Thursday, August 25, 2016

Our Museum: Extraordinary Resources on How Museums and Galleries Become Participatory Places

Six years ago, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation set out on an ambitious quest. They wanted to help museums and galleries across the UK make significant, sustained changes in the ways they engage community partners and visitors as participants in their work. The result, Our Museum, is an extraordinary funding program with a focus on community participation.

In its first five years, Our Museum yielded real change at twelve diverse UK organizations. Our Museum also produced a suite of online resources and reports that are impressive, honest, and comprehensive (though a bit tricky to navigate--I recommend using the search function). You could spend a day getting lost in the meaty, thoughtful writing and videos on the Our Museum site. I recommend starting with the final report, No Longer Us and Them.

Our Museum started with a clear-eyed assessment of community engagement funding and practices across the UK. Dr. Bernadette Lynch's provocative 2011 report, Whose Cake is it Anyway?, didn't mince words. While there was evidence of plenty of community engagement work across museums and galleries, most of it was funded project by project. Most participatory projects were short-term, siloed innovations, not institutional transformations. And in several cases, the projects constituted "empowerment lite" for participants rather than true collaboration, co-creation, or transformation.

Five years later, project director Dr. Piotr Bienkowski's final report for Our Museum tells a different story. No Longer Us and Them describes organizations that have changed dramatically, from top to bottom and across program areas. I strongly recommend you read the report. Extra credit if you read the Our Museum evaluation (or its summary) as well. Here are my three top takeaways.

Institutional Change is about Change, No Matter the Focus

The two big lessons from Our Museum that Piotr identified are not about community engagement per se, but about institutional change:
  • Small Changes Add Up. 
  • Participation is Everyone's Job. 
These two lessons are probably true of any major institutional change process (swapping the word "participation" with the focus of the change). Many of the barriers to participation identified in the report--lack of committed leadership, conflicting strategic agendas, silos, staff resistance, lack of capacity, fear--could apply to any change process. The evaluation additionally called out some faulty assumptions in program design about leadership and staff continuity throughout the multi-year process. Disruption can be confusing, destabilizing, and potentially derailing, no matter the focus of the transformation at hand.

Interestingly--for good and ill--this transformative funding program coincided with a national funding crisis in the arts in the UK. This made the work more urgent, fragile... and realistic. Most major change doesn't happen when things are going well. While a funder can have impact in directing organizational leaders to turn their heads in a particular direction, it's often negative externalities--financial pressure, political changes--that spur organizations to significant action. The financial austerity measures applied external pressure to the Our Museum institutions. While that was painful for the organizations involved, it also helped force the issue of whether participatory engagement could be core to a strong future business model for each organization or not. It upped the stakes on change--something a funder could not provide alone.

Different External Voices Bring Different Skills to the Table

Community partners, artists, peers, and funders all play different roles as collaborators and contributors to participatory institutions. My favorite section of No Longer Us and Them is the discussion of the specific value and roles of each type of outside contributor (scroll down in this document for a helpful visual representation). 

In particular, Piotr calls out "critical friends" as helpful external partners. Critical friends are trusted outside observers who may raise tough questions and uncomfortable truths that a collaborating community group cannot or will not share. Critical friends are positive, constructive, and able to tease out real challenges. As this video points out, critics make you swear. Critical friends can make you smile.

Piotr also notes that artists, while excellent at providing fresh perspectives on an institution's work, may not be the most helpful or well-received when it comes to providing more formal feedback or participating in reflection and shared learning sessions. While I don't fully agree with all the role designations in the report, I appreciate the nuanced insight that different types of outside contributors bring different expertise and value to the table. 

Watch Out for Things to Watch Out For

No Longer Us and Them's magic ingredient is honesty. That honesty shines through in the report's clear language, specific tips, and frequent bite-sized notes of "things to watch out for" when working to become a participatory organization. Indicated with a bold exclamation point, the "things to watch out for" are warning signs and traps to avoid. Some feel small and specific--"be sensitive to staff body language in meetings"--whereas others are more strategic--"be clear about your starting point when you approach communities." In all cases, I found these warnings to be refreshing, educational insights that taught me more than any success stories could.

In summary: read the report. Check out the Our Museum online resources. Consider your own path to institutional transformation. And consider sharing a comment here with a takeaway that is meaningful for you.  

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Does the Most Powerful Work Live Onstage or Behind the Scenes?

Let's say your organization has a mission to increase X (art, healthy kids, clean water, community cohesiveness, etc.). Is it more effective to produce X yourself or empower others to produce X in their own contexts?

The more my organization has become focused on community engagement, the more we've balanced being experience producers with being experience co-creators/facilitators. We still produce exhibitions, events, and educational programs for an audience, but that audience is just one of our major constituencies. The partners we work with--to catalyze projects within and beyond our walls--are just as important as our visitors to fulfilling our mission. Relative to other museums, I think we spend less time producing an "onstage" experience and more time collaborating with community organizations behind the scenes to empower them to produce.

I feel great about this approach. It enables us to authentically and meaningfully involve diverse people in the museum, empowering them as creative agents, building community together, and leveraging their passion to reach more (and more diverse) people.

But this approach leads to a strategic puzzle as we consider our future as an institution. Our museum is growing, and I'm always weighing different ways to expand our impact. Should we focus more on empowering and connecting partners behind the scenes, becoming more of a resource to creative colleagues across our community? Or should we focus more on what's onstage for our growing audience of participants--empowering and connecting them?

In behind-the-scenes mode, we could devote more resources to supporting projects beyond our building, content area, and program formats. I see how we extend our impact and build community through dedicated partnerships, thoughtful bridge-building, and advocacy work.  If we can help other sympatico organizations achieve their goals--while advancing our goals and mission along the way--that's powerful. 

On the other hand, in onstage mode, we could present more highly visible opportunities for people to be empowered and connected through art and history. I see how we ignite excitement, curiosity, and community pride through powerful exhibitions, compelling stories, and dynamic festivals. We could do the work directly with more people, achieving impact with those participants and serving as a model for others interested in this kind of work. If we can make our mission more overt for more people, that's powerful too.

I've been trying to think of examples of superlative organizations of each type. I think of Springboard for the Arts, Alternate Roots, and A Blade of Grass as leaders from behind the scenes. They all merge clear, radical visions with innovative work to empower other organizations to manifest those visions. They are funded primarily by foundations (or are foundations themselves). They exist to improve for their fields or their communities, but not primarily through direct service. We need more empowerment in this world, and these institutions offer it.

Leading onstage institutions are more publicly-known and recognized. I'd put the Exploratorium, the American Visionary Art Museum, and the New World Symphony in this category. All of these organizations provide mind-blowing audience experiences and serve as inspiring models for their fields. By being onstage as visible, powerful beacons of a particular methodology, they both engage audiences and inspire other institutions to consider adopting some of their approaches. We need more magic in this world, and these institutions offer it.

And then, of course, there are many organizations that do both. Some are huge institutions, publicly known for onstage work but flexing serious behind-the-scenes muscles; for example, the San Diego Zoo and Monterey Bay Aquarium are both best-in-class for visitor experiences AND for conservation research and advocacy behind the scenes. Children's Museum of Pittsburgh is a terrific place to visit AND a leading force in diverse regional projects to support youth development. There are mid-sized and smaller organizations--like my museum and many, many others--balancing a public visitor experience with community service behind-the-scenes.

Do we have to choose one or the other? Not exclusively. But I think it's an important strategic question--one that could provide real focus and direction to our future growth. If we had to choose, would we focus on engaging visitors or empowering partners? Would we manage more sites directly, or would we support others in getting their sites off the ground? How can we make these decisions in service of our mission and our vision of a stronger, more connected community?

Where do you start in considering these questions?

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: Rock and Roll Family Edition

Yesterday, the local paper in Santa Cruz published a great article about my new book, The Art of Relevance. I loved the piece... but I wished it could have included more of the conversation reporter Wallace Baine and I had about my father Screamin Scott Simon's experience as a rock musician in the band ShaNaNa.

I've learned so much from my dad about making art, putting on a great show, inviting audience participation, and navigating celebrity. When writing The Art of Relevance, I knew I wanted to share a bit of his story and the ways artists negotiate the relevance of their own work. Here's that chapter.


Most of us aren’t steering whole institutions and mission statements. We’re working on a smaller scale, with specific content or programs. But the changing tides of relevance that affect institutions affect content too—sometimes even more acutely. While an institution can pivot, presenting different content for different times, the content itself does not change. The painting is what it is.

In the nonprofit arts, administrators maintain a polite silence about the reality that certain artworks, plays, composers, and stories fall in and out of favor at different times. No museum puts up a label that says: “Our last curator thought this painting was lousy and kept it in storage. Our new curator thinks it speaks to contemporary issues and put it front and center.” But we make those decisions and changes all the time. Institutionally, this is a question of moving around assets, elevating some stories and archiving others. But for the artists and objects involved, and for the people who care for them, these shifts can be dislocating. The work is the work. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes not.

I saw this when we hosted the Princes of Surf exhibition in Santa Cruz. Before the MAH exhibition, those historic surfboards rested deep in the collection storage of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. As royal boards, they were sufficiently relevant to the Bishop’s mission to be collected—but not compelling enough to warrant exhibition.

The boards were in storage for 90+ years before historians discov- ered they were the boards in the first known record of surfing in the Americas. The boards became rock stars in Santa Cruz. We paid a small fortune to have them conserved and shipped here for exhibition. Our community showed up in droves to honor them.

The surfboards were powerful in our community. They made magic at the MAH. But that power didn’t follow them back across the ocean. After their “blockbuster” run in Santa Cruz, the boards went back in storage at the Bishop Museum, where their relevance warrants preservation but little adoration. We sent them off on the journey home with a blessing and a sigh.

The shifting relevance of these surfboards is emotional. But they’re still just hunks of wood. They don’t have feelings. People do.

What does it feel like to watch your own relevance ebb and flow? I grew up with a front row seat to this shape-shifting as the child of a rock musician. My dad, Scott Simon, joined the band ShaNaNa when he was 21. Forty-five years later, he’s still with the band. It’s the only job he’s ever had.

ShaNaNa was a breakout group at the Woodstock festival, playing ’50s songs at breakneck pace in gold lamé jumpsuits and grungy under- shirts. They went on to build successful careers as “oldies” musicians before the term existed. They were defiantly anti-relevant in the early 1970s, a counter-countercultural throwback barreling through two-minute pop songs in the era of twenty-minute jams. At the end of every show, my dad thumbed his nose at crowds of tens of thousands, yelling: “I’ve got one thing to say to you f***in’ hippies. ROCK AND ROLL IS HERE TO STAY.” And the hippies cheered, they clapped, and they accepted ShaNaNa as part of the rollicking youth culture sweeping North America.

By the 1980s, ShaNaNa was mainstream. They were featured in the movie Grease. They hosted a TV variety show for four seasons. They became massively relevant as cultural icons, but more sanitized, less relevant to the youth culture that drives pop music. I spent school vacations in casino showrooms in Reno downing Shirley Temples while ShaNaNa entertained middle-class, middle-aged couples twice a night. In the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen opened for them. By the 1990s, their opener was an elephant.

Their audience aged with them, and they slid from hot to nostalgic. In the 2000s, ShaNaNa played state fairs. Then county fairs. Pops concerts at symphony halls. At one outdoor venue, their contract ended when the venue owners explained that ShaNaNa was attracting huge crowds of families and baby boomers… but not the 30-somethings who buy beer and generate profits. Their music was relevant to the crowd. Just not the right crowd.

Behind the scenes, ShaNaNa’s relevance splintered and bubbled up in ways no one could have guessed. In the late ’70s and ’80s, heavy metal rockers and punks showed up at ShaNaNa’s door, inspired by their early hard-driving music, anti-glam wardrobe, and street tough attitude. The Beastie Boys name-checked them as influences. They played birthday blowouts and political events and anniversary parties for long-time fans. And perhaps strangest of all, ShaNaNa’s most persistent household relevance seems to be as a crossword puzzle clue (___ Na Na), fitting in a convenient box for hapless puzzle creators.

We can’t fight the reality that relevance shifts over time. But we can empathize with the dislocation, the highs and lows, that comes with those shifts. Spare a thought for a humble artifact in storage. Give respect to a hardworking musician. Their power is always there to be unlocked.

Learn more about The Art of Relevance and get your own copy here.