Monday, December 17, 2018

Apply Now for the World's Best Museum Job: Mine.

Hey, you. Yeah you, generous community builder. You, brilliant manager. You, fearless fundraiser. You, playful leader. It's time to make your dreams a reality and apply to become the next executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH).

Our board, staff, and community are seeking a new director to join the MAH in 2019. The job announcement is live now, accepting applications on a rolling basis. If an amazing leadership opportunity is on your wish list this holiday season, I hope you'll apply.

When you check out the job description, you'll see the MAH is not looking for museum-director-as-usual. We're looking for someone with vision and commitment to community involvement. We're looking for someone with strong experience in management, fundraising, and community organizing. We welcome candidates with nontraditional resumes, and we encourage women and people of color to apply.

As the current executive director, I'm not participating in the selection of the next director. But it is my honor and pleasure to tell you what a great job it is (and to answer any questions you might have).

Santa Cruz County is a open-hearted, generous community--a great place to be a cultural leader. It's the kind of place where people say, "Something different? Let's try it." It's a place where people strive to bridge cultural differences and fight for equity--even when it isn't easy. Santa Cruz County is full of natural beauty, iconoclastic history, and explosive creativity. And the MAH is in the middle of all of it, striving to build a stronger, more connected community.

As 2018 ends, I hope you'll give yourself the gift of considering this opportunity or sharing it with a promising leader in your life. I can't wait to meet - and support - the next director of the MAH.

Have questions? I imagine others do as well. Share yours in the comments below and I'll try to answer them to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Change Ahead: I'm Shifting from Local to Global in 2019

I have some big news to share. In mid-2019, I will transition out of my role as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) to focus full-time on leading OF/BY/FOR ALL, an emerging global movement to build more inclusive community institutions. We're planning for a slow and thoughtful transition; you can read more about it on the MAH website. Here on this blog, I wanted to share more of the personal side of this decision and what it means for me.

It has been my great privilege to lead the MAH since May of 2011. When I started as executive director, I was 29 years old. I knew nothing about management. Nothing about fundraising. But the museum needed a new direction, and the board took a risk on me. I knew something about community participation. I knew something about taking risks and making space for others to do so. I knew that Santa Cruz County - my beloved chosen home - was full of creative, curious people eager to connect in a new kind of institution. And so we made the MAH that institution, full of diverse, brilliant humans coming together to build a stronger, more connected community.

The MAH today is profoundly different from the museum I was hired to run in 2011. The budget is up 4x, full-time staff is up 6x, and visitation is up 9x. We've built a community plaza, hosted hundreds of community festivals, and co-created exhibitions that spark action on social issues. We now have a wholly community-rooted model, working with over 2,000 local partners annually to plan, produce, and share exhibitions and events. Our visitors and partners reflect the diversity of our community. And the reason they participate is not fundamentally to learn about art or history. People come into the MAH every day to make art. To make history. And to do it together, with friends and strangers alike.

I like to joke that both our biggest advocates and our biggest critics say the same thing about the MAH: "that museum is a community center." They're right. Our incredible staff and partners make it so every single day. I couldn't be prouder.

So why would I start to make plans to leave at this time of strength and beauty? Over the past year, I've worked with the MAH board to incubate OF/BY/FOR ALL, a global movement to help more organizations do the kind of community-involved work we do at the MAH. When OF/BY/FOR ALL started, we imagined it would grow big one day. We had no idea how quickly that day would come. In the past year, OF/BY/FOR ALL has gone from a good idea to a full-fledged nonprofit startup. I'm thrilled that so many people around the world want to work with us to build more inclusive institutions. I'm full of gratitude for the amazing staff at the MAH who have made it possible for me to spend more time online and on airplanes. But I see that this won't be sustainable for too much longer. I see the incredible potential for both the MAH and for OF/BY/FOR ALL, and I believe that each will soon need focused, committed leadership.

This sent me into an honest assessment of my own skills and passions and where I could do my best work. I'm an entrepreneurial, experimental, opportunistic leader. Those skills made me a great fit to turn around and grow the MAH to the amazing place it is today. But I see that these same skills could make me a liability to keep the MAH strong and growing. I've learned and grown a lot as a manager and leader as the MAH has evolved. But the institution is growing beyond my "zone of genius" as a risk-taking spacemaker. The MAH doesn't need someone to break it open and rebuild it. It needs someone to deepen and strengthen it.

I love the MAH, and I want it to have the best executive director possible. I know that person is out there--that leader who is brilliant on depth and structure, committed to community impact and inclusion. Maybe it's you - or maybe it's someone you know. When we post the job announcement in a few weeks, I hope you'll help share the opportunity. I truly believe it's the best museum director job in the world.

This was not an easy decision to make. I'll be leaving a place that has become home for me. I have brilliant colleagues who make our office joyful, zany, and loving. They teach me new ways to be true to our community every day. I have the best board, full of thoughtful, diverse community leaders. And then there are the people walking in every day ready to get involved, their pockets spilling over with passion and ideas. I love how open the MAH feels and how open it has made me.

But I also see what a big opportunity lies ahead for me with OF/BY/FOR ALL. I see what a big opportunity exists for the next director of the MAH. I have often thought of my job at the MAH as that of a spacemaker. I create and hold space for our community to flourish in all its creative and cultural diversity. With OF/BY/FOR ALL, I'll be able to take that spacemaking to a global stage, helping empower organizations and communities all over the world to grow stronger together. I'm moving forward with hope towards that abundant future for our community, our museum, and our world.

Monday, November 12, 2018

How Hello Museum Builds Intimate Community in one of the Biggest Cities in the World

When I tell stories about how the MAH builds community, I emphasize the importance of deep partnerships and relationship-building. We connect with people both professionally and personally, at the museum and on the street. Colleagues from bigger cities often ask: is this approach relevant to us? Can this kind of intimacy and informality work in a sprawling metropolis? This weekend, I got my answer in Seoul--the 18th biggest city in the world--at Hello Museum.

Nestled in a forest of high-rise apartment buildings, this small museum connects children and families with contemporary art. Like the New Children's Museum in San Diego, Hello Museum creates building-wide interactive exhibitions with artists, on themes like nature and #NoWar. But while Hello Museum originally opened as a "children's contemporary art museum," that's not the tagline they use today. Now, they call themselves a "small neighborhood museum"--in the middle of a city of 9.8 million people.

Hello Museum embeds neighborliness in every aspect of its work, starting with its name. I assumed the name was an invitation for children to say hello to contemporary art. But director and founder Ysaac Kim explained that it's not about people connecting to the museum. It's about them connecting with each other. As she said, "I noticed that children these days are taught not to talk to strangers, not to say hello to them. So we made this museum as a place where you can say hello."

Walk into Hello Museum, and you'll encounter a million touches that create a sense of intimacy and community. Everyone takes off their shoes on entry, which creates a homey feel. As we padded in, the front desk was manned by a visiting artist. In a warren of small rooms without doors, parents sat chatting on the floor as their children swirled through art installations made from everyday objects. There were plants and books everywhere.

We wandered up the stairs, slipped on slippers and sunhats (provided on a friendly shelf), and enjoyed a small rooftop garden with waterplay and painting areas. Up on that roof, our world of paints and plants felt tiny in contrast to the skyscrapers looming all around. It felt like a place to be human in a concrete and steel world.

While Seoul is very different from Santa Cruz, Hello Museum felt like a sister to the MAH. The warm, sociable spirit felt the same. Visitors easily and happily collided and said hello to one another. Staff members and teenage volunteers brokered conversations and play. At one point, Ysaac effusively greeted a woman visiting with her child. As they hugged and laughed, they explained to me that the mother was a friend - and part of a company that had sponsored this exhibition opening. It reminded me of every time I've given a tour of the MAH and run into a friend or partner along the way.

Like the MAH, Hello Museum brokers new "hellos" through local partnerships and visitor participation. They try to be of, by, and for their community (which is why I was visiting). For example, on our way into the museum, Ysaac pointed out tiny textile factories dotting the neighborhood run by "grandmothers." In Hello Museum's maker space, children worked with scraps donated by these seamstresses. On the floor, children sat and slid on denim cushions, sewed by the grandmothers out of cast-off jeans donated by museum visitors. After the exhibition closes, these community-made denim cushions will keep doing good in the community. Hello Museum is donating them to a local animal shelter that needs warm cushions to insulate dogs and cats from cold concrete floors.

Ysaac and her team at Hello Museum have created something small, beautiful, and powerful. Seeing this hive of creativity and human kindness made me realize that this kind of museum may even be more valuable in a big city than a small one. In a city that is rapidly growing and changing, they've created a place to come together and play and create things and make friends. A place to slow down and say hello.

Hello Museum taught me that intimacy and community-building is a choice. It's a choice to keep things simple. To work with neighbors. To design spaces that feel human and warm. A choice that any small museum, no matter how big the city, can make.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Want to Co-Create an Exhibition on a Hot Issue? Introducing the Community Issue Exhibition Toolkit

Two years ago, our team at the MAH embarked on our most challenging co-creation project ever. We partnered with foster youth, former foster youth, artists, and community advocates to create an exhibition that used art to spark action on issues facing foster youth.

Short story: we learned a lot. We wrote a toolkit about our process. You can download it for free right now.

What did we learn? This project wove together many different participatory threads. We co-created it from start to finish with community partners. There were over 100 partners. We commissioned new collaborative artwork. We invited visitors to take real action in response to what they saw. The exhibition evolved after it opened. The lead partners were youth who had been marginalized and exploited by institutions. There were trust issues. Complex power dynamics. The facilitation was as chaotic and fragile as a spiderweb.

The result was the best exhibition I've had the honor of working on (check out these outcomes). It empowered our partners, deeply touched our visitors, and catalyzed real community change.

The lessons I learned from Lost Childhoods are at the heart of the OF/BY/FOR ALL project we're building now. This project deepened our commitment to creating platforms that empower partners. This project taught me that co-creative projects must be OF and BY the communities they purport to be FOR. It taught me that exhibitions can make a real and measurable difference in how a community tackles its biggest issues. Through Lost Childhoods, we saw youth step into their power. We saw casual visitors volunteer to become foster parents. We saw politicians, foster youth, and advocates come together to talk about how we can build a community where all youth can thrive.

Since that first project, we've made a commitment to create a "community issue exhibition" every other year at the MAH. We're working now on the next one, on seniors and social isolation. It's just as messy and complicated as the first one. But now, we have a format to manage the process. And we see the magic working again.

Today, I'm thrilled to share that format with you. You can now download the Community Issue Exhibition Toolkit, a guide to this co-creation process. I wrote it with Lauren Benetua, Dialogue Catalyst, and Stacey Marie Garcia, Director of Community Engagement and the architect of this approach. Lauren's now bringing her community organizing skills to the OF/BY/FOR ALL project--here are her thoughts on the toolkit and its impact on her work.

In the toolkit, you'll find:
  • the how and why of community issue exhibitions 
  • templates for timelines, budgets, and community partner communication 
  • tools for empowering partners to take the lead in the co-creation of complex projects 
  • tools for empowering visitors to take action on the issue you are exhibiting
We don't expect you will use the toolkit to do exactly what we've done. We hope it's a useful set of recipes you can riff off of to co-create your own project on a local issue that matters to you.

Please let us know what questions come up, and most of all, how you can imagine using this toolkit in your work. We'd love to see this model evolve and grow.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Launching the First Wave of the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network

How do you build a movement for institutional change?

That's the question we've been grappling with as we start the OF/BY/FOR ALL initiative. Our goal is to help civic and cultural institutions become more representative OF, co-created BY, and welcoming FOR their diverse communities. We've see this model succeed at the MAH and at other community-centered organizations around the world. We want to share the methods and tools that make it work. Not as a prescriptive recipe, but as a pattern. We see OF/BY/FOR ALL as an adaptable playbook for community change.

The challenge is to figure out the best way to share that playbook. Last year, we tested out different formats. We explored opening a training center. Publishing toolkits. Consulting. Building a leadership development program. We even thought about franchising.

The model we landed on was movement building. We plan to fuel a distributed Change Network of organizations growing OF/BY/FOR ALL together. We'll offer an online program for change, support a global community of practice, and keep expanding the program based on community input.

We want to make the "how" of community involvement clear and achievable. Change Network organizations will make specific pledges to become of, by, and for new communities. We'll provide tools to help organizations meet their goals step by step. As the network grows, more of the tools and knowledge base will come from participating institutions, with our staff focusing on community organizing and connections.

Our near-term goal is to enroll at least 200 organizations by the end of 2020, collectively pledging to involve one million new people in their work. Eventually, we may build a certification program, like LEED for green buildings, or B Corps for social enterprise. But we're starting with a campaign to involve one million people - and to build a community of organizations helping each other make it happen.

We're excited about this movement-building model for three reasons:
  • It taps diverse sources of expertise. The MAH is not the authority on all things OF/BY/FOR ALL. By building a change network, we will empower diverse organizations to share methods and expertise with each other. 
  • It scales. We want to go big with this movement. We plan to involve hundreds of organizations in the next three years - and thousands in the years to come. We realized that models that rely heavily on in-person training or consulting wouldn't scale to the extent of our dreams. 
  • It emphasizes action. Talk is good. Change is better. Change Network organizations will make specific commitments to become of, by, and for more diverse people. The program we're building will help accelerate their progress. But it starts with organizations demonstrating eagerness and pledging to take action.
The Change Network program launches next week in prototype form with a First Wave of twenty organizations (full list at the end of this post). We selected a First Wave that reflects diversity of geography, size, and sector, so we can see who this works best for and why. The First Wave includes 6 museums, 5 performing arts organizations, 3 public libraries, 3 parks, and 3 community centers. Half are led by people of color or indigenous people. We represent six countries and ten time zones. For this prototype, 19 of 20 are in English-speaking countries, to provide as much clarity as possible as we get feedback from participants. In the future, we look forward to taking what we learn from this First Wave to build a strong Change Network with organizations all over the world.

I can't wait to learn with and from these amazing First Wave organizations. Some are leaders in the field of community participation. Others are just getting started. All are ready and eager to grow of, by, and for their communities.

OF/BY/FOR ALL is one of many projects in a growing ecosystem of efforts to propel more inclusive institutions. Some people are writing toolkits. Some are giving workshops. Some are developing training programs. Some are leading academic studies. Some are funding projects. If we are going to build a more inclusive world, we don't need just one or two projects. We need an ecosystem of activists, academics, funders, professionals, policymakers, and associations striving together towards common goals.

With OF/BY/FOR ALL, we're playing a role in this ecosystem as an accelerant for organizational change. I respect my colleagues who are writing, advocating, funding, and researching the nuances of community work. Heck, I've spent lots of time participating in those ways myself. But today, I'm motivated to focus my resources and energy on a program to help organizations commit to action and make it happen. That's what OF/BY/FOR ALL is all about.

As we learn more from the First Wave and build the Change Network, we'll write about it on the OF/BY/FOR ALL website. So if you want to join us in sharing stories and opportunities to become of, by, and for your community, please consider joining that email list today.

Here is the brave, beautiful, and wide-ranging First Wave:
I can't wait to learn and build the Change Network with this First Wave in the months to come.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What Church Planters Taught Me about Welcoming New People into Community Organizations

This summer, a gift landed in my podcast feed: a five-part series on evangelical church planting.

This podcast series didn't come from a Christian source. It came from Startup, a podcast about entrepreneurship. The series focuses on the intersection between mission and hustle--a battleground familiar to many nonprofit leaders.

I've been fascinated by church planting for a long time. Not because of religious affinity--I'm an atheist Jew--but because church planters teach me new lessons about relevance and inclusion.

Church planting is the act of creating new churches, often targeted for people who may not feel like church is relevant to them. Church plants bring the message of Christ to new people in new ways.

Like church planters, I'm passionate about connecting new people with mission-driven community experiences. I see church planting as way, way outside my comfort zone--leading to surprising, catalytic lessons.

Here are two reasons you might want to join me in learning from church planters:

1. Church plants are petri dishes of innovation when it comes to inviting new people into mission-based organizations.

Church plant pastors are a lot like other nonprofit leaders. They're passionate about organizational mission. They want to connect people to work they perceive as life-changing and sublime. But church planters pastors differ in an intriguing way: they are unapologetically evangelical. Their evangelism makes them creative, courageous hustlers when it comes to inviting new people into their work.

Some nonprofit leaders are put off by evangelism. It seems pushy, or gauche, to insist that passersby check out the art center or adopt environmental habits. We want people to be inspired by our mission... but we want them to come to it on their own. Instead of evangelizing, we hedge. We court newcomers, but not too much. If they don't come running to us, we demur. We don't want to be too exposed. We assume they just weren't interested. We drop it.

Evangelists don't hedge. They feel called to share the mission, to spread the message. They may be pushy, but they're also more whole-heartedly invested in bringing in newcomers. And that means they take bigger risks and attempt wilder experiments in making their work relevant.

Put in a daycare center? Hold services in a brew pub? Evangelists push themselves to reach new people in new ways. There's a lot we can learn from their experiments in pursuit of relevance.

2. Church plants are part of a healthy ecosystem for innovation and diversity--the kind of ecosystem I wish we had in the cultural sector.

The biggest, most established churches don't see church plants as threats. They see them as innovative feeders. Tim Keller, head of the giant Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, claims that new churches are 3-6x better than established churches at attracting the "unchurched." And so Redeemer plants new churches. They don't just do it in far-flung cities. The majority of the churches they plant are in New York--the exact same city where Redeemer operates.

The result is an ecosystem in which large and established institutions help fuel new and risky ones. The rationale is both generous and self-serving. It's an abundance model, premised on the idea that more churches means more Christians and a better world for everyone. New churches bring new people to Christ. They bring new donors to Christ. And they bring fresh, innovative methods to pastors of churches old and new. So big churches like Redeemer spend time mentoring and funding church plants.

What would it look like if our largest organizations actively championed and funded new, experimental upstarts?

What would it feel like if we approached new potential audiences with the zeal of pastors on a mission?

What else can we learn from the weird and wonderful world of church planting?

Check out the podcast and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Who are We Protecting?

I remember the exact moment when I snapped. I was at an informal talk by a visitor research professional from a large American art museum. The presenter was a few minutes in, setting context about a recent rebranding effort at her institution. "Our real challenge," she said, "was how to attract new audiences while protecting loyal patrons."

My eyes locked on that phrase on her slide, "protecting loyal patrons." I couldn't let it pass. I asked her: "what are you protecting them from?" A colleague of mine helpfully added: "who are you protecting them from?" The conversation went downhill from there.

I'm grateful to this presenter. She put in black and white what goes unsaid in so many talks and press releases. Cultural institutions are willing to change to attract new audiences. But not at the expense of the pain or discomfort of loyal patrons.

Some people might argue that protectionism is the natural political position of a collecting institution. These institutions exist to protect heritage. To protect artifacts from harm. To protect and preserve that which would otherwise be discarded or destroyed.

But when it comes to people, protectionism is problematic. Loyal patrons don't need protection--even if they may be the people who gave us those artifacts. Loyal patrons get most of our attention, assets, and appreciation. And they already have most of the power. They are, on average, wealthier, whiter, more educated, and older than the general population. They are, on average, people with privilege. They may feel that their privilege is at risk, or fragile. But that doesn't mean they don't have it.

For people with privilege, protection is a waste of resources that demeans their agency. Loyal patrons don't need to be wrapped in archival tissue paper. They need to be engaged in change processes. They need invitations--to participate, to be part of the new, to embrace the unexpected alongside the familiar. Just like new audiences, loyal patrons need to be welcomed into institutions full of different people, experiences, and opportunities.

When the MAH was changing aggressively, we embraced Elaine Heumann Gurian's idea of "the museum of and." We didn't want to reject some people and anoint others. We wanted to build a truly pluralistic institution.

Most of the time, this strategy works. When confronted with a conflict between two groups, or two ways of experiencing the museum, we choose both. We bring them together. We build bridges. We choose "and." But when we have to decide--and sometimes we do--we try to stand on the side of those who have less power in the given conflict.

For the MAH, siding with the less powerful is part of our work and our mission. When an institution protects powerful people, it hobbles its ability to involve new people and grow more diverse. Organizations often protect powerful people at the expense of the very same new audiences they seek to attract. Protecting power means protecting the power structures that put whiter, wealthier, more educated, older people on top.

This incident happened at the same time ICE started separating families at the southern border of the U.S. My colleagues at the MAH were working with local organizers on the Santa Cruz #FamiliesBelongTogether rally (which ended at our museum). My colleagues were working with partners in the Latinx community who were receiving overt threats. These partners--who represent audiences we have recently worked to attract--were afraid for their loved ones. Their rights and safety were at risk.

Who are we protecting?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Art of Gathering: A Fabulous Book to Help You Host Better Meetings and Events

I remember the first staff meeting I ever ran. I had just started at the MAH as the new executive director. The museum was in huge financial trouble. I wasn't sure we were going to make payroll that week. But I also had a more immediate problem: I had no idea how to lead a staff meeting. I felt like a new teacher on the first day of school. Everyone's eyes on me, expecting something. I had no idea what to do.

I didn't know how to open a meeting. I didn't know how hold power and share it. I didn't know how to kick off a productive conversation, make group decisions, or close a meeting with energy. I knew that I didn't want to replicate the droning report-fests I'd encountered in other jobs... but I felt like I didn't have any alternative formats to draw on.

The weird thing is that that wasn't true. I'd spent years leading workshops around the world as a consultant. My expertise was on inviting strangers to participate in public settings like museums. I had lots of creative formats for drawing people out, sharing stories, and working collaboratively. I had tools to achieve everything I wanted to achieve in that staff meeting. But for some reason, I applied none of those lessons to my new situation. It was as if I had bought a new car and lost all memory of how to drive.

Priya Parker's wonderful book The Art of Gathering shares the core principles of how to drive. Whether you dream of better meetings or you're planning a community festival, I urge you to read this book. Parker argues that all events--from team meetings and picnics to conferences and weddings--are opportunities to come together with purpose. The book explains how to host events with purpose, drawing lessons from intimate parties, mass happenings, and international summits. This is one of those rare non-fiction books with the killer trifecta: strong stories, specific takeaways, powerful vision. It made me feel more confident about what I already know and eager to push myself further. It's an easy read, and if you're like me, you'll want to put it into practice right away.

Here are my three big takeaways from The Art of Gathering:
  1. Hosting is an exercise in courageous leadership. When you host an event, you have the power to define what happens. It takes courage to assume that power. If you shrug it off, you hurt the event. Too often, a conference moderator will tell each panelist they have exactly five minutes, and then do nothing when a speaker heads into his 18th minute at the podium. Too often, a dinner party host will airily encourage guests to "get to know each other," without providing fuel for connection. When we abdicate hosting responsibility in an attempt to practice humility or democracy, all we do is let someone else take over. Instead, Parker encourages all event hosts to adopt a stance of "generous authority." Take the lead. Set the table. Invite people into participation. Redirect when needed, even if it feels uncomfortable. You'll end up doing more work than usual--and getting the results you want.
  2. When participants are diverse, explicit rules help. I admit: I've never been a fan of events that start with the group writing rules for the day. It always feels contrived and dreary to me. Of course we know not to look at our phones, or to listen with respect. But Parker makes the point that the more diverse the participants at an event, the less likely that they have shared expectations about etiquette or ground rules. Creating event-specific rules can level the playing field, make the implicit explicit, and create a specific culture for the event. Parker calls these event rules "pop up rules," and they can be as silly or serious as desired. First names only. Everyone must wear a hat. Sit next to a stranger. These kinds of rules have the surprising dual effect of helping people know what to expect AND making events more memorable.
  3. Strong events deserve strong endings. Many events close with a whimper when we yearn for a bang. The end of an event is one of those moments when the host has to actively practice leadership (and often abdicates). The host has to decide to close the discussion. To clear the plates. If you don't decide as host, people will straggle away, some exhausted, some feeling guilty, all missing out on the opportunity for a shared closing moment. At work and at conferences, we're often "saved by the bell" of the clock telling us the time is up. But why are we letting the clock close our meetings for us? If we open meetings with purpose, we should close them that way too. Closing rituals seal the shared experience of the event and launch us back into the real world with the event's imprint on our hearts.
The Art of Gathering expanded my understanding of what it means to build a powerful culture of participation. Events are not all logistics and content. The way you welcome, the way you host, the rules you make, the way you say goodbye--all these play major roles as well. As Parker writes in the introduction: "Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try." Sounds like great participation to me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Taking OFBYFOR ALL Out for its First Live Call to Action [VIDEO]

Last week, I had the great honor of launching the OFBYFOR ALL global initiative as the opening keynote speaker at MuseumNext in London. The talk is a 35-minute introduction to the OFBYFOR ALL framework, with a museum bent given the audience. I hope you enjoy it. Here's the link if you can't see the video embedded below.

This talk was a real challenge for me to write. In the past, I treated keynotes as opportunities to share insights and stories. I rarely shared explicit calls to action beyond the option to buy a book. I tried to do a great job, but it felt safe. I didn't feel like I had anything on the line.

With OFBYFOR ALL, the stakes feel higher. We hope this project sparks a set of tools AND a global movement. So I don't just want audiences to enjoy the talk. I don't just want them to learn something from it. I want people to take action. To sign up, join in, and help us build a more inclusive world.

I care deeply about this call to action, which increased my vulnerability and nervousness in writing the talk. It increased my sense that I needed the audience. Without them, without you, there will be no global movement.

So I got stuck. I agonized over the talk. I spent hours trying out and scrapping material. I was afraid I couldn't give a talk that would inspire people to participate.

I broke through when I realized I'd been here before. I realized I was feeling the same fear and excitement that comes with any truly participatory project. We've launched many projects at the MAH - and in my own personal work - that only succeed if people respond to our call to action. Exhibitions that only exist if enough people contribute artwork. Projects that only happen if partners show up to meetings. Books that only get edited if people decide they want to help.

For years, I've believed that the most powerful question you can ask to shift to a participatory mindset is: how can participants help make this project better? When you ask this question, your relationship with participants starts to change. You start to need them. The power dynamic swings towards them. If they are the ones who can make the project great, then you get really focused on inviting them in the most powerful way possible.

OFBYFOR ALL will only impact millions if many people at many organizations get involved. And so I tried, with this talk, to invite you to get involved. I hope watching this video will encourage you to do so too. And if it doesn't, let me know why. This project is in its earliest stages, and I'd love any and all feedback on how we can make the invitation to participate as strong as possible.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Want to Work at the MAH? Two New Jobs Building Community & Social Change

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History keeps growing and experimenting in our quest to build a stronger, more connected community. We have several jobs open right now, but I want to highlight two for people with passion for building community in new ways.

The positions are:
  • OFBYFOR ALL Communications Catalyst: to fuel the OFBYFOR ALL movement by organizing civic and cultural professionals online and at conferences around the world. 
  • Dialogue Catalyst: to work with local partners to co-develop an exhibition that sparks social action around issues facing socially-isolated senior citizens. 
Both these people will lead innovative work to build community locally and globally.

The OFBYFOR ALL Communications Catalyst will be the online host and voice of the growing global OFBYFOR ALL movement. In this job, you will welcome, motivate, and collaborate with civic and cultural professionals around the world who want to make their organizations OF, BY, and FOR their communities. If you're a great writer with experience leading digital community organizing or campaigning efforts, we want you. This is a full-time job with benefits and a salary range of $43,000-$48,000 per year. Here's the full description and how to apply.

The Dialogue Catalyst will be the community organizer for our next issue-driven exhibition focusing on the social isolation of seniors. In this job, you will recruit and work closely with a local committee of senior citizens, advocates, artists, and community members to co-create an exhibition and related events. The Dialogue Catalyst is the glue that keeps partners together and makes the resulting exhibition sticky and powerful. If you're a strong community organizer and event producer who cares about seniors  and social change, we want you. This is a part-time contract role, 24 hours/week, with a salary range of $17-$19/hour. Here's the full description and how to apply.

We believe that the strongest teams come from diverse backgrounds. You won't find requirements in these job descriptions to have a master's degree or many years of experience. You WILL find applications that ask you to demonstrate your talents and perspective. We hire high-performing people who are ready to work hard, collaborate, experiment, and get shit done in a fast-moving, fun, community-minded environment. We especially encourage people to apply who have experience feeling excluded or disconnected from the arts. A lot of our partners are in the same boat, and we want staff members who can empathize.

If you think that you are the right person for one of these jobs--or if you know the right person--I hope you will check out the job descriptions and consider applying. Both jobs are open until filled and we are ready to hire immediately. Thanks in advance for spreading the word.

Friday, May 18, 2018

OFBYFOR ALL: Let's Build Organizations that are OF, BY, & FOR our Communities

Today, I'm thrilled to announce the launch of a new global initiative, OFBYFOR ALL.

OFBYFOR ALL is a framework to help civic and cultural organizations become OF, BY, and FOR their communities. We're building tools, trainings, and hopefully, a movement for a more inclusive world.

This project is led by the MAH but global in scope. We're launching it with partners at community-based libraries, parks, museums, and cultural centers around the world. Our contexts are different. Our organizations are different. But we share a common passion for making our institutions of, by, and for our communities. We see OFBYFOR ALL as a way to share and spread that passion--and to convert it into action.

Many organizations think they have a "for" problem. They want to be for more people, or for different people, than they currently serve. I believe that in many cases, the best way to be "for" people is to become "of" and "by" them.

That's what we did to spark transformative change at the MAH. As our staff and board became reflective OF our community, more people felt represented. As we developed programming co-created BY the community, more people felt ownership. As we focused on being welcoming FOR the community, more people wanted to participate. The result? We turned a struggling museum into a thriving community center that is of, by, and for our county.

We are building OFBYFOR ALL to share this playbook for transformation, through proven tools and strategies piloted at the MAH and other community-based organizations around the world. We are building OFBYFOR ALL to help you:
  • assess your organization's current strengths in OF, BY, and FOR work (try it free right now
  • articulate goals for who you most want to involve and develop a plan of action to do so 
  • tackle change, access creative tools and strategies, and get support 
  • track your progress as you change 
  • connect with supportive colleagues at a global network of organizations who are also taking action to become of, by, and for their communities
I'm excited to share the strategies we use at the MAH to be of, by, and for our community. But I'm even more excited to learn about strategies used by innovators around the world who get involved. We see OFBYFOR ALL as itself a project that must be of, by, and for the community of cultural and civic changemakers. We're building a global network across sectors, organizational types and sizes. I can't wait to learn how rural librarians are doing this work. How national parks leaders are doing it. How cultural activists are doing it. How you're doing it.

People all over the world, in many sectors, are talking about demographic change. Talking about inclusive practices. That's great. But I want to see more organizations doing it. I want to help make that future a reality. That's what OFBYFOR ALL is all about.

Excited? Here are three ways to get started:
  1. If you work or volunteer for an organization, try the free OFBYFOR ALL organizational self-assessment. In 5-10 minutes, you'll get a baseline "OFBYFOR ALL score" for your current work. 
  2. If you are ready to take action, sign up for an OFBYFOR ALL bootcamp. In a two-day training, we'll help you map out a vision for community involvement and an action plan for change. 
  3. If you have a network of friends who need to hear about this, share it. Share the website, or this blog post, or one of our posts on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
Happy International Museums Day. Let's celebrate by getting to work to make our institutions of, by, and for all. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

How Will You Turn Those New Ideas into Action?

You've just come home from a conference. You finished a book. You aced that course. What are you going to do with all the notes in your journal and ideas in your head?

Over the past year, I've been learning more about what it takes to spark and lead large-scale social change (especially from these folks). One of the most important things I've learned is this: building awareness is not enough.

If you want to make change in this world, you need to start by raising awareness. There's a lot of evidence that suggests that people need to know about an issue before they will act on it. But there's also a lot of evidence that shows that knowledge alone will not catalyze action.

If you want to make change, you need to find ways to translate information into action. That means building organizational will and developing concrete ways to support behavior change. Information does not organically spawn organizational will to change. Organizational will does not magically morph to behavior change. Each of those is a leap, and you need to engineer the jumps.

Think about this in an individual context. Take sleep. Lots of us know that there are good arguments for sleeping 7+ hours each night. But only 40% of Americans do it. We are aware of the issues associated with too little sleep. We know what the solution is: sleep more. And yet few of us translate that knowledge into action. Why? Some people lack the will. Sure, it would be nice to sleep more, but if it's not a top priority, it may not feel worth trying to accomplish. Others have the will but lack the support to actually make the change. How will they carve out the time to sleep more? What can they change in daily routines to help them get to bed earlier? Without the will, without support for behavior change, we don't change. We stay tired.

Imagine efforts to enhance sleep that take the awareness as a given. You might focus on building will by showing before and after photos of people who have made the change. You might create a health calculator that helps people see how much they are hurting themselves by not sleeping. You might encourage couples to compete with each other to see who can sleep the longest.

Or think about behavior supports for change. You might offer sleep coaching and celebrate progress in terms of hours of sleep banked. You might make an alarm clock that will only wake a person 7 or more hours after it is set. You might create an app that rewards people for each morning they report 7+ hours of sleep.

I suspect any of these activities, even the silly ones, would achieve stronger outcomes than another research study on the benefits of sleep.

Now think about the parallels in institutional change. Take diversity and inclusion initiatives. Lots of us know that there are good arguments for making our institutions more inclusive of more diverse perspectives, stories, and participants. How can we translate that knowledge into organizational will? How can we translate that will into action? How can we spend more time and resources in those areas, and less in raising awareness?

As a writer and speaker, I spend a lot of time in the awareness-raising camp. Any time I write a blog post or give a talk, I'm contributing to knowledge that helps build awareness about issues and solutions related to community participation. That feels good. But as the executive director of a museum, I spend a lot less time raising awareness and a lot more time on will-building and behavior change. And that feels great. Any time we embark on an initiative at the MAH, my job is to rally people, get them moving, and support the change. We've led some major efforts at the MAH and in our community. We didn't do it through awareness. We did it through action.

It is incredibly satisfying to lead change in my community. Sometimes being a writer and speaker--raising awareness--can feel risky and fragile in comparison. I put ideas out into the universe without any infrastructure to help them blossom into change. I'm relying on readers and audiences--brilliant, amazing humans all--to do that work themselves. And while I have huge respect for how people convert these ideas into change, I believe there are ways I could be more helpful. I believe there are ways being helpful could help me keep learning and growing as an individual and as a leader of the MAH. I believe there are opportunities to actively, strategically build will and support change around the world.

I've spent the past year learning how to flex will-building and behavior change skills beyond our local context. I love being a participant in global conversations about the future of cultural and civic organizations, and I want to play a more action-oriented role. I suspect many of us do. Stay tuned for an announcement next week about a new MAH initiative to bring people together to do just that.

Let's turn awareness into action and change the world.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Which New Audiences? A Great Washington Post Article and its Implications about Age, Income, and Race

This weekend was thrilling for me. The Washington Post covered the MAH's transformation as part of an article about museums engaging new audiences. The whole second half of the article was dedicated to our work:
Smaller museums can be especially scrappy in finding ways to connect with the community. One that has found remarkable success is California’s Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Executive Director Nina Simon, who was hired in 2011, says that in the years following the global financial crisis, the facility was struggling.  
“At the time, we thought it was financial trouble, but it turned out it was much deeper than that,” Simon says. Museum attendance was at about 17,000 a year, and primarily made up of retirees and schoolchildren. Simon knew something had to change.  
“We said, if we’re going to make this museum successful, if we’re going to make it meaningful in the community, we’ve got to increase the number of people we’re reaching and we have to diversify who they are,” says Simon, who explores the concept of audience engagement and participation in her books “The Participatory Museum” and “The Art of Relevance,” as well as on her blog, Museum 2.0. She says that the museum made changes in hiring and board recruitment practices, and invited the community in to help reshape the facility into a place that reflected and represented its people and their interests.  
The impact was dramatic. Within three years, attendance tripled. Audiences of all backgrounds found ways to connect with museums as it presented exhibitions with the help of foster youth, migrant farmers, roller-derby girls, mushroom hunters, surfers and incarcerated artists, among others.  
In September, the museum unveiled an adjoining plaza called Abbott Square, which includes an indoor public market and food hall with six restaurants and two bars (it’s managed by a partner/tenant, Abbott Square Market), along with an outdoor performance venue with live music, yoga and art events. The plaza serves as a kind of front porch to the museum, ushering visitors old and new.  
“I always say we did not transform our museum by building a fancy building or by bringing in van Gogh,” Simon says. “We changed our museum by reorienting on our community and really saying we exist to be of, by and for you, and to help build a stronger community.”  
It’s something that any museum, of any size, can work toward.
I'm extremely proud of this coverage and appreciate journalist Kate Silver for including us. I'm also always interested in how the national media portrays changes in the cultural sector.

This article subtly juxtaposes two interpretations of what it means to "engage new audiences." The first half of the article covers high-priced events like adult sleepovers and Museum Hack tours at major urban museums. The second half covers our work at the MAH (and by implication, at other "scrappy small museums") to collaborate with community members to co-create institutions for people of diverse backgrounds.

At one point in the first half of the article, Kate writes:
Across the country, you can see a burst of creative approaches within these cultural institutions, all designed to draw in new audiences: yoga classes, pop-ups, custom beer, cat film festivals, nighttime parties with signature cocktails and DJs, dog-friendly days, scavenger hunts and more.
What does this list have in common? Youth. Urbanity. Affluence. Whiteness. This list doesn't include many approaches that I see transforming museum audiences, like political activism, multilingual programming, intergenerational events, or cultural festivals. Even in the section about the MAH, Kate chose to only obliquely reference the work we've done to involve, feature, and hire more people of color. Race and ethnicity are not directly mentioned in the article, but whiteness is implied throughout.

Reading this article made me wonder: what are the greatest diversification issues in museums today? When we talk about the need to engage new audiences, who are we primarily talking about? This article implies that the most important new audiences are white, urban millenials with money to spend.

I'd argue that age and income diversity are important, but that racial and ethnic diversity is a bigger issue in museums today. This is both an issue of practice and of media coverage.

On the side of practice, there's a much longer history and body of organizations working on audience age and income diversity than on race. Conference sessions on reaching young people. Access programs aimed at low-income people. There are many examples across the US of organizations (including the MAH) that engage the full age and income diversity of their communities.

But when it comes to race, there are fewer exemplars, fewer shared practices, and less media coverage. Many are working on it, but only a couple has been recognized in the field or media for fully engaging the racial/ethnic diversity of their community (with the Queens Museum at the top of this short list). I see race as the most important audience diversity issue of our time.

Lots of institutions--and popular media--have helped change the perception that museums are for old rich people. But we're still a long way from changing the perception that they are for white people. We've got a lot more work to do--and a lot more articles to inspire--to effect that change.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Art of Relevance is Now Available For Free on the Web (and Here's Why)

It's finally here! You can now read all the chapters in The Art of Relevance for free online. I hope you'll enjoy this resource and share it widely (with attribution).

You can still buy The Art of Relevance as a paperback, ebook, or audiobook--but you can also read any chapter, any time, online. You can also post comments on any chapter, adding your reactions and questions to the published content.

The chapters are short stories, and most can stand alone. Take five minutes and learn how the Science Museum in London created better experiences for deaf visitors. Or how Food What?! unlocks relevance for disinterested teenagers. Or how Felton Thomas fought the library union to make the Cleveland Public Library matter more.

Why make the book available for free under a Creative Commons license? I do it for three reasons:
  1. It makes it easier for people to share and spread the ideas in the book. Sharing a link is often a lot easier than lending someone a book. I love hearing about staff, board, and student discussions prompted by the book, and I want to make it easy for you to have them. 
  2. It expands access to the book. If you want to buy a book, by all means, do. But if you can't afford it, or you just want one section, I want you to have access to it. 
  3. It helps sell more books. Ever since I started this blog in 2006, I've seen the power of giving away ideas. Over the years, the more I gave away, the more people wanted to pay me to consult, speak, and write. When I wrote my first book, The Participatory Museum, I released it concurrently as a paperback and free online. It went on to sell 5 times as many paperback copies as the top museum publisher predicted in its first year. I didn't have the time to do a concurrent release for The Art of Relevance because of the Abbott Square project, but I'm catching up now. Free previews are powerful. If you start checking out some of the chapters for free, I suspect you'll get even more excited to actually buy the book. And if you choose to read it all online, that's good too. 
At the end of the day, what matters most to me is that you read the book, think about it, share it, and act on it. That's worth more than all the sales in the world.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ten Tips for More Powerful Public Speaking

I love presenting. Standing in front of an audience fills me with adrenaline and calm at the same time. The adrenaline comes from fear and excitement. The calm comes from a sense of mastery. Here's how to get that calm.
  1. Get a ton of practice. Public speaking is a learned skill, even for those with natural talent. Find as many opportunities - professional or otherwise - to present. Make a toast at dinner. Get up at karaoke. Experiment with the same content in different contexts, for different audiences. I started in poetry slam, which was wild, ruthless, and a killer training ground. I learned to give talks in good rooms, lousy rooms, rooms full of drunks. When I switched to professional speaking, I already knew it takes a lot of practice to hone a talk. It's not uncommon for me to give the same talk 50 times in a year. Each time, it gets better. All that practice helps, a lot. 
  2. Develop a meta-narrative for your presentation. What's the big idea or story? Is there a way to express it in a simple metaphor, image, or phrase? If possible, do that--and then repeat, layer, and deepen it throughout your talk. 
  3. Consider using Marshall Ganz's Public Narrative technique. This is a formula that starts with a story of SELF, then a story of US, then a story of NOW. It's a great format for sharing your vision for a new initiative or desired change. I've recently started using this model and I love it, especially when I want to quickly focus people towards a call to action. 
  4. Keep it short. Length is not your friend. Audiences respond better to short talks, and you'll have an easier time staying focused on presenting well. Try to create a 5 or 10 minute presentation, even if you are offered a longer time slot. It will clarify your thinking and tighten your focus. I learned this from doing a couple TEDx talks. Each time I've done one, I've been forced to revise a 60-minute talk into 12-18 minutes. It's ruthless and hard, but once I'm done, that short talk is a clear, powerful anchor--which I can then expand upon as needed. 
  5. Find your own best way to get intimately familiar with your presentation. I take the approach of scripting the broad "moves" in the presentation but not the specific words. Others prefer to script the words and memorize. Figure out what works for you and then don't take any short cuts! You want to be at your most confident when presenting. 
  6. Cultivate stage presence. Your authority as a speaker starts before you open your mouth. Practice a few simple things to establish presence as a speaker. Plant your feet before you start. Pull your shoulders back. If there's a microphone, hold it close. Make eye contact. Trust that if you pause, people will wait and listen. You will know you have presence when you can step up to a mic and people turn naturally towards you because something about your actions made them expect you to speak. 
  7. Start strong. People decide whether to tune in or not in the first 15 seconds. Lead with a bold statement or a story. Do NOT start with a long lead-in or apology for what you are about to say.  
  8. Pay attention to the sound of your words and pauses. You don't have to be Shakespeare to throw in some beautiful phrasing, rhythm, and images. Pauses are powerful too. Small theatrical touches will bring your audience pleasure and increase their interest in your talk. 
  9. Give the audience room to participate. Even if your talk is not interactive, make sure to respect the time and space your audience needs to understand and react to your words. If you tell a joke, give a pause for laughter. If you drop an intense idea, give a pause for consideration. When you rush from one sentence to the next, you don't respect the time and space your audience needs to fully connect with your words. 
  10. Use slides as a springboard, not a lifeboat. There are a million ways to use visuals in your presentation. I mostly use single images, occasionally punctuated with a bold statement or quote. But the most important thing is not which images you use but how you use them. Think of the images as complementary to your talk. They should add depth and reinforcement to what you are saying. Don't read your slides. Don't look to them as a lifeline. Focus on your audience, and have faith that your words and images will come together to create a powerful message.
What tips have helped you most as a public speaker?

p.s. I'll be speaking this year at RevitalizeWA, MuseumNext, and Next Library... I'd love to see you there!

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

This is What the Participatory Museum Sounds Like

It's late in the afternoon. I'm cranking away on a grant proposal, when suddenly, a classical rendition of "All the Single Ladies" wafts up the stairs. In the office, colleagues lift their heads. "Is that...?" someone asks. "Yup," another nods. We grin.

This is the magic a piano in the lobby makes.

We've now had a piano in the MAH lobby for several months. About once each week, a visitor walks in and blows everyone away. Sometimes it's a homeless person. Sometimes a lover's duet. This week, it was a little guy, attended by a stuffed toy on the piano bench. It's rare that someone sits down to bang out noise. 95% of our piano users play music, beautifully.

The piano is a simple invitation to meaningful visitor participation. The activity is clear and well-scaffolded. The outcome is open-ended and visitor-driven. It invites visitors to make the museum better. When visitors share their brilliance, it brings the museum to life.

I believe that every person who walks into our museum has something valuable to share. A creative talent. A personal history. A special skill. It's not their job to present their abilities to us. It's our job to welcome them, invite them to contribute, and give them the tools to do so. This is the participatory museum, played out loud.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Are Participant Demographics the Most Useful Single Measure of Community Impact?

Let's say you want your organization to be rooted in your community. To be of value to your community. To reflect and represent your community. To help your community grow stronger.

What indicator would determine the extent to which your organization fulfills these aspirations?

Here's a candidate: participant demographics. If your participants' demographics match that of your community, that means the diverse people in your community derive value from your organization. The people on the outside are the ones coming in.

We use participant demographics as a core measure at the MAH. At the MAH, our goal is for museum participants to reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of Santa Cruz County. We compare visitor demographics to those of the county. We use the county census as our measuring stick. We set our strategy based on the extent to which we match, exceed, or fall short of county demographics.

Is this overly reductive? Possibly. There are at least four arguments against it:

Serving "everyone" shouldn't be the goal. I understand this argument, but I think it's suspect when it comes to demographics (especially income and race/ethnicity). Organizations can and should target programs to welcome different kinds of people for different kinds of experiences. But should those differences be rooted in participants' race or income level? Would anyone say with a straight face that it's OK to exclude people based on the color of their skin or the balance in their bank account? I don't think this holds up.

People are more than their demographics. I agree with this argument, but in my experience, it doesn't invalidate demographic measurement. For years, we focused at the MAH on non-demographic definitions of community, seeking to engage "makers" or "moms seeking enrichment for their kids" as opposed to "whites" or "Latinos." I believe that there are many useful ways to define community beyond demographics. BUT, when we actually started measuring demographics at the MAH a few years ago, we saw that we were engaging the county's age and income diversity... but not the county's ethnic diversity. How could we credibly argue that this wasn't a serious issue for us to address? Was it reasonable to imagine that Latina moms didn't want enrichment as much as their white counterparts? When we saw our race/ethnicity mismatch with the county, we started taking action to welcome and include Latinos. We changed hiring practices, programming approach, collaborator recruitment, and signage. Taking those actions led to real results, helping us get closer to our participants matching the demographics of our county.

Participants matching your community's demographics is insufficient. This is an argument I'm still grappling with. It's an argument advocating for equity instead of equality. Many cultural resources are disproportionately available to affluent, white, older adults. So, to advance equity, your organization should strive to exceed community demographics for groups that may be marginalized or excluded from other cultural resources. This argument encourages organization to strive for a demographic blend that over-indexes younger, lower-income, more racially diverse participants. This argument is also often linked to related arguments that changing participant demographics without addressing internal demographics of staff and board is inadequate and potentially exploitative. I'm torn on this too. In my experience, you can't effect community impact without internal organizational change. But the internal changes are a means, not an end. I wouldn't use internal indicators to measure whether we succeeded in reaching community goals. 

Attendance is not the same as impact. I'm torn about this argument too. On the one hand, showing up is not a particularly powerful indicator of impact. You don't really know why the person showed up or what they got out of the experience. On the other hand, on a basic level, attendance is the clearest demonstration that someone values your organization. They're only going to invest their time, money, and attention if they think they'll get something worthwhile out of the experience. Attendance may not be a signifier of deep impact, but it is the clearest way that people tell you whether they care or not about your offerings.

What do you think? Are participant demographics a worthy bottom-line indicator of success? Or is another measure more apt?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Introducing Community Participation Bootcamp at the MAH

For the past five years, each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has hosted MuseumCamp. MuseumCamp is a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp is amazing, but there are two issues that come up every January when we announce the new session:
  1. The application process is very competitive, and hundreds of people end up being rejected or waitlisted. This is agonizing for everyone involved. 
  2. Some people want an outcome-oriented training (as opposed to a community co-created summer camp).
This year, to address these issues, we're experimenting with hosting two camps instead of one:
  • COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION BOOTCAMP, June 7-8, 2018. This new, experimental training is a hands-on deep dive into the MAH’s model. You will learn the theory and practice of how to open your organization to robust community participation. This bootcamp will be led by me, Nina Simon, MAH executive director. Registration is first come, first served. Learn more and register here.
  • MUSEUMCAMP REUNION EDITION, August 15-17, 2018. This retreat is all about learning from each other. Come share your projects, challenges, questions, wild successes and epic failures with creative changemakers from around the world. 2018 MuseumCamp spots are offered first to MuseumCamp alumni. If additional spots are available, we will make an application process available in April 2018. Learn more here.

More about Community Participation Bootcamp

We're offering Community Participation Bootcamp as part of a broader exploration of ways the MAH might share our model with others. I've learned a lot from attending and teaching workshops this year. I'm excited to share the MAH's community-first model and to invite you to this in-depth, immersive learning experience.

Come to this two-day bootcamp to:
  • Articulate your goals for community participation at your organization. 
  • Map your community’s assets and needs and how they align with your goals. 
  • Get a crash course in social capital theory and ways of measuring community participation. 
  • Develop compelling, powerful participatory offers and promises for your prospective partners. 
  • Gain new community participation tools you can take home and adapt to your organization. 
  • Connect with diverse colleagues who can help you as you continue your journey. 
  • Tour MAH participatory exhibitions and shadow MAH community events. 
  • Get inspired, laugh out loud, and share honest lessons from the messy, joyful world of community participation. 
And it's not just for museum people.

Bootcamp is for working professionals seeking to implement community participation in your organization or program. While we will tour some of the MAH’s participatory programs and exhibitions, this bootcamp is not museum-centric. We welcome campers from diverse community, civic, and cultural sites. Our first registrants for Bootcamp are from a library and a religious institution. We'd love to have you here for this pilot year.

Want to support these events?

While our camps have a registration cost, we work with sponsors to underwrite camper scholarships. Most sponsors are generous former campers or amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. If you are interested in helping provide financial aid for one of these amazing events, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Instead of Selling Objects, Build Public Trust

You run a regional museum. It's been struggling financially for years. Now, you have a new vision--co-created with trustees and community leaders--for a path forward. You'll transform it into an interactive science-oriented institution. And you'll build your endowment, too. How will you pay for it? By selling off artworks that no longer serve your mission.

This is the plan that plunged the Berkshire Museum into hot water. It's sparked public uproar, legal battles, and nationwide press coverage. It's cracked the crumbling, outdated rules around deaccessioning--and unearthed more serious issues of public trust.

Here's what happened. In July, the Berkshire Museum released its $60,000,000 New Vision, along with a funding mechanism: selling 40 of its most valuable artworks. Berkshire Museum officials argue that art is not core to their institution going forward and that they are therefore deaccessioning material that is no longer relevant to their mission. But it's not that simple. The 40 artworks are valued at $50 million. They include two of the most famous paintings by Norman Rockwell. Rockwell donated those paintings himself to the Berkshire Museum to be enjoyed in his home community. The Berkshire Museum has been unwilling to sell or transfer the paintings to another regional institution, presumably assuming they will get the highest price at auction.

Cue public uproar and legal action to block the auction. Cultural organizations, community members, and museum leaders have spoken out against the sale. The controversy started in July of 2017. The Attorney General of Massachusetts has put a hold on the sale and will issue a ruling at the end of January. It's taken me six months to figure out how I feel about the whole thing.


At first blush, I'm sympathetic to the Berkshire Museum. I am not a fan of the rule that restricts deaccessioning of museum artifacts for purposes other than improving the collection. I think the rule needs to be overhauled, for three reasons.
  1. The rule is simplistic. It states that museums can only sell objects to purchase or care for other objects. No other assets in a museum are restricted in this way, and this restriction can lead to lopsided priorities and bizarre practices. I once consulted with a museum that had no museum--no building, no public programs, no exhibitions. It had a collection and an endowment (funded by deaccessioning) to grow and perpetuate that collection. Their objects were locked in a private prison, protected far from the public in whose trust they purported to be held.
  2. The rule is weak. This rule is poorly enforced with few consequences--which is the very reason an issue like the Berkshire Museum's arises. The rule against wanton deaccessioning is a kind of gentleman's agreement in the museum world. Professional organizations like AAM and AAMD are against it, but their forms of censure are few. Individual museums might risk bad press, finger-shaking, and loss of funding for taking these actions, but the consequences are highly variable and often short-lived. Trustees can hold their noses and roll the dice if they want to.
  3. The rule is outdated. The deaccessioning rule (last updated in 2000) perpetuates the hegemony of artifacts as the heart of museums. While some museums have, admirably, stuck with an object-rooted mission, many have shifted to other goals. It doesn't make sense to maintain a special class of protections for one category of assets when many museums no longer base their missions on the care and stewardship of those assets. This is essentially the argument that the Berkshire Museum is making--that they will no longer BE an art museum and therefore should not be required to protect art objects uniquely.
I think the deaccessioning rule has outlived its usefulness. But that doesn't mean I support the Berkshire Museum's choice. I don't.


To me, the issue in the Berkshires is not about deaccessioning artwork. The issue is violation of public trust.

The Berkshire Museum isn't deaccessioning artifacts of questionable public value. They are selling off forty of their top artworks on the open market. By deaccessioning the most valuable art in their collection, the Berkshire Museum is transferring valued public assets into private hands. They are making an arrogant gamble, claiming that their planned new museum will have equal or greater public value than the artworks they are selling to fund it. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. They are selling heritage to finance progress. It's not surprising that not everyone takes their claims on faith.

It's not entirely the Berkshire Museum's fault that they are in this position. The inflexible rule on deaccessioning forces them into an all-or-nothing choice. Right now, there is no "ethical" vehicle by which a museum might sell high-value artifacts for any purpose other than to buy and protect other artifacts. An institution like the Berkshire Museum risks professional censure whether they sell a painting on the open market or to another museum--assuming they plan to use the proceeds to fund their New Vision. Why wouldn't they make the rational choice to get as much money as possible for their sins?

Because their choice has consequences beyond their own self-interest. It exposes the fragility of the rule of deaccessioning, the thin line between "treasured public asset" and "hard cold cash." The rule is built on a sleight of hand, a conceit that says that museums WON'T acknowledge the market value of objects... until they will. As Diane Ragsdale put it, "When communities become markets, citizens become consumers, and culture becomes an exploitable product."

When museums start putting price tags on their objects, other institutions do too. When Detroit was going bankrupt in 2013, the city's emergency manager fought to sell off some of the prized artworks in the Detroit Institute of Art. In 2009, Brandeis University came close to looting and liquidating its Rose Art Museum, and today, a similar controversy is raging over the museum at La Salle University. At La Salle, as in the Berkshires, university leadership argues that the deaccessioning and closure of the museum is a necessary, painful corrective to dire financial conditions. These museums and their artworks were exposed as market assets to be cashed in as needed.

Museum professionals often decry these actions because they will disincentivize future donors from giving valuable artwork to museums (and therefore, the argument goes, to the public). But I think there's a much more insidious impact of these actions: it encourages the continued slide of museums away from the public trust and into the market economy.

And once that happens, all bets are off. Two years ago, the Detroit Institute of Art won the battle to keep their treasured artwork in the museum. But other battles have been--and could be--lost. It could even happen on a national scale. If a rapacious, short-sighted federal government is willing to strip protected land for natural resources, what's to stop them from looting the Smithsonian to fund their own version of progress?


There are creative alternatives to traditional museum deaccessioning policies that could solve this problem. Instead of fighting to protect an imperfect and antiquated rule, we could create new rules--rules that put the public trust, not objects, first.

Other nonprofit industries have done this. Accredited American zoos, for example, have a strict policy that governs how animals move from one institution to another. If your zoo no longer plans to exhibit giraffes, those giraffes don't suddenly become fungible assets on the open market. They become tradeable assets within a controlled market--with other accredited zoos, who will care for the giraffes as well as you once did.

Food banks have an auction-based model. There's a national online auction site where food banks can bid on large lots of donated food with fake money, called shares. The auction system helps individual food banks determine what they need most, rather than a national agency guessing--and sometimes, guessing wrong.

Both zoos and food banks have gotten creative about how to manage their assets AND serve the public trust. Instead of clinging to outdated deaccessioning policies, it's time for museums to get creative as well. If we don't, we risk betraying the public trust in a venal grab for more flexible assets.

Rather than converting assets from the public trust to the private market, I'd like to see more creative ways for nonprofits to INCREASE the number of assets in the public trust. I'd like to see dividends from large endowments shared among nonprofits in their respective communities. I'd like to see more land trusts sharing their space with other organizations. I'd like to see more museums sharing their artifacts. I'd like to see more marketplaces like those of zoos or food banks, so assets in the public trust can be shared wisely and efficiently.

We shouldn't have to choose between the Norman Rockwell paintings and a great Berkshire Museum. There should be a way to expand the pie of public assets instead of swapping the heritage we have for the future we will build.

What if the Berkshire Museum could sell a fraction of their prized artworks to other museums, for a fraction of their fundraising goal, so they could test out whether their "New Vision" actually served their community better? What if they got involved in a project like Culture Bank, to invest the artworks securely to fund some aspects of their planned transformation? What if they worked out a way to accrue less and get more -- more for their community, more for the public at large?

The pressure will always be on to capitulate to the market economy, to embrace the market and live by its rules. But we can resist. Nonprofit organizations have unique opportunities to resist. If we want to embrace communities instead of markets, we have to fight for it. We have to fight for the public trust, generosity, and shared ownership. We have to be ingenious in coming up with alternative forms of economic value, accumulation, and transfer. No one is going to do it for us.