Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?

Our entire strategy at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is rooted in community participation. We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids. You get the idea.

When I share these stories at conferences, someone always asks: what about institutions that serve millions of visitors each year? Does community participation work for big cultural destinations too?

It's a good question. On a basic level, the answer is no. Local community centers and destination attractions are different beasts. If your institution is built for millions of one-time visitors, it is not built for thousands of frequent visitors, and vice versa.

My museum can pursue radical collaboration because of our small size and local focus. We have the opportunity to build relationships with community members over time. The time to get to know folks who walk in the door. The flexibility to be nimble, responsive, and involved.

When people ask if our work in Santa Cruz scales, I start by acknowledging our distinct strategy. We are doing something different than the big guys, for good reason. And they should do something different from us.

But does that mean community participation is only for small institutions or small communities? No. The principles of community participation--seeing the public as partners, inviting folks to get meaningfully involved, welcoming their talents and perspectives--work at any size. But the strategies are different.

Think about democratic politics. People participate in national and local politics--and they do so completely differently. Local politics are personal, accessible. You can meet a candidate. You can show up to a public meeting and ask a question. You can even get on a commission if you are so inclined. National politics are sweeping, remote. You can join a movement. Attend a rally. Share links and opinions and funds online.

People participate in both of these political arenas, and they do so differently. The same is true for cultural participation.

Here are a few distinctions between participation in cultural institutions by scale. Instead of separating these into smaller and bigger institutions, I separated these into "local" and "destination" institutions. I think it's a more realistic representation of the two types described, and a more useful way to look at strategies for community participation.

  • LOCAL INSTITUTION: Your community is a definable group of people connected by place. You can probably name several of them. Many of them can name each other. You run into each other in and beyond the institution. It's reasonable to focus your marketing and programming on participation onsite at your institution or at sites within your city. Your community lives nearby. Of course they can participate here. 
  • DESTINATION INSTITUTION: If your visitors come from all over the world instead of from down the street, defining community strictly by place doesn't work. You can't define your primary community as the people of Manhattan if 75% of your visitors are from other cities. For huge institutions, it's more appropriate to define community by identity or affinity instead of by geography. Think Etsy, Sierra Club, Mormon Church. Each of these institutions engages a community of like-minded individuals spread around the globe. Engagement for a distributed community can't happen solely or even primarily onsite. It requires a lot more distributed online engagement to complement onsite engagement. 
  • LOCAL: If your visitors can come in often, you can build relationships with people over time. They can attend first as audience members or spectators, checking out the space and getting comfortable. As you get to know visitors, you can learn more about their talents and interests. You can invite them into opportunities that build on their strengths. You can invest in building relationships on your site and theirs. Participation can be onsite only, or onsite and online. It's OK to expect people to come back to keep going deeper, and it's manageable for you to go to their sites, too. 
  • DESTINATION: If visitors come once a year or once a decade, the stakes are higher on the first encounter. Onsite participation has to be welcoming to first-timers, and it should catalyze opportunities for deeper engagement offsite. That means offering clear, visible, appealing participatory experiences that enhance the destination experience. And then it means creating some kind of digital link--via email, social media, photos--that encourages people to continue building relationships when they are back home. 
  • LOCAL: One of the hazards of small and local institutions is the potential for insularity. Some organizations invite a certain number of locals into the club and then close the door. If you want to build community, you have to balance the tribal desire to bond with buddies with the collective opportunity to bridge with strangers. Strong local organizations build alliances across sectors, cultures, and neighborhoods. They link people together across differences. This can happen through committees, summits, or long-term projects in which a group puts on a show builds something together. The local scale makes it possible for individuals in the group to make commitments to the institution and to each other. 
  • DESTINATION: Frankly, I think building community is difficult for large destination institutions to execute. Visitors to these institutions are often so focused on their own bonded group experience--my family vacation, our special date at the opera--that they are uninterested in strangers. Worse, since many of these institutions are crowded, visitors see strangers as annoying obstacles instead of potential friends and community members. However, destination institutions can build community through participation in at least two ways. First, through large crowd events (think political rally or pro sports game), where numbers work for you to build a sense of shared identity. Second, online, where participants from around the world can commit to long-term projects and relationships. 
I'll be honest: I prefer to work on the local level rather than in a big institution. I love tackling the challenges of building a more connected community in our county through art and history. I love sharing stories of our work--in part because I believe small institutions deserve more credit for their unique contributions to our field. But do I think local institutions are better than destination institutions? No. I appreciate the big guys too. Especially the ones developing ways for community participation to shine in their environments.

How do you see community participation thriving in large/destination institutions?

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