Wednesday, December 26, 2012

End of Year Smatterings and Inspirations

Whether you're on vacation, making cookies with nephews, grinding out some work through the end of the year, or sitting in your kitchen drinking tea and watching the fog roll off the redwoods, it's probably a low week for blog-reading. That said, maybe you're bored or desperate for stimulation of the non-gastronomical variety. In that spirit, I offer a few things that have excited me in recent weeks:
  • The MCA Denver Holiday Video is out, and it is very, very good. Way better than that video at Museum X where the director drones on about the new initiatives of the year. I have felt in the past that some of the MCA's holiday videos were a bit too pretentious, but this year's edition is full of joy and a message that really reflects what they do in Denver. 
  • I LOVE the way the James Irvine Foundation presents their lessons learned from grant-making in the Arts Innovation Fund program. It is attractive, smart, and packs rich information into a navigable format that makes you want to explore and learn more. I know I have a lot to learn from the content AND the format of this report.
  • This is just a super-interesting review of an exhibition of damaged art. What happens to objects when they are no longer art? How should (and do) we treat them? This article sparked some interesting discussion online with colleagues from natural history museums, which deal with damage and touching very differently than art institutions do.
  • We're working at my museum on a strategic approach to our educational outreach with K12 classes and students. This Createquity article by Talia Gibas on "Unpacking Shared Delivery of Arts Education" was so useful to me that I shared it with our whole advisory group. I found the article to be a clear starting point for thinking in a fresh way about how our museum can best intersect with schools and artists (and students, in our participatory setting) to develop strong programs.
  • EMCArts put out a brief report from their recent study on how arts organizations deal with conflict around new ideas. The results are fairly interesting, and not entirely surprising: clear decision-making processes, shared agendas, action-oriented leaders, and comfort with conflict all lead to better support of innovation. I'm sometimes wary of studies of "innovation," but I like how this one could be used reflectively within an organization to assess openness to change. 
What's inspiring you in these last days of 2012?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Three Exhibition-Related Opportunities in 2013

The year is ending, and I have three exciting opportunities to share with you if you are an exhibition-oriented individual, or someone with an interest in the indoor side of creative placemaking.
  1. Join our team. We're looking for an Exhibitions Manager to join our team here at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. In this full-time role, you will be responsible for interactive exhibition development, project management of all our site-specific work, and you will lead the redevelopment of our permanent History Gallery into a more dynamic, participatory, and flexible space. This is a highly collaborative role, and we are looking for the perfect blend of strong design skills with a generous enthusiasm for amateur and professional co-creation. Please check out the full description and how to apply if you are interested. 
  2. Come to Camp. You Can't Do That in Museums Camp is filling up. Next week, I will be reviewing applications for this event and making decisions. If you are interested, please apply soon! This camp will be a 2.5 day event in July of 2013 at which participants work in teams to create an exhibition full of intriguing, unusual, risky experiences. If you've ever wanted to design an object-based exhibit that really pushed the boundaries, this is the event for you. You do not have to be a museum professional to be part of this--we'd like a diverse mix of participants. Registration will be $150 and by application only
  3. Join the conversation. Spurred partly by the most recent (and fabulous) issue of the Exhibitionist and conversations we're having at our museum, I'd like to hear your reflections on how you think about exhibition formats and schedules. We're toying here with switching from a format where we change all of our exhibitions four times per year to something more flexible throughout the building. I'm curious what has worked or been challenging at other museums, especially small and mid-sized ones, when it comes to both frequency of exhibition changes and the approach. Some of the big questions on my mind include:
    • If we change exhibitions more frequently, will it drive more repeat visitation? Will it give a sense of energy and change? 
    • What do we lose in quality and ability to create complex work if we rotate more frequently?
    • Would it work to create an infrastructure for exhibitions that are flexible, inviting changing insertions and shifts, but don't rotate entirely? Would visitors "read" that as new content, or would the visual similarities make it seem like same old same old?
    • What if we slowed down and changed some spaces less frequently--like once a year? What opportunities might that open up for participatory and community projects that evolve over time in the space?
If you have thoughts on any of these questions or want to share the story of how you approach exhibition rotation and formats, please share a comment!

And if you know anyone who should be at Camp or should apply for the job, please pass this on.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Facing My Fears with the Work in Progress Exhibition

This is a picture of the largest temporary exhibition gallery in the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Our next exhibition is opening in here in two days. And no, we are not about to embark on a Herculean 48-hour blitz to fill it with exhibits. This is pretty much what it will look like when we open on Friday.

Needless to say, this is a scary thing. And even scarier? We planned it this way.

This winter, my museum is trying an experiment called Work in Progress. We're turning over the whole museum to projects that invite visitors to connect with the behind-the-scenes in the making of art and historical research. Our goal with the project is two-fold:
  1. To help visitors engage with the creative process as well as the end result. Research shows there is a lot of interest in how art gets made, and we don't often dive into that in museums.
  2. To create an installation that changes. I've always been interested in the "perpetual beta" approach, and this project embodies that. We're also curious to see if an evolving project draws people to come back again and again to see how it grows over time. 
I feel great about both of these goals, and I feel even better about the amazing artists, innovators, and historians we're working with to make it happen. That said, this project has really challenged me to question my own expectations and assumptions about how an exhibition "should" look and function.

There are three big worries on my mind:
  1. What will visitors think when they walk into an empty gallery? Will they think we are conning them, or that we're lazy, or that the museum has stopped showing anything interesting? Is this a project that is highly appealing in documentation but confusing or unappealing in real time?
  2. How do we plan for spaces that will evolve over time? One gallery is opening half-full, with the expectation that additional work with be added over time--but we have no idea of what that work will be or how much space it will take up. It's surprisingly hard to design a space that looks decent from day 1 but can accommodate growth over time.  
  3. How do we facilitate visitor experiences in these spaces? What different kinds of tools do our volunteer gallery host and visitor services staff need to help visitors engage and enjoy the process of art- and history-making as opposed to its results?
It's been really good for me to slam up against some of these concerns--especially the first one. It makes me more sympathetic to anyone who is nervous about taking a risk or making a big change. I've known about this project for months, I advocated for it to happen, and I'm still scared. I had to laugh at myself when I got freaked out in a meeting with an artist last week, waving my hands around the gallery saying, "we can't just have NOTHING in here when we open!" Fortunately, he smiled and reminded me, "of course we can."

Of course we can. It's a good feeling to lean into the things that scare you. I feel lucky to be able to do it.

I'm curious what you think about this particular project--ways you think we should be documenting or sharing this work, and ways you think we might communicate with visitors about it. I'm also curious what risks you've taken that you had to confront head-on like a bad morning in the bathroom mirror. Thanks in advance for sharing your comments!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Defining Impact Beyond Attendance Numbers at the MCA Denver

I've always been a bit confused when people talk about the impact of a museum or arts institution as being about "more than numbers." I understand that there are shallow and deep experiences. I understand that some museum offer extraordinary, intimate programs. I understand online vs. onsite. I understand that some shows draw more people than others.

But at the end of the day, attendance is a completely reasonable measuring stick for engagement. Low attendance is often a sign of tepid community involvement or interest. When someone says, "it's not about numbers," I hear "our attendance is inadequate and we want to distract you with this other thing we are doing." In my experience, organizations that are doing well and are proud of their work don't feel the need to justify or compensate for their attendance.

But. Two weeks ago, I had an experience that made me understand and respect a different approach to numbers and impact. I was visiting with Adam Lerner, Director and Chief Animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The MCA Denver has had a big impact on the art world with its fresh approach to programming, and it is located in a large city with a vibrant art scene. So I was surprised to hear its annual attendance is about 50,000.

Because Adam's a friend, I could be impolite and ask him about it. He told me the overall goal of the museum and its impact is not so much about attendance inside the building but the extent to which the museum itself is a creative producer whose work infuses the city. Adam and his colleagues are more like a conceptual art collective than arts administrators. They produce work, and they measure success by the extent to which it is seen/discussed/debated/loved/hated--both by people who directly experience it and those who do not. Adam encourages his staff to develop programming as "tight stories that can be shared, even with those who won't attend."

For example, when I was visiting, the MCA was about to host Art Meets Beast, a two-day festival of bison butchering, meals, and lectures that slams together contemporary art and the spirit of the American West in an original way. Adam told me he cares just as much about people who hear about Art Meets Beast and associate with MCA as people who actually attend. It makes sense. His goal is for people to have a new idea about a museum, or art, or the West. He doesn't care what kind of engagement has to happen for them to get the idea.

Adam described his vision for the MCA Denver's impact this way:
I often think about a performance I attended at my college when I was studying in England in 1990. It was early in the school year, email had only recently become available and I had just spent a couple of hours in the college computer lab with other foreign students corresponding with friends back home, composing DOS messages in glowing white text on black screens. In the evening, I walked across the plaza to the auditorium for the performance along with all the other foreign students who had nothing else going on. The show was billed as a comedy and it started off more or less like a stand-up comedy act. But the performer gradually became more and more active and theatrical. He also became increasingly lewd and at some point began shouting manically at the audience, building up to a finale, where he turned his back on the audience, dropped his trousers and bent over so that only his bare, white behind was visible under the spotlight on stage. Then, as if trying to prove that he was capable of going far too far, he took out a Roman candle, shoved it in his butt, and lit the fuse, so sparks and flares began flying out towards the stupefied audience. 
While this was happening, all I could think was that those white flares flying through the air would become hundreds of email messages launched from the computer lab the next day. The association was instantaneous, as if the recurring bursts from his butt were electronic messages themselves containing the words: “You wouldn’t believe what I saw last night…” And the insight I had at that moment stayed with me. 
Now, over twenty years later, I think about that event as a kind of ghastly myth at the origin of what I am continually trying to create at the museum. I am interested in the way that art and every other creative act have the power to ignite stories. Beyond the visitors who directly experience the art and the imagination of the museum, I care as much about the people who are see our signals from a distance, who are thereby inspired and energized by the sense that there is something extraordinary happening here.
It sounds unorthodox. It sounds wild. But it also sounds like a logically consistent reason NOT to focus on attendance.

I wish there were more organizations like MCA Denver, with thoughtful and powerful definitions of success that may or may not include attendance. What drives me crazy is the folks who say "it's not about the numbers," but don't have a Roman candle metaphor or other set of criteria for how they define their goals. If you are really about kids growing up with your museum, measure frequency of attendance over time. If you are about adults reenergizing their lives through creative play, measure happiness and workshop attendance. If you are about people getting in touch with local history, measure archive research requests and visits to local historic sites.

This whole experience got me thinking about how we measure success at our museum in Santa Cruz. For me, attendance is a big factor. Our vision is to be a "thriving, central gathering place." Accomplishing that goal requires many diverse people who actively participate in our space with each other. It means people becoming members and feeling community ownership. It means producing dynamic programming that is relevant to Santa Cruz County.

But we also have a social mission to build social capital through bridging experiences at and beyond the museum. For us, the crux questions are often, "did you meet someone new [through a museum experience]?" "Did you encounter something that surprised you?" Those questions address our goal of bringing people from diverse walks of life together. And one of my jobs is to find a way to describe, measure, and trumpet that as much as we do attendance or membership figures.

What's the Roman candle metaphor for your measure of success?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Selling a Product vs. Building a Movement

Do you consider yourself an "activist" for your organization, avocation, or art form? I've been increasingly turning to that word as a descriptor for the mixture of advocacy, passion, and action that I try to bring to my work. For me, it's a more comfortable term than something like "evangelist," which just feels like boosterism. I feel like I'm on a mission, and I know a lot of colleagues feel the same way.

I've always thought of this activist stance as a behind-the-scenes thing, something that might be useful in talking with professionals in the field, but not necessarily with visitors. Sure, I admire cultural organizations that have a strong mission to change education or diversify access or transform the role of art in everyday life, but I'm an insider. It seems wonky and possibly confusing to talk strategy with visitors. It's a distraction from their experience at our venue. Visitors care about us because we provide enjoyable, enriching, creative opportunities for them. Who's really going to read the fine print to find out why?

The election season, as well as a recent research study on museum membership, has change my perspective on this. A national election is the ultimate participatory project. Everyone of a certain age is in on it, and for the most part, the folks putting on the show want everyone to be engaged. There are multiple potential levels of involvement available. Advocacy groups of all stripes fall over themselves to give you opportunities to get involved, fight the good fight, fund the need, defeat the bill.

When you are part of a cause you believe in, you get incredibly invested. When you hit a personal goal that helps a larger effort, you feel like a real contributor. As Jane McGonigal has written, "the chance to be part of something bigger" than yourself is one of the four things that make people feel happy and fulfilled. With the exception of work and sports fandom, opportunities to be part of something bigger is in short supply. Election season stirs it up and makes us all remember how energizing it can be.

This is especially true for young adults today ("millenials"), who exhibit many of the same attributes of the World War II "greatest" generation--increased civic engagement, optimism, sense of communal purpose and responsibility, and conformity to group norms. Consider this recent study about the perceived benefits of membership in an aquariuam, referred to as a "visitor serving organization" in the chart below. As Colleen Dilenscheider reported, young people were MUCH more "cause-oriented" in their reasons for membership than their older counterparts:

This research and the post-election buzz is making me think differently about how we invite people to be involved with our organizations. Why AREN'T we asking visitors to join the fight for arts education? Why WOULDN'T a science museum engage members in the crusade to draw clear lines between science and pseudoscience? Why not build a grassroots movement to define the most effective ways we can make our communities stronger?

I realize as I write this list that we do invite certain people to participate in these conversations, but not our onsite audience. I talk a lot about the "why" behind our work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History when I'm with donors, at conferences, or presenting at Rotary Clubs. I know that these folks care a lot about building strong communities and that it's intriguing and exciting to discuss how that might be driven by a cultural institution. These conversations are the basis for institutional partnerships and much of our funding. But they don't happen on enough levels with enough people to be accessible for broad involvement and shared activist energy.

For some reason, when it comes to talking and engaging with the people who are already in the door, we clam up about core messages and focus on selling them tickets to the next event or exhibition. This has two negative effects:
  1. It blocks our most engaged participants from getting involved in the most important work of the organization. If what we really are working on is building social capital, why are we hiding that? Why not give visitors ways to advocate and act to help advance our goals? Why not restructure our marketing and community engagement efforts to more closely model successful campaigns and activist movements?
  2. It creates a disconnect between the "why" and the "what" that may weaken institutional progress. Imagine a theater company where the leadership talks publicly about diversity and access but there is little evidence of it on site. Is the organization really doing what they talk about, or is it just lip service? If we create "reasons" for the work we do that are different in different contexts, we're losing energy and diluting our ability to get the most important work done.
Granted, I know that people still want the great experiences that our organizations provide. They don't want to go to the aquarium solely to learn how to save fish. But when we invite them to get involved in the work that drives us, about which we are most passionate, we create incredibly powerful advocates and partners in our cause. That's what's sexy and exciting about what we do. We need more tools to open it up.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What a Difference a Prompt Makes... Simple Analysis of a Participatory Exhibit Element

I am fascinated by the incredible differences in what people contribute based on format and phrasing of the invitation to participate. This week at my museum, as we are wrapping up our current set of exhibitions on collecting, I noticed a simple, subtle example of this that I thought might interest you.

Our current exhibition is about why people collect things. We are featuring several diverse collectors from our area--from a couple who collects priceless American flags to a woman who collects dryer lint.

One of the collections on display is a set of "found lists" collected by a local farmer, Danny Lazzarini. We decided to show a selection of Danny's lists in a hallway surrounded by a participatory element where we invite visitors to contribute to new lists on evocative themes ("Things we forget," "The best feelings in the world," etc.) that we selected during prototyping. This activity has been incredibly popular, and about every three weeks we replace one of the lists with a fresh copy so there is always space for some new contributors.

Last week, we made a mistake. The show was two weeks away from closing, and we needed to replace a "The best feelings in the world" list, but we had accidentally prepped a "Things we forget" list. To add another wrinkle, the volunteer had accidentally written "Things I forget" instead of "Things we forget" as the prompt on the new list.

We decided to go with it, and for the final two weeks of the show, we have both a "Things we forget" and a "Things I forget" list on the wall. Here's a closeup of each:

While the lists look the same on the surface (and bear in mind that the one on the left has been on display for 3 weeks longer than the one on the right), the content is subtly different. Both these lists are interesting, but the "we" list invites spectators into the experience a bit more than the "I" list. The prompt "Things we forget" tends to invite more communal or broad responses, i.e. "everything," "to be grateful," "that Bob Dylan is from Hibbing, MN" whereas "Things I forget" yields more personal responses, i.e. "zip up my pants," "my glasses," "who I picked for Birthday Club!"

A reference to dental hygiene shows up on both lists, but on "Things we forget," the response is "brush the teefres" whereas on "Things I forget," the response is "brush my teeth."

This is not earth-shattering, and there is definitely overlap on the two lists. But it's a good reminder that:
  • different prompts DO yield different actions on the part of visitors
  • careful writing and design decisions on the programmer's side DO impact on the overall result
  • sometimes, exhibit research is as simple as taking a couple photographs 

So think about your prompts, happy Thanksgiving, and keep those teefres clean.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Opening Up Museums: My TEDxSantaCruz Talk

I'm just home from a whirlwind of speaking engagements--Oslo, Denver, Charlotte, Roanoke. So it seems fitting to share my TEDx talk this week, one that was filmed here in Santa Cruz and which I have since taken around the world. The theme of TEDxSantaCruz was "Open." It gave me a chance to really think about how we have been opening up our museum and what it means for our community. Doing this talk was an incredible experience, both because of the warm and energized response I received at the event and because the format forced me to hone in on what's most important to me these days and share it in a succinct way.

It's only 15 minutes, so I encourage you to watch it, but here are the crib notes for the video-adverse without the hilarious stories and charming photographs.

Museums can be incredible catalysts for social change. But they're not there yet. Right now, they're often seen as elitist organizations serving an diminishing percentage of our population. We can change that by embracing participatory culture and opening up to the active, social ways that people engage with art, history, science, and ideas today. We're doing it in Santa Cruz and it has absolutely transformed our museum into a thriving community institution.

The first way we open up is by inviting active participation. We see every visitor who walks in the door as a contributor who can make our museum better. We seek and encourage collaboration with diverse groups and individuals in our community, and we develop ways for people to contribute in both immediate and long-term ways.

I know that not all public participation is substantive. I believe that everyone has the ability to contribute something powerful, and everyone also has the ability to be an idiot. The difference in what we contribute is in the design of the invitation conferred onto us. At the MAH, we carefully design invitations to participate to convey a high level of respect and value for what visitors bring to the table. They sense that respect and respond by bringing their best selves forward, sharing powerful creative work and personal stories. The result makes our museum more vibrant and multi-vocal, and it creates a powerful sense of ownership in our community.

The second way we open up is by treating our artifacts as social objects that can mediate interactions among people from different backgrounds. We've all seen how a pet dog can connect two strangers despite the social barriers that abound. How can we make museum objects more like dogs? How can we use our artifacts to activate important conversations about the future of our communities? At the MAH, we do this by designing thoughtful opportunities for interaction around artifacts, so that visitors see them less as holy objects and more as starting points for dialogue. And when we do it right, this approach brings people together across social division towards something approaching understanding and mutual respect.

This combination--inviting active participation, treating museum objects as locuses of important conversations--makes our museum a more relevant, essential community space. This isn't just happening in Santa Cruz. There are museums all over the world that are reinventing themselves as spaces for making and sharing, and in doing so, are fulfilling their public missions.

For me, the mission that is most compelling is the goal to build social cohesion by bringing people together across differences. We live in such a divided world. It is increasingly difficult to find opportunities to engage with people who are truly different from us in a positive way. If museums can build those social bridges, then we're not just doing great work for our institutions. We're doing great work for our communities, too.

Thanks to everyone who I met in the past weeks who has inspired and challenged me based on this talk. And thanks especially to the folks at TEDxSantaCruz who got it going and made this fabulous video. On that note, if you're interested in open data, I highly recommend Martha Mendoza's talk from that same event on FOIA requests and journalism--very powerful stuff.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Guest Post: Using Participation to Solve a Design Problem at the Carnegie Museum of Art

I'm on the road this week, with speaking gigs in Oslo, Denver, Charlotte, and Roanoke (join the NAMP livestream on Sunday at 9:25am PT here). I'm thrilled to share this brilliant guest post by Marilyn Russell, Curator of Education at the Carnegie Museum of Art. In a straightforward way, Marilyn explains how her team developed a participatory project to improve engagement in a gallery with an awkward entry. This is a perfect example of a museum using participation as a design solution. This post appears here in excerpted form; you can read the whole story here.


Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky challenged us to find a way to overcome a major practical problem with our Forum Gallery space: how to get visitors to enter a gallery that is often obscured by a large wall that blocks the light from the large lobby windows nearby. We also wanted to:
  • Inspire visitors to engage in active looking: notice, reflect, react, and respond to the works of art and to the interdisciplinary quality of the exhibition.
  • Reassert the "forum" aspect of the Forum Gallery by motivating visitors to share their own ideas and interpretations of the artwork with other visitors in physical and virtual formats. This coincides with the identification of 20- and 30-year-olds as an audience targeted for growth in attendance.
What could we put in the lobby just outside the gallery to:
  • Capture the attention of visitors and alert them to the exhibition behind the wall?
  • Offer something fun and appealing to do that required entering the exhibition?
  • Inspire visitors to look, think, and respond actively to the works on view?


We wondered how to bring their reactions of the artworks from the gallery to the activity space in the lobby, and offer visitors some control over their interactions with the artworks. We decided to select 12 individual works of art from the exhibition, reproduce them as 2.5 x 2.5-inch post-it notes, and attach a stack of the small reproductions on the wall next to each related original work. (Who doesn't like a mini version of something?)

The post-its would be used as the source material for visitors' creative responses, allowing them to get their hands on the images--manipulating and modifying the works into something new. The activity was facilitated by the activity station set up in the lobby just outside the gallery. There, visitors encountered a large table with a long horizontal display board featuring a call to action at the top to PERUSE and PARTICIPATE.

A friendly museum educator stood near the table to greet curious visitors; offer them one of five prompt sheets, a clip board, and colored pencils; and invite them into the gallery to begin their exploration. In the gallery, visitors enjoyed the art and selected one or more post-it reproductions and "curated" their arrangement on their prompt sheets adding captions, drawings, narrative--whatever the works of art inspired. We tested five versions of the prompt sheets--some with instructions focused to the subject of the exhibition (artists' takes on nature), others with more open-ended instructions designed to encourage a broader range of responses.

You can view the various prompt sheets and the kinds of responses we received on our Facebook page. We posted completed prompt sheets on the display board with magnets and eventually provided stars and thumbs-up magnets for visitors who preferred responding to the work of other visitors to doing one themselves. We continually posted new completed sheets on our Facebook page and encouraged visitors to post them on their personal social media pages. In addition to the display board of recently completed sheets, we collected older sheets in two large binders for visitors to flip through, and placed one in the gallery and another at the table.

Our colleagues in the Museum of Natural History were eager collaborators. Together we identified locations in their galleries that resonated with the 12 focus works in the Forum exhibition. The scientific staff wrote and installed label texts in their galleries about the works of art from their perspectives. We provided a guide to these locations for visitors at the activity table.


Over the weeks of the exhibition, visitors jotted down comments in a notebook at the activity table. Here are some samples:

"Awesome idea, super interactive, engaging!"

"It is great to feel more of a part of the museum!"

"All the artworks should have stickies."

"This was transformational! Thank you so much! I hope more museums do things like this. How wonderful to be able to respond to art, to peruse and then participate instead of just keeping it all inside!!" --An English teacher

"It is a very great way for kids to connect art & nature...however it was a bit difficult for a 6-year-old to understand. (She did it anyway.) How about break it down for younger children?"

"What a wonderful resource for classes." --A University of Pittsburgh professor

"People who did the responses are older than I expected." --A college student

"I really like the post-its. I'm surprised I haven't seen something like this in other museums."

"I like that the art response of an 8 y.o. and the response of a 38 y.o. are so similar." --A college student

"We loved the post-it sticker idea, that way we can still share the artwork at home." --A mom & 2 small kids

"Great notes are great for children to participate and remember."


  1. The post-it activity achieved our goals of getting visitors past the wall and into the gallery in huge numbers.
  2. Visitors really looked at and responded to the art. The completed sheets reveal incredible thoughtfulness, humor, and creative invention from visitors of all ages. We had very few "throw away" results.
  3. The variety of creative responses we received reflect the myriad perspectives of visitors to our interdisciplinary institution.
  4. We needed more display space for visitors' finished sheets and space to group completed sheets to better facilitate rating and commenting by other visitors. Although visitors of all ages participated, a special "kids' corner" on the display board would have communicated more easily that both adults and kids were welcome to participate.
  5. Some of the prompts were more successful than others, and some people used the sheets in completely independent ways, ignoring the prompt entirely. A few didn't even incorporate the post-its (not that this is a bad thing). The "On the Edge" activity, which encouraged visitors to extend the images on the post-its beyond the frame was by far the most popular prompt. Many attracted to this prompt even connected separate works into a single composition. Also, a couple of the prompts were too similar, as visitors generally used them in the same way.
  6. Overwhelmingly visitors wanted a post-it reproduction of every work in the exhibition.
  7. Going forward we need better technology solutions on-site to help visitors and staff share responses as they are happening. We collected, scanned, and posted completed sheets to the museum website and Facebook page, and knowing that the sheets would be posted online was a motivator especially for 20- to 30-year-olds. We needed a way for visitors to share their work immediately on their own social media sites. Smartphone images didn't read well given the limitations of screen size and the legibility of the artists' writings and drawings.
  8. It would be good to have a way to gather metrics or track how (and if) visitors are sharing their creations on their own social media channels.
  9. Having the completed sheets attached to the specific artworks that motivated the visitors provides a clear context for the various interpretations and insights that will survive long after the exhibition is gone.


Overall we are happy with the results of this experiment, and we are busy thinking about some of the issues and opportunities related to this activity going forward, but we'd also love to hear from you. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please comment here or send a note to
  • We're curious about the sustainability of the post-its. How important is the novelty of the concept, or could we repeat this activity?
  • Would it work without full-time staff support? If we changed the public display part could we make this an activity visitors can understand on their own? Was the chance to talk with the staff member a crucial visitor engagement connection?
  • What questions or suggestions occur to you?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Four Unusual Professional Development Events in 2013

Ever wish for a low-cost, energizing professional development experience where you can work intensely with diverse colleagues in a risk-tolerant environment?

I'm involved in four upcoming events that I'd love for you to consider attending. Three of them are being hosted at my museum, and one at a mystery location.
  1. You Can't Do That in Museums Camp - July 10-12, 2013. I've always loved helping run events where participants can really work together on something meaty and challenging... and this one is going to be awesome. In July of 2013, the MAH will host our first You Can't Do That in Museums Camp (or better name to be suggested by you), inviting 80 creative people to collaborate on an experimental exhibition. This camp will be a 2.5 day event at which participants work in teams with pre-selected permanent collection objects to create an exhibition full of intriguing, unusual, risky experiences. If you've ever wanted to design an object-based exhibit that really pushed the boundaries, this is the event for you. Registration will be $150 and by application only. We will also offer a half-day series of workshops on July 10 for a wider audience for $50. Yes you can sleepover at the museum to heighten the insanity and reduce the cost. No you don't have to be a museum professional to participate. Yes you can apply now. Please do.
  2. The Arts Dinner-vention Project - date TBD. This one was cooked up by Barry Hessenius, former director of the California Arts Council and public art blogger extraordinaire. Barry is asking the universe to send him names of "unheralded arts sector leaders" to be considered for an all-star dinner party in 2013. I'm on the small committee of folks who will be selecting the winners based on your nominations. Barry is accepting nominations through November 20, and anyone who submits names will be entered into a random drawing for a free trip to join in on the fantasy dinner party. Read more about the project and how to participate here
  3. Ze Frank Weekend - Jan 12-13, 2013. We're working with participatory online artist Ze Frank on an exhibition at the MAH this winter that features the missions, creations, and explorations of his current web series, A Show. Because this work is evolving and involves people creating stuff all over the world, we decided it would be good to have a weekend where that wildness can find a home at our museum. I know very little about what will happen on this weekend, but rest assured it will be strange and geeky and very different from a typical museum gathering.
  4. Loyalty Lab workshop - Jan 29, 2013. We have been working for a few months now on a project called Loyalty Lab to deepen our relationships with frequent MAH visitors. On Jan. 29, we'll be holding a workshop in the afternoon to discuss our experiments to date and brainstorm with participants about how we can all find creative, low-tech ways to reward and celebrate our visitors. We would love to share that conversation with anyone in the museum/arts/culture world who has an interest. We will have some whip-smart game designers on hand to push our thinking. We can accommodate about 25 people at the workshop - please email me if you are interested in participating. 
Here's to a new year full of experimenting, learning, and sharing. And by "new year" I mean year six of Museum 2.0. I know; it's crazy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Traveling Couches and other Emergent Surprises Courtesy of an Open Platform

How do community members make your institution better?

I like to ask myself this question periodically, challenging myself to find substantive ways for visitors to contribute to our museum. Yes, we have the standard ways--volunteer programs, board service, and community partnerships--but I strongly believe that if we are doing our jobs right, every visitor who walks through our doors should be able to make a meaningful impact.

To that end, our exhibitions are full of participatory elements. Visitors can comment on how we can improve or what they would like to see. They can contribute their own stories, objects, and creative work to exhibitions. We actively seek participation and develop structured opportunities for visitors to collaborate with us.

That's all fabulous, but it's also all by design. And when I think back on the past year, some of the most magical things that have happened at the museum have NOT been designed by us. Instead, they've been driven by community members who see the museum as a platform for their own creative pursuits.

Here are just four surprises that have invigorated the museum in the past few weeks:
  • Pop Up Tea Ceremony. Last month, a couple came in and asked if they could stage a pop up tea ceremony at the museum. We said yes, and they have now participated in several events, offering a unique mix of traditional tea ceremony, koto music, and bedazzled plastic microphones (see bottom left of photograph).
  • Happening Couch. A local engineer, Greg McPheeters, brought his tandem-bike powered recycled couch to our Trash to Treasure festival last Friday night. Riding the art couch through downtown Santa Cruz with two visitors and a dog while blasting the Jackson 5 was one of the highlights of my year. Here's a picture of it in action.
  • Evergreen Cemetery Board Game. One of our research volunteers, Sangye Hawke, blew me away when she posted a photo on Facebook of the board game she's developing about the restoration work we're doing at historic Evergreen Cemetery. What started as a fun personal project for her will hopefully become part of our permanent history gallery--a space we are trying to make more interactive over the coming years.
  • Connections through Collections. A college student who visited our Santa Cruz Collects exhibition wrote to us after her visit to share that she has a childhood collection of bouncy balls (like Aaron Schumacher, a young collector profiled in the exhibition). The student is now donating her collection to Aaron so his can keep growing.
Of course, for every one of these enchanting surprises, we also have many of more variable quality: people who walk in with their paintings on their back asking about display opportunities, people who send us poorly-produced videos of their bands or projects, and lots of speculative, odd conversations. It's not unusual for me and our public programming staff members to have several short interactions every week with newcomers who walk in the door with idiosyncratic visions for cultural engagement.

I've realized that while I always used to ask that question in the frame of "what are we doing to make it possible for community members to make this institution better?," the most powerful evidence of it happening is when our active role as designers/facilitators becomes invisible. Community members, artists, and organizations increasingly see our museum as a place where they can advance their own goals, and so they approach us. We don't have to convince them that it's their museum. Instead, we just have to be generous and thoughtful about how they can--or cannot--participate with us. We've even started reflexively mumbling, "well, it is your museum," when someone comes dancing in the door or moves a chair or starts reciting poetry.

To me, this is an example of how the aggregation of participatory practices fundamentally changes the role that an organization has in its community. We've created a very consistent message about being an open platform for local creativity--through exhibitions, event design, online, even the conversations we have with the press. And while we are still continually seeking out great partners and cultural combinations, we're not always the instigators of those opportunities. The more we structure in participation, the more people feel empowered to bring their own brilliance to the table, spontaneously and completely beyond our expectations. The magic isn't by design. It happens because people see an opening where there wasn't one before.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dreaming of Perpetual Beta: Making Museums More Incremental

When I started this blog in 2006, I made a multi-media introduction to the concept of "museum 2.0" based on Tim O'Reilly's four key elements of Web 2.0:
  1. Venue as content platform instead of content provider: the museum becomes a stage on which professionals and amateurs can curate, interpret, and remix artifacts and information.
  2. Architecture of participation with network effects: each person who participates contributes something meaningful and lasting. Visitors' interactions allow them both to personalize their museum experiences and to engage with other visitors through their shared interests. The museum gets better the more people use it.
  3. Perpetual beta: the museum is always in flux, incrementally releasing new versions, refining procedures, and responding to audience desires.
  4. Flexible, modular support for distributed products: inviting people to plug-in their own creations, whether those be DIY audio tours, pop up events, or co-created exhibitions.
From 2006-2011, I focused almost entirely on #1 and #2, playing with ways to invite visitors to actively participate with professionals to co-create powerful experiences around museum objects. 

But in the past year and a half as a museum director, I find myself increasingly interested in #3 and #4. In a lot of ways, our successful turnaround at the MAH has been driven by both embracing incremental change and opening up clear opportunities for community organizations and individuals to "plug" their cultural brilliance into our space. We're using #3 and #4 to achieve #1 and #2 in the Museum 2.0 playbook.

At first, our enthusiasm for incremental change and flexibility was a reaction to a tough financial position. When I started at the MAH last May, we had absolutely no money. We also had a vision to be a thriving, central gathering place for our community. The only way to reconcile our resources with our goals was to start doing whatever we could to start nudging in the direction of our dreams. We scrounged for free couches. We invited local artists and community groups to perform. We designed events and interactive exhibits on ten dollar budgets. We experimented with everything--hours, front desk staffing structure, community programs. We knew we weren't doing everything at the desired quality level. But we got it going anyway.

A year and a half later, we are in a much more stable financial position... and we've tried to internalize a mindset of perpetual beta and modular support for community collaboration. As things got better financially, as we learned more about what worked and didn't, we replaced furniture and enhanced our exhibitions. We upped the budgets and the scale of the projects while maintaining an iterative approach that relies on prototyping and low-tech experiments.

I feel strongly that as long as we have a social mission and a strong desire to fulfill that mission, we should do everything we can every step of the way to attack it, even if that means starting with something simplistic, messy, or uncertain. We make room for interns and artists and people who walk in the door with crazy ideas. There are plenty of times I have silenced the exhibit designer in my brain who wanted everything just so, or the museum director who wanted to make our visitors happy all the time. If we're going to move forward, we have to be able to try things in a risk-tolerant environment.

One of the things that often made me uncomfortable as a consultant was the extent to which museums, and their funding vehicles, often make perpetual beta an impossibility. The exhibit is planned for years and must open perfect on day 1. The grant is for a three-year educational program whose curriculum has to be locked in from the start. If we can't have a perfect couch designed by Frank Gehry, we won't give visitors couches at all.

The result is damaging for museum professionals and visitors alike. For museum professionals, it creates a falsely elevated sense of risk and stress around projects that, let's face it, don't have to be perfect out of the gate. No one is going to die if you change a label a few days after opening. No one will be seriously injured if you invite a dance company in and they do something strange. No one will suffer if you put out a prototype--or two, or ten--before finalizing a design. We need to build experimentation into our work processes if we want our work to evolve over time.

For museum visitors, the damage is even worse. How many brilliant sparks of ideas never get to the public because we falsely assume it will take too many resources to get them off the ground? How can we show people that we truly care about making our institutions welcoming, or challenging, or fun, or creative, if we need two years and eight approvals to put out some couches and paintbrushes?

I'm not suggesting that museum professionals shouldn't strive for excellence. What I've seen--in Web 2.0 and elsewhere--is that real excellence comes from incrementally pushing towards a big audacious goal. If you can get it right on the first try or with the resources you have, then your dreams may not be big enough.

What are you working towards, and how you are iterating and experimenting to get there?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Voting on Art and its Surprising Consequences

What happens when you let visitors vote on art?

Let's look at the statistics from three big participatory projects that wrapped up recently. Each of these invited members of the public to vote on art in a way that had substantive consequences--big cash prizes awarded, prestige granted, exhibitions offered.
  • ArtPrize, the grandaddy of visitor voting, just completed its fourth year in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This citywide festival showcased work by 1,517 artists competing for a $200,000 top cash prize awarded by public vote. An estimated 400,000 people attended the event over two weeks, of which 47,000 cast at least one vote. Voters had to register to vote, but there were no restrictions on how many artworks a voter could "like."
  • The Brooklyn Museum just finished the public stage of GO, a "community-curated open studio project." GO invited people to visit artists' studios throughout Brooklyn over one weekend and to nominate up to three favorites; the top ten will be considered for an upcoming group show at the museum. 1,708 artists participated. An estimated 18,000 people attended, of which 4,929 nominated artists for the show. Note that in this case, people had to register to vote AND check in at at least five studios to be eligible to nominate artists for the show. Full stats here.  
  • The Hammer Museum recently awarded the first annual Mohn Award, a $100,000 prize that will be awarded biannually to an artist in the "Made in LA" biennial exhibition based on public vote. Five artists out of sixty in the show were short-listed by a jury. 50,000 people visited the exhibition, and 2,051 voted for their favorite artist of the five. Fascinating (and long) article about the Mohn Award here.
In each of these examples, the press and public dialogue mostly revolved around the idea of public voting for art. But when it came to the actual experience, the vast majority of participants and attendees did NOT vote. In Grand Rapids, 12% cast a ballot. In Brooklyn, 27% made it through the voting process. In LA, only 4% voted. 

What's going on here? Why are hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Grand Rapids for ArtPrize but not choosing to vote? Why did the Hammer Museum have record summer attendance if people weren't coming for the thing that was being flaunted--the opportunity to vote?

There are surely some people who didn't want to go through the hassle of registering and learning the rules of voting. There are others who may not have felt "qualified" to select winners and losers. But my sense is that the biggest reason people didn't vote is that for most visitors, voting wasn't the point. The point was to be part of an exciting, dynamic, surprising new way to engage with art.

Or at least, that's what I experienced when I went to ArtPrize in 2010. I was blown away by the social experience provoked by the unorthodox format. Voting on individual artworks turned each one into a social object worthy of lengthy conversation. Talking with Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum, it sounds like GO comparably sparked a huge number of community conversations in artists' studios around Brooklyn. When the public is invited to decide, they may not take on that power and responsibility... but they may show up in droves to see what the fuss is about.

This leads me to two conflicting perspectives on voting in exhibitions:
  1. Voting on substantive outcomes (money, exhibitions) is good because it provokes engagement with objects, artists, and fellow visitors. Whether you tick the ballot or not, the opportunity to do so opens up a conversation about what's good, what's bad, and what's art.  
  2. Voting on substantive outcomes is dangerous because not enough people participate to make serious decisions in good faith. The Hammer is reconsidering the public vote component of the Mohn Award after only 2,051 people determined who would win $100,000. And in Brooklyn, Shelley Bernstein noted that the data generated during GO was insufficient to generate statistical significance in a "wisdom of the crowds decision-making" format. In the case of ArtPrize, founder Rick DeVos has explicitly said that the event is a creative act designed to engage people in "conversation" about art. And yet they have added juried prizes alongside the public ones to diversify that conversation.
How do you weigh the positive engagement that comes with community dialogue against the ethics of voting for outcomes that matter deeply to the artists involved?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Khan Academy and the Revolution in Online Free Choice Learning

Last week, I became completely intoxicated with the online videos of Vi Hart, self-described mathemusician. Her nerdy, entertaining videos about math evoke the power of free choice learning while poking gentle fun at the drudgery of how math is often taught in school. She's brilliant and funny and pushes people to get excited about higher math and the big ideas behind it. She would be the best science center educator ever.

But Vi doesn't work in a science museum. She was a free agent for a long time, until the beginning of 2012, when she joined the teaching staff of Khan Academy.

Khan Academy, the free, nonprofit online source for educational instructional videos, is a young powerhouse in the online learning space. Its multilingual videos have reached almost 200 million viewers since it launched in 2006. Its funding has skyrocketed as major foundations and technology companies have made multi-million dollar grants and investments in its growth. Founder Salman Khan started by sharing his own videos with a math and science focus, and in the last year, he has added new "faculty" including Vi Hart as well as Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, who are well known in museums for their excellent Smarthistory website and podcasts.

Khan Academy is interesting in itself as an online learning space. But the participation of partners like Vi, Beth, and Steven puts it in a new category for me. Salman Khan's videos give people access to good instructional content on standard (and often confusing or poorly taught) educational topics. How to solve a quadratic equation. How to titrate an acid. Test prep for the SAT. This is all fine, but it exists very much in the K12 and college framework.

Vi Hart's videos, on the other hand, are idiosyncratic, explorative, and a bit subversive. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker's content about art history is social and dialogue-based in format. These instructors aren't teaching you the equivalent of a high school course in math or art history. They are connecting you with knowledge and inspiration in more creative ways... the way the best museums do. It's no coincidence that Beth Harris' last job was as Director of Digital Learning at MoMA.

Does this mean Khan Academy is competitive with museums? Maybe. More importantly, it means that we should be looking to their model to push ourselves in how we think about delivering the most engaging, powerful content possible. We often talk about museums as leaders in providing substantive, essential alternatives to formal schooling. But museums are rarely seen as pursuing this promise in the innovative, aggressive, and highly publicized way that Khan Academy is.

I asked Beth Harris and Steven Zucker about their experience working at Khan Academy after years in academia and museums. When I asked them what's in it for Smarthistory to be a part of Khan Academy, they highlighted the extent to which Khan Academy represents a revolution in education and high quality online learning experiences. Here are some of the comments on the "why" behind their involvement:
[Khan Academy has] a hugely generous vision and commitment to rethinking education—our mission is “a world-class education, for anyone, anywhere”—not to mention brilliant programmers and staff. This is an epic moment in the history of education, who wouldn’t want to be part of it? We are finally leaving behind the 18th century model of education where groups of students are expected to learn at a standard pace. Every day we read about ways that teaching, learning and accreditation are being unbundled. New institutions and new, more personal modes of teaching and learning are being investigated. And we will soon know much more about learning, thanks to analytics, than we ever have before. 
They commented on the power of the learning community around the online videos (for example, check out this conversation about Leonardo's Last Supper):
Khan Academy is much more than a huge library of high quality videos, there are learning analytics, self-paced exercises, and perhaps most importantly, a committed learning community—even for art history! We have a great community of learners that ask and answer questions and our videos are being translated by volunteers all over the world. We are reminded of how much fun learning can be. 
They advocated for the power of online research and learning:
There is a huge appetite for knowledge about art that is not being met. We both come from higher education and it’s always seemed remarkable to us how little museums work together to support the study of art. Students around the world want to understand the history of art, not necessarily the history of a particular collection. We also wish that museums and universities worked together more closely not just for research, but for learning. Learning is increasingly global and fluid and the fact that cross-institutional initiatives such as the Google Art Project and Europeana are rare, points to how much work still needs to be done. We wrote about that in a recent blog post, Why the Google Art Project is Important.

Many museums produce superb lesson plans, curator interviews and artist interviews for the web. But there are other content models we can explore. Conversation has been key to Smarthistory’s success, and we’ve worked with several museums to facilitate the creation of conversation-based content. We’ve also done short technology workshops to enable content experts to create their own videos. In the era of YouTube, we don’t always need Final Cut Pro and expensive videographers.
And they talked about the difference between working for a museum and working for a startup nonprofit:
We both loved working for MoMA in different capacities. But as everyone knows, museums are not the easiest ships to turn. This is a period of intense change when nimbleness is a real asset; working for a start-up has allowed us to produce a lot of high-quality academic content. For the Google Art Project, the two of us recorded, edited and produced 90 videos in four months (with only a small amount of editing assistance). Obviously, museums produce fantastic content, but we wonder if their limited resources should remain focused on traditional print publishing. The principles of digital publishing—which is iterative, personal, prolific, and collaborative, could unleash museums as active centers of learning and engagement.

One of the things that baffles us about museums is that while they support scholars with deep expertise, they produce relatively little content for public consumption on the web. The focus remains on the high status, expensive and little-read exhibition catalogue, instead of developing web-based content that will draw more visitors, and help create a loyal web-community. An educator at the Met recently told us of a group of visitors from Japan that joined a gallery tour and promptly asked to see the works of art featured on Smarthistory. 
If we want museums to be pioneers in free choice learning, seen and funded as "hugely generous" and committed visionaries who are rethinking education, we need to push ourselves. Beth and Steven ended their email to me by quoting Salman Khan's new book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, in which he writes:
What’s needed, in my view, is a perspective that allows us a fresh look at our most basic assumptions about teaching and learning, a perspective that takes nothing for granted and focuses on the simple but crucial questions of what works, what doesn’t work, and why. 
What would that "fresh look" mean for museums?

Thank you to Beth and Steven for contributing to this post. They wanted me to tell you that Smarthistory invites art historians and curators to contribute in the their areas of expertise. If you would like to contribute, please contact them at: and 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Guest Post: Community and Civic Engagement in Museum Programs

Stacey Marie Garcia came to the MAH first as a graduate intern in the summer of 2011. Since then, Stacey has become an indispensable member of our staff, leading our community programs and inspiring us to think in new ways about how we can build social capital in our community. I learn a ton from her every day and wanted to share her thinking--and her graduate thesis--with you.
Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH.
Writing my masters thesis for Gothenburg University’s International Museum Studies program while also working four days a week as the Director of Community Programs at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History this spring was certainly a challenge but also an incredible opportunity. 

There were times when coordinating a fire art festival while researching social capital theory made me want to burn my computer. But, overall I felt overwhelmingly fortunate to be in a job, a museum and a community that I loved and furthermore to be afforded the valuable time most of us do not have to devote to further researching, thinking about, reading and discussing the theories that comprise the foundation of my work.

I chose to focus my thesis on Community and Civic Engagement in Museum Programs.  The purpose of my thesis was two-fold:
  1. To research and analyze community and civic engagement practices, methods, theories and examples in other museum programs.
  2. To apply the results of my analysis to produce a community-driven program design specifically for implementation at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (the MAH). 
You can download and read the full version of my thesis here. For the purpose of this blog post I’ll discuss three key ingredients from my thesis that can activate community engagement in museum programs and how we apply this to programs at the MAH: assessing and responding to community assets and needs, building social capital, and inviting active participation.

Assess and Respond to Community Assets and Needs

If you want to activate community engagement in your programs, you first need to work together with your communities to determine their diverse needs, assets and interests. This can be accomplished through a variety of feedback methods conducted both inside and outside the museum.  Deeper community relationships through focus groups or community advising committees can further help museums connect with issues relevant to their communities while also hold the museum accountable for their responses. 

Two exceptional examples of community committees stand out: one long standing, The Community Advisory Committees of The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and one emerging, the Creative Community Council of the Children’s Creativity Museum.  Both emphasize museums reaching out into the community to support, understand and experience what the community is already doing. They stress community engagement should be an asset- over needs-based approach. It’s not solely about how museums can serve communities but rather what are the communities’ resources, knowledge and interests that can inform museum practice? Furthermore, how can museums and communities work together to share strengths in the community?

Museum programs need to then actively respond to their communities through a variety of ongoing discursive, collaborative and inclusive formats that address needs and assets but also invite communities to be active participants in this process. 

At the MAH

Our first program goal is to meet the needs and assets of our community as defined by our community.  We seek to understand this by listening to and developing ongoing dialogues with a range of community members. We attentively respond to requests and purposefully use different modes of feedback to inform program design from our comment board, social media outlets, conversations and observations both inside and outside the museum, creative feedback at events such as our Show and Tell Booth and online visitor surveys specific to our programs.  We continuously and actively respond to requests as well as invite people to be a part of our programs.

We also formed a Creative Community Committee (C3), composed of a diverse range of multigenerational community representatives from social services, the arts, business, education, the city, technology and our board of directors to provide a multitude of perspectives and expertise.  C3 meets bimonthly to help us understand and brainstorm ways the MAH can collaboratively implement and address the needs and assets of the vast array of communities in Santa Cruz County.

Build Social Capital

A crucial theory in community engagement through museum programs is social capital theory, best defined by Robert D. Putnam, who has written extensively about social capital in American society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals-social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”  Social capital has two main forms; it should gradually and increasingly encompass both distinct forms of bonding and bridging to create healthier, wiser, more connected, economically and socially sustainable communities.

Bonding social capital refers to networks that bring people together with common interests to strengthen relationships in preexisting groups.

Bridging refers to an inclusive and outward looking form of linking different and diverse individuals and groups together to form new relationships.

Museum programs can be designed to further bond similar groups together such as families and friends in family workshops such as the Dallas Museum of Art’s First Tuesdays. Museum programs can also bridge different groups that might not typically interact such as the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum’s Educational Residential Centre, which designed a program specifically to bridge children of two groups engaged in social conflict, Catholics and Protestants.

Co-created programming that represents the complex range of voices in communities, offers platforms for communication, collaboration and shared experiences that can enrich preexisting relationships while also offer a space for new relationships to form and strengthen.  An example of this is The Portland Art Museum’s partnership with the faculty and students in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Department for their annual Shine a Light program.  The program is an experimental playground that bridges artists, students, chefs, comedians, hairdressers, bartenders, dancers, wrestlers and even tattoo artists to produce a community-led event.  Collaborative programs with diverse groups bring in a variety of visitors causing new audiences to interact and connect.

At the MAH

Our second community program goal is to build social capital by strengthening community connections with our collaborators and visitors.  This is a continual process of bonding within preexisting groups and bridging between groups and individuals who might not usually interact.  

Our programs bond our collaborators by closely co-creating programs with community organizations which strengthens their individual internal connections and their relationship to the MAH. For example, the MAH’s Poetry and Book Arts Extravaganza event partnered with Book Arts Santa Cruz and Poetry Santa Cruz to collaborate with 61 talented book artists and poets.  Evaluation surveys showed that Book Arts Santa Cruz members felt their bonds were strengthened as they connected with members in a collaborative capacity that increased group dialogue and stimulated a sense of pride, identity and vision around their work as a group at this event.

Cardboard tube orchestra at Radical Craft Night.
MAH programs are also designed to bond and bridge visitors through creative activities that form participatory dialogical spaces where knowledge is enhanced, widened and deepened through meaningful opportunities for visitors to converse, discuss and collaborate with each other. Relationships can grow as families bond over a Family Art Day experience or friends can work together to create their own shoebox guitar at Santa Cruz Music 3rd Friday or strangers can collaborate by participating in a cardboard tube orchestra. 

Sometimes we purposefully bridge distinct groups as well such as middle-aged women from local knitting groups with young college students interested in street art to yarn bomb our stairwell for Radical Craft Night.  The MAH’s historic Evergreen Cemetery brings together the Homeless Services Center and MAH volunteers or the local rugby team to collaboratively restore the cemetery.  We are constantly looking for new meaningful opportunities to bridge groups and individuals in our programs.   

Design to Invite Active Participation

Participatory design can be one of the most effective vehicles for developing relationships, building social capital and engaging with community members in museum programs.  Implementing participatory activities and constructivist learning theories allow the learner to actively experiment cognitively and physically, individually and socially, and to collectively build meaning and knowledge. Participatory programming highlights alternative narratives, activates communities and reverses the role of the visitors from consumer to producer, which in turn engenders more connected and active communities.

The value of participatory experiences is epitomized in FIGMENT, a free, creative, participatory, non-profit, community art event.  This participatory event led by emerging artists from all backgrounds, engages communities by encouraging a culture of making, doing, creating and collaboration rather than spectatorship. 

The Denver Art Museum has been leading the way with dynamic programs such as Untitled, which offers a variety of non-traditional encounters with art and the museum through participatory, multidisciplinary activities led by Denver’s creative community. 

At the MAH

Our third community program goal is to invite active participation by offering opportunities at events for visitors to have meaningful, hands-on, cultural experiences in which they act as contributors and co-creators, not just consumers.  We scaffold levels of participatory experiences at events that are intergenerational, multidisciplinary and appeal to different types of learners. We give visitors a new skill to claim rather than a product and work intensely with our collaborators to insure active participation in their activities.

All of our events require some level of participation. Sometimes that results in an artist-led cascading collaborative sculpture of 475 visitor-made scrap metal fish.  Other times it’s a collaborative collage animation workshop, a black light art activity with red lentils, dodge ball, recording songs to send to loved ones, writing haikus for strangers or an urban history scavenger hunt on bikes.

Artists from different worlds, brought
together through Street Art Night.
Our events invite our collaborators to work with us to design participatory activities and offer visitors active, collaborative and meaningful experiences that inspire citizens to positively and actively contribute to their communities.  

Final Thoughts

These are certainly not the only components that constitute successful community engagement in museum programs but they are central for MAH programs and for our community.  This summer, at our Street Art Night, when I saw a young graffiti artist learning how to knit from a woman in her sixties and then taught her how to spray paint or at Experience Metal, when a motorcycle repairman learns how to operate a new tool from an art bike welder or when families work together to create their own cardboard neighborhood or when two individuals who met at one of our events team up to collaborate- it allows me to see first hand the gradual impact of our goals on the community and makes me realize all those late nights spent writing my thesis were completely worth it.

Stacey will be responding to your questions and comments on this post. Enjoy her thesis, share your own example, have a meaty conversation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Open Thread: Is the Gender Imbalance in the Arts a Problem?

Note: This is a post about gender diversity. I feel strongly that there are huge issues with racial and ethnic diversity in museums and arts organizations that deserve a million more posts. I don't know if gender diversity deserves more posts. That's why I wrote this.

Last week, I spoke at three conferences. One was a conference on risk-taking for librarians. One was a conference on pushing our practice in art museums. And one was a local TEDx. The first two had something in common that the last one didn't. Any guesses?

In library- and museum-land, the participants were 80-90% women. At TEDx, the mix was 50/50.

It took me awhile to catch on to the gender divide in museums, arts organizations, and libraries. I was an electrical engineering student (1% women), then worked at NASA (10% women), and then slowly slid from science museums (about 50% women) to history and art museums (60-80%, depending on who you ask). Even the museums I worked in with a fairly equivalent gender balance were completely out-of-whack when you looked at departments. Exhibits, technology, security, and senior management were majority male. Education and programs were female central.

At first, I reveled in working in progressively more female-engaged environments after my engineering background. But running a museum with 100% female full-time staff and 95% female interns has made me struggle with the obvious disparity. When we have new jobs or internships open up, men represent less than 5% of applicants. We have good male representation as volunteers, trustees, and visitors, but we're lousy on staff. We have 0.75 full-time equivalent men between a contract preparator, graphic designer, and visitor services staff member. We can't even rate a whole guy.

Judging from statistics in a few research studies on museum workers (and the obvious visual data at any museum or library conference excepting tech-oriented ones), this imbalance is extreme but not atypical. It gets even worse if you look at the future of the field. AAM has noted that museum studies graduate programs are "80% white and 80% female." It's not quite as bad as my 99% male electrical engineering class, but it's getting there.

This is a problem. Without this most basic kind of diversity on staff, people make myopic decisions that are biased towards certain audience types. Just as a male-dominated tech industry created a hugely celebrated device that women thought sounded like a menstrual management product (the iPad), a female-dominated museum and library industry leads to a narrow set of preconceptions when it comes to program development and design. I've had plenty of meetings where we had to remind ourselves that we couldn't just create craft activities for women and no there would not be hearts on the walls in the Love exhibition. We consult community advisors on a regular basis to compensate for our gender diversity (and other) deficiencies and ensure that our programming is meaningful and non-exclusionary for men. It's a challenge on a daily basis to run an organization for our whole community when our staff represents half at most.

But, and here's where it gets tricky... how BIG a problem is this gender imbalance? When we talk about other kinds of diversity in the museum workforce--racial, ethnic, socioeconomic--it's clear that the problem is serious. Many museums and other arts organizations are seen as instruments of an elitist, white culture that systematically excludes people of color (e.g. this post). True diversity on staff leads to the exposure and deconstruction of discriminatory practices that prevent our organizations from feeling truly relevant and open to diverse community members.

It's not as clear to me that this same issue applies when talking about men, especially white men, who are not victims of systematic discrimination. When it comes to fields like engineering, the reason that people are so energized about increasing minority participation is twofold:
  1. Many minorities (women and racial/ethnic minorities) receive constant harmful messages about their inadequacy when it comes to that may prevent them from pursuing passions in math and science. This is perceived by some as deeply unfair. It takes active intervention and investment to reverse this systematic discrimination and bias.
  2. Engineering careers come with economic opportunity that can move people up socio-economically and advance national GDP/innovation. Engineering jobs can enable minority citizens to achieve more, thus balancing out some inequity and cultivating more overall wealth. 
Do these same arguments apply in fields like the non-profit arts? These jobs are low-paying, economically unstable, and highly competitive. They are not seen (unfortunately) as essential to generating significant personal or community wealth and value. And I don't know that there is a systematic gender bias preventing men from pursuing careers in arts or education. I've never heard of a man who was told that art might be too "hard" for him as my female college roommate was told about mechanical engineering. There may be a gender representation issue in museums, but is there an equity issue? I'm not sure.

I would really, really like to work with more men. I would love for them to be interested and to be represented. But I don't know where the point is at which men are feeling deterred from their interests in pursuing museum careers and what I can do about it. I don't know if I should worry about this.

Maybe it's OK to have some fields that are gender-imbalanced as long as minority voices have a role in program development and production. Maybe it's great that there's a field where women can take the lead. I'm proud that our institution went from having a male director and all-female staff to a female director and all-female staff--at least girlpower goes all the way to the top here. There are plenty of other content and media industries that don't have female domination--our power in museums could be a balancing salve in the bigger picture. We can and do create superb programming for our whole community, with the same implicit deficiencies of any organization that lacks diversity.

Or maybe it's terrible that men are slowly opting out of museum work. Maybe it means they will slowly opt out of cultural institutions altogether and perceive them as irrelevant to their lives. I know from talking to friends who work in ballet that it is indeed possible for a whole genre of art to be seen as "for women."

What do you think? Is the gender imbalance causing problems for arts workers, visitors, or society? How does it affect you? What should we do about it?