Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Event-Driven Museum, One Year Later

A year ago, I wrote a post speculating about whether events (institutionally-produced programs) might be a primary driver for people to attend museums, with exhibitions being secondary. Now, a year later, I've seen the beginnings of how that question has borne out at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), as well as hearing from folks around the museum industry about the interplay of exhibitions and events at their own institutions.

And so, in this post, a few findings, and more questions.

Many museums, big and small, thrive on events. I had originally assumed that this phenomenon might affect smaller museums in smaller markets more than large urban institutions, but I've since learned from colleagues at big hitters like LACMA and the Dallas Museum of Art that the majority of their visitors attend through events. One director of a children's museum even told me that they "eventize" normal operations--calling a Saturday a "family festival" without changing the planned programming--to draw more people. At our museum, about 68% of casual visitors (non-school tours) attended through events this year.

This isn't true for every museum. There are still many museums in large tourist centers with a hefty one-time audience. Zoos, aquaria, science and children's museums boast a significant "anytime" audience of families who return again and again. But for art and history museums, especially outside the biggest tourism markets, I wouldn't be surprised if events drive the lion's share of attendance, period.

At our small museum, events have driven a huge increase in attendance, community partnerships, and media coverage. We're still crunching numbers for the close of the fiscal year, but our attendance has more than doubled from 17,349 last year to about 36,000 this year. The vast majority of that increase has come through attendance to new events.

These events don't just increase audience. This year, we produced our events--especially the 3rd Friday evening series--in partnership with over 700 artists and community organizations in Santa Cruz. Events enabled us to partner with diverse groups who brought in new audiences and programmatic opportunities. We turned a place where “nothing happens” into a place where something was often happening. We got media attention each time we hosted an event, and within a year, we were celebrated by the local weekly as “a major go-to hotspot… that keeps things fresh and fuels the creative fires of Santa Cruz.”

So why is this happening, and what does it mean? Here are three possibilities I'm toying with for why events are taking center stage at museums:
  • Culturally, we are shifting to a more event-driven society. Recreational time is down, people are more scheduled than ever, and “casually” visiting a museum is irrelevant to many people, especially those who live outside large urban cultural centers. Festivals—whether of jazz, visual art, ethnic identity, or historic reenactment—are experiencing record attendance even as more permanent institutions that offer the same content are struggling. People want to come for the weekend, the moment, the event. (Note: this is a hypothesis with little data to back it up. Can you help with some concrete information to confirm or refute this idea?)
  • It's less about the event than the timing. Audience behavior could be more driven by museum hours than by the type of activity offered. Events mostly happen in the evening or on weekends, outside of work time. The majority of our exhibition hours do not. Maybe if museums were open from 3-10pm instead of 10am-5pm, the attendance would be higher overall. However, it is worth noting that at the MAH, a Saturday without an event during daytime hours typically draws half as many visitors as a Saturday with even a very low-key drop-in program. 
  • Events generate media buzz and attention with greater frequency than exhibitions. The more events we do, the more we get known for events, and the more people attend during them. If society is more event-driven than ever, we have to give people explicit (and frequent) reasons to think of museums as an "anytime" experience, or they never will attend casually. This could be a worthwhile long play that introduces people to the value of a weekly "museum moment," or it could be an uphill battle against the reality of how and why people prefer to engage. 
I'm most interested in the first of these, and I'm genuinely curious to hear about any studies or data that might shed light on the (real or imagined) cultural shift towards events. In talking with executive directors of a range of arts organizations, it really does seem that festivals are performing better than their regularly-scheduled counterparts. I don't know if that has always been the case or whether festival formats are just now in ascendance. What have you seen, both from the arts management side and from your own experience as a consumer?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Belgian Beer-Brewing Monks Taught Me about Non-Profit Business Models

If you want to drink the best beer in the world, you'd better be ready to work for it. A recent episode of the design podcast 99 Percent Invisible chronicled the hoops people jump through to get a bottle of Westvleteren 12, which is produced by the monks of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in Flanders, Belgium. You can only reserve a bottle by phone. You must pick it up in person at the Abbey at a specific time on a specific date. You can only buy a small amount, and you are limited to one purchase every 60 days.

The episode is mostly focused on the thrill of the hunt, and all the attendant ways exclusivity fuels desire. But late in the episode (minute 9), when the supplicant finally drinks the beer at the monastery, he is underwhelmed. The beer is terrific, but the experience is unfulfilling. He feels anonymous. He feels disconnected. He made it to Mecca, and it's kind of eh.

Why the disconnect? As Roman Mars, the show's host, puts it, "You, the consumers of beer, are not the real customer. God is." The monks make beer to support their monastic lifestyle, not to serve consumers. The exclusivity and the complicated path to purchasing the beer are not branding strategies to trump up the value of the beer. They are limitations that enable monks to spend most of their time being monks.

Listening to the podcast, I was struck by its strange connections to the non-profit world's approach to funding. In many ways, the monks have a much more practical approach to the problem of supporting their mission than the rest of us do. They brew beer to provide the income to support their religious work. It's the ultimate case of unrelated business income. They don't want their beer-brewing work and their prayer to be commingled; they are intentionally separate. Whereas non-profits work hard to fit everything they do under one mission, the monks split it up. The beer supports the mission. The beer is not part of the mission.

In the arts, this bears directly on the current debate around "art for art's sake" versus "art for community development." Not every arts organization is fundamentally focused on connecting with and engaging audiences. While a few are, the majority are only slowly pivoting towards a primary focus on audience engagement. Some do so with gusto, seeing the opportunity for transformation, relevance, and new relationships with the public. Others do so half-heartedly. Some even feel forced to do so. They want to be art monks, not customer-serving businesses.

It's totally valid for an artist or an art organization to have a monastic approach. For these organizations, the ultimate audience--the one they care most about--is something else. It could be "art" with a capital A, the pursuit of social justice or innovation or institutional critique. I've talked to plenty of non-profit artistic directors and curators who will say that the master is the work... or if not the work, the artists behind the work. To them, audience engagement is a distraction at best, a dilution or bastardization at worst.

So why do they even consider it? These days, a few key arts funders are shifting towards public engagement through art. Everyone is strapped, so organizations try to move with the funders. Monastically-inclined institutions pursue donors who support public engagement with the work, and they package the work into a kind of sausage they can sell to audiences. The result is not Mecca. It's something less than, something that often frustrates artists and audiences alike.

Community-focused organizations have the same problem in reverse. Even if they primarily care about deep engagement with audiences, these organizations often have to talk about "artistic excellence" to get noticed by traditional arts funders and donors. Community organizations without brand-name artists can be denigrated as "craft centers," even if the outcomes of their engagement efforts are tremendous.

The problem is that no one--neither art monks nor community-driven organizations--are entitled to funding. We all have to find supporters and customers who can help us pay the bills. Maybe, instead of shifting with the traditional funding, all kinds of arts organizations should be proudly and blatantly seeking out unrelated sources of income. I recently heard the director of a major performing arts organization pejoratively refer to for-profit music venues as "bars with bands" as opposed to organizations that exist to produce and present "real" music. But is it any less problematic to be supported by grants and high ticket prices than by beverage sales? Does it lead to more "pure" programming decisions? I don't think so.

We are always told that everything we do should flow from our mission. Maybe instead, we should think like the monks and figure out how we can make sure everything we do serves our mission. There are arts organizations (including my own) that get significant amounts of their operating budgets from endowments, real estate, or parking garages. There are innovative arts organizations that are led by volunteer staff members who make their money as teachers or engineers or marketers. Maybe we shouldn't apologize for these "non-mission-based" sources of income. Maybe we should pursue more of them. After all, they are what allow us to pursue our missions--for whomever our ultimate audience may be.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

17 Ways We Made our Exhibition Participatory

Going to MAH and seeing the LOVE exhibition on First Friday was a wonderful experience. It made me think in ways that I haven't before about the relation of art--as expressive culture--to democracy. It was fascinating to see people--across social differences--responding to representations of love in the paintings, images, objects and narratives that were part of the installation. It was exhilarating to see them inspired to create their own meanings in response: lovers whispering together in alcoves, people of all ages writing and drawing on walls and post-its, children painting, everyone sitting rapt before screens.
--Helene Moglen, professor of literature, UCSC 
After a year of tinkering, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is now showing an exhibition, All You Need is Love, that embodies our new direction as an institution. It is multi-disciplinary, incorporates diverse voices from our community, and provides interactive and participatory opportunities for visitor involvement. The exhibition is far from perfect, but it's a big step towards reflecting the "thriving, central gathering place" of our strategic vision.

This post focuses on one aspect of the exhibition: its participatory and interactive elements. We experimented with many different forms of visitor participation throughout the building, trying to balance social and individual, text-based and artistic, cerebral and silly. With one exception, no single activity cost more than $30 to produce/maintain. We developed and prototyped everything in-house with staff and interns. Pull up an armchair for a tour of our participatory hits, misses, and related discoveries. (Note: you can view these photos of the exhibition on Flickr here.)

Content Development

While most of the participatory components to the exhibition are products that are visitor-facing, there were a few ways we made our development process participatory in terms of collecting and curating content:
  • We partnered with two local newspapers--the Good Times and the Sentinel--to run contests looking for people with stories of crazy things they'd done for love and love rituals with family and friends. The best of the results were published on the papers online and included in the exhibition complete with first person labels, photographs, and artifacts.
  • We collaborated with two local organizations--the Rebele Homeless Family Shelter and Dominican Oaks retirement community--to conduct oral histories and produce a small audio and photo-based exhibit on maintaining love in tough situations. Here's a photo of one of the retired couples who came with their family to celebrate her 80th birthday in the exhibition.
  • We invited museum members and a few community members/organizations to create small exhibition components about unique love experiences with family, friends, teammates, romantic partners, and pets. 
  • We invited a private art school to fill a very public wall with paintings made by students in response to the question, "How would you depict love?" This is the most visible community component in the exhibition--a huge wall of 60 paintings hung salon-style, including a giant Marilyn Monroe, several superheroes, cats, goth girls--whatever said "love" to a range of kids. The inclusion and prominence of amateur art in the museum makes a complicated statement that is worth a whole other blog post.
  • We prototyped the most complicated interactives (the Love Styles quiz and Hearts to Hearts game) with visitors in the months leading up to opening. Because our visitation is highest during our monthly First Friday events, we used those as opportunities for testing. We called the prototypes "activities," got lots of participants, and people loved giving their feedback and seeing the prototypes evolve over a couple months. We've continued to do this for future exhibitions.
The Love Lounge

I LOVE... entryway.
On the first floor of the museum, just as you walk in, you encounter a small gallery that we have transformed into a participatory, creative space. This gallery has always been tough for exhibitions--it serves as a pass-through to the classroom, and during evening events, people pour through it on their way to and from classroom activities. We decided that instead of fighting this use, we should embrace it and reposition the gallery as an informal, welcoming space for active engagement with content. We also felt that it was useful to "front load" participation so that people understand right off the bat that they can engage actively at the MAH. So many museum exhibitions relegate the participatory bits in at the end. We wanted to welcome people in a participatory way, so that hopefully, they would carry that same energy and enthusiasm for active engagement upstairs.

The content of the Love Lounge focuses on individuals from Santa Cruz County, historic and current, and the crazy things they have done for love. Some are conceptual (i.e. interracial marriage, keeping a family together while homeless) and others are more immediate (i.e. making a special gift). The content was developed in a participatory way but is presented traditionally via artifacts, text, photos, and audio.

There are three participatory components for visitors to the Love Lounge:
  • An entrance doorway with spray-painted I LOVE ________ that people can complete with chalk. People love this and it's easy to manage with a sponge. The content is fairly surface-level, but it creates a nice feel when you walk in. 
  • A wall on which people can write answers to the question: "What's the craziest thing you've done for love?" with sharpies. This is the smash hit of the room and the most risky thing in the whole exhibition. What kind of crazy museum gives people sharpies and lets them write on a wall? As it turns out, the wall is fairly manageable and generates fabulous stories. The biggest problem is the sharpies running out; visitors pound them into the walls, and they have to be replaced every two weeks. We also have problems with kids scrawling on the bottom (you can see the height below which the wall becomes a toddler playground) and occasionally, people writing inappropriate things. We haven't had too much swearing, but there are rare moments of violence. "Murder" is not something you want to see on this kind of wall. We manage the wall by repainting it when it gets full (about every 3 weeks, and yes, we photograph it first) and spot-repainting anything offensive the day it is noticed. The content truly is amazing. Every time we repaint, I'm sad to see many of the stories go--but then I'm always overwhelmed with the quality of what replaces them.
  • A typewriter on which people can write love letters. They can pin them to the wall or take them home. This is the sleeper surprise of the room--few people do it, but those who do get completely hooked. It's not unusual to find a teenager at the typewriter for an hour or a family learning how to use it together. 
There was a fourth interactive element in the Love Lounge in which people could recommend favorite love songs to get added to the soundtrack that plays in the space. We cut it in the first week after opening. It wasn't a substantive activity, we had no way to get back to people to tell them their song had been added, and it was right next to the typewriter--too many activities on one little desk.

Sound Stairs

As you walk up the stairs to the second floor of the exhibition, where the main gallery is, your footsteps trigger voices from the community saying "I love dance," "I love anthropology," "I love cats," etc. This installation is the only one that cost more than $30--about $2,000 for the parts. We see it as a long-term investment for the museum. We stole the idea from the Pittsburgh Children's Museum and worked with a fabulous local volunteer engineer to make it happen. We invite visitors to record themselves at the front desk with the staff member, and every month, we dump new voices into the staircase. We plan for this to be a permanent installation with content specific to the given exhibition at any time. This sound installation is delightful and adds surprise to the museum. I'm not sure whether people come back to hear their voices on it, but they certainly enjoy triggering them, listening, and recording themselves.

Second Floor and the Main Gallery

The main gallery for the exhibition primarily focuses on a blend of traditional exhibition content exploring romantic and platonic love. There is a mix of artwork, historical artifacts, community stories, and labels about the psychology of love. There are also four participatory experiences spread throughout the gallery:

The abacus and sticker setup for the Love Styles test.
  • "After the Breakup, I..." wall. This is a simple post-it-based talkback wall where people share their breakup stories. Powerful, poignant, and entertaining. We used this technique to develop the prompt. Requires occasional culling for violent or overly sexual content, but mostly, it's PG-13 and on-topic.
  • Love Styles personality test. This is our most elegant interactive in the exhibition, and it is always occupied by absorbed visitors. It is a personality test (based on real science) in which you can determine your own love style by answering a series of questions, teen magazine-style. We spent a long time prototyping this one. We didn't want people to have to add up points or do anything too onerous to participate. So, we created simple handmade abacuses that people use to track their responses to sets of questions. At the end of the quiz, you look at the beads to figure out what style is dominant. You then put a sticker under the name of your dominant style. The stickers accumulate to show a simple statistical distribution of love styles in the visitor community. Every once in a while, a post-it from the breakup interactive will make its way over here as a form of commentary on the activity. 
  • Hearts to Hearts card game. This social game, based on the popular Apples to Apples, is a mixed bag. The idea is to select adjectives from a deck that best describe the feeling of common relationship experiences--Thanksgiving dinner, office holiday parties, sharing rooms with siblings. When you get a group together at the table, it's incredibly fun and successful at prompting people to share personal stories related to the topics at hand. But it's hard to explain to visitors who haven't played Apples to Apples, and if there is not a gallery host to facilitate, this one often sits unplayed.   
  • A DIY wedding!
  • DIY Wedding Chapel. This one was not created by us. Artists Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle decided to create an immersive, surreal wedding chapel in which to show video clips from their series of weddings to the earth. They wanted to invite visitors to engage in spontaneous wedding ceremonies in the chapel, and so we brainstormed together until we decided on a blackboard with fill-in-the-blank wedding vows. (Rejected ideas included a paper towel dispenser for vows.) While very few people actually write and recite vows in the chapel, the ones that do are passionate and heartfelt, even when goofy. This is definitely a case where people's participation is higher given the overall participatory vibe of the gallery. In a traditional museum, I suspect people would see the blackboard as "part of the art" and not touch.
Elsewhere on the second floor, there are two small activities that explicitly tie the love show to our history collection:
  • Love Map. In the history gallery, there is a map of Santa Cruz County with paper, pins, and red yarn for writing a memory about a love experience in the county and connecting it to the place where it happened. This was launched as a facilitated activity during a "Love Fest" event in April and stayed. It is a bit of an ugly stepchild interactive--since it wasn't planned with the rest of the exhibition, we tend to forget to maintain and regulate the content. It can get messy, but the layered effect is somewhat appealing despite the reduced coherence.
  • Love matching game. Also created for the Love Fest, this little game is perched on a wall on the way from the second to the third floor. It is a simple poster showcasing photos from the museum archives of couples in love, old valentines, etc., along with cards with clues to match to the photos on the posterboard. We have found these staircase landing activities to be surprisingly appealing. Here are some girls crowded around it on their way through the museum. 
3rd Floor

The third floor of the museum takes love to a more spiritual and conceptual level. The sole gallery holds extraordinary paintings by Joan Brown, mostly reflecting her deep love of cats. Outside the gallery, there are personal stories from community members about connections to animals, and a lobby area that we have rebranded as a Creativity Lounge. There are three participatory activities on the third floor:
Cat temple meditation.
  • Animal stories. At the end of a wall featuring five animal photos and related first-person stories, there is an entreaty for participation. If you have a pet story to add to the wall outside the gallery, you can email it to our curator of history/collections manager, Marla. Only two people have done this. People like looking at and reading the pet stories on display, but the idea of going home, finding a photo, writing something up, and sending it in? Not so much.
  • Me collages. The Creativity Lounge is entirely taken over by this simple activity, in which visitors are invited to make collages that represent "the things you love most" from recycled magazines. There is a beautiful, simple set of clotheslines on which visitors can hang their completed collages. This activity is a bit of a conundrum. From an experience perspective, it's terrific. Visitors of all ages spend a long time working on their collages. They talk with each other while creating, both bonding and bridging as they cut and glue. There are many people who clearly have aha moments about the pleasure of simple art activities. And yet, while the collages look lovely on the wall, the content produced by them is weak. Almost no one looks at the finished collages except as a design element. We have a basket of completed ones (too many to hang!) with a sign that says, "Take home a hand-made collage." No one does. They pile up.
  • Meditation cushions. This is a different kind of interaction. In the gallery with the Joan Brown paintings, there is a "cat temple" that Joan built and painted. It is strange and beautiful and we wanted people to have a different way to experience it. We put out some simple cushions on the floor--the kind you'd put on patio chairs--in a semi-circle around the temple. There's a simple label inviting you to sit and meditate on the work. I'm always surprised and delighted when I see people doing so, sitting quietly on red cushions, while just outside the gallery the scissors and magazine bits are flying at the collage activity. It's nice to remember that there really is room for all different kinds of participation in a museum.

So What?

What's the cumulative effect of all these participatory experiences? Do they really help people connect with the content at hand? And if their development means less room (mental or physical) for contemplation of artworks and historic artifacts, is it worth it?

Of course, I'm biased. I feel strongly that we need to provide multiple entry points to exhibitions. We need labels AND audio AND post-its AND collage-making AND games AND meditation. I am proud to see visitors increasing their dwell time, sharing their delight and enjoyment of the space, having meaningful conversations in the galleries, and generally expressing that the museum is becoming a useful place for them to explore topics near and dear to the heart (literally).

What's the downside? In this case, the tradeoff was in design. Because we were taking this "and" approach for the first time, we didn't quite have the skills to figure out how we should organize everything to be participatory AND look gorgeous. We realized we needed a more complex hierarchical design approach to incorporate all the new elements sensibly and attractively. The multi-disciplinary content and the inclusion of community voices were just as challenging from a design perspective as the participatory components. The whole process exposed our weaknesses in a good way. We know what we need learn about and improve on over time.

For now, I'm glad to hear visitor comments like this one, from a 16-year-old girl:
even though we have seen famous exhibits from picasso to monet-this is the first exhibit that makes me want to do art
Amen to that.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Blueprint Book Club Part 3: The Future of the National Vending Machine

This post is the third and final in a series of reactions to Blueprint, a book chronicling the rise and fall of the Dutch Museum of National History (INNL) in 2008-2011. This guest post was written by Geert-Jan Davelaar and Anna Tiedink, educators at the Zuiderzee Open Air Museum in the Netherlands, the museum that "adopted" the INNL's National Vending Machine project after INNL's closure. The Vending Machine project was one of my favorites; you can learn more about it here

After INNL was forced to close its (mostly virtual) doors, the National Vending Machine, one of the projects the Museum of National History had set up, was transferred to the Zuiderzeemuseum. How is the exhibit living on at the museum and what is it like to take over someone else’s project? We’d like to share some thoughts and ideas in this guest post.

 The National Vending Machine is an actual functional machine, which, instead of traditional Dutch snacks, contains different everyday objects and souvenirs visitors can buy for a small sum. Information on a label and a short video clip informs the buyer about the history behind objects including a tulip, fishing boat, licorice and tea towel. Online, participants can share why they bought the object and suggest a new object for the machine.

A vending machine is actually a pretty good metaphor for the process of taking over the exhibit from INNL:

  • It was convenient: without going through the process of initiation and development our museum was treated to a very attractive exhibit, all set up and ready to go. 
  • It was well stocked: not only did we have about 60 objects and their stories; the whole project was well documented as well. 
  • It was solid: in the 1.5 years the exhibit had been presented at four different locations across the Netherlands, it had proven itself to be a great tool in engaging the public with historical objects. 

But the National Vending Machine, as most of INNL’s projects, is a prototype. Consequently, soon after the transfer, our discussions focused on the objective of the machine in its new context: what purpose does it have? Where should we place it and how do we want our visitors to engage with it? 

Zuiderzeemuseum is an open-air museum that focuses on a specific region in the north of the Netherlands. Originally, we placed the vending machine in the car park ticketing area, where about 60% of our visitors wait for a ferry to come to the museum itself. After exhibiting the vending machine in our entrance building, we found it was used by a cross-section of our audience: families, day-trippers, pupils and students. We also noticed about 30% of the exhibit's visitors by-passed the registration procedure, choosing to buy an object without creating a user profile. This focus on buying the object was also reflected in the fact that none of the registered participants responded to the objects online. The vending machine itself was popular, but the secondary experience around it was not.

So now, we are trying to come up with a way to go beyond the convenience of the quick sale and seduce our audience to have a deeper engagement with the histories behind the objects. We want to have a conversation with our audience and facilitate storytelling. We want to increase the offline and online participation and go beyond what can be seen as a gimmick: buying an historical object in an unexpected way.

While we are interested in facilitating deeper experiences, we also plan to start tweaking the usability of the vending machines to make buying an object as easy as possible. Why should a visitor go through a laborious registration procedure to get a RFID card when it has no other use for him or her? The RFID card was intended to be the entrance ticket for INNL, so it made sense in that context during their planning. For us, the card is less useful. Also, just like any vending machine, objects get physically stuck in the system. Rethinking the design and the technology used is an important part of this ongoing process.

Being an open-air museum presenting the past, present and future of a specific region in the north of The Netherlands, our discussion of what regional objects we should include in the vending machine goes deeper. Are we the ones who should curate the items that tell people’s history? We don’t think so. Most importantly, we see the Vending Machine as a catalyst for co-creation, giving our audience greater influence and a greater voice to a shared history. The Vending Machine will travel to different communities in and outside our region. We would like to link with other organizations, institutions, individuals and neighborhoods and have them decide which objects represent their history and belong in the exhibit. This project will result in new objects for the Vending Machine as well as our coming new main exhibition. The vending machine could even be a message in a bottle: going from one place to the other spreading its stories as it moves.

So, we’re back to our original vending machine. In a way we are like our visitors, standing in front of the brightly lit National Vending Machine, coins in our hands, 80 different compartments to choose from, trying to make our decision as we would an actual vending machine. We're left wondering what aims can be relevant for this exhibit and our museum. Which compartment would you open?