I've mostly seen museums employ one of two methods for formal community advisors:
- Create special "spots" on the board of trustees for certain kinds of community representatives. PRO: gets diverse community members in positions of real authority. CON: can make people feel like second-class board members instead of equal leaders in the organization. As one African-American artist on a prominent museum board told me, "I felt even more tokenized than if I had been part of some kind of Artists' Council or African-American Council."
- Form community advisory boards outside of the board of trustees. PRO: creates more room for diverse community members to participate as leaders, often in areas that are more programmatic than the board of trustees covers. CON: can feel disconnected from the primary governance of the museum or can feel like a second-class board overall. Also, can form factions of different community boards representing different groups (i.e. Latino Advisory vs. Youth Advisory vs...) as opposed to an intercultural approach.
In 2012, we tried creating an intercultural community advisory board called C3 (Creative Community Committee). We patterned it after Science Gallery Dublin's Leonardo Group - 75 creative individuals who get together four times per year to provide input on programming. C3 was a list of about 80 people from diverse networks throughout Santa Cruz--from librarians to social services to roller derby. We held a meeting every other month on a topic like "youth engagement" or "engagement beyond the museum." People opted into the meetings where they had interest or expertise and ignored those where they didn't. We always had a group of 15-50 people together for intense brainstorming. It was fairly lightweight, and it provided valuable input.
But there was a problem: it wasn't a consistent body. There was no required time commitment from participants. There was no accountability for us to act on their input. C3-ers generated great and useful ideas, but they were functionally an assembly of creative individuals, efficiently giving us input. Low on friction. Low on depth. Low on long-term impact.
We took a year off of C3 in 2013 and reconsidered our goals for the group. We realized that we didn't want specific programmatic input--we already get that from individual community members as needed. Instead, we wanted a collection of leaders, highly networked in different parts of our County, with their fingers on the pulses of significant community issues and activities. We believed that our museum programming would improve if we spent more time as staff members and trustees learning and working with these leaders on their projects throughout the County. Our work would become more relevant, our collaborations more timely, our network more diverse.
Suddenly, C3 felt more like an engagement program that advances our institutional goals. At the same time, it sounded like something that wasn't just for us. We figured if it worked, everyone in C3 would find it useful for their own work.
So we reconceptualized C3 as a creative leadership network for the community. A year-long program with an intention to ignite new collaborations across the County to build a stronger, more connected community. We're piloting C3 now with a cohort of 42, roughly following the 2014/2015 school year. We tried to develop the best leadership program we could imagine, rooted in our museum's collaborative, creative approach.
This reframing led to a totally different approach to the curriculum, recruitment, and expectations for C3 than we'd used previously. For example:
- We recruited people in an invite-only format, with very strict quotas for different kinds of creative leaders in the County. We wanted to end up with a group that reflects the diversity of our County across many strata: age, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, and profession. Meet them here.
- We required a commitment to a half-day kickoff and four out of five two-hour evening meetings over the course of 10 months. We said no, tearfully, to several awesome people who could not make it to the kick-off workshop. While C3 is open for any staff members to participate, they have to make that same time commitment too to be part of the group.
- We worked with C3ers at the kickoff workshop to map the issues and communities of greatest interest and connection. This map formed the basis for topic definition for subsequent meetings. Our topics are broad, including Creative Spaces, Youth Empowerment, and Economic Opportunity. We asked everyone to commit to all the meetings, including those that don't relate obviously to their work.
- We developed a meeting format that focuses on sparking creative collaborations to enhance projects that C3ers are already leading. A few of these are museum projects, but most are not. The museum connection is evident in the way the meeting is formatted--incorporating playful art-making, historic artifacts from our collection, and a pop up museum of "artifacts from the future" of the topic at hand--but the content is not primarily about us.
- We asked people to make a voluntary donation of up to $150 to help support the facilitation of C3, and snacks. We were amazed at how many people were ready to pay to support the group.
- We created a public site to coordinate the group and share their work.
- We're spending a LOT more staff time than with the previous structure of C3, mostly in the form of increased communication with members and a much more intensive approach to the facilitation and program design.
- Recruiting people across many big cross-sections of the community means that some topics are impossible to dive into deeply. We're discussing whether in a future year we would consider picking one topic and recruiting people across diverse networks related to just that topic.
- It's pretty confusing to explain what it is, why we are doing it, and why people should participate. We're working on the internal and external language, always trying to be as clear and concrete as possible.
- C3 members find it useful and valuable (measured via self-report and attendance over time).
- C3 sparks new collaborations to enhance participants' projects (measured via self-report and social network mapping).
- C3 helps our staff and trustees improve the museum in a variety of ways (measured via self-report and social network mapping).
We'll see how the dust settles in the spring of 2015 and whether this becomes a permanent program of our museum. In the meantime, we'll keep exploring and learning with our creative colleagues across the County.
How are you exploring different approaches to community advisory boards in your work?