Monday, December 15, 2014

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events

When basketball players are offering more cogent commentary on racial issues than cultural institutions, you know we have a cultural relevance problem. Can we be as brave and direct as these young women? 

Gretchen Jennings convened a group of bloggers and colleagues online to develop a statement about museums' responsibilities and opportunities in response to the events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. 

Here is our statement. It is not enough on its own. We are not enough on our own. I hope you will join us with your own words and actions.

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role–as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit–in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…
  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Looking at the website for International Coalition of  Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues (to be updated, add your comments below)

Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Paul Orselli  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog
Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront,  Museum Notes
Porchia Moore, @PorchiaMooreM

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Quick Hit: Three Blogs to Expand Your Arts Nonprofit Universe


It's that time of year. Scrambling at work, socializing afterwards... which, if you are a torn extro/introvert like me, can involve a lot of time in the bathroom reading while everyone else is toasting the season.

Here are three blogs that I'm loving these days for breaks from the chaos. Each of them comes from the extended family of museums: close enough to be relevant, far enough to spark new thinking. These are the cool cousins I'm fascinated and energized by.
  1. Butts in the Seats. Joe Patti runs a performing arts center in Ohio. For ten years (!) he has been blogging about arts management. He does so thoughtfully, prolifically, and very frequently. He points me to resources I've vaguely heard of. He writes with an open, curious mind. His posts open up questions and ways of thinking about audiences, marketing, management, and engagement that get me thinking differently. Start with the Categories list on the right if you don't know where to start. Check it out here.
  2. Nonprofit with Balls. Vu Le is hilarious, wicked smart, and writing extremely important weekly posts about nonprofit management and organizations based in communities of color. If there's one blog that has rocked my world and made me laugh inappropriately in the bathroom, it's this one. Imagine if Buzzfeed were run by a nonprofit manager... and actually funny. Vu is surprisingly singular for his cogent, explicit posts about cultural competency, frustrations of fundraising, and challenges of nonprofit management. He is based in Seattle, but the blog is pretty universal. If you want to know more about organizations rooted in communities of color, leadership development, unicorns, or vegan analyses of Game of Thrones, start reading this blog now
  3. Grasstronaut. This is a new blog by my colleague at the MAH, Elise Granata. Grasstronaut offers long-format essays and interviews about grassroots and DIY arts spaces. Elise has opened my eyes to the world of hybrid, informal arts spaces. They operate with a completely different set of budgets, decision-making processes, and vulnerabilities than formal organizations. What does it look like when youth invent their own arts empowerment spaces? When comic book stores host comedy shows? When arts organizations get shut down and reborn over and over? Read Grasstronaut and find out
What are you reading and appreciating this season? 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Will They Play in Pyongyang? Culture, Geography, and Participation

The objections started in Texas. During a workshop on museum visitor participation, someone spoke up and objected: "this might work in California, but it will never work in Texas."

Then in Australia: "this might work in America, but it will never work in Australia."

In New Zealand: "this might work in Australia, but it will never work in New Zealand."

For years, I've heard some version of this refrain. For the most part, I discounted it. I saw how participatory techniques were working in diverse museums around the world. I felt and continue to feel that everyone, everywhere, wants to be heard in some way. This is a human desire. It is not culturally-determined. There is no country or city or institution where visitors don't want to make a connection.

What may be culturally-determined, however, is HOW people want to participate. In different countries, I've noticed broad trends in how people feel most comfortable sharing their voice. For example:
  • American museum visitors often feel comfortable sharing their own opinions/stories/creative expression. We have a healthy (or unhealthy) sense of self and individuality, and it shows in a million post-it talk-back walls in museum exhibitions.
  • European museum visitors appear more comfortable engaging in interpersonal dialogue and social games with strangers. While they may not be as comfortable as Americans with "me" experiences, they are much more up for "we" activities.  
  • In Asia, I've noticed museum visitors are willing--enthusiastic, even--to take photos with strangers. To pose with them. To find favorite artifacts together and say cheese. I've never seen that kind of openness with strangers and cameras in the US or Europe.
Cultural differences can play out on local levels as well. What plays well at one museum may fall flat a few miles away. What works for one visitor may feel uncomfortable or inaccessible to someone from a different cultural background.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently in the context of cultural inclusion. Here are two observations about visitor participation:
  1. Participatory activities invite people to engage in new ways that may disrupt traditional norms of interaction. In this frame, any kind of participatory activity could work, anywhere. Why restrict people to barriers based on cultural norms when the whole point is to create opportunities beyond them? The way visitors engage--or don't--should not limited by culture or geography.
  2. Participatory activities work best when people feel comfortable and confident getting involved. In this frame, cultural starting points matter a lot. Is that activity an opportunity or a threat? Am I sharing my voice or being exposed? The way visitors engage--or don't--may have a lot to do with their cultural starting point. 
These two tenets are almost always somewhat contradictory. When we are presented with a new opportunity, it often feels like a challenge. The question is whether the challenge feels appropriate or impossible, appealing or demeaning. My suspicion is that culture has a lot to do with the answer.

Consider a simple activity that invites people to describe their identity using a simulated passport. For many people, it's empowering to name oneself as a person of a certain background, ethnicity, interests, etc. But for others, it can feel like unwelcome exposure, a reminder of the frustrations of legal status, or another nudge of how they don't fit into society's boxes. 

I try to be attentive to whether an activity systematically excludes certain people in the nature of how or what it invites... and in my current work, to especially focus on participatory activities that empower people who lack voice in other venues.

Here are the questions that help me think about this:
  1. Who do we most want to empower to participate in this activity?
  2. What invitation to engage will feel most compelling to our target participants?
  3. How might that invitation exclude or turn off other prospective participants?
  4. Are we ok with that?

How do you think about this question of culture, geography, and participatory experiences?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rethinking Community Advisory Boards: the Story of C3

What's the best way to get formal input from diverse community members? I've been curious about this question for a long time. While informal involvement or input for a specific project is always useful, there's also value to more sustained participation--and the relationships and accountability that comes with it.

I've mostly seen museums employ one of two methods for formal community advisors:
  1. Create special "spots" on the board of trustees for certain kinds of community representatives. PRO: gets diverse community members in positions of real authority. CON: can make people feel like second-class board members instead of equal leaders in the organization. As one African-American artist on a prominent museum board told me, "I felt even more tokenized than if I had been part of some kind of Artists' Council or African-American Council." 
  2. Form community advisory boards outside of the board of trustees. PRO: creates more room for diverse community members to participate as leaders, often in areas that are more programmatic than the board of trustees covers. CON: can feel disconnected from the primary governance of the museum or can feel like a second-class board overall. Also, can form factions of different community boards representing different groups (i.e. Latino Advisory vs. Youth Advisory vs...) as opposed to an intercultural approach.
I struggle with both these options. So here's the story of how we are trying to take another approach at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, through a group called C3.

In 2012, we tried creating an intercultural community advisory board called C3 (Creative Community Committee). We patterned it after Science Gallery Dublin's Leonardo Group - 75 creative individuals who get together four times per year to provide input on programming. C3 was a list of about 80 people from diverse networks throughout Santa Cruz--from librarians to social services to roller derby. We held a meeting every other month on a topic like "youth engagement" or "engagement beyond the museum." People opted into the meetings where they had interest or expertise and ignored those where they didn't. We always had a group of 15-50 people together for intense brainstorming. It was fairly lightweight, and it provided valuable input.

But there was a problem: it wasn't a consistent body. There was no required time commitment from participants. There was no accountability for us to act on their input. C3-ers generated great and useful ideas, but they were functionally an assembly of creative individuals, efficiently giving us input. Low on friction. Low on depth. Low on long-term impact.

We took a year off of C3 in 2013 and reconsidered our goals for the group. We realized that we didn't want specific programmatic input--we already get that from individual community members as needed. Instead, we wanted a collection of leaders, highly networked in different parts of our County, with their fingers on the pulses of significant community issues and activities. We believed that our museum programming would improve if we spent more time as staff members and trustees learning and working with these leaders on their projects throughout the County. Our work would become more relevant, our collaborations more timely, our network more diverse.

Suddenly, C3 felt more like an engagement program that advances our institutional goals. At the same time, it sounded like something that wasn't just for us. We figured if it worked, everyone in C3 would find it useful for their own work.

So we reconceptualized C3 as a creative leadership network for the community. A year-long program with an intention to ignite new collaborations across the County to build a stronger, more connected community. We're piloting C3 now with a cohort of 42, roughly following the 2014/2015 school year. We tried to develop the best leadership program we could imagine, rooted in our museum's collaborative, creative approach.

This reframing led to a totally different approach to the curriculum, recruitment, and expectations for C3 than we'd used previously. For example:
  • We recruited people in an invite-only format, with very strict quotas for different kinds of creative leaders in the County. We wanted to end up with a group that reflects the diversity of our County across many strata: age, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, and profession. Meet them here.
  • We required a commitment to a half-day kickoff and four out of five two-hour evening meetings over the course of 10 months. We said no, tearfully, to several awesome people who could not make it to the kick-off workshop. While C3 is open for any staff members to participate, they have to make that same time commitment too to be part of the group. 
  • We worked with C3ers at the kickoff workshop to map the issues and communities of greatest interest and connection. This map formed the basis for topic definition for subsequent meetings. Our topics are broad, including Creative Spaces, Youth Empowerment, and Economic Opportunity. We asked everyone to commit to all the meetings, including those that don't relate obviously to their work.
  • We developed a meeting format that focuses on sparking creative collaborations to enhance projects that C3ers are already leading. A few of these are museum projects, but most are not. The museum connection is evident in the way the meeting is formatted--incorporating playful art-making, historic artifacts from our collection, and a pop up museum of "artifacts from the future" of the topic at hand--but the content is not primarily about us.
  • We asked people to make a voluntary donation of up to $150 to help support the facilitation of C3, and snacks. We were amazed at how many people were ready to pay to support the group.
  • We created a public site to coordinate the group and share their work.
At the same time, we've run into some challenges of managing this kind of group:
  • We're spending a LOT more staff time than with the previous structure of C3, mostly in the form of increased communication with members and a much more intensive approach to the facilitation and program design.
  • Recruiting people across many big cross-sections of the community means that some topics are impossible to dive into deeply. We're discussing whether in a future year we would consider picking one topic and recruiting people across diverse networks related to just that topic. 
  • It's pretty confusing to explain what it is, why we are doing it, and why people should participate. We're working on the internal and external language, always trying to be as clear and concrete as possible.
We've just finished the second meeting of this pilot year. While we still have a long way to go, it's compelling thus far. We're already seeing changes to our own work, especially in terms of building relationships for higher-impact collaboration. We're hearing good things from C3 members about the value they are getting from the experience. Our measures of success for C3 are:
  • C3 members find it useful and valuable (measured via self-report and attendance over time). 
  • C3 sparks new collaborations to enhance participants' projects (measured via self-report and social network mapping).
  • C3 helps our staff and trustees improve the museum in a variety of ways (measured via self-report and social network mapping).
We'll see how the dust settles in the spring of 2015 and whether this becomes a permanent program of our museum. In the meantime, we'll keep exploring and learning with our creative colleagues across the County.

How are you exploring different approaches to community advisory boards in your work?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Three Provocations from the West Coast of the Arts

You know those people who drop morsels of brilliance like a little kid scattering bread to ducks? I was surrounded by them last week.

I'm part of a cohort of ten arts organizations in California funded by the Irvine Foundation to strengthen our work to engage low-income and ethnically-diverse people. We meet in person twice a year. These are all really smart, dedicated people, and I feel lucky to learn from and with them.

Here's what hit me.

ON TACKLING A STUCK THING//

Deborah Cullinan (Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) spoke about the change process. She compared some frustrations to "a bird flying into a window." 

I love this metaphor because it doesn't just speak to stuck-ness. It speaks to the fact that there is a living thing on the other side of that glass wall. There is motion. There is joy. If we can open the window, the bird can fly in. Simple as that.


ON PROCESSING NEGATIVITY//

Jon Moscone (Artistic Director of CalShakes and son of the late San Francisco mayor George Moscone) talked about thinking politically about how we respond to criticism and to praise. As he put it: "Count the votes."

If someone is negative about what you are doing, will they ever vote for you? 
Does their vote even matter? 
If the answers to these questions are "no," move on. 

Jon implored us to think more like activists and less like artists. Less focused on being loved. More focused on strategically understanding who is important to our cause and ignoring those who aren't.


ON COLLABORATION//

Michael Garces (Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater) shared about a killer workshop that made him completely rethink how collaboration is supposed to work. We usually think about collaboration as a process of compromise and negotiation. But Michael suggested that collaboration really means "You get 100% of what you want. I get 100% of what I want. And we work really hard to make it work."

What would it look like if you approached partnership this way? 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Where's the Community in the Crowd? Framing and the Wall Street Journal's "Everybody's a Curator"

Two weeks ago, my museum was featured in a Wall Street Journal article by Ellen Gamerman, Everybody's a Curator. I'm thrilled that our small community museum is on the map with many big institutions around the country. I'm proud we were cast as innovators. I'm appreciative of the time Ellen Gamerman spent researching the article. I'm glad to see coverage about art museums involving visitors in exhibitions.

But I also struggled with this article. There was something at the heart of it that bothered me. It took Ed Rodley's excellent response for me to realize what felt frustrating: the framing.

Community is not a commodity. We don't involve people in content development to "boost ticket sales." It's neither "quick" nor "inexpensive" to mount exhibitions that include diverse community stories. Yes, community involvement is at the heart of our shifted, successful business model. But that business model requires experienced staff who know how to empower people, facilitate meaningful participation, respond to community issues and interests, and ignite learning. It's not cheap. It's not easy. It's the work we feel driven to do to build a museum that is of and for our community.

Where is the community in this article? There are many curator and museum director voices in the article, but not a single quote from a visitor who engaged in one of these community projects. The curators are the humans in the story. The "crowd" is a mechanized mob. I had to imagine the deep conversations visitors had as they deliberated on which painting to vote for. The sense of pride at being part of something bigger than themselves. The curiosity about the work of professional curators and the assigning of aesthetic value.

I know these people exist. I meet them everyday in our museum. I meet them doing research in the archives, collaborating on cultural festivals, and contributing stories to exhibitions. They aren't here to make our work easier or cheaper. They are here to be inspired, to get connected, to learn, to dream, to share.

Despite the implication in the article, they are not all young. Our museum attracts participants who are roughly as age- and income-diverse as our County (or a little older). Our prototypical participant is a 49-year old Santa Cruz County woman with a story to share. She's proud to be part of a community. Not a crowd.

The whole process of being interviewed for the story made me question the stories we tell and words we use to describe participatory work. It was easy to want to be helpful to Ellen Gamerman and fit into her context ("crowdsourcing"). I struggled to present my own alternative frame ("community involvement"). What's better: to stay on message and potentially get written out of exposure like this? Or to fit in and accept a slant you can't control?

These questions don't just apply to press coverage. They apply to any situation in which we are describing our work to others. This article made me wish I had some kind of political training in framing the argument. It sent me back to the work of George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, who traces how we use metaphors to understand the world.

The metaphor for traditional art museums is the temple. Beautiful. Sanctified. Managed and protected by a league of committed, anointed ones.

What is the metaphor for participatory arts? Is it the agora? The town square? The circus? The living room? The web?

I don't want to be judged by metaphors of crowdsourcing or "the selfie generation." But if we want a different frame, we have to work for it. Phrases like “community engagement” or “participatory” or “social practice” are not strong enough. We need a broad and basic metaphor, one that we can repeat with clarity and confidence, across many institutions and genres and projects, to build our frame. 

What do you think the metaphor is for this work? What can we do to put that framing forward?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Press Here: Breaking the Fourth Wall in Children's Books... and Museums?

You open a children's book. You see a yellow dot. The text says "Press the yellow dot and turn the page."

Suddenly there are two yellow dots. You follow the text. You press some more. You turn the page. More dots appear. You rub the dots. They change color. You shake the book. The dots move around. You clap. The dots get bigger.

Either I'm really sleep-deprived, or Press Here is the most brilliant interactive children's book ever. Let's be clear: there are no pushbuttons or popups or electronics built into this book. Author Herve Tullet uses the most basic children's book materials (pages, words, and images) to create a responsive, dynamic adventure. Press Here is a "normal" book that uses book-ish tools--pacing, spatial arrangement of images on the page, text as instruction--to break the fourth wall and create an interactive experience.

I was thinking of Press Here when I heard about the new children's book This is a Book Without Pictures. B.J. Novak's book uses the basic structure of reading aloud to subject the reader (presumably an adult) to proclaim ridiculous things about him/herself. The text points out that, "Everything the book says, the person reading the book has to say." Said person goes on read every absurd word aloud, fighting with the book, pleading to stop reading the book, casting asides to the audience that he is NOT actually a robot monkey even though the book says he is. Hilarity ensues.

Press Here and This is a Book Without Pictures each break the fourth wall of book-reading in ingenious ways. They recall other artistic work that breaks fourth walls--classically in theater, and more recently in new media projects. (For an adult version of Press Here, enjoy Ze Frank's classic optical illusion.)

This makes me wonder: how do we break the fourth wall in museums? How do we use the essential tools of museum-ness to disrupt, surprise, and delight people?

One part of me thinks this is an impossible question. Museums already engage people with multiple senses, in multiple dimensions. Visitors are already immersed in the experience because of its engaging nature. Maybe there is no fourth wall at all.

But then I think about institutions like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which uses the essential tools of museum presentation to subvert expectations about expertise and content. I think about all the dioramas that we are stuck outside of--and all the clunky add-ons we offer to distract people from the existence of those glass panes. I think of overbuilt animatronics, intended to suggest the vitality of artifacts but instead reminding us how deep the uncanny valley is between life and death. And I think of brilliant people in other mediums--authors like Herve Tullet, artists like Ze Frank--who are breaking walls we didn't even know existed.

So I wonder: where is our fourth wall?
Who will break it in some beautiful, simple way?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What's Your $12,720 Idea for New Ways of Engaging with Audiences?

Imagine an institution with a commitment to rigor, depth, and delight in the exploration of contemporary culture.
Imagine a prize competition to develop new experimental approaches to engaging audiences.
Imagine these two together.

The Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (CCCB) has just launched a new biennial Cultural Innovation International Prize. The theme this year is "audiences." They are soliciting project proposals for innovative forms of audience engagement. The strongest proposals will be wholly original and theoretically grounded. The winner will receive 10,000 euro ($12,720 ish) and the potential to mount their project at the CCCB. Proposals are due by February 5, 2015. Full set of rules (in English) here.

CCCB is an incredible institution. They present gorgeous, challenging exhibitions. They host festivals that combine brunch with electronic music. They do research on literature, media, engagement, and serendipity. One of my favorite exhibition experiences ever was their moody, academic exhibition Through Labyrinths. It was itself a labyrinth. It built Borges and Eco in 3D. It was math. It was mystery. It was killer.

So you can imagine how honored I was when I was asked to be a member of the jury for this Cultural Innovation prize.

I asked the organizers at CCCB Lab about the choice of the word "Audiences" to describe the theme of the prize in English. In Spanish, they are using the word "Publico," which refers more broadly to public/s.

I'm personally more interested in how we engage with "publics" as opposed to "audiences." My colleagues in Barcelona suggested that in a European context, "audience" is less confusing. But she encouraged me (and you, if interested in applying) to substitute "public" if preferred.

Here is how they describe the challenge:
What do we refer to when we talk about audience/s in cultural centres, museums and similar spaces today? What does this concept mean at a time when the boundaries between the physical and virtual space are blurring, intermingling, or disappearing? Has there been a change in the traditional paradigm by which audiences followed, and at most participated in – always in a secondary role –, the projects organised by cultural centres and museums? What new models are currently being used in this field? What are the real needs of these new audiences? Are cultural centres and museums meeting them? What innovations could they implement to fulfill their mission? What changes are needed to face the challenge of audience/s in the next few years?
As a juror, I'm not open to discussing particular project ideas. But I would love to see proposals that:
  • translate forms of research or engagement from non-cultural fields into the cultural sphere
  • attempt something that is impossible to imagine working today, but could provide a glimpse of one of many possible futures
  • explore strangers, social bridging, and publics apart and together
  • position experimentation not around its level of innovation or risk but its potential outcomes
  • explore the history of what it meant to be an audience or a public in the arts hundreds of years ago
  • imagine the long future of what it might mean hundreds of years from now
  • play in the tricksy sandbox of people's "wants" and "needs"
  • take full advantage of the depth, rigor, and experimentation of CCCB as a host
I can't wait to see what you dream up.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From Multicultural to Intercultural: Evolution or Spectrum of Engagement?


How do you balance the value of honoring specific multicultural practices and bridging them to build new connections?

At the Inclusive Museum conference this summer, Dr. Rick West introduced this question through a tale of two museums.

He described the National Museum of the American Indian--where he was founding director--as a multicultural institution, celebrating the diversity of Native peoples throughout the Americas. He envisions The Autry--his current gig--as an intercultural institution, telling all the stories of the American West. Rick explained intercultural work as an opportunity for museums to evolve beyond multiculturalism. To actively weave together cultures across differences instead of accentuating the distinctions among them.

This was the first time I'd heard the term intercultural. Researching further, I found this helpful set of definitions and diagrams:
  • In multicultural communities, we live alongside each other.
  • In cross-cultural communities, there is some reaching across boundaries.
  • In intercultural communities, there is comprehensive mutuality, reciprocity, and equality. 
These definitions present a clear bias towards interculturality as the "best" form of interaction. As someone who strives and works for social bridging (a form of intercultural practice), I'm drawn to that.

But I also appreciate the complexity and interdependence of these constructs--especially in cultural institutions. Working in an intercultural way means focusing on the relations among people. That can come at the cost of celebrating and learning about distinctive cultural practices.

For example, consider an ethnographic museum. Is it better to organize the content by cultural group or by theme?

Organizing content by cultural group immerses visitors in distinct artifacts, artwork, historical context, and people. It helps visitors get a sense of the diversity and differences among us. It can showcase the glory of a particular place or practice. It could be useful in a world of rapidly changing demographics and culture.

Organizing by theme immerses visitors in an idea common to humans around the world. It builds empathy and common ground. It could be useful in a world of multi-racial, multi-migratory people.

I have experienced extraordinary ethnographic museums of both kinds. Glorious exhibitions that immersed me in the intricacies of diversity. Powerful exhibitions that presented intersections that I never would have linked.

I think of the Museum of World Cultures (Gothenberg, Sweden) as an institution that masterfully explores both types. They organize many exhibitions about cultural groups (e.g. Wiphala, about a flag of a medicine man in the Andes mountains). But they also present exhibitions like Destination X, a thematic exploration of forced and voluntary international travel and migration.

Similarly, I've experienced performing arts organizations that do both well: projects that showcase the extraordinary specificity of a cultural experience or practice, and projects that present many diverse artists around a shared theme.

At my museum, we have a mission that explicitly pushes us to intercultural practice. But it's not obvious to me that this should be a field-wide strategy. I question whether cultural institutions should "evolve" from multicultural to intercultural practice, or whether these are just different approaches on a spectrum.

At its best, a multicultural institution honors the diversity of cultural practice.
At its worst, a multicultural institution tokenizes different cultures with siloed projects.

At its best, an intercultural institution draws unexpected connections to bring us together across difference.
At its worst, it wallows in relativism, using cultural artifacts as dots in invented constellations.

So what's best?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Is it Real? Artwork, Authenticity... and Cognitive Science

A farmer says he has had the same ax his whole life--he only changed the handle three times and head two times. Does he have the same ax?

This question launches Howard Mansfield's fascinating book about historic restoration, The Same Ax, Twice. Mansfield explores the sanctity and lineage of historic sites, from Japanese Shinto shrines (completely rebuilt 61 times in 1300 years), to igloos (rebuilt annually, oldest documented human dwelling), to the USS Constitution (80-90% rebuilt since it first sailed). 

He argues that these relics are stronger because of their reconstruction. As he puts it: 
So, does that farmer have the same ax? Yes. His ax is an igloo, and a Shinto shrine. He possesses the same ax even more than a neighboring farmer who may have never repaired his own ax. To remake a thing correctly is to discover its essence.
How does this question play out in museums? At the 2013 American Alliance of Museums annual conference, a group of exhibition designers explored authenticity in a session called Is it Real? Who Cares? They explored a huge range of museum objects and grey areas of "realness." They arbitrated replicas, reproductions, models, and props... and the context that enhances or detracts from the perception of authenticity.

While many of their examples came from history and natural science, one of my favorite examples is from art. There are three portraits of George Washington shown at the top of this post: the famous painting by Gilbert Stuart, a copy of it also painted by Gilbert Stuart, and a copy of it painted by his daughter Jane. 

Many artists work with assistants and reproducing processes. Are the reproductions less real than the original? If done by the same hand? If done by another hand? If done by a machine?

Turns out, science has something to say on the topic. 

Cognitive scientists at Yale and University of Chicago researched how people perceive "identity continuity" of an artwork when reproduced. They conducted a simple experiment:
  • People read a story about a painting called "Dawn" created by an artist. There were different versions of the story. In some, the artist produced the original painting. In others, he instructed one of his assistants to paint it.
  • In all versions of the story, the painting was irrevocably damaged by mold. Gallerists hired another artist to reproduce it. 
When asked whether the new work was still "Dawn," about 30% of people said yes--if the artist had made the original with his own hand. If an assistant has painted it, the percentage climbed to 40%+. It was as high as 50% if the original work was commissioned for a commercial (hotel) setting. 

The researchers posit that the "personal touch" of the artist plays a key role in people's perception of an artwork's authenticity and value. By this notion, in the George Washington portrait example, Gilbert Stuart could make many copies of his own work at equal value, but his daughter's involvement dilutes its realness. That is, of course, unless you also factor in the "personal touch" of George Washington being in the room live during the portrait's creation--in which case Gilbert Stuart's own copies have diminished value as well. 

Whose soul is stamped on a work of art? On a tool? On a scientific specimen? What does it mean if we conflate realness with human essence?

If you care about authenticity, this research is pretty troubling. Sure, it shows that people value the original artist's hand in his/her work. But more than that, it shows that value is positively correlated with a perception of human touch. That perception can be faked--to both positive and negative ends. Artists embue anonymous objects with fictional narratives to increase their value. Companies buy up long-lived brands to add a human story to their wares. Spiritualists contact the dead. 

In museums, we care about both perceived authenticity and real authenticity. We want the power of the story--and the facts to back it up. This can come off as contradictory. We want visitors to come experience "the real thing" or "the real site," appealing to the spiritual notion that the personhood in the original artifact connotes a special value. At the same time, we don't always tell folks that what they are looking at is a replica, a simulation, or a similar object to the thing they think they are seeing. 

Some of the museum exhibitions that feel the most real are composite reconstructions of reality--true stories told well, with fake bits supporting the narrative. Some museum experiences can be more powerful because of the freedom that replicas afford. And when it comes to art, a forced focus on "the real thing" can mean less access to cultural artifacts. Were those plaster cast collections of the 1800s really hurting people?  

In the Is It Real? conference session, participants ranked a series of case studies of ambiguous museum artifacts from "real" to "fake," from "works" to "doesn't work." 

We live in a world where the commercialization of "fake" and "works" leads to some deceiving ends. The combination of "real" and "doesn't work" isn't a viable alternative. How do we get to "real" and "works" in the strongest way possible?

In other words: how do we remake the ax, tell the story of its reproduction, and honor its value every step of the way?