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?
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