Thursday, February 24, 2011

Framework vs. Sensibility: Separating Format from Voice

I was talking this week with Mark Allen, the founder of Machine Project (an alternative arts space in LA), about different models for community engagement in cultural institutions. At one point, he commented that there's a difference between the "framework" and the "sensibility" for engagement. The framework is the format or setup for how community members are invited to participate. The sensibility is the content and the style with which the engagement happens.

I've written before about the difference between participatory processes and products, but this question of frameworks and sensibility is more broadly applicable to community engagement strategies. An institution might have a formal framework and an informal sensibility or vice versa. For example, consider two independent arts organizations in Los Angeles -- Machine Project and The Public School. Machine Project has a curatorial framework--Mark and his team carefully craft its events, workshops, and exhibits. In contrast, The Public School has a democratic framework--anyone can use their website to propose a class she'd like to take or teach.

The Public School's framework is more open than Machine Project's, but that doesn't mean it has a more informal sensibility. From the perspective of a potential visitor, Machine Project presents a friendly, often silly sensibility, whereas the Public School feels formal, even a little elitist. Check out the Public School website, and you'll see you can take classes in Spinoza and Japanese aesthetics. There are terms like "cosmology of the intangible" that raise my high art hackles. Machine Project, on the other hand, recently hosted a dumpling party and offered parent-child workshops in hot-wiring cars. Here's an excerpt from the delightful dumpling party invite:
Tickets are $20 a person and cover all the dumplings you can eat, unless someone else eats all they can eat faster than you and we run out of dumplings. But we're going to get a lot of dumplings. Space is limited because it's just one grandmother's condo and the neighbors are really old and we don't want to upset them.
For me, it's helpful to separate sensibility from frameworks so I can think about what I'm trying to achieve with a particular project or institution. Sometimes, when I'm focused on welcoming visitors and being good hosts, I'm really talking about sensibility. And other times, when I'm focused on opening up access and opportunities for audience members to partner with staff, I'm talking about framework. It's interesting to note that frameworks can be easily replicated and extended--The Public School now has centers in seven cities around the world--whereas sensibilities, which are often idiosyncratic to institutional leaders, cannot.

It's easy to assume that an informal sensibility implies an open framework and vice versa--but that assumption doesn't bear out in reality. A museum can be friendly, or serious, or funny, while maintaining a traditional relationship with visitors as consumers of experiences. And alternatively, an institution can conduct co-creative projects with community members without altering its external sensibility or institutional tone. A welcoming and collaborative sensibility is important to attracting and working with participants, but that tone may not carry over to the rest of the institution and its broader audience.

In fact, I find that participatory products are often more likely to reflect a formal sensibility than their traditional counterparts. Community galleries look old-fashioned because citizen curators aspire to emulate the most traditional vision of a museum possible. Teen docents are more serious than adults because they want to be treated like professionals. Co-creation projects are often measured partly by their ability to "fit in" with the rest of the institution. It takes a high level of confidence--which comes with experience--to reject the dominant sensibility and try something else.

When we look at innovative community engagement initiatives, or when we think of how we ourselves want to be innovative, it's worth considering the difference between innovative frameworks and sensibilities. There are some extraordinary institutions, like STREB Labs in New York, that innovate in both ways. But it's far more typical to focus on just one. The Exploratorium and MCA Denver are both masters of pairing fairly standard museum frameworks for audience engagement with an energized, funky sensibility. The Wing Luke Asian Museum marries an incredible, radical community framework with a more traditional museum sensibility. The Wing Luke makes their format available for others to use, whereas the elevator performances at the MCA Denver and the cardboard villages at the Exploratorium are part of what make those institutions uniquely themselves.

When I first met Adam Lerner, the Director of the MCA Denver, we had a friendly argument about visitor participation. Adam advocated that museums should focus on cultivating a strong voice rather than giving up to the clutter and dilution of the town square. I argued that involving visitors with a well-designed process meant diversifying and opening the institution, not muddling it with junk. I realize now that we were talking about two different things. Adam is a master of sensibility. I was focused on framework. We're both driven to make museums more exciting and relevant to visitors; we were just tackling the problem in different ways.

These days, I spend a lot of time working on new models for both framework and sensibility. It's hard to say which is more important--or challenging--to transform. What's more interesting to you--changing the voice and sensibility with which you engage audiences, or changing the framework for doing so? Do you see these as separate, connected, or conflated?
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