Monday, November 16, 2015

OdysseyWorks: An Empathy-Based Approach to Making Art

135/365:Heart of the Labyrinth.The quest for relevance begins with knowing your audience. Who are the people with whom you want to connect? What are their dreams, their impressions, their turn-offs, their fears?

Ultimately, any approach to answering these questions is limited at some point by the size of the audience involved. When you are dealing with an audience of hundreds or thousands of people, you have to make assumptions. You have to generalize. 

But what if you only had an audience of one?

OdysseyWorks is a collective that makes immersive art experiences for one person at a time. They select their audience--by application or commission--and then they spend months getting to know that person. They spend time with them. They call references. They try to understand not just the surface of the individual's personality but the fundamental way that person sees the world. And then, based on their research, they remake the world for a weekend, twisting the person's environment with sensory experiences that explore and challenge their deepest inclinations.

When I first heard about OdysseyWorks, I thought their projects were indulgent novelties. But the more I learned, the more I appreciated their thoughtful slanted window into audience engagement.

OdysseyWorks' projects get to the heart of the fiercest debates in the arts today. Does "starting from the audience" mean pandering to narcissism and dumbing down work? Is it elitist to present art that may be dislocating or foreign? How do we honor the audience's starting point and take them somewhere new?

As artistic director Abe Burickson described their work to me, I imagined Theseus walking deeper into the labyrinth towards the Minotaur. Theseus entered the labyrinth with a string tying him to what he already knew. And then he followed that string into darkness, danger, and ultimately, triumph.

I asked Abe about how he sees the tension between the desire to start with the audience and the desire to move the audience somewhere new. He spoke of the audience as providing a challenge, a challenge like any other artistic constraint. The audience provides an offering of a certain way of looking, a challenge to see the world differently and get inside that perspective with their artwork. OdysseyWorks locates that starting point, hands the audience the string, and draws them further and deeper into mystery.

Abe told me about a performance OdysseyWorks created for a woman named Christina. Christina loved all things symmetrical and tonal. Loved baroque and rococo. Hated Jackson Pollock and John Cage. The OdysseyWorks team is not that way - they like messy and atonal - so it was an interesting challenge. Could they create a space of comfort, a world of her own, and then move her to a space of dischord where the things OdysseyWorks thought were beautiful might become beautiful to her?

Here's how Abe described the project to me:
We started the weekend in Christina's comfort zone. We started with Clair de Lune by Debussy, which she loves, and a few other structured things that worked that way. Over time, she encountered the music in multiple locations--in a symmetrical architectural space, with family. 
As the day went on, she relaxed--which is key to the process. When you engage with something, especially something new, you are often on guard, physically, socially, intellectually. You just don’t trust right away. 
When you no longer feel that people are judging you, you become much more open to new things. It's really quite amazing how much of a shift can happen. 
Once those reservations and judgments faded, we started playing other version of Clair de Lune. There are hundreds of really messed up versions of Clair de Lune. We played them just to shake it up. At one point after seven hours, and about 500 miles of travel, Christina got picked up by a train and was driven to a scene. It was about an hour drive. And in that hour, she just listened to this Clair de Lune version we composed, this 80-minute deconstruction, a slow deterioration, that started classical and ended sounding like people chewing on string. It was beautiful noise. It was the exact opposite of what she liked, and yet by that point, she found it beautiful.  
The whole experience was kind of a deconstruction of form. The experience was powerful for her. Later she said it pried her open.  
The goal was not that Christina should like John Cage. Nor is it about creating a moment of pleasure. The goal was to create work that is moving for her and a compelling artistic challenge for us. It's about creating a different engagement with life. 
To me, the biggest aha this story is the middle--the enormous role that the perception of "being judged" plays in narrowing our experience and our openness to new things. When we trust, we open up. But how often does an arts institution start working with an audience by building a trusting relationship (versus bombarding them with content)? What could we gain by starting with empathy instead of presentation?

OdysseyWorks is doing a crowd-funding campaign right now to fund a book project documenting their process. I'm learning from them, so I'm supporting them. Check out their work and consider whether they might help you through the labyrinths in your world.

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment below. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Women of Color Leading Essential, Activist Work in Cultural Institutions

A new poster from the National Park Service,
based on Rich Black's 2009 image.
Over the past few months, I've been doing research for a forthcoming book on relevance. One of the best parts of developing a book is learning new stories. For me, the early stage of writing a book is a treasure hunt--an excuse to seek out new examples and ideas that strengthen the story.

Here are three sources that have inspired me, from four activist women of color. Each of these women push the boundaries of cultural institutions in different ways, with digital and physical manifestations. But don't take my word for it. These women all have strong online presences, and I invite you to join me in learning from and supporting their work.

Ravon Ruffin and Amanda Figuero - Claiming Space for Brown Women in the Digital Museum Landscape

Based in Washington DC, Brown Girls Museum Blog is a new-ish site led by graduate students Ravon Ruffin and Amanda Figueroa. Ravon and Amanda are using several social media channels to explore and share museum exhibitions, programs, and projects. They are holding meetups, creating swag, and getting heard. Ravon spoke at MuseumNext last month (video here) about how communities of color claim space and power in the decentralized digital landscape. I was impressed by her expertise, and the example that Raven and Amanda are setting in strengthening their own voices as emerging leaders in this space. I can't wait to see what happens as they claim more space and power in museums, both through this project and individually in their careers.

Monica Montgomery - Building a Museum of Impact

In New York City, Monica Octavia Montgomery is pushing the boundaries of how we make relevant, powerful museum exhibits with the Museum of Impact. The Museum of Impact is a pop-up project of short-term exhibitions on urgent topics of social justice. Monica is a museum pioneer in two ways: she is using the museum medium to tackle tough social issues, and she is inventing new models for urgent, responsive, relevant programming. Monica publicly launched Museum of Impact this year with an exhibition on #blacklivesmatter, and she has projects on other themes--immigration, environment, mass incarceration--in the works. Want to know more? Check out this great interview with Monica by Elise Granata, and learn more about how you can get involved.

Betty Reid Soskin - Rewriting History in the National Parks

Yes, I DID save the best for last. Betty Reid Soskin is a nationally-renowned park ranger in Richmond, CA, and I am completely blown away by what I've learned from her in the short few weeks since I first heard her name. Betty is the oldest national park ranger in America at 94, but more importantly, Betty is an activist, a truth-seeker, and a storyteller. She speaks, writes, and fights for justice--in a federal historic site.

Betty gives tours at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, sharing her lived experience working there as a clerk during the war. Her blog, CBreaux Speaks, is one of the most eloquent I've ever read. She writes about race, history, parks, culture, and politics. She writes with power, and a voice unlike any I've encountered online. And she's been blogging for over 12 years.

Here's an excerpt from one of Betty Reid Soskin's earliest blog posts, from September 2003, when she was first asked to participate in the planning of the national park in which she now works. She was in the room as an elder, a civic leader, and a part of the site's history. But she immediately saw that she had an additional role to play: as a truth-teller of the full history of the site. Here's how she described it:
In the new plan before us, the planning team was taken on a bus tour of the buildings that will be restored as elements in the park. They're on scattered sites throughout the western part of the city. One of two housing complexes that has been preserved, Atchison and Nystrom Villages. They consist of modest bungalows, mostly duplexes and triplexes that were constructed "for white workers only." In many cases, the descendants of those workers still inhabit those homes. They're now historic landmarks and are on the national registry as such.  
Since we're "telling the story of America through structures," how in the world do we tell this one? And in looking around the room, I realized that it was only a question for me. It held no meaning for anyone else.

No one in the room realizes that the story of Rosie the Riveter is a white woman's story. I, and women of color will not be represented by this park as proposed. Many of the sites names in the legislation I remember as places of racial segregation -- and as such -- they may be enshrined by a generation that has forgotten that history.  
There is no way to explain the continuing presence of the 40% African American presence in this city's population without including their role in World War II. There continues to be a custodial attitude toward this segment of the population, with outsiders unaware of the miracle of those folks who dropped their hoes and picked up welding torches to help to save the world from the enemy. Even their grandchildren have lost the sense of mission and worthiness without those markers of achievement and "membership" in the effort to save the world.  
And, yes, I did tell them. And, I have no idea what they'll do with the information, but I did feel a sense of having communicated those thoughts effectively to well-meaning professionals who didn't know what in hell to do the information. 
Fortunately, Betty Reid Soskind did a heck of a lot more than participating in that 2003 planning session. She became a leader in the development, and now the interpretation, of Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park.

Spend time on Betty's blog, and get inspired by her journey as an activist and a truth-teller, a passionate advocate for what cultural institutions can do to advance truth and justice for all. Support Ravon and Amanda and Monica, and their journeys to become leaders in our field. Our cultural universe is full of stars. When we deny ourselves the full brilliance of the stories and voices in that universe, we impoverish our own experiences. We cloud the potential for truth, beauty, and justice.

Let us all be amateur astronomers of culture, huddled around the powerful telescopes of diverse experience. Let us seek truth, beauty, and justice, and amplify them, together.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Seeking Your Stories of Relevance and Irrelevance for a New Book Project

ArrrrrrrrDear Museum 2.0 friends,

I know I that I haven't been sharing a lot on the blog, but behind the scenes, you've inspired me to write more than ever. Energized by the response to the blog series this summer on relevance, I've decided to write a book on the topic. My goal is to make it short, the focus tight, and release it quickly: hopefully spring 2016.

The book will roughly cover:
  • what relevance is, why it matters, and when it doesn't
  • relevance to WHO - identifying and making legitimate connections with communities of interest
  • relevance to WHAT - making confident connections to mission, content, and form
  • relevance as a GATEWAY to deep experiences vs. relevance as a PROCESS of deepening involvement
  • measuring relevance 
  • irrelevance - its dangers and distractions
My goal is for this book to be relevant to anyone on a mission to matter more. That's where you come in. I'm in research mode, and I'm seeking stories and case studies from diverse institutions about attempts, successes, failures, and discoveries related to relevance. I'm specifically seeking stories from:
  • science institutions
  • media organizations
  • institutions that focus on a specific cultural/ethnic group
  • religious institutions
  • historical societies
  • theater
  • dance
  • parks
  • libraries
  • organizations outside the US
  • anyone willing to share an honest story related to irrelevance
You can share a short anecdote or a detailed case study--I'm looking for sources at all levels at this point. THANK YOU in advance for helping make this book as relevant and compelling as possible (and yes, I think those two terms are quite different and am writing about the difference in the book).

If you have a story, or know someone with a story, please leave a comment here or send me an email. If you are reading this via email and wish to leave a comment, you can join the conversation here. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Use This: Audience Research in Rotterdam Provides a Template for Smarter Segmenting

Imagine a concise, well-designed report on audiences for cultural activities in a large urban city. Imagine it peppered with snappy graphics and thought-provoking questions about connections to research and audience development in your community.

Stop imagining and check out the Rotterdam Festival's 2011 report on five years of trends in audience data and related audience development efforts. They didn't do anything shocking or groundbreaking, but what they did, they did very well:

  • They identified the unique characteristics of Rotterdam citizens. 
  • They created psychographic profiles of eight target types of cultural consumer in Rotterdam, based on existing European market segmentation research. 
  • They interviewed and learned more about people representing these eight types. They identified the types' distinct interests and concerns, aspirations, media usage, and barriers to participation.
  • They used clear, evocative language (even in translation!) to convey their ideas. 
While their approach is not one I have used, I learned a lot from it. I recommend checking out the short-form report [pdf] and considering how the work in Rotterdam might inspire or support your own work on audience identification, understanding, and development. Hats off to Johan Moerman and the crew for making and sharing this work.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fighting for Inclusion

These are the notes and slides for a keynote speech I'm giving this Saturday at MuseumNext in Indianapolis. If you'll be there, I look forward to discussing these issues with you. If not, please share a comment and let's talk online.

The theme of this conference is inclusion. All weekend, we've heard uplifting stories about amazing work you all are doing to involve people from all walks of life in museums.

And yet. Here's my beef with inclusion: it's too good. No one is "against" inclusion. There is no other museum conference going on somewhere else in the world today where professionals are sharing proud case studies and helpful tips on how to exclude people.

But museums do exclude people. All the time.

If everyone is "for" inclusion, does that mean it automatically happens? No. But if no one is against it, how do we make sure that we actually are doing it, that we aren't just paying lip service to the idea?

The answer, I think, is to acknowledge the activist, political roots of inclusion. Inclusion isn't a given. Inclusion is something we fight for.

And so I'd like to share some of the story of how we have fought for inclusion, what it changed about our work, and some tips on how to fight.

Our Story

I came to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History four years ago. At the time, we were fighting for survival. Financial instability and creeping irrelevance had put the museum in a precarious position. We had to make a change.

And while we wouldn't have said that change was about "inclusion" specifically, it was about empowering as many people as possible to feel like the museum was a vital part of their lives, individually and collectively. We did it in two ways:
  • by empowering individuals as participants in content creation, program design, and deep exploration of art and history 
  • by connecting people across differences, building strong social bridges across race, age, economic background, and culture so that the transformed museum would be a place for everyone instead of a place for a particular target group
These two changes are at the heart of inclusion. Valuing individuals' potential and contributions. Linking diverse people across differences, even when it's uncomfortable. Reaching out, broadly and intently, with generosity and curiosity at the core.

Inclusion isn't just an engagement strategy. For us, it was a successful business strategy too. In my first four years, we tripled attendance. Doubled our budget. Doubled our staff. Got on strong financial, programmatic, and reputational footing. As one visitor recently commented, "the MAH has become 'our' museum, a reflection of us and a place where we can appreciate art, share it with each other, learn and make new connections." 

But we didn't get there without a fight. We fought against common preconceptions of what a museum audience looks like or who a museum is for. We fought against critics who claimed that we were dumbing down the museum. We fought overt and covert discrimination on the basis of age, race, and income. We fought our own biases, fears, and uncertainty... and we continue to do so today.

How to Fight

I want to share four concepts that have been helpful to me in thinking about how we actively fight for inclusion in our work.

1. Start Small

You can't change the world overnight. It's powerful to have a big vision for where you are going. But if you throw every punch, tilt at every windmill, you'll end up exhausted and frustrated.

So start with a goal. Articulate it clearly. And then find small ways to start fighting for it.

For us, inclusion began with learning how to invite community members to be part of our work. Sometimes, that meant asking people to share opinions on our plans, to share stories for exhibitions, to share their skills in community programs. But I often think of one of our simplest, and most powerful, forms of invitation: the wishlist.

On our weekly email newsletter, we often ask people to donate specific junk items--toilet paper rolls, bottlecaps, jeans--that we want to use for exhibitions and programs. I always thought we did this because we're thrifty. But then there was the situation with the cardboard boxes, which changed my perspective.

One time, we did a call-out for cardboard boxes. Hundreds rolled in. One industrious museum member even cleared out his garage and brought down a whole trailer of boxes on the back of his bike. Once at the museum, staff and visitors transformed these boxes into a cardboard castle for a co-created family opera. Junk became something creative, something of value. As I watched the castle go up, I thought about how small, yet powerful, the wishlist is. It's a simple expression of the fact that we KNOW that our visitors have something to give the museum. They don't have to be professional artists, or wealthy donors, or famous historians to contribute. EVERYONE can contribute--with something as humble as a cardboard box. That's a small step towards inclusion.

If you are fighting for inclusion, I ask you: what small invitation could you make to be more inclusive? 

2. Arm Yourself

Going into battle? You're going to need a weapon. I want to briefly address three ways to arm yourself in the fight for inclusion (or whatever else you care most about): with strategy, with self-care, and with compatriots.

In some institutions, your strongest weapon is a core strategic document - typically, a mission statement. If your mission statement talks about serving "all Minnesotans" or "creativity for everyone," that's a mandate for inclusion. Even if the mission statement is primarily used in your institution as an aspirational ideal, it's still something that theoretically everyone from top to bottom is working towards. If you can use the sentence: "We can accomplish XX part of our mission by doing YY," people at the top have to listen to you. They may not agree with you, but if you can couch your goals in the context of agreed-upon strategic language, you can use that language as a shield as you pursue action.

And speaking of shields, the second way you must arm yourself is by taking care of yourself. As Audre Lorde said, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare." Arm yourself with love, with strength, with actions and objects and people who help you thrive. You need that if you are going to fight.

But you don't have to do it alone. The most effective way to arm yourself--especially in a big institution--is with an army. One of my favorite examples of a group of museum professionals fighting for inclusion is the folks at Puke Ariki who led the Ruru Revolution in their large museum/library/visitor center in New Zealand. This band of colleagues created an "underground group working for institutional change"--and they succeeded. They found each other, supported each other, and pushed each other into new ways of working with the public.

What weapon do you have at your disposal?

3. Make Space

When you think about recruiting your army, think about whether your actions are inviting people in or keeping people out. It can be so easy in this work for us to hunker down and focus on "doing the thing" ourselves. It's ironic--and self-defeating--that we can sometimes be exclusive in pursuing inclusion. I have found again and again that we do our most powerful work NOT when we do the thing but when we empower others to do the thing. That's what space-making is all about. It's like a chain letter for good. You make space and support others in their fight, and suddenly, what felt like a lone battle is a movement pushing forward.

Unfortunately, when a new initiative or goal gets set, I often see us clamping down with micro-management instead of making space for the new work to thrive. When I came to the MAH, one of our first goals was to make the space more welcoming for people. One day, I walked in, and there were two armchairs with a sign that said "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the art." The sign was ugly: primary colors screaming amateur preschool hour. Every designerly instinct I had made me want to tear down that sign. And then I stopped and realized that the intern who had made that sign had done so to help accomplish our goal of making the museum more welcoming. The sign DID accomplish that goal. My desire for design perfection did not, and should not, outweigh the benefit that her work was bringing to the organization.

And so the sign stayed. When I look back, I feel guilty about all the times when the proverbial sign didn't stay, when some expectation or threshold for quality led us to shut down something great in development. And not just to shut down some potentially great work, but also to shut down some great people for whom we were not making space to shine.

Where could you have more impact by making space for others?

4. Start Within

Most of my examples in Santa Cruz have to do with us fighting for inclusion beyond our office, with supporters and critics and people throughout our community. But if you work at a big institution, the fight probably begins within, battling statements like "But that's not professional," or "We've always done it that way," or "Isn't that just a marketing thing?"

Starting within can be safest, because you know the people involved. But it can also feel unsafe, because the emotions and potential repercussions are higher. Find the way to start small, to arm yourself, to make space--and to do so wherever you need to start first.

It's hard to embark on this fight. It's not an easy slide into first, even if everyone is "for" inclusion on the surface. But it's worth it.

What's your fight?

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Meditations on Relevance Part 5: Relevance is a Bridge

Blessing of the Replica Boards, July 19, 2015, 8am. Photo by Jon Bailiff.
Relevance is not an end unto itself. It is a bridge. When you open the path, people flood in. You open the potential for something more.

But a bridge to nowhere is quickly abandoned. Relevance only leads to deep meaning if it leads to something significant. Killer content. Substantive programming. Muscle and bone.

This summer, we opened two exhibitions at my museum that are highly relevant to local culture. One is about the Grateful Dead (Dear Jerry), the other about the dawn of surfing in the Americas (Princes of Surf). Dear Jerry is relevant because Santa Cruz is a hippie town, UC Santa Cruz maintains the Grateful Dead Archive, and the Dead did their final tour this summer. Princes of Surf is about the young Hawaiian princes who brought surfing to the Americas 130 years ago--relevant because they did it in Santa Cruz, with boards shaped from local wood, on waves I bike by every week.

Both of these exhibitions are relevant to the cultural identity of Santa Cruz. Both had good design, great programmatic events, and enthusiastic response. But one of them--Princes of Surf--completely outshone the other. Crushed attendance records. Yielded mountains of press. Captured people like we've never seen before. Princes of Surf isn't "more relevant" than Dear Jerry. But its gateway led further into our community, deeper into the heart-spirit of Santa Cruz.

What makes Princes of Surf so special? The exhibition is small and fairly traditional in design. It features only two artifacts: the original redwood surfboards the princes shaped and used in Santa Cruz. Picture a room with two really long pieces of old wood, and some labels around the walls. That's about it.

And yet. These two pieces of wood are like the Shroud of Turin of surfing in the Americas. They are the answer to a mystery, proof of something we'd long believed but couldn't verify. They are at the heart of how so many people in my community define themselves. These boards connect modern-day surfers to something greater than themselves: across oceans, across cultures, across time. It's not about nostalgia. It's about a new connection to something deep inside.

Princes of Surf is simple. It starts with a theme--surfing--that is relevant to our community. And then it delivers something new and shocking, something old and reverent, something worth getting excited about.

The story of how these surfboards became significant speaks to the fickle face of relevance. Before the Princes of Surf exhibition, these boards 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. They were in storage for 90+ years before historians in Hawaii and Santa Cruz discovered they were THE boards in the first known record of surfing in the Americas in Santa Cruz. The boards became relevant and important in Santa Cruz, and we paid a huge amount to have them conserved and shipped here for exhibition. But their significance here doesn't translate across the ocean. After this "blockbuster" run in Santa Cruz, the boards will go back in storage at the Bishop Museum, where their relevance warrants preservation but little adoration.

In other words, these boards are significant--but only here, only because of their relevance to Santa Cruz. Attributes like "significance" are almost always contextual. And potent. When context and meaning line up, objects gain power.

Exhibiting these boards reminds me how rare it is to exhibit truly significant objects. So often in museums, we assuage ourselves with the idea that in the digital era, people will still visit museums because they want to see "the real thing." What we don't admit is that many of the "real things" we display just aren't compelling enough to get people in the door. We lie to ourselves, writing shiny press releases for exhibitions of second-class objects and secondhand stories. The rechewed meat of culture. The thin, oily soup of blockbuster shows. They may be relevant, but that doesn't make them valuable.

I remember the last time I saw an object that was so relevant, and so valuable, that it had huge community impact. It was June of 2009. Michael Jackson had just died, and I was at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where they hastily erected an exhibit of the jacket and glove he wore in the Thriller video. Many organizations hosted tributes to Michael Jackson, but this tribute, this artifact, this outfit that froze Michael Jackson at his most insane and fabulous and other-worldly--it mattered. It was relevant AND significant.

When you hit both these notes, people respond. With Princes of Surf, it started before the exhibition opened. People lining the street on the Tuesday afternoon when the boards arrived from the Port of Oakland, cheering as the crates came off the truck. People pouring in to see the show. Grown men fighting for seats at lectures about the history of the boards. Couples stopping me on the street to marvel about the story. Kids wearing commemorative t-shirts around town. The exhibition is still open, and every week I have these moments--in the museum and out in the City--where people tell us and show us how much the boards matter to them.

My favorite moment of this project was on July 19, 2015, 130 years to the day since the teenage Hawaiian princes were first documented surfing on mainland USA in Santa Cruz. We celebrated the anniversary with a surf demo, paddle out, and luau. One of the most prominent surfboard designers in Santa Cruz, Bob Pearson of Pearson Arrow, shaped fourteen replica redwood boards for the demo. We partnered with pro surfers, shapers, surf historians, Hawaiian restaurants, a local radio DJ, and a Hawaiian biker club to make it happen.

It's always nerve-wracking when you host an event with an unconventional format. I remember early morning on July 19, getting on my bike, wondering if anyone would be at the beach when I arrived. Who in their right minds would show up at 8am on a Sunday for a history event?

I arrived to a sea of people, heads bent before a blessing of the boards. I stumbled into the throng. Someone handed me a lei. I walked with hundreds of fellow Santa Cruzans along the shoreline to watch pro surfers attempt to ride the replicas. People lined the cliffs above the water. The tide was low, and we walked way out along the break, cheering the surfers on, watching them rise and fall. 

Back on the beach, the mayor proclaimed it Three Princes Day. The Hawaiian motorcycle club hefted the 200+ pound replicas and carried them down the shore to the rivermouth where the princes first surfed, like a reverse funeral for history being raised from the dead. A the mouth of the river where the princes rode, Hawaiian elders led us in a song of blessing. And then we got into the water again - hundreds of us, on redwood boards and longboards and shortboards and paddle boards and no boards at all, paddling out to form a circle in the ocean out beyond the break, holding hands, feeling the connection. We paddled back, dried off, and spent the afternoon drinking beer and dancing hula in the courtyard outside the museum.

July 19, 2015 Paddle Out, 11am. Photo by Levy Media Works via drone. I'm a speck in the water, top right between a blue and yellow board. Note the crowd at the river mouth in the background on the beach.
July 19 was amazing. For me personally, it was life-changing. And it had almost nothing to do with relevance. Yes, this project matters most in Santa Cruz, where the boards were born, but the relevance of the story was just the spark. Just the opening of a door of connection and meaning and depth and learning and love.

So let's celebrate relevance. Not as an end, but as a means. If your organization focuses on your local geography, be relevant to that. If you focus on a particular community, be relevant to them. If you focus on a discipline or art form or niche, be relevant to that. And then work like hell to make meaning out of it.

Because relevance is just a start. It is a bridge. You've got to get people on the bridge. But what matters most is what they're moving towards, on the other side.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. Thank you for taking this journey with me. It is an experiment in form, and I value all the comments and conversation around it. If there are other topics you think should be included in the series, please leave a comment with that topic for consideration.

Here's my question for today: Have you seen an object or work of art become relevant and powerful for a short time or in a particular context? How do you define the difference between relevance and significance? 

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 4: Guest Comic and Open Thread

For the past few weeks, I've been writing about relevance and museums. The conversation in the comments on each post has been fascinating and educational. Today, I wanted to share a provocative comic made by a talented museum-er/illustrator, Crista Alejandre. I hope this piece encourages more dialogue among us in this penultimate post in the relevance series.


This post is part of a series of meditations on relevance. This week is YOUR WEEK to weigh in on anything related to relevance that you want to explore. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you today: What responses, questions, and stories does Crista's comic spark for you?

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 3: Who Decides What's Relevant?

One of my favorite comments on the first post in this series came from Lyndall Linaker, an Australian museum worker, who asked: "Who decides what is relevant? The curatorial team or a multidisciplinary team who have the audience in mind when decisions are made about the best way to connect visitors to the collection?"

My answer: neither. The market decides what's relevant. Whoever your community is, they decide. They decide with their feet, attention, dollars, and participation.

When you say you want to be relevant, that usually means "we want to matter to more people." Or different people. Can you define the community to whom you want to be relevant? Can you describe them? Mattering more to them starts with understanding them. What they care about. What is useful to them. What is on their minds.

The community decides what is relevant to them. But who decides what is relevant inside the organization? Who interprets the interests of the community and decides on the relevant themes and activities for the year?

That's a more complicated question. It's a question of HOW we decide, not just WHO makes the decision.

Community First Program Design

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we've gravitated towards a "community first" program planning model. It's pretty simple. Instead of designing programming and then seeking out audiences for it, we identify communities and then develop programs that are relevant to their assets and needs. 

Here's how we do it:
  1. Define the community or communities to whom you wish to be relevant. The more specific the definition, the better. 
  2. Find representatives of this community--staff, volunteers, visitors, trusted partners--and learn more about their experiences. If you don't know many people in this community, this is a red flag moment. Don't assume that content/form that is relevant to you or your existing audiences will be relevant to people from other backgrounds. 
  3. Spend more time in the community to whom you wish to be relevant. Get to know their dreams, points of pride, and fears. 
  4. Develop collaborations and programs, keeping in mind what you have learned. 

We use a simple "honeycomb" diagram (image) to do these four steps.

We start at the middle of the diagram, defining the community of interest.

Then, we define the needs and assets of that community. We're careful to focus on needs AND assets. Often, organizations adopt a service model that is strictly needs-based. The theory goes: you have needs; we have programs to address them. While needs are important, this service model can be demeaning and disempowering. It implies we have all the answers. It's more powerful to root programming in the strengths of a community than its weaknesses.

Once we've identified assets and needs, we seek out collaborators and project ideas. We never start with the project idea and parachute in. We start with the community and build to projects.

Here are two examples:
  • Our Youth Programs Manager, Emily Hope Dobkin, wanted to find a way to support teens at the museum. Emily started by honing in on local teens' assets: creativity, activist energy, desire to make a difference, desire to be heard, free time in the afternoon. She surveyed existing local programs. The most successful programs fostered youth empowerment and community leadership in various content areas: agriculture, technology, healing. But there was no such program focused on the arts. Subjects to Change was born. Subjects to Change puts teens in the driver's seat and gives them real responsibility and creative leadership opportunities at our museum and in collaborations across the County. Subjects to Change isn't rooted in our collection, exhibitions, or existing museum programs. It's rooted in the assets and needs of creative teens in our County. Two years after its founding, Subjects to Change is blasting forward. Committed teens lead the program and use it as a platform to host cultural events and creative projects for hundreds of their peers across the County. The program works because it is teen-centered, not museum-centered. 
  • Across our museum, we're making efforts to deeply engage Latino families. One community of interest are Oaxacan culture-bearers in the nearby Live Oak neighborhood. There is a strong community of Oaxacan artists, dancers, and musicians in Live Oak. One of their greatest assets is the annual Guelaguetza festival, which brings together thousands of people for a celebration of Oaxacan food, music, and dance. Our Director of Community Engagement, Stacey Marie Garcia, reached out to the people who run the festival, hoping we might be able to build a collaboration. We discovered--together--that each of us had assets that served the other. They had music and dance but no hands-on art activities; we brought the hands-on art experience to their festival. They have a strong Oaxacan and Latino following; we have a strong white following. We built a partnership in which we each presented at each other's events, linking our different programming strengths and audiences. No money changed hands. It was all about us amplifying each other's assets and helping meet each other's needs. 

Getting New Voices in Your Head 

The essential first step to this "community first" process is identifying communities of interest and learning about their assets, needs, and interests.

How does this critical learning happen? There are many ways to approach it. You can form a community advisory group. A focus group. Recruit new volunteers or board members. Hire new staff. Volunteer in that community. Seek out trusted leaders and make them your partners. Seek out community events and get involved.

We find that the more time we spend in communities of interest--hiring staff from those communities, recruiting volunteers from those communities, helping out in those communities, and collaborating with leaders in those communities--the easier it is to make reasonable judgments about what is and isn't relevant. It gets easier to hear their voices in our heads when we make a decision. To imagine what they'll reject and what they'll embrace.

If you want to make program decisions relevant to a group, the thing you need most is their voices in your head. Not your voice. Not the voices of existing participants who are NOT from the community of interest.

Here's the challenge: if this community of interest is new to you, it's hard to get their voices in your head. It's hard for two reasons:
  1. If you are interested in being relevant to a community that is new to you, you likely have low familiarity and knowledge of that community's assets, needs, and interests. 
  2. At the same time as you are learning about this community, stumbling into new conversations, your existing community is right there, loud and in your face, drowning out the new voices you are seeking in the dark. 
Anyone who has been through a change process knows this. You start with the community to whom you are already relevant, with their peculiar expectations and strengths and fears. And then, you decide you want the organization to be relevant to new people. People with different expectations and strengths and fears. You learn something about these new people: they prefer programming later at night, they're inspired by this kind of program, they want content in this language. If any of these changes threatens the experience of the people already engaged, they may revolt. They may say you are dumbing it down, screwing it up, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It's easy to give up. It's easy to just listen to the voices already in front of you. To stay relevant to them and shed your visions of being relevant to more or different people.

But you can't give up. If you believe in the work of being relevant to new communities, you have to believe those people are out there. You have to privilege their voices in your head. You have to believe that their assets and needs and dreams are just as valid as those of people who are already engaged.

Every time an existing patron expresses concern about a change, you have to imagine the voices in your head of those potential new patrons who will be elated and engaged by the change. You have to hear their voices loud and clear.

These new voices don't exist yet. They are whispers from the future. But put your ear to the ground, press forward in investing in community relevance, and those whispers will be roars before you know it.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you today: Who decides what is relevant in your institution? Have you ever seen a project succeed or fail based on interpretation of community assets and needs? 

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 2: Content vs. Form

In pop culture-land, relevance is all about now. Who's hot. What's trending. If people on the street are talking about X, the museum should be talking about X too.

This is the least useful form of relevance for the arts. "Now" is not an easy business model to chase--especially for institutions rooted in permanence. "Now" requires major changes to how we work and what we offer. "Now" comes off as disingenuous and irrelevant if done wrong. And now is not tomorrow. It is not the long term. It is just now. Endlessly, persistently, expensively, now.

I used to work at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. Our mandate was to be the museum of Silicon Valley--not of its material history, but its pulse of innovation. This was impossible. The exhibits we put on the floor were immediately dated. Their physicality, long timelines, and big budgets made them immutable objects. They didn't speak to the thrilling drumbeat of change at the heart of innovation.

The problem was not one of content but one of form. This isn't just a science center problem. It's a cultural institution problem. The solution is in focusing on changing form more than content. Changing hours and pricing. Curatorial processes. Interpretative techniques.

Consider the experiments at the New World Symphony in Miami, where they are performing classical orchestral music for outdoor "wallcasts" that include projections and visual content. Or Streb Labs, where choreographer Elizabeth Streb flipped the traditional dance model by opening a 24/7, open-access venue for practice and performance. Or museums that extend their hours to match working people's schedules.

These institutions are not being relevant by presenting cat selfies curated by a hot celebrity. They are making canonical content relevant by updating the form. 

William F. Buckley, the conservative political commentator, said: “Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas ... but because the idiom of life is always changing and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.”

Changing the form is about adapting to the vibrations of modern life. You can make "inaccessible" content relevant if you put it on a pedestal that speaks to today. The pedestal of today may be irreverent, or political, or multi-sensory. It may be loud or quiet. Digital or analog. The pedestals will keep changing with the times. The content needn't.

Of course, sometimes when you create a new format that prioritizes "the vibrations of modern life," those vibrations can affect the content. Consider the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum's "Rethinking Soup" lunch series, in which community members share a meal and discussion about social justice issues. Once you put that weekly lunch on the calendar, you're going to fill the bowl weekly with content. Sometimes, that content may be of-the-moment. Other times, grounded in the museum's collection. The weekly format doesn't prescribe contemporary content. But it makes space for it when warranted.

New formats introduce structural changes, whereas new content may only hit the surface. When a museum hosts a one-off community conversation in response to a national crisis, I often wonder: is this opportunistic? Are they taking up a hot topic briefly, only to retreat when the fire goes out? I worry that they will check it off the "relevance" list and forget about it. I worry they won't do the full work of changing to be more relevant in the long-term.

This kind of change is taxing. Relevance is only worth the effort when it is a gateway to utility and meaning. If making something more relevant makes it less meaningful, it's not worth it.

Consider the Victoria and Albert Museum's "rapid response collecting" program, which started in 2013. Curators acquire and display contemporary objects via "a new strand to the V&A museum's collections policy, which can respond very quickly to events relevant to design and technology."

I applaud the V&A for changing their acquisition format to be more responsive to modern life--no easy feat. Yet I'm unsure about its value. Museums have huge issues with overstuffed collection stores of dubious relevance to the modern day. Does collecting more stuff faster help improve relevance? Or does it accelerate an unhealthy emphasis on the "now?"

One of the objects the V&A collected is a pair of jeans produced at a Bangladeshi factory near another factory that collapsed. What's the value of a pair of store-bought jeans made nearby the site of the tragedy? This kind of relevance is a second-class offering to the cult of "now." If the V&A wants to speak to that tragedy, there other objects in its collection that could bring meaning (and relevance) to it. Objects rescued from factory fires. Objects made under duress. Objects that breathe life into the issue at hand.

"Now" matters, but not as much as utility and meaning. "Now" can distract from the real work of relevance--making cultural institutions useful, meaningful, and connected to people's lives. Not just now. Later, too.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you: How do you perceive the difference between relevance of form and content? Are there examples (of either) that have had lasting impact on the relevance of your institution? 

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 1: Overview

"We want our museum to be relevant."

I've heard (and said) this many times. But what does it mean for a cultural institution to be relevant? To whom? How? Why?

Relevance is relative and relational. It's the extent to which a thing is connected to something that matters.

In pop culture contexts, relevance is about currency. Now-ness. Relevant information is ripped from the headlines, hot hot hot. Exhibition about #blacklivesmatter? That's relevant.

In professional contexts, relevance is about utility. Usefulness. Relevant information helps solve a problem or improve a line of work. Art therapy program for trauma victims? That's relevant.

In personal contexts, relevance is about meaning. Interest. Relevant information feeds a person's (or a group's) proclivity or affinity. Lecture on bees for an audience of beekeepers? That's relevant.

How do we build relevance in cultural institutions? We become more relevant when we matter more to more people. We do that by being useful and meaningful. Not by being hip.

Five relevant suggestions:
  1. Ignore flash. The fastest path to irrelevance is trying to keep up with the cool kids. We are wasting resources on of-the-moment content and hot new gadgets. 
  2. Interrogate form. Relevance isn't solely about content. We need to think about the structure of how our institutions function--from hours of operation to explicit and implicit rules of use--to make our work relevant to the patterns of contemporary life. 
  3. Identify the "who." The implication of "being more relevant" is being more relevant to somebody. Who is that somebody? The more we know about the community or communities of interest, the better we can connect to their interests, needs, and assets. If we want to matter more, we need to know what matters. 
  4. Make change. Relevance isn't something you wish for. It's something you build. Once we understand what matters most to people, we have to make changes to make those new connections. Credibly. Sincerely. Seriously.
  5. Acknowledge that relevance is a door, not a destination. Relevance doesn't incite powerful emotions or learning on its own. It is a gateway that opens the potential for more.  
When we connect our work to the things that matter most to people, in forms that fit their patterns of life, it will be relevant. And then the real work (and magic!) can begin.

Over the next few weeks, I'm diving deeper into these topics with a series of posts. If you are curious about what relevance means in the cultural sector, this series will probably be relevant to you.

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my first question for you: what's the biggest question on your mind about relevance and cultural institutions?

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the  conversation here.