Tuesday, March 06, 2018

This is What the Participatory Museum Sounds Like

It's late in the afternoon. I'm cranking away on a grant proposal, when suddenly, a classical rendition of "All the Single Ladies" wafts up the stairs. In the office, colleagues lift their heads. "Is that...?" someone asks. "Yup," another nods. We grin.

This is the magic a piano in the lobby makes.

We've now had a piano in the MAH lobby for several months. About once each week, a visitor walks in and blows everyone away. Sometimes it's a homeless person. Sometimes a lover's duet. This week, it was a little guy, attended by a stuffed toy on the piano bench. It's rare that someone sits down to bang out noise. 95% of our piano users play music, beautifully.

The piano is a simple invitation to meaningful visitor participation. The activity is clear and well-scaffolded. The outcome is open-ended and visitor-driven. It invites visitors to make the museum better. When visitors share their brilliance, it brings the museum to life.

I believe that every person who walks into our museum has something valuable to share. A creative talent. A personal history. A special skill. It's not their job to present their abilities to us. It's our job to welcome them, invite them to contribute, and give them the tools to do so. This is the participatory museum, played out loud.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Are Participant Demographics the Most Useful Single Measure of Community Impact?

Let's say you want your organization to be rooted in your community. To be of value to your community. To reflect and represent your community. To help your community grow stronger.

What indicator would determine the extent to which your organization fulfills these aspirations?

Here's a candidate: participant demographics. If your participants' demographics match that of your community, that means the diverse people in your community derive value from your organization. The people on the outside are the ones coming in.

We use participant demographics as a core measure at the MAH. At the MAH, our goal is for museum participants to reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of Santa Cruz County. We compare visitor demographics to those of the county. We use the county census as our measuring stick. We set our strategy based on the extent to which we match, exceed, or fall short of county demographics.

Is this overly reductive? Possibly. There are at least four arguments against it:

Serving "everyone" shouldn't be the goal. I understand this argument, but I think it's suspect when it comes to demographics (especially income and race/ethnicity). Organizations can and should target programs to welcome different kinds of people for different kinds of experiences. But should those differences be rooted in participants' race or income level? Would anyone say with a straight face that it's OK to exclude people based on the color of their skin or the balance in their bank account? I don't think this holds up.

People are more than their demographics. I agree with this argument, but in my experience, it doesn't invalidate demographic measurement. For years, we focused at the MAH on non-demographic definitions of community, seeking to engage "makers" or "moms seeking enrichment for their kids" as opposed to "whites" or "Latinos." I believe that there are many useful ways to define community beyond demographics. BUT, when we actually started measuring demographics at the MAH a few years ago, we saw that we were engaging the county's age and income diversity... but not the county's ethnic diversity. How could we credibly argue that this wasn't a serious issue for us to address? Was it reasonable to imagine that Latina moms didn't want enrichment as much as their white counterparts? When we saw our race/ethnicity mismatch with the county, we started taking action to welcome and include Latinos. We changed hiring practices, programming approach, collaborator recruitment, and signage. Taking those actions led to real results, helping us get closer to our participants matching the demographics of our county.

Participants matching your community's demographics is insufficient. This is an argument I'm still grappling with. It's an argument advocating for equity instead of equality. Many cultural resources are disproportionately available to affluent, white, older adults. So, to advance equity, your organization should strive to exceed community demographics for groups that may be marginalized or excluded from other cultural resources. This argument encourages organization to strive for a demographic blend that over-indexes younger, lower-income, more racially diverse participants. This argument is also often linked to related arguments that changing participant demographics without addressing internal demographics of staff and board is inadequate and potentially exploitative. I'm torn on this too. In my experience, you can't effect community impact without internal organizational change. But the internal changes are a means, not an end. I wouldn't use internal indicators to measure whether we succeeded in reaching community goals. 

Attendance is not the same as impact. I'm torn about this argument too. On the one hand, showing up is not a particularly powerful indicator of impact. You don't really know why the person showed up or what they got out of the experience. On the other hand, on a basic level, attendance is the clearest demonstration that someone values your organization. They're only going to invest their time, money, and attention if they think they'll get something worthwhile out of the experience. Attendance may not be a signifier of deep impact, but it is the clearest way that people tell you whether they care or not about your offerings.

What do you think? Are participant demographics a worthy bottom-line indicator of success? Or is another measure more apt?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Introducing Community Participation Bootcamp at the MAH

For the past five years, each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has hosted MuseumCamp. MuseumCamp is a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp is amazing, but there are two issues that come up every January when we announce the new session:
  1. The application process is very competitive, and hundreds of people end up being rejected or waitlisted. This is agonizing for everyone involved. 
  2. Some people want an outcome-oriented training (as opposed to a community co-created summer camp).
This year, to address these issues, we're experimenting with hosting two camps instead of one:
  • COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION BOOTCAMP, June 7-8, 2018. This new, experimental training is a hands-on deep dive into the MAH’s model. You will learn the theory and practice of how to open your organization to robust community participation. This bootcamp will be led by me, Nina Simon, MAH executive director. Registration is first come, first served. Learn more and register here.
  • MUSEUMCAMP REUNION EDITION, August 15-17, 2018. This retreat is all about learning from each other. Come share your projects, challenges, questions, wild successes and epic failures with creative changemakers from around the world. 2018 MuseumCamp spots are offered first to MuseumCamp alumni. If additional spots are available, we will make an application process available in April 2018. Learn more here.

More about Community Participation Bootcamp

We're offering Community Participation Bootcamp as part of a broader exploration of ways the MAH might share our model with others. I've learned a lot from attending and teaching workshops this year. I'm excited to share the MAH's community-first model and to invite you to this in-depth, immersive learning experience.

Come to this two-day bootcamp to:
  • Articulate your goals for community participation at your organization. 
  • Map your community’s assets and needs and how they align with your goals. 
  • Get a crash course in social capital theory and ways of measuring community participation. 
  • Develop compelling, powerful participatory offers and promises for your prospective partners. 
  • Gain new community participation tools you can take home and adapt to your organization. 
  • Connect with diverse colleagues who can help you as you continue your journey. 
  • Tour MAH participatory exhibitions and shadow MAH community events. 
  • Get inspired, laugh out loud, and share honest lessons from the messy, joyful world of community participation. 
And it's not just for museum people.

Bootcamp is for working professionals seeking to implement community participation in your organization or program. While we will tour some of the MAH’s participatory programs and exhibitions, this bootcamp is not museum-centric. We welcome campers from diverse community, civic, and cultural sites. Our first registrants for Bootcamp are from a library and a religious institution. We'd love to have you here for this pilot year.

Want to support these events?

While our camps have a registration cost, we work with sponsors to underwrite camper scholarships. Most sponsors are generous former campers or amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. If you are interested in helping provide financial aid for one of these amazing events, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Instead of Selling Objects, Build Public Trust

You run a regional museum. It's been struggling financially for years. Now, you have a new vision--co-created with trustees and community leaders--for a path forward. You'll transform it into an interactive science-oriented institution. And you'll build your endowment, too. How will you pay for it? By selling off artworks that no longer serve your mission.

This is the plan that plunged the Berkshire Museum into hot water. It's sparked public uproar, legal battles, and nationwide press coverage. It's cracked the crumbling, outdated rules around deaccessioning--and unearthed more serious issues of public trust.

Here's what happened. In July, the Berkshire Museum released its $60,000,000 New Vision, along with a funding mechanism: selling 40 of its most valuable artworks. Berkshire Museum officials argue that art is not core to their institution going forward and that they are therefore deaccessioning material that is no longer relevant to their mission. But it's not that simple. The 40 artworks are valued at $50 million. They include two of the most famous paintings by Norman Rockwell. Rockwell donated those paintings himself to the Berkshire Museum to be enjoyed in his home community. The Berkshire Museum has been unwilling to sell or transfer the paintings to another regional institution, presumably assuming they will get the highest price at auction.

Cue public uproar and legal action to block the auction. Cultural organizations, community members, and museum leaders have spoken out against the sale. The controversy started in July of 2017. The Attorney General of Massachusetts has put a hold on the sale and will issue a ruling at the end of January. It's taken me six months to figure out how I feel about the whole thing.


At first blush, I'm sympathetic to the Berkshire Museum. I am not a fan of the rule that restricts deaccessioning of museum artifacts for purposes other than improving the collection. I think the rule needs to be overhauled, for three reasons.
  1. The rule is simplistic. It states that museums can only sell objects to purchase or care for other objects. No other assets in a museum are restricted in this way, and this restriction can lead to lopsided priorities and bizarre practices. I once consulted with a museum that had no museum--no building, no public programs, no exhibitions. It had a collection and an endowment (funded by deaccessioning) to grow and perpetuate that collection. Their objects were locked in a private prison, protected far from the public in whose trust they purported to be held.
  2. The rule is weak. This rule is poorly enforced with few consequences--which is the very reason an issue like the Berkshire Museum's arises. The rule against wanton deaccessioning is a kind of gentleman's agreement in the museum world. Professional organizations like AAM and AAMD are against it, but their forms of censure are few. Individual museums might risk bad press, finger-shaking, and loss of funding for taking these actions, but the consequences are highly variable and often short-lived. Trustees can hold their noses and roll the dice if they want to.
  3. The rule is outdated. The deaccessioning rule (last updated in 2000) perpetuates the hegemony of artifacts as the heart of museums. While some museums have, admirably, stuck with an object-rooted mission, many have shifted to other goals. It doesn't make sense to maintain a special class of protections for one category of assets when many museums no longer base their missions on the care and stewardship of those assets. This is essentially the argument that the Berkshire Museum is making--that they will no longer BE an art museum and therefore should not be required to protect art objects uniquely.
I think the deaccessioning rule has outlived its usefulness. But that doesn't mean I support the Berkshire Museum's choice. I don't.


To me, the issue in the Berkshires is not about deaccessioning artwork. The issue is violation of public trust.

The Berkshire Museum isn't deaccessioning artifacts of questionable public value. They are selling off forty of their top artworks on the open market. By deaccessioning the most valuable art in their collection, the Berkshire Museum is transferring valued public assets into private hands. They are making an arrogant gamble, claiming that their planned new museum will have equal or greater public value than the artworks they are selling to fund it. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. They are selling heritage to finance progress. It's not surprising that not everyone takes their claims on faith.

It's not entirely the Berkshire Museum's fault that they are in this position. The inflexible rule on deaccessioning forces them into an all-or-nothing choice. Right now, there is no "ethical" vehicle by which a museum might sell high-value artifacts for any purpose other than to buy and protect other artifacts. An institution like the Berkshire Museum risks professional censure whether they sell a painting on the open market or to another museum--assuming they plan to use the proceeds to fund their New Vision. Why wouldn't they make the rational choice to get as much money as possible for their sins?

Because their choice has consequences beyond their own self-interest. It exposes the fragility of the rule of deaccessioning, the thin line between "treasured public asset" and "hard cold cash." The rule is built on a sleight of hand, a conceit that says that museums WON'T acknowledge the market value of objects... until they will. As Diane Ragsdale put it, "When communities become markets, citizens become consumers, and culture becomes an exploitable product."

When museums start putting price tags on their objects, other institutions do too. When Detroit was going bankrupt in 2013, the city's emergency manager fought to sell off some of the prized artworks in the Detroit Institute of Art. In 2009, Brandeis University came close to looting and liquidating its Rose Art Museum, and today, a similar controversy is raging over the museum at La Salle University. At La Salle, as in the Berkshires, university leadership argues that the deaccessioning and closure of the museum is a necessary, painful corrective to dire financial conditions. These museums and their artworks were exposed as market assets to be cashed in as needed.

Museum professionals often decry these actions because they will disincentivize future donors from giving valuable artwork to museums (and therefore, the argument goes, to the public). But I think there's a much more insidious impact of these actions: it encourages the continued slide of museums away from the public trust and into the market economy.

And once that happens, all bets are off. Two years ago, the Detroit Institute of Art won the battle to keep their treasured artwork in the museum. But other battles have been--and could be--lost. It could even happen on a national scale. If a rapacious, short-sighted federal government is willing to strip protected land for natural resources, what's to stop them from looting the Smithsonian to fund their own version of progress?


There are creative alternatives to traditional museum deaccessioning policies that could solve this problem. Instead of fighting to protect an imperfect and antiquated rule, we could create new rules--rules that put the public trust, not objects, first.

Other nonprofit industries have done this. Accredited American zoos, for example, have a strict policy that governs how animals move from one institution to another. If your zoo no longer plans to exhibit giraffes, those giraffes don't suddenly become fungible assets on the open market. They become tradeable assets within a controlled market--with other accredited zoos, who will care for the giraffes as well as you once did.

Food banks have an auction-based model. There's a national online auction site where food banks can bid on large lots of donated food with fake money, called shares. The auction system helps individual food banks determine what they need most, rather than a national agency guessing--and sometimes, guessing wrong.

Both zoos and food banks have gotten creative about how to manage their assets AND serve the public trust. Instead of clinging to outdated deaccessioning policies, it's time for museums to get creative as well. If we don't, we risk betraying the public trust in a venal grab for more flexible assets.

Rather than converting assets from the public trust to the private market, I'd like to see more creative ways for nonprofits to INCREASE the number of assets in the public trust. I'd like to see dividends from large endowments shared among nonprofits in their respective communities. I'd like to see more land trusts sharing their space with other organizations. I'd like to see more museums sharing their artifacts. I'd like to see more marketplaces like those of zoos or food banks, so assets in the public trust can be shared wisely and efficiently.

We shouldn't have to choose between the Norman Rockwell paintings and a great Berkshire Museum. There should be a way to expand the pie of public assets instead of swapping the heritage we have for the future we will build.

What if the Berkshire Museum could sell a fraction of their prized artworks to other museums, for a fraction of their fundraising goal, so they could test out whether their "New Vision" actually served their community better? What if they got involved in a project like Culture Bank, to invest the artworks securely to fund some aspects of their planned transformation? What if they worked out a way to accrue less and get more -- more for their community, more for the public at large?

The pressure will always be on to capitulate to the market economy, to embrace the market and live by its rules. But we can resist. Nonprofit organizations have unique opportunities to resist. If we want to embrace communities instead of markets, we have to fight for it. We have to fight for the public trust, generosity, and shared ownership. We have to be ingenious in coming up with alternative forms of economic value, accumulation, and transfer. No one is going to do it for us.