Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fifteen Random Things I've Learned about Design for Participation This Year

We've been offering a host of participatory and interactive experiences at The Museum of Art & History this season. All of them are cheap, mostly simple, and occasionally, dangerous. I loved Jasper Visser's list of 30 "do's" for designing participatory projects earlier this month. I thought I'd add a few of the little things we've learned about visitors (and ourselves) through our monkeying. Please share yours in the comments.

  1. Cut your instructions down to as little text as possible. This is true for any kind of exhibit. If you don't need them, dump 'em. 
  2. In contrast, people will read signs that explain how their work will be/was used, or that the giant sculpture of metal fish they are looking at was made by visitors. They will be impressed. They will want to participate. Accolades are more inspiring than instructions.
  3. If you want people to write and/or draw, encourage them to draw. The timid ones will write anyway, and if you give them the option to write, no one will draw.
  4. Different activities need different levels of materials to appear "open for business." For crafting activities, putting out a small number of materials encourages people to use sparingly and respectfully. But for voting activities with objects in receptacles (in our case, coffee beans), the receptacle has to be pretty full for visitors to comfortably understand that they can use some.
  5. Put out seating for two or more with every activity, unless it's something incredibly personal. People will talk about what they are writing or making.
  6. Artists work incredibly hard to produce their work. Design paired activities to reflect or at least respect the sensibility of their work, and where possible, involve them in the design.
  1. If you put out pencils and paper for an activity on a table that reads like a table, you're fine. If it's a couple of pedestals that you painted and attached to make a table (no wax, matte paint), kids will scribble all over the table. The same is true for paper instructions mounted on the table. Laminated = safe, mounted on foam core = not. Get a good eraser.
  2. Have a game plan for what you'll do with past visitors' contributions as you prune to make room for more. We do different things with different products. I keep visitor comments in my office. For an activity in which visitors write stories on butterflies and pin them to a board, we group older stories into "clumps" of butterflies at the edges of the board to look pretty and make room for new contributions. And the crayon drawings on the fridge door in an exhibition of award-winning local artists? We throw those away.
  3. Prune for diversity and clarity, not quality. The contributions that are the "best" may be a narrow reflection of your own personal preferences.
  4. Don't go overboard in affixing things to the wall or table or surface. Visitor behavior will tell you how much glue or lamination you need. We guessed wrong.
  5. You can put out full cans of coffee beans on a third floor hallway overlooking a stairwell and people will not throw fistfuls of coffee beans down the stairs. They will very conscientiously pick up any beans that drop on the floor. Small kids love this task.
  6. Have extra coffee beans, index cards or whatever you're using on hand at all times. Make sure staff/volunteers know where they are. Schedule volunteers to prep more butterflies.
  1. "Make and share" is more powerful for many people than "make and take." Most people--including kids--want to display their creations, not keep them. 
  2. People of all ages can use sledgehammers with minimal oversight. We had over 400 successful bangers with no injuries. The risk of liability was worth it.
  3. People love pleasant surprises. Our most commented-on change by far is the brightly painted chairs in the elevator. This isn't even participatory. It's just fun. 
  1. Find a way to get back in touch with people to let them know that their fish/butterfly/story/object is on display. We haven't figured out a seamless way to capture emails so we can do this yet.
  2. Encourage gifting. We are trying some activities that invite people to make things for others, or to take something made by a previous visitor. Most people do not take the bait. We need to find a more appealing way to do this.
  3. Figure out what to do with the giant collaboratively-created objects when an exhibition run is over. Right now, we have a lots of vacant space, so visitors are helping us paint murals and make massive mobiles. But we won't want those things forever, or we'll want to create new things for those sites. I'm not sure whether this is the ordinary churn of the museum or if we need a more thoughtful "deaccessioning" plan for collaborative work.
Here's to a 2012 filled with more experiments, dialogue, and surprises.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Open Thread: How Does Your Institution Say Happy New Year?

It's that time of year when inboxes fill up with digital thank you's, happy holidays, and end-of-year solicitations. At the MAH, we had an intern who worked this summer and fall to create a video (her first!) to reflect some of the new activities at the museum. We didn't really have a plan for what we would do with it, but when it was done, I suddenly realized we had a great way to showcase 2011 to our members, donors and friends. (Warning: the song can get stuck in your head, and yes, that is my dad singing.)

And that made me wonder: how do other organizations showcase their work at the end of the year? What do you do to ask, tell, share, and celebrate what's been happening at your institution? This year, I've seen everything from heartfelt solicitations (Young Playwrights Theater) to surreal pop culture singalongs (MCA Denver) to impressively-produced, collaborative, yet poignant pop culture singalongs (Detroit Science Center, which closed one month after this video was released).

Enjoy our video and share your own via the comments. I don't really have any brilliant ideas on what makes a good end-of-year video (except that it should be short). I'd love to hear your thoughts on what works and doesn't. If lots of people share their videos in the comments, I'll write a follow-up post next week based on some of the apparent trends.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yes, Visitors Can Help You. But You Have to Let Them.

Two weeks ago, two of my staff members came to me with a problem. They were planning a wall mural for our classroom. They planned to paint the outline of Santa Cruz County, print out photos of a series of important landmarks or icons throughout the county, and then paint those items onto the map. As part of our monthly First Friday community event, they would invite visitors to draw some of the icons, and then the drawings would be the basis for what would be painted on the mural.

The problem? It was Friday, a few hours before the drawing activity, and my colleagues were worried that it would be too challenging for people to draw the icons and landmarks selected. They were afraid that visitors would get frustrated or that the quality of their work would not be good enough to translate to the mural. We often avoid drawing as a community art activity because visitors can get really judgmental of their own abilities, and our staff just felt that this might be too hard.  They wanted to drop the activity.

I asked what plan B was if visitors didn't draw the items. They said that they would draw them or translate them from photographs in some way. These are both busy people, and while they are very artistic, neither is a crack drawer.

I encouraged them to go ahead with the community activity as planned. It seemed to me like we had little to lose and a lot to gain if visitors could in fact make some good representations of the icons. I figured this was a classic crowd-sourcing activity; while not everyone can draw well, it seemed a heck of a lot more likely that we'd get some good drawings from a few of the 800+ people at the event than we'd get if we never asked.

Visitors rose to the challenge and made some incredible drawings. It turned into a pretty wild evening in the classroom, filled with, "Whoa! You drew that?!"s, visitors pouring over each other's work, and impossible decisions about which drawings would be used for the final mural. We were all surprised by the quality of the visitors' work. We selected final drawings for the mural based on drawings by young kids, teenagers, and adults. This Friday, a new set of visitors will paint the drawn icons onto the actual mural.

This experience reminded me of how much confidence it takes to say yes to any new activities (this isn't limited to participatory projects) because of unfamiliarity with the process. My colleagues are smart, generous people who love involving visitors in our work. But when the work gets complicated or difficult, it's easy to get nervous about visitors' ability to perform.

A participatory project is one in which visitors/users can actively contribute to make the institution better. That's only possible if we let them try. We're probably all self-censoring opportunities for community members to make significant contributions to our work. How could visitors improve your institution, and what do you need to let go of to help them do it?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Digital Museums Reconsidered: Exploring the Walker Art Center Website Redesign

I have a confession to make: I've never cared much about museums on the Web. I'm focused on the onsite, in-person experience. When smart people talk about digital museums and virtual experiences, I nod and compartmentalize it as someone else's bailiwick. I understand the value of having a web presence that is reflective of institutional brand, makes content available for people to use in a variety of ways, and enables new connections with community members. But I've never really understood what it could mean for a museum to create a website that has a complementary function to the physical institution--an entity in its own right that expands beyond the scope of the physical institution, programs, and collection.

Now, I think I'm starting to get it. Last week, the Walker Art Center launched a major website redesign, which museum geeks are hailing as "a potential paradigm shift for institutional websites," (Seb Chan) and an "earth-shaking game changer" (Museumnerd). Here's what I see: a website as a unique core offering--alongside, but not subservient to, the physical institution. is not about the Walker Art Center. It is the Walker Art Center, in digital form.

The new site resembles an online newspaper, featuring articles written by Walker staff alongside stories from the greater world of art reporting on the web. While there is a tight menu of Walker Art Center offerings at the top (Visit, Exhibitions & Events, Media, Collections, Join), the rest of the website is a digitally-based panoply of content broadly related to the Walker's mission. It is an online experience about contemporary art that goes beyond the Walker's walls.

And it breaks a lot of conventional rules about museum homepages. Such as:
  • It organizes the content primarily by "stories"--a news lexicon that I've never seen used in a museum context.
  • There's lots of content everywhere, including little things you wouldn't usually see on a museum website--like the current weather in Minneapolis, where the Walker resides. 
  • It features many stories ("Art from Elsewhere") that were not produced by the museum and are not about the museum. 
  • The "Art from Elsewhere" stories all link to sites that are not associated with the Walker. No more lock 'em in and keep 'em here--the theory is that the value of the site is in the curation of links across the web.
  • The name "Walker Art Center" is abbreviated to "WALKER" at the top of the homepage. It's not 100% clear that this thing called represents a museum or facility, though there are ample opportunities to discover that.
Is this the future of all museum websites? Probably not. The care and feeding required for a site like this is tremendous. The Walker employs a four-person editorial team (one of whom is completely dedicated to the website), along with a five-person new media initiative group. That's more people than work in my museum total--and a lot more who are dedicated to digital experiences and content than at even the largest museums around the world.

But the biggest reason that the Walker site is so unusual is its clarity of purpose. Not only did the Walker have the resources to create a major online project, they had the institutional coherence and focus to make it their primary website. Many, many museums have created superlative online experiences--from the IMA's ArtBabble to the Exploratorium's educational resources to the V&A's collections site any number of exhibition microsites--but these are all offshoots in the museum website universe. 

What the Walker has done is commit to a unique online approach--not just for one program or microsite, but for their homepage. They took their vision of the institution as an idea hub, looked at comparable sites online that achieve that vision, and adopted and adapted the journalistic approach to their goals. 

An institution of any size with enough mission-coherence and courage could create a website that is comparably unique. It comes down to articulating your mission in a digital space. Not every museum would choose a journalistic approach. Maybe the metaphor for your institution is a restaurant with a simple set of consistent offerings or a music venue with a constantly rotating program of events. Maybe some museum websites would look like online schools, or community bulletin boards, or shopping sites. But I suspect that most of them would continue being a little of this, a little of that, with a brochure for visiting slapped on top. And I think that's ok too if your goal is to have a physical museum with a website that supports it.

But if you want to create a digital museum as a partner to the physical, take note. Thank you, Walker Art Center, for showing me one version of what this can look like.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Radical, Simple Formula for Pop-Up Museums

Pop-Up Museum [n]:
  1. a short-term institution existing in a temporary space. 
  2. a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects.
Over the past few years, there have been several fabulous examples of pop-up museums focusing on visitor-generated content. There was Jaime Kopke's Denver Community Museum, which existed for nine months in a Denver storefront in 2008-9 to celebrate visitors' creations. Maria Mortati runs the wonderful SF Mobile Museum, which roams the Bay Area showing mini-exhibits on evocative themes. The never-quite-opened National History Museum of the Netherlands created an innovative vending machine for historic objects, which traveled to festivals and urban centers for people to add their memories.

And now, Michelle DelCarlo has created a shockingly simple template for pop-up history museums focusing on personal objects of meaning. I strongly recommend you read her whole blog back to the beginning (it's not too onerous) and check out the evolution of her experimental format, which she has deployed in museums, libraries, and classrooms in the US and Australia.

Here's how it works:
  • Michelle partners with an organization, institution, or group. They come up with a theme, a date, and invite people to come.
  • On the prescribed date and time, people show up with personal objects on the theme. There is paper and pens to write labels. The objects and labels are laid out on tables.
  • People walk around, look at objects, and talk about them.
This project is beautiful in its simplicity. Any institution could do this with a few folding tables, pencils and paper, and a little bit of promotion.

There are a few things about this that I find incredibly interesting:
  • The experience is event-based. Michelle noted after early experiments that short timeframes work best for participants. These are museums that last not for a day or weekend or month but for two hours. The experience is the museum, and the objects are exciting because the people are there to share them. There's no forced sense that the objects should remain or be relevant beyond the event.
  • The goal is promoting conversations. Michelle has an explicit mission to "create conversations between people of all ages and walks of life." It's not fundamentally about the theme or the objects but the conversations that happen around them. (She also has an interesting take on the deliberate choice of "conversation" instead of "dialogue" as the goal.)
  • The design is humble--and radical. Look at photos of Michelle's pop-up museums, and you'll see a bunch of plastic tables with objects lined up on them. Because the experience is the key focus (and because of the highly temporary nature of the experience), the design costs are nil. There's no focused lighting or casework or beautiful labels. This is the natural extension of what some innovative exhibit designers--especially Kathleen McLean--have been advocating for: simple, flexible formats that put primacy on ideas and visitor contribution. It tracks almost exactly with Kathleen's Manifesto for the (r)evolution of Museum Exhibitions, all the way down to the snacks. And it looks totally unlike a standard museum. 
  • The format focuses on intimate experiences. Michelle's pop-ups reach twenty or so people each time, and that's ok. Particularly for small museums, which deal in magnitudes of tens instead of thousands, this format can provide the kind of unusual deep experience that can only happen at this scale. Smaller is not worse. It is different. This is a format that works for small.
Kudos to Michelle for her inspiring work. We can't wait to try out the format at our own small place, and in partnership with non-museums in our area.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Hours Should Museums Be Open?

An exhibiting artist approached me recently at an evening event at the museum. "Hey!," he said, "I have some feedback for you. You know, the hours that you're open--they're not very accessible for people who work."

He's right. They aren't. We're open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. And if you work and or have a family, that doesn't exactly make it easy to visit.

This isn't rocket science. But it's a question that many museums seem to address inadequately. We try so hard to make our visitors feel welcome and comfortable once they're inside, ignoring the glaring obstacle that may prevent them from even getting in the door.

It's interesting to me that so many museums debate admission fees but don't get comparably riled up about open hours. Some of the most innovative, community-focused museums I know of are trapped in the 11-5 game, and it's frankly a little bizarre--especially from visitors' perspective.

The obvious outcome of daytime hours is fewer visitors. But it also has a lot of other chicken-egg effects. Imagine if a theater or jazz club was only open during the day, and what conclusions one might draw about audience type and preferences based on that decision. For example, in museums:
  • Retirees and vacationers--two groups with daytime availability--become primary audiences that receive significant attention and subtly influence programming choices. Who would be "core" audiences if our institutions were open from 3-9pm instead of closing at 5? How might programming shift to support them?
  • Evening events provide rare opportunities to experience the museum after work. Are these events popular because of programming, or are they popular because of the hours? Would events be as significant in the experience of young adult audiences if there were more opportunities to experience the exhibitions after work without special programming?

In thinking about whether, why, and how we might rethink hours at my institution, I've come with the following list of pro's and con's for shifting the hours later.

  • more accessible to working people
  • more symbiotic with times people are recreating downtown (dinner, happy hour, shopping)
  • separates school tours from public visiting hours, which can be helpful in a small building
  • requires changes to staffing and signage
  • can't rent the museum for lucrative evening events as often. If we're open every evening, it cripples this business. If we're open only a few evenings, it may confuse visitors.
What do you think? What questions should I consider in examining this? What have you seen change--or not--when hours change? What institutions are worth looking at to learn more? I'm particularly curious about other cultural and community organizations--libraries, performing art spaces--and how hours impact their use and value.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Inside a Museum Website Redesign

When I started at The Museum of Art & History (MAH) in May, one of my priorities was redesigning our website. I didn't want to do anything fancy--just make the site more functional, lively, easy to update, and reflective of the new institutional vision of being a community hub. You can see the site circa February 2011 here, and the current site here

We got incredibly lucky with a fabulous volunteer web designer, Marty Spellerberg , who saw my request for help on this blog and enthusiastically jumped in. Marty is everything I could have wanted from a designer--he overdelivered on my vague directives and pushed me to think more rigorously about what we were trying to do. And he did it all from afar--I've never met Marty in person and have only corresponded with him by voice a couple of times. Thank you, Marty. I hope everyone who reads this hires you to redesign their websites.

OK, enough promotion. I want to use this post not to talk about the final result but the process--what we thought about as we did this and what we hope will come out of it.

We made two key decisions that I think are somewhat unusual in doing this work:
  1. We tried to create a single message that clearly defines what the museum is about and put that front and center.  
  2. We treated the whole redesign process, and the website work going forward, as wholly iterative and incremental.
Single Message Homepage

Marty and I looked at a lot of websites for inspiration as we started this process. We tried to focus on small organizations--nothing too fancy and unachievable for us given our budget of $0. We saw homepages of two main types: blocks (i.e. MCA Denver) or single rotating image (like JMKAC). 

While both types had strong examples, neither satisfied us. We wanted to be as focused as possible with the prime real estate on the homepage while offering navigation that would be consistent across the whole site. I wanted to be ruthless about homepage creep and avoid the "my program should be on the front!" battles that can lead to incoherence. We are rebranding our museum in the community--not with marketing dollars, but with a singular message about being a thriving gathering place around art and history. I wanted the website to be the front line for that message.

Marty pushed me to look at websites in a whole different sector--online services. Many of these websites, from MailChimp to Kaleidescope to Posterous, have a consistent format:
  • The main ("above the fold") area is one big value proposition. A big image, big headline, large copy.
  • This culminates in a strong call to action, usually with a button.
  • Four or six features are highlighted, with no more than a couple of lines each and an image/icon.
  • Optionally, other relevant information provided to strengthen the pitch (testimonials, blog).
  • At the bottom -- last chance! Repeat the call to action.
While we weren't able to be as laser beam-focused as many of the online services sites are, we did pursue this strategy in the eventual homepage. If you look at the MAH homepage now, you will see:
  • Clear, unchanging value proposition in the middle: "Your Place to Explore Art & History." This message is supported by a slideshow of images, all of which reinforce the message (we have rules like "all images must include people" that help us make sure we're doing this).
  • Two calls to action (and yes, these could look better) to check out upcoming events and join the email list.
  • Four supporting events or experiences in a series of unchanging categories: "Meet, chat, study, make, and dream," "Dive into the past with family and friends," "Be inspired and feed your curiosity," and "Support our community."
  • At the bottom, below the fold, a restatement of the main message and a repeat of the call to action to join the e-newsletter.
We're still working on interpreting statistics on use. We've made so many changes--not just to the website, but to our whole institutional positioning--that it's hard to glean specific insights about the homepage. But there's no question that people are repeating our main messages back to us and commenting on how well the website reflects what they've read, heard, or experienced about how we're trying to shift the museum.

Iterative Redesign

People always talk about iterative redesign, but the truth is that it's really pretty scary. It means launching things that aren't done, shifting your website slowly over several weeks or months, and potentially confusing people along the way. But Marty encouraged us to commit to an iterative process for two reasons:
  1. It allows us to incrementally experience the new changes and to openly discuss what  should shift based on the response to the intermediate steps. This was important both on the back end--i.e. we switch to Wordpress and notice a bunch of little issues that need to be cleaned up before going to the next design step--and the front--i.e. we learn that our users want a tab for exhibitions and are not satisfied by a "what's on" tab that includes all programmatic experiences. We learned that layman's terms like "events" were much more understandable for people than "programs." And so on. We could keep making these changes with our designer rather than Marty already being out the door.
  2. It supports a culture of a constantly improving website. Every shift makes the website better. No shift makes it perfect. Most everyone on our staff and several interns are empowered to edit the website, and we add things as we can--even if they're not complete. We add events before we have an image to go with them. We incrementally improve the information about volunteering and donating. We don't need things to be finished to put them on the public site--we just need to have enough to know we're offering the base of something worthwhile. I think this is a healthy process for us moving forward--especially as a team with no single staff member who is "responsible" for the website. It's not a 0-1 game. It's an evolving site--just as the museum is evolving.
Someday, when we have a non-zero budget, I expect that we'll do a more serious redesign of the website. But for now, we're incredibly happy with what we have--and even more so, with how the redesign made us think about our communication with the outside world and our work processes to support it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Getting in on the Act: New Report on Participatory Arts Engagement

Last month, the Irvine Foundation put out a new report, Getting In On the Act, about participatory arts practice and new frameworks for audience engagement. Authors Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard pack a lot into 40 pages--an argument for the rise of active arts engagement, a framework for thinking about ways to actively involve audiences, and lots of case studies. It is framed as a kind of study guide; pop-outs provide questions that tease out opportunities and tensions in the narrative. This report is not an end-all; it is the opening for a conversation.

Here's what I think is really strong about the report:
  • Coordinated, succinct research findings supporting the rise of active arts engagement. Pages 9 and 10 pull together data from the NEA, the Irvine Foundation, Dance/USA, RAND, and the Knight Foundation to tell a tight, compelling story about the demographic shift from consumptive to active participation and the extent to which traditional arts audiences are also participating in art-making outside of traditional arenas.
  • Excellent case studies, especially from the performing arts sector. I've often been asked about examples of participatory practice in theater, dance, and classical music, and this report is a great starting point. I was particularly inspired by the case studies related to art and civic action (like Paint the Street) and intrigued by the "implications" pop-outs asking questions about how the case studies might impact your own organization's practice.
  • Useful differentiation in their Audience Involvement Spectrum (see image at top) between programs that provide "enhanced engagement" and those that invite audience members to make contributions that impact and alter the end result. It can be easy to conflate engaging activities with participatory opportunities, and I'm glad they were explicit about the difference.
  • Useful definitions of participatory activities as "curatorial, interpretative, and inventive"--this is a reframing of the Forrester research framework for online participation which is probably more appropriate to the arts context.
  • Useful designations of four broad goals for active participation (page 14):

    1. Participation in Service of a Community Need or Societal Goal
    2. Participation in Support of, or as a Complement to, Artistic Vision
    3. Participation in Service of an Artistic Process or Product
    4. Participation as the Fundamental Goal

What's challenging about the report is how many different frameworks it presents. I counted at least five different schemes in the six-page section on "Participatory Arts in Practice," and none of these were explicitly referenced in the subsequent case studies. I found many of the frameworks useful, but the lack of context and detail was frustrating. How did the authors come up with the intriguing blend of curatorial, interpretative, and inventive opportunities shown in the Audience Involvement Spectrum's Venn diagrams? Why is a photography contest an example of "crowd sourcing" wheres a community drawing contest is an example of "audience-as-artist"? What's the relationship between the goals of participation and the techniques employed?

I admire and wholly appreciate the brevity of this report, but I fear it's too short to be genuinely useful for organizations that want to act on it. The authors present complex ideas about active arts participation, and it's clear that a lot of research and thought went into their work. I'd love an extended version with more explanation about how these frameworks might work in practice, how they map to the case studies provided, and how organizations with particular participatory goals might best achieve them. If the goal is for organizations to adopt these frameworks as their own, I think we need a lot more supporting material--and maybe fewer different taxonomies.

What do you get out of the report? What next steps do you think we need to make it as useful as possible--and how can we, as active participants--take the lead?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Spring Internship Opportunities - and Thoughts about Internships

It's November, and that means we start looking around nervously at our fabulous fall semester interns and worrying about all the light that will go out of the world when they head back to school, home countries, etc. If you're interested in interning with me and my crew at the MAH in the coming months, please check out our offerings. We're seeking great folks for public programs, participatory exhibit design, online marketing, 3D design, and whatever else you might have to offer.

And while we're advertising positions, we've also learned to advertise something else: the experience of what it's like to be an intern at the MAH. And that's what this post is about--how we advertise the culture at our organizations (or not) when we offer new positions.

I had a bit of a wakeup call about internships last month at an "emerging leaders" lunch event at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference. The topic of the lunch was internships, and the tables paired students with established professionals to talk about opportunities, issues, and possibilities. I was dismayed to discover that by the standards of many of these grad students, I'm a lousy intern manager. At our museum, we don't provide a lot of structured mentorship for interns. We don't have job-like feedback systems or crystal clear criteria for success. What we have is a lot of opportunities to contribute substantively, and a community of energetic colleagues (mostly other interns) to support the work.

Talking with the students at MAAM, I realized I tend to run internships in accordance with my personal values and a recollection of what I wanted as a newbie in the field. I wanted freedom and responsibility. I wanted the ability to do projects that would end up on the floor. I wanted to be able to work out my own ideas with smart mentors and then produce them--despite my inexperience--for visitors.

I often feel like I spend every day relearning that people think differently from each other. Not everyone wants a super-unstructured internship. What looks like opportunity to me looks like chaos to others. And if I think honestly about the interns we've had over the past six months, their success or failure had a lot more to do with personality and expectation fit than their projects or work areas.

At this time, we're not ready to offer people highly structured internships. We might never get there. But we are ready to be much more upfront about what the internship experience is like at our museum. Our Jobs and Internships page now explicitly says that our internships are good for self-directed, energetic folks who revel in ambiguity. We need interns who work onsite so they can get into the swing of things. And we're best for people who crave unfettered opportunity to make and do.

When you advertise jobs or internships, do you focus on the activities to be performed or the culture of the institution? My lunch experience at MAAM is leading me to focus a heck of a lot more on the second and less on the first. I'm curious to learn more about how other institutions are handling this. I think it's especially necessary in a time when we're focusing more and more on 21st century skills in the workplace--skills like collaboration and innovation--that suggest work formats and approaches that are increasingly different from formal education settings.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do You Have a Good Argument for Your Institution?

At my grocery store, if you bring your own shopping bag, they give you tokens that you can use to donate money to local nonprofits. As I drop 5 cent tokens into my slots of choice, I often wonder: could my museum be on this list? Would it be appropriate to ask for donations here alongside the food bank and the women's shelter? Would anyone put their token in our slot?

This boils down to a fairly basic question: what's the value of our institutions? We all have arguments we make to prove our worth--economic, educational, social--but many of those arguments are insider-focused. They are successful with audiences who already believe in the intrinsic power of art or the role art plays in civic engagement, but it's unclear how helpful they are to the people who aren't attending, participating, or supporting. I don't think many of them pass the the grocery store token test.

Last year, the Fine Arts Fund in Cincinnati (now called ArtsWave) released a terrific report that examined this question in detail. The Fund wanted to find the most effective ways to promote public action for the arts in their city--not among established arts supporters, but among diverse members of the public who may have only a glancing relationship with arts institutions.

Here's how the project worked: researchers worked with small focus groups to understand their associations with arts and culture organizations and developed several framing arguments for public support of the arts. Then, they interviewed 400 people by phone and online, presenting them with a short framing argument (80-120 words), followed by a series of open-ended questions intended to determine how memorable the argument was, how it influenced their perception of the public value of the arts, and how likely it was to inspire action. The goal was not to find out what people like about the arts but what might impel them to actively support arts organizations and projects.

The results are fascinating--not just for the arguments that did work, but even more so for the ones that didn't (jump to page 15 of the report). A few gems:
  • To many people, "culture" is about ethnicity. If you talk about a "cultural institution" or an "arts and culture" project, people might think you are talking about something specific to a set of individuals who share common heritage, not something universally shared.
  • People often think of art institutions as providers of individual entertainment opportunities. If you want to go to the museum and I want to go to the baseball game, we're each making our own choices with our recreational time and money. This perception makes it hard for people to get behind the idea of public support for the arts--why should I subsidize your personal interest?
  • Arguments about broadening your horizons through art and the spiritual and health benefits of art work for established arts enthusiasts, but for others, these arguments may fall flat. A lot of things can broaden your horizons, reduce your stress, and connect you to transcendence. While these statements were interesting to some people in the study, they were perceived as highly specific to individual experiences and did not impel any sense of public responsibility.
  • If you talk about arts and kids, people may quickly assume that you are talking strictly about the education system and the role of art in schools.
  • While arguments about the role of art in engendering civic pride and local distinction were effective, arguments about the role of arts in city planning or civic improvements were not. Participants quickly got distracted in talking about the problems of their city and were not sufficiently convinced that art has a role in addressing those issues.
  • Arguments appealing to the long history of arts support in the city made some people feel defensive about contemporary public issues and interests. "We should do it because we've always done it" is not compelling to people dealing with difficult tradeoffs and stresses.
What did work? The framing argument that was most successful in Cincinatti was:
A thriving arts sector creates “ripple effects” of benefits throughout our community... The arts ripple effect creates at least two kinds of benefits:
  1. A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc.
  2. A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.
The authors noted that this "ripple effects" framing was effective because:
  • it focuses on public benefit, not individual enrichment.
  • it positions the arts as having a geographically diffuse effect, not tied to specific events, institutions, or districts with which individuals may or may not associate.
  • it pairs a practical idea of community health (economic vitality) with something more emotional and aspirational (bringing together diverse voices).
  • it doesn't focus strictly on the dollars and cents of economic impact (which invites potentially unhelpful comparisons), but more broadly on the idea of vibrancy and vitality.
Some of these findings may be specific to Cincinnati, but I find the overall report extremely helpful as I think about how to talk about arts in Santa Cruz--both as the director of an institution and as a member of the city arts commission. It can be hard to step outside our own rhetoric and circles of support to realistically judge what people do and don't understand about what we do and why our institutions exist. We don't have an unalienable right to public support. We have a responsibility to frame what we do in a way that inspires people to act. And maybe, hopefully, to drop a token in our proverbial slot.

What inspires you to support the arts? What arguments do you find effective or unsuccessful in your region or organization? When a friend asks you why he/she should support the arts, what do you say?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Balancing Engagement: Adventures in Participatory Exhibit Labels

We’ve been doing a little experiment at our museum with labels. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum recently loaned us some fabulous surfboards that tell the co-mingled history of surfing and redwood trees in Santa Cruz. In our quest to make the public areas of the museum more reflective of Santa Cruz culture, we moved these boards from a comprehensive display in the history gallery into a main stairwell, prominently visible from the lobby and throughout the building.

The surfboards are beautifully hung in their new location, but they present a new challenge: we have to write very short labels. They’re no longer “an exhibit” per se—more of an evocative design element that hints at an important story told elsewhere in the museum.

We decided to approach the label-writing for these boards in a participatory way. We blatantly borrowed the brilliant technique the San Diego Museum of Natural History used to write labels based on visitors’ questions. We put up the following label along with a pedestal with post-its and pencils:
We're writing a description* for these surfboards and we need your help.
  • What do the surfboards make you think about?
  • What do you want to know?
Understanding what you think helps us think about how we display our collections.

*note: originally, this said "we're writing a label" but with that phrasing, lots of people wrote creative titles for the surfboards (like the title for a work of art) instead of talking about content of interest.
Visitors have gone to town, writing both basic questions (“who made them?” “who were the surfers who used them?” “how did they ride the plank?” "how old are they?") and sharing opinions (“better in their natural form," “my joyful youth circa 1963”). We’ve learned some things that should definitely be on the final label, such as the clarification that the plank on display is not an early surfboard but the raw material used to make one.

We can certainly write a decent label based on this activity. But one post-it threw me for a loop. It said:
“you should do something to spruce these up a bit. I wouldn’t have noticed the boards except for the post-its.”
Maybe this person was writing about his or her preference for neon paper products, but I doubt it. It was the activity that drew this person (and probably others) to the surfboards—not the objects themselves.

And that leads me to a basic question: Is it better to replace the post-its with a label that answers visitors’ questions, or to continue to support this participation? Instead of clearing the post-its and putting up a nice, discreet label (my original plan), we could keep the post-its and just write answers to the questions directly under them. Or, we could write a starter label based on the questions asked thus far, but then invite (and respond to) additional ones.

The fundamental question here is how we balance different modes of audience engagement. You could argue that visitors are more “engaged” by an activity that invites inquiry-based participation than one that invites them to read a label, even if they never get answers to their questions. Or, you could argue that this kind of active engagement should be secondary to sharing information, which can be more efficiently communicated by a label.

If museums are truly about inquiry-based models for learning, we need more tools—especially in history and art museums—to promote inquiry-based engagement. Science centers and children’s museums promote inquiry-based learning with multi-sensory experiences that are focused more on igniting curiosity than providing answers. Seeing how people responded to these simple post-its made me consider the relative paucity of tools we have to “ignite curiosity” in art and history institutions. If museums of all kinds are going to make serious claims about being places for 21st century, multi-modal, inquiry-based learning, we’ve got to have robust, diverse onsite experiences to back them up.

In this case, given the location on the stairs, we’re likely to replace the post-its with a label as planned. But the bigger question remains: How can we promote true inquiry in our institutions, and how can we give visitors the tools not just to ask but to debate, discuss, and address their questions with each other?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Equity in Arts Funding: We're Not There Yet. We're Not Even Close.

This week, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released a new paper by Holly Sidford called Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change. The title may sound innocuous. The paper is anything but. Sidford makes a clear, well-researched, and persuasive argument that "current arts grantmaking disregards large segments of cultural practice, and by doing so, it disregards large segments of our society." You should read this report. This is one of those important problems we were talking about last week.

We may say that we want to support programming and cultural opportunities for low-income and non-white people, but that's not where the money is going. Only 10% of arts foundation funding goes to minority-led organizations, and worse, the higher a foundation's funding in the arts, the less likely their money goes to support organizations serving low-income or underrepresented audiences. The majority of foundation funding for the arts goes to large, established organizations that present work that is based in the European canon for a primarily white, upper-income audience. Even as demographics change and public participation in the arts shifts away from these Euro-traditional formats, the money still flows down the old pathways.

This has obvious negative implications when it comes to issues of social justice and representation in the arts. But it has a whole slew of other negative implications as well:
  • it hinders innovation by narrowly focusing money on a small group of organizations
  • it makes funders less relevant to the shifting trends in cultural practice and participation
  • it makes philanthropy less philanthropic and more self-serving (wealthy people getting tax exemptions for donating to the symphonies, theaters, and museums that are most likely to serve them as audiences)
  • it creates inequity not just in initial funding but sustainability of programs for underserved audiences
  • it diminishes the potential for art and arts programming to have transformative civic impact on individuals and communities
It can be easy to throw up our hands and say, "we don't make the rules here--the funders do." But a lot of the questions and issues described in Sidford's paper are as applicable on the level of individual programs or institutional priorities as they are for funders and foundations.

Page 20 of the report describes six barriers to equity in arts funding, all of which apply on the institutional level. There's the barrier of artistic quality--funders, trustees, or staff members who argue that work by non-canonical artists is not up to the standards of the institution. There's the barrier of the concern that this work is "social work" and not art--and therefore doesn't belong in a museum or a theater. And then there's the concern that you might have to cut "core" programs to introduce something new for a specialized audience. These barriers are present on every level of our organizations, from who we choose to collaborate with to what programs we offer to what our board looks like to where we seek funding.

All of these questions and barriers are worth grappling with and debating among cultural practitioners. What are we doing to create new pathways for more diverse and equitable work, and what are we doing to shut those pathways down?

Reading the report, I kept thinking of Rick Lowe, the artist and community activist behind Project Row Houses in Houston. When I met him at AAM, Rick told the story of the beginnings of Project Row Houses in the following way. He had been hired on contract in the 1990s as a curator for an exhibition at the MFA Houston on African-American artists. He got to see the museum process from the inside. The exhibition project was grant-funded, and it was specifically targeted to support African-American artists and audiences. But Rick noticed that only a tiny portion of the grant was actually going to those folks--the majority fueled the MFA machine. And so he realized that he could start his own non-profit that would do a better job supporting underrepresented artists and audiences. Almost 20 years later, Project Row Houses is a powerhouse organization combining art, civic action, public housing, and social change.

Project Row Houses does receive foundation funding--but there are a lot of projects with comparably powerful community impact that do not. Rick's story makes me wonder: what could arts institutions be doing to incubate and foster innovative work by and for underrepresented audiences? Instead of Rick's experience with the MFA turning him off of traditional institutions, is there a way that experience could have been a positive launchpoint for his future work?

One of the institutions that really impresses me in supporting this kind of social change through the arts is, strangely enough, a children's museum. The Pittsburgh Children's Museum leads the Charm Bracelet effort to provide micro-granting throughout Pittsburgh's Northside neighborhood to enhance community vibrancy, health, and learning. The Children's Museum is functionally serving as a fiscal sponsor for small programs--peer mentoring for teen girls, public art, a farmer's market--that promote social justice and cultural engagement for low-income people. I find it incredible that in the midst of an economic recession, the Children's Museum (and other institutions in Pittsburgh) have stayed committed to regranting for social change in this way.

What can you do in your own organization to ensure that your programs, budgets, and priorities match your goals for demographic participation, civic engagement, and social justice? What do you think funders should be doing--and are you willing to hold yourself to the same standard?

Monday, October 03, 2011

What Are the Most Important Problems in Our Field?

I'm working on a keynote address for next week's Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference in Baltimore. The speech is in memory of Stephen Weil, one of the giants of contemporary American museum thinking--a radical in a bowtie who strove to "make museums matter."

As I think about what can and might make museums matter today, I keep rereading a speech by Richard Hamming, a mathematician who made major research contributions to the fields of computer science and information technology. In 1986, Hamming made an incredible speech, "You and Your Research," about the question of what makes some scientists achieve great things and others, not so much. The crux of his argument is this: make sure you are working on the most important problems in your field. He explains:
If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. 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 doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.
This last sentence, I fear, describes the average worker, not just the average scientist. Most of us spend most of our time working on problems that are not important. That's somewhat reasonable--we all have to make payroll and run our programs and keep things going. My bigger concern is that when we DO make time for the bigger picture, the problems we choose to tackle are not the most important ones.

What are the most important problems in the cultural sector? The two hot problems seem to be:
  1. finding new business models to sustain funding and support operations
  2. making offerings relevant and appealing to shifting audiences
These topics may flood the blogosphere and conference circuit, but I don't think they're ultimately the most important. These problems are fundamentally self-serving; they come from the root question "how can we survive?" These questions could just as easily apply to any struggling industry (postal service, cigarettes) as to cultural institutions.

I suspect there are other problems we can work on that are more about culture and learning and less about institutional survival. When we think about "making museums matter," the important parts are the "making" and the "mattering"--not the museums. The goal is not to justify museums' existence but to make them as useful as possible.

So what are the important problems we need to tackle to become more meaningful institutions? I'm trying to mull a few for this talk next week, and I'd love your thoughts on what you see as the most important problems in our field. Here's what I've come up with:
  1. How can we make cultural knowledge--content, context, and experience--as widely, freely, and equitably accessible as possible?
  2. How can our institutions and programs improve quality of life for individuals and communities?
  3. How should we structure our institutions and funding programs to do 1 and 2?
What would you add to this list?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Saying Yes

It's a Saturday night when I get the email. "Sharon D. Payne," member of the incredibly popular Santa Cruz roller derby team, wants to pitch a partnership with our museum. She doesn't have a specific idea for a partner event or exhibit, but she feels like we have a lot to offer each other in terms of publicity and a shared focus on enhancing cultural experiences in the community. And she wants to do it now--in the next two weeks.

I want to say yes. In fact, I do say yes. But then, it turns out we've already said yes to three other groups for the event in question. I end up having to call and say we're going to wait until the spring to make something happen. And then I feel like a jerk.

I love saying yes. Yes to the heirloom seed library that now graces our lobby. Yes to partnerships with the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Homeless Service Center. Yes to tie-ins with the Symphony and the Boys and Girls Club. Yes to the Big Read with the library, yes to the Burningman artists who want to show their giant kinetic sculpture in the lobby, yes to projections on the side of the building.

Saying yes is one of the few things I can offer sympatico community organizations and individuals. We have a "no money, no bullshit" motto here right now; there's no money for partner projects, but we can say yes with a minimum of bureaucracy and red tape. We've actually gotten some of our best partnerships (like the seed library) because another organization said no. Being nimble and open to a bit of chaos is a luxury that comes with being a small institution on a mission to be a community hub. It's exciting to have someone approach us on a Tuesday with a great idea for Saturday, and as much as possible, we try to say yes.

But it's getting harder to do so as time goes on. Each time we say yes, the schedule gets a bit more full, the space is a bit more complete, the insanity a little higher. I'm learning to say "yes, but not now" or "yes, but let's figure it out a little more," and sometimes, painfully, "no."

I can see how it gets easy for an organization to get in the habit of starting from "no" instead of "yes." Chaos can be stressful. When we have more money and programs, maybe we won't want to deal with the headaches of installing a giant multi-person hammock in the lobby--even if it is free.

I don't want to get there. I believe that we're doing our best work when we are able to say yes to people who walk in the door with good ideas and real community needs to be met. And I feel like we're most fresh and dynamic when we can keep being responsive to the next idea.

The challenge, then, is to figure out how to say yes consistently, smartly, over the long term. Just as any project has its messy, open-ended phase before it hardens into completion, we're in a messy phase as an institution. What will we harden into? Is it better to try to stay in the messy phase as long as possible, or to create a structure that supports the messiness within a more formal setting?

This brings me back to Paul Light's recommendation in Sustaining Innovation that organizations need to learn "how to say no and why to say yes." My presumption is that as time goes on, our answer to the question of "why to say yes" will change. Right now, we're saying yes because it's a way to build trust in the community, to build on the enthusiasm of others, and to enliven our space with the passion and diversity of our partners. It would probably be a worthwhile exercise in the future to make sure we sit down as a staff and ask ourselves: "why should we say yes to this or that?" and track the change. But I don't want to codify anything to death. I'm still not sure whether informality and flexibility can be a permanent state of being... but I'd like to try. And in the meantime, I'm dreaming of what will make the most sense in the spring with the Derby girls.

Do you feel like you work in a place where "yes" is the default? What do you see making that possible (or impossible)?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Does Your Institution Really Need to Be Hip? Audience Development Reconsidered

Last Friday night, my museum hosted a fabulous (in my biased opinion) event called Race Through Time. It was a local history urban scavenger hunt that sent teams of 2-5 people out into the city to track down as many historic checkpoints as they could over the course of an evening. The event was oversold, and participants raved about the experience.

We created Race Through Time in partnership with a local networking group called Santa Cruz Next, whose primary aim is to support and celebrate ways that young professionals can and are changing our community for the better. Race Through Time was designed specifically for this audience of 30 and 40-somethings looking for fun social events with a Santa Cruz bent. We saw Race Through Time as an opportunity to share our mission around engaging with history with a new and highly desirable audience of young professionals. Everything about the event--from the time slot to the tone of the content to the music played--was designed for that audience.

When Friday night rolled around, we did see a crowd that skewed decidedly younger and hipper than our standard museum audience. But we also saw something else: parents and teenagers, grandparents and grandkids, elderly couples, out for a fun scavenger hunt evening. Yes, there was the 40-ish lawyer who effused that she'd never seen so many young people in the museum before. But there was also the couple in their 70s who told me this was the most fun they'd ever had on a Friday night in Santa Cruz. And from my perspective, it was this diversity that made the event unique--and made me rethink the way that cultural professionals typically approach audience development.

I've written before about the "parallel vs. pipeline" approach to new audience development. The concept goes like this: if you want to invite in people who don't traditionally engage with your offerings, you offer them an experience that is so tailored to their unique interests and preferred modes of engagement that it really is only for them. Performances just for teens. Late night mixers at museums for young adults. The experience is dramatically different from the norm and the audience is very targeted. It's a parallel experience, one that may or may not be eventually integrated into the core "pipeline" of traditional experiences and audiences.

We thought that Race Through Time would fall in this category--that it would be 90% people from the Santa Cruz Next young professional crowd. But it was more like 60%--enough for all those young people to feel like they were in the right place, but not enough to feel like it was "their" event alone. There were twenty-year old hippies. There were grizzled cyclists. There were families. It turned out that there were many different kinds of people who were excited about an active, adventurous approach to history.

This gets me thinking about whether the most productive programs for cultural organizations from an audience development perspective are not wholly parallel to the norm but somewhere just slightly outside, somewhere that links the typical to the possible. Maybe being incredibly hip one night a year or month or week is not enough to help the audiences who come to those events connect to the institution writ large. Those events bring in specific crowds for singular experiences, but to what end? If you have a wild event that feels like a spaceship landed on your institution, what happens when the ship leaves the next day?

Museums are not for specific crowds alone. As Elaine Heumann Gurian has often noted, the magic comes when cultural institutions bring together people who don't typically mix. As someone who can feel a bit alienated at events with homogenous audiences--even people who look like me--I appreciate the opportunity to be in a crowd that includes me without being prescriptive or limiting.

We lose something if we focus too narrowly on specific audiences. I've started realizing that at First Fridays, when our museum swells with people out on the town for an art experience. We are by no means the hippest First Friday destination in Santa Cruz, and sometimes, after a long evening at the museum, I'll head out to a gallery and look longingly at the young, cool artist crowd gathered within. I love hanging out with those people in those hip venues. But I also love that the museum invites those young adults in along with elderly folks in wheelchairs, families with toddlers--the happily un-hip.

And so I'm letting go of the idea that we have to be exclusionary to attract young people and looking for more diverse alternatives. The marketing argument has always been that we have to segment, that we have to tailor. But what if we segment to "people who like to meet people who are not like them?" I think that's a stronger community value proposition than becoming as cool--and limited--as an institution with a tightly-limited audience.

Do our institutions really need to be hip to be successful? Or do they just need to be welcoming, open, comfortable places that offer a diversity of experience? I realize I may be totally biased on this since I'm watching it happen in my own institution and my own community, and I'm also personally not a very hip person. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fundraising as Participatory Practice: Myths, Realities, Possibilities

"Fundraising is about relationships."
"The key to fundraising is listening."
"Development works when you are responsive to the donor's needs, not just presenting your own."

Anyone who has worked in fundraising has likely heard these missives again and again. But as a creative type who has recently taken on an executive role, I've been fascinated, shocked even, to learn that the folks in the development department have been singing the relationship chorus for so long.

On the one hand, this is awesome. I'm finding myself really enjoying fundraising because it is fundamentally about inspiring people to participate--and to do so in a way that is significant both for the organization and for themselves. As a designer, I'm always trying to ensure that participatory activities, however casual, impact both the participant and the organization. When someone gives money, that's almost always a given.

On the other hand, there's something deeply weird about the fact that I didn't know that fundraising was about relationships before I started doing it. If fundraisers are so keen on relationships, why weren't they the first into social media and participatory projects on behalf of their organizations? Even stranger, why are they so often the most opposed to such relationship-oriented efforts when extended to everyday members or visitors? I've led many meetings and workshops on building relationships with audience members in which development officers are the least comfortable with fostering open, two-way engagement with participants.

What's going on here? I suspect there are two contradictory issues behind this confusion:
  1. While relationships are about giving and receiving, fundraising strategies frequently rely on a scarcity model in which gifts and thank you's are finite and defined. In a world in which donors are traunched, relationship "benefits" are meted out to individuals based on their level of giving. You can't have a personal relationship with someone who hasn't earned it through appropriate gifts--you'd be "wasting" your attentiveness.
  2. While relationships are about trust and open communication, donor communication is perceived as very high stakes. Fundraisers therefore want to sculpt the message as much as possible. Too much openness could lead to someone being unhappy and withdrawing their participation.
Interestingly, in the participatory design model I'm more familiar with on the Web and in collaborative project design, the fundamental issues are different. It tends to be easy to communicate openly and express appreciation abundantly when you are co-creating an exhibition or a community art project. There's no such thing as too much community cheerleading or engagement. What's hard is to ensure that people make meaningful contributions and to help participants advance from one-time actions into ongoing involvement--two things that fundraisers are pretty darn good at.

I'd love to see a book, blog, or conference that focuses broadly on building relationships in cultural organizations--with donors, staff, visitors, audiences, members. I think there's a lot we have to learn from each other to get to a place where those relationships are as genuine and meaningful as possible. Authentic relationship-building is something I've long debated with friends in the education, exhibition, and online worlds. And now I feel silly that I haven't more actively engaged with fundraisers about it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Guest Post: What YBCA is Learning from a Personalized Museum Membership Program

This guest post was written by Laurel Butler, Education and Education Specialist at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, CA. Laurel is the "Art Coach" who runs an unusual personalized YBCA:YOU membership program that started last year. YBCA:YOU is an intriguing take on experiments in membership and raises interesting questions about what scaffolding people need to have social and repeat experiences in museums. Joël Tan, YBCA's Director of Community Engagement & creator of YBCA:YOU, will monitor and respond to your questions and ideas in the comments section.

Two strangers stand next to each other in a gallery, staring at the same piece. Secretly, each wishes the other would turn and ask: “What do you think?” They want to connect with each other about the art. But they don’t.

If an arts experience is not shared, is the experience still transformative? Or are we missing a crucial part of the process?

I’ve always been the type of person who likes to ask strangers what they think. So, when I was hired to manage the YBCA: YOU pilot program at YBCA, the challenge was clear: How could I turn these fleeting, missed connections into meaningful moments of interpersonal engagement? Or, more simply: How can I make 100 art lovers become friends with each other?

The YBCA: YOU program is an integrated, personalized approach to the YBCA arts experience, designed to revolutionize the way the community engages with contemporary art and ideas. Participants in the program get an all-access pass to our space, and are able to use it any way that resonates with their interests. They also work with me, their personal “arts coach” to meet their aesthetic goals and maintain a consistent practice.

It’s a little like a gym membership with a dash of case management and counseling. This isn’t a coincidence ─ YBCA:YOU grew out of years of audience development research and was highly informed by our Director of Community Engagement Joël Tan's prior work in AIDS case management and public health. How many institutions really take the time to sit down with individual audience member and talk about what art they like, or what art they hate, or how they wish their arts experiences were different, or better? Apparently, the idea was exciting to other folks as well: A single press release generated twice as much interest as we had anticipated. At first, we were concerned about capacity ─ would we really be able to “get personal” with 150 people? But we were convinced that no survey, questionnaire, or aggregated data could provide the nuances and subtleties that come with a face-to-face meeting.

So, we sat down with every person who signed up for the program, and listened to their story, taking notes on the kinds of arts programming that might best support their interests and goals. There was Henri, who wanted to explore his budding interest in performance. We told him about Lemi Ponifasio/MAU at YBCA, and the Second Sundays series at Counterpulse. There was Jane, who was interested in the East Bay arts landscape. We recommended that she check out Art Murmur on the first Friday of the month.

The “Aesthetic Development Planning” (ADP) meetings were as diverse as you might expect from 100 plus Bay Area arts enthusiasts. However, there was one salient piece of feedback that kept coming up over and over: People wanted to connect with other people around the art. Traci felt put-off by the “scene” that surrounded the art world. She felt that she lacked formal training and knowledge, and was afraid of “saying the wrong thing”. Anton felt that his reading of art was so consumed by scholarly critique that it was hard to articulate a purely intuitive response. Many felt that there never seemed to be an appropriate context or venue for that kind of thing. You can’t simply turn to the stranger next to you and ask “What do you think”?
We’d been thinking about YBCA: YOU as a way to develop a deeper, more personal relationship between YBCA and its visitors, but what about creating community within our constituency? What does it take for an institution to connect people on an individual level?

We began by integrating our Art Savvy program into YBCA:YOU. Art Savvy is a facilitated gallery tour that uses the principles of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) to engage in deep observation and conversation around a piece of visual art. It’s a great way to get those two strangers in the gallery to talk to each other. We held YBCA:YOU Savvy sessions around our exhibitions, films, performances… even gallery walks and field trips around town. The folks who attended these events raved about how much fun they had, how much they had enriched and deepened their connection to the art. And yet, out of over 100 potential participants, we never got more than a dozen-or-so YOUers to show.

So, last month we decided to make phone calls to each of the YOUers to discuss the progress of their aesthetic development and talk about their experience of the program thus far. Again, the conversations were complex and diverse as the cohort itself, but one trope kept coming up over and over:
“It’s not you, it’s me.”

These folks made it clear that the program was, indeed, motivating them to make art more of a habit, but they needed more time to incorporate the idea of aesthetic development into their own lives, on their own terms. I realized that I was being impatient – the program, after all, hadn’t even been in place for six months! I couldn’t expect to see a radical social transformation right away, because the personal transformation needed to take place first.

The benefits of regular sessions at the gym, or visits to the dentist, or a therapist, or time spent with friends, are all pretty self-evident after six months. But, as Abigail Housen’s Aesthetic Development Stage Theory (PDF) tells us, it takes just as long to develop aesthetic muscles as physical muscles, and the results are not always so immediately clear. YOUers by and large were making art more of a habit in their lives, but not in drastic terms. They were branching out of their comfort zone one performance at a time, looking at the world around them with a new set of eyes to find the potential of art embedded within their daily lives.

It seems to me now that the capacity to make space in one’s life for art may precede the type of community participation that we were looking for as an indicator of programmatic success. I still believe that, with enough time and consistent personalized contact, a program like YBCA:YOU can revolutionize the way the world engages with contemporary art and ideas. However, like any revolution, it has to begin with the personal.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

ISO Brilliant, Business-Oriented Professional Who Wants a Job in a Museum

Psst... want to move to Santa Cruz and work at my museum? Or do you know someone who might be perfect for this job?

We are looking for an obsessively detail-oriented, highly resourceful, financially savvy, culture-loving individual to be the Administrative Manager of The Museum of Art & History. You will work as the direct assistant to the Executive Director and manage the finances for the museum. You must be a proactive self-starter, extremely organized, and able to juggle multiple deadline-driven tasks simultaneously. You must also have accounting experience or high financial acuity. This is an opportunity to be involved with every aspect of a changing organization. If your career goal is to become the CFO or CEO of an arts or educational nonprofit, this is the perfect early career opportunity for you. This is a full-time position with benefits and a starting salary of $28,000-$32,000 depending on experience.

The Administrative Manager’s major responsibilities include:
  • Enter and track all accounting transactions and accounts including booking of accounts payable and receivable, invoicing, daily cash transactions, fixed assets, inventory transactions, and subsidiary organizations
  • Process payroll and coordinate yearly worker’s compensation audit
  • Create monthly reports such as departmental spending reports, cash flows and forecasts, financial statements, endowment analysis
  • Relentlessly research and implement systems to make the museum more effective from a business perspective
  • Manage employee records, administer benefits programs, and field basic HR questions
  • Oversee daily administrative tasks: ordering supplies, copying, faxing, mailing, maintaining office equipment
  • Support the Executive Director in communication with donors and trustees, preparing meeting notes, and handling internal scheduling
  • Lots of little projects across museum administration, fundraising, and programming
Our ideal candidate:
  • Has a bachelor's degree and has had courses in accounting, finance, or business
  • Has worked for 2 or more years in an accounting environment or has run a business
  • Is a whiz with Quickbooks, Excel, and Google applications (Mail, Calendar, Docs)
  • Is not afraid to monkey with the printer to make it work
  • Writes beautifully and is a stickler for good spelling and grammar
  • Has experience in a museum, retail, or other public-facing environment
  • Is just as comfortable welcoming visitors as preparing a spreadsheet
  • Loves working in a team and balancing lots of different tasks and priorities
  • Knows how to handle confidential and sensitive information with professional discretion
  • Has solid knowledge of the principles and practices of human resources
  • Immediately responds to requests with, “Yes, I can help” even if it’s something you’ve never done before
To apply, please send a single PDF document to that includes two items:
  1. A cover letter that addresses the unique skills you bring to the table, your long-term professional goals, your salary requirements, and your availability (2 pages maximum).
  2. A resume with at least one professional reference.
When you send in this document, we will send you a short application with questions and activities you will be asked to perform (at home) to demonstrate your abilities. These activities are not optional; you must return the application to be fully considered for the job.

And now back to our regularly scheduled blog programming...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Quick Hit: Long Interview

There is a long interview with me in this week's Good Times (Santa Cruz's leading weekly). I had a wonderful conversation with Geoffrey Dunn and he did a great job pushing the conversation all over the cultural and educational map. We talked Paulo Friere, what museums can learn from dentists' offices, and the challenges of not feeling stupid while viewing art.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Supporting Museum Tribes & Fans through Shared Ritual

Many people (Paul Orselli, Linda Norris, Pete Newcurator) in the museum field have written about the question of museum "tribes"--based partly on Seth Godin's book, partly on the longstanding fan culture that pervades our lives through sport, celebrity, and shared experience of mass events. The question is usually, "How can museums cultivate fandom among visitors?" or "What would a museum look like that embraced and supported tribal followings?"

I spent an (early) morning today with the local chapter of Kiwanis that got me thinking about this question again. I was struck by how ritualistic their meeting was--idiosyncratic nametags, a special song to welcome guests, a donation pool in which people offer "sad" or "happy" dollars to commemorate recent events in their lives, a raffle to choose who will create the trivia game for next week. There was a lot of camaraderie among the participants, but it was apparent that the structured ritual was just as important as the friendships to holding the group together.

So often when we talk about fans, we focus on shared affinity. People like the same sports team or band or craft activity, and therefore, form tribes based on that interest. But sometimes we forget how important ritual is to heightening that tribal sense and transforming individual collective fandom into something more communal. It's knowing the cheer as much as it is caring about the team. It's knowing when to stand up and when to clap. Fandom without shared ritual isn't tribalism--it's loneliness.

These tribal rituals, while often fan-driven, are hardly spontaneous. Professional cheerleaders of all kinds lead us through the motions, show us the way to fit in, and model the experience. And that makes me wonder if museum staff members should be starting rituals to help fans get involved.

I realize this may sound like social engineering, but in practice it's often quite charming and lowkey. At the Indianapolis Children's Museum, they have a "closing parade" every day to usher (potentially upset) children and families out the door. There are staff in plush costumes. They hand flags to little kids to wave. I even think there's a goodbye song. This ritual doesn't just leave families with a warm feeling about the museum--it encourages fans to share the experience with each other (as I'm doing with you right now).

Do you have institutional rituals that involve visitors or members?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Engagement, Distraction, and the Puzzle of the Puzzle

Note: Thanks to Lisa Hochstein for allowing me to quote her emails in this post. She is a fabulous and thoughtful artist. You can learn more about her work here.

Two weeks ago, we inaugurated a Creativity Lounge on the third floor of our museum. It's a little living room in a lobby area that invites people to lounge on comfortable chairs, leaf through magazines and books related to art and Santa Cruz history, and generally hang out.

The area that houses the Creativity Lounge also shows art. The same day we opened the Creativity Lounge, we opened new exhibitions throughout the building, including a paper collage show in the 3rd floor lobby by local artist Lisa Hochstein. Lisa was thrilled that her work was on display at the museum. She was less thrilled about the Creativity Lounge--or very specifically, the art jigsaw puzzle in the middle of the coffee table.

Lisa emailed me to ask us to remove the puzzle, commenting:
It seems to me that there's a fine line between something that is inviting versus something that is distracting, and for me this falls into the latter category. I think it also sends a message that you don't trust the exhibits to engage the public and that, instead, you will bring in something else to entertain them.
I disagreed, and the puzzle stayed. We started a pretty fascinating (and yes, a little frustrating) dialogue about the puzzle and the question of what constitutes desired engagement in the museum.

Lisa and I have fundamentally different ideas of what a "good" museum experience is. For Lisa, the goal is for people to engage with the exhibitions. For me, the goal is for people to have an enjoyable, educational, cultural, social experience. That includes exhibitions, but it is not limited to them. I consider visitor experiences successful if people walk out inspired by art, stimulated by history, and eager to come back and share more with friends and family. I think it takes a diverse range of components to provide these outcomes, and I see the museum as a holistic experience comprising these components.

But for obvious reasons, Lisa cares about the experience people have with her exhibition specifically. When Lisa and I first discussed this, I argued that increased dwell time in the area and increased visitor comfort would likely lead to people spending more time looking at her work than would otherwise occur. But Lisa questioned this. Would visitors remember the puzzle or the exhibition around it? Is a contact high really sufficient when it comes to exhibition engagement?

This is a version of what I call "the petting zoo problem." An unnamed art museum once created an incredible interactive and participatory installation related to a temporary exhibition. This installation was a big hit by exhibition evaluation standards--high dwell time, high engagement, high satisfaction. But some people on staff at the museum questioned the validity of the installation, saying, "Of course people like it--it's a petting zoo. People love petting zoos."

To Lisa, the jigsaw puzzle is a petting zoo. Interestingly, she sees art and history books as more sympatico with the goals and intent of a museum, and she feels positively about people perusing them. I don't see the puzzle as different from the books--both are tools that offer people alternative activities, and I don't see one as more absorbing or distracting than the other. From my perspective, if one part's a petting zoo, it's all a petting zoo. But it's an on-mission petting zoo--and that's what matters to me.

There's no question that the Creativity Lounge (and the puzzle) is a hit with visitors. We've received several positive comments about it, and we've observed a major increase in dwell time and repeat use of the third floor lobby since the installation has gone up. Families who used to zip through in under a minute are now spending thirty minutes working on the puzzle and looking around. Teenagers are curling up with art magazines. One woman worked on the puzzle for two hours last week--when I asked, she said her teenage daughter was out shopping and she decided to come play in the museum while she waited.

To me, this is all good news. It demonstrates that we're on our way to becoming the "thriving, central gathering place" in our strategic plan. But it doesn't necessarily mean that more people are engaging with Lisa's exhibition more deeply. In the future, I'd love to make custom puzzles based on work in our collection (like the Columbus Museum of Art does) so that people can engage more deeply with those specific works. But I'll always also feel great about opportunities for people to engage with each other around culture in ways that are not exhibition- or collection-driven, because that's our mission too.

Now, two weeks later, I contacted Lisa again to ask if her opinion had changed after spending time in the space. Lisa wrote:
I do see a value in creating a space where people like to spend time and where they feel comfortable to just unwind and be. It's good for the museum to become important in more peoples' lives, thereby assuring (hopefully) its longer-term viability. If attendance and membership go up as you add more of the types of features that I would consider distractions, then maybe they're a good thing. Personally, it's a bit of a disappointment to me to think that the displays in the museum aren't sufficient to accomplish those goals, but I recognize that my own biases are just one piece of a much larger picture (or puzzle).
Kudos to Lisa for being open to a thoughtful dialogue about these issues. It's interesting to me that she talks about the displays not being "sufficient to accomplish those goals." I don't think of exhibitions as the be-all end-all of the museum experience, and so I don't think they should be sufficient on their own to accomplish our visitor experience goals. I don't think I'm devaluing exhibitions by adding the puzzle--I see it as an "and" that makes the whole museum a more desirable place to be.

I'm curious if you've dealt with similar debates at your own museums--either with external partners like Lisa or internally with other staff. What's your experience, and how have you resolved issues like this?