Thursday, February 04, 2016

One Simple Question to Make Your Work More Participatory

Photo by CLoé Zarifian, MAH Photo Intern
We're working with a guest curator, Wes Modes, on an upcoming experimental project at our museum. Wes is an artist, and this is his first time running a museum exhibition development process. In a recent meeting about the exhibition process, Wes asked me: what am I not thinking of that I should be doing?

I said to him: I can't really answer that question. I'm sure you're thinking of a lot of steps to make this process work, and many more tasks will arise. The key question is, every step of the way: how can you invite people beyond yourself to help make this step better?

This is the question I ask myself anytime I'm working on something with a participatory intent. How can people--staff, volunteers, community members--help make this project better?   

In the case of the exhibition process that Wes is leading, we talked about how others could be involved in an experimental exhibition/residency in which artists work with visitors in the gallery. The obvious start was to think about how we recruit the artists--using an open call to invite anyone, anywhere to participate. But even developing that open call was a participatory process:
  • Wes worked with other staff to think through how the residencies could work. Their input helped shape the entire project, which in turn shaped the call.
  • He asked staff and artist friends for feedback on the concept. Their input helped shape the messaging of the project and the key questions to be answered in the call.
  • Once the call was 95% ready, Wes circulated it to a small group of existing museum partners and artists for feedback. Their input helped us get to 100%, and it created a group of invested collaborators who were ready to help spread the word once the call was live.
  • Once the call was ready, Wes circulated it to even more museum partners, as well as to artist listservs and our general membership. These people were both potential participants and promoters of the call, helping it continue to spread.
All of these steps helped make for a better call to artists, one that has gotten way more response than I ever expected.

This open call project may sound like one that is uniquely suited for participatory input. But I find that the more I live with that question of how others can make something better, the more naturally it infuses all kinds of work at our museum. Developing new staff policies. Prototyping all gender bathrooms. Creating an event or exhibit. All of these activities involve ongoing collaboration and co-creation with people beyond the staff member(s) responsible.

How can people help make your project better? Here are a few tips to asking this question successfully:
  • ask the whole question. It's not just a question of how people could get involved or participate. It's a question of how they can make it BETTER. You can always come up with ways people could participate. But if those approaches require a lot of time or effort and don't improve the result, they're a waste. Be generous and creative about what "better" could look like, but hold onto that goal. That way, you'll build a virtuous cycle where you keep wanting to find opportunities for participation to continue improving your work.
  • share your work. It's impossible to ask this question if you work so close to the chest that no one can even see what you are doing, let alone get involved. Inviting starts with sharing. Share what you are doing, the questions you have, the things you're unsure of, and you'll naturally encounter people who want to help make it better. This takes confidence in sharing half-baked ideas, and also the time to type them out, circulate them, have a meeting, etc. It's part of a culture of learning and curiosity--something I hope that museums can embody.
  • define "people" in the way that works for you. At my museum, the people who participate may be staff, volunteers, community members, organizational partners, Facebook folk... it depends on the project or task at hand. It's always good to start closest to home. Ask your colleagues. Ask your friends. And then as you build confidence in their ability to help make your work better, you can start inviting participants who are further from your comfort zone.
How are you inviting other people to help make your work better?

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