutions can matter more to more people. By "mission-based institutions," I mean museums, libraries, theaters, parks, churches, synagogues, afterschool programs, informal science programs, zoos, aquaria, symphonies, historic sites, dance companies... all these and more are featured as case studies.

The Art of Relevance is not a how-to. It is not a definitive guide. It is the field notes from the quest I've been on for the past year to understand relevance and its ability to open new doors for new people to powerful, big, valuable experiences.

The book is separated into five sections:
  • What is Relevance? - definitions, delusions, and reality checks on what relevance can and cannot do
  • Outside In - exploring the different expectations and interests of insiders, who already love what you do, and outsiders, who are excluded or unaware of the value you offer
  • Relevance and Community - getting to a clearer definition of who you want to be relevant to and what they value and desire
  • Relevance and Mission - using your institutional mission as the foundation for making more meaningful connections with your community of interest
  • The Heart of Relevance - measuring relevance at the front door and at deeper levels of connection
The chapters are short, the stories are punchy, and there's a central metaphor that ties it all together. While the book focuses on institutional relevance, there are a lot of personal stories in the book too, and early reviewers commented on how much they found themselves reflecting on their lives as well as their work as they read the draft.


Almost a year ago, I took a risk. I ended my 8+ year streak of blogging at least once a week. I did it to free myself to be able to spend time on more speculative or ambitious writing projects--projects like this book.

I am continually grateful to all of you who read, share, and comment on this blog. Whether you've been with me since 2006 or are just getting connected now, you've inspired me, motivated me, and shaped my thinking and work. I was incredibly nervous when I stopped blogging weekly last year that it would mean a slow fade away from writing and reflective practice. But you gave me that permission, and it opened up a whole book full of exploration I didn't know was inside me. You gave me the roadmap to write this book.

I hope you will read The Art of Relevance. I hope you'll like it. I hope you'll recommend it to others. I hope you'll tell me what you love and where we disagree and how these thoughts could be pushed further. Most of all, I hope you will continue to inspire, mentor, and motivate me in my work. Thank you for constantly doing the work of relevance by unlocking new meaning for me and for each other.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: How the London Science Museum Became More Relevant to Deaf Families

This month, I'm sharing a few chapters from my new book The Art of Relevance in advance of its release. I wrote this book because of a fundamental curiosity about what relevance is and how it works. Here's one of my favorite stories about the London Science Museum and their work to make their science shows relevant to families with deaf or hearing-impaired family members. 

This chapter appears midway through the book. The Art of Relevance has a central metaphor that relevance is a key that unlocks the door to meaningful experiences (which live in a room). To get into this chapter, imagine that your institution/program/art is a room. There are doors through which people enter your room. This chapter explores the difference between connecting with new people by building new doors vs. connecting with new people by changing the content of the room.

Build a Door or Change the Room?

Once you understand your community of interest, you have a choice. You can build relevance by constructing new doors. Or you can change the programming within the room itself. Or both.

How can you decide when to build new doors, when to change the room, and when to do both?

Building new doors is a form of marketing. When you build a new door, you invite someone new into a pre-existing room. This strategy is successful when you have an existing room with a compelling experience and a credible sense that that experience will be relevant to your audience of interest. Remember New World Symphony, the Miami orchestra that used night club marketing techniques to attract young urbanites to classical music? Or the promotores at the Waukegan Public Library sharing their offerings with Latino immigrants? They are in the door-building business. Building new doors, wider doors, or doors that are open different hours of the day works when you think you have the right programming to offer your community of interest—you just need to find them and invite them into the room in a welcoming manner.

Changing the room means changing programming. If you think the experience you have to offer will be challenging, confounding, or off-putting for your audience of interest, you can’t just build them a door and hope for the best. You are going to have to change what you actually offer to make it relevant, as opposed to just changing how you market it. Think of the Subjects to Change teen program, or the free lunches at the Cleveland Public Library. These new programs fundamentally altered their institution’s offerings. When communities of interest avoid your programming regardless of your marketing investments, you need to change the room. If people attend once and don’t come back, it’s probably a problem with the experience and not the marketing.

It’s not always easy to make these distinctions in the real world. There are many times when we need to change the room but focus only on the door—or we embark on a room renovation and ignore the fact that the existing door doesn’t give people a sense of what has changed inside.

Imagine two institutions in an ethnically-diverse city. Each decides to invest in providing content in English and Spanish as part of an effort to increase relevance to their communities. Institution A makes all its marketing materials bilingual, but changes nothing about the languages spoken inside its walls. Institution B recruits new Spanish-speaking staff to offer programs in both languages, but makes no changes to its monolingual marketing materials.

A is working the door. B is shifting the room. Each has made remarkable strides towards their goal, but each is limited by how far they’ve gone. Will Spanish-speaking outsiders walk into A expecting experiences en espanol and walk out disappointed? Will outsiders ignore B’s programming entirely, not knowing it is para ellos?

The obvious answer is that you need both A and B. Many times, we find that we need both new doors and changed rooms, but we don’t know how to sequence them for the greatest impact.

That’s what happened at the London Science Museum as they worked to make their science shows relevant to deaf audiences. The museum’s science shows are family-oriented presentations by high-energy performers, full of surprising experiments and explosions. Museum staff knew the shows appealed to diverse families, and they wanted to reach deaf families in particular. So they started with a new door and a slight shift to the room. They marketed the shows to deaf families at the door, and provided a sign language interpreter at the presentations in the room.

The new door and shifted room were a start, but they weren’t enough. Only a handful of deaf families walked in the door, and what they got wasn’t satisfying. The marketing and the changes to the science shows weren’t working. For hearing audiences, the high energy of the presenter, combined with the visual and audial bangs of the experiments, made for an exciting show. But for deaf audiences, the experience was frustrating. The sign language interpreter was off to the side, far from the scientific action. That placement made it hard for deaf people to both see the fiery displays and follow the interpreter’s information. The interpreter was not a high-enthusiasm actor like the presenter, which dampened the overall energy of the experience. And any loud audial bangs were either completely inaudible, or in some cases, distressing, for people who were deaf and hard of hearing.

The Museum had made a real commitment to deaf families, and they wanted to get it right. They decided to try again. They took a step back and asked deaf families to help them. The Museum recruited deaf families to come in, and they did some special pilot shows for deaf families only. Hearing staff members couldn’t identify the issues that made the shows unappealing for deaf families—but deaf people could. The focus groups helped the Museum understand the need for sign language performers, not just interpreters. They helped the Museum consider the varied needs of their families, which often included both hearing and hearing-impaired family members. They helped the Museum understand that word of mouth was the most important form of marketing in their tight-knit community, and that that community wanted more opportunities to get together socially. The families gave loads of feedback, which prompted the Museum to change their approach.

The Museum moved away from the idea of sign language interpretation as an amenity to layer onto individual science shows. Instead, staff created a monthly Saturday afternoon event called SIGNtific, geared specifically to deaf families but inclusive of all. At the door, SIGNtific days are not solely about science programming. They are about deaf-led community experiences with science. SIGNtific’s new door is more relevant to deaf families and their expressed interests.

And then inside the room, they changed the shows. Instead of offering sign language interpretation as an add-on, SIGNtific shows flip the roles of presenter and interpreter. The presenters up front doing the experiments are deaf performers, supplemented by off-stage performers who provide voiceovers for hearing guests. While having sign language interpreters off to the side was a barrier to comprehension, voiceover interpretation causes no such problems. Hearing audience members can fully participate in the shows, watching the deaf performers onstage and listening to voiceover interpretation. Furthermore, the staff designed SIGNtific shows to ensure that audible bangs or noises are not essential to the scientific concepts conveyed. Which means the whole family—and anyone else who happens to visit the museum on SIGNtific days—can have a relevant, enjoyable experience with the science shows.

The Science Museum didn’t need to have a brilliant sense of the needs of deaf families to become relevant to them. They just had to be open to feedback and guidance from their new audience. They learned from their community of interest. They fixed what was broken. They changed the door and the room.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: What IS Relevance?

This month, I'm sharing a few chapters from my new book The Art of Relevance in advance of its release. I wrote this book because of a fundamental curiosity about what relevance is and how it works. Here's the second chapter of the book, which answers a basic question: what IS relevance? Who are the experts who study it, and how do they define it? 

Note: this chapter is slightly edited to make sense in standalone form.

Meaning, Effort, Bacon

In pop culture-land, relevance is all about now. Who's hot. What's trending.

But if you’re like me, that definition is deeply unsatisfying. And the experts are on our side. Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber are cognitive scientists and leading theorists in the study of relevance. Their definition of relevance is more complex--and useful--than simply what’s hot.

Deirdre and Dan study how we transmit and receive information, mostly through speech. They argue that there are two criteria that make information relevant:
  1. How likely that new information is to stimulate a “positive cognitive effect”—to yield new conclusions that matter to you. 
  2. How much effort is required to obtain and absorb that new information. The lower the effort, the higher the relevance.
These criteria for relevance apply to both extraordinary and everyday experiences. Imagine you are considering going out to see a movie. You start seeking relevant information. You read a review that gets you excited about a particular film (a positive cognitive effect). You feel confident you’ll enjoy that movie. If it’s playing at convenient times at a theater nearby (low effort), you’re set. You buy a ticket.

But if the movie is not showing nearby (high effort), or the reviews you read are conflicting and full of muddled information (negative cognitive effect), you’re stuck. You don’t get the useful conclusions you seek. It takes too much effort to find the right key to the door. You stay home.

Fulfilling these two criteria well can make a huge difference in how people respond to information. I saw this in 2015, when the World Health Organization released a study showing that processed meats—like bacon, ham, and sausages—are among the top five most cancerous products, alongside established killers like cigarettes and asbestos.

When I first saw this news, I was nonplussed. My husband and I are vegetarians, and for years, we’ve been reading studies like this. Top international health organizations have claimed for decades that a meat-free diet is vital to human health (not to mention reducing climate change impact). Period.

I assumed this 2015 study would have the same impact as all the others. Vegetarians and vegans would pass them around. We’d hesitantly foist them on our meat-eating friends and family members, expecting a mixture of disinterest, disbelief, and derision. And then everyone would go back to eating what they eat, believing what they believe.

But the 2015 study was different. It blew up on Facebook. It spawned thousands of news pieces, not just on health and foodie sites, but also on news outlets high and low. National papers. Business pages. Tech magazines. Op-eds. Blogs. I walked into the dentist’s office a week after the study came out, and the hygienist who cleaned my teeth told me the story had inspired her and her teenage son to stop eating meat. Here I’d spent years fumbling to get people who love me to even discuss the impact of eating meat, and one press release had motivated her family to give it up entirely.

I was blown away. How could one study—showing exactly what many other prominent studies have shown—have so much impact?

Consider the 2015 study in the context of relevance theory. The study linked two things that mattered to Americans in 2015: bacon and cancer. These are both emotionally-loaded topics. As a nation, we love bacon and eat it whenever we can. We hate cancer and avoid it however we can.

When a study links something we love to something we hate, it yields a conclusion that matters to us. The first criterion for relevance is satisfied. The research creates a surprising new connection between two things we care about. The mouthwatering sizzle of bacon on a pan. The pain we felt when our aunt went through chemo. It’s impossible not to experience a “cognitive effect” when reading about it—whether it yields a conclusion of distress, resolve to change, or somewhere in between. The effect may not be “positive” in how it feels, but it is “positive” in that it adds information to the decisions at hand.

You could argue that any study about the health impacts of food is relevant to all of us. After all, we all eat. But that relevance is only meaningful if it yields a conclusion that matters to you. And if bacon suddenly tastes like the pain of your aunt dying of cancer… that matters.

Throw cigarettes into the story and you satisfy the second criterion for relevance. This study’s conclusions were easy to understand. It took very little effort to connect the dots between our past experiences as a nation with cigarettes and new implications about bacon. Americans used to love cigarettes, until we discovered they cause cancer. Now, for the most part, we hate cigarettes. Does this mean we will one day feel about bacon the way we feel about cigarettes? Will little kids throw away their parents’ processed meat, crying that they don’t want to see Daddy die?

I hope so. But I suspect that the effort required to act on these conclusions will be too great for many bacon-lovers. There may be people like my dental hygienist out there, making a big effort based on the conclusions she has made. But there will be others who accept the information (the positive cognitive effect) but not the effort required to act.

If we want our work to be relevant, we need to satisfy both criteria. We need to provide a positive cognitive effect, and we need to make it possible with minimal effort. How likely is someone to derive a positive cognitive effect from visiting your site? How much effort will it require for them to do so? If it’s easy to visit, and the experience yields value, your work is bound to be relevant. But if it’s difficult to visit, and the value of the experience is hard to describe, why would anybody care to try?

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Unassuming Superheroes Wanted: Join The Art of Relevance Advocacy Team

My new book's coming, and I want you to be part of it.

I've spent the past year on a quest for relevance, diving deep into how organizations can matter more to more (and more diverse) people. The result is a new book, The Art of Relevance, coming out in a few weeks. I am truly thrilled to share this book with you. It's packed with practical theories, rags-to-relevance case studies, and inspiring stories from museums and libraries, theaters and parks, dance companies and orchestras, afterschool programs and activists, churches and synagogues. It's anchored in a clear, research-based definition of relevance that has changed the way I see the world and the way I approach community engagement.

The Art of Relevance will launch live and in-person on July 12 at the Arts Marketing Association conference in Edinburgh, and you'll be able to order it online soon. This month, I'll start sharing a few of the chapters as blog post sneak peeks.

But this post today isn't a book announcement. This post is for those of you who want to read the book... and then do a little bit more. This post is an invitation for those of you who want to help it come alive in your own community.

My last book, The Participatory Museum, did well. It has sold about 20,000 copies, and another 200,000 people have accessed the free online version. I believe The Art of Relevance can go further. It's a more accessible read for a broader audience. The challenge is getting it into organizations that might find it relevant and valuable in their work.

That's where you come in. I'm seeking a team of volunteer advocates for The Art of Relevance. The Art of Relevance Advocacy Team is a league of behind-the-scenes superheroes who will:
  • read the book 
  • review the book (on your blog, Amazon, Goodreads, or other publications)
  • help introduce the book to other people in your world (media, colleagues, online networks)
  • help set up book-related events and talks in your city 
Basically, what I'm asking is for you to consider joining an email list of people who are passionate about mattering more to more people in our respective communities.

You don't need any special talents, connections, or commitment level to join the list. I'll reach out to advocates as needed with various opportunities to help. Maybe you have a reporter friend who might be interested in covering it. Maybe your colleagues want to form a book club. Maybe you've got a sweet couch in Chicago or a killer venue in Dallas. Maybe you just want to read the book and write an Amazon review. You can join the list and never participate, or you can become a champion for relevance alongside me.

Writing a book is lonely. Publishing it is scary. Promoting it is mysterious and tiring. I'd love to have some compatriots to help The Art of Relevance shine. If you're up for it, you can sign up right now. If you can't see the form below, click here to sign up. Thanks for considering joining me on this path.

Join The Art of Relevance Advocacy Team / Superhero Network

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

10 Ways to Build a Better Community Brainstorming Meeting

You're planning a new exhibition. Considering a new strategic direction. Designing a new program. And you've decided that you want to integrate community feedback into the development process.

Awesome. Admirable. Now how the heck do you do it?

Here are ten things I've learned about making these kinds of community input meetings successful. Please add your own ideas in the comments too.


1. Consider whether you want a bonded group (people who are like each other) or a bridged group (people who are different from each other). 

Bonded groups are useful if you want to understand people's existing attitudes and impressions. Focus group participants will be more forthcoming and honest if they feel like they are "among friends." Bonded groups exhibit groupthink--but sometimes that's the best way to really understand the concerns of a specific group of people. For example, when we held community meetings about the development of a new creative town square next to our museum, a group of middle/upper-class moms talked about not feeling safe downtown. When I've talked with those same folks in bridged groups, they use more circumspect language (i.e. not feeling "welcome") or don't mention their safety concerns at all. But those concerns are real. Not surprisingly, a different focus group of social service providers and homeless adults had a very different set of concerns about downtown. Bringing these different communities together in the same space might not have created safe space for the true issues of each group to emerge.

Bridged groups are useful if you want people to collaborate on a more inclusive vision of the future. If you are building something new and want people's ideas, go for bridging. When you are doing creative work together (making, building, brainstorming), it's catalytic to work with people who see things in a whole different way. In creative brainstorming, groupthink is a killer. The more diverse perspectives in the room, the better. We're much more capable of empathy when co-imagining the future than we are when thinking about the present.

2. Find trusted leaders in communities of interest with whom to partner and recruit participants.

Want to hold a meeting with people from worlds where you don't spend much time? Great. But if you have no credibility in someone else's community, your invitation may fall right into the trash can. Better to establish a relationship with a leader in their community--someone with whom you are building reciprocal value--and ask them to help be your ambassador. It doesn't matter what incentives you offer to participate or how attractive the invitation is if the recipient doesn't know or trust you as a host.

3. Respect and value people's time. 

If you're asking for community input, what are you offering in return? This could be financial; some organizations pay people to participate in community meetings. But it could also be something else that demonstrates appreciation and value. Snacks. Child care. Networking opportunities. Free tickets. You should have a credible and understandable offer, alongside your ask of their time, experience, and expertise.

4. Overcommunicate.

I use a simple rule of contacting participants the week before, the day before, and the day after a meeting. Communication should be clear and motivating. Especially if you don't meet with these people frequently, you can't remind them enough. You also can't thank them/follow up quickly enough.


5. Create a structure that values peoples' participation. 

There are a million ways to run a community meeting--different depending on what you are trying to achieve. The best book I've read on the topic is Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner. It's an incredible compendium of specific meeting formats for different kinds of participant engagement.

In general, I find it is useful to:
  • Honor everyone's contributions and ability to contribute at the top. 
  • Include a mix of individual activities (often writing or drawing), partner/small group work, and whole group discussion. Different people thrive in different levels of social intensity. I recommend spending as little time together as a whole group as possible because it can be intimidating and unproductively slow. Spend just enough time as a whole group to get people motivated and connected to each other (and reconnected at the end).
  • Ensure that you as convenor are talking for a very small amount of the time--ideally just to frame, contextualize, provide clear instructions, and keep people moving.
  • Build on their existing expertise/experience/perspective as opposed to asking them to comment on yours. Participants' stories are often more valuable than their opinions. 
  • Use unorthodox activities to inspire fresh thinking. Movement, making, and imaginative projects are all good for shaking new ideas loose. We use the Pop Up Museum--inviting small groups to build artifacts from the future--in many of our community meetings.
  • Close with a rallying activity, ideally one that invites people to continue conversations with each other.
6. Be honest and clear about the opportunity at hand. 

Share where you are clearly and concisely. Explain the opportunity to participate and what is and isn't on the table, so people don't get frustrated. Don't overpromise.

7. Provide snacks and drinks and a bit of time at the top to enjoy them. 

A little socializing and sugar can go a long way. We almost always use nametags with a playful prompt on them ("what superhero would you be?," "what's your favorite local place to relax?" etc.) to get the conversation started.

8. Inspire people to stay involved.

There's a big difference between a meeting that feels like a chore and one that generates energy. When participants get excited by the experience--whether because of the content, the other people in the room, the format, the invitation--they are more likely to seek opportunities to go further. Note that for most participants, the content is NOT the most important part of this calculation. Good content cannot succeed if delivered poorly, or in a group context that feels dull or unsafe. But ambiguous content in a room full of enthused people doing fun activities can thrive.


9. Follow up.

If the meeting was successful, you now have a whole crew of people who are interested and rooting for your project to shine. While you don't have to continue the level of engagement present at the meeting, it's poor form to drop them entirely. At my institution, we (embarrassingly) did this for a long time. People would come participate in a meeting and then we wouldn't even add them to the weekly mailing list. Part of this is rooted in a legitimate desire not to spam people. But imagine how you would feel if you were invited to someone's house once and never again. You'd assume that something hadn't gone well. We're now inviting participants to get more involved--both broadly in the world of our organization and specifically in activities that build on their experience and expertise.

Followup is important on the individual level too. Most community meetings are short. Catalytic. You hear an intriguing 20-second snippet. You see someone light up at something you didn't expect. Most of the value you will get from participants comes when you follow up to say, "hey, I'd love to hear more about X. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and hear more?"

10. Use their input.

This is the most important part. It's why you held the meeting, right?

The worst way to disrespect participants is to ignore the advice, experience, and expertise that you asked them to provide. You don't need to involve them in every step forward of the project. But you should use their input to guide and shape where you take it. You should--bonus points--reach out to individuals to acknowledge how they influenced your direction. You should--double bonus points--let the whole crew know where their input took the project. But most of all, you should use the input. Community meetings should never be a "check the box" activity. They're too much work--and offer too much value--to tokenize.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Year Five as a Museum Director: Good to Grow

Five years ago, I left the consulting world to take the helm at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) at a time of crisis and change. We went through a dramatic turnaround. We started bootstrapping growth. Now, we're on the doorstep of a major expansion. It's exciting and tiring and rewarding as ever.

As I did at the one-year and three-year mark, here are some of the things I'm most proud of, mistakes I've made, and questions on my mind as we head into the next five years.

  • Building a rigorous strategic framework under our creative, community-based work. In my first few years, it was all about getting the programming moving, experimenting, and exploring the possibilities with our community. Three years ago, we decided to put in the work to create foundational documents--a new mission statement, values, engagement goals, survey methodology, and most importantly, a theory of change--to ground our work in shared language and priorities. The theory of change has been invaluable as a "playbook" that we use to guide programming decisions, evaluation protocols, and marketing messages about our impact. We're finally able to systematically make data-driven decisions, rooted in a shared understanding of our intended outcomes and impact... and it feels amazing. 
  • Leading a successful capital campaign for an expansion that will fundamentally change our organization. We have spent the past three years planning and raising money for a project to build a creative town square for our city on the front porch of the museum. Abbott Square will include free outdoor public seating, a public food market, and several areas for free art and cultural activities. I'm excited about Abbott Square for a million reasons, but I'm PROUD that our supporters and our board especially embraced the idea that growth means going beyond our walls and bringing art and history to the streets. 
  • Working with amazing colleagues, trustees, and community partners to make our institution more inclusive. My first few years, we focused on increasing attendance. Over the past two years, we've focused instead on how we can ensure that people of all walks of life in our community feel welcomed and included at the MAH. We're investing in cultural competency and board and staff development. Learning more about the specific cultural assets and needs of underrepresented groups in our community. Inviting those groups into partnership and leadership in our programming, exhibitions, staff & volunteer team, and institutional decision-making. Tracking and adapting to our successes and failures. We see the change happening--our visitors are now representative of the age and income diversity of the County, and we've made significant advances in terms of ethnic/racial diversity. We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But we are on the path. 
  • Going big with our board and community partners. For the first couple years at the MAH, I honestly didn't understand how valuable a board can be. I understood their basic responsibilities, but I didn't understand the possibilities of how they could contribute. That has changed. The more ambitious we've become as an organization, the more I value the ways board members' experience and expertise extends our capabilities. I turn to trustees to help make tough decisions. I depend on them to push us further. The same is true of our community partners. We've increased the diversity and depth of ways that creative collaborators help guide our work. The bigger our goals, the more important it is that we learn how to identify and recruit talented partners, volunteers, and supporters, and engage them to their maximum potential.

  • Not communicating clarity as often as I should. I'm someone who is more comfortable communicating energy than clarity. My base personality is a cheerleader waving pom poms in multiple directions. A lot of my missteps with colleagues over the past couple years--ones that sent people in the wrong direction, sowed confusion, or exhausted people--were due to my lack of discipline about staying on message. I've learned that I have to stick to the same cheer--and share it with others--longer and with more consistency than is my inclination. The more clarity I provide as the leader, the more everyone can move forward together with confidence.
  • Resisting change that worked for others but not for me. As the MAH grew, colleagues started asking for more structure: clearer lines of reporting, more consistent processes, job descriptions that didn't change every few months. I stressed out over these changes, worrying that they would introduce bureaucratic creep to a nimble, creative organization. I now believe that these concerns were mostly my own personal fears. I bridle under too much structure. I like change. But what works for me personally is not necessarily what is best for our organization. I had to learn--slowly--not to force my personal values onto reasonable needs of our institution. I had to learn that I still belonged at the organization as it matured, and that as its director, I needed to adopt some approaches and procedures that don't come naturally to me. It's easy as the boss to mold everything in your image. It's also really stupid. I'm learning that.
  • Not understanding the full costs of a capital campaign. I thought we did a decent job setting up our campaign to cover associated staff costs along with capital costs. But now that the campaign is at its end and Abbott Square is under construction, it's clear that we have to make additional investments to meet the opportunity that this expansion affords us. While I thought a lot at the start about how we would fund the ongoing costs of operating the new town square, I didn't think enough about how that new town square would require changes to our "base" museum operation.

  • How can we intertwine community engagement and fundraising? We involve many diverse, creative, community-loving people in our work as programmatic partners and donors. The thing is, we usually separate the two groups. If you volunteer your talents to an exhibition or program, you live in community engagement-land. If you donate money, you live in fundraising-land. We're now recruiting a leader for a new department of Development and Community Relations with a goal of bringing all these talented, valuable partners together in one community of support. I'm curious and hopeful as to what kind of positive change this can create. (And if this sounds like your kind of challenge, please apply for the job!)
  • What field are we in? Over the past few years, I've shifted from spending most of my professional learning time with museum folk to spending it with people who are involved in public service and community activism--some in the arts, some not. Around the MAH office, we often struggle to figure out what conferences will be most valuable and what professional alliances to build. We seek to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. I'm not sure how to most usefully characterize this work--community development? creative placemaking?--and how all of us those of us doing this work around the world can best ally to learn, share, advocate, and grow together.   
Thank you for continuing to be part of this journey through your comments, questions, critiques, and support as part of my professional community. I learn so much through writing and engaging with you.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Advocacy Policy, Part Two - And Why Now is an Especially Good Time to Create One

A few months ago, the MAH board and staff started discussing whether and how to create a formal policy for advocacy activities. I blogged about it, and you offered several good pointers on what should be considered in constructing it. Now, we've created one (unanimously approved by the board), and I wanted to share it with you and the process behind it.

Want to go straight to the policy?

Here it is.

Why create an advocacy policy?

In our case, it started when we were asked to sign onto a local petition to save a community garden under threat. We realized that we needed a systematic way to evaluate these kinds of requests--a tool that would help us evaluate when to say yes and why to say no.

Regardless of your institutional mission, nonprofits are all in the advocacy business. We champion causes through the partnerships we build, the programs we offer, and the stories we tell. While most nonprofits regularly advocate for our own institutions and/or sector, I think it's just as important to advocate for the interests of the communities in which we serve.

If you've been considering this for awhile, now is the time to act. Everyone is going to the ballot this year in the United States. Our museum has already had several requests to lend our support to bond measures that will be on the ballot in 2016. While 501c3 nonprofits cannot endorse candidates, it is completely kosher to endorse bond measures, propositions, and other ballot measures. If you want to be engaged in 2016 ballot measures relevant to your institution or community, now is a great time to develop a policy for how and when to do so.

How did we create it?

A small team of trustees and staff members worked together on our advocacy policy. We reviewed a handful of existing policies from other institutions (local and national, museums and not), discussed their attributes, and started drafting/stealing/reworking with a Google doc. We only met once in person. It was especially valuable to have activists, retired government employees, and social service leaders on the team; they brought helpful perspectives on what advocacy means beyond a cultural context.

The policy our board approved is intentionally broad. We wanted enough of a foundation to ground our advocacy without prescribing it. We wanted enough of a process to provide clarity and structure without too many hoops. We wanted it to make "yes" possible but "no" completely reasonable as well.

Any surprises?

One of the biggest "aha" moments I had in the development of the policy is that our museum was already doing advocacy in a variety of ways before we had a policy. We educate the public on local issues. We invite people from community organizations and campaigns to use the museum as a platform to share their message. We partner with thousands of artists and organizations, providing staff support and engagement in their work. We incubate a youth art and social change program. We host community festivals like the recent Artivism event that showcase local changemakers. We've made changes to our museum--bilingual signage, all-gender restrooms--to be better advocates for the diverse visitors who walk through our doors.

Though we started working on the policy specifically to address situations when we are asked by an outside group for formal endorsement, we realized as we dove in that we should also use this opportunity to contextualize endorsements as just one of many advocacy tools at our disposal. Advocacy is not just for executives and boards of trustees. The result is a broad policy that empowers our whole team to think about our roles as advocates for our community in the work we do.

I know our policy is not perfect. We're just starting to use it to evaluate endorsement requests coming our way, and I imagine we'll find some ways we want to clarify or change what we've written. But I wanted to share it with you: in appreciation of your role in its development, in curiosity as to your response, and in hopes it might inspire you to draft your own.

Because no matter the content, I heartily advocate for such policies to exist.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?

Our entire strategy at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is rooted in community participation. We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids. You get the idea.

When I share these stories at conferences, someone always asks: what about institutions that serve millions of visitors each year? Does community participation work for big cultural destinations too?

It's a good question. On a basic level, the answer is no. Local community centers and destination attractions are different beasts. If your institution is built for millions of one-time visitors, it is not built for thousands of frequent visitors, and vice versa.

My museum can pursue radical collaboration because of our small size and local focus. We have the opportunity to build relationships with community members over time. The time to get to know folks who walk in the door. The flexibility to be nimble, responsive, and involved.

When people ask if our work in Santa Cruz scales, I start by acknowledging our distinct strategy. We are doing something different than the big guys, for good reason. And they should do something different from us.

But does that mean community participation is only for small institutions or small communities? No. The principles of community participation--seeing the public as partners, inviting folks to get meaningfully involved, welcoming their talents and perspectives--work at any size. But the strategies are different.

Think about democratic politics. People participate in national and local politics--and they do so completely differently. Local politics are personal, accessible. You can meet a candidate. You can show up to a public meeting and ask a question. You can even get on a commission if you are so inclined. National politics are sweeping, remote. You can join a movement. Attend a rally. Share links and opinions and funds online.

People participate in both of these political arenas, and they do so differently. The same is true for cultural participation.

Here are a few distinctions between participation in cultural institutions by scale. Instead of separating these into smaller and bigger institutions, I separated these into "local" and "destination" institutions. I think it's a more realistic representation of the two types described, and a more useful way to look at strategies for community participation.

  • LOCAL INSTITUTION: Your community is a definable group of people connected by place. You can probably name several of them. Many of them can name each other. You run into each other in and beyond the institution. It's reasonable to focus your marketing and programming on participation onsite at your institution or at sites within your city. Your community lives nearby. Of course they can participate here. 
  • DESTINATION INSTITUTION: If your visitors come from all over the world instead of from down the street, defining community strictly by place doesn't work. You can't define your primary community as the people of Manhattan if 75% of your visitors are from other cities. For huge institutions, it's more appropriate to define community by identity or affinity instead of by geography. Think Etsy, Sierra Club, Mormon Church. Each of these institutions engages a community of like-minded individuals spread around the globe. Engagement for a distributed community can't happen solely or even primarily onsite. It requires a lot more distributed online engagement to complement onsite engagement. 
  • LOCAL: If your visitors can come in often, you can build relationships with people over time. They can attend first as audience members or spectators, checking out the space and getting comfortable. As you get to know visitors, you can learn more about their talents and interests. You can invite them into opportunities that build on their strengths. You can invest in building relationships on your site and theirs. Participation can be onsite only, or onsite and online. It's OK to expect people to come back to keep going deeper, and it's manageable for you to go to their sites, too. 
  • DESTINATION: If visitors come once a year or once a decade, the stakes are higher on the first encounter. Onsite participation has to be welcoming to first-timers, and it should catalyze opportunities for deeper engagement offsite. That means offering clear, visible, appealing participatory experiences that enhance the destination experience. And then it means creating some kind of digital link--via email, social media, photos--that encourages people to continue building relationships when they are back home. 
  • LOCAL: One of the hazards of small and local institutions is the potential for insularity. Some organizations invite a certain number of locals into the club and then close the door. If you want to build community, you have to balance the tribal desire to bond with buddies with the collective opportunity to bridge with strangers. Strong local organizations build alliances across sectors, cultures, and neighborhoods. They link people together across differences. This can happen through committees, summits, or long-term projects in which a group puts on a show builds something together. The local scale makes it possible for individuals in the group to make commitments to the institution and to each other. 
  • DESTINATION: Frankly, I think building community is difficult for large destination institutions to execute. Visitors to these institutions are often so focused on their own bonded group experience--my family vacation, our special date at the opera--that they are uninterested in strangers. Worse, since many of these institutions are crowded, visitors see strangers as annoying obstacles instead of potential friends and community members. However, destination institutions can build community through participation in at least two ways. First, through large crowd events (think political rally or pro sports game), where numbers work for you to build a sense of shared identity. Second, online, where participants from around the world can commit to long-term projects and relationships. 
I'll be honest: I prefer to work on the local level rather than in a big institution. I love tackling the challenges of building a more connected community in our county through art and history. I love sharing stories of our work--in part because I believe small institutions deserve more credit for their unique contributions to our field. But do I think local institutions are better than destination institutions? No. I appreciate the big guys too. Especially the ones developing ways for community participation to shine in their environments.

How do you see community participation thriving in large/destination institutions?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Aspiring, Thriving, or Struggling Changemaker? Join us for MuseumCamp 2016.

Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp will be August 31-September 2, 2016. This year's theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

As always, MuseumCamp will be a high-energy, all-in experience... with enough downtime for introverts, too. The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts to tackle your thorniest change challenges, MAH community programming, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. Yes you can sleep at the museum. Yes you can swim with sea lions. Yes you can--and will--learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We're proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design--campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend... and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

The MuseumCamp website has more information about this year's camp and how to apply. It also has testimonials from past campers and information on past years to help you get a sense of the experience.

MuseumCamp is for activists. For designers. For knowledge workers. For people on the front lines. For managers. For creative types. For anyone seeking to make positive change in your community. If you are interested in applying to attend camp, please check out the site and fill out an application today. We will accept applications through March 25 and inform people of selections in early April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon.

And please, help make space for others by spreading the word. Many campers share that the best part of the experience is the diversity of campers. The strength of our experience together is partly based on the opportunity to come together across different disciplines and perspectives, and we want to continue pushing for that. In that spirit, we would especially love for you to apply if you:
  • identify as a gender other than female 
  • identify as a person of color 
  • are over 50
  • work in a field that is not visual arts/museums 
While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite all scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. If you are interested in helping provide financial aid for this amazing event, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

Want to make a change? Please apply now to MuseumCamp--and if you have a friend who you think would love this, encourage them to apply too. Let's make creative change together.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

One Simple Question to Make Your Work More Participatory

Photo by CLoƩ Zarifian, MAH Photo Intern
We're working with a guest curator, Wes Modes, on an upcoming experimental project at our museum. Wes is an artist, and this is his first time running a museum exhibition development process. In a recent meeting about the exhibition process, Wes asked me: what am I not thinking of that I should be doing?

I said to him: I can't really answer that question. I'm sure you're thinking of a lot of steps to make this process work, and many more tasks will arise. The key question is, every step of the way: how can you invite people beyond yourself to help make this step better?

This is the question I ask myself anytime I'm working on something with a participatory intent. How can people--staff, volunteers, community members--help make this project better?   

In the case of the exhibition process that Wes is leading, we talked about how others could be involved in an experimental exhibition/residency in which artists work with visitors in the gallery. The obvious start was to think about how we recruit the artists--using an open call to invite anyone, anywhere to participate. But even developing that open call was a participatory process:
  • Wes worked with other staff to think through how the residencies could work. Their input helped shape the entire project, which in turn shaped the call.
  • He asked staff and artist friends for feedback on the concept. Their input helped shape the messaging of the project and the key questions to be answered in the call.
  • Once the call was 95% ready, Wes circulated it to a small group of existing museum partners and artists for feedback. Their input helped us get to 100%, and it created a group of invested collaborators who were ready to help spread the word once the call was live.
  • Once the call was ready, Wes circulated it to even more museum partners, as well as to artist listservs and our general membership. These people were both potential participants and promoters of the call, helping it continue to spread.
All of these steps helped make for a better call to artists, one that has gotten way more response than I ever expected.

This open call project may sound like one that is uniquely suited for participatory input. But I find that the more I live with that question of how others can make something better, the more naturally it infuses all kinds of work at our museum. Developing new staff policies. Prototyping all gender bathrooms. Creating an event or exhibit. All of these activities involve ongoing collaboration and co-creation with people beyond the staff member(s) responsible.

How can people help make your project better? Here are a few tips to asking this question successfully:
  • ask the whole question. It's not just a question of how people could get involved or participate. It's a question of how they can make it BETTER. You can always come up with ways people could participate. But if those approaches require a lot of time or effort and don't improve the result, they're a waste. Be generous and creative about what "better" could look like, but hold onto that goal. That way, you'll build a virtuous cycle where you keep wanting to find opportunities for participation to continue improving your work.
  • share your work. It's impossible to ask this question if you work so close to the chest that no one can even see what you are doing, let alone get involved. Inviting starts with sharing. Share what you are doing, the questions you have, the things you're unsure of, and you'll naturally encounter people who want to help make it better. This takes confidence in sharing half-baked ideas, and also the time to type them out, circulate them, have a meeting, etc. It's part of a culture of learning and curiosity--something I hope that museums can embody.
  • define "people" in the way that works for you. At my museum, the people who participate may be staff, volunteers, community members, organizational partners, Facebook folk... it depends on the project or task at hand. It's always good to start closest to home. Ask your colleagues. Ask your friends. And then as you build confidence in their ability to help make your work better, you can start inviting participants who are further from your comfort zone.
How are you inviting other people to help make your work better?

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