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?