Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Want to Activate Public Space? We're Hiring... And Some Thoughts on Iteration and Temporary Positions

For the past two years, I've been working on a project to activate the concrete space adjacent to our museum as a vibrant, community plaza. After years of community town halls, design, and prototyping, we're finally starting to build our dream. It's an exciting, intense, educational time.

We are hiring a temporary contract curator to activate the plaza this summer with 25+ cultural events. The goal is two-fold:
  1. to start engaging the plaza as a creative, event-filled, vibrant space.
  2. to experiment with different kinds of events (time of day, audience, size, type) and get a sense of how we can best program the space in the longterm.
The ideal candidate has a good grasp of our local artistic assets in Santa Cruz County, a knack for participatory placemaking, and enthusiasm about putting on a show... multiple times per week. If you are interested and want to learn more (including how to apply), click here

Capital projects are sexy and exciting, but they are also finite and physical. That makes me nervous. My engineering training taught me to design through iteration. I'm at my best when we can tinker, prototype, and continuously improve our work through a series of small experiments.

This iterative approach is great for growth in an existing organization. But in the case of Abbott Square (the plaza in question), we're building something new. It's literally a project in concrete. We can iterate somewhat, but at some point, we have to make decisions about how the space will work--and those decisions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The size and import of some of these decisions worry me--not because we'll make bad decisions, but because they are so definite.

There's an apocryphal story about a college campus where they started with no concrete paths, and then eventually laid paths where students' shoes were causing wear in the grass. Lovely story, but when you are laying concrete, it is really, really hard to wait for the shoes before building the paths.

How can we wait for the shoes? That's part of the reason we are hiring a temporary contract curator instead of a permanent position. We want to try walking around before we define the program plan for Abbott Square.

Eventually, we will hire a full-time person to curate Abbott Square. But we don't yet know whether that person will be focusing primarily on booking movie nights or launching sketching clubs or engaging buskers... or all of the above. This temporary pilot allows us to test out the possibilities. We can see what works best in the space, and by extension, what kind of person will best make it happen.

I'm curious whether other organizations have taken this kind of approach with positions in new venues/projects/expansions. How do you know who you need before you open? How do you experiment and course-correct as people wear their own paths into the space?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Data in the Museum: Experimenting on People or Improving Their Experience?

Every few months, a major news outlet does an "expose" about data collection on museum visitors. These articles tend to portray museums as Big Brother, aggressively tracking visitors' actions and interests across their visit. Even as the reporters acknowledge that museums are  trying to better understand and serve their visitors, there's a hint of menace in headlines like "The Art is Watching You."

We're trying to personalize. We're trying to adapt. We're trying to be responsive. But it can still come off as creepy. In a world of iteration, prototyping, and A/B testing, do we need a new ethical litmus test for social experimentation?

I came back to this question as I listened to the most recent RadioLab podcast about Facebook's mass social experiments on users. For years, Facebook has teamed up with social psychologists to perform social experiments through small changes to the Facebook interface. These experiments look a lot like those conducted in social psychology labs, with two big differences:
  • the sample sizes are many tens of thousands of times larger than those in the lab--and a lot more diverse across age, class, and geography. 
  • no one signs a form giving consent to participate. 
I thought this sounded great: better data, useful research. Turns out not everyone thinks this is a good way for us to learn more about humanity. Last year, there was a HUGE media kerfuffle when people were shocked to learn that they had been "lab rats" for Facebook engineers researching how the News Feed content could impact people's moods.

To me, this was surprising. Sure, I get the ick factor when my personal data is used as currency. But I know (mostly) what I'm buying with it. Facebook is a completely socially-engineered environment. Facebook decides what content you see, what ads you see, and your personal ratio of puppies to snow warnings. And now people are outraged to find out that Facebook is publishing research based on their constant tweaking. It's as if we are OK with a company using and manipulating our experience as long as they don't tell us about it.

It seems that the ethical objections were loudest when the intent of the experiment was to impact someone's mood or experience. And then I started thinking: we do that all the time in museums. We change labels based on what visitors report that they learned. We change layouts based on timing and tracking studies of where people go and where they dwell. We juxtapose artifacts to evoke emotional response. We tweak language and seating and lighting--all to impact people's experience. Do we need consent forms to design an experience?

I don't think so. That seems over the top. People come to the museum to enjoy what the invisible hands of the curators have wrought. So it brings me back to my original question: when you are in the business of delivering curated experiences, where is the ethical line? 

Consider the following scenarios. Is it ethical to...
  • track the paths people take through galleries and alter museum maps based on what you learn?
  • give people different materials for visitor comments and see whether the materials change the substance of their feedback?
  • cull visitor comments to emphasize a particular perspective (or suite of perspectives)?
  • offer visitors different incentives for repeat visitation based on behavior?
  • send out two different versions of your annual membership appeal letter to see which one leads to more renewals?
  • classify visitors as types based on behavior and offer different content to them accordingly?
I'd say most of these are just fine--good ideas, probably. I suspect we live in an era where the perceived value of experimentation outweighs the perceived weight of the invisible hand of the experimenter. Then again, I was surprised by the lab rat reaction to the Facebook experiments.

It's hard sometimes to differentiate what's an experiment on humans and what's an experiment to improve your work for humans. As the Facebook example shows, just claiming your intent is to improve isn't enough. It matters what the humans think, too. 

I guess that's what makes us more than lab rats--we can speak up and debate these issues. What do you think?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Spend Summer in Santa Cruz - or Just a Weekend - Exploring Community Engagement at the MAH

Do you dream of a summer filled with learning, community engagement, and sea lions? Time to stop dreaming and start doing.

This summer, we're offering some amazing museum internships, as well as MuseumCamp: a weekend-long professional development experience that is part retreat, part conference, part summer camp. There are two more weeks left to apply for MuseumCamp 2015. You can learn a lot more about that experience and how to apply here.


If you want to join us in Santa Cruz for more professional learning, consider an internship at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Most internships run from late June - late August. There are five different types available, and you are welcome to apply for more than one. We're offering internships this summer in:
  • Participatory Exhibition Design. We've been working for two years to redevelop our History Gallery to be a more dynamic, diverse, engaging space. Help take the participatory elements of this permanent gallery to the finish line. A great opportunity for folks interested in design, fabrication, prototyping, and interactivity.
  • Community Engagement. We're expanding our engagement with Latino families in our community, and we want your help with our partnership programs. This is a bilingual internship position. Expect lots of contact with the community on different levels as you learn alongside us how to be as relevant and embedded as possible.
  • Community Programs. Curious how we develop participatory family festivals with 20-100 collaborators every month. You can help make the magic happen.
  • Video/Photo. How do you capture the energy of a community? Help tell the story of our museum and amplify the creativity that visitors share.
  • Youth Programs. Kid Happy Hour. Balloon Art Brigade. Button bombs. This group knows how to have fun and invite families into it.

All of these internships are unpaid. I know this is controversial, and believe me--I am well aware of the complexity of the issue. We offer unpaid internships for three reasons:
  1. We prefer to focus on developing paid opportunities for people who are in our community and can be part of the museum for a long time. We have been slowly expanding paid positions here with a focus on local connections and diverse backgrounds. We've also been expanding paid opportunities for local artists. When we really thought about the options when it came to incremental dollars, we chose to spend them locally in this way.
  2. The demand is very high. We get many, many solicitations from people who would like to come intern, shadow, volunteer, etc. 
  3. We provide interns with opportunities to do real projects that they can't do anywhere else. We support our interns and their future careers both with the experiences they have here and relationships that continue after they leave. We feel strongly that we are following the requirement that unpaid interns get more than they give... though we prefer to think about it as a situation with shared benefits and sacrifices.
If you want to know a bit more about what the intern experience is like at the MAH, check out their occasional blog on Tumblr.

Hope to see you here in Santa Cruz soon.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Audience Demographics and the Census: Do We Have a Match?

When you look at this infographic, do you see a problem to be solved? A snapshot of the market for the arts? Or something else entirely?

About five years ago, I sat in a planning meeting for a museum that was undergoing a major renovation. The director boldly stated that one goal of the remodel was to reconnect with the community. What would success look like? The demographics of the museum visitors would match those of the city at large.

That vision always stuck with me. This goal seemed simple, clear, and important. Now, as a museum director, I'm thinking about that goal less abstractly and more concretely in terms of what a target audience can and should look like.

The first step is to know who is already engaging. Arts audiences, on average, are older, whiter, and more affluent than the American population. Supporting data comes from many corners, but primarily the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Since 1982, the NEA has conducted a Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This survey focuses on attendance to traditional arts institutions--museums, theaters, symphony halls. The data gets sliced and diced in different ways: to explore motivations for participation, to look at trends over time, to dive into data for specific regions or sectors.

When I look at this data, I have one question: what's the target?

In your dream situation, who would participate in your organization? Here are three options:
  1. Everyone. The demographic profile of those engaged would match that of the nation/region/city. 
  2. A subset, targeted for their unique characteristics. That target could relate to ethnicity, or education level, or gender, or age. It could be chosen for reasons related to the institution's mission (for example, a focus on youth empowerment) or for reasons related to the market demographics (for example, a growing number of Latinos).
  3. A subset, self-selected by voluntary engagement. Those who want the experience, come. The demographics are what they are.
Most arts organizations, for a long time, focused on #3. With a few #2 programs sprinkled in. 

At our museum, we've started shifting to #1 as an aspirational goal. This is that vision of inclusion that inspired me years ago. We got our hands on our local census data (free and easy). When we collect demographic data about participants, we measure it against the census figures. 

This helps us with program planning: we know who we are "under-engaging" and can work to involve them. It helps with fundraising: we can talk knowledgeably about how our visitors line up to the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our County. 

But as we've continued working on #1, I started wondering about #2. What if there is a group that is particularly marginalized, underrepresented, or underserved when it comes to the arts? 

For example, there is good research suggesting that school field trips to art museums are disproportionately valuable for students from poor and rural backgrounds. Does this mean that we should try to make school tours disproportionately accessible to these students? If the opportunity for impact is greater, should we go there? If the cost of doing so is more, is it worth the price? 

We're also considering these questions with local data in mind. As we have gotten more involved in data initiatives in our county, we've learned about clear demographic divides in quality of life and enrichment opportunities among specific groups. We're debating whether we should try to "over-engage" some groups relative to the needs and resource allocation in our County. Is matching local demographics "enough"? Is it even realistic or sensible?

I realize that this post is riddled with question marks. I'm sincerely curious about how others are approaching these questions of audience demographics and targets for engagement. 

How do you think about these issues in your organization and your community?

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