Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Public Service, Advocacy, and Institutional Transformation

Yesterday, I had lunch with Monica Martinez, the ED of Homeless Services for Santa Cruz county. I was amazed not only by her energy and intelligence but by her simple, transformative goal: to end homelessness. As she said (and I'm paraphrasing):
We're not in the business of giving people food or a bed in perpetuity. We're in the business of finding a solution to this problem. Our goal is to tackle the root causes of this issue and provide people with services that help them transition out of homelessness. Sure, sometimes that involves a bed or a meal for awhile, but not forever.
Talking to Monica, we found that we have a lot in common in trying to transform how our respective institutions serve and interface with the community. Monica is trying to reposition her organization as a social justice organization working on solutions to end homelessness. I'm trying to reposition our museum as a cultural hub supporting creative and intellectual community growth. Both of our organizations are classically seen as insular organizations that serve specific, closed audiences--homeless people in her case, cultural elites and students in mine--and we're both trying to demonstrate that our institutions not only have value for the whole community but also opportunities for everyone to get involved in a meaningful way.

Our conversation made me reflect on the museums that most inspire me from a public service perspective--institutions with missions that stretch far beyond their walls. This isn't so much about expanding outreach services as it is about fundamentally repositioning what the institution is there to do. A few personal favorites include:
  • the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, whose vision is to make the Northside the best place to raise a child in the city by supporting diverse programs (not all museum-led) throughout the troubled neighborhood
  • the American Visionary Art Museum, whose mission is simply to "expand the definition of a worthwhile life" by presenting and encouraging creativity in untraditional venues
  • the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has grown into a full-scale advocacy operation with a clear mission to save the oceans and inspire conservation
  • the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, which strives to be a cultural instigator that changes the way people throughout the city engage with each other
I know that every museum has these ambitions to some extent and that the rhetoric of many crosses these boundaries. But how many institutions are really aggressively transforming their work away from service to a narrow band of audiences to community-wide advocacy work? These museums work differently. They have different goals they are shooting for.

I know my museum is very far from these goals--we're still just laying the groundwork to be able to provide consistent cultural services to the community. But even as we do so, we're thinking about it in terms of changing and supporting how culture and learning happens in the County, not just at or via our programs. That's why I'm talking with people like Monica, to understand how the museum can be a partner in how we make progress throughout the community--not just at 705 Front Street.

I want our museum to be the host for dialogue--not just through panel discussions, but through exhibitions and events and commissions and community experiences that both invite and challenge people to engage with each other around the issues that matter most. And I think that requires us to be an advocacy organization--not for homelessness or oceans or children--but for the power of art to transform, the power of history to enlighten, and the power of a welcoming host to spark new ideas and change.

Does this sound like director-ish bloviating to you, or is it useful? How do you see institutions living up to--or falling short of--these kinds of goals?
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