Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Saying Yes

It's a Saturday night when I get the email. "Sharon D. Payne," member of the incredibly popular Santa Cruz roller derby team, wants to pitch a partnership with our museum. She doesn't have a specific idea for a partner event or exhibit, but she feels like we have a lot to offer each other in terms of publicity and a shared focus on enhancing cultural experiences in the community. And she wants to do it now--in the next two weeks.

I want to say yes. In fact, I do say yes. But then, it turns out we've already said yes to three other groups for the event in question. I end up having to call and say we're going to wait until the spring to make something happen. And then I feel like a jerk.

I love saying yes. Yes to the heirloom seed library that now graces our lobby. Yes to partnerships with the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Homeless Service Center. Yes to tie-ins with the Symphony and the Boys and Girls Club. Yes to the Big Read with the library, yes to the Burningman artists who want to show their giant kinetic sculpture in the lobby, yes to projections on the side of the building.

Saying yes is one of the few things I can offer sympatico community organizations and individuals. We have a "no money, no bullshit" motto here right now; there's no money for partner projects, but we can say yes with a minimum of bureaucracy and red tape. We've actually gotten some of our best partnerships (like the seed library) because another organization said no. Being nimble and open to a bit of chaos is a luxury that comes with being a small institution on a mission to be a community hub. It's exciting to have someone approach us on a Tuesday with a great idea for Saturday, and as much as possible, we try to say yes.

But it's getting harder to do so as time goes on. Each time we say yes, the schedule gets a bit more full, the space is a bit more complete, the insanity a little higher. I'm learning to say "yes, but not now" or "yes, but let's figure it out a little more," and sometimes, painfully, "no."

I can see how it gets easy for an organization to get in the habit of starting from "no" instead of "yes." Chaos can be stressful. When we have more money and programs, maybe we won't want to deal with the headaches of installing a giant multi-person hammock in the lobby--even if it is free.

I don't want to get there. I believe that we're doing our best work when we are able to say yes to people who walk in the door with good ideas and real community needs to be met. And I feel like we're most fresh and dynamic when we can keep being responsive to the next idea.

The challenge, then, is to figure out how to say yes consistently, smartly, over the long term. Just as any project has its messy, open-ended phase before it hardens into completion, we're in a messy phase as an institution. What will we harden into? Is it better to try to stay in the messy phase as long as possible, or to create a structure that supports the messiness within a more formal setting?

This brings me back to Paul Light's recommendation in Sustaining Innovation that organizations need to learn "how to say no and why to say yes." My presumption is that as time goes on, our answer to the question of "why to say yes" will change. Right now, we're saying yes because it's a way to build trust in the community, to build on the enthusiasm of others, and to enliven our space with the passion and diversity of our partners. It would probably be a worthwhile exercise in the future to make sure we sit down as a staff and ask ourselves: "why should we say yes to this or that?" and track the change. But I don't want to codify anything to death. I'm still not sure whether informality and flexibility can be a permanent state of being... but I'd like to try. And in the meantime, I'm dreaming of what will make the most sense in the spring with the Derby girls.

Do you feel like you work in a place where "yes" is the default? What do you see making that possible (or impossible)?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Does Your Institution Really Need to Be Hip? Audience Development Reconsidered

Last Friday night, my museum hosted a fabulous (in my biased opinion) event called Race Through Time. It was a local history urban scavenger hunt that sent teams of 2-5 people out into the city to track down as many historic checkpoints as they could over the course of an evening. The event was oversold, and participants raved about the experience.

We created Race Through Time in partnership with a local networking group called Santa Cruz Next, whose primary aim is to support and celebrate ways that young professionals can and are changing our community for the better. Race Through Time was designed specifically for this audience of 30 and 40-somethings looking for fun social events with a Santa Cruz bent. We saw Race Through Time as an opportunity to share our mission around engaging with history with a new and highly desirable audience of young professionals. Everything about the event--from the time slot to the tone of the content to the music played--was designed for that audience.

When Friday night rolled around, we did see a crowd that skewed decidedly younger and hipper than our standard museum audience. But we also saw something else: parents and teenagers, grandparents and grandkids, elderly couples, out for a fun scavenger hunt evening. Yes, there was the 40-ish lawyer who effused that she'd never seen so many young people in the museum before. But there was also the couple in their 70s who told me this was the most fun they'd ever had on a Friday night in Santa Cruz. And from my perspective, it was this diversity that made the event unique--and made me rethink the way that cultural professionals typically approach audience development.

I've written before about the "parallel vs. pipeline" approach to new audience development. The concept goes like this: if you want to invite in people who don't traditionally engage with your offerings, you offer them an experience that is so tailored to their unique interests and preferred modes of engagement that it really is only for them. Performances just for teens. Late night mixers at museums for young adults. The experience is dramatically different from the norm and the audience is very targeted. It's a parallel experience, one that may or may not be eventually integrated into the core "pipeline" of traditional experiences and audiences.

We thought that Race Through Time would fall in this category--that it would be 90% people from the Santa Cruz Next young professional crowd. But it was more like 60%--enough for all those young people to feel like they were in the right place, but not enough to feel like it was "their" event alone. There were twenty-year old hippies. There were grizzled cyclists. There were families. It turned out that there were many different kinds of people who were excited about an active, adventurous approach to history.

This gets me thinking about whether the most productive programs for cultural organizations from an audience development perspective are not wholly parallel to the norm but somewhere just slightly outside, somewhere that links the typical to the possible. Maybe being incredibly hip one night a year or month or week is not enough to help the audiences who come to those events connect to the institution writ large. Those events bring in specific crowds for singular experiences, but to what end? If you have a wild event that feels like a spaceship landed on your institution, what happens when the ship leaves the next day?

Museums are not for specific crowds alone. As Elaine Heumann Gurian has often noted, the magic comes when cultural institutions bring together people who don't typically mix. As someone who can feel a bit alienated at events with homogenous audiences--even people who look like me--I appreciate the opportunity to be in a crowd that includes me without being prescriptive or limiting.

We lose something if we focus too narrowly on specific audiences. I've started realizing that at First Fridays, when our museum swells with people out on the town for an art experience. We are by no means the hippest First Friday destination in Santa Cruz, and sometimes, after a long evening at the museum, I'll head out to a gallery and look longingly at the young, cool artist crowd gathered within. I love hanging out with those people in those hip venues. But I also love that the museum invites those young adults in along with elderly folks in wheelchairs, families with toddlers--the happily un-hip.

And so I'm letting go of the idea that we have to be exclusionary to attract young people and looking for more diverse alternatives. The marketing argument has always been that we have to segment, that we have to tailor. But what if we segment to "people who like to meet people who are not like them?" I think that's a stronger community value proposition than becoming as cool--and limited--as an institution with a tightly-limited audience.

Do our institutions really need to be hip to be successful? Or do they just need to be welcoming, open, comfortable places that offer a diversity of experience? I realize I may be totally biased on this since I'm watching it happen in my own institution and my own community, and I'm also personally not a very hip person. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fundraising as Participatory Practice: Myths, Realities, Possibilities

"Fundraising is about relationships."
"The key to fundraising is listening."
"Development works when you are responsive to the donor's needs, not just presenting your own."

Anyone who has worked in fundraising has likely heard these missives again and again. But as a creative type who has recently taken on an executive role, I've been fascinated, shocked even, to learn that the folks in the development department have been singing the relationship chorus for so long.

On the one hand, this is awesome. I'm finding myself really enjoying fundraising because it is fundamentally about inspiring people to participate--and to do so in a way that is significant both for the organization and for themselves. As a designer, I'm always trying to ensure that participatory activities, however casual, impact both the participant and the organization. When someone gives money, that's almost always a given.

On the other hand, there's something deeply weird about the fact that I didn't know that fundraising was about relationships before I started doing it. If fundraisers are so keen on relationships, why weren't they the first into social media and participatory projects on behalf of their organizations? Even stranger, why are they so often the most opposed to such relationship-oriented efforts when extended to everyday members or visitors? I've led many meetings and workshops on building relationships with audience members in which development officers are the least comfortable with fostering open, two-way engagement with participants.

What's going on here? I suspect there are two contradictory issues behind this confusion:
  1. While relationships are about giving and receiving, fundraising strategies frequently rely on a scarcity model in which gifts and thank you's are finite and defined. In a world in which donors are traunched, relationship "benefits" are meted out to individuals based on their level of giving. You can't have a personal relationship with someone who hasn't earned it through appropriate gifts--you'd be "wasting" your attentiveness.
  2. While relationships are about trust and open communication, donor communication is perceived as very high stakes. Fundraisers therefore want to sculpt the message as much as possible. Too much openness could lead to someone being unhappy and withdrawing their participation.
Interestingly, in the participatory design model I'm more familiar with on the Web and in collaborative project design, the fundamental issues are different. It tends to be easy to communicate openly and express appreciation abundantly when you are co-creating an exhibition or a community art project. There's no such thing as too much community cheerleading or engagement. What's hard is to ensure that people make meaningful contributions and to help participants advance from one-time actions into ongoing involvement--two things that fundraisers are pretty darn good at.

I'd love to see a book, blog, or conference that focuses broadly on building relationships in cultural organizations--with donors, staff, visitors, audiences, members. I think there's a lot we have to learn from each other to get to a place where those relationships are as genuine and meaningful as possible. Authentic relationship-building is something I've long debated with friends in the education, exhibition, and online worlds. And now I feel silly that I haven't more actively engaged with fundraisers about it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Guest Post: What YBCA is Learning from a Personalized Museum Membership Program

This guest post was written by Laurel Butler, Education and Education Specialist at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, CA. Laurel is the "Art Coach" who runs an unusual personalized YBCA:YOU membership program that started last year. YBCA:YOU is an intriguing take on experiments in membership and raises interesting questions about what scaffolding people need to have social and repeat experiences in museums. Joël Tan, YBCA's Director of Community Engagement & creator of YBCA:YOU, will monitor and respond to your questions and ideas in the comments section.

Two strangers stand next to each other in a gallery, staring at the same piece. Secretly, each wishes the other would turn and ask: “What do you think?” They want to connect with each other about the art. But they don’t.

If an arts experience is not shared, is the experience still transformative? Or are we missing a crucial part of the process?

I’ve always been the type of person who likes to ask strangers what they think. So, when I was hired to manage the YBCA: YOU pilot program at YBCA, the challenge was clear: How could I turn these fleeting, missed connections into meaningful moments of interpersonal engagement? Or, more simply: How can I make 100 art lovers become friends with each other?

The YBCA: YOU program is an integrated, personalized approach to the YBCA arts experience, designed to revolutionize the way the community engages with contemporary art and ideas. Participants in the program get an all-access pass to our space, and are able to use it any way that resonates with their interests. They also work with me, their personal “arts coach” to meet their aesthetic goals and maintain a consistent practice.

It’s a little like a gym membership with a dash of case management and counseling. This isn’t a coincidence ─ YBCA:YOU grew out of years of audience development research and was highly informed by our Director of Community Engagement Joël Tan's prior work in AIDS case management and public health. How many institutions really take the time to sit down with individual audience member and talk about what art they like, or what art they hate, or how they wish their arts experiences were different, or better? Apparently, the idea was exciting to other folks as well: A single press release generated twice as much interest as we had anticipated. At first, we were concerned about capacity ─ would we really be able to “get personal” with 150 people? But we were convinced that no survey, questionnaire, or aggregated data could provide the nuances and subtleties that come with a face-to-face meeting.

So, we sat down with every person who signed up for the program, and listened to their story, taking notes on the kinds of arts programming that might best support their interests and goals. There was Henri, who wanted to explore his budding interest in performance. We told him about Lemi Ponifasio/MAU at YBCA, and the Second Sundays series at Counterpulse. There was Jane, who was interested in the East Bay arts landscape. We recommended that she check out Art Murmur on the first Friday of the month.

The “Aesthetic Development Planning” (ADP) meetings were as diverse as you might expect from 100 plus Bay Area arts enthusiasts. However, there was one salient piece of feedback that kept coming up over and over: People wanted to connect with other people around the art. Traci felt put-off by the “scene” that surrounded the art world. She felt that she lacked formal training and knowledge, and was afraid of “saying the wrong thing”. Anton felt that his reading of art was so consumed by scholarly critique that it was hard to articulate a purely intuitive response. Many felt that there never seemed to be an appropriate context or venue for that kind of thing. You can’t simply turn to the stranger next to you and ask “What do you think”?
We’d been thinking about YBCA: YOU as a way to develop a deeper, more personal relationship between YBCA and its visitors, but what about creating community within our constituency? What does it take for an institution to connect people on an individual level?

We began by integrating our Art Savvy program into YBCA:YOU. Art Savvy is a facilitated gallery tour that uses the principles of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) to engage in deep observation and conversation around a piece of visual art. It’s a great way to get those two strangers in the gallery to talk to each other. We held YBCA:YOU Savvy sessions around our exhibitions, films, performances… even gallery walks and field trips around town. The folks who attended these events raved about how much fun they had, how much they had enriched and deepened their connection to the art. And yet, out of over 100 potential participants, we never got more than a dozen-or-so YOUers to show.

So, last month we decided to make phone calls to each of the YOUers to discuss the progress of their aesthetic development and talk about their experience of the program thus far. Again, the conversations were complex and diverse as the cohort itself, but one trope kept coming up over and over:
“It’s not you, it’s me.”

These folks made it clear that the program was, indeed, motivating them to make art more of a habit, but they needed more time to incorporate the idea of aesthetic development into their own lives, on their own terms. I realized that I was being impatient – the program, after all, hadn’t even been in place for six months! I couldn’t expect to see a radical social transformation right away, because the personal transformation needed to take place first.

The benefits of regular sessions at the gym, or visits to the dentist, or a therapist, or time spent with friends, are all pretty self-evident after six months. But, as Abigail Housen’s Aesthetic Development Stage Theory (PDF) tells us, it takes just as long to develop aesthetic muscles as physical muscles, and the results are not always so immediately clear. YOUers by and large were making art more of a habit in their lives, but not in drastic terms. They were branching out of their comfort zone one performance at a time, looking at the world around them with a new set of eyes to find the potential of art embedded within their daily lives.

It seems to me now that the capacity to make space in one’s life for art may precede the type of community participation that we were looking for as an indicator of programmatic success. I still believe that, with enough time and consistent personalized contact, a program like YBCA:YOU can revolutionize the way the world engages with contemporary art and ideas. However, like any revolution, it has to begin with the personal.