Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Quick Hit: Last Week to Apply for MuseumCamp... and Summer Internships at MAH

Dreaming of a summer filled with learning, community engagement, and sea lions? Time to stop dreaming and start doing.

This is the last week to apply for MuseumCamp 2014, a professional development experience in which diverse people from the arts, community activism, and social services will measure the immeasurable together. Our focus is on assessing social impact in communities, and we will encourage teams to look at complex outcomes--like safety, cohesion, compassion, and identity--that are not commonly covered in standard evaluative practices. We will do this by defining impacts of interest, identifying indicators of those impacts, developing creative ways to measure the indicators, actually doing the measurements, and reporting on the results. And we'll do this all in three days on July 30-August 2, 2014 in Santa Cruz, CA. The application period closes Friday, February 28... so get on it.

And, if you want to join us in Santa Cruz for more professional hijinks, consider an internship at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. These internships all run from June 25 - Aug 26. There are seven different types available, and you are welcome to apply for more than one. Special additions this year include:
  • MuseumCamp internship. Bring out your closet camp director and help coordinate this killer professional development event.
  • Community Engagement internship. We're expanding our engagement with Latino families in our community, and we want your help with our first partnership in a multi-year effort.
  • Guerrilla Marketing internship. Want to cover the town in paper flowers with our street team? Yes you can.

All of these internships are unpaid. I know that is controversial, and believe me--we are well aware of the complexity of the issue. We offer unpaid internships for three reasons:
  1. We prefer to focus on developing paid opportunities for people who are in our community and can be a part of the museum for a long time. We have been slowly expanding paid entry-level positions here with a focus on local people from diverse backgrounds. We are also expanding paid opportunities for local artists. When we really thought about the options when it came to incremental dollars, we chose to spend them locally in this way.
  2. The demand is very high. We get many, many solicitations from people who would like to come intern, shadow, volunteer, etc. 
  3. We provide interns with opportunities to do real projects that (we think) they can't do anywhere else. We support our interns and their future careers both with the experiences they have here and relationships that stretch on after they leave. We feel strongly that we are following the requirement that unpaid interns get more than they give... though we prefer to think about it as a situation with shared benefits and sacrifices.
If you want to know more about what the intern experience is like at the MAH, check out their blog on Tumblr.

And finally, if you'll be at the California Association of Museums conference next week and you want to get together, please let me know.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is it OK to Smash That? The Complications of Living Art Museums

Every day for the past two months, a man has entered the largest gallery in my museum. He takes a crowbar out of a Swiss Army backpack. He smashes a sculpture of an animal.

This is not a crime.

The man is artist Rocky Lewycky, whose work is part of a group show of visual artists who have won a prestigious regional fellowship. His project, Is It Necessary?, blends sculpture, repetition, and ritual performance in a political statement about the genocide of animals in factory farms.

Sometimes, Rocky lets visitors join in on the smashing. It's a powerful experience for those who participate. It also complicates the question of what is acceptable in a museum. If an artist can come into a museum and smash stuff, what does that tell visitors? If visitors can smash stuff when anointed to do so by an artist, but not otherwise, how do they understand that action?

I thought about all of this when reading about the recent incident at the Perez Art Museum Miami, where artist Maximo Carminero smashed a vase by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei in an unauthorized act of visitor participation. The vase was itself an appropriated/ritually-vandalized object: a centuries-old vase that Wei Wei had dipped in commercial paint. One of Ai Wei Wei's most well-known pieces was a performance in which he dropped a Han Dynasty urn, smashing it to pieces.

While some in the art world are heralding Carminero's act as expanding the role of art to disrupt and make political statements, I feel that this is a pretty straightforward issue of a criminal act. It is not acceptable to walk into a museum and destroy another artist's work of art. Period.

But does the fact that Ai Wei Wei smashes work himself complicate the issue? Definitely. Do I worry that a visitor might see what's happening in Rocky Lewycky's project at my museum and be confused about our museum's approach to protecting artwork? Absolutely. Is all of this confusion worth it? Yes.

These performances and incidents are artifacts of a shift in art museums towards being "living" institutions. Art museums have often been criticized by some for being mausoleums for art, with conservators serving as unctuous morticians. A practice-based artist once colorfully described art museums to me as "places where art goes to die."

But art museums are coming back from the dead. They are hosting performances, exhibitions that morph over time, artists who work in practice-based media, who break the fourth wall with the audience, who invite participation, and who deliberately disrupt museum conventions.

All of these developments are exciting to me. But these shifts come with necessary questions about how to scaffold the visitor experience in a "living" space so people understand what the heck is happening, how they can participate, and what is out-of-bounds. Whether it's a "please touch" label or a gallery host who invites you in and sets the ground rules, the scaffolding is essential. I've seen participatory artworks that lay untouched by visitors because the invitation to participate is not explicit enough. I've seen other projects that are so hemmed in by fear of "what visitors will do" that they can't bloom.

Unfortunately, instead of clear scaffolding, what I often see are institutions shirking their responsibility, closing their eyes and letting visitors figure it out. It's unreasonable to imagine that visitors will intuitively understand which rules apply to which areas and artworks. The rules of museum-going are already opaque. Throw in a few participatory elements, and suddenly you have visitors trying to arbitrate amongst themselves. I've seen visitors yell at each other for participating in exhibitions in ways that the institution was actually trying to encourage. I've seen visitors watch each other participate with confusion, wondering if that other person was "getting away" with something they too would like to try.

All of this confusion is harmful and unnecessary. Scaffolding can both clarify new opportunities for engagement AND define the limits of that engagement. It doesn't have to be complicated or involve release forms. It just needs to be clear. I know I could do a better job of making sure we scaffold the more unorthodox projects at our museum. Some of my biggest mistakes have come when we didn't scaffold and contextualize enough. We keep thinking about what we can do to help people understand what is happening and what is possible with clarity and confidence.

In the best cases, art museums are able to "live" in ways that honor the diversity of creative expression and ways that artists engage with their artwork and their audiences. This requires acknowledging and engaging with the messiness of the work, anticipating the challenges, and communicating new opportunities. This kind of scaffolding won't eradicate destructive criminal acts. But it will open up the possibility for participation and experimental work with less fear.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Tools Do You Use to Organize Your Work?

One of the benefits of being Jewish is the opportunity to work over the Christmas week in peace. It is the most focused time of the year for me--a great time to close out projects and prepare for the new year. For me, the end of 2013 coincided with a clear need to improve my general approach to list-making, task-recording, and note-taking. In 2013, I found myself constantly shaking my notebook and hoping that the needed bit of information would drop out. Until I figure out how to turn a notebook into a magic deck of cards--or at least embed a Command-F function into it--I need a better system.

There's a whole industry of tools and tips for getting things done, and I don't intend to add this blog to that empire. But I figure that we all have come up with tools that help us, both individually and in teams, to organize our work. I wanted to open up this post to your favorite approaches, especially simple things that don't require specialized software etc.

Here are five things I've started doing in 2014 that seem to be working:
  1. Added a Today list to my to-dos. I've always had a long task list on my desktop. I used to separate the list into two parts: "This Week" and specific projects. I almost exclusively worked from the This Week list, but it rarely got shorter and it became clear over time that some things on This Week were actually more like This Century. So I've added just one simple component to this list system: a list at the top called "Today." In the morning, first thing when I come in, I move things from This Week to Today and also add other things. I try to truly only include things I think I can accomplish that day, being mindful of my calendar. My rule of thumb is that I should be able to close out the Today list by noon. This means that most days, I finish the Today list, feel good about that accomplishment, and feel ready to "pull up" something from This Week to work on later in the day. I'm amazed at how This Week is getting smaller, even as new projects continue to come up.
  2. Blocking time on my calendar to work on projects. My calendar tends to be quite open a few weeks out, but totally packed within the next fourteen days. If it doesn't get calendared, it will get squeezed out. I had blocked time for grant proposals in the past but now have expanded this practice to other work that requires concentrated blocks of time.
  3. Separated Tasks from Notes. My notebook used to have both tasks and notes, which made it a mix of big ideas and time-limited, potentially trivial activities. Now, I use the notebook strictly for notes, and I use a mixture of my digital task list and scrap paper for task lists.
  4. Added a Table of Contents to my new notebook. This meant doing two things: numbering the pages and leaving a few blank in the front for the Table of Contents. I'm sure I could do this better, but for now, I just put a couple of big ongoing project headings in the Table of Contents and started marking pages on which notes for those projects occur.
  5. Started using Follow Up Then. OK, this is a piece of software, but it's free and super-easy to use. FollowUpThen is a system that allows you to forward any email to yourself at a time in the future ("monday" or "march2" or "2pm"). The email will pop up in your inbox at the designated time. I use this tool to clear my inbox of things that I need to follow up on eventually but not now. I get a couple hundred emails each day, and this allows me to focus on what I need to do and not waste time scanning my inbox and re-acquainting myself with things I guiltily feel that I should do. When something pops up from FollowUpThen, I know it's something I should consider to be on my "Today" list.
What do you use to lasso your tasks, goals, and dreams?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Arts Assessment: Let's Stop "Proving" and Start Improving

Research and assessment is rare in the arts, and it tends to focus on "proving" our value. Economic impact studies. Studies of how arts participation affects student test scores. This kind of research has two big problems:
  1. It puts most of our assessment capacity into research for someone else, on someone else's terms. It is rarely at the heart of what we do best or are most passionate about. As Ben Cameron recently said, "I don't know any artist who started a theater company saying, 'let's go out and improve some test scores!'"
  2. It prevents us from focusing on research that could transform our own work. Instead, we use research to try to convince someone else to change their work. And given what I've seen on micro and macro-levels in arts funding and power, I don't think this strategy is working. 
I'd love to see an increase in the arts' commitment to research. But we should stop using it to prove that our work is valuable and start using it to improve the work that we do.

Consider the recent research at the University of Arkansas about the value of school field trips to cultural institutions. Educational reform researchers did a rigorous study of school groups that experienced a single one-hour guided tour of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. They found that students who received the tour--compared against a control group of students who did not visit the museum--retained content, increased their critical thinking skills, increased their "historical empathy" for people who lived in different places and times, increased their tolerance for diverse points of view, and increased their interest in visiting museums. The study was extensive and methodologically robust, and the results are making the rounds of museum and art publications and blogs.

But what is the value of a study that tells us that museum visits make a difference? My sense in reading the reports is that this research was intended partly to "prove" the value of a museum school field trip to policymakers. The "Policy Implications" section of the overview report focuses almost entirely on implications outside the museum, encouraging school administrators to provide resources for tours of cultural institutions and philanthropists to fund them.

In my conversations with administrators about field trips, the educational value of the trips never comes up. That is a given. Everyone would like more field trips. Everyone thinks they are valuable. The conversation is always about resources; money for buses, parents to chaperone, time to get away. When the Crystal Bridges research was published on EducationNext, a teacher wrote in, effusive about the impact of museums on her students. She didn't need data to believe in the value of museums. She needed money. I am very, very skeptical that this research could move the needle on her ability to pay for the bus to get to the museum.

Instead of focusing on policy implications for someone outside our sphere of control, I'd love to see this kind of research used to change policy inside the museum. Reading the Crystal Bridges report, I was struck by several questions:
  • All of these test subjects received a docent tour. How do their outcomes differ from school groups who visit but do not have a facilitated experience? Should museums put more resources into docent programs, or fewer?
  • The outcomes were significantly higher for students from "less-advantaged backgrounds." In fact, the impact for advantaged students (larger towns, wealthier schools) was "smaller or null." Does this mean we should prioritize offering docent tours to school groups from rural and poorer schools? Should we put resources into those offerings at the expense of offerings to school groups from wealthier schools? 
  • If a museum cared about one of these outcomes specifically (i.e. content retention vs. historical empathy vs. tolerance), what could they do to their tour program to "dial up" that outcome?
I'm most interested in measurement that moves an organization forward. There are occasionally instances when measurement can move a funder, or an elected official, or a community. But that movement, especially when it comes to proving the value of the arts, has been slow. I believe that our ability to "prove" our value is most correlated not to our economic impact and test score inflation but to our ability to do what we do best. And to do it most powerfully, we need research that can guide us to better choices and approaches. When we improve our own work, we prove our value. 

At least, that's my hypothesis. I guess we'll have to test it.