Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Join Us at MuseumCamp 2015 to Explore Making Space for Self and Others

illustration by Beck Tench
Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part summer camp.

This year, our theme is SPACE. I've been obsessed for years with the idea of "space making" as an approach to cultivating creativity, avoiding burnout, and empowering colleagues. This August, at MuseumCamp, we will spend 2.5 days together exploring the ways we make space, both for ourselves and for others.

You can make space by making room for others to shine. You can make space by inviting non-traditional partners into your work. You can make space by giving yourself permission or time or a paintbrush.

This MuseumCamp will be challenging–but not in a frenetic, obstacle course way. It will challenge us to confront blank canvases, empower others, and take care of ourselves. Our goal is to learn and practice new ways of energizing and renewing ourselves and others. To empower people to feel rich in time and resources even as we work hard to make change in a limited world.

Last year, I learned how awesome it is to partner with someone outside of our museum to co-produce MuseumCamp. This year, I am thrilled that we are partnering with Beck Tench, a creative designer and deep thinker about making space (and the person who first introduced me to the term).

Learn more about MuseumCamp 2015 here, including dates, program plan, and more on the theme. Watch the video from MuseumCamp 2014 if you want to get a sense of the silliness behind the seriousness.

MuseumCamp is for activists. For designers. For knowledge workers. For people on the front lines. For managers. For creative types. For anyone seeking to make positive change in your community.

If you are interested in applying to attend camp, please check out the site and fill out an application today. We will accept applications through February 28 and inform people of selections in early March. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon.

And please, help make space for others by spreading the word. In past years, many campers felt that the best part of the experience was the diversity of campers. The strength of our experience together is partly based on the opportunity to come together across different disciplines and perspectives, and we want to continue pushing for that. In that spirit, we particularly encourage you to apply if you:
  • identify as a gender other than female
  • identify as a person of color
  • consider yourself at an advanced stage of your career
  • work outside of the arts/museums
So if you are interested, please apply--and if you have a friend who you think would love this, encourage them to apply too. It's going to be out of this world.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Is There a Formula for Free Admission?

There are plenty of great arguments out there for WHY to make museums free. But HOW do you do it?

It's much easier for art and history museums than for those museums that rely on admissions for a majority of their income (science, children's). Nationally, admissions income generates only 1-4% of most art museums' annual revenue. Max Anderson, currently director of the Dallas Museum of Art, is a fervent champion for art museums being free. As Anderson put it, "At what point are you going to allow something like 2.5 percent of your revenue to get in the way of mission fulfillment, of serving the fullest potential audience?"

Indeed. I've been curious about free admission for a long time. It's one of the things I'd like to do at our museum in Santa Cruz but haven't made happen yet. The philosophical rationale is simple: if we are really a community institution, an institution for and with the public, we should be free.

The financial rationale is a bit more complex than replacing 1-4% of the budget. There's the potential loss of membership gifts from people who are motivated by receiving free daytime admission. There's the potential need for more floor staff and security (hopefully)! There's the expectation--hopefully backed by a plan--that new philanthropic gifts will outweigh the loss of "value"-motivated members.

We've started looking seriously into making the move to free admission at our museum, and as we've done the research on other institutions, a pattern has emerged. Museums that are successfully moving to free admission appear to use the following formula:
  1. Secure a philanthropic gift equivalent to 3-7 years of the lost revenue from daytime admissions.
  2. Aggressively market the philanthropic benefits of a free museum. Create a new value proposition for giving that is rooted in the idea that the museum is free and open to all. Recruit new members and donors who are invested in supporting public access. 
When we looked at museums that went free and then switched back to charging, we noticed that either one of these factors was missing or broke down. 

You need the multi-year gift to give you some runway. Even 2% of the budget is hard to replace if there isn't an obvious other source out there. Five-ish years appears to be long enough to build up the replacement philanthropic support for being a free institution.

You need the emphasis on philanthropy because donors are the only ones who are willing to pay for free admission (even in small increments, like Tacoma Children's Museum's Pay as You Will policy). You shouldn't expect gift shop or cafe sales to increase with free admission. When museums are free, people use them more frequently, for more casual reasons. They don't treat the visit as a destination multi-hour experience necessitating a meal and a souvenir.

Does this formula add up?
Any other ingredients you have seen work--or fail--in making a museum free?

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

What I Learned about Strangers from Jane Jacobs on my Winter Vacation

Yes, I was that woman on the beach with a library book about urban planning. And loved it.

One of my vacation goals was to think big picture about public space. I'm entrenched in a project to build a creative town square in Santa Cruz connected to my museum. I wanted to reconnect with the philosophical goals of the project.

So I decided to read Jane Jacobs' classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It's a masterful work: witty, story-ful, righteously indignant, and wise. (I also received many other book recommendations and look forward to reading and writing more about urban planning and public space in the months to come.)

My favorite part of The Death and Life of Great American Cities was Jane Jacobs' treatment of strangers in public space. It challenged my pre-conceptions and made me think twice about "good" design for social bridging.


Jane Jacobs writes beautifully about the anonymity of big cities. Lively public space creates opportunities for social contact without commitment. Share a smile. Pay for someone's coffee. Flip someone off. You'll never see them again.

No friction, no repetition, no expectation. These anonymous collisions may seem trivial, but they aren't. They are continual reminders that we are all human. They often reinforce civility and empathy. They allow us to be kind, and generous, a bit wild even, without consequence.

In places where there is healthy social contact among strangers, people help each other out. They intervene when a stranger is in trouble. They hold open a door. They care--because they only have to care for a minute.

If social life ranges from "being alone" to "being together," public social contact exists in the middle. When we lose the public space that facilitates it--active sidewalks and thoroughfares--we lose the simplicity of anonymous collisions.

Suddenly, the stakes get too high. Now we can't just nod at each other--we have to get to know each other, exchange numbers, have a conversation. Social contact becomes work, and that work pays uncertain dividends: Friend for life? Bore? Injury?

"Being alone" and "being together" are both useful ways to be. But they are extremes. When we don't feel safe in public space with strangers, we're stuck with these extremes. Either we're having a coffee date or completely ignoring each other. There's no in-between.

Many of us live in towns where we rarely have the opportunity for this kind of anonymous, safe, positive social contact. This is a problem. It means we smile less at strangers. We take care of each other less. We fear it opens up a social contract for too much more.


I am obsessed with designing opportunities for strangers to interact meaningfully with each other. I've always had a bias that building community means people moving from "alone" to "together." But Jane Jacobs showed me there are lots of different ways to experience togetherness. More "together" isn't always better. Sometimes it's a stressor to be avoided.

My museum's mission is to "ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections." Reading Jane Jacobs, I felt glad that we're doing work to enhance low-expectation social contact. We do this in simple ways, like always putting out multiple chairs at an activity station. But I also worry that we sometimes set unrealistic expectations for the intensity and duration of interaction among strangers at the museum. Is it really necessary for visitors to share their life stories with each other? Is it OK for them to just share a pair of scissors?

We're in the process of developing more consistent evaluation tools at our museum, and one of the things we track is how often strangers interact in the museum. I think we have a bias (I know I do) that deeper interaction--a longer conversation, an interaction with followup--is "better" than brief encounters. We've actually had internal debates about whether it "counts" if someone self-reports "talking to a stranger" or if they have to actually "have a meaningful interaction with a stranger."

Maybe it's time to reconsider what kinds of stranger interactions are most important for us to cultivate at our museum. Maybe it's just as important to be a place that reinforces the joy of anonymous interactions as one that encourages the work of building relationships.

How much do you work on supporting people "being alone?"
How much do you work on supporting people "being together?"
How much do you work on the social contact in-between?

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What You Lose When You Become Embedded, and a Moment of Mourning for Blog Conversations

In the community engagement universe, there's a high premium on arts organizations becoming "embedded" in their communities. Instead of being lone islands of culture, the goal is to be part of the fabric of diverse cultural life.

I'm proud of the way that my own museum works on embeddedness. For us, it means showing up at other people's events. Supporting organizations and community projects that are extended family to our own goals. Partnering, everywhere. Joining a long list of people and organizations working together to build a stronger community.

But today I want to acknowledge the loss that comes with being embedded. The loss of distinct space. Of voice. Of importance.

This loss is real, and I'm feeling in it another sphere of my professional life: this blog.

I've always treated blogging as a learning practice. I learn twice; once in the writing, and once in the reading and engaging with commenters.

In the past three years, the number of comments on this blog has declined significantly. Readership is up. Comments are down. What used to be a lively online discussion--with some posts garnering over 50 comments--is now fairly sedate.

People are still engaging with these posts--they just aren't doing it on this website like they used to. When I talk to colleagues, I hear they are using Museum 2.0 posts for all kinds of things: office discussion groups, Facebook debates, grad school homework. In its own small way, Museum 2.0 is "embedded" in many platforms and mediums.

Problem is, I'm only part of a tiny fraction of those conversations. I'm learning less. I feel more lonely in my writing. It makes it harder to keep it up.

This "problem" disproportionately impacts only one of this blog's thousands of users: me. For me, this content being embedded across different platforms and conversations is lovely in the abstract but frustrating in the day-to-day. I used to feel like a party host with really amazing guests. Now I feel like a street performer. I'm part of a bigger city. I supply some content but only get to talk with a few gadflies who stick close to the show (of whom I am very appreciative). One of my greatest blogging-related joys is when someone shares a blog post with a colleague and accidentally hits "reply" instead of "forward"--thus letting me in on their conversation.

This is what it means to be embedded. To not be the center of attention. To be used by someone else, somewhere else, without notification or participation. To be more important, but to feel less important.

I absolutely believe that being embedded makes us stronger and more resilient. But it also means less control of space. Less people coming to our party. More time blowing up balloons and giving them away. Wondering--rarely knowing--where they will land.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How Museum Hack Transforms Museum Tours: Interview with Dustin Growick

A new company in New York, Museum Hack, is reinventing the museum tour from the outside in. They give high-energy, interactive tours of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The tours are pricey, personalized, NOT affiliated with the museums involved… and very, very popular.

Today on Museum 2.0, an interview with Dustin Growick. Dustin is a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) by day, Museum Hack tour developer/leader at AMNH by night. 

How did you first get involved with Museum Hack? 

Dustin: About a year ago I met a couple of people from Museum Hack at a conference. They were “preaching the museum gospel” in NYC via alternative tours at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was intrigued and curious to learn more, but also skeptical of the merits of an outside group running roughshod in The Met.

So I went on a tour…and experienced the museum in an entirely new way. I heard incredible—and often salacious—stories behind hidden gems I’d walked past numerous times. We interacted with the art and with each other through dynamic photo challenges, kinesthetic activities, and conversations. We discussed impressionism from Manet to Monet, and delved deeper in pointillism and Greek sculpture. Heck, I even learned about a 17th century German drinking game. For the first time in a long time, I was personally interacting and engaging with the museum, the collection, and with complete strangers in a way that highlighted the art. 

When the opportunity to design my own two-hour museum adventure at the American Museum of Natural History presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been leading my own Museum Hack tours at AMNH for about 9 months now. The tours boil down to three key things: engagement, relevance and fun. I want to help people find interactive and accessible points of entry and give them the tools to curate their own experience during every museum visit.

Can you give an example of the kind of Museum Hack activity that makes this different from other museum tours? 

Here’s an example that I experienced on that first tour of the Met. While in the American Portrait Gallery, we played a game called Matchmaker Matchmaker. Here’s how it goes:
  • Take a few minutes to allow a subject in one of the paintings to “find you”. It can be a human or an animal, and they can be the main focus of the piece or some strange-looking fellow lurking in the background. Go to whatever piques your interest and draws you in. 
  • Use both the posted information and your imagination to come up with a simple backstory for this individual. What is their name? Why are they in this scene? Where did they get that phenomenal feather boa? 
  • Find a partner or get matched with a partner. You now have exactly two minutes to concoct the epic love story that brings together the two characters you’ve chosen. 
  • As you stand amongst the portraits, share your tale of deception, love, mystery, and intrigue with the rest of the group. 
During this simple, ten-minute activity, we curated our own experience by practicing “high levels of noticing” and by investigating museum signage on the wall and online. We were encouraged to use our smartphones to search accession numbers if we wanted to dig deeper than the copy on the wall. We shared what captivated and spoke to us on a personal level, not just what we were told was “important." But perhaps most significantly, we used the art and the subjects therein as jumping off points for bringing the museum collection to life.

Who is the audience for Museum Hack? You are a museum insider and a content geek. But I know that Nick Gray, the Museum Hack founder, often emphasizes that Museum Hack is for people who don’t love (or even like) museums. 

We at Museum Hack have gone back and forth about our target audience: is it people that don’t like museums that we want to convert, or people who want a more personal experience, or people who want an active museum experience?

I don’t think anyone who doesn’t like museums would ever pay for a tour. Then again, many of our most passionate participants are somewhat ambivalent towards museums--or people who are daunted by the Met or AMNH and want a more personalized experience. I think of us guides as “museum personal trainers”. Whether you’re an art history buff, a professional athlete, or don’t think you even like museums, sometimes all you need is a little help using the equipment.

How do you advertise Museum Hack? If you want to get people who are not already interested in museums, how would they even know to look for you? 

Social media and word of mouth. It started with word of mouth, and then it got much, much bigger. Now a ton of our business comes from TripAdvisor reviews and Zerve - a ticketing website. We’re one of the top-rated destination tours to do in NYC. The reviews are so positive. And then during the tours themselves, we’re hashtagging, tweeting - that is promotional too.

When we became more known on these trip planning websites, it shifted our audience. It used to be mostly young New Yorkers. Now we have a larger and more diverse audience, including a lot of tourists who are thinking of going on tours anyway.

Are there differences between the Museum Hack experience at the Met and AMNH? I imagine that there are a lot more presumed barriers to break down at an art museum than a science museum. Dinosaurs seem pretty accessible. 

There’s a certain level of assumed stuffiness or pretention at the Met. We do a good job of breaking down those boundaries--and maybe those tours involve a little more swearing and silliness. As far as AMNH goes, there’s a little bit of that, but we focus more on offering a more personal experience, finding ways to engage with things in the space and make them personally relevant to you. One of the big ones is that we bring the people behind the artifacts to life. I don’t think on a normal tour they talk so much about the badass character and life experience of the explorers and revolutionaries behind the specimens.

How do you start a Museum Hack tour in a way that signals the different experience ahead? How do you manage the diverse people on the tour who may want different things from it? 

We have a specific opening activity to bring the group together. We huddle up, share what you should expect from the tour, and introduce everyone. Everyone puts their hands in the middle--like a sports team--and does a cheer. From the start, you are face to face with strangers. We use language throughout the tour to encourage the interpersonal, e.g. “make eye contact with two new museum friends.”

It also helps that we generally sell out at 8 people, and the guide always has a co-host if the group gets that big. Having two guides means we can do split stops at some places, giving some people one experience and some another. It allows a little more freedom, and it also gives people many voices and personalities to engage with.

It seems like there are two ways to look at Museum Hack. One is that you have completely reimagined what a museum tour can be, and for whom. The other is that you have produced the most excellent version of a museum tour—more engaging, more personalized, more entertaining. Which description do you think is more accurate? 

That’s a tough question. I think that for the two museums in which we work, it might be A. But for museums in general, it's B. There are definitely elements of what we do in use at other institutions and in other contexts, and this leads me to believe that B is a more accurate description. But as far as The Met and AMNH go, I think we've totally reimagined the tour experience (A).

How has Museum Hack informed your day job as a museum educator? 

It has made me a better educator and added tremendous value for the audiences with which I work, both at NYSCI and on Museum Hack tours. Ultimately, it hinges on coming back—time after time—to the same five questions:
  1. Why should my audience care about [insert content]? 
  2. How does [insert content] relate to their lives and their interests?
  3. What are the tangible points of relevancy that will engage my learners on a personal level? 
  4. Am I giving people the tools necessary to curate their own museum experience during repeat visits? 
  5. What is my “ask” of my audience? What are their “next steps”? 

Museum Hack let me step outside the routine context of my normal scope of work to really explore the core concepts of interactivity, engagement and relevancy. It’s made the museum experiences I facilitate more enjoyable, longer-lasting, and much more meaningful.

But you don’t have to take my word for it: next time you’re in New York, shoot me an e-mail. We’d love to give you a first-hand taste of the Museum Hack special sauce, and prove to you why we truly believe that Museums Are F***ing Awesome.

You can share your questions and comments directly with Dustin here in the comments section or by emailing him at

Monday, December 15, 2014

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events

When basketball players are offering more cogent commentary on racial issues than cultural institutions, you know we have a cultural relevance problem. Can we be as brave and direct as these young women? 

Gretchen Jennings convened a group of bloggers and colleagues online to develop a statement about museums' responsibilities and opportunities in response to the events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. 

Here is our statement. It is not enough on its own. We are not enough on our own. I hope you will join us with your own words and actions.

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role–as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit–in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…
  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Looking at the website for International Coalition of  Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues (to be updated, add your comments below)

Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown,
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Paul Orselli  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog
Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront,  Museum Notes
Porchia Moore, @PorchiaMooreM

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Quick Hit: Three Blogs to Expand Your Arts Nonprofit Universe

It's that time of year. Scrambling at work, socializing afterwards... which, if you are a torn extro/introvert like me, can involve a lot of time in the bathroom reading while everyone else is toasting the season.

Here are three blogs that I'm loving these days for breaks from the chaos. Each of them comes from the extended family of museums: close enough to be relevant, far enough to spark new thinking. These are the cool cousins I'm fascinated and energized by.
  1. Butts in the Seats. Joe Patti runs a performing arts center in Ohio. For ten years (!) he has been blogging about arts management. He does so thoughtfully, prolifically, and very frequently. He points me to resources I've vaguely heard of. He writes with an open, curious mind. His posts open up questions and ways of thinking about audiences, marketing, management, and engagement that get me thinking differently. Start with the Categories list on the right if you don't know where to start. Check it out here.
  2. Nonprofit with Balls. Vu Le is hilarious, wicked smart, and writing extremely important weekly posts about nonprofit management and organizations based in communities of color. If there's one blog that has rocked my world and made me laugh inappropriately in the bathroom, it's this one. Imagine if Buzzfeed were run by a nonprofit manager... and actually funny. Vu is surprisingly singular for his cogent, explicit posts about cultural competency, frustrations of fundraising, and challenges of nonprofit management. He is based in Seattle, but the blog is pretty universal. If you want to know more about organizations rooted in communities of color, leadership development, unicorns, or vegan analyses of Game of Thrones, start reading this blog now
  3. Grasstronaut. This is a new blog by my colleague at the MAH, Elise Granata. Grasstronaut offers long-format essays and interviews about grassroots and DIY arts spaces. Elise has opened my eyes to the world of hybrid, informal arts spaces. They operate with a completely different set of budgets, decision-making processes, and vulnerabilities than formal organizations. What does it look like when youth invent their own arts empowerment spaces? When comic book stores host comedy shows? When arts organizations get shut down and reborn over and over? Read Grasstronaut and find out
What are you reading and appreciating this season? 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Will They Play in Pyongyang? Culture, Geography, and Participation

The objections started in Texas. During a workshop on museum visitor participation, someone spoke up and objected: "this might work in California, but it will never work in Texas."

Then in Australia: "this might work in America, but it will never work in Australia."

In New Zealand: "this might work in Australia, but it will never work in New Zealand."

For years, I've heard some version of this refrain. For the most part, I discounted it. I saw how participatory techniques were working in diverse museums around the world. I felt and continue to feel that everyone, everywhere, wants to be heard in some way. This is a human desire. It is not culturally-determined. There is no country or city or institution where visitors don't want to make a connection.

What may be culturally-determined, however, is HOW people want to participate. In different countries, I've noticed broad trends in how people feel most comfortable sharing their voice. For example:
  • American museum visitors often feel comfortable sharing their own opinions/stories/creative expression. We have a healthy (or unhealthy) sense of self and individuality, and it shows in a million post-it talk-back walls in museum exhibitions.
  • European museum visitors appear more comfortable engaging in interpersonal dialogue and social games with strangers. While they may not be as comfortable as Americans with "me" experiences, they are much more up for "we" activities.  
  • In Asia, I've noticed museum visitors are willing--enthusiastic, even--to take photos with strangers. To pose with them. To find favorite artifacts together and say cheese. I've never seen that kind of openness with strangers and cameras in the US or Europe.
Cultural differences can play out on local levels as well. What plays well at one museum may fall flat a few miles away. What works for one visitor may feel uncomfortable or inaccessible to someone from a different cultural background.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently in the context of cultural inclusion. Here are two observations about visitor participation:
  1. Participatory activities invite people to engage in new ways that may disrupt traditional norms of interaction. In this frame, any kind of participatory activity could work, anywhere. Why restrict people to barriers based on cultural norms when the whole point is to create opportunities beyond them? The way visitors engage--or don't--should not limited by culture or geography.
  2. Participatory activities work best when people feel comfortable and confident getting involved. In this frame, cultural starting points matter a lot. Is that activity an opportunity or a threat? Am I sharing my voice or being exposed? The way visitors engage--or don't--may have a lot to do with their cultural starting point. 
These two tenets are almost always somewhat contradictory. When we are presented with a new opportunity, it often feels like a challenge. The question is whether the challenge feels appropriate or impossible, appealing or demeaning. My suspicion is that culture has a lot to do with the answer.

Consider a simple activity that invites people to describe their identity using a simulated passport. For many people, it's empowering to name oneself as a person of a certain background, ethnicity, interests, etc. But for others, it can feel like unwelcome exposure, a reminder of the frustrations of legal status, or another nudge of how they don't fit into society's boxes. 

I try to be attentive to whether an activity systematically excludes certain people in the nature of how or what it invites... and in my current work, to especially focus on participatory activities that empower people who lack voice in other venues.

Here are the questions that help me think about this:
  1. Who do we most want to empower to participate in this activity?
  2. What invitation to engage will feel most compelling to our target participants?
  3. How might that invitation exclude or turn off other prospective participants?
  4. Are we ok with that?

How do you think about this question of culture, geography, and participatory experiences?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rethinking Community Advisory Boards: the Story of C3

What's the best way to get formal input from diverse community members? I've been curious about this question for a long time. While informal involvement or input for a specific project is always useful, there's also value to more sustained participation--and the relationships and accountability that comes with it.

I've mostly seen museums employ one of two methods for formal community advisors:
  1. Create special "spots" on the board of trustees for certain kinds of community representatives. PRO: gets diverse community members in positions of real authority. CON: can make people feel like second-class board members instead of equal leaders in the organization. As one African-American artist on a prominent museum board told me, "I felt even more tokenized than if I had been part of some kind of Artists' Council or African-American Council." 
  2. Form community advisory boards outside of the board of trustees. PRO: creates more room for diverse community members to participate as leaders, often in areas that are more programmatic than the board of trustees covers. CON: can feel disconnected from the primary governance of the museum or can feel like a second-class board overall. Also, can form factions of different community boards representing different groups (i.e. Latino Advisory vs. Youth Advisory vs...) as opposed to an intercultural approach.
I struggle with both these options. So here's the story of how we are trying to take another approach at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, through a group called C3.

In 2012, we tried creating an intercultural community advisory board called C3 (Creative Community Committee). We patterned it after Science Gallery Dublin's Leonardo Group - 75 creative individuals who get together four times per year to provide input on programming. C3 was a list of about 80 people from diverse networks throughout Santa Cruz--from librarians to social services to roller derby. We held a meeting every other month on a topic like "youth engagement" or "engagement beyond the museum." People opted into the meetings where they had interest or expertise and ignored those where they didn't. We always had a group of 15-50 people together for intense brainstorming. It was fairly lightweight, and it provided valuable input.

But there was a problem: it wasn't a consistent body. There was no required time commitment from participants. There was no accountability for us to act on their input. C3-ers generated great and useful ideas, but they were functionally an assembly of creative individuals, efficiently giving us input. Low on friction. Low on depth. Low on long-term impact.

We took a year off of C3 in 2013 and reconsidered our goals for the group. We realized that we didn't want specific programmatic input--we already get that from individual community members as needed. Instead, we wanted a collection of leaders, highly networked in different parts of our County, with their fingers on the pulses of significant community issues and activities. We believed that our museum programming would improve if we spent more time as staff members and trustees learning and working with these leaders on their projects throughout the County. Our work would become more relevant, our collaborations more timely, our network more diverse.

Suddenly, C3 felt more like an engagement program that advances our institutional goals. At the same time, it sounded like something that wasn't just for us. We figured if it worked, everyone in C3 would find it useful for their own work.

So we reconceptualized C3 as a creative leadership network for the community. A year-long program with an intention to ignite new collaborations across the County to build a stronger, more connected community. We're piloting C3 now with a cohort of 42, roughly following the 2014/2015 school year. We tried to develop the best leadership program we could imagine, rooted in our museum's collaborative, creative approach.

This reframing led to a totally different approach to the curriculum, recruitment, and expectations for C3 than we'd used previously. For example:
  • We recruited people in an invite-only format, with very strict quotas for different kinds of creative leaders in the County. We wanted to end up with a group that reflects the diversity of our County across many strata: age, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, and profession. Meet them here.
  • We required a commitment to a half-day kickoff and four out of five two-hour evening meetings over the course of 10 months. We said no, tearfully, to several awesome people who could not make it to the kick-off workshop. While C3 is open for any staff members to participate, they have to make that same time commitment too to be part of the group. 
  • We worked with C3ers at the kickoff workshop to map the issues and communities of greatest interest and connection. This map formed the basis for topic definition for subsequent meetings. Our topics are broad, including Creative Spaces, Youth Empowerment, and Economic Opportunity. We asked everyone to commit to all the meetings, including those that don't relate obviously to their work.
  • We developed a meeting format that focuses on sparking creative collaborations to enhance projects that C3ers are already leading. A few of these are museum projects, but most are not. The museum connection is evident in the way the meeting is formatted--incorporating playful art-making, historic artifacts from our collection, and a pop up museum of "artifacts from the future" of the topic at hand--but the content is not primarily about us.
  • We asked people to make a voluntary donation of up to $150 to help support the facilitation of C3, and snacks. We were amazed at how many people were ready to pay to support the group.
  • We created a public site to coordinate the group and share their work.
At the same time, we've run into some challenges of managing this kind of group:
  • We're spending a LOT more staff time than with the previous structure of C3, mostly in the form of increased communication with members and a much more intensive approach to the facilitation and program design.
  • Recruiting people across many big cross-sections of the community means that some topics are impossible to dive into deeply. We're discussing whether in a future year we would consider picking one topic and recruiting people across diverse networks related to just that topic. 
  • It's pretty confusing to explain what it is, why we are doing it, and why people should participate. We're working on the internal and external language, always trying to be as clear and concrete as possible.
We've just finished the second meeting of this pilot year. While we still have a long way to go, it's compelling thus far. We're already seeing changes to our own work, especially in terms of building relationships for higher-impact collaboration. We're hearing good things from C3 members about the value they are getting from the experience. Our measures of success for C3 are:
  • C3 members find it useful and valuable (measured via self-report and attendance over time). 
  • C3 sparks new collaborations to enhance participants' projects (measured via self-report and social network mapping).
  • C3 helps our staff and trustees improve the museum in a variety of ways (measured via self-report and social network mapping).
We'll see how the dust settles in the spring of 2015 and whether this becomes a permanent program of our museum. In the meantime, we'll keep exploring and learning with our creative colleagues across the County.

How are you exploring different approaches to community advisory boards in your work?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Three Provocations from the West Coast of the Arts

You know those people who drop morsels of brilliance like a little kid scattering bread to ducks? I was surrounded by them last week.

I'm part of a cohort of ten arts organizations in California funded by the Irvine Foundation to strengthen our work to engage low-income and ethnically-diverse people. We meet in person twice a year. These are all really smart, dedicated people, and I feel lucky to learn from and with them.

Here's what hit me.


Deborah Cullinan (Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) spoke about the change process. She compared some frustrations to "a bird flying into a window." 

I love this metaphor because it doesn't just speak to stuck-ness. It speaks to the fact that there is a living thing on the other side of that glass wall. There is motion. There is joy. If we can open the window, the bird can fly in. Simple as that.


Jon Moscone (Artistic Director of CalShakes and son of the late San Francisco mayor George Moscone) talked about thinking politically about how we respond to criticism and to praise. As he put it: "Count the votes."

If someone is negative about what you are doing, will they ever vote for you? 
Does their vote even matter? 
If the answers to these questions are "no," move on. 

Jon implored us to think more like activists and less like artists. Less focused on being loved. More focused on strategically understanding who is important to our cause and ignoring those who aren't.


Michael Garces (Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater) shared about a killer workshop that made him completely rethink how collaboration is supposed to work. We usually think about collaboration as a process of compromise and negotiation. But Michael suggested that collaboration really means "You get 100% of what you want. I get 100% of what I want. And we work really hard to make it work."

What would it look like if you approached partnership this way?