Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Put Down the Clipboard:Visitor Feedback as Participatory Activity

A few weeks ago, the MAH Director of Community Programs, Stacey Garcia, came to me with an idea. Stacey has been collaborating with local artists to produce a series of content-rich events that invite visitors to participate in a range of hands-on activities. The events are informal, personal, and fun, but our feedback mechanism--onsite and post-event surveys--not so much. Instead, Stacey thought, why not make the feedback experience an activity unto itself?

This past Friday, we experimented with a new feedback format at an evening event focused on poetry and book arts. The event involved over fifty artists throughout the building helping visitors make their own paper, write poems, stitch books, etc. (full description here, photos from the event here). On the ground floor, Stacey created a "Show and Tell" booth out of an old refrigerator box and some paperbacks. She painted some cardboard black and framed it to look nice. We gave people chalk and the choice of four simple prompts:
At 3rd Friday I made
At 3rd Friday I loved
At 3rd Friday I met
At 3rd Friday I learned
After making a board and taking a photo, each participant had the option to have their photo shared on Flickr or remain private (90% said yes). We have an intern, Kathryn, who emailed each participant individually to thank them for coming, shared their personal photo, and gave them the link to the rest of the photos. We used a simple paper signup list to link individuals to their photos during the event so Kathryn could tie it all together.

We don't yet know how people will respond to the emails, and we have some kinks to work out with the booth and camera setup. What we do know is that this is a vastly improved feedback system. It accomplished several things at once:

  1. It drew people in. Instead of interns with clipboards tentatively approaching visitors who were busy having fun, the booth put feedback on visitors' own terms. They came to the booth when they wanted to share, and everyone felt good about the sharing experience. 
  2. We got more feedback. About fifty people participated in the booth out of a crowd of 320--a pretty good sample size. Our typical onsite and post-event survey would attract about 20 people to opt in. 
  3. We got intriguing feedback. While I'm sure it repelled some introverts, the performative aspect of this activity encouraged many participants to thoughtfully construct and present their thoughts. I was surprised by the originality of the content and what people got out of the event. We had debated the prompt structure a bit before the event (I thought "learned" was too leading), but giving visitors the choice of prompts let them share what they wanted without too much guidance. "Loved" and "Made" were the most popular.
  4. It invited visitors to memorialize their experience. Some people showed off their handmade paper or books. Others stood in the booth with a new friend. The booth was a nice way to celebrate what participants had done--and to create a digital record that they can keep and share.
  5. It created an appealing body of stories about the event. As we try to build a brand for "3rd Friday" as an ongoing museum series, I feel like these photos, more than any other collateral, will help people understand what the event is like and what they might get out of it. We're definitely hybridizing program and marketing here, and I want to be sensitive to that and make sure people don't feel exploited. But I honestly believe that visitors telling visitors what they get out of museum experiences is the most effective and authentic way to share what happens in a community museum. It's certainly been a hit with MOMA's "I went to MOMA and..." campaign. Maybe this is good fodder for a future Museum 2.0 debate about instrumentalizing visitors' contributions for marketing purposes... you tell me. 
What creative ways have you found to solicit visitor feedback and share visitors' stories?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Designing Interactives for Adults: Put Down the Dayglow

When talking about active audience engagement with friends in the museum field, I often hear one frustrated question: how can we get adults to participate? Many exhibit developers create thoughtful interactives intended for all ages and then discover that old familiar pattern--kids engaging while parents stand back and watch. In children's museums and science centers, this relationship is at its most extreme. Even if adults would like to engage with the interactives, it can be easy to fall into the background, endlessly waiting your turn to get your hands on after the kids in the vicinity have had their fill.

The common museum knowledge on this issue is that adults are timid, that we have lost some of the wonder, impulsiveness, and active creativity of childhood days. But I don't think that theory holds up. Major research studies by the NEA and others demonstrate that adults well into their 60s are highly motivated to participate actively with cultural experiences. They're playing instruments, painting pictures, and cooking gourmet meals in record numbers. They're going to trivia night. They're playing video games. It's possible--likely even--that today's adults are more motivated by interactive experiences than generations past.

And yet in the museum world, we still see interactives as being mostly for kids. We assume that adults don't want to do crafts or play games--that they want the "serious" stuff. And herein lies the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you design interactives for kids, adults recognize that the experience is not for them, and they don't engage.

There are many participatory experiences that appeal primarily to adults, and they are designed distinctly for adults. There's a huge difference between the edgy, DIY beauty of Candy Chang's participatory urban artworks and the dayglow colors, exclamatory language, and preschool fonts of most museum interactives. People of all ages are sensitive to the messages that design sends. I was talking about this yesterday with a group of fundraising professionals--non-museum folk--and one man told me about visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium with his four-year-old. He told me, "she said, 'Daddy, when I see those [bright] colors and designs, I know that is a place that is made for kids like me.'" If a four-year-old can articulate the design message of an exhibit and respond to it accordingly, surely an adult can as well.

We've been trying to actively combat this at The Museum of Art & History (MAH) in Santa Cruz. When we design interactive experiences, we try to pick colors, fonts, and activities that are geared towards adults but have access points for kids as well. We ask people to do serious work, and they pick up paintbrushes and join in. We frequently meet families who come because they think the museum might be appealing to their kids--putting kids first when it comes to selecting a recreational experience--but then once they're here, the interaction is not kid-focused, and the participants tend to be very age-diverse.

For example, one of the little participatory projects we're doing now is on the butterfly effect. We're showing an installation by artist Shelby Graham which features beautiful photographs of butterflies juxtaposed with images of the bombing of Japan in World War II. Right outside the gallery, we have a simple comment board that says:
The butterfly effect is where small changes can have unpredictable or large effects. 
Have you made a decision with surprising consequences? 
Share your story with other visitors. 
Then there are lots of blank butterflies on which you can write your story and then pin it to the wall. This interactive was developed by intern Lucinda Shawcross. I was initially totally skeptical that people would actually engage in what sounds like a potentially uncomfortably personal or complicated exercise. But I'm delighted to say that Lucie was right and I was completely wrong. This activity is the smash hit of this season of interactives at the MAH.

One of the things that makes it successful is the multiple levels on which people engage with the prompt. The activity attracts about 80% adults--similar to our overall attendance figures--and people of all ages use it to share both silly and profound stories and observations.

The language of the prompt--and the whole idea of the activity--is adult-oriented. It's fun to read butterflies made by kids and see how clearly they are just learning the concept of cause and effect and treating this as a kind of grammatical exercise. There are people of all ages conflating causality with the butterfly effect, and sometimes, a small child's entry like "If I had not gone to school, I would not have friends" is more illustrative of the butterfly effect than an adult's "If I had not gotten clean and sober, I would be dead."

From a design standpoint, a few subtle things make this activity feel adult, or at least adult-friendly. The colors are muted. The butterflies are simple but not overly cartoony. The chairs for the activity are distinctly adult--a rocking chair and an overstuffed armchair. And we give people real pins to stab their butterflies to the cork board.

What are you doing to design interactive experiences that are adult-friendly? What design choices have you seen that scream "kids"?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yes, Audience Participation Can Have Significant Value

For years, I'd give talks about community participation in museums and cultural institutions, and I'd always get the inevitable question: "but what value does this really have when it comes to dollars and cents?" I'd say that these techniques support audience development, repeat visitation, membership, maybe could even attract new kinds of donors... but I didn't have numbers to back it up.

Now, I do. Or at least preliminary ones. Last week, the local newspaper did a really generous front-page story on my museum (the MAH) and the changes here over the past eight months since I started. In the summer and fall of 2011:
  • attendance increased 57% compared to the same period in 2010
  • new membership sales increased 27% compared to the same period in 2010
  • individual and corporate giving increased over 500% compared to 2010
We've also had incredible increases in media coverage of museum events (like that Sentinel article), new programmatic partnerships with several community groups, and private rentals of the museum for community events. After a really painful financial starting point, we've been in the black every month and have established a $100,000 operating reserve.

I'm incredibly proud of all the staff, trustees, volunteers, collaborators, visitors, and members who have made this happen. We started the summer with no money and a strategic vision to be a thriving, central gathering place. We just started to try to live up to that vision, partnership by partnership, activity by activity. We're hearing on a daily basis that the museum has a new role in peoples' lives and in the identity of the county. It feels pretty amazing.

It also feels amazing to see some of my theories validated in this way--that giving people the opportunity to actively participate does really transform the way they see the institution and themselves. I can't say that any one experience--working on a collage with other visitors, swinging on a hammock, discovering a participatory display for pocket artifacts in the bathroom--directly contributed to increased attendance and giving. They all have in concert, and they build on each other. We have a LONG way to go to really become that "thriving, central gathering place" in our vision, but it's immensely gratifying to see that we are on the way. It's always shocking to me when a visitor will say, "it feels so comfortable here," or "I love how it's opened up to the community." I can't believe it when I hear words from the strategic plan come out of people's mouths.

There are at least three significant things that have contributed to our success thus far:
  1. A clear strategy. Our team focused this year on just three things: making the museum more comfortable, hosting new participatory events, and partnering wherever possible. The broad mandate to "open it up" was backed up by a lot of activity on multiple fronts--comment boards, participation-specific internships, program formats that allow us to slot in enthusiastic volunteers easily, more flexible uses of some museum spaces, and a range of options and opportunities for collaborators. 
  2. Community response. Every time we've tried something new, we've gotten lots of support in terms of media coverage and enthusiastic attendance. This community was ready for a museum that reflected the unique creative identity of Santa Cruz. We try to design every new program with a partner organization with an audience for whom that kind of content or format is already appealing. We've had a few programmatic misfires, but for the most part, our new projects are succeeding because the newspaper wants to feature them in the "best bets" and people are game to come out and try. It helps that we're in a small market and we have focused on two audiences--families with kids 5-12 and culturally-inclined adults without children--for whom demand exceeds supply in terms of local opportunities for affordable cultural experiences. 
  3. Trust and love from our old friends. Our long-standing donors and board of trustees have been amazingly enthusiastic about the changes at the museum. They supported us financially when we were on the skids, and they are continuing to support the future of the institution. They are excited to see new people in the museum and to hear their friends talk about the museum in a new way. Almost to a person, our donors understand that we are reaching people with a variety of modalities and that they don't have to personally like every experience or element to feel great about the service the museum is doing in the community. We're starting a new campaign based on the "renewed ambition" of the museum and we feel confident about the future.
All of this said, I know we still have a lot of work to do--this truly is just the beginning. Going into the new year, we're focusing on:
  • making exhibitions and collections as participatory as our public programs
  • transforming our volunteer gallery host program into something more interactive 
  • helping members feel more like part of the family with us and with each other
  • finding and testing out innovative formats for participatory history experiences (it's been easier to get started on the art side, and we are a museum of art AND history)
  • figuring out ways to measure impact beyond anecdotes, especially with an incredibly limited budget/staff for evaluation
  • pushing forward on partnerships that allow us to reach and support marginalized people in our community

In a week when I'm super-stressed out about the work ahead, it's good to take a minute and celebrate what we've done. Thank you all for helping shape my thinking on museums and for your smart, critical, energetic eye on this work. And the next time someone questions the benefits of letting audiences actively participate, send them to Santa Cruz.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Art of the Steal: Access & Controversy at the Barnes Foundation

Last week, I finally watched The Art of the Steal, an arresting documentary on the controversy around the evolution of the Barnes Foundation from a suburban educational art facility to a major urban art museum (to open in May 2012). The documentary raises basic questions about donor intent, legal execution of eccentric peoples' wills, and, most interesting to me, the definition of access to a collection.

A quick background on the Barnes Foundation. It was founded in 1922 by Albert Barnes, a wealthy scientist who collected what is now considered an incomparable collection of Impressionist and Modernist art. Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso--Barnes collected it before it was popular in the U.S., and he collected the best of the best. With the help of educational philosopher John Dewey, Barnes founded the Barnes Foundation as an educational facility in Merion, PA, near Philadelphia. Unlike most art collections, Barnes' art was neither exclusively private nor a public museum. It was primarily used as a teaching collection for youth and adult students. The Barnes Foundation allowed a limited number of public visitors two days a week, but visitors were second-class citizens compared to the students.

Barnes protected his vision for the collection in his will. The art could not be sold, reproduced, loaned, or traveled. The school was to continue. There were slight concessions to public visitation, leading to capped attendance of about 60,000 per year. However, over the past thirty years, Philadelphia leaders clamored for the art to move to the city and be made more accessible to visitors (projections suggest the new facility will welcome 250,000 per year). The film documents the incremental subversion of Barnes' will and the eventual development of a new, highly public home for the collection in Philadelphia--exactly what Barnes despised and sought to avoid.

The documentary is shrill at times, with several Barnes Foundation stalwarts ominously repeating the word "conspiracy." There are cringe-worthy art critics who decry Barnes' rivals as "people who know nothing about art." But the fundamental story is fascinating and really challenged some of my basic ideas about museums. Despite my focus on populism and access, I am sympathetic to Barnes and his followers, who feel strongly that a serious injustice has been done.

The civic and cultural leaders who successfully challenged the original intent of Barnes' will had two basic arguments for the transformation of the collection:

  1. The Barnes Foundation was struggling financially. A move to a more accessible venue in the center of Philadelphia would increase attendance dramatically, thus bolstering finances.
  2. The Barnes collection is an incredible cultural artifact that more people should be able to access. Demand exceeded availability for public hours in the Merion location, and that demand constituted a valid public concern, one that foundations and politicians felt necessary to address.

I think both these arguments are bullshit. Let's look at each one closely.

First, let's talk money. The strangest thing about the documentary was the insistence by all parties--those who supported the move to Philadelphia and those who wanted to preserve the Barnes in Merion--that increased attendance would solve institutional financial crises. I kept scratching my head and thinking, what kind of art museum makes big money on attendance? Most art museums get a maximum of 10% of their income from admissions.

Consider two examples in the Philadelphia area. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which welcomes about 800,000 visitors per year, had income of $80.4M in their 2010 fiscal year (based on their public 990 tax form). Of that, $3.9M (5%) came from museum attendance, and an additional $1.7M came from special exhibitions (2%).

Now, another institution--the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which welcomes 54,000 visitors annually and manages a school for community members as well as BFA and MFA students. Their total revenue in 2010 was $16.2M (their 990). Of that, $1M came from attendance (6%), and $9.3M (57%) came from the educational program.

What's healthier for the financial viability of the Barnes Foundation--focusing on being a school, or focusing on being a museum? I don't see how a four-fold increase in public attendance--saddled with the significant costs of operating a large urban museum--will ensure stability.

Second, let's talk about access. If a donor designates a particular use of his or her property, how closely does that have to be followed? If a large body of civic and cultural leaders feel that the designation is no longer culturally relevant, does that matter? If someone owns something unique (and bars its reproduction or transfer), how much "public good" does that collection have to confer before the owner's wishes are challenged? And on a more practical museum management level, are there multiple ways to validly define access to a collection?

I don't feel qualified to answer the first three questions. But I do feel confident in my answer to the last one: yes. There are many ways a collection can be accessible or inaccessible (check out the UCL report Collections for People for a rigorous review of this). There are some collections that are entirely private. Others are accessible seasonally to a handful of visitors. There are publicly-owned collections that are only accessible by appointment or through digitization efforts. There are objects you can see, and objects you can't.

The Barnes Foundation was inaccessible to visitors who wanted to come to the facility, pay an admission fee, and view the art in the galleries. At the same time, it was deeply accessible to a cadre of teachers, students, and artists who spent prolonged periods with the work.

The controversial reconfiguration of the Barnes Foundation suggests that the first kind of access is more important than the second. That attendance trumps depth of experience. That center city trumps suburb. That granting access to 60,000 people per year is not sufficient to appropriately meet the demand to view the collection. That that demand has a moral public value.

In museum circles, we often say, "numbers aren't everything." But when we say that, what other things do we offer up as alternatives? Can we make a compelling quantitative argument for the benefits conferred to students at the Barnes Foundation, many of whom engaged in multi-year art and horticulture programs? How many one-time 1-hour visits does a three-year course of study equal? Is it really "better" to have 250,000 visitors shuffle through a museum than to give a deep experience to a few hundred? Who gets to decide?

The Barnes Foundation was not founded as a museum. It was founded as a school that used a privately-held art collection as its curriculum. I don't see why museum standards of access should be applied to such an institution just because it would be politically convenient to do so.

And that, I think, leads to the real reason governors, mayors, and heads of Philadelphia-based charities pushed to move the Barnes Foundation to the city. The Barnes collection is an extraordinary cultural jewel, and Philadelphia wants that jewel in its crown. It doesn't really matter if the collection is accessed by 60,000 people or 250,000 people, whether those people have a deep experience or not, and whether their admissions tickets will improve the institution's financial health. What matters is that Philadelphia can tout the Barnes collection and its wonders in its tourism and marketing materials for the city.

In some ways, this is a good thing. It implies that civic leaders do understand the incredible value of cultural institutions as identity-builders and tourism-attractors. But I don't think that justifies such a blatant disregard for donor intent, trumpeted with a one-note, "more attendance = better" horn. What do you think?