Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Museums, Divided Attention, and Really Bad Commercials

Ready for something ridiculous? Check out this inane AT&T commercial about a woman whose absorption in her smartphone is so great that Facebook updates become substantiated as pieces of art in the museum through which she strolls. It's like a bad public service announcement about the relationship between ADD, self-absorption, and psychosis.

It also suggests that for young people, masterpieces in museums are not nearly as interesting as a good friend's new haircut. And while I'm heartened by the fact that YouTube commenters were offended and dismayed by the commercial, I do think this commercial reflects common fears that museum-lovers have about younger generations and museums.

There are two fears at work here:

  1. People are so distracted by technology that they can't disconnect to pay attention to what's really important. 
  2. People are more interested in their own social lives and whatever is happening right now than in the big ideas, stories, and themes that have traditionally defined us as humans and communities. 

Both of these fears have some truth to them. People (of all ages) are making bad decisions because of technology rapture--whether that be texting while driving or spending more time with screens than with family members. And social media can promote a kind of narcissism in which each of us lives in a tiny bubble of friends' rants and raves.

These issues are important. But I feel that they are societal issues, not issues specific to museums or art institutions. I think this commercial could have just as easily been framed in another context that affords focus--work, a dinner party, playing sports. This kind of behavior is a violation of attention no matter where it happens. You could even argue that the commercial inartfully points to the ways that people map their own imagination onto museum artifacts. That it suggests that museums are sufficiently populist that people feel they don't have to check their interests and comfortable behaviors at the door. In some ways, this behavior is no more objectionable than people walking through a museum chatting about their personal lives and occasionally turning to engage with the art. It's just more visible, and offensive, because of the device-mediation.

Many people feel that museums are sacred spaces for a particular kind of attentive experience, and that it would be better if people understood and valued the specialness of that experience. I agree. But I think we have to earn it. We have to help people make connections to the power of artistic mastery, scientific discovery, and historical leadership in ways that push people out of the everyday. We have to provide the interpretation, the linkages, and the sparks that bring people into meaningful engagement with our artifacts and stories.

Visitors don't want to see their own lives on the wall. But they DO want to see reflections, expansions, and distortions of their experiences in ways that allow them to form new connections. That's what compelling relevance is about. It's not pandering. It's bridging.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Seeking Clarity about the Complementary Nature of Social Work and the Arts

When we talk about museums or cultural institutions as vehicles of social and civic change, what does that really mean? Last week I had a conversation that changed my perspective on this question.

I was with two close friends who work in social service organizations focusing on homelessness and criminal justice respectively. We all work for nonprofits. We all care about making a difference in our community. And we each have specific interests in increasing access, connection, and empowerment of marginalized people.

But when you switch from the "why" to the "what" of our work, the similarities end. Here are some of the big differences we noticed:
  • Their work involves life-or-death situations. Museum work is mostly non-contact. The consequences of risk-taking and experimentation are incredibly different.
  • There is infinite demand for their services, whereas we struggle to generate demand for ours. There will never be enough meals for hungry people or mental health facilities for those who need them. Meanwhile, arts industry leaders worry about "oversupply" of organizations in the face of dwindling demand. 
  • Social service providers often find themselves working in a reactive stance to unexpected incidents. Arts organizations can operate on their own timelines and internal values. Those that want to be more relevant often have to push themselves to be work responsively to events outside their domain.
These differences made me realize that even as we talk about arts organizations as vehicles for civic engagement or social change, we have the opportunity (and the necessity) to think of our work in a distinct way. This may sound obvious, but the rhetoric about cultural organizations working in the social sphere often ignores our inherent differences. We champion a historic house museum for hosting a soup kitchen, a children's museum for tackling family wellness in low-income housing, or an arts organization for writing poems with convicts. We talk about these projects as if they were analogous to the work being done by a social service agency, and we wonder where the line between cultural and social work blurs.

This is the wrong analogy and the wrong question. Instead of asking whether we are focusing too little or too much of our attention on social work, we should be asking HOW we can approach the work of community development in a distinctive way.

Looking back at the bulleted list above, every one of the differences between arts organizations and social service organizations presents an opportunity for us to do really interesting, specific work. We CAN take risks with more flexibility than social service agencies. We CAN devote some of our resources to reaching communities with incredible demands. We CAN develop programs that are visionary and unusual because we are not wading in crises to which we must respond.

When the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum hosts a monthly soup kitchen, they are doing it to open up conversations about social justice around food. When the Boston Children's Museum initiated the GoKids wellness program, they did it to empower families to co-create meaningful shared experiences that emphasize health. When my museum brings together homeless and non-homeless volunteers to restore a historic cemetery, we do it to encourage people in our community to look at history and each other with respect. I admire all of these projects, and I also acknowledge that they achieve different goals by different means than social service agencies do.

Cultural organizations have the luxury to do work that supports community development in ways that are more creative, experimental, and yes--supplemental--than social service organizations. The very fact that the work we do is "extra" shouldn't be a downside. We're doing it because we have the unique capacity to do so. We're doing it because we care. We're doing it because that's what "adding value" means.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Quick Hit: Upcoming Opportunities in Santa Cruz

I'm starting this post with an annoying, fabulous number: 73.

That's the predicted high temperature today in Santa Cruz. It's the typical temperature here all spring, summer, and fall. It's pretty freaking beautiful.

The weather is hopefully the least of the reasons you should want to come work with us here at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History... but it doesn't hurt.

We have a couple of upcoming opportunities with looming deadlines that might interest you:
  • Summer Internships. We have five open positions in Community Programs and one in Exhibitions. These are unpaid, part-time internships in which you will make a significant contribution to our work, and at the same time, learn a heck of a lot about participatory design and community engagement. Check out the descriptions and how to apply here, and learn more about the MAH intern experience on their blog here
  • Participatory Performing Artist-in-Residence program. This is a new program we created with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to enable performing artists to develop work at the MAH that invites active audience participation. We are funding four residencies per year at $2,000 apiece so that performing artists can partner with our staff to co-create meaningful, community-centered work. We started this project because of conversations with performing artists who wanted more experience exploring audience participation in a supportive environment. In 2011, at the Wallace Foundation Beyond Dynamic Adaptability conference, I was really struck by artists who expressed concern and frustration about being "cut out" of participatory shifts by institutions and consultants... and I have always wanted to find ways to invite them in. We are PSYCHED to have the support from Hewlett to make it happen in a small way with this residency program. You can read more about the program and how to apply here. Priority will be given to applicants from the greater Monterey and San Francisco Bay region.
Applications for both of these opportunities are due at the end of April. So start dreaming about the sun and exciting museum experiences. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Why Do We Interpret Art and Science So Differently?

A genius has just created a major body of work. Her work is monumental in her field, but her achievements are somewhat opaque to the general public.

Imagine seeing a museum exhibition related to this person's work. What will you experience?

The answer depends on what kind of museum you are visiting.

If we're talking about an an artist working in the context of an art museum, it's likely that the genius' work will be presented with minimal interpretation. Labels will reference the importance of her work in the context of the art world. The curator and any educators will work around and noticeably behind the artist herself.

If we're talking about a scientist in a science museum or science center, the presentation will be completely different. Museum exhibition designers will distill her achievements into stories, objects, and interactive components that are understandable to lay people at the middle school level. The genius might have a quote, photo, or object on display to give context to the story, but the majority of the content will be developed and produced by the museum, not the scientist.

Both of these approaches have plusses and minuses. Science museums get criticized for "dumbing down" big ideas for a general audience. Art museums struggle with seeming "pretentious" and narrow in their interpretation.

As someone who has worked in both science and art museums, I'm confused as to why there is such a gulf in our perspectives on how and why interpretation fits into the picture. Artists and scientists both work in specific contexts on big, complicated ideas. There are huge opportunities for science and art museums to cross-program with geniuses like Olafur Elliason, James Turrell, and many, many folks working across the art/science spectrum. While a few institutions have capitalized on the intersections between art and science (notably, the Exploratorium, Science Gallery, and the New York Hall of Science), most stay squarely in their own camps.

Why do we think science is impossible to communicate in its "pure" form but that art must be communicated in that way lest it be distorted? Why do we think scientific research is any more or less understandable to the general public than fine art? Considering the emphasis in schools on science and the evisceration of art programs, I wouldn't be surprised if science literacy is higher than art literacy in contemporary American society.

Both types of institutions would be well-served if we examined the expectations underlying our work and whether we are going overboard to disassociate ourselves from them.

In science centers, we try to combat the notion that science is complex work for a limited, rarified few. So we focus on the idea that "you can be a scientist" and that "science is fun." Do these democratizing messages prevent us from pursuing interesting ways to present the extraordinary genius of some scientists and the incredible complexity and repetition of scientific work?

In art museums, we try to combat the notion that art is something your child can do, and if you like it, it's art. So we focus on the idea that "artists are special" and that "art is complicated." Do these elitist messages prevent us from exploring useful ways to honor the creativity in everyone and the simple pleasures of aesthetics?

It's ironic that the stereotypes we're trying to run from lead us to each other.

Thank you to the ISEN listserv for helping spark this post, via the controversy over Richard Dawkins' denigrating remarks about informal science.