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.

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