Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What are Your Engagement Goals?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the use of the word "quality" in the arts and its many forms. A commenter, Stacy Peterson, responded by turning my exploration back on itself:
Quality makes sense but engagement is more open to interpretation. "Engagement? What do you mean by engagement? There are many different forms of engagement with many different outcomes depending on your goals, your project, or your institution."
Touché. I believe in transparency in all language use--whether the words are familiar or new. Inspired by Stacy, I wanted to share some of the work we are doing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to clarify what we mean by engagement.

This is a big year for us in naming and evaluating our work. In early 2014, we developed a set of five engagement goals: Relevant, Sustainable, Bridging, Participatory, Igniting. We use these goals to evaluate our current engagement strategies, assess new proposed strategies, and guide productive discussions about how to improve our work.

We developed these goals through a series of all-staff workshops. We moved from pre-existing department-specific goals upwards, trying to write broad goals that make sense across our diverse work. Then, we applied the filter of our mission statement to finalize the five goals.

We wanted goals that are specific to our organization while applicable across it (archives, exhibitions, historic sites, events, fundraising, school tours, online). I don't think these goals are universal by any means to the museum or arts field. They are idiosyncratic to our institution, our mission, and our community. That said, our process and goals may be useful examples for others.

Here's a short description of each engagement goal:
  • RELEVANT: Connected to compelling needs, assets, and interests in Santa Cruz County. Connected to our core content of contemporary art and regional history. 
  • SUSTAINABLE: Provides important resources to help the MAH thrive financially and organizationally. 
  • BRIDGING: Brings community members together across differences. Celebrates diversity and encourages unexpected connections. 
  • PARTICIPATORY: Invites diverse community members to make meaningful contributions as co-creators, collaborators, and energized constituents. 
  • IGNITING: Inspires excitement and curiosity about art and history. Expands opportunities for deeper engagement beyond the museum. 
For each of these goals, we wrote a single page explaining what the goal is and listing clear examples of what "high," "average," and "low" execution of the goal looks like. If you are interested in the specifics, you can check out this 6-page document about our engagement goals.

Focusing on these five goals forced us to be specific about what success looks like for us. For example:
  • We chose to include "bridging" but not "bonding" because our primary social goal is to connect strangers, not to deepen existing relationships. While we are pleased when people bond with their friends and family here, it's not our primary goal. Excessive bonding can lead to cliques and exclusion. Excessive bridging, on the other hand, builds a more open and connected community.
  • By focusing on "igniting" rather than "deepening," we own our limited role as a spark for interest and learning. We focus on introducing people to lots of things and giving them tools and opportunities to pursue deeper engagement on their own. For us, that empowering spark is more important than the long-term learning.
  • By including "sustainable," we acknowledge that every engagement strategy must be manageable in terms of time and money. This has prompted more conversations about workload, scheduling, and financing for projects. We haven't cracked the sustainability code for every engagement strategy. But just naming it encourages us to talk about it.
Since we wrote these goals in the spring, we've started baking them into our work and program evaluation in different ways. We are:
  • writing an "engagement handbook," which has a one-page description of each engagement strategy at the museum, how it works, and its connection to each of the engagement goals. Already, this document-in-process has helped us orient new trustees and staff. It helps connect the dots in a diverse organization with lots going on.
  • using engagement goals as part of new standardized evaluation templates for projects. Right now, staff members evaluate goal achievement based on the "low," "average," "high" criteria set forth in our goals document. This fall, we are exploring ways to collect this data from participants in addition to making a judgment call from our perspective.
  • talking about the goals and using them whenever we are planning or reviewing engagement activities. This includes brainstorming ideas for programmatic tie-ins to exhibitions, reviewing what was good and bad about a recent event, and evaluating potential collaborators for a project.
This is very much a work-in-progress. I'd love to hear what you are doing in your own organization to bring clarity, specificity, and measurability to the many qualities of engagement--or success. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Looking for Inspiring Examples from Unlikely Suspects? Check These Out.

How do you find fresh and inspiring resources in your field?

This is a tricky question in the nonprofit arts world--and probably in every field. There are some industry blogs and twitter feeds. There are some good conferences. There are some useful research papers. But most of these resources live in narrow silos, invisible to most of us. If you don't know the language, the players, the conversations in that subset of the field, you won't even know where to look.

The result is that the resources we know most about tend to be limited to those in our respective silos, and stories about giant organizations. Not so helpful for a curious person with diverse interests--especially if you care most about small, experimental organizations. They often don't have the bandwidth or the visibility to share their stories easily.

I was discussing this with a colleague last week when I realized: I am part of the problem. Every once in a while, I see something great, and I don't share it. Each of us is a connector to new work and new worlds.

Below are two excellent e-books put out by the National Arts Marketing Project, one on artistic interventions in uncommon places, and one on taking a leap of faith with "weird" programming. (Full disclosure: my museum is profiled in the latter.)

I love these e-books. They are short, beautifully produced, and thoughtfully edited. Best of all, they profile diverse organizations I know very little about.

NAMP puts out some other e-books about branding and digital engagement which may also be of interest. But for me, the stories in Making Space and Let's Get Weird--about art in laundromats, theater in churches--share lessons that go far beyond marketing.

Thanks to NAMP for writing these e-books. And thanks to you for sharing the resources that you are inspired by--whenever and wherever you can.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

But What About Quality?

Image courtesy Museum Quality Dance. Photo by Carrie Meyer.
Scene: a regional workshop on arts engagement. A funder is speaking with conviction about the fact that her foundation is focusing their arts grantmaking strategy on engagement. Engaging new people. Engaging more diverse people. Engaging people actively in the arts. Any questions?

One, from a museum director. The question that comes up every time, the question so big it deserves the impropriety of all caps: BUT WHAT ABOUT QUALITY?

No one wants to do crappy work. Everyone wants quality, in one way or another.

The word "quality" is often code for aesthetic quality, as judged by a specific set of cultural expectations and preferences.

But just as its definition suggests, quality is itself a quality. Quality Shakespearian theater is different from quality contemporary dance. Quality is mutable and multitudinous. It is not code for one idea. It can unlock several.

Here, in no particular order, are ten different kinds of quality in arts experiences:
  1. AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
  2. TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
  3. INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
  4. INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
  5. EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
  6. RELEVANT: can people relate to it? 
  7. PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
  8. ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
  9. BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
  10. IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?
No arts experience hits them all. Heck, no museum exhibition hits them all. Consider:
  • A dry exhibition, diving into an arcane topic. High academic quality, low igniting quality.
  • A community-based exhibition, full of life but rife with amateur design and poor editing. High participatory quality, low technical quality.
  • An edgy contemporary art show that alienates and confuses many visitors. High innovative quality, low relevant quality.
The next time someone asks you, "But what about quality?," ask them: "What do you mean by that?"
Invite the conversation about forms of quality, and the different outcomes of different forms. Define what quality means for your goals, for your project, for your institution. And then proceed with the confidence that you are going to do the best damn job you can to achieve the kind of quality you seek.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Participatory Moment of Zen: Diverse Visitor Contributions Add Up to Empathy

Whoever wrote this comment card: thank you. You made my month. For those who can't see the image, the card reads:
When I first saw the "pastports" I didn't really understand, but after reading what people wrote in them I felt an overwhelming connection to all the words of so many random people. Everyone has something valuable to say, no matter how they appear outwardly.
This person is writing about a participatory element (the "pastport") that we included in the exhibition Crossing Cultures. Crossing Cultures features paintings by Belle Yang that relate to her family's immigration experiences.

We did three things to supplement Belle's paintings (installation shots here, peopled shots here):
  1. We issued a call to locals who are immigrants, or whose family immigrated, to share an artifact and story with us. We mounted those objects and stories alongside visitor-contributed suitcases. Many, many visitors responded emotionally to these stories. They diversified the voice of immigration in the exhibition and encouraged people to share their own histories verbally.
  2. We created a "pastport" - a small booklet with evocative prompts related to identity and place. Each prompt was tied to a different artwork in the exhibition. In front of each of those paintings, you could stamp your pastport, reflect on the artwork and the question, and share your story. People could take the pastports home or hang them, open to a preferred page, on a clothesline. The clotheslines were always full.
  3. We created a simple wheel with open-ended questions about identity and place, setting it in a lounge area. The idea was that people would spin the wheel and start a conversation. This element was a dud - it was not as compelling as the rest of the exhibition, and redundant in a gallery replete with juicy conversations.
Each of these activities invited contribution on a different level. The suitcase collaborators contributed to the exhibition for months, through a sequence of outreach, discussion, writing, object sourcing, editing, and design. The pastport contributors were visitors who came and shared their stories in written or drawn form in real time, without staff contact, to be showcased for a few weeks. And the conversationalists (with or without the wheel) contributed to the ephemeral dialogue around the exhibition.

Often when I talk with folks from other institutions about visitor/audience participation, the focus is on one form of participation. Collaboration in the months before the show. Visitor feedback during the event. Response mail art after the visit. The institution picks one form and goes with it.

In my experience, offering many different forms of participation garners more quality interactions. People self-select into the opportunity where they can give and get the most value. 

Everyone has "something valuable to say." Some people say it with a poem. Some with a colored pencil. Some with a paella pan. The trick is to invite many voices in many forms. That's where meaning--and empathy--lives.