Whenever I work with an organization that says they want to “hear from visitors,” I always ask: what will you do with what you hear? Is this a research project? It is an exhibit of user-generated content? Is it a conversation? What will you do if they say something you don’t agree with? In almost all cases, museums assure me that they want to be in conversation, that they want to be responsive, that they want to “really hear” what people think.
This week, I read two stories about disagreeable flare-ups between institutions and consumers. In one case, the institution jumped into the conversation and converted an ugly situation into a positive community outcome. In the other case, the institution was unwilling to engage in the conversational environment and ended up isolated, fueling the fire.
Sadly, it was the second story that was about a museum. Let’s start there.
Here’s what happened: an art critic named Jerry Saltz posted an incendiary note on Facebook about the very low representation of women artists on the 4th and 5th floors (painting and sculpture) of MoMA. He encouraged his friends and followers to help him generate a package of comments and complaints on this topic to send to museum executives at the end of June. Then, he received a message from MoMA’s Chief Communications Officer, Kim Mitchell, which he posted (at her request). Here’s her message:
"Hi all, I am (Kim Mitchell) Chief Communications Officer here at MoMA. We have been following your lively discussion with great interest, as this has also been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA. We welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation. And yes, as Jerry knows, we do consider all the departmental galleries to represent the collection. When those spaces are factored in, there are more than 250 works by female artists on view now. Some new initiatives already under way will delve into this topic next year with the Modern Women's Project, which will involve installations in all the collection galleries, a major publication, and a number of public programs. MoMA has a great willingness to think deeply about these issues and address them over time and to the extent that we can through our collection and the curatorial process. We hope you'll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going."This message spurred hundreds more comments on Facebook, blog posts, and tweets, which eventually made their way to people like me. As Doug McLennan wrote in Arts Journal, Kim’s message was condescending, impersonal, did not respond to the specific issue at hand, and did not reflect an honest interest in engagement. Though she wrote, “we welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation,” Kim made it clear that MoMA will continue to talk about this issue internally, on their own, and we should just wait and “follow” their subsequent actions.
MoMA is present on many social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, and clearly “heard” from people about this issue. But only Kim was tapped to address it in a corporate manner. Despite offering conversational portals, MoMA was unwilling to engage conversationally in this case. It would have been very easy to send out a tweet or Facebook update with a link to the article and some version of the question, "what do you think?" so that MoMA could become part of the discussion. I presume that their silence on the airwaves means MoMA doesn't have a policy that allows staff to engage in these environments in the open, personal, conversational ways that are appropriate to the platforms when the topic veers away from positive comments and event announcements.
There are people on Jerry Saltz’s page and other venues having very passionate, engaging conversations about how to deal with gender representation issues in MoMA and other museums. It’s not like the gender issue is a big secret that Jerry exposed or that this topic isn't heatedly discussed inside and outside the museum world. But MoMA isn’t ready to participate with the public on these potentially tough, meaty conversations. They don't have the resources or policies to support real dialogue with the public, even if they are present in social media-land. They may be in Rome, but they’re not ready to do like the locals.
But don't despair. There is an alternative for those who are really ready to hear from visitors: engage responsively in an invested, honest, personal manner. That’s what Dave Schroeder did this week when he was in a similar position to MoMA.
Dave runs a yearly software conference called Flashbelt in Minneapolis. Like MoMA's upper floors, Flashbelt has a significant gender imbalance with about 5-10% of attendees being women. One of the keynote speakers, Hoss Gifford, gave a talk that many perceived as sexist/degrading/offensive and completely unprofessional. A female attendee, Courtney Remes, wrote about the experience and the managers of the Geek Girls Guide blog posted her comments along with a comprehensive call to action to encourage people to write to the event organizers and generally raise awareness about the issue.
The same day, Dave Schroeder wrote privately to the women and, significantly, posted a public apology about the incident on the Flashbelt homepage. He didn’t hide it on a secondary page; one day after the conference was over, the homepage of the conference focused solely on this issue. His statement was honest and explicit. He validated the concerns, apologized to everyone, took full responsibility for the issue, and expressed his commitment to redress this issue now and in the future. (Note: his letter has now moved here.)
The next day, the Geek Girls post was updated to announce that there would be a united response from Dave, Courtney, and the Geek Girls coming soon. Here’s what they said:
“Dave Schroeder, Courtney Remes, Nancy Lyons and Meghan Wilker met this morning and had a great discussion. We're working together on a united response, which will be posted here as soon as it's done. This has obviously touched a nerve with a lot of people. Let's keep the dialogue going, and let's keep it positive and respectful.”They met in person. They talked about it. This afternoon, they issued a lengthy collaborative statement. And they are encouraging more dialogue about the general issues of gender imbalance and prejudice in the software development world, which they are clearly willing to lead and take part in.
This is the way that institutions should be willing to act when we say we want to “be responsive” to people. I know there are many differences between the MoMA and Flashbelt incidents and that running a huge museum is much more complex than running a yearly conference. But the issues these stories bring up around willingness to "hear" and "engage" are universal.
This is why I always say that participatory tools are about relationships, not technology. You have to be honest about what kinds of relationships you are willing to take on. If your corporate culture prevents you from being an invested, accountable, honest, personal part of a serious conversation, then there are some conversations, relationships, and social venues in which you cannot fully participate. And it’s fine if you know you are not ready to be there. It's entirely your choice to engage or not in different kinds of relationships. But don’t show up for a conversation if you aren’t ready to listen.