Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Where's the Community in the Crowd? Framing and the Wall Street Journal's "Everybody's a Curator"

Two weeks ago, my museum was featured in a Wall Street Journal article by Ellen Gamerman, Everybody's a Curator. I'm thrilled that our small community museum is on the map with many big institutions around the country. I'm proud we were cast as innovators. I'm appreciative of the time Ellen Gamerman spent researching the article. I'm glad to see coverage about art museums involving visitors in exhibitions.

But I also struggled with this article. There was something at the heart of it that bothered me. It took Ed Rodley's excellent response for me to realize what felt frustrating: the framing.

Community is not a commodity. We don't involve people in content development to "boost ticket sales." It's neither "quick" nor "inexpensive" to mount exhibitions that include diverse community stories. Yes, community involvement is at the heart of our shifted, successful business model. But that business model requires experienced staff who know how to empower people, facilitate meaningful participation, respond to community issues and interests, and ignite learning. It's not cheap. It's not easy. It's the work we feel driven to do to build a museum that is of and for our community.

Where is the community in this article? There are many curator and museum director voices in the article, but not a single quote from a visitor who engaged in one of these community projects. The curators are the humans in the story. The "crowd" is a mechanized mob. I had to imagine the deep conversations visitors had as they deliberated on which painting to vote for. The sense of pride at being part of something bigger than themselves. The curiosity about the work of professional curators and the assigning of aesthetic value.

I know these people exist. I meet them everyday in our museum. I meet them doing research in the archives, collaborating on cultural festivals, and contributing stories to exhibitions. They aren't here to make our work easier or cheaper. They are here to be inspired, to get connected, to learn, to dream, to share.

Despite the implication in the article, they are not all young. Our museum attracts participants who are roughly as age- and income-diverse as our County (or a little older). Our prototypical participant is a 49-year old Santa Cruz County woman with a story to share. She's proud to be part of a community. Not a crowd.

The whole process of being interviewed for the story made me question the stories we tell and words we use to describe participatory work. It was easy to want to be helpful to Ellen Gamerman and fit into her context ("crowdsourcing"). I struggled to present my own alternative frame ("community involvement"). What's better: to stay on message and potentially get written out of exposure like this? Or to fit in and accept a slant you can't control?

These questions don't just apply to press coverage. They apply to any situation in which we are describing our work to others. This article made me wish I had some kind of political training in framing the argument. It sent me back to the work of George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, who traces how we use metaphors to understand the world.

The metaphor for traditional art museums is the temple. Beautiful. Sanctified. Managed and protected by a league of committed, anointed ones.

What is the metaphor for participatory arts? Is it the agora? The town square? The circus? The living room? The web?

I don't want to be judged by metaphors of crowdsourcing or "the selfie generation." But if we want a different frame, we have to work for it. Phrases like “community engagement” or “participatory” or “social practice” are not strong enough. We need a broad and basic metaphor, one that we can repeat with clarity and confidence, across many institutions and genres and projects, to build our frame. 

What do you think the metaphor is for this work? What can we do to put that framing forward?
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