Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Guest Post: A Tale of Two University Museums

This guest post was written by Margaret Middleton, a Bay Area-based exhibit developer and fabricator. Margaret shared these thoughts about "museums for use" on her blog, and I asked her to adapt a version for the Museum 2.0 audience.

Should a museum be a destination or a place for everyday use? Nina Simon posed this provocative question at a recent presentation, and it got me thinking about the differences between museum "users" and "visitors." I immediately recalled a phenomenon I witnessed as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

During my time at RISD studying industrial design, I developed relationships with two museums on campus: the Museum of Art and the Nature Lab. The Rhode Island School of Design was established in 1877 alongside its Museum of Art, an important resource for RISD students. The Museum hosts collections directly related to the majors offered at the school, including painting, sculpture, and decorative art and design. The Edna Lawrence Nature Lab was established in 1937, also as a resource for students. Instead of works of art, the Nature Lab offers taxidermy specimens, bones, seed pods, and other natural items. Both buildings are located within whispering distance of one another at the heart of the city-scattered campus. Both are free for students. Both identify themselves museums with curators, a collection, and a similar mission: to inspire and captivate RISD students. And yet, the Museum of Art is often overlooked or dismissed outright by students while the Nature Lab is cherished and spoken of fondly.

It was always obvious to me which was the preferred resource. I worked in the Museum of Art for my four years at RISD and when I'd talk about my tour-guide job there, other students would say, "Oh yeah, I never go there," or sometimes, "I should go there sometime," as if they felt guilty for not visiting. But I never heard the Museum referred to with the same glassy-eyed endearment that the Nature Lab enjoyed. Lack of appreciation for the Museum became even more apparent when it was announced that the Museum would be undergoing a massive renovation and addition. Students talked about the new plans with disgust, insulted that the money was going to the Museum instead of their studios. Museum expansion was the topic of many a heated Student Alliance meeting. Regardless of the fact that the grant was specifically for the Museum and the school did not have the choice of funding studio space instead, clearly students didn't see the expansion as benefiting them.

The Museum attempts to attract students to its impressive 8,000 piece collection with various programs and exhibitions, some more successful than others. The Sitings contest invites students to propose an installation and the two proposals that win each year are awarded grants and displayed in the Museum. Faculty shows tempt students into the Museum to see the work of their professors. The Siskind Center gives students and the public the opportunity to pore over the photography in the Museum's large collection of works on paper. Evening events entice with the promise of music and food. You might think that would be sufficient effort to engage the students, but a quick informal poll suggests otherwise.

The Museum is open the usual 10-5, Tuesday-Sunday. You can't bring in an ink pen without a permit. The evening events attract mostly older community members instead of students. As much as I loved spending time in the Museum, drawing the sculptures, chatting with the docents, giving my friends informal tours, and enjoying bluegrass music in the painting gallery, I knew that not everyone felt so free in the museum environment. They preferred the cluttered, noisier, grittier atmosphere of the Nature Lab. To them, the Nature Lab was much more accessible.

While the Nature Lab does admit the general public, the majority of users are RISD students and the place is nearly always packed. And effortlessly: no programs, no big exhibitions, just old animal skulls and sea shells. The Lab is open late, the visible staff is almost entirely students, and they play mix tapes over the stereo. You don't have to sign up to use wet media, you can touch many of the specimens, and you can even check some of them out. Some of the display cases contain mini-exhibitions curated by students.

Though both are meant for student use, the Museum attracts visitors while the Nature Lab attracts users. If the Museum wants the students to use the Museum the way they use the Nature Lab, it needs to be accessible, work-focused, and have a variety of low-commitment entry points.

Here are a few things I think the Museum could learn from the Nature Lab:

Inviting art-making: Design students will always tell you they can’t go out tonight; they have work to do. Secretly, they want to be socializing once in a while just like anyone else. The Nature Lab is a great way to multitask because it’s a space to create artwork and there’s a built-in social component. If the Museum is a place to visit, students won’t make the time for it, but if it’s a place to use, it becomes a higher priority.

As someone who spent lots of time in the Museum sketching, I know creating artwork in the Museum is permitted. However, it’s understandable that not everyone feels comfortable doing so. With all the signs stating what visitors can’t do in the space and the fact that the space isn’t set up for art-making, there are no visual cues that it’s a safe space to set up an easel without getting a stern look from a guard. Students need to be invited personally: “please come and create art here.” Invitations would need to come in many forms: welcoming signage, actively accommodating docents and desk staff, and easels and drawing benches set up in galleries. Students need familiar charcoal-smudged easels and benches that don’t feel sacred. Not only would it improve the students’ relationship with the museum, it would attract other non-student visitors; anyone who has created artwork in public knows that people absolutely love to see artists at work. It reminds visitors that the art they are looking at was created by a human being and it can inspire them to look at the world around them in new ways and maybe feel less intimidated by the art-making process.

Display techniques: It’s risky to set up an art museum in the curio-cabinet style of the Nature Lab. But a more packed-in display can feel less static and lead to a more permissive atmosphere that invites dialogue and (hopefully) art-making. It’s something that’s already starting to happen at the RISD Museum. An excellent example of unconventional display techniques is the controversial salon-style make-over the main painting gallery underwent. Once a traditionally hung, neutral-walled gallery of oil on canvas, the main painting gallery has become an overwhelming space, chock-full of artwork from floor to ceiling with deep blue walls setting off the gold frames. There's an energy in that space that invites a bit more discussion of the artwork, even if it might sometimes be a discussion about how difficult it is to get a good look at the top paintings. And some of the new galleries in the Chace Center are set up in a more packed-in, cluttered way that feels more energetic and stimulating. As long as the over-stuffed galleries have room for students to sketch comfortably, I think this is the right direction.

Ownership: Students feel like they own the Nature Lab because their peers run the front desk and play music for them. There are no chaperones standing in the corner, and they have opportunities to customize the space with mini-exhibitions. Even just seeing a casually-dressed classmate behind the front desk at the Museum of Art would increase a sense of ownership.

Programming: I don’t think that the Museum needs more programming. We artists and designers love our cheese-cube-and-wine-fueled Gallery Nights and those should stay. The same goes for the Museum’s very successful Music Fridays and other nightlife events. However, these special occasion draws are not the community-building tradition-creating experiences that students get from on-campus hangouts. The Nature Lab is successful because its big draw isn't reliant on programming. It relies entirely on the collection and the atmosphere of the space.

I don't think that all art museums need to be like this model I suggest. There's definitely a place for white-walled museums with quiet, contemplative atmospheres and I'd hate to see places like that disappear. But the RISD Art Museum was not meant to be a traditional museum. Its goal is to provide students with an inspiring collection of objects to use and aid them in their studies. In that respect, the Museum has missed its mark where its younger, quirkier cousin the Nature Lab has filled a need. The Museum could really benefit from a long hard look at itself and its mission and take a few cues from the time-honored, student-approved institution around the corner.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Quick Hit: See you at AAM (and my Los Angeles must-do list)

For those folks trekking out to Los Angeles this week for AAM, I hope to run into you at the conference. I will definitely be at the following:
  • NAME party at the Velaslavasay Panorama on Sunday night. If the party is half as rocking as the name of the venue, we'll have an amazing time.
  • Hosting a session on Monday at 2pm on Design for Participation with participatory design gurus Kathleen McLean and Dan Spock, along with research extraordinaire Kris Morrissey and participatory art rockstar Mark Allen. Mark will be bringing some fun toys to play with and we promise an entertaining, thought-provoking, and participatory 75 minutes.
  • Signing books on Monday from 4-5 in the AAM bookstore. If you've been waiting to pick up a copy of The Participatory Museum, here's a good opportunity to go home with a souvenir from the convention floor that's better than a sparkly keychain.
  • Hosting a session on Wednesday at 3:45pm on Mission-Driven Technology Development with tech geniuses Bruce Wyman, Shelley Bernstein, and Beck Tench. These people are so brilliant, funny, and passionate it makes me sick. We won't be talking iPhones or 4D theaters: we'll be talking about our different approaches to thinking about and working with technology from a process perspective.
I'm also interested in spending as much time at Wurstkuche, a nearby Belgian beer/frites/sausages place, as possible. If you want to join me for a beer and some fries, give a holler. I'm considering an informal meetup on Monday night if you want to join in.

I grew up in LA, and if you're coming for the first time, I very highly recommend you check out:
  • The Museum of Jurassic Technology. The king of idiosyncratic museums. It will blow your mind, frustrate and delight you.
  • The Shvitz (official name: City Spa). Do you enjoy being beaten with eucalyptus fronds by old men singing anthems to pre-Soviet countries that no longer exist? Want to hang out in the Bullshit room and smoke cigars? The Shvitz only coed on Mondays and Wednesdays, but this is the ultimate relaxation opportunity.
  • Machine Project. Run by one of my co-presenters, Mark Allen, this quirky hybrid space is part gallery, part educational space, part Venus flytrap home. Mark has also been doing work with the Hammer Museum, where you can see some of his institutional interventionist hijinks in action.
  • The Time Travel Quickie Mart. This is the LA chapter of the 826 Valencia tutoring enterprise. It's tiny, right around the corner from Machine Project, and full of wonderful products like Robot Emotions (see photo) and apartment vacancies from the future. Plus, all purchases support a truly amazing tutoring program.
  • The Brewery Art Colony. Way more funky and interesting than Bergamot Station, and much closer to downtown.
  • The Newsroom Cafe. OK, it's in the middle of Beverly Hills. And it's expensive. But I dare you to find a better smoothie/sandwich place in LA. Plus, this is absolutely the place you are most likely to see a celebrity.
  • Zankou Chicken or Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles. I don't eat chicken anymore, but I spent a lot of time as a kid at these incredible, tasty, cultural icons of LA.
  • Griffith Park Observatory. It's beautiful, and adjacent to the hippest part of LA--enclaves like Echo Park and Los Feliz that will make you think you might actually like to move there. Until you try to drive back over the hill.
See you in LA!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Complicity, Intimacy, Community

At a recent talk, a colleague from the Exploratorium asked me a very simple question. He noted that many institutions I talk about that successfully foster personal relationships with visitors are small places. How, he asked, could a large museum that serves hundreds of thousands of people per year foster the same sense of personal connection and community that a small one can achieve?

I didn't quite know how to answer this question. I think small museums are generally better than large ones at fostering local communities of visitors and members. While there are tools and tricks that large institutions can use to approximate personalization, it's easier to get to know people personally when they number in the hundreds and not in the hundreds of thousands. The sense of intimacy that comes with the relationships you can form in a small place is hard to match in a large one.

But then an exhibit designer, Darcie Fohrman, made a comment that changed my perspective. "You know," she said, "I feel that kind of intimacy in one of my favorite museums and it's a huge institution." Darcie described the Centre Pompidou in Paris as a place where she is surrounded by working artists, where things change frequently, and where she feels as a visitor that anything can happen. She described a certain feeling of goodwill towards other visitors, saying it's a place where she naturally falls into smiles and conversation with strangers.

This got me thinking about the relationship between intimacy and complicity. Darcie was describing was a marvelous sense of complicity she felt with fellow visitors at the Centre Pompidou--a sense that they were in the experience together. It didn't require the staff at the front desk remembering her name or building a personal relationship with her. It required a certain kind of place and feeling that visitors manage (mostly) on their own.

We've all experienced complicity with strangers, whether sharing a knowing smile with someone at an intersection or seeing the gleam in the eyes of a fellow fan at a sports event or concert. Complicity makes big places feel intimate. It makes spontaneous feelings of comfort and community possible.

What makes complicity more common in some large spaces than others? To some extent, complicity is determined by individual attitude. When people are afraid, unsettled, or uncertain of a situation, they may be less likely to see others as complicit partners in a pleasurable experience. When I'm lost in a crowd, I feel the intense loneliness of a sea of strangers, but when I'm confidently striding down the same street, I feel the warmth of those around me who are also enjoying the day.

But there are some places that are designed in ways that make it easier to swing toward complicity and away from fear. Institutions and areas that clearly delineate how the space should be used put people at ease about what they can do (and what others might do in relation to them). For example, standing in line at a movie theater, everyone shares the excitement and energy of the show they are about to see. This sense of complicity is reinforced and supported by the fact that people obey the rules of the line and don't push past each other. When people cut the line, it breaks that implicit community pact and makes the space less pleasant and friendly.

How can cultural professionals encourage feelings of complicity among visitors to our institutions?
  • Help visitors understand clearly and in a friendly way what is and isn't allowed. When visitors feel confident about their roles and opportunities, they are more likely to feel able to extend their experience in a social direction. In the best of these situations, visitors are naturally inclined to spontaneously teach others how to use exhibits or share what they see--happily taking on a complicit role of friend and helpmate.
  • Where possible, staff should act as friends, partners, and helpers instead of enforcers. I wouldn't be surprised if there is an direct relationship between the tone of security guards in a museum and the amount of complicity felt by visitors. When people feel that they are being watched and monitored for potential transgressions, they start to worry--"Maybe other people aren't following the rules! Maybe I'm not following the rules! Maybe I'm going to get in trouble!" All of these concerns lead to fear and away from community experiences.
  • Design galleries and spaces to be used comfortably by large numbers of visitors. When visitors see each other as distracting or preventing them from accessing an exhibit, they are unlikely to see each other as partners in experience. When exhibits support group play, are numerous enough for no one to feel anxiety about "missing out," and accommodate many visitors easily, people are more likely to feel positively inclined toward each other.
  • Design exhibits that attract a crowd and invite group play. I've written before about the fact that large, active objects are often natural social objects. When families crowd around to watch a model train traverse its course or a fountain dance in the wind, they often end up pointing things out to strangers, sharing a smile and a special moment. When designers consider sight lines across exhibitions or performance spaces, there are opportunities to promote complicity among visitors who are at a "safe" distance from each other as strangers. Zoos and aquaria are wonderful at this, with many exhibits designed to naturally invite visitors to point things out across distances to each other.

When we encourage complicity in cultural institutions, we encourage shared play and learning. Complicity can make a large place feel intimate and communal. And the community feeling happens in a way that feels natural and visitor-driven.

Do you have a story of a time when complicity with strangers changed your experience? What design elements made that experience possible?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Adventures in Participatory Journalism: An Interview with Sarah Rich about 48 Hour Magazine

A few weeks ago, a group of San Francisco-based writers had a crazy idea: they would make a magazine in 48 hours. And not just any magazine—they wanted to produce something of high quality, in keeping with their day jobs with Wired, Dwell, and other journalistic outfits. Oh, and they wanted it to be participatory. They put out a worldwide call for submissions on a Friday, and put the magazine to bed on Sunday.

That Sunday was this past Sunday, May 9, and by May 10, the magazine was available for sale. It looks great—60 pages on the theme of “hustle” culled from 1502 submissions (all of which were created, received, selected, edited, and laid out in 48 hours). I talked with Sarah Rich, one of the project’s instigators and staff members, to learn more about 48 Hour Magazine and its implications for other participatory media projects.

You had a huge response to this project. People were talking about it all over Twitter, and I was amazed to see how many submissions you received. What generated all the buzz?

The momentum was almost exclusively Twitter-based. None of us is a huge celebrity, but between the six of us who ran the project we have several thousand Twitter followers. We also have contacts with a lot of nodes in the Twitter network who have really big reach. It was almost entirely the reason this happened the way it did – we’re all pretty involved in the new media space.

We launched the Twitter feed and the website on April 29, and a little under 8000 people signed up to get an alert when the theme was announced. And then we had 1502 submissions when we finally announced the theme and the clock started.

That’s a lot of submissions. How did you read them and cull down the list in the time you had?

We had a really great custom content management system (CMS) built for us by one of our teammates, Dylan Fareed. He set up an infrastructure for people to evaluate submissions by giving it a yes, no, or maybe, with comments. We called upon our personal networks of trusted San Francisco-based editors to come in and read onsite during the weekend (with everyone working on their own laptops using the CMS). The CMS tabulated how many times each submission was read. We made sure everything was read three to five times. We didn’t have explicit criteria for selection—it came down to whether a piece was outstanding and reflected the theme.

What did you do when people disagreed—when you got a yes, a no, and a maybe on the same piece?

The three primary editors read all the contentious ones and all the ones that got more than two yes votes. Even after starting from ones with two yeses, we still had way more than we could use, and our core editorial team of three made the decisions about what would be included.

Once we figured out a final approval, we gave each piece to an editor for a more intense edit. There wasn’t any time to go back to the contributors for an okay, but that was part of the deal we outlined at the start. There were a couple instances when we cut something so dramatically (for example, from a 1,500 word essay to a two-line quote) that we did send an email to someone explaining the plan and we got their blessing to include it in the reduced form.

How did you work out the narrative flow of the final magazine?

That’s one of the phases for which we had the least amount of time, and something we’d like to give more hours to in the next issue. When each piece was edited, it went to Derek Powazek, who was doing layout and design, and he made the executive decision about where to put everything for the most part. The narrative arc of the whole magazine could probably have been more calculated but it actually came together well considering the speed.

How did you choose the theme of the magazine—hustle?

We talked about debt as a theme but
it wasn’t perfect. Then one night we were talking about our own careers and lives and how we had to hustle to make money as journalists. We liked that it wasn’t too prescriptive a theme—there’s the swindle side, the speed side—lots of ways to look at it.

Were the submissions really variable? Did you get some stuff that was just a mess?

The content was all over the map. We got something from a 9 year old blogger about Justin Bieber which was probably the most surprising. We got a lot of fiction and poetry, people in the literary magazine vein, people who write for themselves personally. Because the magazine theme was “hustle”, we received lots of personal narrative about sex and drugs. That represented a bulk of things we didn’t put in.

Beyond the excitement and buzz factor, what’s the value of doing this project so fast?

Magazines don’t have money to pay anyone anymore. A lot of people are expected to invest a lot of time to get published but then don’t get paid very much for their efforts. This was a way for us to get super-talented writers and only ask for a morning of their time. And it was a sort of question in our heads: do you have a higher probability of getting great creative work from people because we made it fun and not burdensome? There was a “let’s make it happen” attitude that I think was really appealing.

We were intentionally vague about the idea that the contributions had to be entirely conceived and created during the 24-hour submission period. And that vagueness definitely did enhance the overall content. For example, we received a photo essay that featured images taken months ago in French Guyana. The photos were old but the text was new. We couldn’t have had that piece if we were super strict about the timeframe.

This project appears to have been an incredible success. In lots of situations like this, I see well-intentioned people or institutions launch something like this and it bombs—the participation is not strong enough. You clearly had a lot going for you as a team, but do you think this kind of participation is replicable for people who are less tech-focused and connected than you?

I think there’s some truth to the fact that we’re in San Francisco, we’re media people, we can have great editors because we know them, we know great programmers – those are results of our specific circumstances. But I think this is definitely doable on a local level. The Internet is obviously a key tool for organizing. And then it’s about getting the people together and energized and ready to go.

You made contribution to the magazine participatory. Could you imagine making the editorial experience more participatory as well—crowd-sourcing the curation of the final magazine?

In terms of my vision, internal curation by trusted editors is a key piece. I really wanted it to be a refined and curated product in the end. We will work with different sets of editors on the next issue, and I’m excited about having a new group of staff members, but it really helps that they are professionals.

We considered putting up every single submission on the website and we decided not to in the end. It would have created a weird separation between the people in the community who were selected and those who weren’t. What I’m really excited about is that a lot of people who didn’t get in are posting their work on their own blogs, etc.

For the most part, the vast majority of the feedback from people whose work wasn’t selected was “I’m so excited I got to be creative this weekend, it was really great to do this thing.” And then there’s a smaller faction who said, “Why did you make all these people waste their time?” which to me is not the point at all. There’s some value in doing creative work, whether it’s included in the magazine or not.

What do you want people to say when they see the magazine? Sometimes participatory projects are seen as creating inferior products—projects that are “nice for the community” but not as high-quality as professionally-produced work.

I hope that people look at the magazine as a great magazine with great content and art. I don’t want people to say, “this is great for something they did in 48 hours.” I hope that they just think it’s great.


I haven’t received my copy yet, but it looks great online. I bought two; if you’d like me to mail my second one to you, leave a brilliant comment and I’ll pick a winner at random (US only for this one).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Museum 2.0 Book Club: The Great Good Place

While it hasn't happened here in awhile, a new Museum 2.0 book club will be starting in two weeks to read and discuss The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg is the individual to whom the term "third place" is attributed, and this well-researched 1989 book put him on the map. "Third places" are places that are neither work nor home but occupy essential positions as anchors of community life. They may be parks, cafes, bars, hair salons--any place that is conducive to informal, welcoming, creative interaction.

Many museum and library professionals use the concept of the third place to describe the idealized vision of a cultural institution as a place for community use and civic engagement. I was surprised when I first picked up Oldenburg's book to confront many ideas in it that are frankly quite challenging to my original conception of a third place. Oldenburg celebrates places that are less structured, less designed, less facilitated, and less content-rich than most museums want to be. It made me wonder if cultural professionals really want to turn their institutions into third places, and if so, what it would take. I hope we can explore those questions together in the weeks to come.

Here's how the book club will work:
  1. Get your hands on a copy of the book in the next couple of weeks.
  2. Read it (or a large chunk of it).
  3. If you are so motivated, fill out this two-question form to let me know you want to write a guest post or do an interview with me about the book.
  4. For four weeks starting June 1, each Tuesday there will be a Museum 2.0 post with a response to the book. I'd like to write one or two of these at the most. The goal is to make the blog a community space for different viewpoints. I'll be looking for guest posters who represent different types of institutions or approaches to the material. You don't need to be a museum or library professional to be eligible--just a good writer with an interesting perspective to share.
I look forward to the discussion next month!

Friday, May 07, 2010

Kisaeng Becomes You: Taking Risks with Audience Participation

Imagine asking audience members to participate in your work. Imagine asking them to do something that isn't supplemental to your process but is instead absolutely necessary to the overall success of your work. Imagine asking perfect strangers to make something, with no prior training or relationship, that will become the most visible part of a project you've been working on for months or years.

Sound scary?

This week, I met New York choreographer Dean Moss and learned about his fascinating contemporary dance piece Kisaeng Becomes You (2009). The piece was developed in collaboration with Yoon Jin Kim, a Korean choreographer based in Seoul, and it uses the centuries-old idea of the kiseang, a geisha-like Korean woman who serves men, as the basis for a radical and provocative program. There are five female dancers, but there are also three audience members pulled up during the show to perform and to become metaphoric kisaeng.

The audience participation was essential, not incidental, to the piece. As New York Times critic Claudio La Rocco put it, "[they] decided to roll the dice every night and gamble the entire show on several dazzling, sophisticated bursts of audience participation... The gamble paid off." Women from the audience were dressed up in costumes. They practiced dances and performed them, slowly. They recited poetry. They were enthusiastically (and somewhat uncomfortably) hugged and praised and videotaped. They pounded down beers. They filmed each other. And at the very end, one stood, alone, facing the audience, waiting for the lights to go down. While it's a bit hard to follow, you can watch some video of the participation here and here, or read one audience member's exhaustive review here to understand more.

Watching video of a performance with Dean narrating, it was immediately apparent how powerful and unusual this audience participation was. The choreographers carefully orchestrated the participation to hover on the line of uncertainty--participants were supported and encouraged, but not always to safe or comfortable ends. Dean noted several elements of how the participation worked:
  • Audience participants were selected in the lobby before the show but were not told what would be asked of them.
  • The first participant, an older woman, was brought up to the stage in a very gentle, friendly way. She was given lots of instruction and support as she was costumed and asked to help present a slow dance. The later two participants, in contrast, were abruptly thrown onstage in a chaotic, party atmosphere and received much less gentle treatment (pressured to chug beers and join a riotous scene). This distinction in tone made the second participation element stand out rather than being lumped in with the first.
  • The dancers frequently touched the participants and cheered for them in various ways. They repeated their actions and instructions over and over. The affirmation was all positive but had a threatening overtone in its screechy energy. Dean noted that the touching was very important and I assume that it provided both comfort and coercion that kept the participants in line.
  • Participants were filmed by each other and by dancers as they performed. The film was shown via live feed during the performance, and photos the dancers took of themselves with the participants were later emailed home to them. These tools were clearly part of the conceptual nature of the piece being about entertainers, but they also introduced another level of risk--that participants would use them and respond to them correctly.
  • Participants were paid for their work onstage. The first participant was handed money (the price of a ticket), but the later two had money literally stuffed into their clothes by the dancers. Dean noted that in the US performances, the participants always tried to give the money back to the dancers, but in Korea that never happened.
In cultural and educational institutions, we always try to make participation as safe and comfortable as possible. What I saw in Kisaeng Becomes You was an exploration of the dangerous, uneasy side of participation. The artistic power of what I saw came from the palpable sense of risk--for the participants, for the dancers, and for the entire audience in the room. Performative risk elicits emotional response. We feel it every time we see someone onstage doing something difficult or painful. And seeing a fellow audience member in that position only enhances that feeling. The person onstage didn't come to the theater ready to put themselves out there in that way, and that creates a powerful, thrilling tension.

I don't have a prescriptive set of ideas on how to apply this in cultural institutions. But I do know that I was excited and moved by what I saw, and by the reminder that not all participation should be safe and explainable. Particularly in highly facilitated situations, there are wonderful opportunities to use "unsafe" participation as a way to push art and audience experience to a whole new level.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Notes on Structure Lab: Legal and Financial Models for Social Entrepeneurship

Last week, I attended Structure Lab, a half-day workshop on legal and financial structures for ventures for social good. Like many people in the arts, I'm interested in new models that help people combine mission-driven work with an entrepreneurial spirit. And as someone in the planning stages of a new venue (a cafe that offers craft beer, Belgian frites, and intriguing encounters with strangers), I was looking for information and tools that can help me make the best decisions for the financial and mission-related viability and health of the new company.

The Structure Lab is set up as a "game" in which you explore cards in various categories (values, assets, financing, etc.) to better articulate what you are really trying to do with your project concept. The idea is that you specify your values, relationships, and assets, and then match those up with potentially fruitful legal structures, financing models, and growth potential. We each worked individually on our own sets of cards, coming back together for discussion as we progressed through the various stages. The cards were a brilliant touch--they helped structure the day, supported simple prioritizing and sorting activities, and gave participants with a tangible, reusable take-home. While I'm not sure I'd recommend the workshop (it was quite expensive for what I received), I definitely benefited from the format.

The good news? I collected some tools to use in planning and discussing a new business. The bad news? I didn't learn too much about hybrid legal structures that might apply to small-scale ventures like mine. For me, the first half of the workshop was great, but the second piece--the matching--was too brief. I didn't feel like I had the pre-knowledge needed to make useful decisions about how to line up various kinds of legal structures or financing strategies to my goals. I learned new vocabulary and questions to ask myself and others, but the exercise itself felt a bit frustrating and haphazard.

The rest of this post is separated into two sections--one about what I learned about how to think about business formation, and the other about hybrid structures for social entrepreneurship. If you've started a business or organization before, the first section is probably rudimentary, but for me, it was really helpful.

Tools for Planning & Forming a Social Venture

The first half of the workshop focused on three things: values, relationships, and assets. Each of these categories was crafted to help participants narrow down to particular legal structures of interest. For example, the values section was posed in terms of spectrums: from simplicity to complexity, security to risk, constancy to nimbleness, autonomy to engagement. If you see your venture as a simple, risky, nimble operation, a quick and flexible legal structure (like the LLC) may make sense. On the other hand, if you want to start a complex project that is highly engaged with partners and will have a long-term prospectus, more complicated legal structures (like nonprofits or corporations) might make more sense.

The relationships cards asked participants to list individuals and organizations with whom the company will have different kinds of relationships. Who are your investors, co-conspirators, and believers? Who can validate your idea? Who are your buyers, your recipients, and your regulators? For each relationship type, I wrote down who fell into the category, what kind of involvement I saw them having, and how that translated to a certain kind of role in the company (owner, manager, governor, contractor, transactor). The idea here is that your plans for different relationships dictate certain kinds of business directions. A company in which employees are co-owners might translate well to a coop model. A company in which program recipients are involved with governance suggests a community board model. And so on. This relationship bit helped me think about how different kinds of folks will be involved with a highly participatory, community-co-created project in the long-term. It also helped me identify people I should be spending more time with in the short term (and it made me think of you, Museum 2.0 readers, who I see as potential co-conspirators).

Finally, we looked at assets. While these included expected cards for cash, credit, equipment, property, and IP, they also included distribution systems (vehicles for delivering the program) and brand/relationships. Again, we listed out specific items in each category along with engagement strategies for each. But this time, instead of mapping those to roles and ownership stakes, we mapped the assets to three kinds of asset management--protection, leverage, and share. For me, this was pretty interesting, particularly when it comes to intellectual property. I see the cafe I'm building as an R&D space for the cultural sector, and I want to be able to share research and ideas that come out of it freely with cultural organizations, while protecting my ability to also leverage that research for sale to for-profit companies that are interested in research around customer loyalty and community engagement. I'm usually so sharing-oriented, but I appreciate the complexity of figuring out how to balance giving things away with selling them--it's what I do in my work all the time (and it was an important part of the distribution of The Participatory Museum).

As noted above, the workshop became more confusing and less useful when we moved into matching what we'd written to various legal structures, governance models, and financing models. Part of this had to do with the shift in interaction--we stopped writing and personalizing cards to our own projects and were instead expected to read the little cards and glean from them enough information to make informed decisions (something that others may have been more able to do given much greater levels of experience with financing and legal structures). The cards were helpful for expanding my vocabulary and thinking about the options, particularly when it came to the market interaction, governance, and growth cards. The cards were tagged with various legal structures, so that, for example, you knew that endowments only work for financing non-profits, stock options are only applicable to corporations, and so on.

One of the governance ideas I liked most (and thought could easily extend to non-profits) is a Stewards Council. This is a structure that is apparently gaining traction in the social entrepreneurship world in which a company has a group of advisors with limited economic interest/investment who have some powers to weigh in on and even veto board decisions that may impact the ability of the company to accomplish its mission. This is a kind of check against board interests that are purely focused on shareholder returns and might steer a company away from its mission. But I think this might also make sense in non-profits, where boards are often funders and may not be able to steward the mission as successfully as a more diverse group of community members.

Legal Structures for Social Good (in the US)

Before the workshop, I'd read a good deal about the L3C, B Corp, and other nascent legal structures for social entrepreneurship. I'd been particularly excited about the L3C, which is a mission-first, low-profit LLC that is eligible for program-related investments (PRIs) by charitable foundations. B Corp is newer--right now it's a national trustmark (a certification, like organic), though Maryland just passed a law making "benefit corporation" a legal designation.

I was disappointed, and a little surprised, that the workshop facilitator did not talk at length about these structures nor was able to answer most peoples' questions about them (including basic questions like what "low-profit" means in the L3C context). Yes, these structures are still emerging, but L3C has been on the books in a few states for awhile and many of the workshop participants, like me, seemed particularly interested in them.

What I did learn, however, was not that encouraging. It seems that most L3Cs are large organizations, and they are formed as L3Cs specifically to access program-related investments (PRIs). Here's a brief primer on PRIs. Foundations make charitable grants and donations to non-profit organizations. They also manage investment portfolios that allow them to keep building their endowments so they can continue making charitable grants into the future. The IRS requires foundations to distribute at least 5% of their assets each year to charitable/social organizations. This 5% can be used for grants to non-profits or program-related investments in for-profits. The challenge traditionally is that to use a PRI to invest in a for-profit, both the foundation and the for-profit company have to go through lots of work with the IRS to justify that yes, the company is doing social good and is eligible for some of the foundation's distribution of assets. The L3C structure was set up so that for-profits and foundations can more easily partner and make PRIs possible. This seems to be working, though the question of whether the L3C label is sufficient evidence on its own for a company to be eligible for PRIs has not yet been tested in court.

So the upside is that an L3C is eligible for a pool of investment from foundations that was previously difficult to get. There's a second upside that only really makes sense for very large organizations, and it has to do with tranching, or segmenting, of investment. Basically, the idea is that a foundation could invest in an L3C at a very low rate of return with high risk (because it's a good mission-fit investment to make), which would allow the L3C to offer other more traditional investors a higher rate of return at lower risk in a different tranche of investment. This can make a socially beneficial company more likely to attract investment. The foundation with the PRI effectively jumpstarts the viability of the L3C by taking on the most risk and lowest amount of return.

This is all great for big companies, but for small projects like mine, an L3C might not be that useful. I'm not planning on pursuing complicated tranched investment strategies, and I don't have pre-existing relationships with foundations that are making PRIs in the arts or in community development. While the idea of incorporating as a mission-first company really appeals to me and fits with my thinking, I was told that an L3C model can actually scare off potential investors who see the company as not serious about making money. And it apparently takes an incredible amount of time, relationships, and education to help foundations that don't currently make PRIs consider doing so.

And what about the B Corp? We spent even less time talking about this during the workshop. This one really is new, at least the Maryland legal version, and at least for me, a corporation of any kind (B, S, C, coop) is more complicated than how I want to get my business started. I do think the B Corp certification is interesting, and it might make sense for a non-profit to go through the assessment and check out the rating system to understand what the B Corp folks see as indicative of a socially responsible business (though you should note that B Corp certification is not available for non-profits).

Ultimately, the workshop facilitator noted that many people who start social ventures choose their legal structure based on discussions with funders. Funders who are interested in charitable donations are more likely to engage with a non-profit, whereas those who are interested in investments (even at low profit) are more likely to get involved with companies. So if you are interested in putting some money into a project that will promote civic engagement through substantive interactions among strangers and serve as an experimental R&D center for public-facing cultural institutions, give me a call and we can figure out the next step together.