Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Advocacy Policy, Part Two - And Why Now is an Especially Good Time to Create One

A few months ago, the MAH board and staff started discussing whether and how to create a formal policy for advocacy activities. I blogged about it, and you offered several good pointers on what should be considered in constructing it. Now, we've created one (unanimously approved by the board), and I wanted to share it with you and the process behind it.

Want to go straight to the policy?

Here it is.

Why create an advocacy policy?

In our case, it started when we were asked to sign onto a local petition to save a community garden under threat. We realized that we needed a systematic way to evaluate these kinds of requests--a tool that would help us evaluate when to say yes and why to say no.

Regardless of your institutional mission, nonprofits are all in the advocacy business. We champion causes through the partnerships we build, the programs we offer, and the stories we tell. While most nonprofits regularly advocate for our own institutions and/or sector, I think it's just as important to advocate for the interests of the communities in which we serve.

If you've been considering this for awhile, now is the time to act. Everyone is going to the ballot this year in the United States. Our museum has already had several requests to lend our support to bond measures that will be on the ballot in 2016. While 501c3 nonprofits cannot endorse candidates, it is completely kosher to endorse bond measures, propositions, and other ballot measures. If you want to be engaged in 2016 ballot measures relevant to your institution or community, now is a great time to develop a policy for how and when to do so.

How did we create it?

A small team of trustees and staff members worked together on our advocacy policy. We reviewed a handful of existing policies from other institutions (local and national, museums and not), discussed their attributes, and started drafting/stealing/reworking with a Google doc. We only met once in person. It was especially valuable to have activists, retired government employees, and social service leaders on the team; they brought helpful perspectives on what advocacy means beyond a cultural context.

The policy our board approved is intentionally broad. We wanted enough of a foundation to ground our advocacy without prescribing it. We wanted enough of a process to provide clarity and structure without too many hoops. We wanted it to make "yes" possible but "no" completely reasonable as well.

Any surprises?

One of the biggest "aha" moments I had in the development of the policy is that our museum was already doing advocacy in a variety of ways before we had a policy. We educate the public on local issues. We invite people from community organizations and campaigns to use the museum as a platform to share their message. We partner with thousands of artists and organizations, providing staff support and engagement in their work. We incubate a youth art and social change program. We host community festivals like the recent Artivism event that showcase local changemakers. We've made changes to our museum--bilingual signage, all-gender restrooms--to be better advocates for the diverse visitors who walk through our doors.

Though we started working on the policy specifically to address situations when we are asked by an outside group for formal endorsement, we realized as we dove in that we should also use this opportunity to contextualize endorsements as just one of many advocacy tools at our disposal. Advocacy is not just for executives and boards of trustees. The result is a broad policy that empowers our whole team to think about our roles as advocates for our community in the work we do.

I know our policy is not perfect. We're just starting to use it to evaluate endorsement requests coming our way, and I imagine we'll find some ways we want to clarify or change what we've written. But I wanted to share it with you: in appreciation of your role in its development, in curiosity as to your response, and in hopes it might inspire you to draft your own.

Because no matter the content, I heartily advocate for such policies to exist.

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?

Our entire strategy at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is rooted in community participation. We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids. You get the idea.

When I share these stories at conferences, someone always asks: what about institutions that serve millions of visitors each year? Does community participation work for big cultural destinations too?

It's a good question. On a basic level, the answer is no. Local community centers and destination attractions are different beasts. If your institution is built for millions of one-time visitors, it is not built for thousands of frequent visitors, and vice versa.

My museum can pursue radical collaboration because of our small size and local focus. We have the opportunity to build relationships with community members over time. The time to get to know folks who walk in the door. The flexibility to be nimble, responsive, and involved.

When people ask if our work in Santa Cruz scales, I start by acknowledging our distinct strategy. We are doing something different than the big guys, for good reason. And they should do something different from us.

But does that mean community participation is only for small institutions or small communities? No. The principles of community participation--seeing the public as partners, inviting folks to get meaningfully involved, welcoming their talents and perspectives--work at any size. But the strategies are different.

Think about democratic politics. People participate in national and local politics--and they do so completely differently. Local politics are personal, accessible. You can meet a candidate. You can show up to a public meeting and ask a question. You can even get on a commission if you are so inclined. National politics are sweeping, remote. You can join a movement. Attend a rally. Share links and opinions and funds online.

People participate in both of these political arenas, and they do so differently. The same is true for cultural participation.

Here are a few distinctions between participation in cultural institutions by scale. Instead of separating these into smaller and bigger institutions, I separated these into "local" and "destination" institutions. I think it's a more realistic representation of the two types described, and a more useful way to look at strategies for community participation.

  • LOCAL INSTITUTION: Your community is a definable group of people connected by place. You can probably name several of them. Many of them can name each other. You run into each other in and beyond the institution. It's reasonable to focus your marketing and programming on participation onsite at your institution or at sites within your city. Your community lives nearby. Of course they can participate here. 
  • DESTINATION INSTITUTION: If your visitors come from all over the world instead of from down the street, defining community strictly by place doesn't work. You can't define your primary community as the people of Manhattan if 75% of your visitors are from other cities. For huge institutions, it's more appropriate to define community by identity or affinity instead of by geography. Think Etsy, Sierra Club, Mormon Church. Each of these institutions engages a community of like-minded individuals spread around the globe. Engagement for a distributed community can't happen solely or even primarily onsite. It requires a lot more distributed online engagement to complement onsite engagement. 
  • LOCAL: If your visitors can come in often, you can build relationships with people over time. They can attend first as audience members or spectators, checking out the space and getting comfortable. As you get to know visitors, you can learn more about their talents and interests. You can invite them into opportunities that build on their strengths. You can invest in building relationships on your site and theirs. Participation can be onsite only, or onsite and online. It's OK to expect people to come back to keep going deeper, and it's manageable for you to go to their sites, too. 
  • DESTINATION: If visitors come once a year or once a decade, the stakes are higher on the first encounter. Onsite participation has to be welcoming to first-timers, and it should catalyze opportunities for deeper engagement offsite. That means offering clear, visible, appealing participatory experiences that enhance the destination experience. And then it means creating some kind of digital link--via email, social media, photos--that encourages people to continue building relationships when they are back home. 
  • LOCAL: One of the hazards of small and local institutions is the potential for insularity. Some organizations invite a certain number of locals into the club and then close the door. If you want to build community, you have to balance the tribal desire to bond with buddies with the collective opportunity to bridge with strangers. Strong local organizations build alliances across sectors, cultures, and neighborhoods. They link people together across differences. This can happen through committees, summits, or long-term projects in which a group puts on a show builds something together. The local scale makes it possible for individuals in the group to make commitments to the institution and to each other. 
  • DESTINATION: Frankly, I think building community is difficult for large destination institutions to execute. Visitors to these institutions are often so focused on their own bonded group experience--my family vacation, our special date at the opera--that they are uninterested in strangers. Worse, since many of these institutions are crowded, visitors see strangers as annoying obstacles instead of potential friends and community members. However, destination institutions can build community through participation in at least two ways. First, through large crowd events (think political rally or pro sports game), where numbers work for you to build a sense of shared identity. Second, online, where participants from around the world can commit to long-term projects and relationships. 
I'll be honest: I prefer to work on the local level rather than in a big institution. I love tackling the challenges of building a more connected community in our county through art and history. I love sharing stories of our work--in part because I believe small institutions deserve more credit for their unique contributions to our field. But do I think local institutions are better than destination institutions? No. I appreciate the big guys too. Especially the ones developing ways for community participation to shine in their environments.

How do you see community participation thriving in large/destination institutions?

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Aspiring, Thriving, or Struggling Changemaker? Join us for MuseumCamp 2016.

Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp will be August 31-September 2, 2016. This year's theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

As always, MuseumCamp will be a high-energy, all-in experience... with enough downtime for introverts, too. The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts to tackle your thorniest change challenges, MAH community programming, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. Yes you can sleep at the museum. Yes you can swim with sea lions. Yes you can--and will--learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We're proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design--campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend... and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

The MuseumCamp website has more information about this year's camp and how to apply. It also has testimonials from past campers and information on past years to help you get a sense of the experience.

MuseumCamp is for activists. For designers. For knowledge workers. For people on the front lines. For managers. For creative types. For anyone seeking to make positive change in your community. If you are interested in applying to attend camp, please check out the site and fill out an application today. We will accept applications through March 25 and inform people of selections in early April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon.

And please, help make space for others by spreading the word. Many campers share that the best part of the experience is the diversity of campers. The strength of our experience together is partly based on the opportunity to come together across different disciplines and perspectives, and we want to continue pushing for that. In that spirit, we would especially love for you to apply if you:
  • identify as a gender other than female 
  • identify as a person of color 
  • are over 50
  • work in a field that is not visual arts/museums 
While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite all scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. If you are interested in helping provide financial aid for this amazing event, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

Want to make a change? Please apply now to MuseumCamp--and if you have a friend who you think would love this, encourage them to apply too. Let's make creative change together.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

One Simple Question to Make Your Work More Participatory

Photo by CLoƩ Zarifian, MAH Photo Intern
We're working with a guest curator, Wes Modes, on an upcoming experimental project at our museum. Wes is an artist, and this is his first time running a museum exhibition development process. In a recent meeting about the exhibition process, Wes asked me: what am I not thinking of that I should be doing?

I said to him: I can't really answer that question. I'm sure you're thinking of a lot of steps to make this process work, and many more tasks will arise. The key question is, every step of the way: how can you invite people beyond yourself to help make this step better?

This is the question I ask myself anytime I'm working on something with a participatory intent. How can people--staff, volunteers, community members--help make this project better?   

In the case of the exhibition process that Wes is leading, we talked about how others could be involved in an experimental exhibition/residency in which artists work with visitors in the gallery. The obvious start was to think about how we recruit the artists--using an open call to invite anyone, anywhere to participate. But even developing that open call was a participatory process:
  • Wes worked with other staff to think through how the residencies could work. Their input helped shape the entire project, which in turn shaped the call.
  • He asked staff and artist friends for feedback on the concept. Their input helped shape the messaging of the project and the key questions to be answered in the call.
  • Once the call was 95% ready, Wes circulated it to a small group of existing museum partners and artists for feedback. Their input helped us get to 100%, and it created a group of invested collaborators who were ready to help spread the word once the call was live.
  • Once the call was ready, Wes circulated it to even more museum partners, as well as to artist listservs and our general membership. These people were both potential participants and promoters of the call, helping it continue to spread.
All of these steps helped make for a better call to artists, one that has gotten way more response than I ever expected.

This open call project may sound like one that is uniquely suited for participatory input. But I find that the more I live with that question of how others can make something better, the more naturally it infuses all kinds of work at our museum. Developing new staff policies. Prototyping all gender bathrooms. Creating an event or exhibit. All of these activities involve ongoing collaboration and co-creation with people beyond the staff member(s) responsible.

How can people help make your project better? Here are a few tips to asking this question successfully:
  • ask the whole question. It's not just a question of how people could get involved or participate. It's a question of how they can make it BETTER. You can always come up with ways people could participate. But if those approaches require a lot of time or effort and don't improve the result, they're a waste. Be generous and creative about what "better" could look like, but hold onto that goal. That way, you'll build a virtuous cycle where you keep wanting to find opportunities for participation to continue improving your work.
  • share your work. It's impossible to ask this question if you work so close to the chest that no one can even see what you are doing, let alone get involved. Inviting starts with sharing. Share what you are doing, the questions you have, the things you're unsure of, and you'll naturally encounter people who want to help make it better. This takes confidence in sharing half-baked ideas, and also the time to type them out, circulate them, have a meeting, etc. It's part of a culture of learning and curiosity--something I hope that museums can embody.
  • define "people" in the way that works for you. At my museum, the people who participate may be staff, volunteers, community members, organizational partners, Facebook folk... it depends on the project or task at hand. It's always good to start closest to home. Ask your colleagues. Ask your friends. And then as you build confidence in their ability to help make your work better, you can start inviting participants who are further from your comfort zone.
How are you inviting other people to help make your work better?

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

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Does Your Institution Have an Advocacy Policy?

In October of 2015, I got a call from a community partner. The Beach Flats Community Garden was under threat, and this friend of the garden wanted our help. The garden, which had operated for 20 years in a predominately low-income Latino neighborhood near the beach, was losing its lease with a private property owner. The City proposed moving the garden to a nearby plot of City-owned land, but gardeners felt that this disruption would literally uproot an essential community place. Garden supporters and partners were putting together a petition to try to push the City and the property owner to find a long-term solution to allow the garden to remain in place. And so the collaborator on the phone asked: would I sign the petition on behalf of our museum?

The outside partner wasn't the only one asking. Several museum staff members had gotten involved in the political action personally outside of work, and they wanted to know if we could sign on organizationally. This wasn't just a question of what was moral or politically useful in the abstract. It was a question about our commitment to our partners, to local sites of cultural importance, and to the Latino families with whom we have been working intensely to build stronger relationships.

I watched as other partner organizations signed on, uncertain what to do. I didn't know how likely the petition was to have influence, but I knew that signing on was important to the people asking.

Ultimately, I decided we couldn't sign - not because it was the necessarily the wrong thing to do, but because we didn't have any kind of policy beyond directorial discretion to decide when it might be appropriate to take a political stand as an institution.

I took the issue to the board, and we agreed that we need to develop some kind of advocacy policy to be able to answer these phone calls with confidence. Our board/staff advocacy task force is meeting this Friday to get the work started, and so I'm curious: has your organization tackled this question? How have you addressed the challenges and opportunities to raise your institutional voice on local issues?

I'm going into this meeting with a strong feeling that our policy can't be to always say no. Our museum has a growing advocacy component to our work. Our theory of change focuses on an intended impact of building a stronger, more connected community. We already embrace the reality that manifesting that impact requires work beyond our building, beyond traditional museum activities. We are proud of our wide-ranging community partnerships, proud to amplify unsung voices and stories, proud to tackle issues of equity and social justice through our programming.

But that's all work we do on our terms. What good are we as a partner if we can't step up and support our partners on their terms, too? I'd hate to be the kind of organization that embraces partners when we need them but not when they need us.

I don't have an opinion about whether our eventual policy should have enabled us to sign that particular petition. But I do want to see us develop a policy that enables us to address these opportunities thoughtfully, with our mission, theory of change, and community values at heart.

How have you, or would you, go about this? What resources might be helpful as we embark on this work?

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

Monday, December 28, 2015

Give Yourself Some SPACE in 2016

Every once in a while I look at my growing toddler and think: time will never go backwards. She'll never be this age again. Sometimes, that's a relief. Sometimes, the thought invokes pre-nostalgic fear. But mostly, watching her grow reminds me that time keeps moving relentlessly forward, whether we like it or not.

How do we tackle the problem of time? Some people attack the problem by sleeping less. Some seek to maximize and quantify time, building personal efficiency engines to squeeze out a few more seconds or minutes of joy each day.

In 2016, I'm choosing to take a different approach, inspired by Albert Einstein. I'm confronting the problem of diminishing time by making more space.

When you make space for yourself and others--physically or metaphorically--you expand your world. I've always loved the idea of "space-making" as a strategy for personal care and interpersonal empowerment. This past summer, my museum hosted a retreat for diverse professionals to explore space-making in deep ways. We talked about it. We shared tips and what ifs. We tested out each other's preferred ways of making space, and we tried to develop new space-making solutions to each other's problems.

The result is the Space Deck - 56 ways to make space for yourself and others. 100 extraordinary campers developed hundreds of different spacemaking ideas, which we developed, tested, and distilled into this deck of 56.

Just like a deck of playing cards, The Space Deck is divided into suits, representing different ways to make space through STILLNESS, CREATIVITY, COURAGE, ACTIVISM, RELATIONSHIPS, MOVEMENT, RITUAL, and ENVIRONMENT.

The Space Deck addresses frequent questions at work, like "how can we make space for everyone's voice to be heard in this meeting?," as well as personal questions, like "how can I find some peace in a world of chaos?" The cards share techniques that help you tackle your fears, declutter your mind, connect with your senses, and confront injustice.

You can check out all the spacemaking cards by suit on the Space Deck website. But if you prefer to hold space in your hand (Einstein would approve), you can buy your own personal deck to have and hold. Special thanks to Beck Tench, Elise Granata, Jason Alderman, and all the MuseumCampers who co-created the Space Deck together. All proceeds from Space Deck sales will support future creative retreats and camper scholarships.

Time won't slow down. Instead of trying to race time or trick it or beat it into submission, buy yourself some space in 2016. You'll be amazed how roomy it makes the day.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Can We Talk about Money? Tweetchat on #RadicalGiving December 18

On December 18, at 10am PT/1pm ET, I invite you to join the denizens of Museum 2.0, Museum Commons, and Incluseum for a 30-min tweetchat about how and why we can give for change at #RadicalGiving. We've each written some preliminary thoughts about giving to prime the tweetchat. Here are my reflections (theirs are at the links above). Please join us on Friday on twitter to talk more.

I remember the first time I asked someone for money. I had just taken the job as director of a museum that was struggling financially. If we didn't raise substantial funds in my first few weeks on the job, we'd have to close our doors.

I stood in my bathroom, looking in the mirror. I tried saying, "Can I count on you for ten thousand dollars?" without choking or bursting out laughing.

The first few times I asked for money--heck, the first few years--it felt awkward. But it also felt amazing. I saw how we were able to garner support for work I was passionate about. How we could build a more relevant and valued museum. How we could expand our impact. How donors could be partners in change. I learned the addictive power of asking.

The more I asked, the more I found myself thinking about giving. I started asking on behalf of other organizations I care about. My husband and I started being more intentional, and bolder, with our own giving. The more I asked, the more people asked me. Even with limited means, I saw how our own giving could make a difference.

At the same time, I became more and more aware of the screwed-up societal inequities that make philanthropy possible. One of the ways we redistribute wealth in an inequitable society is by asking rich people to voluntarily donate. And then we celebrate their generosity, rarely questioning why they had the capacity to give in the first place. Especially in the arts, research shows an alarming imbalance in what kinds of organizations have access to grants and donations. Our system of philanthropy often reinforces the inequity that it theoretically has the power to disrupt.

I decided that in my own limited way, I wanted to contribute in two ways:
  1. by developing a strategy for my own giving that helps boost organizations that have powerful impact AND are more subject to philanthropic inequity than others.
  2. by trying, where I can, to talk more openly with friends and colleagues about philanthropy.
My husband and I don't have a master plan for our giving, but we have started to identify some things that are important to us. Locally, we give to organizations for which we volunteer. We give to organizations with leaders who we believe in. We try to give early, to help leaders who are starting out to believe in themselves and their ability to raise funds for their work. We try to talk to friends--especially those doing well financially--about integrating philanthropy into financial plans. Yes, it feels awkward. But other people are talking to them about investments and trips and cars. Why shouldn't we feel as comfortable talking about ways to buy into social change?

That's on the personal side. Professionally, I've always struggled with what organizations to support--especially in museums and the arts. I admire many around the world. I can't support a fraction of those I love. How should I narrow the field?

Bearing in mind the data on who has access to philanthropic capital, I've decided to give to organizations that are rooted in and/or led by communities of color. This year, that included: Rainier Valley Corps, a Seattle-based leadership development program for people of color; the Laundromat Project, a New York-based neighborhood arts organization working in communities of color; and the South Asian American Digital Archive, about which I know little but was encouraged to support by a colleague volunteering her time to a project of mine.

These are organizations that inspire me. I've learned from their work and their leaders. I'm trying to more frequently convert my admiration into cash--just as I encourage people to do as a fundraiser for my organization every day.

I've noticed that the more time I spend fundraising as part of my job, the more comfortable I get talking about money. Money has become a currency of my work. I talk about it. I think about it. I treat it the same way I treat ideas and people and objects and stories. It is an essential, powerful part of getting the work done.

I realize that not everyone is comfortable talking about philanthropy, or about money. When we do so in our field, we're often focused on pay inequities for the work that we do. But pay and philanthropy are two separate topics. We should be willing to talk about both.

Talking about money is like talking about death. The more we do it, the more we are in control of our own fates. Talking about money helps us honestly and unflinchingly tackle challenges we face in our society. The more I talk about it, the more power I see it has--and the more I feel I have an ability to influence that power, however small my influence might be.

Many professionals--myself included--have the capacity to give. We give as donors. We give as volunteers. Let's not be silent about this giving. We can be leaders with our dollars and our time. We can influence change when we put our money where our hearts are.


As alluded to above, topics like the role of money, or the equivalent (time/work), in bringing about radical inclusive change are little discussed in our field.

We have some questions we want to pose to YOU in an upcoming #RadicalGiving Tweetchat on December 18 at 10am PT / 1pm ET.

Below, find some questions that came from our joint discussion on these subjects and that we will ask for your responses on during the tweetchat:
  • Q1A. What is your personal motivation to give to support inclusive change and those who are leading change? 
  • Q1B. How do you give? 
  • Q2. What do you give your time/money to? Let’s signal boost these projects and efforts! 
  • Q3. How can we have these conversations about money more in museums? 
  • Q4. If money talks, how can we influence the conversation?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

A Different Story of Thanksgiving: The Repatriation Journey of Glenbow Museum and the Blackfoot Nations

I spent last week holed up in a cabin, working on my forthcoming book, The Art of Relevance. One of the most powerful books I read while doing research was We are Coming Home: Repatriation and the Restoration of Blackfoot Cultural Confidence (read it free here, great appreciation to Bob Janes for sharing it with us). The book is a deep account of repatriation of spiritual objects from museums to native people, written by museum people and Blackfoot people together. I hope this synopsis might inspire you to read their full incredible story. 

How do institutions build deep relationships with community partners? What does it look like when institutions change to become relevant to the needs of their communities--and vice versa?

Going deep is a process of institutional change, individual growth, and most of all, empathy. It requires all parties to commit. Institutional leaders have to be willing and able to reshape their traditions and practices. Community participants have to have to be willing to learn and change too. And everyone has to build new bridges together.

That’s what happened when the Blackfoot people and the Glenbow Museum worked together over the course of twenty years to repatriate sacred medicine bundles from the museum to the Blackfoot. 

This story starts in 1960s, though of course, the story of the Blackfoot people and their dealings with museums started way before that. Blackfoot people are from four First Nations: Siksika, Kainai, Apatohsipiikani, and Ammskaapipiikani (Piikani). Together, the four nations call themselves the Niitsitapi, the Real People. The Blackfoot mostly live in what is now the province of Alberta, where the Glenbow Museum resides.

Like many ethnographic museums around the world, Glenbow holds a large number of artifacts in its collection that had belonged to native people. Many of the most holy objects in its collection were medicine bundles of the Blackfoot people.

A medicine bundle is a collection of sacred objects—mostly natural items—securely wrapped together. Traditionally, museums saw the bundles as important artifacts for researchers and the province, helping preserve and tell stories of the First Nations. Museums believed they held the bundles legally, purchased through documented sales. By protecting the bundles, museums were protecting important cultural heritage for generations to come. Many museums respected the bundles’ spiritual power by not putting them on public display. They made the bundles available for native people to visit, occasionally to borrow. But not to keep.

The Blackfoot people saw it differently. For the Blackfoot, these bundles were sacred living beings, not objects. They had been passed down from the gods for use in rituals and ceremonies. Their use, and their transfer among families, was an essential part of community life and connection with the gods. The bundles were not objects that could be owned. They were sacred beings, held in trust by different keepers over time. If they had been sold to museums, those sales were not spiritually valid. They were not for sale or purchase by any human or institution.

Why had the objects been sold in the first place? Many medicine bundles had been sold to museums in the mid-1900s, when Blackfoot ceremonial practices were dying out. The 1960s were a low point in Blackfoot ceremonial participation. Ceremonial practices had ceased to be relevant to most Blackfoot people, due in large part to a century-long campaign by the Canadian government to “reeducate” native people out of their traditions. Blackfoot people are as subject to societally-conferred notions of value as anyone else. In the 1960s, when Blackfoot culture was dying, some bundle keepers may have seen the bundles as more relevant as source of money for food than as sacred beings. Others may have sold their bundles to museums hoping the museums would keep them through the dark days, holding them safe until Blackfoot culture thrived again.

By the late 1970s, that time had come. Blackfoot people were eager to reclaim their culture. They were ready to use and share the bundles once more. The museums were not. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Blackfoot leaders attempted to repatriate medicine bundles back to their communities from various museums. Some tried to negotiate. Others tried to take bundles by force. In all cases, they ran into walls. While some museum professionals sympathized with the desires of the Blackfoot, they did not feel that those desires outweighed the legal authority and common good argument for keeping the sacred bundles. Museums held a firm line that they were preserving these objects for all humanity, which outweighed the claim of any particular group.

In 1988, the Glenbow Museum wandered into the fray. They mounted an exhibition, “The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples,” that sparked native public protests. The exhibition included a sacred Mohawk mask which Mohawk representatives requested be removed from display because of its spiritual significance. More broadly, native people criticized the exhibition for presenting their culture without consulting them or inviting them into the process. The museum had broken the cardinal rule of self-determination: nothing about us, without us.

A year later, a new CEO, Bob Janes, came to Glenbow. Bob led a strategic planning process that articulated a deepened commitment to native people as “key players” in the development of projects related to their history and material culture. In 1990, Bob hired a new curator of ethnology, Gerry Conaty. That same year, Glenbow made its first loan of a medicine bundle--the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle--to the Blackfoot people.

The loan worked like this: the Weasel Moccasin family kept the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle for four months to use during ceremonies. They, they returned the bundle to the museum for four months. This cycle was to continue for as long as both parties agreed. This was a loan, not a transfer of ownership. There was no formal protocol or procedure behind it. It was the beginning of an experiment. It was the beginning of building relationships of mutual trust and respect.

In the 1990s, curator Gerry Conaty spent a great deal of time with Blackfoot people, in their communities. He was humbled and honored to participate as a guest in Blackfoot spiritual ceremonies. The more Gerry got to know leaders in the Blackfoot community, people like Daniel Weasel Moccasin and Jerry Potts and Allan Pard, the more he learned about the role of medicine bundles and other sacred objects in the Blackfoot community.

Gerry started to experience cognitive dissonance and a kind of dual consciousness of the bundles. As a curator, he was overwhelmed and uncomfortable when he saw people dancing with the bundles, using them in ways that his training taught him might damage them. But as a guest of the Blackfoot, he saw the bundles come alive during these ceremonies. He saw people welcome them home like long-lost relatives. He started to see the bundles differently. The Blackfoot reality of the bundles as living sacred beings began to become his reality.

Over time, Gerry and Bob became convinced that full repatriation—not loans—was the right path forward. The bundles had sacred lives that could not be contained. They belonged with the Blackfoot people.

But the conviction to change was just the beginning of the repatriation process. The institution had to change long-held perceptions of what the bundles were, who they belonged to, and how and why they should be used. This was a broad institutional learning effort, what we might call "cultural competency" today. During the 1990s, Glenbow started engaging Blackfoot people as advisors on projects. Gerry hired Blackfoot people wherever he could, as full participants in the curatorial team. Bob, Gerry, and Glenbow staff spent time in Blackfoot communities, learning what was important and relevant to them.

As Blackfoot elders sought to repatriate their bundles from museums, they also had to negotiate amongst themselves to reestablish the relevance and value of the bundles. They were relearning their own ceremonial rituals and the role of medicine bundles within them. They had to develop protocols for how they would adopt, revive, and recirculate the bundles in the community. Even core principles like the communal ownership of the bundles had to be reestablished. This process took just as much reshaping for Blackfoot communities as it did for the institution.

To complicate things further, the artifacts were actually the property of the province of Alberta, not Glenbow. The museum couldn’t repatriate the bundles without government signoff. For years they fought to get government approval. For years, the government resisted. Government officials suggested that the Blackfoot people make replicas of the bundles, so the originals could remain "safe" at the museum. The museum and their Blackfoot partners said no. As Piikani leader Jerry Potts put it: “Well, who is alive now who can put the right spirit into new bundles and make them the way they are supposed to be? Who is there alive who can do that? Some of these bundles are thousands of years old, and they go right back to the story of Creation when Thunder gave us the ceremony. Who is around who can sit there and say they can do that?”

The museum and Blackfoot leaders had to negotiate multiple realities. They had to negotiate on the province’s terms through legal battles and written contracts. They had to negotiate with museum staff about policies around collections ownership and management. They had to negotiate with native families about the use and transfer of the bundles in the community. In each arena, different approaches and styles were required. The people in the middle had to navigate them all.

But they kept building momentum through shared learning and loan projects. By 1998, the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani had more than thirty sacred objects on loan from the Glenbow Museum. They were still fighting for the province to grant the possibility of full repatriation. Still, even as loans, some bundles had been ceremonially transferred several times throughout native communities, spreading knowledge and extending relationships. Glenbow staff had learned the importance of the bundles to entire communities. Native people were using, and protecting, and sharing the bundles. Even the Glenbow board bought in. The museum had become relevant to the native people on their terms. The native people had become relevant to the museum on theirs. They were more than relevant; they were connected, working together on a project of shared passion and commitment.

In 1999, they put their shared commitment to the test. It became clear that they were not going to succeed at convincing the provincial cultural officials of the value of full repatriation. CEO Bob Janes went to the Glenbow board of trustees and told them about the stalemate. A board member brokered a meeting with the premier of Alberta so that the museum could make the case for repatriation directly. It was risky; they were flagrantly ignoring the chain of provincial command. But the gamble worked. In 2000, the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act was passed in the province of Alberta. The bundles went home.

At its heart, the story of the Blackfoot repatriation is the story of two communities—that of the Blackfoot and that of Glenbow Museum—becoming deeply relevant to each other. When relevance goes deep, it doesn’t look like relevance anymore. It looks like work. It looks like friendships. It looks like shared meaning. As the museum staff understand more about what mattered to their Blackfoot partners, it came to matter to them, too. Leonard Bastien, then chief of the Piikani First Nation, put it this way: “Because all things possess a soul and can, therefore, communicate with your soul, I am inclined to believe that the souls of the many sacred articles and bundles within the Glenbow Museum touched Robert Janes and Gerry Conaty in a special way, whether they knew it or not. They have been changed in profound ways through their interactions with the Blood and Peigan people and their attendance at ceremonies.”

 That is the power of deep relevance.

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

OdysseyWorks: An Empathy-Based Approach to Making Art

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

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

But what if you only had an audience of one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Women of Color Leading Essential, Activist Work in Cultural Institutions

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

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

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

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

Monica Montgomery - Building a Museum of Impact

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

Betty Reid Soskin - Rewriting History in the National Parks

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

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

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

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

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

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