Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Art Brings People Together: Measuring the Power of Social Bridging

Earlier this fall, I read this headline: "Stanford study: Participation in a cultural activity may reduce prejudice." I eagerly read about a new social psychology research study in which whites, Asians, and Latinos engaged in a simple collaborative activity--making a music video together. When the music video was focused on Mexican culture, the researchers found that the white and Asian participants demonstrated a decrease in prejudice against Latinos, both immediately after the activity and six months later. When the music video was not focused on Mexican culture, no such change occurred.

I wanted to know more. So I called one of the researchers, Tiffany Brannon. I talked with Tiffany, and also with Hazel Markus and Alanna Connor, Stanford social psychologists who recently co-authored a pretty fascinating pop-science book about understanding cultural difference. And then I started talking with Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a UC Berkeley psychologist who blogs under the title Are We Born Racist?. The book of the same title that he edited is rocking my world, both as a museum professional who cares about inclusion and as a new mother.

It's impossible to process everything I am learning from these four psychologists in just one blog post. I am just starting to dive into the science of intergroup relations (psychology-speak for social bridging), and I greatly appreciate these individuals who are working to popularize and open up what could otherwise be esoteric research. So consider this just the first of many posts related to issues of cultural inclusion, evaluation, and impact. I realize that I may sound like a college freshman who just discovered Psych 101, but heck. This blog is about shared learning, and I went to engineering school.

My biggest question for these social psychologists is this: how do we apply their lessons to our work? At my museum, we pride ourselves on developing programming in a collaborative way that emphasizes diversity and intentionally encourages social bridging by bringing people together from different walks of life around cultural experience. We have witnessed and experienced incredible moments of transformation: homeless people and history buffs working together on historic restoration, graffiti artists and knitters collaborating on new artistic projects, visitors from different backgrounds making collages, or sculptures, or dance performances together. Our theory of change posits that when we develop projects that bridge “unexpected connections” between diverse people and ideas, people build understanding and social capital with community members from different cultures, generations, and backgrounds. But how do we know whether these efforts are working? Are we building social capital or just accumulating feel-good anecdotes?

Some irrational part of me hoped these social psychologists would whip out a magic list of prescriptions for successful social bridging or a checklist of indicators of its incidence. That didn't happen. But each of these studies yields another useful nugget. In the case of the Stanford study, I was fascinated to learn that the content of the music video was significant in terms of signaling change in prejudice. We often invite visitors to collaborate on activities comparable to making a music video--but we could be more mindful and strategic about the themes and content of these activities.

Reducing intergroup bias isn't a primary goal in all of our work, but in some projects, it's of particular interest. As we start the process at our museum of updating our permanent history gallery, one of our specific goals is to increase intergroup understanding in our community. We hope that visitors will not only learn about our diverse roots but be able to identify and transform some of the persistent challenges that divide us. We have some strategies for tackling this: convening diverse content advisors, incorporating anti-bias educational approaches in our design, developing participatory opportunities for visitors to connect past to present. But how will we know if we are actually achieving our goals? How can we assess the success of our social bridging efforts, and what can we learn from those measurements to improve our practice?

I have seen a lot of inclusion practices and policies in museums and cultural institutions, but I haven't seen many evaluations of their success. I think the general sense in our field is that it is too hard to measure these kinds of things, beyond counting the number of participants from different backgrounds.

But when I asked Tiffany Brannon how social psychologists measure something like prejudice against Latinos, she immediately brought up three different ways:
  1. Non-verbal communication. You can video-record interactions among participants, and then look at various non-verbal indicators of comfort or discomfort: who do individuals stand next to, do they make eye contact, how do they position their bodies. You can measure the change in that comfort before and after the research activity. While this would be difficult to do in a museum en masse, it could certainly be done with a small representative sample of visitors.
  2. Implicit Associations test. This test, which many of us have experienced in some form (perhaps at a science center), asks participants to sort words and pictures as quickly as possible. It reveals unconscious associations, for example, between skin color and criminality, or weight and intelligence. There are many forms of the test and it can be modified to target specific questions of interest. Measuring the change in implicit associations over time is a proxy for change in bias. Check out the range of demonstration studies online to see the possibilities. 
  3. Direct questioning. In the music video study, Tiffany and her research partners went back to participants six months after the activity and asked a series of questions about their interest in interacting with Latinos and their perspective on immigration policy questions that significantly impact Latinos. While it is not easy to ask directly "what do you think about XX people?" and get a truthful or useful answer, it is doable to ask proxy questions that are shown to be correlated with bias against particular groups. This technique is particularly interesting to me because our county already manages a bi-annual community assessment project that asks direct questions about perception of prejudice. We might be able to tie our efforts to their research AND show that participation at the museum yields a statistically significant different result (or not). 
These techniques are not rocket science, but none of them even occurred to me prior to my conversation with Tiffany Brannon. We may not be able to do the kind of publishable research in a museum that happens in a lab, but even in a messy system we can learn a lot to improve our programming and assess impact. I hung up from our phone call feeling like something immeasurable might be measurable... and also, that there is huge potential for partnership between researchers and cultural organizations to learn more about social bridging together, using the applied world of our community programs as the basis for formal research.

Have you done research on social bridging in your cultural practice? What would you like to learn, and what have you discovered?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Should Happen to Underperforming Nonprofit Organizations?

"I want death panels. I want to kill organizations that aren't showing their value."
--Devon Smith 

Now that's the kind of sentence that makes you put down your fork.

Last month, I had the good fortune to join a few brilliant people for a "Dinner-vention" about the future of the arts in America. In the course of the conversation, Devon Smith, a social media consultant from Threespot, started talking the problem of arts organizations that are no longer relevant or useful to their communities. [Watch the two-minute conversation between Devon and Clayton Lord starting at 14:25 in the video below.]

Devon didn't mince words. "Some organizations are going to die," she stated. "I want to incentivize them to die quicker." She argued that we need a way to correct for the fact that nonprofits don't operate in a traditional capitalist marketplace, and therefore aren't subject to the market forces that might otherwise cause them to fold when they are no longer useful. Hence, death panels.

For a long time, I agreed with this argument. Like a lot of people, I am incredibly frustrated by organizations floating on endowments that allow them to sail on regardless of impact or community relevance. I'm pissed off that well-capitalized organizations that engage a narrowing constituency can raise millions while young organizations struggle to be viable even as they produce powerful work for growing communities. I agree with Devon that more mergers and accountability would be a great thing. I wish organizations would focus more on creating amazing work than on sustaining operations.

But here I sit, the director of a museum that almost closed, squirreling away money for an operating reserve. I am part of the problem. And proud of it.

As I've watched arts organizations struggle over the past few years, I haven't thought, "gee, it's great that the market is causing these places to shut down." I haven't thought, "wow, the market is really resetting our field in a productive way." Instead, I've thought, "this is wasteful and depressing."

Consider two high-profile arts closures in 2013: that of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and the 3rd Ward. Neither of these organizations closed because of a collective decision that they had outlived their usefulness. They closed for capricious financial reasons, and they left disappointed artists and participants in their wake. Could each have offered MORE community value? Absolutely. But when market forces hit arts organizations, it doesn't necessarily mean a more useful outcome than when arts organizations are insulated from those same forces with cash reserves, endowments, and other potential hindrances to change.

And let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the market does a better job at this than nonprofits. When the dotcom crash started killing off companies in the early 2000s, my DC housemates scavenged strange gifts from vacated offices. We decorated our group house with purloined office chairs and giant motivational posters--the detritus of an industry that was massively hemorrhaging. Yes, the market corrected for the dotcom bubble. But it did so in a way that was wasteful and chaotic.

What's the alternative to this waste? We have the opportunity in nonprofits to create a MORE efficient marketplace than capitalism offers. Instead of talking about "creative destruction," I think we should focus on creative reinvention. I firmly believe that there is more value to be created, faster and more efficiently, by reinventing and transforming existing organizations than by killing them and starting again. 

Consider the museum I run. In 2011, we were on very shaky financial ground. Our cash balance was zero, but that wasn't the only asset we had. We had a gorgeous building in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz. We had an army of long-time donors, members, volunteers, and participants who invested a lot in the organization and cared about its longterm future. We had a dedicated staff that wanted to make this museum as good as it could be. We had a vision for the museum as a thriving, central gathering place in the community.

As we transformed our programming in pursuit of that vision, we were able to tap these existing assets to quickly and dramatically increase our value to the community. We were able to do that faster than we ever could have if we had started anew.

You could argue that if the museum had closed, the resources that had gone into it--money, effort, goodwill--would have been redistributed in the marketplace. But we know that's not exactly what would happen. There would be a lot of leakage. There would be a lot of waste. It would take much more energy to recapture those assets than to redirect them.

And so I issue a challenge to people who are frustrated with arts organizations and their limited relevance to your community: reinvent them. Recombine them. Reenergize them. Instead of starting your own organization, find a way to add value to one that already exists. House your program in an underutilized library. Pitch your project to a struggling symphony. Sure, some of those organizations are not going to change, or not enough, to be worth your participation. But some will.

Forget killing. Forget life support. Let's revitalize our communities, and the organizations that engage them, with the courage and creativity they deserve.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Who Counts? Grappling with Attendance as a Proxy for Impact

When you count attendance to your museum, do you include:
  • people who eat in the cafe?
  • people who rent the facility for private events?
  • people who engage with your content online?
  • participants in offsite outreach programs? 
  • volunteers? 
This summer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the kind of "how sausage is made" story that rarely gets written about the arts. It's about museum attendance and how the five big, free museums in St. Louis count it. There's quite a range. Summertime concerts at the history museum? Those count. Outdoor movies at the art museum? Nope. At the St. Louis Science Center, the focus of the article, there was a particularly creative perspective on attendance, including numbers for offsite board meetings, parades where staff made a showing, and attendance at a school next door. The only form of engagement lacking in the article is online participation--which for many museums, could yield the highest numbers of all.

Even if you consider some of these counting strategies to be egregious, the basic question is still relevant: who counts? When I reflected on our museum, I realized we have some inconsistencies in how we calculate attendance. For us, annual attendance includes programmatic activities onsite and off (about 10% of our programming is conducted at community sites). That means daytime visitors, event participants, school tours, and outreach program participants. It does not include facility rentals, meetings, fundraising events, nor people who might see us at a community event but not directly engage.

What's missing from this picture? I think you could reasonably argue that we should be counting:
  • researchers who come in to access information in the archives
  • people who rent the museum for a private event that includes a curator/artist tour of exhibitions
  • kids in museum summer camps
  • people who visit the historic cemetery that we manage
  • people who talk with us online about historic photos we share or blog posts about the collection
And then there are the weird inconsistencies. Why do we count participants in an art activity for families at a community center but not members of the Rotary Club to whom I give a presentation about the museum? Why do we count visitors who tour the galleries chatting with their friends but not visitors who tour the galleries chatting with a staff member (i.e. as part of a meeting)? 

This doesn't even get to the potential parsing of people's intentions. If someone comes to an exhibition opening for the free food, do they count? If a kid gets dragged to a museum with their parents, do they count? If someone has an epiphany about art outside the museum, do they count?

Probe too deeply and the question gets absurd. The more important question is not WHO counts but WHAT counts. Internal to an individual museum, relative attendance--changes over time or program--can yield useful information. But if you try to make meaning out of attendance comparisons across institutions, you start juggling apples and oranges. While many institutions separate attendance by program area, I don't know of any that separate attendance into "impressions," "light engagement," "deep engagement," etc. - categories that might actually have meaning. 

What is meaningful in the context of achieving our mission? That's the number we should be capturing.

The Relationship Between Attendance and Impact

How can we measure impact? That's a huge question. Let's look at it in the narrow context of the relationship between attendance and impact.

What is the information value of attendance? Attendance does a good job representing how popular an institution is, how used it is, and how those two things vary over different times of day, days of the week, times of year, and types of programs.  

But does attendance demonstrate mission fulfillment? Unless your mission is "to engage X number of people," probably not. For some institutions, like the MCA Denver, attendance is seen as a very poor measure of impact. But for almost all museums (even MCA Denver), attendance is correlated with impact in some way. 

For attendance to be correlated with impact, you have to find a way to articulate a theory of change that connects attendance to your mission (inspiration, learning, civic participation, etc.). And then, you have to be able to calculate a conversion factor that relates the number of people who attend to the number for whom the mission is fulfilled.  

Imagine managing a shoe store. Your mission is to sell shoes. Attendance is the total number of people who walk in the door. Of those people, 10% actually buy shoes. That means 10% is your conversion factor; if you want to sell 5 pairs of shoes, you need fifty people to walk through the door.

Now let's say your mission isn't just to sell shoes, but to build relationships with customers who will love your shoes and buy more of them in the future. Maybe the conversion factor from first sale to repeated sales is 20%. Now you have fifty people who walk through the door, five who buy shoes, and one who will be a longtime customer.

Now let's turn back to museums. The St. Louis Science Center's mission is to "ignite and sustain lifelong science and technology learning." What's the conversion factor from a single visit to that mission? 

I'd start by splitting the "igniting" from the "sustaining." You could argue that any single visit or interaction with the Science Center--at the facility, out in the community, online--could have the spark of ignition. But sustaining lifelong learning requires a different level of commitment. That count could include people who are visitors/members for 10+ years. Or volunteers who participate on a weekly basis. Or students who visit at some point and go on to careers in science and technology. 

It's not easy, but the museum could define the indicators that it considers representative of sustained learning. It could count those incidences. With some effort, you could calculate conversion factors from igniting to sustaining for each major program area. And if you knew the conversion factor for general attendance from igniting to sustaining, you could actually generate an estimate of how many of the kids zooming around the facility are likely to sustain a lifelong interest in science.

Looking at it in this way would also allow institutions to expand beyond reductive "all about attendance" approaches to demonstrating impact. You could argue that some of the most important work of "igniting and sustaining lifelong science and technology learning" has nothing to do with attendance to the science center. It might involve producing ad campaigns linking science to community issues, or advocating for job training programs in technology, or designing curriculum for community colleges. And again, if you could designate indicators for the kinds of learning impacts possible through these efforts and the conversion factors from igniting to sustaining, you could count and present them. 

So perhaps the St. Louis Science Center's annual report could look like this:
"Our mission is to ignite and sustain lifelong science and technology learning. We know that not every spark leads to a blaze, so we focus on igniting as many sparks as possible and making strategic investments in programs that are likely to sustain learning for the long term. 
We ignited science and technology learning this year through ongoing exhibits, educational programs, outreach in the community, and online interactions, which reached 3 million people. These sparks grew into sustained lifelong learning for at least 400 people, who got involved in local technology hobbyist projects, who pursued careers in science and technology, and helped us facilitate learning experiences as volunteers at the museum. 
We also focused this year on working with the countywide adult education agency to start an intergenerational science program at three senior centers throughout St. Louis. While this program only involves 40 people per site, all of them are participating in the kind of deep science engagement that is proven to lead to lifelong science and technology learning."
Too unwieldy or unorthodox for funders? Maybe in the beginning. But in an age of nonprofit accountability and increasingly sophisticated evaluation strategies, I think this kind of approach could be useful. What do you think? 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Back to Blogging with a Roundup of Terrific Articles

Back to the land of the blogging! My eyes may be bloodshot, but the sight of the blogger interface still warms my heart.

I've spent the last eight weeks on a "blogcation" so I could focus on the birth of our new baby, Rocket. MUCH appreciation to the incredible guest authors who helped me out: Stefania Van Dyke, Beck Tench, Julie Bowen, Adrienne Berney, and George Scheer. And thanks to you for engaging with their posts and with the reruns from the Museum 2.0 vaults. I may not exactly be "refreshed," but I am thrilled to be writing again.

This week, I thought I'd ease back in by offering a roundup of five of the most interesting bits I've encountered online in the past two months.

IF YOU READ NOTHING ELSE... read The Northwest London Blues - a gorgeous essay by novelist Zadie Smith about libraries, British politics, and changing perspectives on community space. She knits together nostalgia and activism with a level of nuance rarely found in debates about the value of museums, libraries, and other cultural spaces. Here's a taste:
And the thing that is most boring about defending libraries is the imputation that an argument in defense of libraries is necessarily a social-liberal argument. It’s only recently that I had any idea that how a person felt about libraries—not schools or hospitals, libraries—could even represent an ideological split. I thought a library was one of the few sites where the urge to conserve and the desire to improve—twin poles of our political mind—were easily and naturally united. 
Give yourself a long afternoon and read it.

OR IF YOU HAVE A SHORTER ATTENTION SPAN... you may share the common opinion that baseball is too damn slow. In a useful post, Doug Borwick suggests that art is like baseball: declining in relevance. Doug offers analogies between the challenges faced by Major League Baseball and those of traditional arts institutions: a legacy practice that has gotten more commercial but not more connected to real people and real communities. Check out the comments for more unlikely connections between Mao and the American national past time.

SPEAKING OF RELEVANCE... the NEA has just released the highlights reel of the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, featuring increases in arts engagement via electronic media, art-making and sharing, movies, and reading, and decreases in attendance to visual and performing arts. There's a lot more to unpack here; Reach Advisors took a first stab from a museum-centered perspective with a rousing call-to-action in response to declining attendance. Again, the comments are meaty and worth reading.

AND SPEAKING OF DIGITAL PARTICIPATION... ArtsFwd is hosting a national innovation summit for arts and culture October 20-23 in Denver. It appears that the in-person event is limited to participants from fourteen cities (funder-selected?), but they are offering a virtual live stream for free. Strangely, it's not easy to figure out who is speaking on which topic, but the topics and format look compelling. Full schedule here. Update: you can find the speakers here and they are truly awesome.

NAKED, BLEEDING THIEF BREAKS INTO MUSEUM, SPENDS THE NIGHT REARRANGING ITS STORAGE FACILITY. This is mostly just a really great headline. Though the curator's quote is pretty fabulous, too.

I'll be back next week with a longer essay. Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Guest Post: Restoration Artwork

This is the last of the guest posts offered during this fall season, and it dovetails with last week's post about opening up collections access nicely. George Scheer is the director and co-founder of Elsewhere Collective, a fascinating "living museum" in a former thrift store in Greensboro, NC. Elsewhere is at the top of my list of places I would most like to visit. In this post, George grapples with the challenges of balancing the care for a museum collection with that of contemporary artists-in-residence who are constantly reinterpreting it.

Every Saturday, the curatorial team at Elsewhere, a living museum in downtown Greensboro, NC, reviews the project proposals of its artists-in-residence. Proposals involve sculpture, performance, participatory-projects, videos, and installation that use and respond to the museum’s collection.  This past July, artist Guillermo G√≥mez proposed to restore a piece of art.  

Restoration is a formal gesture for most museums. In this post, I hope to bring out some of the complexities of the idea of restoration as it occurs within an experimental museum supporting both a collection and the practices of emerging artists.

Elsewhere is a living museum, set in a former thrift store once run by my grandmother, Sylvia Gray, from 1939-1997.  During this period, she amassed a vast collection of inventories, filling the three-floor store, including a former 14 room boarding house, and third floor workshop.  In 2003, collaborator Stephanie Sherman and I “re-discovered,” the former store, declared nothing for sale, and began inviting artists to create works using the set, or collection of objects.  From the outset, we imagined an infinitely re-arrangeable puzzle, a three floor installation composed and recomposed from only what was at hand.  Both objects and art-objects would be part of this continuing transformation and evolution.  The objects, artworks, and the traces of past experience are all part of an unfolding continuum of the living museum.  

The artwork to be restored is a piece called the Glass Forest, (2009) created by Agustina Woodgate, composed of glass and brass cabinets and mirror-etched bark patterns.  The Glass Forest was itself an act of restoration. It re-set the room’s contents of glass mirrors and significantly restored the tired tongue-and-groove floor. Curiously, Guillermo is the current studio assistant of Ms. Woodgate, and is intimately familiar with Woodgate’s work, process, and thinking.  

The proposal was as much to restore an artwork as it was to “take back” the artwork, because after 4 years of slight interventions, film shoots, and an “unsuccessful” effort to create a new work that changed the tone, composition, and material content of the piece, it was determined a restoration-reset of the Glass Forest was in order. During the proposal it was discussed that certain elements of previous works and interventions should remain in the restored Glass Forest and it was further noted that Ms. Woodgate’s work undid a previous work, Mr. Stag’s Hosiery Museum, by Lucy Steggals, a period piece of an imagined hosiery salesman. At every moment the question of restoration was countered with the preservation of traces.

The restoration, which was championed by the curatorial team, has sparked an interesting debate about the intersecting challenges of making work in and from a museum collection, and the occasional incongruity with artists’ creative needs and formal structures of residency program itself.  

Elsewhere’s residency invites artists to use the museum as site, resource, and concept to create new artworks. Artists are explicitly asked not to have proposals before they arrive, but rather immerse themselves in the museum, its community, and collection. The artists’ challenge after a short three days on the ground is to design a response to the museum, press their experimentation with materials, and transform both object and artwork. To this effect the curatorial team works closely with each artist to support the process, guide the careful use of collection, push a continual reflection on site specificity, identify past histories, and ensure a relation to the various publics that the museum serves.  

Sometimes a work just doesn’t work, or the challenges of the residency don’t connect with the artist’s practice, or the timeframe for response is too short to fully engage the complexity of the museum’s context. While there is a strong resistance toward “fixing” a work, Elsewhere’s curators are all artists and view their role as collaborators in the overall creative development of the museum-as-artwork. They maintain a creative autonomy and intimate relation with the museum and its collection that empowers them to play with and transform the visual environment. Most importantly, the conversation about restoration brought to light the contingent values that support a site-specific, museum-based, experimental practice with a collection.  

As a guardian of a collection, Elsewhere breaks a marker of tradition by allowing art and object to be transformed. However, extreme purposefulness and resourcefulness are applied to the tiniest plastic bead, antique cloth, and wood scrap left from a cut made to century old lathe. “Successful” artworks draw out qualities in the collection, reflect material histories, and show the artists’ process and conceptualization. Each moment of material use is collection use, and represents an ethical and aesthetic decision for resource potential and the way we advance and perpetuate Elsewhere’s meaning to its artists and publics.  

Like other museums, Elsewhere is an interpretive space, constructed to secure and invest in cultural meaning, cultural objects, and creative expression. We willingly transfer this interpretive responsibility from the institution and its curators to the artist at the artist’s most precious, fragile, and critical moment of creative process. This demands that awareness and responsiveness be deeply embedded in the artist’s practice and thought. For curators, it means they must act as guides for the artists, supportive and challenging, but willing to continually reflect on the museum’s own institutional reflexes, aesthetic tendencies, and precious instincts.  

As I write this post Guillermo’s restoration remains in mid-process. Strangely, I am the only one on the team who saw the Glass Forest in its original inception, and I’ve remained quiet about small details that are different between Guillermo’s actions and what I remember to be Agustina’s original intent. Nevertheless, in those gaps of document, memory and intervention, Elsewhere evolves. Each artist brings a restorative and disruptive process. We welcome that. They often place pieces into the puzzle that unhinge whole sections of the picture, but they also restore and evolve the visual environment and the museum’s meaning. It is a living process, a deeply artistic process, and an exciting part of the museums’ imaginary--that a restoration is always already a new work of art.