Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What I Didn't Learn in School: Diane Ragsdale's Crash Course on Beauty and Aesthetic Values

I have an unusual education for the director of an art & history museum: a degree in electrical engineering. Engineering taught me to be a tinkerer, a builder, and a problem solver. It taught me that you can design a different future. That experiments are crucial. That you can make things instead of just talking about them.

I value my engineering education. But every once in a while, I look at my brilliant colleagues with liberal arts backgrounds and wonder what they know that I don't. A lot, I suspect.

I've been getting a taste of what I'm missing by devouring Diane Ragsdale's terrific series of blog posts about the course she is teaching on Approaching Beauty for business students at UW-Madison. Diane calls it "Beauty Class," but it really seems to be about aesthetic valuing: identifying beauty in its many forms, and developing a personal aesthetic sensibility.

The course is roughly split into two parts: defining beauty (both universally and relationally, through "big idea" texts, videos, museum visits, and artist lectures), and exploring beauty (through encounters in formal art contexts and the wider world). Start here, and get ready to spend a lot of time with each post. You'll burrow down rabbit holes of gorgeous videos, cerebral reading lists, and provocative artist talks.

I didn't know I was hungry for this until Diane shared it. I've filled some gaps in my cultural education through a career in museums: reading, looking, exploring, listening. But it's mostly just content. I can identify artworks by famous artists. I can tell a local story from 1849. I'm stacking up bricks of content knowledge. But that doesn't mean I know how to build a wall.

Diane's course is teaching me how to build a wall. How to identify beauty, how to disagree about it, how to be generous with it. 

It reminds me of higher-level math classes in college. The best courses were about manipulating numbers to generate meaning, not computation. We used the word "beautiful" to describe the best mathematical proofs. Diane is teaching me how, when, and why artists use the word.

While I'm grateful to Diane, I'm also surprised. Isn't it strange that I have spent years working with curators and artists, and I'm just encountering this now? Why don't we blog about it and talk about it and present conferences about it? I've experienced a smidge of it in dialogues about curatorial authority, cultural differences, and race. But there are less political conversations to have about it, too.

In week one, Diane shares a powerful video of choreographer Bill T. Jones "translating" a dance phrase to unlock its technical, narrative, and emotive power. Diane's course is for business majors. Perhaps we're most explicit about our values when forced to translate them for foreign ears. 

I fear we in museums are not translating and making our aesthetic values explicit enough, often enough. I know my education is sorely lacking, so maybe I'm just missing a body of shared knowledge that everyone else has. But I'm surprised how I'm amazed how often I've had conversations like this with museum colleagues:
Them: I love this piece.
Me: What do you love about it?
Them: [long pause followed by mumbling]
The same professionals who shy away from talking about aesthetic values are completely comfortable talking about aesthetics. We are constantly talking about aesthetics--commission this artist, change the lighting, move that painting, change this phrase--but rarely about the values that underlie them. 

Is it impolite or impolitic to share our aesthetic values? Too personal? Too subjective? Too elitist? Too hard?

What do you think?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Setting Your Mission Free in the Wild

Where are you most able to execute your mission: inside your facility, or outside of it?

There are a lot of reasons we focus on work inside our facilities. Our facilities are, ideally, spaces optimized for mission execution. Galleries purpose-made to show artwork. Performance halls perfectly tuned for the orchestra. Archives with climate control to protect artifacts.

But I'm increasingly seeing organizations (mine included) expand beyond our walls. In churches. On sidewalks. In health centers and hospitals and laundromats and housing developments. The Irvine Foundation recently published a great study on this phenomenon.

Why go out to these other spaces? We tend to focus on two reasons:
  1. It's where the people are. Or at least, it's where certain people are, people who you want to connect with but who choose not to walk through your doors. This seems to be the primary driver behind partnerships with organizations that serve specific target groups, whether those be homeless adults or preschoolers or ESL students. It's also the driver behind participation in events with huge visibility potential, such as farmer's markets or community festivals.
  2. As our missions shift, our buildings can't always keep up. The facility that was perfectly primed for the organization founded in 1920 may not fit the needs of 2015. Many organizations end up fighting their facilities--and pouring money into their operation--instead of using them as a springboard for amazing work.
I've been thinking recently more and more about a third reason for going outside: it's where the mission takes flight.

This reason is specific to taking programming outdoors, in the public sphere. Outdoor festivals, plays, and concerts have an energy that gets dampened and contained indoors. The outdoors absorbs difference comfortably; you can come or go, eat or talk, participate in different ways without alerting concern. And outdoor events proselytize themselves; anyone walking by can get a glimpse, a taste, a sensory solicitation to come take part. People share viral videos of flash mob orchestras in grocery stores and operas on the street because these events set isolated art forms free.

This isn't just true of the arts: think of an outdoor capoeria class, dog festival, or co-working meetup. When we take our interests and micro-communities into the public sphere, we bring them into the light. Yes, the space is more chaotic, less intentionally-designed--and that may mean that the experience is less intense than in purpose-built facility. The magic can be more diffuse, the audience less attentive. But the benefits of the open air, the open invitation to partake, often seem to outweigh these negatives.

Even someone walking by who doesn't participate can have his day altered by what he saw or heard. If we walk by many outdoor fitness classes, we may feel more motivated to exercise. If we walk by many public art installations, we may feel more inspired to create. If we walk by music and culture and conversations and kindness, we may feel better about ourselves and our community.

None of this contact happens if these activities are trapped inside buildings. The magic stays locked inside. Sometimes, that works--and you feel the special hum of "just us" sharing the experience. But often, the magic could go further.

How many of the best things you're doing are locked behind doors? How might things change if you could do them out on the street?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Familiarity Breeds Love…and a Desire for Things to Stay the Same: Guest Post by Karen Wise

Visitors in front of the African Elephant Diorama at the Natural
History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC photo)
This guest post was written by Karen Wise, Vice President, Education and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

 “I love it! You’ve made it better without changing it.”

Those words haunt me. The person who said them is a member of our Board of Trustees. He’s one of our biggest supporters. He is committed to our aspiration of creating a new model of what museums can be in the 21st Century. Yet he was thrilled that we had not changed what he loved – any of it – when we installed our new signage system.

This isn’t an isolated issue. Loyal museum visitors – members, patrons, volunteer docents, people who grew up coming to the museum -- love the old exhibits they are used to. Familiarity may breed contempt in some contexts, but apparently not in museums. Familiarity with our museum seems to breed loyalty, love and a desire to have things preserved rather than changed. Dioramas. History exhibits with hundreds of objects and no coherent story. Schizophrenic bird halls with 5 different design and content presentation styles. How do we grapple with this difficult fact - that what staff may see as old-fashioned exhibits, those with no stories, just lots of coded content – can be visitor favorites???

The specifics of what visitors love is often hard to tease out. A couple of months ago, my middle school age daughter and her friends were in the back seat of the car talking about the museum where I work. One of them broke the unwritten rule against talking to the parent driver and asked me what was coming next. They got excited when I told them we were bringing in an exhibit on mummies. Then one of them asked me where we were going to put it. When I told him - into a hall that held what remains of our old California History Hall - the kids protested loudly that the old Hall is one of their favorites. When I asked them what they love about it, they named a few objects, but then one said “the whole thing” and my daughter said “the smell.”

Their loyalty, that fondness for the familiar, the smell--these precious memories do not drive attendance or keep us relevant. Even at a museum like ours, where more than 70% of our visitors are bringing others to facilitate a social (often family) experience, only new things can reliably motivate a visit.

In museum circles, there is also a widely recognized need for us to be relevant, to tell big stories that matter, to create experiences for the widest possible range of audiences, and - in the case of science museums - to help solve the STEM crisis by making science fun, accessible and interesting. As museums work to fulfill visitor-focused missions – in our case to inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds - we face some ironic paradoxes.

Each month, during our visitor intercept surveys, we ask a sample of 200 visitors whether they came to see anything in particular, and if so what. The most popular answer among those that say yes is Dinosaurs. When asked what they want more of they say Dinosaurs - and more hands on experiences for kids.

No visitor has ever told us that s/he came to the museum to learn a big story or to see science in action. And yet, as museum professionals, we are constantly talking about our responsibilities to tell those big stories, to display a wider range of our spectacular stuff, to help visitors make sense of change through time, put current anthropogenic climate change by putting into the context of climate change throughout the history of the earth, and to display our collections as evidence for the history and evolution of the earth and life on it.

So how do we balance that perceived obligation to tell big stories – of the history of our planet and life on it, of evolution, extinction and survival, of how science works, visitor motivations for social experiences -- with great objects and specimens and memorable stories?

Most museums, including us, might answer this question by changing our approach as we create new experiences. But as we look at creating new layers for iconic, historic exhibits this can get dicey. In our case in LA, we’re addressing this now as we consider our diorama halls. We have some of the best diorama halls in the world. They are incredibly detailed depictions of scientifically and visually accurate moments in time and place with backdrop murals made accomplished artists – including some famous Plein Air artists who created them as part of W.P.A. projects during the Great Depression. How do we make them relevant, engaging, must-see experiences without changing them? Can we? There are plenty of models out there – and the range of options keeps increasing with technological innovations. We will learn from them all, but none that we have seen yet quite fit the full range of inarticulate needs of our visitors.

No matter what we do, I know this: we will test and test and test before we install anything in the diorama halls, lest anyone complain that we changed them.

Thanks to Karen Wise for this thoughtful post. Please share your perspective below--Karen and I both look forward to the conversation. If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Museum 2.0 Flashback: Threshold Fear

This week, I was on the radio talking museum inclusion (with Michelle Obama!) and committed the cardinal sin: defining a term using the term itself. The term was "threshold fear"--the sense of discomfort upon walking into an unfamiliar and potentially threatening space.

Threshold fear has interested me for a long time. It deserves better than my quote. The radio segment, and the fact that I broke my arm over the weekend and can't really type, encouraged me to dig up these old posts on threshold fear. I hope you enjoy them.

  1. Getting People in the Door (2007). A review of Elaine Heumann Gurian's essay on threshold fear and architecture program and planning from her book, Civilizing the Museum. The post was part of a series I did on this incredible book--which I highly recommend.
  2. Come on in and Make Yourself Uncomfortable (2012). A simple exercise for those who want to experience threshold fear firsthand.  Hard to imagine that some people don't find museums welcoming spaces? Find a space to feels uncomfortable for you and see what it's like to walk in the door.
Have a great week--and don't fall off your bike.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Building Community: Who / How / Why

These are the slides and notes for the talk I gave at the American Alliance of Museums conference on Monday, April 27 about the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. There are links embedded to other posts that go deeper into specific topics.

For years, I’ve been associated with the idea of “visitor participation.” When I became the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History four years ago, I took this work with me. We invited community members in, to be active contributors, collaborators, and co-creators in our museum space.

We had incredible success transforming our institution into a vibrant cultural center. But when people told us what they loved about the museum, they didn’t use the word “participation.” They talked about community building.

I don’t think there is a way to directly build community. We can’t sit down and say, “let’s go build some community.”

Participation is one (of many) tactics for building community. As time has gone on, my attention has shifted from the tactic of participation to the outcome of building community. And so today I want to talk about building community: the who, the how, and the why of it.

WHO (slides 3-23)

"Community” is not an abstraction. It is a group of people connected by something shared. That something may be a place, an identity, an interest, a worldview.

The most important first step for any institution that seeks to “engage community” is to be specific about WHO you are talking about.

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, our community starts with geography. We exist for people who live in Santa Cruz County. We are unapologetic about focusing local. Even though Santa Cruz is a tourism destination, we mostly ignore tourists. Tourists can’t help us build community in Santa Cruz County if they are only in town for a day.

Focusing local helps us define our community by identity. We have partnered with the county-wide community assessment project to learn more about the demographics, interests, and needs of local residents.

In some ways, we do a good job engaging people who reflect our whole County. Our audience’s income diversity matches that of the County. We’re connecting with people across all age segments in our County. Right now, we're working hard to empower Latino residents to see themselves in our museum. We live in a City that is 19% Latino, in a County that is 33% Latino. Our visitors are about 8% Latino. If we want to reflect the identities of our community, we’ve got to focus on changing that.

At the same time, “identity” doesn't always mean demographics. For example, in Santa Cruz there is a huge community of creative people who identify as artists in non-traditional media. That’s why we partner with fire sculptors, knitters, graffiti artists, and bonsai growers. They are artists whose experience deserves a home in our institution alongside painters, photographers, and sculptors.

Finally, we define our community by affinity. We focus on people who are culturally curious, actively creative… but may not see a traditional arts institution as a place for them. We’re unapologetic about connecting people with history and with art in new ways, even if those ways are sometimes in conflict with more typical museum practice.

We think about this redefinition of affinity not just in terms of our programming but our internal structures as well. Some of our best volunteers come from the County court referral system. We're a place you can work off your traffic ticket. And that means we get volunteers who are A. very motivated to complete their hours and B. culturally curious but maybe not inclined to walk into a museum. They see "museum" on the list of options and they think: hey, I like history, I dig art, maybe this is a good option for me. We've hired amazing people out of this unorthodox volunteer pipeline.

Doing this work in partnership with our local community, in partnership with people who have an affinity for active cultural experiences, we’ve been able to grow rapidly and tremendously. Over four years, we’ve tripled our annual attendance and more than doubled our budget and staff and programs.

Last year, our board and staff came together to develop a “theory of change” that connects the activities we do to the impact we seek. We decided as an institution to focus on just one impact statement: “our community grows stronger and more connected.” It feels amazing to be so aligned and clear about purpose. We’re making our focus on community more overt, tangible, and measurable.

HOW (slides 24-42)

There are three “tracks” to our theory of change: individual empowerment, social bonding, and social bridging.

Let’s start with empowerment. We seek to empower our visitors to raise their own civic and creative voices. A lot of museum visits can actually be disempowering, making people feel they are not smart enough or cultured enough to get it. We want everyone to leave the museum feeling that they could become an historian or artist—a civic and/or creative agent of change.

Empowering people starts by involving and including them. Showing that their voice matters. This starts right when you walk into our museum, where you can share opinions about how to improve the institution on a comment wall. We work with people on programs in their neighborhoods, relevant to their stories, so that people get personally connected. And we look for pathways—whether inside or beyond the museum—for people to go deeper. This might mean taking on a project in our historical archives, starting a studio art practice, or getting involved in local issues and organizations. 

Empowerment is the “individual” side of our theory of change. The other side is about building social capital through bonding and bridging.

These terms come from Robert Putnam, Harvard researcher and author of Bowling Alone. Both bonding and bridging contribute to building community. We bond with people who are like us. We bridge with people who are different from us.

Putnam and other researchers have collected lots of data demonstrating that in the past 50 years in America, bonding has increased and bridging has decreased. We live in an increasingly polarized world, with fewer and fewer opportunities to connect with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. We are more bonded than ever, and more segregated from each other in our respective bonded spaces as a result.

Museums are great places for bonding. Decades of research have shown that one of the primary reasons people go to museums is to bond with friends and family. While we welcome the people who come to our museum to bond, they don't need much help from us to do so.

Bridging is another story. If we don't focus on designing for bridging, it won't happen. So we spend most of our energy working on ways to bring people together from different walks of life in the museum. We bridge by bringing together unlikely partners--across artistic & historical practices, socio-economics, race/ethnicity, and age. Our programming isn't for target audiences. We strive to be a place where you will always meet someone new, someone who is not like you, in a positive environment.

I'm proud of the bridging work that we do. But it is so, so delicate. Bridging requires careful balancing of who is in the space. If any one bridged group starts to take over, it starts to become a bonded space. As Jane Jacobs noted, "self-destruction of diversity is caused by success, not failure." She was talking about gentrification of neighborhoods, but the idea carries over. When too many of the same kind of person flock to a place or program, it weakens the ability to bridge.

We're struggling with this right now when it comes to family audiences. When I first came to the museum, it was not perceived as a family-friendly place. As we developed new 3rd Friday community festivals, we were careful to design them as intergenerational experiences. More and more families showed up. Now, families are dominant at 3rd Friday, and some adults feel like "it's a kid thing."

Keeping bridging alive requires constant attention and effort. But it's worth it because of how important it is to building a stronger and more connected community.

WHY (slides 43-54)

This vision of a museum working to build a stronger and more connected community is deeply important to us in Santa Cruz. But I don't think that every museum should be doing this work. I don't wish that every museum would be community-oriented. I wish that every museum would be clear about its goals, specific about its strategies and measures, and unapologetic about pursuing them.

I don't think the challenge of museums is being community-oriented. I think the challenge is being authentic to what your institution is about, the community you work with, the vision you have. There is no one-size-fits-all template for that.

Clarity of goals, methods, and measures enables us to proudly and honestly pursue the work that we think is most important. I want all museums to have that.

I started my career as an engineer. One of the essays that inspires me most was this lecture that a computer scientist named Dick Hamming gave in 1986 called You and Your Research. Hamming was addressing the question of why more scientists don't do Nobel Prize-worthy work. He said:
The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important, and he also does not believe that they will lead to important problems.
If you want to have impact, if you want to change the world, you have to work on an important problem.

So often, we focus on the tasks in front of us. The next exhibition. The marketing campaign. The big event. This work is useful. But if you aren't attacking a big problem through it all, what's the point?

There are many important problems that touch the museum field: building stronger communities, transforming the education system, the need for creative play and inspiration, social equity, artists as changemakers, education about global issues. And so on.

I don't care what important problem you choose. But I hope you are working on one. Important problems will keep you up late at night, but they'll also get you out of bed in the morning. They are the reason this work matters. They are the only way we will change the world.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How Do You Define "Community?"

Close your eyes and imagine your organization's "community." Is it a mist of good feeling? A fellowship of uncertainty? Does it have a human face?

Communities are made of people, not rhetoric. You can define a community by the shared attributes of the people in it, and/or by the strength of the connections among them. When an organization is identifying communities of interest, the shared attribute is the most useful definition of a community. The second is a quality of the community (strong vs. weak) as defined.

I've been exploring three different lens for defining community: geography, identity, and affinity.

A community by GEOGRAPHY is defined by place. It is made up of the people attached to a given location: a city, a district, a neighborhood, a country. The simplest version of this community is the place where you live. But you might also feel part of a geographic community related to the place you grew up, or a place you used to live, or a place you often visit.

A community by IDENTITY is defined by attributes. It is made up of people who end the sentence "I am _____" in the same way. Jewish. Chicano. Fifth generation. Artist. Some identities are self-ascribed (like "vegetarian") whereas others are assigned externally (like "black").

A community by AFFINITY is defined by what we like. It is made up of people who end the sentence "I like _____" or "I do ______" in the same way. Knitters. Surfers. Punks. People who go to midnight movies. Some affinities are lifelong passions. Others are passing fancies.

These types aren't perfectly distinct. A community of people who go to trivia night at a given bar could identify by geography (the bar), identity (nerds), or affinity (trivia).

How much does the strength of connections among members matter to the definition of community? It matters in degree but not in kind. A strong community engenders fellowship among members, advances specific social norms, and has identifiable leaders. Weak communities are more diffuse, with members who may not even be aware of each other. These differences are useful when considering how and who to reach out to when trying to get involved with a new community. But the community exists whether it is strong or weak.

Maybe you want to work with Hmong immigrants to Minnesota. Or art-lovers of Brooklyn. Or Santa Cruz County teens who want to make social change. Communities may be huge and diffuse, or niche and tightly connected. The key is to be specific in who you seek. My biggest fear about "community engagement" is that it is too vague. It's easy to say "yep, we do that" if you aren't clearly defining the work and the people involved. Defining the community turns an amoebic concept into a human reality.

How do you define "community" in your work?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

p.s. I'll be speaking on these topics at the AAM conference next week. Scroll down in this post to learn more.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A City and an Art Center Design the Future: Reflections on the Market Street Prototyping Festival

"The arts are future-making."

I wrote this down when Deborah Cullinan said it at a meeting of arts leaders about a year ago. We were discussing the potential for cultural organizations to have significant impact across communities: on planning, health, education, and quality of life. Deborah's vision for the arts leading the way to stronger future inspired me. But I couldn't fully imagine how a museum or an arts center could embody it.

Last week, I got to see Deborah's vision in action. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (which she directs) teamed up with the San Francisco Planning Department and the Knight Foundation to host the Market Street Prototyping Festival. Over three days, 52 artist teams erected experimental projects along San Francisco's biggest thoroughfare. They turned Market Street into a playground, a performance hall, and a meeting place. The result was a true experiment in designing the future--right here, right now--with artists and planners and civic leaders at the helm together.

The Festival is one moment in a decade-long project to redesign Market Street. Market Street is a central artery of San Francisco. It has wide sidewalks and lots of public transportation access points. 200,000+ pedestrians walk along it every day. But it's not just for transportation; it's also a huge swath of public space. In San Francisco, sidewalks account for 80% of all open space. In a city where parks are rare, streets can and should provide the social, recreational, and health functions that we expect from open space.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival was not a typical public art exhibition. The projects were messy, unfinished--true prototypes of future possibilities. A fitness trail for urban life. A soundtrack for the street. A urinal that watered plants. Pop up libraries, performance spaces, and seating areas. A hexagonal ping pong table that invited six people (often strangers) to play together. Lots of social bridging, surprise encounters, and more than a few mystified moments.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival stirred up a few thoughts related to design in public places, prototyping, and communicating complexity.


Just because you put something in front of a lot of people doesn't mean they'll take you up on it. One of the challenges and attractions of the Festival is the fact that most people were not traveling to Market Street specifically to play with the prototypes. They were heading to work, going home, running errands.

This made for some amazing emergent engagement behaviors, but also a lot of zooming by. I participated in a mini-observational study of one interactive sculpture in the festival. We found that 12% of passersby even stopped to glance at the piece (let alone interact) over a 15 minute interval.

What kind of cultural experience offers the right kind of invitation and opportunity for pedestrians in public space? Many Market Street prototypes struggled because they asked too much of people relative to their expectations and interests as they traveled along the sidewalk.

I've often encountered projects that try to address this challenge with confrontation. Put the most disruptive, loud, or provocative experience in the right of way, and people can't help but notice. This may be true, but such experiences are often so dislocating that they put people off and people scramble to get out of the way.

Invitation works better than confrontation. One of my favorite projects, designed by the Exploratorium, nailed the balance of invitation and opportunity on a public street. It was a simple pathway of fringed fabric that invited you to wander into a seating area with information about the drought (it made sense if you were there). The fringed pathways were perfect--intriguing and desirable, easy to walk along, intoxicating enough to entreat you into a new world. Many other projects struggled because the desired engagement was so open to the street. They were open books. The Fringe was a tentacle that lapped you in, a teaser that enticed people into stories they didn't know they wanted.


Prototyping is about learning, and learning usually requires communication. I was disappointed and surprised by how few of the Market Street projects were actively manned by their creators. While  "final" versions of these prototypes would need to stand alone on the sidewalk, the best prototypes are facilitated.

Facilitation has a dual function: the artists learn what worked and didn't, and visitors learn what the projects are all about. Hundreds of hours of community dialogue went into the development of the Market Street Festival prototypes--both on the street and online. Thousands more conversations during the festival. All of this dialogue helps build better projects, and ultimately, a better Market Street. Where it didn't happen, visitors, artists, and organizers missed an opportunity to learn and grow.


One of the most frequent questions I heard along Market Street was: "What's going on here?"

Many people thought the Festival was "an art exhibit" or "an art festival." ABC news headlined their segment saying "Market Street festooned with public art for 3-day fest." While this is true, it's also a missed opportunity for the larger project.

The point of the festival was artists and communities imagining potential futures for Market Street. The artworks were too rough to be "beautiful" and anyone seeking to judge them by that criteria might be disappointed. But as signals about the possibilities of the street? As prototypes for the future? Incredible... and not self-evident. That message could have been more clearly trumpeted throughout the Festival.


Overall, I'm amazed at the partnership, coordination, and energy that went into the festival. We often say that "arts deserve a seat at the table" of big civic decisions. It takes leaders like Deborah to claim those seats and launch successful collaborations.

The arts ARE future-making. I saw a little slice of the future last week on Market Street.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Hack Your Hellos: the Unofficial Way to Meet Someone New at AAM This Year

Everyone always says that the best part of conferences happen off the official schedule. Hallway conversations. One-on-one meetings. Late night adventures. 

This may be true. It's also incredibly frustrating--especially if you are new to a field or if networking sounds like a creepy, painful experience. If the best part of the conference isn't on the agenda, how the heck are you supposed to access it?

I'm getting ready for the American Alliance of Museums conference later this month. In addition to reconnecting with old friends and mentors, I want to meet people who aren't on my radar who will help me learn and grow. 

Last year, my colleague Elise Granata and I set up a very simple LinkedIn group to help people make productive connections at AAM. Here's how it works:
  • Join the LinkedIn group (if you are searching, it's called "Hack Your Hello's at AAM"). 
  • Post the question or issue that you want to discuss.
  • In the "add more details" section, list your contact info and availability during the conference.
  • Contact people who share your interests and set up meetings with them. (Hint: you can do this even if you are not going to the conference.)
That's it. Easy. It worked decently well last year, and I hope it might be even better in 2015.

If you are going to AAM and want more tips on what to check out, I suggest:

Download the mobile app. It's a bit clunky, but very useful for coordinating your schedule, especially while you are onsite. It's most valuable when you are in a lousy session and want to see what else is going on. Scroll, stand up, and get to something better.

Use your feet. There's a ton going on at all hours. Don't be afraid to leave a bad session for something else.

Follow people, not topics. So many session titles sound alike. How can you tell if you want to go to "Museums and Communities" or "Museums and Social Issues" or "Museums and Very Cute Lizards"? My solution is that when I find a person who fascinates me, I find out what else they are talking about and follow them. In this way, I've found my idols / mentors /friends--and learned a lot from their inspiring sessions.

Go to at least one session on something you know nothing about. Good for learning new things, discovering new mentors, and reconnecting with why you never want to work in that part of the building.

Hack your nametag. If you have to wear a nerdy nametag, make it work for you. Add a question, a twitter handle, or a quote that's important to you. People will ask you about it, engage with you around it. Instant wearable social object.

Get in touch with people before the conference and set up a meeting, meal, or walk. Hence the LinkedIn group. One of the reasons I like AAM is that it's a behemoth of a conference--so many people are there. Get in touch. Meet them. Learn. Repeat.

If you want to hear more about my work at AAM, I'll be speaking:
  • Monday April 27 at 2:30pm in a solo talk on "Building Stronger Communities" at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. This is the first time I've had 30 minutes on my own at AAM, and I intend to use it to talk about a few non-obvious lessons from the community-based work we are doing in Santa Cruz. 
  • Tuesday April 28 at 1:45pm in the "Museum Incubators" session, talking about how our teen program empowers youth to lead social change in our community and push our museum forward politically. This session is hosted by engagement rockstar Kathleen McLean. Kathy's sessions are always honest, fascinating, and fun.
  • Wednesday April 29 at 10:45am in the "Potluck Programming" session, talking about engagement offsite with brilliant colleagues from the Queens Museum, FIGMENT, SFMOMA, and Nelson-Atkins.
Enjoy the conference - or at least the LinkedIn group. I hope it helps igniting fruitful conversations.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

MAH Theory of Change, Part 2: A Multimedia Walkthrough for Your Feedback

Last week, Ian David Moss and I both blogged about the process of developing a theory of change for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Here's my post, and his. This week, I'm focusing on the WHAT of the project instead of the HOW, with a slideshow we made to describe the theory. 

What is your organization all about? What are you trying to accomplish? How do you connect the work you do to the goals you seek?

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, one way we're answering these questions is with a theory of change. It's a logical flowchart that connects activities to outcomes to impact.

There's a lot packed into this simple image, so we made a five-minute tour of our theory of change, featuring voices of staff members at our museum. If you can't see the slideshow in the post, click here to access it online. It has audio, so make sure you have speakers or headphones.

I'm curious how this slideshow comes off and whether it makes it easier or harder to understand. I'd love your feedback on it. We had fun making it, but I'm not sure whether it's the clearest way to engage with the theory of change.

This theory packages together so many of the things we're passionate about in our work at the MAH, and I'm trying to find the best way to convey these concepts. Please share your questions and comments--about the format, the content, or whatever strikes you. I'd love to engage in a discussion with you about it based on your reactions.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Developing a Theory of Change, Part 1: A Logical Process

This is the first in a two-part series about the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s new theory of change. This week, Ian David Moss and I are each writing blog posts about our collaborative process to develop a theory of change at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Check out his blog post on the Fractured Atlas site. Next week, I’ll share more about what is in our theory of change, and why.

For three years, we hit the gas at my museum—hard. We were pointed in a new direction and knew we had to push ourselves to expand our community impact.

Three years in, the dust settled on the many changes. We had tripled our attendance. Doubled our staff. Experimented, launched, and retired many programs and exhibition formats.

We decided it was time to shift from exploring to deepening. A little over a year ago, we received a three-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation to strengthen our commitment to community engagement. One of the first things we decided we had to do was to grow some roots under the new strategies at the museum. We embarked on a process of “naming and claiming” the work we do.

Where to start? We decided to develop three things:
  • Clear engagement goals that define how we do our work
  • A theory of change to connect what we do to the impact we seek
  • An engagement handbook to provide an overview of our goals, our theory of change, and the programs where they are manifest
I’ve written about the engagement goals before. I’ll write about the handbook soon. This blog post focuses on the theory of change and the process by which we developed it.

A theory of change is a model that connects: the activities we do, to the outcomes they effect, to the impact we seek to create in the world.

We wanted to build a theory of change for two reasons:
  1. Externally, we need strong, data-driven arguments for support. We can’t just say,” fund this exhibition and the community will grow stronger.” We have to prove it. Donors want to understand the logic of how their dollars will translate into impact. A strong theory of change can make that case. 
  2. Internally, everyone needs to know what “good” looks like and how their work helps contribute to the overall goals of the organization. A clear theory of change helps staff make strategic choices at every level.
We didn’t know how to develop a theory of change. But we knew we wanted to be rigorous about it. So we contracted with Ian David Moss, of Fractured Atlas and Createquity fame, to shepherd us through the process. Besides being brilliant and skilled in this area, Ian came in with an outsider’s perspective, which really helped us get out of the mindset of what we THINK we do and shift into what is actually observable and track-able.

Here’s what we did:
  • Ian came to Santa Cruz, interviewed a bunch of staff, and drafted a very rough theory of change based on what he learned about our programming.
  • We did a board/staff retreat where we built theories of change in two directions: UP from our activities to our intended impact, and DOWN from the intended impact to the activities that fuel it. The “DOWN” side was the most interesting, because it helped us understand the role we could play in our desired impact—and the community partners we would need to engage and support to see the impact realized to its fullest.
  • We worked with Ian to revise the theory based on the retreat.
  • Ian did a social psychology literature review to understand the research grounding the connections we made from activities to outcomes to impacts. We identified areas where the connections were weak and where we have to do more research to ensure that the logic is sound.
  • We developed a final version of the theory in a wonky powerpoint flowchart model.
  • We worked with a fabulous illustrator (Crista Alejandre) to transform the flowchart into an inspiring graphic.
  • We started using the theory of change to focus our programs and partnerships, evaluate our work, and change the way we talk about what we do.
Here are some questions for Ian about his side of the experience working with us on this project. Next week, I’ll write about the actual content of the theory of change and how it is starting to impact our organization.

When you are working with an organization on a theory of change, how do you sort out the organizations' aspirations from the reality of their current activities?

Ian: This is always one of the most challenging (and interesting) parts of the engagement. One of the reasons why I find theories of change valuable as a tool for this kind of conversation is that they are really good at making the chain of logic – or lack thereof – between an organization’s activities and goals really clear. That sets up a process where I map out what I perceive the connections to be, and then I run it by the organization to make sure that I’m understanding their thinking correctly. If I spot a place in the logic chain that doesn’t make sense to me, all I need to do is ask some probing questions about it. It could well be that I’ve overlooked something important, in which case I’ll add in whatever’s missing, or it could be that I’ve uncovered something the organization hasn’t thought of, which could spark a much-needed reassessment of what the strategy is or even what the real goal is. (This is exactly what happened to us at Createquity: our theory of change precipitated a global rethinking of our entire content and engagement strategy because we discovered a gap between what we were doing and what our aspirations were.) Either way, the theory of change makes the assumptions embedded in a strategy transparent to everyone and provides a way to put those assumptions to the test.

In our work together, we ended up looking primarily to social psychology research to develop a strong logical basis for the MAH’s theory of change. Do you often find that these projects take you outside of the “arts” field in terms of defining the logic that connects activities to outcomes to impacts?

It depends. I would definitely say that you guys are unusual in how you see non-arts and non-humanities research and practices as not just relevant but central to your work at the museum. But I’d venture to say that it’s a rare arts organization that can’t learn something from how things are done in the wider world, whether that means understanding how and why potential audience members are motivated to make the choices they do, or understanding the policy context for the community-level changes you’re hoping to see, or whatever. I think a very common mistake people make is to draw the frame too narrowly, to say “well, we don’t have any data on this exact thing that we’re looking for, so there’s no point in trying to answer that question.” The reality is that we have many tools to understand and to estimate the way the world works around us, and there are a lot of parallels and inferences to be drawn either from examples in analogous fields or from initiatives that have a general focus that includes the arts but isn’t specific to them.

What do you think is the most challenging part of developing a theory of change?

Different projects present different challenges, but one thing I’ve found to be consistent is that the theory of change process can end up drawing out major differences in thinking styles. There’s a certain type of person who’s really comfortable breaking ideas down into orderly, modular components and analyzing the connections between them. Then there are other folks who are not at all accustomed to thinking that way – they’re much more at home in an open-ended, anything-goes brainstorming session that encourages divergent thinking and untethered creativity. For those people, the process of creating a theory of change or logic model can very easily feel confining if you don’t set it up carefully. What I’ve found is that things go better if I make sure that nobody has unrealistic expectations placed upon them. A lot of people find it easier to have a conversation and then react to a model presented to them than be tasked with having to figure everything out themselves. On the other hand, other folks want to be super involved and that’s great too.

Any words of wisdom about how to build buy-in and encourage use once a theory of change is developed?

A really good way to do this is to include it in training materials for both current and new staff. The more that the theory of change gets talked about, the more likely it is to be used. You can also use it as a reference point for other institutional capacity-building things your organization is doing. So the MAH used it as the basis for a measurement framework for the organization. At Fractured Atlas, it was a key input for a new brand book we developed to guide our internal and external communications. It can be an attachment to grant applications or included in annual reports to donors. And it’s important that the theory of change be periodically revisited to make sure that it doesn’t reflect stale thinking. That all being said, I would emphasize that going into the process with the intention for a theory of change to be useful is the number one predictor of whether it will actually be useful. Furthermore, the best way to build buy-in for a theory of change is by giving people a voice in creating it. That’s why as much as possible I try to involve front-line staff as well as leadership in the process, so that it will feel resonant at all levels of the organization.

Thanks to Ian for collaborating on this process with us. If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.