Monday, January 30, 2017

Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete: Guest Revelations by Don Hughes

I started my museum career as an exhibit designer. There are many heroes I look up to in that field. But I reserve for Don Hughes that particular blend of admiration and fear that comes when encountering uncompromised brilliance. Don has been the head of exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for thirty years. He is a genius designer out of central casting: an artist, mercurial, funny, emphatic, honest, unflinching, with a disarming weakness for babies.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a giant in our field, just as Don himself is a giant in the world of museum design. While I don't always agree with the Aquarium team's work, I always learn from them. Don is leaving the Aquarium, and he wrote this list of revelations on design to pass on to the next generation at that organization. He shared it with me, and he agreed that I could share it with you.

Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete 
The Monterey Gray Revelations, as revealed to Don Hughes over three decades

One: Thou shall protect the original architectural design. 
The building and the exhibitions have a unique and historically successful relationship. Maintain this success by replacing worn or failing elements with materials as similar to the original as possible. Uphold the Aquarium’s overall industrial vernacular aesthetic.

Two: Thou shall provide negative space to rest the eye. 
Well-meaning staff want to fill empty walls with important and meaningful messages. Prevent this. Our enduring design is simple and clean. It embraces the modernist philosophies of Less Is More and Form Follows Function.

Three: Thou shall not restrict views of the bay. 
The building’s exterior is understated Cannery Row. The interior is polished industrial with rich appointments and allows for many views of Monterey Bay. Our building does not compete with the bay; it complements its natural beauty and power.

Four: Thou shall keep the regional focus. 
The greatest stories ever told are always about place. The Aquarium is the most recent tenant of a location that humankind has used for thousands of years. Visitors flock to us to see live plants and animals from this place. Departing from this holy vision leads to damnation.

Five: Thou shall have no greater god than visitors. 
Thou shall treat visitors like royalty, but thou shall not overestimate their interest or attention span. Visitors are not as interested as we like to think they are. Like life, communications with visitors is short, but staff’s list of meaningful, critically important topics to share is long—too long. Edit them. 

Six: Thou shall look like a museum and behave like an attraction. 
The Aquarium is confident. It doesn’t need to shout or brag. Our visitor experience is subtle, elegant and understated, not bold and in-your-face. We look more museum-like than Disney-like, and that makes us unique in a world of attractions. Like Disney in the world of theme parks, we set the standard for the world of public aquariums. Here, every visitor deserves a perfect visit, without out-of-order signs or beta-test experiences in the public space. We learn from our visitors, but not at the expense of their onsite experience.

Seven: Thou shall beware of tacky idolatry. 
No penny crushers, flashy sales signs in the bookstores or cafe, no anthropomorphism or theme park-like costumed characters, no photo booths or other fads posing as content. Cast out those who want to squeeze more and more money from visitors. Dwell in the straightforward and honest presentation of nature. But don’t take thyself too seriously—use humor, and do not preach.

Eight: Thou shall heed the words of the prophets. 
The Aquarium is on a peninsula not an island. Embrace the wisdom of Mickey’s Ten Commandments and Judy’s Visitors’ Bill of Rights.

Nine: Thou shall remember the words of our father. 
“The objective is not to maximize attendance and revenue, but to do the best possible exhibits. Have the highest quality program you can have; spend the money it takes to do that; everything else will follow.” —David Packard, September 25, 1989

Ten: Thou shall know all rules and revelations are created to be broken. 
The garden will change; it must. But resist the temptation of self-esteem. You are but a caretaker. Amen.

p.s. from Nina: Do check out Judy Rand's Visitors' Bill of Rights and the accompanying speech that goes with it. Judy is a tremendous exhibit developer, writer, comedian, teacher, and champion for museum visitors everywhere.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Two Opportunities at the MAH: MuseumCamp and an Incredible Job

Dear Museum 2.0 friends,

I want to share two great opportunities to get involved at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in 2017.


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

MuseumCamp will be August 9-11, 2017. This year's theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. There will also be a deep dive into the MAH's new issue-driven exhibition pilot, Lost Childhoods. You can sleep at the museum. You can swim with sea lions. You can--and will--learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We're proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design--campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend... and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

We will accept applications through March 15 and inform people of selections in April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon. And please, spread the word - especially to friends who identify as a gender other than female, people of color, people over 50, and people who DON'T work in arts/museums.

While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. Do you want to help provide financial aid for this amazing event? If so, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.


We are thrilled to announce a one-year contract position at the MAH for someone to help us transform the way we involve community partners in creating and activating exhibitions to address social issues.

The Dialogue Catalyst will be part of a new exhibition model that connects art to social action. You’ll lead the activation, documentation and evaluation of the issue-driven exhibition Lost Childhoods about challenges facing transition-age foster youth. You'll work with our amazing group of community advisors (C3) to extend the exhibition throughout our community during its run.

Based on the Dialogue Catalyst's work, the MAH intends to implement this model in future issue-driven exhibitions. The Dialogue Catalyst will make a toolkit that documents the project--and we want to share it with cultural and community organizations around the world so they can create issue-driven exhibitions, too.

The right person is a great event manager, creative collaborator, open communicator, clear writer, and possibilitarian thinker.

We're looking for someone immediately. It could be you. Apply now

Monday, January 09, 2017

Against Participation

At first, I thought it was a joke.

A colleague at UC Santa Cruz asked me to participate in a social practice symposium called Against Participation. Hosted by a sound art collective, Ultra-red, the 2015 event promised "to investigate listening as a political activity and to interrogate the stakes of participation in neoliberalism."

I read this sentence many times without comprehension. Because I really respect the person who invited me--with apprehension--I said yes.

I walked into Against Participation with my hackles up. I assumed the event would fly in the face of my deep value for community participation. I imagined an academic conversation stuffed with arcane, impenetrable vocabulary. I feared I would be laughed at and not understand why.

Instead, I had a powerful learning experience--one I'm still grappling with over a year later.

When should you choose not to participate in an experience? When should you turn down the invitation to share your voice? How should you make these decisions in an imperfect world where every host is using you for something, and every voice is in danger of being manipulated, misunderstood, or subverted?

I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't really thought about these questions before the Against Participation symposium. I thought a lot about where to participate--where I can have the most impact. But I didn't think about whether to participate.

I'd always thought that participating disproportionately benefited the participant. I'd always assumed that more representation is better than less representation, more press is better than less press, more sharing and engaging is better than the alternative. I'd assumed it was my responsibility to represent myself well, and if I failed, it was a matter of my communication, not a system set up to disempower or distort my words.

But Ultra-red reminded me that many environments function as distortion machines. There are many ways for voices to get chopped and twisted. Sometimes, choosing NOT to participate is a powerful statement that protects ownership of your voice and story as your own.

The problem, of course, is when you choose not to participate, most people don't see it as a noble protest. Most people don't notice at all. The absence of your voice doesn't take up as much space as its presence. And so we have to choose: to be distorted or to be overlooked.

I hear about these tensions often from colleagues struggling to participate in hostile workplaces. I've met too many young, talented people of color who want to work in museums but feel belittled, tokenized, or unsupported in their careers. Should they keep fighting to engage and transform the systems that knock them down? Or should they opt out, find friendlier environments, and stop participating in discriminatory spaces?

I grapple with these questions personally when I decide what invitations to take, where to spend my time, where to share my voice. For example, I get frequent media requests, including about museum-related news items that I know little about. Should I comment on whether museums should acquire artifacts related to police violence against African-Americans? In that case I said yes--even as I felt unsure of whether I was the right participant in that space. In other cases--like when I was asked to write a "fun" etiquette guide on how to visit museums--I said no. I knew it wasn't a piece that invited me to participate in a meaningful way.

And yet, someone else will write that breezy etiquette guide. Someone else will say yes to the invitations we reject. Someone else will take that job. Someone else's writing will be on the wall. Were those opportunities missed?

When do you participate, knowing your participation may serve others for reasons different from your own? When do you refuse, knowing your non-participation may be overlooked entirely?

The 2016 US election dredged up these questions for me once again. It reenergized me about focusing my limited time, energy, and creativity on the participatory opportunities that fuel me and my dreams. It pushes me to block out certain participatory forums that distract, exhaust, or limit me. I'm reminded now of how non-participation can be a source of fuel as well as a lack.

Sometimes transformative participation is possible. Sometimes not. How do you choose?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative - 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations

One of my organization's core values is radical collaboration. We believe that partnerships build a stronger museum and a stronger community.

We work with over 2,000 regional partners each year to develop exhibitions, festivals, programs, and projects. But radical collaboration with our community only works if we also collaborate internally as a team.

Five years ago, this was easy. We were seven people in a room, laser-focused on making the MAH a community gathering place and cultural center. We all collaborated to develop programs, strategies, and community partnerships. We sat next to each other, pulled each other into ad hoc meetings, introduced each other to new collaborators, and got things done together.

Now, our staff is three times the size it was five years ago. This growth has strained our internal ability to collaborate in two ways:
  • Sometimes, we fail because we are too collaborative. The tools and techniques that worked for us when we were seven people in a room don't work for twenty. We can't invite everyone to the meeting. We can't get input from everyone on each decision. We waste time, increase confusion, and get less done.
  • Sometimes, we fail because we are not collaborative enough. As we grew, we built teams with distinct leaders and goals. Some staff spend all their time on project that are invisible to others. There are some community partners who are effectively "owned" by one staff member, which limits opportunities for that partner across our institution. 
So this year, we worked hard to build new tools to strengthen our commitment to radical collaboration--within the context of our larger, more mature organization. Here are my top five:

SLACK. In just one month, using Slack has had an immediate, significant impact on our team. Slack is a combination messaging/file-sharing tool intended to replace internal email and intranets. Conversations are grouped into channels (for projects, teams, initiatives, etc.). We've used Slack to completely eliminate internal email. It reduces email, increases clarity of who does what, and reinforces collaboration. Every channel in Slack is public by default. That means any staff member can check out what's going on in any of our teams or projects. You can pose a question to a channel without inducing reply-all headaches. It's impossible to accidentally leave someone out of a decision where their input matters. Frontline part-time staff are part of the conversation. We celebrate each others' wins digitally without clogging anyone's inbox. And from a workflow perspective, we can separate communication with colleagues (in Slack) from community partners (in email).

SALESFORCE. Like most museums and nonprofits, we have a donor database. For years, we had an expensive, clunky, black box that only some people had access to and fewer knew how to operate. It was like grandpa's car in the garage--you had to know all the tricks to get it to run. This year, we made the leap to Salesforce. Our data catalyst, Karen Bush, who ran grandpa's car like a champ, is leading our transition to a cloud-based, open database that feels like a fleet of shiny vespas. What does Salesforce have to do with collaboration? Opening up our database enables more of us to work together to solicit, acknowledge, and thank donors. And--crucially for us--we aren't just using Salesforce for donors and members. We're using it for creative collaborators too. Instead of each staff member tracking their own community partners, we're building a shared database of all the partners who contribute time, money, and talent to the museum. When I meet with a donor who plays in a jug band, I don't keep that information to myself or blast an email to the community programs team. I log that donor's talent in Salesforce, so our community programs staff can find him next time they are looking for musicians. Salesforce is part of a much bigger strategy for us around partner engagement. A shared database enables staff to share our partners' talents and interests with each other, so we can matchmake great opportunities for everyone.

SHARED GOALS. One of the hardest things for me as the director of a growing organization is learning how to lead a larger team. When we were a small team, I had direct access to everyone, and we could turn on a dime. I could stand up in the office, announce a meeting, lead a discussion on an issue, and we could head in a new direction immediately. Now, even booking that initial meeting would take time. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm leading a bigger crew now, and we can get bigger things done. But it means we have to build goals and communicate clarity in new ways. We're about 6 months into trying a system for this called OKRs (objectives and key results). The basic principle is this: we set big objectives for the organization. Each team sets objectives that roll up into those big shared goals. We set "key results"--measurable indicators--of achieving those objectives. The OKRs are publicly shared, measured, celebrated, and discussed. We're still working out the kinks in the system, but the basic idea (that we set goals for a period and everyone can see how their work contributes to those goals) is powerful. And it's forcing me to be more disciplined in my leadership... which should enable us to accomplish bigger things.

OPEN OFFICE. Two years ago, in the midst of growth, we split from one office to two to reduce crowding. But the negatives of this split outweighed the positives. People felt disconnected from each other. We weren't celebrating wins together like we used to. So when we prepared to add three new positions in 2016, we made a counterintuitive decision: we moved back into one office. There are more people in it than ever, but it feels good. People feel empowered to put on headphones or go offsite when they need quiet focus, but when we're together, we're together.

HONESTY. For a long time, I had a split consciousness about our growth. On the one hand, I was thrilled about our ability to expand our community impact with a bigger team. At the same time, I feared that growth would mean bureaucratic sludge. I feared that growth would squash our creativity and community focus. That people would feel confused or left out. That I would not be a good leader to 20 people the way I was to 7. The reality is that growth has meant more structure. It's been critical to invest in systems like Slack, Salesforce, and OKRs to bring people together and keep us moving forward as a team. It's also been critical to choose to do things like the open office when we think it will strengthen our collaboration.

Being intentional and honest about growth has kept us strong. We keep reasserting our core value of radical collaboration and find new ways to live that value. At the same time, we're honest about changes in how we collaborate. Not everyone is part of every decision now. There's an org chart. These things help us do our work. They also diminish the sense of creative freedom that marked the MAH a few years ago. That's OK as long as we are honest about it.

The biggest mistake I made as we grew was not to proactively address my personal fears and hesitations about growth. I resisted building better structures. I didn't own up to their necessity, impact, and tradeoffs. Now, I own it. Now, instead of resisting growth, I'm learning how to make structure work for us--so we can continue to grow in ways that are gloriously, radically collaborative.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let's Be Bridge-Builders

Two construction workers on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, 1935When you hear the word "community," what do you envision? I see people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and income levels. I see them laughing together. Learning together. Taking care of each other.

Most of us don't live this dream--yet. Most of us experience community in isolation, moving through a small cluster of bubbles: Work. School. Neighborhood. Soccer. We spend most of our days with people who look like us, who share our culture, background, and class.

In the wake of the 2016 US election, I've been thinking a lot about the bubbles in which we live. Bubbles protect, empower, and insulate us. But they can also lock us into fear, judgment, and insecurity.

When we break out of these bubbles and build bridges across our differences, we build stronger communities. We bridge through experiences that bring together people from all walks of life, in shared celebration, respect, and learning. Research shows that social bridges decrease racism, increase public safety, and improve community health. Building bridges makes communities more equitable. Bridges shrink gaps in housing, health care, and quality of life. And they makes all our lives richer as we expand beyond the bubbles of our personal experiences.

That's why our museum, the MAH in Santa Cruz, focuses on social bridging. Rather than operating in a bubble of “art people” or “history people,” we strive to connect ALL people in our county. Our unique value is not in targeting people but bridging across differences. Our staff are matchmakers for unlikely partners across the county: engineers and folkloric dancers presenting at monthly festivals. Artists and activists exhibiting their work. Homeless adults and history buffs improving a historic cemetery. Business leaders and street performers designing a new community plaza on the museum's front porch.

These projects help people build bridges--and community. Museum visitors tell us that "meeting new people" and "being part of a bigger community" are two of the things they love most about our museum.

I take no satisfaction in the extent to which this election demonstrates how important and impoverished social bridging is in the United States. I take hope, courage, and perseverance from the knowledge that we can do it. More of us. More deeply. More often.

We've got some work to do. Cultural institutions, and museums in particular, have traditionally been bubbles of privilege. Our walls kept more people and ideas out as they let in. But we have the capacity to turn those walls into doorways. We have the potential to use the diverse, generative ideas within our walls as building material for bridges beyond our walls.

Building bridges doesn't mean capitulating or compromising. It means standing on one edge of a canyon and making a sincere effort to connect to people on the other side. Not to colonize them. Not to become like them, or ask them to be like you. Not to apologize for who you are. To build a bridge. To get to know them. To understand more about what life is like on their side. To cross over and intersect, on their turf and yours--until it becomes our bridge, and our canyon.

If you are curious about bridge-building, I encourage you to:
  • Read. Check out Bowling Alone and Better Together, both by Robert Putnam. These books frame the concept of social bridging and offer both inspiring and dismaying examples from different sectors. Check out social psychology texts on "intergroup contact." Follow any of the many wonderful online resources produced by bubbles that are not your own. 
  • Learn more about the divides in your community. Be honest about what ledge you stand on, and learn what you can about those on the other side. Don't waste your energy learning about divides that you can't or won't bridge. Learn about the ones you can affect. Learn about the people down the street about whom you know nothing. They read different news stories than you, go to different coffee shops than you, dream different dreams than you. Learn about them.
  • Figure out what you can do to join the informal union of bridge builders in your community. Who's doing the work? To what end? Do people in your community need bridges to celebrate together across differences? To tackle a big issue? To talk things out? To look each other in the eye without fear?
In our community, we build bridges through art and history. We bring people together in joyful art-making, celebrating simple pleasures of passing the paintbrushes and singing along. We bring people together in multi-vocal storytelling, listening to each other's tales of where we came from and where we dream to go. We bring people together through the creative friction that comes when one art form or cultural tradition rubs up against another. We curate diverse audiences the same way we curate diverse exhibitions--because it's ultimately the people and their conversations about the objects that matter most.

We build bridges in full knowledge that rubbing up against new ideas and people is uncomfortable. It's not as marketable or profitable as reinforcing the existing bubble. But our comfortable bubbles lie to us. They are mirrored on the inside. They keep us from seeing the whole world. They can make us selfish and fearful.

I believe that culture workers can be bridge-builders. It's not easy to step off your ledge onto an uncertain bridge. It's even harder to invite others to do so. But when we do, we see more clearly. We open our hearts to the beautiful, breakable world. We build the bridges that form the backbone of the compassionate, complex, collective communities we deserve.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Three Tips for Grappling with Insiders who are Resistant to Change

At every talk I give about The Art of Relevance, no matter the audience, there's one question I always hear. Librarians and museum directors, park managers and theater producers all want to know: how do you deal with insiders who resist change?

These insiders may be fellow staff members. Trustees. Longtime volunteers or donors. Insiders are people who feel ownership of the institution.

It's natural for insiders to want to protect the institutional status quo. They love the organization. They helped build it. They fight to preserve it.

Sometimes, insiders fear that inviting in new people for new reasons might break something. They fear that efforts for greater inclusion or relevance may destroy the institution they love. Sometimes insiders' fears of inclusive practice stem from privilege and entitlement. Other times, insiders' fears are not about inclusion but about institutional change. Many insiders want more people, and more diverse people, involved in their institutions. But that doesn't mean they are eager to assume the pain and uncertainty that comes with change.

Here are three techniques I've learned to tackle insider resistance. The first two invite insiders into the change, and the third gracefully invites them to opt out.

1. Appeal to their generosity. 

If insiders treasure the fact that the institution is "for us," invite them to share it "with them." The director of a historic house once told me about a trustee who was nervous about opening their institution to new people. As the trustee said, "this is my special place. I'm afraid it won't feel magical anymore." The director gently responded: "it's so great that you feel that this place is special. Don't you want to share that magic with others?"

Insiders may not feel generous in the face of change. They may fear for their own experience, wondering: Will I still have a job? Will I still enjoy volunteering here? Will it still be for me?

But everyone wants to be generous. Invite insiders to tap into the pride they have in the institution, their love for it, and invite them to share that love with others. Invite them to imagine that what is for us can also be for them.

2. Appeal to their bravery. 

Change is scary, and we don't always acknowledge that. Leaders of change proselytize about how great the change is and how exciting and fun the journey will be. But it's not all fun. To insiders, the path is uncertain, the leader of the pack is unreasonably cheery, and no one wants to talk about the dangers along the way. The fear is real. Uncertain insiders feel it--and they may also feel judged for experiencing or expressing it.

Instead of distancing insiders as fearful resistors, celebrate their bravery. Change is courageous work. Thank them for being brave in the face of an uncertain future. Thank them for casting their lot with you and the change.

Insiders may not feel brave in the face of change. But it's an attribute we all want to exhibit, especially when things get tough. If you can invite insiders to see themselves as courageous, they may embody it, helping tackle the change instead of feeling run over by it.

3. Bless and release. 

If you can't make it work together, you have to let each other go. In my second year as a change-making executive director, I struggled with a major donor who constantly called me to complain about how I was screwing up the joint. I would explain what we were doing to invite new people into the museum, she would explain why this wasn't what a museum should do, and we would both hang up frustrated. I couldn't make her happy, nor her me, no matter what we tried. I didn't know what to do.

Then Cookie Ruiz, CEO of Ballet Austin, taught me the phrase "bless and release." As Cookie pointed out, any major donor should feel great about an organization she supports. And I should feel supported by those who fund my organization. If we respected each other (which we did), we should stop fighting. We should be willing to bless and release our troubled relationship.

If an insider is truly unhappy, if they feel that they can't do their best work nor make their best contributions at the institution, release yourself and them from the pain. Tell them, "I have heard your concerns about this change. I respect you, and we disagree. We are moving forward with this change. I understand that doesn't work for you. We appreciate all your contributions here past and present. I truly hope that you find a place where you can feel valued as a contributor."

Life is too short to spend all your time negotiating unhappiness. Thank them for their contributions, bless their feelings of dissatisfaction, and then release them--and yourself--from your toxic relationship. You'll all feel a lot lighter, and you'll have more energy to put into making a difference. Like Socrates said, "the secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."

What other tips do you have for working with insiders who are resistant to change?

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

Monday, October 24, 2016

Quick Hit: Art of Relevance Video, Podcast, and a Google Hangout this week

I've been traveling a lot recently, exploring the ideas behind The Art of Relevance with colleagues around the US. Here are two artifacts of my travels... and an opportunity to join in on a virtual/real life meetup this Wednesday.


Want to join the conversation about The Art of Relevance but can't make it to a book event? The Minnesota Historical Society made a video of my recent talk there. The video is well-produced, including subtitles and the Q&A. I talk for the first 30 minutes, and then we're doing Q&A in the second half. Check it out.


Immediately after leaving the Minnesota Historical Society, I sat down with Levi Weinhagen as a guest on his Pratfalls podcast. Levi is an excellent interviewer, and he got me talking about lots of things I don't usually talk about: living off the grid, finding my path, learning from my parents, being a mom and museum director, dreaming of being a ninja warrior. It's an hour interview, and if you enjoy it, I strongly recommend checking out Levi's other episodes interviewing creative people about how they approach their work.


This Wednesday, I'm participating in an experimental Museumhive event. It combines a real life meetup (in Boston) with a virtual Google hangout. I'll be joining in via hangout to talk about distributed museums with Brad Larson, Ed Rodley, Paul Orselli, and lots of Boston area colleagues. You can participate virtually, or if you are in the Boston area, register (for free) to be there in person.

Enjoy the media, get connected, go outside!

Monday, October 10, 2016

What Does a Great Distributed Digital Museum Experience Look Like?

Museum technology nerds: this post is for you.

I've been thinking recently about distributed content experiences--ways for people to interact with museum content (art, history, science, etc.) as they make their way through the world outside the museum. There are a zillion apps for making your own tours, podcasts, maps, or QR code-infested games... but none of them are great.

Distributed mobile content experiences seem to suffer from two basic problems:
  1. Underwhelming entry points. It's extremely hard to get people to download a new app. Where and when does an institution ask you to do so? At the museum? At the historic site? While walking down the street? The impulse to download an app is driven by curiosity or an urgent perceived need. While museums may cultivate curiosity, they rarely offer sufficiently clear, urgent use cases to encourage you to go through the drudgery of downloading an app.  
  2. Unlikely reentry points. Once you download an app, are you really going to remember to (re)open it to find an interesting historical fact tagged to your geolocation? Are you going to use it to scan for public art near you? Most of these apps seem so niche, so useless for anything other than accessing semi-interesting content in a clunky interface, that they end up languishing in the Siberian outback of your phone.
In contrast, successful distributed projects seem to have one of two characteristics:
  1. Compelling and/or versatile mobile experience. What do we use our phones for most? Communicating, playing, exploring. Quality content experiences tend to piggyback on massive social media platforms apps that are already well-used (i.e. facebook) or create very compelling whole worlds unto themselves (i.e. Pokemon Go). 
  2. Prominent real world presence. One of the simplest, effective distributed projects I've seen recently is Walk [Your City]. It's a system for creating signs, zip-tied to existing traffic/lightpoles, that direct people to points of interest, special experiences, and surprising encounters. Some cities use them for straightforward wayfinding, but in many towns, the signs have a whimsical or poetic nature. It's amazing how much impact simple signs can have. I'd choose repeated physical presence over a fancy digital interface any day.
Thinking about these two characteristics, here are some highly speculative ideas and questions:
  • What is the most effective way to have lots of physical presence in the built environment? Working with cities and public property involves a lot of regulation (though if you can push through the red tape, a lot of potential impact). It's often easier to make deals with private property owners than to lobby the government for use of public space/sidewalks/streets. Projects like Little Free Library and the Peace Pole Project work this way; individuals choose to build them on their own land. How can we activate movements for people to participate in producing and sharing content on the land they already control?
  • What's the cheapest advertising money can buy? I generally assume nonprofits can't afford to compete in the advertising world, but there's so much advertising in our visual landscape, some of it in very odd (and affordable) forms. Could you give out free coasters at bars? Make beautiful bike racks? Provide your local coffee shop with thousands of sleeves for paper cups? Is there a distributed layer to life (in the form of advertising) that is hackable for good?
  • How can we creatively hack into mobile apps that lots of people already use? Of course you can create content for podcasts, twitter, instagram, etc. But what about apps where you don't have to build a whole media presence? What about creating geo-fenced Snapchat filters connecting people to art nearby, or making Tindr profiles for historical figures in the area? Are there other ways to piggyback on popular apps for content experiences?
  • Who's going to build the killer app for distributed learning experiences? Part of me feels like learning is just so low on people's priority lists that distributed museum experiences will always be niche... but then I think of the huge success of online learning platforms like Khan's Academy. I wonder if we just need one (or a few) powerhouse app to take the lead on facilitating quality distributed learning/augmented reality experiences. I think it's possible an institution could do this... but only if it was more focused on building an industry-wide solution than building something custom for their own museum or historic site.
I know that there are very smart people working on these problems. Who's tackling them? What are some of the most interesting approaches underway?

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

And a note to readers in the Boston area: I'll be participating in a MuseumHive real world / Google hangout on these topics (and others) on October 26. Register today.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Temple Contemporary and the Puzzle of Sharing Powerful Processes

The first thing I noticed about Temple Contemporary were the chairs. Desk chairs and theater seats, sleek modsters and dilapidated stuffed things, a motley crew lined up on hooks around the room. They were charming, but puzzling. Looking closer, I saw that each seat had its own handwritten label, telling the story of the Philadelphia cultural institution from which it originated. The chairs were cast-off art, reclaimed as art, available for people to take off the hooks and use. They were there for artist talks. They were there for project brainstorming. They were there for chair races.

What kind of an art institution is this? That's what I found myself wondering again and again in the too-short hour I spent with the director of Temple Contemporary, Rob Blackson. Temple Contemporary makes strange objects and gorgeous documentation. It encourages process-driven performances and art projects. It is unfinished, unassuming, and whimsical, and at the same time, deadly serious. It takes the kind of risks that a university art gallery should take. It opens up new conversations about the work of art in our communities.

Temple Contemporary’s mission is to creatively re-imagine the social function of art through questions of local relevance and international significance. They live their mission, working in questions and projects rather than exhibitions and programs. Every other year, they convene TUPAC, a group of 35 outside advisors, including teens, college students, Temple University professors, artists, philanthropists, and community leaders. TUPAC advisors come together for one meeting, each bringing a question of local relevance and international significance--a question they don't know the answer to. The advisors share their questions, vote on the ones that they think have the most power, and set the direction of Temple Contemporary.

For example, right now, Temple Contemporary's offices are packed floor to ceiling with broken musical instruments from classrooms across the city of Philadelphia. One of TUPAC's current questions is about the state of art education. In Philadelphia, the budget for arts education has been slashed to pieces. The cuts were so deep that school music rooms are full of unplayable instruments. There's no money to fix them. And so, sparked by TUPAC's big question, Temple Contemporary decided to collect these silenced instruments - 1,500 in all - and commission a Symphony for a Broken Orchestra by a famous composer, David Lang. After the symphony premieres in 2017, Temple Contemporary will have all the instruments restored and will return them to their schools, new repair kits tucked inside the cases.

I left Temple Contemporary energized and inspired by their work. The work that Temple Contemporary is doing with their community is radical and impressive. Temple Contemporary is truly community-led. There is no formula. The community drives the question. The question drives the work. And the work takes the form or forms to which it is best suited. This makes Temple Contemporary excel at responsive, relevant projects. But it also makes their "front-end" experience incoherent. As a visitor, I'm not sure what I left with. My positive experience was 95% rooted in the tour that Rob Blackson gave me. Without him as my guide, all I had was fragments. A bunch of chairs hanging on the wall. Some students folding clothes. Empty pegboards. Half a car attached to the ceiling. Artsy journals. I saw slices of something interesting, but I had no idea how to piece them together.

I would never have learned about the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra if I hadn't been invited into the back office. I would never have known that TUPAC exists, who they are, or what they do. I wouldn't have drunk from the cup made from Pennsylvania oil field shale or read the book about the funeral they held for a row house. I would have walked in, puzzled at the white box's mysteries, and walked out.

This problem isn't unique to Temple Contemporary. It's a challenge in all process-driven work. Often the most powerful community work lives behind the scenes, in the brainstorming and prototyping and trying things out. The same is true of much artwork--the juice is often in the work's development, which dies a little bit when the work is "done." But that juice is fickle. It is powerful when you can experience it directly. It loses its flavor--or is completely imperceptible--when people don't understand what they are drinking.

How do we resolve this? The standard answer is to let the process stay behind the curtain and the product live onstage. Give people the exhibition but not the debates about content development. Give people the symphony but not the stacks of patient, injured cellos. This approach is straightforward. Leave the process to the collaborators and give the product to the audience. But there are two big problems with this approach:
  1. It's easy to get caught in the hamster wheel of delivering products to audiences. You start systematizing to deliver a program every week, an exhibition every quarter. You promise your audience quality and you hone your process to deliver it. You don't have time to convene the community. You don't have flexibility to imagine whether their questions are better answered with a symphony or a storybook. You don't have space to take the instruments. You can't open yourself fully to the possibilities. 
  2. It denies audiences the powerful opportunity to tap into the process. In most of these kinds of projects, the number of collaborators is finite. The collaborators themselves are often hand-selected or nominated. Visitors can't walk off the street with their own big question and join the scrum. While that's sensible, it's also limiting. How could Temple Contemporary (or any institution) invite each person who walks in the door into the biggest, meatiest work currently underway?
How can we invite people into the processes that drive our most powerful work?

I don't have the answers. I'm curious if you do--and what big questions this sparks for you.

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

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Coming to Your Town, The Art of Relevance in Hand

Co-pilot sadly not attending these events.
One of the basic criteria for relevance has to do with effort. The more effort it takes to attain an experience, the less relevant it will feel--even if you know it will be meaningful. When your favorite band comes to town, you'll buy a ticket and go to the show. But you probably won't be in the audience when they perform thousands of miles away.

Maybe you've been feeling this way about coming to an event related to The Art of Relevance. You'd like to participate, but it would have taken too much effort to attend the summer book launch events in Edinburgh and Santa Cruz. Fortunately, I'm hitting the road this fall, and I hope to be able to discuss this book with you at a time and place that hits your sweet spot in the effort/meaning calculus.

All the 2016 book events are here (and frequently updated). But here's a quick list of the conferences, public events and workshops where I'll be appearing in the next few months. I'd love to meet you there.

  • September 28, 2016: St. Paul, MN at the Minnesota History Center, 8-10am - Free! Register Now
  • September 30, 2016: Philadelphia, PA at the Barnes Foundation, 3:30-5pm - Free! Register Now
  • October 2, 2016: Brooklyn, NY for a workshop and book signing in partnership with Museum Hack, 11am-12:30pm - Ticketed! Register Now
  • October 18, 2016: Chicago, IL at Navy Pier, 3:30-5:30pm - Free! Registration info TBA
  • October 19, 2016: Denver, CO at the Ellie Kaulkins Studio Loft for NAMP Regional Workshop, 3-5pm - Free! Registration info TBA
  • October 20, 2016: San Francisco, CA at University of San Francisco, 5-8pm - Free! Register Now
  • September 26, 2016: Sacramento, CA for the Confluence CFTA conference
  • September 29, 2016: Duluth, MN at the Minnesota Library Association conference
  • September 30, 2016: Philadelphia, PA at the National Council of Arts Administrators conference
  • October 18, 2016: Chicago, IL for the Illinois Library Association conference
  • October 20, 2016: Denver, CO for the Mountain Plains Library Association/Colorado Association of Libraries joint conference
  • November 5, 2016: San Francisco, CA for the International Conference of Independent Libraries & Mechanics’ Institutes
  • November 11, 2016: Austin, TX for the National Arts Marketing Project pre-conference
  • November 17, 2016: Houston, TX for the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference
I'd like to pick up a public event in Austin and/or Houston around those November conferences--if you are a motivated Texan with a venue and a dream, let me know. See you on the road!