Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Artprize: An Extraordinary Social Experience around Art

Want to experience art in a populist, energized, industrial/urban setting? Want to see it in soup kitchens and record stores and bars? Want to talk about it? Want to be surrounded by thousands of people who are doing the same?

Then get yourself to Grand Rapids for Artprize.

Artprize, now in its second year, is a city-wide art festival with a $250,000 top prize to be awarded to the work that receives the most public votes. The artists come from all over (though many are based in the Midwest), and anyone can enter. Works are chosen and hung throughout the city using a unique venue matching system whereby local businesses, galleries, and organizations select the artworks they want to host.

Before I went, Artprize intrigued but did not fascinate me. Now, after attending with museum friends from around the country, I'm hooked. The extraordinary thing about Artprize isn't the voting, the money, or even the huge variety of works shown in a huge variety of venues. It's the social experience. Artprize invited me to talk about art with artists, families, security guards, friends, people old and young, sophisticated and novice, drunk and sober. It was the best experience I've ever had talking and learning about art. Period.

What makes the social experience at Artprize so special? Unlike many other social events in art venues that feature similar crowds and diversity, Artprize stood out in a simple way: people were entirely focused on and engrossed by the work. There was never the sense that the art was a backdrop for a party. Instead, people crowded around works, pointing things out, exclaiming about their preferences, sharing their discoveries. Not all the art was good, but it all spurred conversation.

What People Talked About

The conversations ranged in topic, but we most frequently heard people talk about:

  • Preferences. People readily exclaimed "I like this one!" or "ugh. This is terrible," though their volume was tempered depending on whether the artist was nearby. Unlike most museum experiences, where people quietly absorb the work in a room, people were very comfortable pulling each other to specific pieces and extolling their merits or less inspiring qualities.
  • Process. Some of the most popular pieces were those that featured familiar materials taken to the extreme. A mermaid made of thousands of toothpicks. A giant penny made out of pennies. One popular piece, a huge drawing of a calvary (see image above), spurred people to comically repeat the phrase, "this was done with a number 2 pencil!" again and again. It was as if people were remembering every standardized form they'd ever filled out with a #2 pencil elevated into a creative act. This focus on process also bore out in lots of the conversations I had and overheard with artists. It felt natural and easy for people ask "how did you make this?"
  • Narrative. Other very popular works came with a great story or had a puzzle that had to be "figured out" and could then be explained to others. One of the things I found most delightful and surprising about Artprize was the huge variety of artists' statements about their work. Very few wrote in typical museum or even gallery-speak. Many wrote personally about their reasons for making the work, sharing challenges along the way and evocative stories about their meaning. Some were downright wacky (see image). While the content was highly varied in tone and style, I felt that it taught me more about how artists think about their work than most interpretative materials do.
  • Confusion and tension. It was extremely strange to move from formal gallery settings featuring what appeared to be professional art to venues that showed amateur art in nontraditional settings. While some pieces were clearly bad even to my highly untrained eye, my overwhelming response was confusion about what to think. Do I like this piece because it reminds me of the kinds of things I'm used to seeing in fancy museums? How does my experience of a piece change based on its context? When you see a set of larger than life drawings of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a record store (image), or a mist and projection installation in a loading dock, how do you interpret the experience? For me, the most interesting internal and interpersonal dialogue at Artprize was about these questions, which pushed me to more deeply consider how I make aesthetic judgements and experience art.

Deconstructing the Social Experience

As a designer of participatory experiences, my biggest question about Artprize is what made all these conversations and experiences happen in the first place. Was it the gritty urban setting? The prizes? The extreme variety of works? The crowds of friendly Midwesterners? The free and accessible venues? I'm not exactly sure, but I have a theory. Have your own idea on this? Please add it in the comments.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't the voting that made the conversations happen. I saw very few people voting at the festival, and my friends who tried to vote with their (fancy) cellphones found it to be a frustrating experience at best. Strangely, I heard many people say, "this is in the top 25"--indicating their awareness of the voting and its significance--but I only saw a couple people actually vote. The common knowledge about the voting and the prize, as well as the constantly reinforced point that you COULD vote artworks up and down, may have been more important than the voting itself. I personally never felt the impulse to vote. I was too enamored of the social experience to care about expressing preferences in a technological, non-conversational way.

My idea about what makes the social experience of Artprize tick is based on Jyri Engestrom's theory of how objects are used in a social network. He argued that specific, discrete objects--not generalized topics or experiences--invite the most powerful shared experiences among people online (see chapter 4 of The Participatory Museum for a museum-focused version of this theory). This bore out at Artprize. Even in venues that featured many pieces of art, people tended to cluster and talk about specific ones. In some venues that offered maps of their hosted works, I saw visitors checking off works on their maps as they saw them--a kind of collecting behavior I never see in museums. There was a sense that there are X pieces in this venue or on this street, and I want to see them all or most or the ones that are important for some reason.

This means that people were NOT doing what usually happens in art museums for many folks: taking in whole galleries at a time, immersing themselves in art generally instead of in specific works. There was no "show" or overriding theme of each venue or gallery, no sameness of technique or content. Because the Artprize pieces were so varied and were not curated by the venues with any kind of consistent approach to aesthetic or art historical significance, there was a strong sense that it was ok to express preferences and make relative distinctions among the work. It was up to you to make your own meaning from the experience, piece by piece, venue by venue.

That led to people having specific conversations about specific artworks. This experience was greatly reinforced by the presence of artists, who naturally were there to talk about THEIR work, not the art hanging alongside it. Volunteers, venue staff, and security guards also cheerfully offered up their own preferences and interpretations. There was no guided tour of the whole thing. There were individual pieces. Some were extraordinary. Some were provocative. Some were laughable. Each was a social object that brought together specific subsets of people, drawn to it for specific reasons that they often shared. It was the best example I've seen of a physical environment operating like the kind of successful social platforms Engestrom described in 2005.

I strongly believe that other institutions could foster this kind of social engagement if they can find ways to help people focus on specific works or exhibits as discrete objects. It's not "my day at the museum," but my day to find the things that are most special to me. Highly subjective tours, single object presentations, and more presentation of work by artists (or scientists, or historians) in the galleries can help facilitate this kind of social experience. Of course, you also have to help people feel that they have permission to be social--that, as at Artprize, this is a time for expressing yourself, being loud, pointing at things, sharing what's important to you.

Finally, on a personal note, Artprize highlighted the way that expressing personal preference can help novices start to understand and enjoy art. I have an Australian friend who once said, "the problem with Americans is you all think you have the right to your own opinion." Artprize glorifies this right, and in the case of aesthetic preference, liberates it from the self-doubt that often makes us walk through art galleries with our mouths shut. Artprize focuses peoples' attention not on the authoritative view of art but on their own perspectives. And for someone like me, someone whose vocabulary and confidence related to art is woefully lacking, it was an incredible learning experience that personalized art, immersed me in its pleasures and frustrations, and made me want to learn more.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Curate Your Own Membership: An Interview with the Whitney's Director of Membership

Audience segmentation and research has become a hot topic in museums, especially when it comes to crafting appealing offerings that are customized to different kinds of visitors. On September 10, the Whitney Museum of American Art started offering a new membership called "Curate Your Own," in which members select one of five specialized "buckets" of benefits in addition to core admission and discount benefits. This isn't just a prototype; the Whitney expects to transition all basic level memberships to segmented memberships over the next several years. I sat down with Kristen Denner, Director of Membership and Annual Fund, to learn more about the program's development and the museum's goals for its future.

How did this project start?

It started over a year ago, with a couple of moments of insight. First, we realized that our museum is different from other museums, but our benefits and membership structure were the same as others. We saw an opportunity to really differentiate ourselves, the way we do with our exhibitions and programs. Our membership program should be as unique as our institution.

Second, in 2008 and 2009, when the economy dipped and membership renewal rates started to soften, we started to think more seriously about the emotional factor of supporting the arts in the community. We wanted to find a way to really connect with our members and understand what experiences they value most at the Whitney. And we also wanted to respond to the general consumer desire for customization. I think museum visitors are ready and eager for museums to catch up to retail and the forprofit world and recognize them as individuals rather than homogeneous groups.

And so, we started a major research project--the first one we've done that focuses on membership. We started with focus groups with current and prospective members, asking about their interests and what kinds of experiences they would really value as part of membership. I wanted to test a hypothesis that we should be segmenting our members not by demographics but by interest, in order to foster that emotional connection. And we confirmed that hypothesis. Some experiences completely cut across demographics - some people like parties, some people want a solitary experience with art... and that solitary experience person might be 20 or they might be 80. People want to experience art in quite individual ways. So we wanted a membership segmentation that reflected their individual needs.

How did you end up with the five segments of the membership - social, learning, insider, family, and philanthropic?

The focus groups revealed these five strong attitudinal segments among members and prospective members. It was pretty unusual from a research perspective that there weren't just one or two dominant ones--all five of these had robust levels of interest.

How many of the specific benefits offered to each segment are new to Whitney members overall?

Several, but not all. After the qualitative research, we worked with people across all departments within the Museum saying, here are some unmet needs we heard from members. Some offerings are completely new, like lecture for the learning series members that might not correspond to any one exhibition but would be more of a deep dive into the permanent collection or exploring a theme in contemporary art. That wasn't a hard thing for us to offer but it hadn't really occurred to us before as a membership benefit. The "insiders" are another example. We heard loud and clear that these members really want to know more about the curatorial process and how the museum operates. So we offer them an exclusive discussion with curatorial staff to gain insights on the curatorial process.

Were there any needs that came up in the focus groups that you were not able to meet?

Seeing the installation process was a big one. In some cases, the artist is not comfortable, or there are insurance and liability issues. We really tried to figure this one out and decided we couldn't reliably offer it as a member benefit.

One person expressed a desire to spend alone time with a work of art in a kind of member contemplation room. There were security issues, but ultimately the objection was that it's not in keeping with the Whitney's mission. It’s important to us that art be available to all, not just to particular types of members.

Why did you segment the benefits, instead of offering them totally a la carte?

We wanted to do that [a la carte] initially. We wanted to do a true Chinese menu style, maybe assigning points to different benefits and letting people have ten points, that kind of thing. But logistically it was just impossible to pull off. It was going to be incredibly difficult to track who had what.

After we had brainstormed ideas for benefits, we did quantitative research and were able to rank benefits for different interests. It became really clear that certain benefits really only appealed to some segments. The overlaps we put in the core benefits--everyone wants free admission, for example, and the neighborhood discounts.

At some institutions, visitors have been turned off by being labeled with a particular segment. It can feel constraining.

We worked carefully to avoid associating the different membership series with words that leaned too strongly toward self-identification. This is definitely a challenge that comes up when you work with attitudinal segmentation. We didn't want to use terms like "cutting edge" to describe people. Because I like this handbag, I'm "fashion forward?" I think that's suspect.

What are your goals for the Curate Your Own Membership?

Our membership base right now is about 12,500, and about 8,000 of those people are at our individual ($75) or dual ($120) levels. Curate Your Own (CYO) is $85 for individuals, $125 for duals.

Our goal is to sign up 2,000 new CYO members in the next 12 to 18 months, and to convert 25% of those 8,000 current individual and dual members to the new structure. It's not about upselling as much as it is about getting to know more about them and giving them a customized experience. A lot of our current members are excited about this and want to switch. This conversion is really important and it's just the beginning... our larger goal is to eventually get to 100% of our basic members being CYO members.

How does the transition work for current members?

Members can either upgrade their membership by paying the additional $10 (individual) or $5 (dual) to add a CYO benefit package to their current benefits for the year. Or they can pay the full amount for a CYO membership and have their renewal date pushed forward a year with the new benefits.

People can also buy more than one package if they want--do you expect many people to do that?

Not the majority, but we're already seeing a few. In fact our very first CYO purchase was a gift membership that was purchased with three add-on benefit packages (so the recipient of the gift will pick which packages he/she wants). We're also getting some where people pick one additional package.

It sounds like this will make lobby membership sales a lot more complicated to pitch.

It's true; this will extend the conversation in the lobby. But we've been working on signage and training to make the transition as smooth as possible.

How do you plan to change your communication strategy once these segments are in place?

This is really what I'm excited about. Currently, all I know about a basic member is whether they are an individual or a dual. They are one person or two people. That's it. When the CYO membership becomes more prominent, I'm going to know who's interested in which kinds of opportunities. We'll be tailoring enewsletters and invitations to different groups. It will cut down on waste both environmentally and financially, and we’ll be able to communicate relevant information to our members, which is a better experience for them too.

Do you see these segments as changing the way members are encouraged to move up the donor ladder? For example, is the "philanthropic" series seen as more likely to become high-level donors than others?

Actually, the philanthropy series is mostly made for people who told us in research that they really just want the core benefits of membership. They think the other benefits are nice, but they're not going to use them. They just want to visit the museum whenever they want and they want to support the Museum’s mission.

With regard to moving up the donor levels, some of our new member benefits piggyback on higher-level benefits that used to not include basic members. For example, "social" CYO members will get four tickets to our summer opening reception. "Friend" level members at the $250 level get tickets to all our openings. So if a social member really likes the party and wants to know how they can go to more of them, the friend level may be a natural progression for them.

You've mentioned that this was a really challenging project. What were the biggest challenges?

Funding a research project that was serious. We had never done a real research project in membership before. It was a really worthwhile investment, especially as the museum is moving to a new building soon. We worked with a fabulous team from Lucid Marketing for the research--I can't recommend them enough.

And then the other thing that was challenging was just the logistics of coordinating all the different departments to come together and make this happen. We had so many smart people from education, curatorial, web, operations helping us, and we just had to make sure the project was institutionally supported and that we could really make it happen.

Well, I hope that six month or a year from now, you'll be back to report on how it's gone. I'm really curious to learn more about what segments are most popular and how people respond to the program overall.

Absolutely. What people do is often pretty different from what they say. And as you can imagine, we're pretty curious about it too.


Kristen will be responding to comments and questions here on the blog. If you are interested in this topic, you might enjoy this interview with John Falk and Beverly Sheppard and Chapter 2 of The Participatory Museum.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Quick Hit: A Free Tech Tool for Exhibit Layout

Let's say you want to mock up an exhibition or event layout quickly to get a feel for the space. You want it to be dimensioned, but it doesn't have to be perfect. You don't want to spend hours with a protractor or learn to use SketchUp. And you definitely aren't setting foot in Second Life.

Faced with this problem, I hit the web and found a tool that's fast, easy to use, and gave me exactly what I needed: Floorplanner. While it's made primarily to mock up homes, the tools provided can easily be applied to galleries or event spaces. Your design can have multiple floors, and you can model outdoor areas as well. In a 2D plan view, you drag and drop in walls, doors, furniture, and fixtures. You can display the dimensions of any element and resize elements quickly. And then you can look at your plan in 3D, spin it around and impress the neighbors. You can even print out your design as a 3D model if you want a paperweight version of your future museum.

Floorplanner is free for a single multi-story design, $29 per year for five, or you can check out the Pro accounts (marketed to real estate agents), which start at $29 per month.

The Museum of Latin American Art in Los Angeles uses Floorplanner to produce layouts for special events, using the floorplans both in planning with the clients and as a guide for the setup crew. I'm using it to draft potential layouts for the cafe I'm working on. What might you use it for?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Guest Post: One Museum's Experiment with Threaded Comment Stations

Jasper Visser and his colleagues at the not-yet-physically-open National Historisch Museum of the Netherlands have impressed me with their innovative, thoughtful approach to developing a dynamic national museum. In this post, Jasper shares some lessons learned from a recent experiment to design a more social comment station. He will respond to comments here and can also be reached on his blog (where this post first appeared). If you are interested in this topic, you might also like this post about the Advice exhibition which tested a similar principle.

Last weekend my museum presented itself at the Uitmarkt in Amsterdam. The Uitmarkt is an annual festival that opens the new cultural year. Instead of handing out flyers about our upcoming expositions, we decided to ask the visitors to contribute to our ongoing project the National Vending Machine. The National Vending Machine is a travelling exposition that tells the historical and personal story behind everyday objects. All these objects and stories together we call our ‘community of objects’.

I thought it was a perfect chance to put one of the ideas in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum to the test. Her case study about Structured Dialogue in the Signtific Game in chapter 3 describes a project where people engaged in conversation online about wild ideas. For me the beauty of the Signtific Game lies in the way people are guided by a select number of possible responses to a wild idea. This structures dialogue and makes it more productive.We translated this online game to an offline activity around everyday objects. I believe it worked brilliantly. Over the course of the weekend a small team (three people each day) engaged in conversation with hundreds of people, individually or in groups and encouraged them to contribute to our community of objects with personal stories and new objects.

Preparation and tools used for the structured conversation

At the Uitmarkt we were looking for ideas for new objects and personal stories. In exchange for a new idea/story we offered one of our ideas: an object from the existing community of objects.

We printed 3 types of cards for the structured conversation:
  • Idea cards to add a new object to our community of objects. Idea cards had to be filled with the name of the object and the reason for adding it to our community.
  • “Good idea” cards to encourage an existing idea and add a story to support the suggested object.
  • “That makes me think about…” cards to continue upon an idea and for example suggest a better object to represent the same idea. (I turned out people also used these cards to tell personal stories about other ideas).
We explicitly excluded the option to give a negative response. Some people, however, replaced the “good” with “bad” on the “good idea” cards. “Bad idea” cards, no matter the reason given on the card, always stopped the conversation about an idea. Also, we put up a wall into which the cards could be inserted and added some existing objects to give people a point to start from.

Engaging people in the structured conversation

We approached people who walked past our stand. A typical conversation would start with the polite question to help us come up with new ideas for our community of objects and an explanation of the project.

In my experience almost everybody was willing to participate, even without explaining the object they would get in return. This gift, however, especially convinced younger participants. After having explained the project:

  • About half of the people started to think about a new idea to add to the wall immediately. Later at the day, when most obvious ideas had been posted, these people sometimes changed to one of the 2 other groups explained below. The first group mostly posted idea cards, sometimes elaborating upon an earlier idea with a “nice idea” card.
  • About a third of the people went to have a look at the wall with existing ideas and the conversation about them. These people would be most likely to continue upon the conversation with a “good idea” or “that makes me think about…” card.
  • A small percentage of the people started to tell a personal story about one of the existing ideas or simply a personal story. After encouragement, most of these people would add their story to the corresponding idea with a “that makes me thing about…” card. If the story was unrelated to any object, they would post a new idea or think about another story to add to an existing idea.
  • A really small percentage of the people could not come up with anything at all. Quite some of them would return later to post an idea after having thought about it for a while.

After concluding the interaction, some people would encourage others to participate. Also, many participants started personal conversations with us about the other objects and their story.

The outcome of the structured conversation

Over the course of the weekend visitors posted about 250 conversation cards. I didn’t count all of them, but after having looked through them, I guess about 50% were idea cards, about 35% “that makes me think about…” cards and the rest “good idea” cards.

There were some 10 conversations with 3 or more responses to an original idea. The longest conversation started with a cheese slicer (symbol of the economical Dutch), turned into a heated debate about the advantages of a cheese slicer to an ordinary knife, to give the idea to represent our “Dutchness” with an untranslatable object, the “flessenlikker” (bottle-licker) and then into a conversation about how product design in Holland has changed to make the use of this device impossible.

On an average, interaction with an individual or small group lasted from 5 to 10 minutes. Our main challenge now is to translate these wonderful conversations to an online representation that encourages conversation as the paper version did.

Concluding thoughts

Every participant left us with a smile, even though it was raining cats and dogs at times. Quite some wonderful stories were lost as in the lively personal conversations we had with participants, not everything could be captured by pen and paper. The results of the weekend were amazing, both qualitatively and quantitatively, in my opinion.

I think it is quite possible to translate the Signtific Game to a real-life experience. In next editions I would try to focus more on the “good idea” and “that makes me think about…” cards and encouraging people to use these. Also, I would like to try to turn the process around: starting with the personal stories and turning the conversation towards objects. This would give the community of objects its roots in the stories of people, which in my opinion is a strong starting point for even more interesting conversations.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Guest Post: Considering a Commons in Collection at the Elsewhere Collaborative

For years, I've been fascinated and a bit perplexed by the Elsewhere Collaborative, a thrift store turned artists' studio/living museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. In this post, co-founder George Scheer explains the conceptual underpinnings of this vibrant and eclectic artspace. George will respond to comments on this post and is also reachable here.

Consider a store, filled to the brink with consumables, one day decides that its inventories are collections, its merchandise is no longer for purchase, and instead it will practice as a museum. Everything else remains the same; visitors may browse, touch, and play, but they just can’t take things with them. What values change in that not so subtle shift between people, things, and the common space shared between them? Since 2003, Elsewhere Collaborative has been exploring the role that collaboration plays at the intersection of the store and museum through its living museum and international residency program set in a former thrift store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina.

My grandmother, Sylvia Gray, was both proprietress and collector, amassing a vast inventory of things at her store from 1939-1997. Her business, and ours, has always been about surplus. The business began with Sylvia and her husband buying repossessed furniture from NY during the Great Depression. They sold army surplus in catalog sales to boy scouts. After her husband’s sudden death in 1955, and with three children to raise, my grandmother grew the store, purchasing the ends of fabric bolts and ribbons from local mills, secondhand clothing, toys, dishwares, books, and an assortment of knickknacks to sell. After her passing in 1997 the building remained shut, filled to the brim with things knotted, tied, and bagged in chaotic organization.

In 2003, my collaborator Stephanie and I began an excavation, declaring nothing for sale. Our archeology did not aim to uncover the hidden voice of my grandmother, but instead to begin an ongoing practice of recreation. Over the past seven years, this exploration has been undertaken by a staff of artists and more than 35 creators each year participating in our residency program. Over time the movement and arrangement of things trails a layered aesthetic that convey histories and narratives of changing communities passing through this unfolding three-story artwork. Elsewhere’s Living Museum, open daily, offers audiences (average 300/week) an exploratory environment to play within and a site where creative practice is made public and the artwork and museum are themselves in a constant state of flux. By calling ourselves a museum, we respond to those cultural institutions that have separated practice from production, exhibition from process, and work from play.

Elsewhere’s story is written in attics across the country, pieced together bit-by-bit in distribution centers—thrift/antique/junk shops—and holed up in buildings ready to be dispersed. America’s overabundance, a diagnosed case of cultural hoarding, has left us all in possession of stuff, collections with no other future but to watch them decompose, critically or materially. At Elsewhere, however, the intervention of things into daily life has a profound effect on creative practice of both artists and publics. Resource, production, and exhibition meld within this site-specific environment, and cultural and personal histories intersect with those of a changing artist community to form a layered aesthetic of social and creative exchanges over time.

One of the first discoveries audiences make at Elsewhere is a giant toy bin, chest height, with mounds of plastic toys that extend beyond the fingers like an oversized sandbox. People dig in, exchanging treasures with one another like tactile memories, constituting the personal as part of a public commons. Often people exclaim, “I had this,” laying claim to a personal memory contained in a mass-produced object while relating the infinitely distributable value of storytelling. Whenever we show and tell, we pass things between us, and in this model of sharing values we may begin to understand how museums are trusted with public commons as much as they are with public meaning.

Elsewhere’s challenge today is how to continue modeling the public commons by practicing social exchanges through our set of things. A back alley garden and performances in our storefront are just a few ways we are reaching publics that might not otherwise adventure into a thrift store-turned-museum. With a large refugee population in Greensboro’s outskirts and a quickly gentrifying downtown environment, the challenge persists to determine how our site, concept, and collection can produce both artwork and cultural transformation. Our most recent model for exploring outreach possibilities surrounded the recently commissioned project of textile artist Frau Fiber. Drawing from her interest in materials and textile histories, we brought together third generation mill village families, textile industry professionals, and Latina women seeking basic sewing and mending skills. Through interactive quilting, skill share workshops, and the creation of a new sewing facility we were able to create a network of individuals that brought historical, economic, social service, and artistic interests to bare on Elsewhere’s textile collection.

Through the generative potential for use and re-use of things, Elsewhere has arranged a public commons in the form of a shared resource. By positing ourselves as a museum, the resource becomes part of a collection and therefore must express forms of care and generosity in its handling. The great challenge is how to build reciprocity in all social relations and ensure that we are both serving and developing the values of our community of artists and publics. Time and again we discover that in the collection of things, with their inherent array of perspectives, interest and references, we have both the source and resource to continually arrange and re-model the museum as a public commons between people.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

In Praise of Tiny Failures

Everyone always talks about the learning value of failure. It's hard, it's painful, but you gain more than you lose--at least, that's how the story goes. In reality, we all spend most of our time trying to avoid failure, because the unpleasantness can have significant repercussions we may not want to trade for a shiny life lesson. Few people lose their savings, their job, or a relationship willingly.

And so I'd like to extoll a humble kind of failure: the small one that makes you laugh, learn, and move on to the next thing. Last week, I prototyped four exhibit ideas with the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Three were hits. One was a total dud. It was exhilarating at the end of the first day of testing to point to the poor performer, wag a finger, and dump it. We'd spent about 20 hours in development of each idea, and it felt just fine to trade that time for the things we learned in the process. Since it was just one of four prototypes, it didn't feel like our time was wasted; the failure helped us sort out what was working and what wasn't.

Four good things about this kind of failure:
  1. It confirmed that there was a difference in visitor response to different facilitated activities. The fact that visitors hated one made their enjoyment of others seem more valid.
  2. It suggested that we had designed a sufficiently risky set of experiments and were trying hard enough to find new and interesting ways to connect with visitors.
  3. Practically, it let us focus on the other three prototypes and spend more time thinking about whether and how to scale them up.
  4. The parallel approach softened the emotional blow of failing. I felt proud of all four of these ideas going into testing, but I was able to let the one that failed go easily, bolstered by the knowledge that the other three worked. I think in the future I'll try to always test several things in parallel--it was a good experience both for the ego and for the part of my brain that can make better judgments of things in comparison to each other than in isolation.
When I practice rock climbing at an indoor gym, I take the same approach. I know I'm going to climb multiple walls in one session, and as long as I'm being safe, my perspective is that I should fall at least once every time. If I'm not falling, I'm not pushing myself. It's not a life or death failure--it's a momentary, incremental test that helps me learn something and compare my current skills to the past. It also helps me prepare for outdoor climbing, where the stakes of failure are much higher.

And this is the final thing I think is beneficial about small failures; they help us have perspective about the range of impacts that failure can make. A friend recently sent me an interview with Google's head of research, Peter Norvig, in which he said:
If you're a politician, admitting you're wrong is a weakness, but if you're an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you're always right, then you aren't getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.
He noted again and again that at Google, failure is always an option because the work they are doing is not life or death. Throughout the interview, he compared Google to other businesses--banks, NASA, surgeons--for whom a small error or an experimental approach might indeed cause very big problems.

Cultural professionals are, for the most part, not dealing with situations that could cause monumental, life-altering trauma. We need to be able to put our failures into perspective--the big and the small. And at least for me, that starts with trying multiple things at once. At the end of the day, you can toast the good and give a hearty Bronx cheer to the bad, without regret or self-judgment.

How do you cultivate and deal with failure in your work?