Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Public Argument About Arts Support as Seen through the Lens of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Earlier this month, the Detroit Institute of Arts was "saved" by a voter-approved property tax (called a "millage") in its three surrounding counties. The millage will provide about $23M per year for ten years to support operations, during which time the DIA hopes to raise $400M to enhance its endowment and replace the operating income from the millage. Residents in the three counties that pay the millage will receive special benefits: free admission to the museum and expanded educational programming.

I'm not going to comment on the reasons for the millage or its merits from an arts management perspective--please check out Diane Ragsdale's excellent post for a round-up of commentary and some hard-hitting opinions about the big picture. I'm focusing on the community response to the prospect of the millage and the way the public debate reflects broader conversations about the public value of the arts.

Analyzing Public Comments in the Detroit Free Press Online

The pre-vote public commentary in the Detroit Free Press about the millage is like any online newspaper commentary: polarizing, extreme, and highly varied in tone and reasonableness. But the arguments trotted out represent how far we have to go in articulating the public value of arts institutions (and helping our supporters speak the same language). It's like a giant, free, no-holds-barred focus group that represents a true range of arts users and non-users.

Reading through the 300+ comments online reminded me eerily of the extraordinary 2010 ArtsWave report on the public value of art (full report here, my synopsis here). The report, which focused on Cincinnati, found that the common arguments for public support for the arts don't hold up for most people. In the executive summary, the authors identified several common assumptions that "work against the objective of positioning the arts as a public good." Here are three of those assumptions and their substantiation in the Detroit Free Press:
  • The arts are a private matter: Arts are about individual tastes, experiences and enrichment, and individual expression by artists. 
    • This perspective was rampant in Michigan. As one Detroit Free Press commenter wrote: "You are not getting it. Your cultural outlet is art galleries and symphonies. Mine is tractor pulls, MMA and the occasional anvil shoot. But why is yours more deserving of my tax dollars?"  
  • The arts are a good to be purchased: Therefore, most assume that the arts should succeed or fail, as any product does in the marketplace, based on what people want to purchase. 
    • Several Detroit comments were in this vein. Commenters asked reasonable questions about why the museum couldn't balance the books, but more importantly, they kept coming back to the argument that if the museum was successful, it would be financially viable. One commenter told a DIA supporter: "[if you support them] just send the DIA a $20 check. Why force everyone else to do it? If all the people that plan to vote yes just bought a membership to the DIA, there would be no need for the property tax. Vote with your money instead."
  • The arts are a low priority: Even when people value art, it is rarely high on their list of priorities.  
    • Detroit, like a lot of cities, is struggling financially on many levels. Many comments on the DIA fell in this category, e.g. "I would rather my $20 goes to my local schools, police, or fire if they are going to raise my tax." Many of the comments also suggested that it was unfair for people throughout the counties to support an institution in the middle of the city.

Community Case Statements for the Public Value of Art

So what do we do with these assumptions? The ArtsWave report suggests that we need to make effective, specific case statements for public support of the arts. Several commenters in the Detroit Free Press in support of the millage tried their best. Their arguments ranged in success, mirroring the discussion in the ArtsWave report about the utility and shortcomings of common case statements (see page 15 of the report). Here are just two arguments that were notable for the difference in the responses they sparked:
  • Unsuccessful argument: Great cities should have great arts institutions. As one commenter said: "it's so embarrassing to come back home and find that people in this area don't care for the gems we still have, just no sense of pride here."
    • Rebuttal: That's elitist. Lots of negative and ambivalent reaction to this case statement. This kind of comment was common: "Your elitist tone is what turns people off from wanting to pay higher taxes. The whole 'we know how to spend your money better than you' attitude is condescending and false."
  • Successful argument: Great museums improve quality of life and the value of the region. "it’s just not about a museum, it’s a local AND regional “quality of life” issue. Whether it’s visitors from the suburbs or from out of town, or possible families contemplating relocation, or the city residents themselves…people look at the Entire Big Picture….Education, Culture (Symphony, Opera, Museum), Sporting venues, Shopping, Crime & Safety, etc."
    • Rebuttal: none. Interestingly, these kinds of comments on the website did not spawn heavy critique or vitriol. This was also the argument put forth in news articles by politicians--that cultural amenities, schools, and neighborhoods are all important when courting businesses or prospective homeowners.
This second argument is one part of the case statement that ArtsWave recommended for the city of Cincinnati. Their recommended case statement is:
A thriving arts sector creates “ripple effects” of beneļ¬ts throughout our community. 
They elaborate that:
The following two ripple effects are especially helpful and compelling to enumerate:
  • A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument. 
  • A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.
Looking at news articles and public discussion, it seems that the DIA's supporters won the day with the first of these arguments. I hunted through the Detroit Free Press discussion with the second ripple effect in mind, but I couldn't find evidence of it in the comments. I found some comments about the fact that the DIA provides programs for schoolchildren and poor families, but that falls into the "services" case statement that often yields unfavorable comparison to "core" civic services (schools, police, social services). I found only one comment about the diversity of visitors to the DIA, but that was presented in rebuttal to someone saying it is an elitist organization. There were no case statements for the DIA that emphasized how the museum brings us all together, connects counties, or creates bridges.

Opportunities for the Future (and for Other Struggling Arts Institutions)

This issue and the discussion surrounding it highlighted to me the value of the ArtsWave report as a proactive tool for advocacy. No one wants to wait for a life-or-death situation to start testing out case statements. If I were running the DIA, I would have used the ArtsWave report to map out talking points during the millage debate. And as the director of an organization rebounding from financial crisis, I'm thinking a lot about what messages support our future and how to encourage not just staff but our members and friends to think about the museums in those terms. Every time a visitor talks about enjoying the museum, I smile. But when they use phrases like "making the community a better place" or "part of something bigger," I'm thrilled.

And what to do when the advocacy is successful, as in the case of Detroit? I'm surprised by the little the DIA has said publicly about the millage effort and its outcome. I understand that the museum was restricted in public statements during the campaign, but afterwards, I expected a much more aggressive reframing. In thanking people for supporting the millage, the DIA focuses on granting benefits (primarily free admission) and makes almost no commentary about what these taxpayers have done and are doing for the future of the DIA and the vitality of the Detroit metro area. I can understand why regular citizens (or irregular, depending on what you think of people who comment on newspaper sites) might not focus on social case statements for the DIA. But the institution should jump on that. There's a missed opportunity to reframe what the millage means and the role of community support in museum funding when saying thank you.

It's probably a useful exercise for any institution to ask: what are the messages about our value that resonate most--not just with our own supporters, but with the people in our community who don't know anything about us? If people were debating the future of our institution in the paper, what would they say? How can we equip our supporters with the strongest case statements so they can be champions and not pariahs? And how do we engrain those arguments into our operations so they are self-evident?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Participatory Internships in Santa Cruz this School Year

It's the end of the summer, which means we are sadly bidding farewell to our fabulous summer interns, getting lonely and scared about how we will possibly do amazing work in the coming months without their brilliance, ingenuity, and creativity.

And then comes the part where we recruit new interns, get blown away by their abilities... and the cycle continues. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we take our interns seriously, give them real responsibility, creative challenges, and meaningful work opportunities. We ask a lot and we give a lot and at the end of the day we sometimes throw parachute men off the roof.

I'm particularly excited about two internships that relate to participatory exhibition design. We also have fabulous opportunities in Community Programs, Education, and Development - please check the website for all the options and information on how to apply. You don't have to be a student to be eligible. Our interns include undergraduates, graduate students, and people of all ages looking to jumpstart creative careers in community engagement.

First, there is the Participatory Exhibit Design Internship. These interns work with our curatorial team to develop interactive and participatory components for upcoming exhibitions. Current and former interns have developed everything from games to personality tests to a whole-gallery installation of memory jars. We typically have two to three interns in this role, working 15 to 24 hours per week. Interns this year will be focusing on our winter Work in Progress show (Thomas Campbell, Ze Frank, Timber Framing) and spring Photography and Identity show. We are always looking for interns with strong graphic/3D design skills; the best interns can help us plan exhibits, design labels, AND learn to develop terrific participatory experiences for visitors.

Second, and highly experimental, is the Museum Camp Internship. We have recently decided that in the summer of 2013, we will be hosting a 3-day professional development hack-a-thon in which participants will develop, design, and deploy innovative interpretative experiences around collection objects. It will tie into an experimental, month-long exhibition in our main gallery. In other words, people who participate in Museum Camp will get to test all kinds of wild ideas for visitor engagement with a real live exhibition. We already have enthusiastic support from some museum rock stars like Kathleen McLean, Maria Mortati, and Eric Siegel. Exciting, right? To make this a hit, we're going to need someone who wants to make this their baby and support its creation. So if you want to help develop an unconference and explore participatory exhibit design, this internship is right for you. (And of course, much more to come about Museum Camp in the months to come.)

Fine print: all internships at the MAH are unpaid. We are happy to help you get school credit for your work here, and we love writing glowing recommendations for your future careers. Our interns tend to be highly self-motivated people who have always dreamed of having the latitude to make their dreams real. People who struggle tend to need more structure and direction than our institutional culture affords. Please feel free to comment or email with any questions.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What's the String that Ties One Experience at Your Institution with the Next?

Reader, I was wrong.

In 2008, I wrote a post arguing that museums should focus on the pre-visit, not the post-visit, if they want to capture and retain visitors. I said:
In many ways, the ability to successfully set a powerful and useful expectation for museum experiences is MORE valuable than the ability to extend said experience. When you set an expectation, you frame an experience. Once visitors have already banged on the exhibits and watched the giant nostril show, the experience belongs totally to them. The chances of reaching and holding onto them back at home are small. They’ve formed their impressions of the on-site experience, and their chance of returning, becoming members, etc. is heavily based on those impressions. You can send them all the pleasant follow-up emails you like, but such notes are unlikely to be the motivating factor that brings them back through your doors.
While I still believe that framing the experience with marketing and at the beginning of a visit is important, a workshop last week taught me that the end of the visit is potentially very, very important when it comes to encouraging deeper involvement with the museum. I now realize that people can have a great experience and have NO CLUE what other opportunities (return visit, membership, in-depth programs) are available to them. I don't care how many platforms you're active in--if they are not connected to each other, people will not aggregate the experiences.

What's missing for these visitors who attend, enjoy, and don't (or sporadically) return? They are missing a string.

Let me explain. For a long time, I've thought of museum visits or cultural encounters as pearls on a string. Each experience is a pearl. They are not necessarily linear or identical to each other. But if you want to deepen the commitment between visitor and institution over time, you need a string that visitors can hang their pearls on, a thread that holds the growing relationship together. No string, and you've just got a bunch of visits rolling under the furniture.

Yes, pre-visit marketing, announcements, and welcomes are essential to get that first pearl in a visitor's hand. But we all know that it's easier to keep a current user/visitor/patron than to acquire a new one. How do you build your relationship with that person who has gotten their first pearl? How do you give them the string?

Last week, as the kickoff for the Loyalty Lab project, the experience design firm Adaptive Path facilitated a workshop at my museum for staff and visitors in which we created a "map" of the visitor experience at a museum event. Our goal was to wholly understand how visitors experience our events before, during, and after the visit.

One of the surprises was a series of observations from casual visitors--people who attend an event or two per year, who are not members, and who tend to come because of word of mouth or an invitation from a friend. They all reported having a great time at the museum... and immediately letting go of it afterwards. There was no followup. They had not been asked to join an email list or take a newsletter or join the museum. They had not taken photos in our photo booth and gotten an email about them later. They were not part of our Facebook community sharing photos and stories from the event. They came, they made a pearl, and then they dropped in their pocket with the rest of their day.

We realized from this discussion that we have a huge missed opportunity when people are leaving the museum. On their way in, they are excited, curious, ready to engage. They are not ready to hear about membership or take a newsletter about what's coming up next time. They bolt right past those tables to the "good stuff." But at the end, they've had a great time, and they want a takeaway from the experience. They WANT to join the email list. If we're smart, we should be developing a takeaway that both memorializes the visit and leads them to another. In other words, we should be giving them a string for their new pearl.

As a concrete example, consider the library. The pearls are the books you read. But the string is the library card. I've always thought of the library card as the first thing you get at the library, but it actually comes at the end of the first visit, when you have loaded up with books and you want to take them home. The card is a passport to continue your experience with the books and with the library. You want the card because it's your ticket to proceed. But it also becomes the connector that ties one experience to the next.

At our institution, we have several string candidates. Visitors make a lot of stuff here, and we're talking about ways they might be able to exhibit or share it with others in a way that encourages their return to see how their stuff has evolved. We're considering expanding our photo booth survey machine. We're talking about punch cards that serve as cultural passports with a range of museum-related missions or lead you to "earn" a membership. Or, there's just the simple starting point--a newsletter, a membership brochure, a friendly volunteer inviting you back. We're talking about shifting from having "greeters" to having "goodbyers" who thank you for coming and invite you to a next specific event.

What's the string in your organization? How do you invite people back, and how do you help them collect and aggregate their experiences with you in a meaningful way?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Introducing Loyalty Lab

A woman walks into your museum. She's visited a few times before, and you vaguely recognize her as the lady who loved bubble painting, thought the bike sculpture was funny and didn't like the video installation. Last time she had a kid with her, and he got chalk all over his hands from the mosaic activity they did with a volunteer. They wrote a comment about their experience that got turned into a bird by other visitors in the public sculpture hanging in the middle of the museum. You remember seeing them stand in front of the magic mirror in the history gallery, laughing as they made themselves into giants in the glass.

In the admission log today, she is registered as a tick mark under the column marked "General." That's it. No information about who she is, why she's here, what she's looking for, and what she gets out of her connection to the museum. No memory of her relationship with us.

Our museum has a big challenge when it comes to tracking and rewarding participation. Like a lot of small museums, at the MAH staff and community members build relationships on a daily basis. Staff members invite visitors to help write exhibit labels, create art installations, and give opinions on upcoming programs. Visitors become volunteers and take the lead on new projects and activities. Visitors tell staff members and volunteers again and again how their lives are changing because of their involvement with the museum.

This is wonderful and maddening at the same time. It is wonderful to see the uptick in membership and donations and the positive energy from people who come in the door. It is maddening to have no way to track or intentionally encourage these relationships to grow. Like many small museums, the MAH cannot afford expensive ticketing or membership software systems. We have email newsletters and memberships and conversations, but none of those things talk to each other. Our computers are amnesiacs when it comes to participation. We have very high ability to form relationships with visitors, but very low ability to capitalize on those interactions.

With the support of the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, we're starting a new project called Loyalty Lab to change that. In the Loyalty Lab, we will develop a series of low-tech, low-cost strategies and systems for small institutions to track, celebrate, and act on personal interactions with visitors. I'm not talking about RFID chips for every visitor or a Nike+ system to track their every move. I'm talking about human-scale, simple, delightful ways to acknowledge people's involvement and encourage them to go deeper. It could be loyalty cards. It could be charm bracelets. It could be free hugs. We want to be as creative as possible in exploring the options.

Our goals are to:

  • Measure and increase membership acquisition and renewal 
  • Measure and encourage repeat visitation 
  • Increase participant perception of the MAH as a friendly place with high community value

And we want to do it with you, too. We've created a little blog that we will use to track our project openly. It's starting with a workshop tomorrow with Adaptive Path, an experience design firm that focuses on mapping "customer journeys" and developing tools that enable users to more enjoyably and successfully navigate the offerings of the business or organization. In museum terms, that means understanding how visitors hear about us, why they come, what they do when they are here, and what happens after they leave. It means finding the points along the way where we lose people, and the opportunities for us to track and celebrate people's deepening involvement. You can learn more about this process from an Adaptive Path slideshow here.

This is a year-long project for us at the MAH. We'll go from research to prototyping to final design from now until early summer of 2013. We'd love to have you join us as contributors to the Loyalty Lab blog or just follow along and comment on our progress. We've already heard from one museum--the Boston Children's Museum--where they are experimenting with a "V.I.F." program (Very Important Family) to reward repeat family engagement. I know there are other organizations--museums and beyond--playing with innovative approaches to membership, pricing, and tracking to support and encourage deeper relationships. The goal here is for all of us to learn and experiment together.

How do you think about loyalty and relationship-building in your organization?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Populism, Commercialism, and Jeffrey Deitch: The Shifting Debate about LA MOCA

Barbara Kruger Last week, my mom called. "That contemporary art museum is on the front of the LA Times again," she said. "It's more about that curator who was fired. I can't believe that an art museum can be front page news in LA for days."

LA MOCA has indeed been front page news, especially in the art world. I'm not usually that interested in museum politics, but this soap opera is too big to ignore, especially as the conversation has shifted over the last few weeks to something I care a lot about: populism.

Here's what happened:
  • In 2010, amidst severe financial woes and declining audiences, the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA (MOCA), hired Jeffrey Deitch, a NYC gallery owner, to be their new director. He was mandated to turn the ship around financially and to expand the reach of the museum in the community. His success has been mixed on these accounts; attendance more than doubled in the past two years, and the budget has been righted at a much lower level than previously attained, but the financial health of the organization is in doubt and very, very dependent on mega-trustee Eli Broad.
  • At the end of June of this year, Paul Schimmel, the MOCA's longstanding, well-respected chief curator, was fired. Strangely, Paul Schimmel was fired by the board, with the message delivered by Eli Broad, instead of by Deitch. The first wave of critique focused on the very valid question of why Schimmel was fired in this manner. 
  • The discussion then shifted to the overall direction of the museum. Schimmel's departure was seen as the final confirmation of Deitch and Broad's populist, celebrity-driven approach to exhibitions, and that concerned many critics, artists, and museum directors in the art world. Schimmel's departure was followed by the resignation of the four high-profile artists on the MOCA board and a huge amount of debate in the press, including prominent people calling for Deitch to resign
In some ways, this debate is fabulous. It's amazing to see papers like the LA Times cover the debate about the future of an art museum deeply. It's wild to see so many bloggers and museum directors and critics weigh in. It's great when my mom wants to talk about it.

But it's also frustrating because I see a lot of conflation of different issues in the discussion of whether MOCA is going in the right direction. I'm pissed off that this debate is giving populism a bad name.

There are three distinct aspects to Jeffrey Deitch's approach that I believe need to be treated separately:
  1. Commercialism. Deitch comes from the gallery world. Since he was hired, there have been concerns that Deitch would take MOCA in a direction that focuses on the darlings of the international art market based on dollar signs instead of artistic quality. Deitch has done this to some extent, and he has also pursued commercialism in another way: by engaging celebrities from the worlds of film and fashion as guest curators and artists. I agree that it is disturbing for a museum whose mission is "to be the defining museum of contemporary art" to invite amateur movie stars to curate exhibitions. Two of the artists who resigned from MOCA board expressed their concern in these terms, saying: "It's about the role of museums in a culture where visual art is marginalized except for the buzz around secondary market sales, it's about the not so subtle recalibration of the meaning of “philanthropy,” and it's about the morphing of the so-called “art world” into the only speculative bubble still left floating (for the next 20 minutes)."
  2. Museum management. Is it appropriate for a museum director of a large, iconic institution to serve as its chief curator? Is it appropriate for a life-time non-voting museum trustee to fire an employee? Is it useful to have a director who can bring in crowds but can't raise necessary funds?  Is it good value to pay a museum director $650,000 per year? These are reasonable questions.
  3. Populism. Deitch--and to an even greater degree, Eli Broad--have expressed clearly that they want to expand the audience at MOCA. Attendance has increased in the past two years from 150,000 to 400,000 annually. The question is whether this attendance gain is partnered by a loss for the institution--a loss of artistic or intellectual rigor, a loss of pursuit of excellence. Critics have rightly noted that admissions barely make a dent in an art museum's operation, so these additional people aren't adding much revenue to the museum. The implication, as in this complicated editorial by Boston ICA director Jill Medvedow, is that Deitch's combination of youth culture-dominated exhibitions, performances, stars and celebrities have "delivered audience" at a cost to education, scholarship, and long-term value.
I agree with the serious concerns in #1 and #2. But I am confused and frustrated about #3.

Visitors are people. They are not numbers. They are not dollars. They are not deliveries. They are people who have experiences with art in art museums. I'm dismayed that the same critics who decry Deitch's disregard for artists and curators treat the public as an unimportant commodity in museums. Why do these critics care so much about the influence of money and so little about the influence of audiences? Why do they focus on what bait is presented to lure visitors in and not on what opportunities are made to engage them?

I feel very strongly that a "defining museum of contemporary art" in one of the biggest cities in America should attract more than 150,000 visitors annually. It should probably attract more than 400,000 visitors annually. The numbers are signposts that demonstrate the extent to which diverse people in a community engage with the objects, stories, experiences, and learning that comes with a museum visit. And if contemporary art experiences are really going to be a significant part of daily life in a big city, the museum has to have a presence worth talking about, arguing about, and visiting. Consider the MCA Denver, which has become a national media darling for director Adam Lerner's eagerness to take on an ambitious goal of engaging a whole community with contemporary art.

What galls me most about this MOCA debate is the insinuation that there's a causal relationship between populism and quality. Attendance has a causal relationship with public awareness, access, and appeal, not with content type or artistic rigor. No one says that the Met is intellectually sloppy because millions of people visit each year. No one says a tiny regional museum is extraordinary or intellectually strong because only 5,000 people attend. There is no causal relationship there. Unfortunately, some museums, especially university museums, seem to believe in this causal relationship and trumpet the extent to which no one sees their shows as a sign of purity. This is the worst kind of elitism in museums. Whatever his missteps, Eli Broad is a strong voice in this regard. He describes increasing access to art as a "moral" issue for museums. I agree.

MOCA's mission talks about "engag[ing] artists and audiences through an ambitious program of exhibitions, collections, education, and publication." They may not be doing it in the right way. They may be overly influenced by a rich philanthropist with a very demanding personality. They may not have the right fundraising strategy. They may not have the right director. But hopefully they--and all art museums--will push forward in engaging artists AND audiences.

What do you think?