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.