Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Making Meaningful Connections: Inspiring New Report from Irvine and Helicon

Our work to transform the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History into a participatory and community-centered place has been heavily supported by the James Irvine Foundation. I've learned a lot from Irvine Foundation staff and partners directly. But one of my favorite things they do is remarkably unpersonalized: they produce killer reports.

Their newest one, Making Meaningful Connections, was written by Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcy Hinand at Helicon. The report is a slim 12 pages on the common characteristics of arts organizations that successfully and continuously engage diverse audiences. It is paired with a thoughtful infographic (part of which is shown at the top here) that summarizes their findings.

Making Meaningful Connections is not riddled with jargon and academic theory. Nor is it packed with juicy examples and case studies. Instead, it's a tight, inspiring, and reasonably original brief on the strategies that lead to sustained involvement of diverse people with arts organizations. It's the first report in a long time that I am sharing with my board. (The last one was on arts innovation and change, also from Irvine.)

Here are three aspects of Making Meaningful Connections that I like most:
  • New participant relationships are like new friendships. They take time, curiosity, respect and the willingness to be changed by the relationship. The report starts with an elegant friendship analogy (see the box on page 4) that breaks down the challenges of genuine arts engagement in a clear, relatable, and motivating way.
  • Targeted programming is not enough. The authors name the reality that one-off programs, exhibits, or shows for specific groups do little to change the mix of participants longterm. Interestingly, they argue instead that structural change--including but not exclusively programmatic change--is what makes the difference in participant makeup. They also acknowledge that some organizations are happy with their participant makeup, and that these multi-faceted organizational shifts are voluntary for those who want them.
  • The characteristics of successful organizations involve deepening, not adding. So often, these kinds of reports recommend a long list of changes and new things to add to your work. It can feel defeating or downright impossible to integrate them into already-strapped schedules. But this report was developed based on existing organizations and practices, looking for common characteristics as opposed to new directions. The recommendations read less like "thou shalt do this new thing" and more like "deepen and embed in this thing you already have." We all have missions. We all have leaders. We all have business models. We can all shift within our existing worlds. 
And here are two things I wonder about:
  • Universalist tone. This report could come from--and go--anywhere. I assume that's intentional, and for the most part, it's a good thing. The report is brief, clear, and open. If you are reading this report in Manchester or Malaysia or Memphis, you will find meaningful and useful content. On the other hand, the Irvine Foundation makes grants specifically in California. When Josephine Ramirez, Program Director for the Arts, introduced the report on the Irvine blog, she did so in the context of a state that is now 55% Latino and Asian. Nowhere in the report itself is there a comparable framing statement about why it is urgent to consider this work now, in California and around the world. Perhaps it's self-evident. But especially for organizations where cultural competency is in its infancy, those starting points and case statements are still necessary. Then again, Irvine made that statement pretty clearly in a previous report
  • Recommendation to bring practices "into balance." I didn't find it meaningful to imagine an institutional "balance" of the five recommended practices (welcoming spaces, relevant programming, respectful relationships, analysis for improvement, business model). I agree that all are important, and that they are interrelated, but I didn't see a rationale in going for parity. I'd like to understand more about the basis for that recommendation.

What did you get out of Making Meaningful Connections?

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