Thursday, July 29, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
- Machine Project (Los Angeles, CA). One of my favorite places for a long time now. Machine Project is a non-profit storefront arts venue that hosts a dizzying array of eclectic classes, workshops, events, and occasional exhibits. It was started in 2003 and is run by Mark Allen and a collective of artists, many of whom have also been applying their talents by performing "interventions" at formal art institutions including LACMA, the Hammer Museum, and the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. What makes Machine special is its brand of humor and accessibility, combined with a real dedication to experimenting on the borders of art, science, and ideas. In other words, they're not pretentious. At AAM, Mark and his compatriot Emily Lacy enthralled a packed room with a five minute song about Machine's hijinks. You feel like you could be a part of something awesome there (check out their FAQ for copious examples of this).
- Waffle Shop (Pittsburgh, PA). Want some waffles with your art? The Waffle Shop is a cafe and live streaming TV channel that serves a diverse audience of late night club-goers and locals in an urban neighborhood. It's run by Jon Rubin, an artist and professor of social practice at Carnegie Mellon, and his students. It's a fascinating experiment in connecting with "nontraditional" arts audiences and encouraging strangers to dialogue about diverse topics in a performative environment. Both staff and visitors host TV programs in the space that range from interviews to game shows to salon chair ministries. The Waffle Shop team also run other projects out of the space, including the Conflict Kitchen--a take-out place that serves food from countries that the U.S. is in conflict with (currently, Iran).
- Chicago Underground Library (Chicago, IL). If you're looking for inspiration with a collections focus, the Underground Library is a compelling experimental space dedicated to archiving all media produced in Chicago. They have an open collections policy, and they see media artifacts as objects that connect people--to art, to history, to politics, and to each other. The library is run in the lobby of a theater company by a group of volunteers led by Nell Taylor. Nell and the Underground Librarians are passionate about helping people see the relationships between media artifacts and lived experience in the city, and they spend a lot of their time soliciting artworks and publications from unlikely corners to flesh out their collection and honor the diversity of content production around Chicago. Whether a teen zine about punk music or a university journal, the Underground Library will collect it, catalog it, and share it in ways designed to help people learn more about their city and each other.
- Elsewhere Collaborative (Greensboro, NC). Elsewhere is another collection-based project, but in this case, the collection is the basis for artwork rather than the other way around. In 2003, writer George Scheer inherited his grandmother's thrift store and decided to turn it into an artists' center and museum. Elsewhere engages artists in residence who reinterpret elements of the thrift store into new works, which are then shared with the public. Their projects are an inspiration for anyone interested in looking at new ways to reinterpret a collection (especially a weird and overflowing one) and in doing so, bring together a community of artists and locals.
- PieLab (Greensboro, AL). A newer kid on the block, PieLab is a community center and pie shop in rural Alabama, started by a group of designers who believe that design can improve the world one small community at a time. PieLab resembles other community development projects: it employs struggling teens, provides local entrepreneurs and organizations with space and support, and brings together diverse folks. But it is also a symbol of a movement for third places that combine commerce, design and community. There are sites like this popping up all over the country, and some of the same young, creative, civically-minded people who might typically work in museums or libraries are the ones in charge. The amount of press and support PieLab has received from the design, business, and non-profit industries is worth noting for any cultural institution interested in truly putting forward a "community first" proposition (or for any individual ready to start her own mission-driven cafe).
- Streb Labs (Brooklyn, NY). If you are looking for experiments in taking a formal, traditional art venue and reconceiving it as a community space that attracts a diverse audience, look no further than Streb Labs. In 2003 Elizabeth Streb, a very successful choreographer, moved into a huge warehouse space in Brooklyn on a busy street and threw the doors open to locals, 24/7. As Streb explains, "SLAM is an open-access venue that models a new kind of artist-driven community institution. The doors of SLAM are never closed. Performances at SLAM are not stiff, class-coded, regimented affairs; they are neighborhood happenings where the company's longtime fans from the high-art crowd mingle with the at-risk kids from the local public schools and their parents. At the heart of this machine is the driving force of art and action, and the belief that art can provide a service to a community such that voters, taxpayers, and consumers will consider it indispensable." Check out their site and if you're inspired, listen to this fabulous 20 minute interview with Elizabeth on The Artful Manager blog.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Monday, July 12, 2010
- Project description. This is typically a video plus text, although some projects just use a simple image instead of a video. Project creators can also write updates (a kind of project-specific blog) to share either privately with backers or openly with all.
- Funding goal. Kickstarter is an "all or nothing" funding scheme. If you make or exceed your goal in the timeframe you set, you get the money. If not, the backers' credit cards are not charged. Kickstarter makes money by taking a percentage on projects that succeed.
- Pledge levels. While backers can fund you at whatever level between $1 and $10,000 they desire, most Kickstarter projects offer rewards at discrete pledge levels to motivate people to give specific amounts.
- Kickstarter is a symptom of changes in donor culture. They are tapping into a large audience of people who don't care whether their donations are tax-deductible or not. Kickstarter backers aren't investing in companies or projects. They are making donations--in most cases, to entities that are not non-profits. These backers are excited by specific, near-term projects and want to support them directly. These are people who like to have a personal connection to a specific project and may be less interested in museum-style donor levels that are more about general (and vague) support for the institution.
- Kickstarter backers are mostly young adults with money who are broadly interested in supporting the arts and creative practice. While arts professionals moan about the erosion of support and the disinterest of younger potential donors, Kickstarter is a fertile ground for research into the kinds of projects, presentation styles, and pledge gifts that appeal to this much-desired demographic. (For example, check out the charming way this comic book artist personalizes his relationship with potential backers in this video, minute 2.)
- Kickstarter may be a good place to fund small experiments or to jump start campaigns. The all-or-nothing funding approach makes many project creators conservative about their ambitions. A documentary film crew might use Kickstarter to pay for travel costs, or a dance troupe to pay for recorded music so they don't have to hire musicians for their live performances. While Kickstarter is not likely to be the best solution for a huge fundraising project, it could be the perfect way to fund a discrete part of a capital project with high public appeal or a small wacky experiment that doesn't fit into the budget.
- They picked sensible funding goals. Seth needed $25,000 for the capital campaign materials, but he felt that $10,000 was more reasonable in terms of what he could drum up online. After researching the fees and determining the true costs of all the gifts, he set the amount at $11,000 so they could net $10,000 for the campaign. Similarly, Jim focused on what he actually needed (and it looks like he will far exceed his goal in the time allotted). Not all projects are successful--I recommend this blog post for a sobering look at what happens when a project doesn't quite make it.
- They developed pledge levels that were scalable and supported the project appropriately. Some projects on Kickstarter offer such fabulous thank you gifts that it's unclear how the creator will actually recoup any money for the project. Jim and Seth were very smart with their gifts and pledge levels. Jim noted to me that $25 is "the sweet spot" for donations, so that's the level at which he offered his first physical item (a patch featuring one of the socks from the game). Seth made the same decision--at $25 you get a book as well as a museum membership. Both of these projects offer gifts at levels below $25, but they're "free" for the project (membership in the museum's case, digital thank you's and behind the scenes blog access for the socks). Jim also told me that "the most important gifts to think about are between $25 to $250, since people donating amounts higher than that are contributing because they really want to support the project." In the museum's case, Seth capitalized on this by inviting funders at the $200 to a party hosted by a board member on the capital committee. As Seth noted, "we reversed the party concept. Instead of saying there's an admission fee for the fundraising party, we'll make it if you give $200 on Kickstarter the reward will be an invite to the party."
- They were willing to aggressively "beat the drums" to promote their projects. Both Jim and Seth made it clear that you have to do the work marketing your project to be successful. For Seth, that meant emails and frequent Facebook updates out to museum members, whereas for Jim it involved a Twitter campaign and some guerrilla marketing to players of his past games. Jim noted that only 20% of his backers were people outside of his professional and personal networks, so it's essential to focus on people you know and not on "going viral." Jim told me "people are much more likely to check out a project and donate to it if a personal friend encourages them to pledge, so start there and encourage people to share in their communities." In Seth's case, this paid real dividends as the adult children of some museum members began donating and spreading the word. In one case, a man in Texas donated $1,000 to the campaign. Seth contacted him to thank him and express his incredulity that a stranger from far away would make such a gift, but then the man explained that his mother was a museum member and that she loved the museum and he wanted to do this as a gift for her. She had forwarded the link from the museum newsletter to her son, and he had taken it from there.
- People who pledge have the opportunity for ongoing engagement with the project. The thank you gifts are invitations for deeper involvement over time. For Jim and the sock puppets, backers have the opportunity to test the game and eventually develop new levels and missions for other players. At the Neversink Valley Museum, every backer at the $15 level or higher received a museum membership. As Seth commented, "I can give you a better answer next year for how fabulous this is. A lot of people who wanted to come to the party got all the benefits below $200… so now they’re all members of the museum. So we’ll see how connected they are to the institution, will they renew their memberships, and will they donate above basic membership when it comes time to renew." The hope is that Kickstarter is the beginning not just of a project but of new relationships that can support the organization over time.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
"We want to find ways to make our institution more participatory and lively.""Great!""We want to cultivate a more diverse audience, especially younger people, and we want to do it authentically.""Fabulous!""But our traditional audience doesn't come for that, and we have to find a way to do this without making them uncomfortable.""Hm."
If someone enjoys Arts Event A because it’s social, informal, energetic, fun, and hip, why should we expect her to also enjoy Arts Event B if B is individual, formal, quiet, serious, and traditional (at least in its presentation, if not artistically)?
How do you approach this problem of frustrating traditional audiences when trying to move in a new direction?
Thursday, July 01, 2010
I have been using quotes from Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place in my own writings for quite a long time. I had became convinced (around 1996) that there was something important about museums as socializing spaces that should be further explored. I went off to read Jane Jacobs[i] and William Whyte[ii] who both understood and wrote about the importance of strangers interacting with each other in public outdoor spaces. Their seminal writing and research first took place in the 1960’s.
I also read books by various architects who were writing about museum buildings and their uses but they were mostly interested in the functioning of the building itself or how buildings made visitors feel. At the time I did not find any architectural writers who wanted to talk about the promulgation of stranger interaction within their spaces. Then I stumbled upon The Great Good Place while browsing in my local library. The book was a revelation and an affirmation that gave credence to the importance of strangers meeting each other inside establishments outside the home as a method of community building. I was excited.
The Great Good Place has since become treated as a mandatory museum studies touchstone. Many people use references to “third spaces” as short hand when discussing any sites that are neither home nor offices. Often they do so without reading the book. And saying the phrase “third space” has become synonymous for other phrases like “forum, meeting ground, scholar’s cafes, seating amenities, and entrance halls” none of which are synonyms at all. Because of the casual use of the “third-space” phrase I found myself believing that Oldenburg’s book was foundational. Having read it carefully the first time, I did not reread it again counting on my memory when referring to it.
Now, thanks to you, Nina, and the Book Club on your blog, I have reread The Great Good Place and am disappointed: it does not really apply to museums very much, and Oldenburg is more prescriptive and judgmental about what he thinks constitutes the third space (that he has been instrumental to getting the public to acknowledge and to value) than I would like. Oldenburg is writing about space that encourages repeated interaction between frequent customers who end up acknowledging each other so that former strangers become familiar acquaintances. Jane Jacobs would call them “regulars”.
The third space he is describing is to be found on a continuum of important civic spaces each of which accomplishes different important tasks. Let me describe one of these other spaces which I call “congregant space”. It encourages a lower threshold of human interaction and does not require overt human interaction to be effective. If well designed these inside and outside public spaces allow strangers to view the “other” as fellow humans who happen to the same location.
The importance of congregant spaces can be better understood in times of troubles when authorities intentionally or inadvertently permit their citizens access to fewer and fewer such places that are considered safe enough to freely traverse. I believe having accessible spaces seen by the public as belonging to all is essential for civic health.
In 2009, writing for a book titled One Meter Square[iv] conceived by and celebrating the art of my Argentinean friend Graciella Sacco, I wrote:
If you mark off one meter square on the ground you will see that it is a very small space. Only one person can comfortably occupy it at one time. It is clear that any human activity that takes place in a one meter space is highly dependent on where that meter is situated and what is adjacent to it. A meter set in a dense forest not only looks different from one in the airport but is peopled much less often. All this so far is obvious.
What is less apparent is that some places as small as a meter square can contribute to civic peace. Their presence makes the world a little bit better and together with other such meters help keep us collectively safer. Yet these places, which I call “congregant spaces,” are ordinary, seemingly unrelated to each other, and ubiquitous. In each, strangers can safely meet; participate in the same activity at the same time; see, and even brush past, one another; and yet need not talk to or even acknowledge each other. Most importantly, people feel safe enough to enter or walk through these spaces.
The absence of such safe places is symptomatic of a community plagued with civic disquiet, even violence and upheaval. We sense the importance of these places when they’re absent. It is easy to understand why terrorists target them to promote widespread fear. ….
When people have easy opportunities to view each other, they get accustomed to one another. And when everyone can use the same spaces and services, we signal a silent welcome to each of the strangers we meet along the way.
Even better, safe public spaces which encourage learning and debate (lecture halls, museums, libraries, etc.) can move us further -- from mere passive acceptance and civility to understanding and even empathy.
So when a meter square is situated in the midst of a safe congregant space -- where all of society can walk unimpeded -- that meter is contributing to peaceful assembly. And if that meter can be attached to another beside it, followed by another and another…
Museum congregant space might be renamed “Museum Space 2.5” in honor of Nina’s blog. 2.5 might place it midway between the second space of work and the third space described in this book. Perhaps we in museums could learn to intentionally value museums as safe 2.5 spaces where strangers can see each other without needing to interact. Space 2.5 is a precursor to Oldenburg’s third space. This lower threshold requirement for stranger interaction in space 2.5 does not lower the importance of the third space as Oldenburg conceives of it but I would contend space 2.5 is more germane to public civility than is the third space which is useful in local community building. And with a continuum of space use, I suggest that museums that create space 2.5 will be surprised to see opportunities presenting themselves for also becoming the 3rd space of their neighborhood.
However creating functioning space 2.5 is not as simple as creating empty open space. Jane Jacobs and others would demand that the space include a set of ingredients that promote welcome, safety, usefulness and interactivity. In a paper called "Function Follows Form"[iv] I suggested that the proponents would insist that informal public spaces have:
…a sense of place, are ecologically sensitive, put reliance on foot rather than auto traffic, are utilized over many hours each day and offer a mix of activities which appeal to many. They maintain that the juxtaposition of spaces that forms mixed-use environments must be present if community building is to succeed.
Jacobs adds the acceptance of “unplanned and ad hoc use” as another necessary component.
The translation of these ingredients into museum design must be intentional. The admission’s barrier remains the single largest impediment to welcome. But assuming that the museum has free admission, the designer must consider the location, quantity and design of amenities like seating, hours of availability, encouragement of perambulation, views that encourage people watching, a multiplicity of programs and activities so that the user enters for multiple reasons not just gallery viewing.
Think train station and airport. These spaces consider the placement and variety of seating and services, the ease of using the toilets, the hours that they are open, the security they impose and the unexpected but allowable activities that can take place like card playing and sleeping. In trying to make the waiting period welcoming, safe and lucrative to the service providers they create civic space. To the extent the space feels unattractive, confusing or dangerous, or the service providers are unhelpful or discourteous, the use of their services decreases.
These and other examples of indoor spaces (malls and libraries for example) might help museum staff understand the difference between the construction of large open spaces (used for rental revenue and not much else) and space 2.5 that add to civic wellbeing.
For me, Jane Jacobs and William Whyte are heroes we should all be reading. While we thank Oldenburg for his input, we need to urge designers and administrators of museums to create more 2.5 spaces that intentionally welcome all in physical and programmatic ways. Space 2.5 is essential and the third space while nice to have can evolve down the road.
[i] Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York, Random House.
[ii] Whtye, William, (1979) “A Guide to Peoplewatching,” in Urban Open Spaces, Lisa Taylor (Ed.), New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
[iii] “One Meter Square” in Sacco, Graciella, M2, Museo Castagnino + MACRO, Rosario, Argentina, 2009.
[iv] Gurian, E. H. (2001). "Function Follows Form: How Mixed-Used Spaces in Museums Build Community." Curator 44(1): 87-113.