For years, I’ve been associated with the idea of “visitor participation.” When I became the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History four years ago, I took this work with me. We invited community members in, to be active contributors, collaborators, and co-creators in our museum space.
We had incredible success transforming our institution into a vibrant cultural center. But when people told us what they loved about the museum, they didn’t use the word “participation.” They talked about community building.
I don’t think there is a way to directly build community. We can’t sit down and say, “let’s go build some community.”
Participation is one (of many) tactics for building community. As time has gone on, my attention has shifted from the tactic of participation to the outcome of building community. And so today I want to talk about building community: the who, the how, and the why of it.
WHO (slides 3-23)
"Community” is not an abstraction. It is a group of people connected by something shared. That something may be a place, an identity, an interest, a worldview.
The most important first step for any institution that seeks to “engage community” is to be specific about WHO you are talking about.
At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, our community starts with geography. We exist for people who live in Santa Cruz County. We are unapologetic about focusing local. Even though Santa Cruz is a tourism destination, we mostly ignore tourists. Tourists can’t help us build community in Santa Cruz County if they are only in town for a day.
Focusing local helps us define our community by identity. We have partnered with the county-wide community assessment project to learn more about the demographics, interests, and needs of local residents.
In some ways, we do a good job engaging people who reflect our whole County. Our audience’s income diversity matches that of the County. We’re connecting with people across all age segments in our County. Right now, we're working hard to empower Latino residents to see themselves in our museum. We live in a City that is 19% Latino, in a County that is 33% Latino. Our visitors are about 8% Latino. If we want to reflect the identities of our community, we’ve got to focus on changing that.
At the same time, “identity” doesn't always mean demographics. For example, in Santa Cruz there is a huge community of creative people who identify as artists in non-traditional media. That’s why we partner with fire sculptors, knitters, graffiti artists, and bonsai growers. They are artists whose experience deserves a home in our institution alongside painters, photographers, and sculptors.
Finally, we define our community by affinity. We focus on people who are culturally curious, actively creative… but may not see a traditional arts institution as a place for them. We’re unapologetic about connecting people with history and with art in new ways, even if those ways are sometimes in conflict with more typical museum practice.
We think about this redefinition of affinity not just in terms of our programming but our internal structures as well. Some of our best volunteers come from the County court referral system. We're a place you can work off your traffic ticket. And that means we get volunteers who are A. very motivated to complete their hours and B. culturally curious but maybe not inclined to walk into a museum. They see "museum" on the list of options and they think: hey, I like history, I dig art, maybe this is a good option for me. We've hired amazing people out of this unorthodox volunteer pipeline.
Doing this work in partnership with our local community, in partnership with people who have an affinity for active cultural experiences, we’ve been able to grow rapidly and tremendously. Over four years, we’ve tripled our annual attendance and more than doubled our budget and staff and programs.
Last year, our board and staff came together to develop a “theory of change” that connects the activities we do to the impact we seek. We decided as an institution to focus on just one impact statement: “our community grows stronger and more connected.” It feels amazing to be so aligned and clear about purpose. We’re making our focus on community more overt, tangible, and measurable.
HOW (slides 24-42)
There are three “tracks” to our theory of change: individual empowerment, social bonding, and social bridging.
Let’s start with empowerment. We seek to empower our visitors to raise their own civic and creative voices. A lot of museum visits can actually be disempowering, making people feel they are not smart enough or cultured enough to get it. We want everyone to leave the museum feeling that they could become an historian or artist—a civic and/or creative agent of change.
Empowering people starts by involving and including them. Showing that their voice matters. This starts right when you walk into our museum, where you can share opinions about how to improve the institution on a comment wall. We work with people on programs in their neighborhoods, relevant to their stories, so that people get personally connected. And we look for pathways—whether inside or beyond the museum—for people to go deeper. This might mean taking on a project in our historical archives, starting a studio art practice, or getting involved in local issues and organizations.
Empowerment is the “individual” side of our theory of change. The other side is about building social capital through bonding and bridging.
These terms come from Robert Putnam, Harvard researcher and author of Bowling Alone. Both bonding and bridging contribute to building community. We bond with people who are like us. We bridge with people who are different from us.
Putnam and other researchers have collected lots of data demonstrating that in the past 50 years in America, bonding has increased and bridging has decreased. We live in an increasingly polarized world, with fewer and fewer opportunities to connect with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. We are more bonded than ever, and more segregated from each other in our respective bonded spaces as a result.
Museums are great places for bonding. Decades of research have shown that one of the primary reasons people go to museums is to bond with friends and family. While we welcome the people who come to our museum to bond, they don't need much help from us to do so.
Bridging is another story. If we don't focus on designing for bridging, it won't happen. So we spend most of our energy working on ways to bring people together from different walks of life in the museum. We bridge by bringing together unlikely partners--across artistic & historical practices, socio-economics, race/ethnicity, and age. Our programming isn't for target audiences. We strive to be a place where you will always meet someone new, someone who is not like you, in a positive environment.
I'm proud of the bridging work that we do. But it is so, so delicate. Bridging requires careful balancing of who is in the space. If any one bridged group starts to take over, it starts to become a bonded space. As Jane Jacobs noted, "self-destruction of diversity is caused by success, not failure." She was talking about gentrification of neighborhoods, but the idea carries over. When too many of the same kind of person flock to a place or program, it weakens the ability to bridge.
We're struggling with this right now when it comes to family audiences. When I first came to the museum, it was not perceived as a family-friendly place. As we developed new 3rd Friday community festivals, we were careful to design them as intergenerational experiences. More and more families showed up. Now, families are dominant at 3rd Friday, and some adults feel like "it's a kid thing."
Keeping bridging alive requires constant attention and effort. But it's worth it because of how important it is to building a stronger and more connected community.
WHY (slides 43-54)
This vision of a museum working to build a stronger and more connected community is deeply important to us in Santa Cruz. But I don't think that every museum should be doing this work. I don't wish that every museum would be community-oriented. I wish that every museum would be clear about its goals, specific about its strategies and measures, and unapologetic about pursuing them.
I don't think the challenge of museums is being community-oriented. I think the challenge is being authentic to what your institution is about, the community you work with, the vision you have. There is no one-size-fits-all template for that.
Clarity of goals, methods, and measures enables us to proudly and honestly pursue the work that we think is most important. I want all museums to have that.
I started my career as an engineer. One of the essays that inspires me most was this lecture that a computer scientist named Dick Hamming gave in 1986 called You and Your Research. Hamming was addressing the question of why more scientists don't do Nobel Prize-worthy work. He said:
The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important, and he also does not believe that they will lead to important problems.If you want to have impact, if you want to change the world, you have to work on an important problem.
So often, we focus on the tasks in front of us. The next exhibition. The marketing campaign. The big event. This work is useful. But if you aren't attacking a big problem through it all, what's the point?
There are many important problems that touch the museum field: building stronger communities, transforming the education system, the need for creative play and inspiration, social equity, artists as changemakers, education about global issues. And so on.
I don't care what important problem you choose. But I hope you are working on one. Important problems will keep you up late at night, but they'll also get you out of bed in the morning. They are the reason this work matters. They are the only way we will change the world.