Wednesday, June 26, 2013

One Small Step for Detroit, One Giant Leap for Museum Ethics (Maybe)

Over the past three years, the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) has served as the museum poster child for the debate on the public value of the arts. Last year, the DIA was saved from financial crisis by voters in its three neighboring counties who elected to take on an additional property tax to support the museum. And now, in the past month, Michigan's Attorney General and State Senate have blocked the emergency manager of Detroit from seizing the DIA's collection to pay off the city's debt.

Like last year's tax, this newest development is an important step for the DIA, but it has even greater impact on the field overall. From a non-museum person's perspective, it's a little mysterious.

What's Happening in Detroit

Detroit is in serious trouble financially. The city's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is pursuing many options to avoid bankruptcy. One option he put on the table in May is to sell off the DIA's multi-billion dollar collection of art. The DIA and its collection are owned by the city, which makes it a city asset.

Museum supporters and art lovers were up in arms about this proposal, arguing that these "cultural gems" are held in the public trust and should not be shed to pay off creditors. But this argument for the public value of the art is tough to uphold in a time of severe challenges. Detroit's city leaders are looking at a host of tough choices, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to the idea that a bunch of artwork matters less than emergency services, schools, parks, and any number of other city programs and assets that might be slashed to avoid bankruptcy.

For museum wonks, there's a more specific ethical reason that the DIA's collection should not be treated in this way: we don't see museum collections as assets on the balance sheet the same way Kevyn Orr does.

The American museum profession has an ethical standard that says "in no event shall they [funds raised by deaccessioning collections objects] be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

In other words, in the museum world, if you sell artwork, you must put the proceeds into a restricted fund to either purchase or preserve other artwork in the collection.

Of course, Kevyn Orr doesn't see it that way--he sees the DIA's artwork as assets, and that's not unreasonable. This DOES come up when museums go bankrupt, at which point collections can be seen as assets by creditors. However, in this case, it is not the DIA that is going bankrupt but the city. If the city (or state) forces the DIA to violate museum ethics to satisfy city debts, it will have grave consequences for the museum and for the museum world.

Think of Artwork like Organs

Here's a weird but apt analogy: organ donation. For large organs like the heart and lungs, there is a national body that governs all organ donation and distribution in the US. All organs are given voluntarily without compensation (usually by dying people), and then the national body manages a list with complicated algorithms to determine who receives which organ.

Imagine if Detroit's largest hospital had an organ donation program, and Kevyn Orr required that the hospital violate medical ethics by selling any large organs received to the highest bidder. This could be a significant income stream for the city and help settle debts. At the same time, it would likely lead to that hospital and its surgeons facing grave consequences in the medical world... just like the DIA will face if the city forces it to violate museum ethics.

I know organs and artwork are different, but the situation is functionally the same: a professional field with a particular code of ethics whose rules may or may not be recognized by government bodies. That's why it is so significant that the Michigan Senate voted to take on the American Alliance of Museum's code of ethics regarding collections - it functionally means that the state is acknowledging and abiding by the professional standard in the museum field.

Complications and Ethical Dilemmas

But let's not start cheering just yet. There is an ironic sidenote to this "victory" for museum ethics. At the same time as this controversy is playing out in the public arena via Detroit, museum professionals are in the midst of debate about whether the ethics of deaccessioning still apply. A recent article in Museum magazine (published by the American Alliance of Museums) talks about the ugly realities of how a collection may be sold if a museum goes bankrupt. The Center for the Future of Museums, which is also run by the American Alliance of Museums, has been hosting a virtual "ethics smackdown" on its blog about the ethics of deaccessioning over the past several weeks. Only a small percentage of museums are formally signed onto the AAM code of ethics. While deaccessioning may be a museum sacred cow, it is not broadly considered our field's most important challenge.

I feel conflicted about this whole question. On the one hand, it drives me nuts that the ethical rules around deaccessioning force museums to protect objects in a way we do not comparably protect other core aspects of our work. There is no requirement that if you cut an educational program that you have to use the funds saved from that to fund other educational experiences. I've worked with museums that have hefty collections and restricted acquisition funds but are closed to the public because all of their dollars and assets are wrapped up in objects and none in public service or access. I can also see the argument that it actually makes museums MORE relevant if our assets are considered fair game in a situation like Detroit's--just as important and just as endangered as other core services.

On the other hand, I feel strongly that as arts are generally misunderstood and marginalized in the public eye (and funding sphere), it's important for us to do whatever we can to help people understand WHY artwork is like organs, and why these objects remaining in the public trust matters. In an offline conversation about Detroit, Margy Waller, who is brilliant at framing the public value of art, put it this way:
The arts are already pretty much ALWAYS seen as a low priority among things of public value. In fact, they're (I want to say we're) often seen as a private matter -- and not a public good at all. 
The arguments about sale of DIA art strike me as forming inside that frame. And if it happens, I worry that it would reinforce what is already the dominant way of view of the arts --- and set back our case-making: that the arts create places where people want to live, work, invest, and visit -- all things Detroit desperately needs right now.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Great Participatory Processes are Open, Discoverable, and Unequal

When I was in college, I spent almost all of my free time in the slam poetry scene. A few years and a few hundred open mics into that experience, it became obvious that some venues fostered amazing poetry communities, others, not so much.

One of my favorite open mics was at the Cantab in Cambridge, MA. The Cantab had a formula. Everyone got five minutes on the mic max. Slots on the list were first-come first-served, though newbies were usually placed early in the set so they would have a gentle onramp (and so seasoned poets could skip the kiddie pool if they chose to). Once the list filled, there were still shadow spots for special poets--but you had to be good to get one of those. The crowd was uniformly supportive of all, but effusive applause was meted out based strictly on quality. Experienced poets worked hard to bring their best to the stage, and they got honest feedback from a motley gang of peers and spectators. The whole experience welcomed newcomers while helping them understand what "value" constituted in that community.

Compare that with any number of lousy open mics. Some were so exclusive that it was impossible to feel welcome as a newcomer. Others lavished praise so indiscriminately that poets were never challenged to improve or bring forward new work. Some had no clear time limits or criteria for participation, and the poetry swung between brilliance and poke-your-eye-out horror.

I was reminded of these experiences when reading Dan Thompson's excellent post about what makes a good jazz jam. Dan writes about the explicit and implied "rules" of participation for musicians that create great music both onstage and for the crowd. He casts the whole idea of a great jazz jam in the context of the tragedy of the commons--like a poetry open mic, the jazz club is a community whose experience is fabulous or awful depending on the extent to the culture cultivates and enforces a healthy participatory process.

When I think about what makes for great participatory experiences in both poetry open mics and jazz jams, it comes down to three basic things:
  • The process is open. There is some way for anyone to walk in the door and sign up.
  • The process is discoverable. If there are implied rules or idiosyncrasies (and in the best cultures, there are), they are not completely shrouded in mystery. Repeated participation can make them knowable and understandable. 
  • The process is unequal. It acknowledges differences in talent, experience, and effort, and has a system--either explicit or implicit--for rewarding greatness.
These might sound obvious, but when you think about how they relate to bad participatory processes, it becomes apparent where things can break down. Here are just three participatory processes I think are in serious need of improvement:
  • Public comment at city council meetings. These suffer from an excess of equality. Have you ever stood in line for your two minutes on an issue at a government meeting? The process is incredibly open and equal. Wackos and experts all get the same amount of time. And the end result--what politicians actually decide--rarely seems meaningfully correlated with the participatory process. These systems are open, but they are also excessively equal and not discoverable. The result is that people get turned off, cynical, and leave. Only the extremists remain. And thus councilmembers have to go outside the process to get good input from community members (if at all). The process becomes even less discoverable. It gets killed by the equality of it.
  • Grant application feedback. These suffer from a lack of discoverability. You spend hours agonizing over the language for a grant application. You put it in, wait a couple months, and then you get a one-page form letter informing you that you did (or more likely, didn't) receive funding. Occasionally, the funder will offer limited opportunities for feedback on the proposal. Even more rarely, you will receive panel comments directly. Grant processes are inherently unequal--the funder is trying to find the best work to support. But they are also problematically not discoverable. It's rare that you get direct feedback about your proposal without aggressively asking for it. The whole process of grant applications would be improved if providing panel comments was a matter of course. Applicants would learn what they lacked, and funders would (hopefully) receive better applications. Opaque funding decisions don't help anyone.
  • Exhibition proposals. These suffer from a lack of openness. This is an issue we are actively grappling with at our museum. We receive frequent inquiries from artists and community members about how thy might submit exhibition proposals for consideration by our institution. At many museums, the curatorial process is completely closed and undiscoverable--"don't call us, we'll call you." Others have clear and open processes for submittal and proposal review. As we figure out what's right for us, I'm guided by the desire to create something open and discoverable--but not necessarily "fair" and equal.
Do these three criteria--open, discoverable, unequal--resonate for you in designing or experiencing participatory processes? 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Memo from the Revolution: Six Things I've Learned from our Institutional Transformation

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to give one of the closing talks at the Theater Communications Group annual conference in Dallas. TCG is the industry association for non-profit theaters, the way AAM is for museums. Given TCG's multi-year Audience (R)evolution initiative, I took the opportunity to write a new talk about what revolution has looked like at our small museum in Santa Cruz.

This is not a transcript of the talk - just the highlights that I hope will be useful for you. You can download all the slides here.

First, a quick recap on our revolution. Over the past two years, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has undergone a significant transformation of program, audience, and resources. When I came to the museum in May of 2011, we were on the brink of closure financially. At the same time, our community relevance was limited. There was a small, dedicated group of people who knew and loved the museum, and then a larger community that barely knew we existed.

With our backs against the wall and a new vision statement positioning the museum as a "thriving, central gathering place," we started a revolution. Our revolution is predicated on three big ideas:
  1. Art and history are something you do, not just something you learn about. By inviting people to actively participate with us in co-creating programming, we empower them as creative agents, cultural producers, and people for whom the museum is a relevant, compelling partner.
  2. Being a strong community hub requires bringing people together across difference, encouraging bridging experiences instead of targeting a specific audience. When we work with diverse collaborators, from opera singers and ukelele players to knitters and graffiti artists, we catalyze new partnerships and relationships that make our community stronger and more cohesive.
  3. We believe in fearless experimentation. It is only by trying things out, challenging our assumptions, and analyzing the results that we can adapt and thrive in a changing world.
In our first year of this new approach, we had extraordinary results. Our attendance more than doubled. Our busiest day more than tripled. And we went from five years in the red to running a generous surplus that got us on the path to financial stability. Best of all, the response from our community was incredible--a diverse range of individuals and local press is effusive about the new vitality, public value, and engagement in the museum.

Here are six things I've learned from this transformation that might be helpful to other would-be revolutionaries.

A revolution is not an exercise in concentric circles. Imagine you run an organization with a small set of resources (purple circle) and you want to expand to a larger pool of resources (yellow circle). When an organization grows in an evolutionary way, it primarily focuses on expanding its resources. More audience. More money. This kind of work is not risky because the center of it--the programmatic core--doesn't necessarily have to shift. You just get bigger. In contrast, in a revolution, the center of the circle shifts, often quite dramatically. Even if your new resource pool includes most of the people and funds that you originally had, the programmatic core of the transformed organization is likely way outside of the original purple circle. You have to be willing to jump off the ledge and recenter your programming where you believe your future audience and resources will reside. This is often the hardest part of institutional transformation--being willing and able to listen to the voices that are NOT inside your organization. If someone has been turned off by your organization or is not engaged, incrementalism won't reach them. You have to start where they are, with a whole new premise, to get them involved.

Focus on what matters. Why do political activists hammer on singular, simple messages? Because focus wins the day. If you are starting a revolution to make your facility more welcoming, your programming more edgy, or your audience more diverse, you have to focus JUST on that. Pick one or two goals and repeat them ad nauseum with your team. Don't let secondary concerns delay you from moving forward aggressively to make these things happen. A simple example at our institution had to do with making the facility more welcoming. We heard again and again that the museum was cold and uncomfortable. So we started getting couches donated. The couches didn't match. They looked junky. But they gave visitors a comfortable place to sit, and we started hearing that people felt welcomed in a way they hadn't before. Over time, we are getting more attractive couches that reflect a unified design aesthetic. But we weren't going to wait to solve people's comfort problem until we had the money or the design. We started with couches.

Be rigorous. Especially when working in an experimental or unorthodox way, it can be easy for it to look like you don't have a coherent strategy behind the work you do. Why are there these ugly couches? Why are you holding a pop up museum in a bar? In our case, we've gotten very focused on developing strategic frameworks to back up our approach to community participation, social bridging, and experimentation. We use a clear logic model to relate our activities to their intended outcomes and impacts (here's more about what a logic model is). This allows us both to explain ourselves to external funders and to have clear internal criteria for how we plan and evaluate our projects to ensure that we are moving towards our big institutional goals and vision.

Exploit your size. There are unique advantages to every budget level. Big organizations seem comfortable with this--they make big plays based on their scale. But many small organizations seem to spend too much time trying to emulate big organizations rather than exploiting the opportunity to be more personal, more idiosyncratic, and less bureaucratic. No one opens a small coffeeshop and thinks, "we'll really be successful if we are just like Starbucks." The whole point is to not be Starbucks. Instead of apologizing for the "lack of professionalism" of small institutions, we should celebrate the ways that our programming can lead to stronger engagement on an individual level. My first year at the MAH, I would often say that we are a "no money, no bullshit" operation. We may not have funding for your project, but we won't tie it up in red tape either. You want to have an artist collective sleepover at the museum? Sure. Want to give visitors sledgehammers and invite them to help make a giant metal sculpture? Sounds great. Want to give free admission spontaneously as a gift to visitors who need it? No problem. Just as a large organization can exploit its resources, we can do the same in a different way as a small organization.

Help it spread. At some point, you may personally feel like you no longer want to be a revolutionary, that your time as a risk-taker is over. That's fine. At that point, consider becoming a "space-maker" who provides other people in your organization with the support and the cover to be able to take risks to further the work. I occasionally meet creative directors who note that "all the new ideas have to come from my desk." When I hear that, I realize that those are leaders who are not ready to make space for other risk-takers on their team. The only way that a revolution can shift from a personal goal to a movement is by making space for lots of people to get involved. I first learned about this paradigm of risk-takers and space-makers from Beck Tench, and it has helped me as a manager ever since.

Remember why you got into this. The reason that we do this revolutionary work is in service of a bigger mission--in my case, to help people transform their lives and our community through active participation with art, history, creativity, and culture. Whatever your personal focus, it's worth thinking about whether you are working on a problem that you consider to be truly important. I have been inspired in this thinking by a brilliant speech by mathematician Dick Hamming about what it takes to be a great scientist. Hamming commented that, "The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems." Selling tickets is not an important problem. Building a building is not an important problem. Find a problem that is truly important, and you will find a revolution worth fighting for.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Guest Posts and Old Favorites Coming this Fall to Museum 2.0

There have been many times over the past six and a half years that my blogging has been strained by life and work. I've been proud that I've been able to keep up weekly posts--even when on vacation, moving across the country, or pulling 80-hour work weeks.

But later this summer, I'm taking on a personal transition that goes above and beyond: I'm having a baby. This is going to add all kinds of wonderfulness and chaos to my life. I don't want to blog about it. But I do want a healthy period of not feeding the Museum 2.0 beast while I am busy feeding another one.

For that reason, I'm planning to devote August and September of this year to a mixture of guest posts and re-posts from the Museum 2.0 vaults. After six and a half years, I have more than 650 posts, and given the statistics on new visitors to the site, I assume that many of you may have missed gems from the early years. At the same time, I'm hoping guest posts will bring in some fresh perspectives that push forward the dialogue on this blog and in the field.

So I'm curious:
  • Is there anyone you would love to see a guest post from this fall? I have some folks in mind but would love to know if there are specific individuals, projects, or institutions you would like to hear from.
  • Are there topics that you are curious about that you feel haven't been covered here (or haven't been covered for awhile)? I can pick posts from the past based on popularity, but if there is a more interesting lens through which to filter, I'm happy to do it.

P.S. Don't worry; I'll be back.