"How often do we hear colleagues from museums and galleries stating as their fundamental reason for working co-creatively with audiences that they want to make a great piece of museum work, rather than primarily for reasons of social inclusion or democracy?"
Last week, Dr. Louise Govier posed this provocative question in an excellent paper on co-creation in the arts: Leaders in co-creation? Why and how museums could develop their co-creative practice with the public, building on ideas from the performing arts and other non-museum organisations (free to download). In it, Louise argues that museum professionals need to focus more on pursuing audience participation not to promote audience development or provide educational opportunities, but to create superlative visitor experiences. It's an argument I wholeheartedly support. User participation is a design and program strategy, and it should be used to make institutions better overall. If a strategy doesn't improve your ability to deliver high-quality projects, why pursue it?
Louise's paper starts with a useful literature review, but I find the second half (beginning on page 22) most interesting. Louise presents findings from case studies featuring dance, opera, and theater companies that do superlative work with non-professionals and audience members. These are: Dance United, which produces dance performances featuring primarily juvenile offenders, the Birmingham Opera Company, which co-creates innovative productions with Birmingham residents, and the Theater Royal Stratford East, which is planning a community-driven program for their 2012 season.
Louise mostly focuses on the experiences and commentary of the professionals who run these performing arts organizations, though she did interview a few participants. When asked why these artistic directors were pursuing co-creative processes, "to make great art!" was the most overwhelming answer. Respondents also talked about growing as artists through the process and the incredible things they learned from working with non-professionals. While Louise noted that social inclusion, audience development, and democratization of art were definitely raised, many of the artists cited these as secondary reasons for co-creative practice. Several spoke disparagingly of the idea that co-creation is primarily about empowering participants; as the Artistic Director of Dance United, Tara-Jane Herbert, commented, "if you want to save people, then this is not the company for you."
For Louise, the focus on "making great art" doesn't just demonstrate these artists' commitment to the co-creative process. She also notes that this goal helps performing arts groups produce higher-quality experiences for audiences, participants, and stakeholders alike. As Louise puts it:
If our primary aim in the work we co-create with the public is not to make great art, by which I mean high quality museum spaces which engage a wide range of people and create all sorts of different, interesting meanings, then I fear we will always limit this kind of work. Doubters will never see its potential, because the results may be a bit mediocre, and will therefore carry on being marginalised in community galleries rather than being highlighted in the central museum space. Also, it may not deliver what it might have done for participants: if our primary motivation wasn’t to make something spectacularly good, they may not have been involved in creating something of amazing quality, or have really developed their skills and confidence to be a creative voice to which others listened.
Several of the artists who Louise profiles stated that it was essential to involve non-professionals directly in their artistic work (the development and production of theatrical performances) as opposed to in educational programs. Birmingham Opera Director Graham Vick commented: "I'm not interested in doing education and outreach work - it's not opera!" Graham and others interviewed see their fundamental work as making art, and they don't want to give participants what they perceive as a secondary, tangential, or watered-down experience with art.
In some cases, this driving power of "doing the work" helped staff from across institutions come together to work as a more cohesive unit toward a single goal. In the case of Dance United, a co-creative effort that started in the learning/community outreach department became the core offering of the company, which now promotes "the power of dance to change lives" consistently in how they develop and produce new works and performances. In some museums, there's friction between educational staff who may run radically co-creative projects and others who feel that those projects are secondary to the "serious" work of the institution. When an institution becomes wholly participatory, those distinctions often erode.
Overall, Louise's paper gave me the sense that these art companies are more willing to take a basic, fundamental risk with regard to their audiences than most museums would be. In all cases, the artists put a stake in the ground and said, "We think we can improve our artistic practice and our public-facing performances through participatory techniques." They were unapologetic about their goals as artists, and they used those goals and expectations to design participatory structures they hoped would succeed.
That's not to say these structures came easy. Louise doesn't state it explicitly, but it's clear from her discussion of processes that these performing artists' community work is not necessarily faster or cheaper than that which could be accomplished with professional participants. Co-creation takes a lot of work in the form of skill-building, fostering equitable relationships, and providing appropriate levels of leadership and openness. The museum I know of most like these performing arts companies is the Wing Luke Asian Museum, which has an entirely co-creative approach to exhibition design. The resulting exhibitions are high-quality by museum standards and are well-loved by the community. But as staff noted in their Community-Based Exhibit Model handbook, "The work is labor intensive. The work requires flexibility. We willingly relinquish control.” This kind of co-creative approach isn't just a design strategy. It's a fundamental approach to making the institution work.
Toward that end, it's worth thinking about two basic questions:
- What is the work of your institution?
- How can you design participatory structures that invite non-professionals to help you do your work better?
Unlike the artists Louise profiles, the work of many museums and museum professionals is not creative production but interpretation, arbitration, investigation, and education. I do strongly believe in co-creative museum projects in which the institution intends to make better exhibits or performances. But there is a place for participatory projects in which visitors help perform research or produce new ways of understanding objects and ideas. Whatever your work is, there is probably a way you can usefully, appropriately involve non-professionals to make it better.
What might that mean for you and your institution? Please share your comments below. Louise will keep an eye on this post, and she has generously provided her email address - louise.govier @ yahoo.co.uk - if you would like to contact her directly.