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?