Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What are Your Engagement Goals?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the use of the word "quality" in the arts and its many forms. A commenter, Stacy Peterson, responded by turning my exploration back on itself:
Quality makes sense but engagement is more open to interpretation. "Engagement? What do you mean by engagement? There are many different forms of engagement with many different outcomes depending on your goals, your project, or your institution."
Touché. I believe in transparency in all language use--whether the words are familiar or new. Inspired by Stacy, I wanted to share some of the work we are doing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to clarify what we mean by engagement.

This is a big year for us in naming and evaluating our work. In early 2014, we developed a set of five engagement goals: Relevant, Sustainable, Bridging, Participatory, Igniting. We use these goals to evaluate our current engagement strategies, assess new proposed strategies, and guide productive discussions about how to improve our work.

We developed these goals through a series of all-staff workshops. We moved from pre-existing department-specific goals upwards, trying to write broad goals that make sense across our diverse work. Then, we applied the filter of our mission statement to finalize the five goals.

We wanted goals that are specific to our organization while applicable across it (archives, exhibitions, historic sites, events, fundraising, school tours, online). I don't think these goals are universal by any means to the museum or arts field. They are idiosyncratic to our institution, our mission, and our community. That said, our process and goals may be useful examples for others.

Here's a short description of each engagement goal:
  • RELEVANT: Connected to compelling needs, assets, and interests in Santa Cruz County. Connected to our core content of contemporary art and regional history. 
  • SUSTAINABLE: Provides important resources to help the MAH thrive financially and organizationally. 
  • BRIDGING: Brings community members together across differences. Celebrates diversity and encourages unexpected connections. 
  • PARTICIPATORY: Invites diverse community members to make meaningful contributions as co-creators, collaborators, and energized constituents. 
  • IGNITING: Inspires excitement and curiosity about art and history. Expands opportunities for deeper engagement beyond the museum. 
For each of these goals, we wrote a single page explaining what the goal is and listing clear examples of what "high," "average," and "low" execution of the goal looks like. If you are interested in the specifics, you can check out this 6-page document about our engagement goals.

Focusing on these five goals forced us to be specific about what success looks like for us. For example:
  • We chose to include "bridging" but not "bonding" because our primary social goal is to connect strangers, not to deepen existing relationships. While we are pleased when people bond with their friends and family here, it's not our primary goal. Excessive bonding can lead to cliques and exclusion. Excessive bridging, on the other hand, builds a more open and connected community.
  • By focusing on "igniting" rather than "deepening," we own our limited role as a spark for interest and learning. We focus on introducing people to lots of things and giving them tools and opportunities to pursue deeper engagement on their own. For us, that empowering spark is more important than the long-term learning.
  • By including "sustainable," we acknowledge that every engagement strategy must be manageable in terms of time and money. This has prompted more conversations about workload, scheduling, and financing for projects. We haven't cracked the sustainability code for every engagement strategy. But just naming it encourages us to talk about it.
Since we wrote these goals in the spring, we've started baking them into our work and program evaluation in different ways. We are:
  • writing an "engagement handbook," which has a one-page description of each engagement strategy at the museum, how it works, and its connection to each of the engagement goals. Already, this document-in-process has helped us orient new trustees and staff. It helps connect the dots in a diverse organization with lots going on.
  • using engagement goals as part of new standardized evaluation templates for projects. Right now, staff members evaluate goal achievement based on the "low," "average," "high" criteria set forth in our goals document. This fall, we are exploring ways to collect this data from participants in addition to making a judgment call from our perspective.
  • talking about the goals and using them whenever we are planning or reviewing engagement activities. This includes brainstorming ideas for programmatic tie-ins to exhibitions, reviewing what was good and bad about a recent event, and evaluating potential collaborators for a project.
This is very much a work-in-progress. I'd love to hear what you are doing in your own organization to bring clarity, specificity, and measurability to the many qualities of engagement--or success. 


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Looking for Inspiring Examples from Unlikely Suspects? Check These Out.

How do you find fresh and inspiring resources in your field?

This is a tricky question in the nonprofit arts world--and probably in every field. There are some industry blogs and twitter feeds. There are some good conferences. There are some useful research papers. But most of these resources live in narrow silos, invisible to most of us. If you don't know the language, the players, the conversations in that subset of the field, you won't even know where to look.

The result is that the resources we know most about tend to be limited to those in our respective silos, and stories about giant organizations. Not so helpful for a curious person with diverse interests--especially if you care most about small, experimental organizations. They often don't have the bandwidth or the visibility to share their stories easily.

I was discussing this with a colleague last week when I realized: I am part of the problem. Every once in a while, I see something great, and I don't share it. Each of us is a connector to new work and new worlds.

Below are two excellent e-books put out by the National Arts Marketing Project, one on artistic interventions in uncommon places, and one on taking a leap of faith with "weird" programming. (Full disclosure: my museum is profiled in the latter.)

I love these e-books. They are short, beautifully produced, and thoughtfully edited. Best of all, they profile diverse organizations I know very little about.

NAMP puts out some other e-books about branding and digital engagement which may also be of interest. But for me, the stories in Making Space and Let's Get Weird--about art in laundromats, theater in churches--share lessons that go far beyond marketing.

Thanks to NAMP for writing these e-books. And thanks to you for sharing the resources that you are inspired by--whenever and wherever you can.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

But What About Quality?

Image courtesy Museum Quality Dance. Photo by Carrie Meyer.
Scene: a regional workshop on arts engagement. A funder is speaking with conviction about the fact that her foundation is focusing their arts grantmaking strategy on engagement. Engaging new people. Engaging more diverse people. Engaging people actively in the arts. Any questions?

One, from a museum director. The question that comes up every time, the question so big it deserves the impropriety of all caps: BUT WHAT ABOUT QUALITY?

No one wants to do crappy work. Everyone wants quality, in one way or another.

The word "quality" is often code for aesthetic quality, as judged by a specific set of cultural expectations and preferences.

But just as its definition suggests, quality is itself a quality. Quality Shakespearian theater is different from quality contemporary dance. Quality is mutable and multitudinous. It is not code for one idea. It can unlock several.

Here, in no particular order, are ten different kinds of quality in arts experiences:
  1. AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
  2. TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
  3. INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
  4. INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
  5. EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
  6. RELEVANT: can people relate to it? 
  7. PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
  8. ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
  9. BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
  10. IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?
No arts experience hits them all. Heck, no museum exhibition hits them all. Consider:
  • A dry exhibition, diving into an arcane topic. High academic quality, low igniting quality.
  • A community-based exhibition, full of life but rife with amateur design and poor editing. High participatory quality, low technical quality.
  • An edgy contemporary art show that alienates and confuses many visitors. High innovative quality, low relevant quality.
The next time someone asks you, "But what about quality?," ask them: "What do you mean by that?"
Invite the conversation about forms of quality, and the different outcomes of different forms. Define what quality means for your goals, for your project, for your institution. And then proceed with the confidence that you are going to do the best damn job you can to achieve the kind of quality you seek.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Participatory Moment of Zen: Diverse Visitor Contributions Add Up to Empathy

Whoever wrote this comment card: thank you. You made my month. For those who can't see the image, the card reads:
When I first saw the "pastports" I didn't really understand, but after reading what people wrote in them I felt an overwhelming connection to all the words of so many random people. Everyone has something valuable to say, no matter how they appear outwardly.
This person is writing about a participatory element (the "pastport") that we included in the exhibition Crossing Cultures. Crossing Cultures features paintings by Belle Yang that relate to her family's immigration experiences.

We did three things to supplement Belle's paintings (installation shots here, peopled shots here):
  1. We issued a call to locals who are immigrants, or whose family immigrated, to share an artifact and story with us. We mounted those objects and stories alongside visitor-contributed suitcases. Many, many visitors responded emotionally to these stories. They diversified the voice of immigration in the exhibition and encouraged people to share their own histories verbally.
  2. We created a "pastport" - a small booklet with evocative prompts related to identity and place. Each prompt was tied to a different artwork in the exhibition. In front of each of those paintings, you could stamp your pastport, reflect on the artwork and the question, and share your story. People could take the pastports home or hang them, open to a preferred page, on a clothesline. The clotheslines were always full.
  3. We created a simple wheel with open-ended questions about identity and place, setting it in a lounge area. The idea was that people would spin the wheel and start a conversation. This element was a dud - it was not as compelling as the rest of the exhibition, and redundant in a gallery replete with juicy conversations.
Each of these activities invited contribution on a different level. The suitcase collaborators contributed to the exhibition for months, through a sequence of outreach, discussion, writing, object sourcing, editing, and design. The pastport contributors were visitors who came and shared their stories in written or drawn form in real time, without staff contact, to be showcased for a few weeks. And the conversationalists (with or without the wheel) contributed to the ephemeral dialogue around the exhibition.

Often when I talk with folks from other institutions about visitor/audience participation, the focus is on one form of participation. Collaboration in the months before the show. Visitor feedback during the event. Response mail art after the visit. The institution picks one form and goes with it.

In my experience, offering many different forms of participation garners more quality interactions. People self-select into the opportunity where they can give and get the most value. 

Everyone has "something valuable to say." Some people say it with a poem. Some with a colored pencil. Some with a paella pan. The trick is to invite many voices in many forms. That's where meaning--and empathy--lives.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's Coming Up, What Happened, How Can I Help, and What the Heck is this E-Blast For, Anyway?

Like a lot of organizations, our museum sends out a weekly email to folks who are interested in upcoming events, exhibitions, and happenings at our museum. We are sensitive to keeping it short, interesting, and readable. We mostly focus on sharing what exhibitions are on and which events are coming up that week. Just the facts, ma'am.

At the same time, we generate some pretty great digital documentation (mostly photos and videos) from recent events. This documentation often languishes in corners of the social web. We capture the moments, post them online, and that's it.

In the past few months, we've started to experiment with sharing documentation on the e-blast. We've known for awhile that the most clicked-on part of our e-blast is often the Wishlist--a simple call-out for stuff we need for programs and exhibitions. As a community-based museum, it makes sense that we actively solicit participation through the e-blast when we can.

Bolstered by the power of the Wishlist, we decided to explore other non-announcement-y content to add to the e-blast.

Here's a recent e-blast we sent. It features:

  • an event & exhibition announcement
  • an opportunity to apply for our teen program
  • an instagram video of a ten year old who did a spontaneous performance at a recent event
  • a wishlist request
This e-blast had a surprising surge in clicks. Our average e-blast has a click rate of 1-2%. This one clocked in at 3%. The only other blast that has ever had this 3% clicks offered two job announcements.

Of those clicks, the vast majority - 44% - were on the video of the singing girl. Triple the number of clicks that anything else got. Documentation trumped announcement. An exciting moment captured digitally was more interesting than the promise of future exciting moments. 

A crass way to look at this is that the video was link-bait. Of course people will click on a video of--as we put it--"a 10 year old crushing a surprise performance at First Friday." But this documentation is also a direct showcase of our mission to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections. I was in the room when Lily got up on stage and belted out a song she wrote. It was extraordinary. It brought the room together. It was a mind-exploding, unexpected moment of connection. It's the kind of magic that sometimes happens at the MAH.

If we wanted our e-blast to be as reflective of our mission, programming, and values as possible, it would primarily feature:
  • invitations to get meaningfully involved
  • documentation and celebration of community members who have gotten involved, shared experiences, made unexpected connections, or experienced moments of ignition
  • clear and welcoming language about a diversity of available experiences where you could have these experiences too
We're moving in this direction, but we could probably do more. I'm a bit embarrassed at how simple this seems and how we had to wander into discovering it. We thought the e-blast was prescriptively for one thing. Our visitors are reminding us that any communication can and should be mission-oriented. Thanks, visitors.

If your e-blast was written in the language of your mission, how would it be different? What would it feature?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blame the Crowd, Not the Camera: Challenges to a New Open Photo Policy at the National Gallery

Reader, I was wrong.

Five years ago, I wrote a post arguing that museum photo policies should be as open as possible. I believe that the ability to take photographs (no flash) in a museum greatly increases many people's abilities to personalize, memorialize, and enjoy the experience. I still feel that way. Mostly. But this past week, a string of stories from London have changed my perspective.

Several come from an aptly-named blog: Grumpy Art Historian. Blogger Michael Savage and I rarely see eye-to-eye, and that's why I love reading his posts. Last week, he wrote a series of posts about the British National Gallery's reversal of their photo policy. For the first time, the National Gallery is permitting non-flash photography.

The result appears to be a total mess. Lots of flashes. Mobs of ipads. Dangerous leaning and touching. A swarm of cameras everywhere. The paintings have become beleaguered celebrities, pursued by mobs of novice paparazzi.

Reading Michael's posts carefully, it seems that the cameras are not the ultimate culprits. Cameras weaponize an already unwieldy mob of people. They are the sidearms of packed-in novelty seekers. A scene like the one shown above is not just a mess because of the bevy of phones and cameras. It's a mess because of the crowd.

A packed crowd in a museum turns a free-choice viewing environment into a programmed event. You are stuck with the people around you, in front of you, shoving up behind you. Suddenly, a visual distraction like a camera--innocuous in an uncrowded space--becomes as bad as someone talking in the movie theater. You can't not see their camera. You are all in the same space.

Why is this gallery so crowded? Because it's famous. Michael notes that other parts of the National Gallery are still relatively quiet and manageable. But the star paintings--the Van Gogh sunflowers, the Botticelli virgins--are mobbed.

The cult of celebrity is strongest in fields where the general public knows little. How many opera singers can you name? How many painters? How many museums? The biggest museums get the most traffic--and primarily therein to the big name artworks in their collections. There are plenty of galleries in the Louvre that are empty. The one with the Mona Lisa will never be one of them.

Museums have exacerbated this cult of celebrity through an emphasis on blockbuster exhibitions and traveling shows that "package" the greatest hits into must-see moments. We push the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the art. And then the crowds show up. They were told they must not miss it. They had better capture the moment however they can! And so the crowds shuffle through, cameras dutifully in hand. The art gets captured like a lame animal in a game park, instead of the wild thing it is.

Thinking about all of this, I remembered Don Delillo's beautiful bit in White Noise about the most photographed barn in America. Two of the characters in the novel go out to see this barn, and to see all the people taking pictures of it. One of them, Murray, says,
"No one sees the barn... Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
The barn, like Van Gogh's sunflowers, is a tamed thing. With every click, it becomes less a barn and more a likeness of a barn. It is sacrificed to the continuous capture of its likeness.

I'm OK with this happening to a barn in a novel. I'm not sure I'm OK with it happening to art and cultural artifacts.

Is there an alternative?

Michael Savage might say: turn back the photo policy. Get rid of the cameras. But I think the cameras are a distraction. The real thing we have to get rid of is the crowding.

I'm heading out next week on vacation, camping in the high Sierras. To do this, I have to get a wilderness permit. To do that, I either had to plan way in advance (I didn't) or I have to get up at 5am to stand in line for three hours to get a permit (I will).

There are wilderness permits for the same reasons there are restrictions on visitors to museums: to protect the artifacts (nature) and to ensure the safety and positive experiences of the participants.

The permitting system doesn't apply to the whole park - just the parts that are most vulnerable. The permitting system is not primarily based on money; anyone can get a permit for a reasonable rate. It is based on the idea that there is a maximum capacity for safe and positive wilderness experiences, and that there are rules and systems that have to be put in place to ensure that capacity is not exceeded.

There is a maximum capacity for safe and positive experiences with art in museums. The right capacity absorbs diversity in learning styles. Some people can sketch in museums. Some people can take photos. Some people can talk. Some people can look. Any of these actions can be catalysts for deep and meaningful engagement. And they can all do all of these things peaceably if there is enough breathing room among them.

I think of the best museums as generous places. They welcome different people spending different amounts of time doing different things to connect with the work on display. If they are popular museums, they support people visiting at many hours of the day to be able to have a good experience despite the demand.

Crowded places become parsimonious places. They are transactional by necessity. Every deviance from our own preferred mode of engagement becomes more visible and frustrating. Diversity breeds name-calling instead of understanding.

Let's find a way to build generosity back into the operation of the largest museums in the world. Let Van Gogh be Van Gogh. Let the people experience the sunflowers in their own way, with their own bit of space and time. We need to build systems that let visitors, and art, bloom.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Facilitating Creative Learning (for Professionals): More Notes on MuseumCamp

Last week, I wrote about MuseumCamp, the annual professional development event we hold in Santa Cruz. MuseumCamp is a playful, intense, spirited 3-day adventure in which small teams of diverse professionals do a rapid-fire project together on a theme. Last week, I focused on the 2014 theme (social impact assessment) and the many creative evaluation projects produced by campers.

This week, I want to share a bit about the behind-the-scenes of MuseumCamp. While MuseumCamp is an unusual event, I've learned a lot from it about designing workshops, charrettes, and meetings--pretty much any gathering where you want to encourage playful, creative, risky thinking in groups.

MuseumCamp was inspired by other action-oriented professional development experiences, ranging from open-ended unconferences to tightly-formatted tinkering workshops. Here are five key lessons I've learned about making this kind of event work.

Sleep on it. MuseumCamp uses an "inefficient" format where there are two full days and two half days. We do that so there is as much opportunity as possible to sleep on something and refresh the following day. We know MuseumCamp is intense, and we don't want anyone to feel like the energy of a single day is taking them on a ride without their consent. Wrestling with something meaty deserves a night in the middle.

It is my suspicion that a one-day workshop spread over two days will always be more effective than putting it all on the same day, even with the same number of hours of content sharing. There’s a sense that anything that exists within a single day can wash over you and disappear. A night in the middle helps you come back in the morning on your own terms to make the work your own. Camper James Heaton wrote about how this promotes "stickiness" of the experience, not during the project but afterwards, too.

Acknowledge the dips. At day 2 of project work at MuseumCamp, a lot of teams hit a wall. They are frustrated. They are going in circles. They feel stuck. On that day, counselors spend time helping teams call out their stuckness and cheering them on with the promise that they will hit a breakthrough soon. They do. I don't know that acknowledging the discomfort of the dip helps the breakthrough happen any faster, but it does help people push through with more confidence--and feel even better about the reward when it comes.

I first learned about this technique from Sam Kaner's excellent book, Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. He calls this dip the "messy middle" of a meeting, when a group has to shift from divergent to convergent thinking.

Tag Team the Facilitation. One of the most effective ways we were able to shepherd MuseumCamp teams is by having a gang of counselors. Each counselor had a few teams specifically assigned to him/her, but other counselors (and me) could pitch in as helpful. Sometimes, getting secondary advice outside the team dynamic can be helpful.

To me, this is analogous to the benefits of having multiple staff members engaged with community partners on participatory projects. One staff member is the cheerleader/buddy, one can be the heavy or the expert or the critic. Yes, it can be inefficient. But it can also help positive relationships form among participants and guides.

And if you want a more efficient approach to multi-vocal facilitation, try an unconference. One of the most amazing professional camp-esque experiences I've ever had was at FooCamp, a completely participant-led event.

Create a safe space by focusing on process, not product. The biggest difference between last year's MuseumCamp and this year's was the product. In 2013, it was an exhibition in our largest gallery, on display for a month following camp. In 2014, it was a rapid-fire research project, documented on a website.

It's probably obvious that a big exhibition is WAY more high-stakes than a webpage. Two-time camper Katherine Gressel wrote about this difference and its impact.  2014 Campers were able to be creative and pursue highly speculative methods with the confidence that they weren't doing it for some big audience. It loosened up the experience, and I think, created more opportunities for learning.

Build structures to support meeting each other. In 2014, we did a better job of making time in the schedule for breaks and fun, both Camper-directed and staff-planned. But we didn't do enough to help people find other campers whose work might be relevant or exciting to them.

Breaks are not enough. Breaks are good for people to settle in with the people they already know... or to take a break from people entirely.

It's ironic that this is the part of MuseumCamp that is most lacking, since it's one of the things I care most about professionally (creating opportunities for strangers to connect). I think in the desire to not make all aspects of camp "too programmed," we miss an opportunity to program one of the necessary ingredients to people learning best from each other. I look forward to finding ways to improve this next year.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

MuseumCamp 2014: Experiments in Social Impact Assessment

You run a program. It changes kids' lives. It builds more responsible environmental stewards. It strengthens your community.

How do you measure that?

This was the question at the heart of last week's MuseumCamp. MuseumCamp is an annual professional development event at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in which teams of diverse, creative people work on quick and dirty projects on a big theme. This year, the theme was social impact assessment, or measuring the immeasurable. We worked closely with Fractured Atlas to produce MuseumCamp, which brought together 100 campers and 8 experienced counselors to do 20 research projects in ~48 hours around Santa Cruz.

We encouraged teams to think like artists, not researchers. To be speculative. To be playful. To be creative. The goal was to explore new ways to measure "immeasurable" social outcomes like connectedness, pride, and civic action.

The teams delivered. You can check out all twenty research projects here. While all the projects are fast, messy, and incomplete, each is like a small test tube of ideas and possibilities for opening up the way we do social impact research.

Here are three lessons I learned at MuseumCamp about research processes:
  • Look for nontraditional indicators. The JerBears group used "passing of joints" as an indicator of tribal affinity at a Grateful Dead tribute concert. The San Lorenzo Levee group used movement of homeless people as an indicator of social disruption. People x (Food + Place) looked at photos taken by children in a park to understand what contributed to their sense of community. Some of these experiments didn't yield anything useful, but some were surprisingly helpful proxies for complex human interactions.
  • Don't (always) call it a survey. Several groups created projects that were somewhere between engagement activity and research activity. Putting stickers on signs. Taking photos. Finishing a sentence mad-libs style. My favorite example of this was the One Minute Art Project group, which rebranded a fairly standard sticker survey into a "fast, fun, free and easy" activity. They had several participants who said "I wouldn't do a survey, but I like doing this."
  • Every active research method is an intervention. It's easy to look at the One Minute Art Project referenced above and see a red flag - maybe people self-select into this because it's "art" instead of "research." But I realized through this process that a survey solicitation is just an active an intervention as an engagement solicitation. There are different biases to who participates and why. But we shouldn't assume that any one research method is inherently "neutral" just because it is more familiar. Many of the most interventionist projects, like the Karma Hat, yielded really interesting information that was not visible in more passive research methods.

And here are three of my favorite findings from the experiments:
  • On depth of bridging among strangers. Two groups dove into the work at the MAH on social bridging - one with the Karma Hat game, and one with a photobooth project. The Karma Hat required people to wear a hat, write their name on it, and pass it on. It was hugely used. On the other hand, a photobooth where people were prompted to take a photo with a stranger they met at the museum was barely used. We saw that people were ready and willing to engage with strangers at the museum, but not necessarily to build relationships on those engagements. This is just a drop in the barrel of exploration we are doing around bridging at the museum.
  • On smartphone usage at natural sites. We Go to 11 studied the difference in mood change for people at a beautiful site overlooking the ocean relative to their smartphone use. They found that people with smartphones used them to go from a state of active negativity (tension, anxiety) to active positivity (energy, joy). People who didn't use smartphones at the same site tended to embody passive positivity (serenity, calm). Not a shocker, but a pretty interesting project.  
  • On the power of programming to spark civic action. This project, measuring the connection between empathy and action at an indigenous solidarity film screening, is full of useful insights. Read their report for thoughts about the challenges of participant observational research, the power of spiritual experiences, and the results of a compelling survey about ignition to action.
I encourage you to explore all the projects and see what insights might connect to your own work and research goals. You can comment on the projects too and share your own ideas. Please bear in mind that these were very quick projects and are more like research sketches than full evaluations.

What did you get out of MuseumCamp? If you didn't attend, what do you want to know more about?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Making Meaningful Connections: Inspiring New Report from Irvine and Helicon

Our work to transform the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History into a participatory and community-centered place has been heavily supported by the James Irvine Foundation. I've learned a lot from Irvine Foundation staff and partners directly. But one of my favorite things they do is remarkably unpersonalized: they produce killer reports.

Their newest one, Making Meaningful Connections, was written by Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcy Hinand at Helicon. The report is a slim 12 pages on the common characteristics of arts organizations that successfully and continuously engage diverse audiences. It is paired with a thoughtful infographic (part of which is shown at the top here) that summarizes their findings.

Making Meaningful Connections is not riddled with jargon and academic theory. Nor is it packed with juicy examples and case studies. Instead, it's a tight, inspiring, and reasonably original brief on the strategies that lead to sustained involvement of diverse people with arts organizations. It's the first report in a long time that I am sharing with my board. (The last one was on arts innovation and change, also from Irvine.)

Here are three aspects of Making Meaningful Connections that I like most:
  • New participant relationships are like new friendships. They take time, curiosity, respect and the willingness to be changed by the relationship. The report starts with an elegant friendship analogy (see the box on page 4) that breaks down the challenges of genuine arts engagement in a clear, relatable, and motivating way.
  • Targeted programming is not enough. The authors name the reality that one-off programs, exhibits, or shows for specific groups do little to change the mix of participants longterm. Interestingly, they argue instead that structural change--including but not exclusively programmatic change--is what makes the difference in participant makeup. They also acknowledge that some organizations are happy with their participant makeup, and that these multi-faceted organizational shifts are voluntary for those who want them.
  • The characteristics of successful organizations involve deepening, not adding. So often, these kinds of reports recommend a long list of changes and new things to add to your work. It can feel defeating or downright impossible to integrate them into already-strapped schedules. But this report was developed based on existing organizations and practices, looking for common characteristics as opposed to new directions. The recommendations read less like "thou shalt do this new thing" and more like "deepen and embed in this thing you already have." We all have missions. We all have leaders. We all have business models. We can all shift within our existing worlds. 
And here are two things I wonder about:
  • Universalist tone. This report could come from--and go--anywhere. I assume that's intentional, and for the most part, it's a good thing. The report is brief, clear, and open. If you are reading this report in Manchester or Malaysia or Memphis, you will find meaningful and useful content. On the other hand, the Irvine Foundation makes grants specifically in California. When Josephine Ramirez, Program Director for the Arts, introduced the report on the Irvine blog, she did so in the context of a state that is now 55% Latino and Asian. Nowhere in the report itself is there a comparable framing statement about why it is urgent to consider this work now, in California and around the world. Perhaps it's self-evident. But especially for organizations where cultural competency is in its infancy, those starting points and case statements are still necessary. Then again, Irvine made that statement pretty clearly in a previous report
  • Recommendation to bring practices "into balance." I didn't find it meaningful to imagine an institutional "balance" of the five recommended practices (welcoming spaces, relevant programming, respectful relationships, analysis for improvement, business model). I agree that all are important, and that they are interrelated, but I didn't see a rationale in going for parity. I'd like to understand more about the basis for that recommendation.

What did you get out of Making Meaningful Connections?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New Approach, Historic Mission: Remaking a Factory Museum via Community Co-Production


Imagine a historic site. It has an incredible story. But not enough people care about it anymore, and the museum is fading into disrepair. It is losing funding, attention, and relevance.

What do you do?

Yesterday, I learned about the Silk Mill, a British historic site that is going through a dramatic community-driven reinvention. The Silk Mill is part of the Derby Museums, a public institution of art, history, and natural history. The Mill itself claims fame as the world's oldest factory, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a birthplace of mechanized silk production.

Many people would look at the world's oldest mechanized silk mill and say that the core content of the museum is silk. Or silk production. Or factory life in the 1700s. The Derby Silk Mill folks have a different tack: they define the Silk Mill as being about making.

In the fall of 2013, they launched Re:Make, an ambitious project to redevelop the museum, live, on the floor, with a mix of staff, guest artists, and community members. They see this as directly related to the founding principles of the Mill as a place of experimentation, design, creating, and making. They see it as the future of their museum. And perhaps most ambitiously, they see it as a community-based project.

This means that not only have they turned their museum into an experimental project space, they have opened that space explicitly and intentionally to community co-production. They invite people to participate: in design, prototypingartifact interpretation, collections preparation, audience development.

They don't just invite participation by opening the doors. They host public co-making events, invite groups to book workshops directly, engage on twitter and tumblr, and encourage drop-in participation. It's clear from the diversity of activities, the professionalism of the scaffolding, and the forms of access that they are serious about inviting meaningful participation in the Re:Make project.

Watch the video at the top of this post, and you'll see the requisite happy people of diverse backgrounds with power tools and post-its. But you'll also hear participants saying things that speak to the intentionality of this process. Things like:
"I was curious about how it would happen. And then I thought, ok, it does seem serious. They do know what they are talking about." 
or
"I've never had anything quite like it... it's carried on. Everyone in the community helping out. I love the way they've stuck to their guns and said, guys, keep going."
These participants are engaged because they've been invited not just to participate once but to be part of something substantive and comprehensive. A strong participatory process is not a loosey-goosey, open the doors and do whatever strategy. It's serious. These guys needed to see that the museum was serious--putting resources, time, and real estate into the process. That investment by the institution helped them commit to making an investment of their own time and energy.

Staff members made some powerful statements as well. My favorite was this one:
"I'm the workshop supervisor, but the workshop belongs to everybody. It's like a swap. I'm a resource for the community, they're a resource for me, and the things we bought, in a public workshop, belongs to the public."
This staff member sees community members as partners. Everyone has something they need. Everyone has something to give. It's not a question of the participatory process being unidirectional, something that we are doing for you the community. It's a shared space and process.

Kudos to the Silk Mill for doing the difficult, messy, resource-intensive work of making their participatory process both open and professional. Invested at all levels. It shines through even from across the pond.

And it leaves me with just one question. As I explore how the museum is growing with the community remaking it, I wonder: what will happen when they are done? Is this a participatory process to redevelop a museum, or can it be a participatory product: museum as making space?

Many projects have more energy in the making than in the completion. The people walking into the Silk Mill, being asked for their ideas and help, are living in an era of possibility and opportunity. As the museum project gets completed, the opportunities constrict. While it was amazing to get to make a robot, it may be less amazing to see that robot completed.

One of the things that struck me most about the Silk Mill was the positioning of Re:Make as a natural extension of its historic use as a factory. A factory never stops making things. Its work is never done. Is there a way that the Silk Mill could shift from a project of remaking to a site for continual making? It seems to me that that may be the truest to the original intent of the site--and the most compelling to the community now engaged.