Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 4: Guest Comic and Open Thread

For the past few weeks, I've been writing about relevance and museums. The conversation in the comments on each post has been fascinating and educational. Today, I wanted to share a provocative comic made by a talented museum-er/illustrator, Crista Alejandre. I hope this piece encourages more dialogue among us in this penultimate post in the relevance series.


This post is part of a series of meditations on relevance. This week is YOUR WEEK to weigh in on anything related to relevance that you want to explore. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you today: What responses, questions, and stories does Crista's comic spark for you?

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 3: Who Decides What's Relevant?

One of my favorite comments on the first post in this series came from Lyndall Linaker, an Australian museum worker, who asked: "Who decides what is relevant? The curatorial team or a multidisciplinary team who have the audience in mind when decisions are made about the best way to connect visitors to the collection?"

My answer: neither. The market decides what's relevant. Whoever your community is, they decide. They decide with their feet, attention, dollars, and participation.

When you say you want to be relevant, that usually means "we want to matter to more people." Or different people. Can you define the community to whom you want to be relevant? Can you describe them? Mattering more to them starts with understanding them. What they care about. What is useful to them. What is on their minds.

The community decides what is relevant to them. But who decides what is relevant inside the organization? Who interprets the interests of the community and decides on the relevant themes and activities for the year?

That's a more complicated question. It's a question of HOW we decide, not just WHO makes the decision.

Community First Program Design

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we've gravitated towards a "community first" program planning model. It's pretty simple. Instead of designing programming and then seeking out audiences for it, we identify communities and then develop programs that are relevant to their assets and needs. 

Here's how we do it:
  1. Define the community or communities to whom you wish to be relevant. The more specific the definition, the better. 
  2. Find representatives of this community--staff, volunteers, visitors, trusted partners--and learn more about their experiences. If you don't know many people in this community, this is a red flag moment. Don't assume that content/form that is relevant to you or your existing audiences will be relevant to people from other backgrounds. 
  3. Spend more time in the community to whom you wish to be relevant. Get to know their dreams, points of pride, and fears. 
  4. Develop collaborations and programs, keeping in mind what you have learned. 

We use a simple "honeycomb" diagram (image) to do these four steps.

We start at the middle of the diagram, defining the community of interest.

Then, we define the needs and assets of that community. We're careful to focus on needs AND assets. Often, organizations adopt a service model that is strictly needs-based. The theory goes: you have needs; we have programs to address them. While needs are important, this service model can be demeaning and disempowering. It implies we have all the answers. It's more powerful to root programming in the strengths of a community than its weaknesses.

Once we've identified assets and needs, we seek out collaborators and project ideas. We never start with the project idea and parachute in. We start with the community and build to projects.

Here are two examples:
  • Our Youth Programs Manager, Emily Hope Dobkin, wanted to find a way to support teens at the museum. Emily started by honing in on local teens' assets: creativity, activist energy, desire to make a difference, desire to be heard, free time in the afternoon. She surveyed existing local programs. The most successful programs fostered youth empowerment and community leadership in various content areas: agriculture, technology, healing. But there was no such program focused on the arts. Subjects to Change was born. Subjects to Change puts teens in the driver's seat and gives them real responsibility and creative leadership opportunities at our museum and in collaborations across the County. Subjects to Change isn't rooted in our collection, exhibitions, or existing museum programs. It's rooted in the assets and needs of creative teens in our County. Two years after its founding, Subjects to Change is blasting forward. Committed teens lead the program and use it as a platform to host cultural events and creative projects for hundreds of their peers across the County. The program works because it is teen-centered, not museum-centered. 
  • Across our museum, we're making efforts to deeply engage Latino families. One community of interest are Oaxacan culture-bearers in the nearby Live Oak neighborhood. There is a strong community of Oaxacan artists, dancers, and musicians in Live Oak. One of their greatest assets is the annual Guelaguetza festival, which brings together thousands of people for a celebration of Oaxacan food, music, and dance. Our Director of Community Engagement, Stacey Marie Garcia, reached out to the people who run the festival, hoping we might be able to build a collaboration. We discovered--together--that each of us had assets that served the other. They had music and dance but no hands-on art activities; we brought the hands-on art experience to their festival. They have a strong Oaxacan and Latino following; we have a strong white following. We built a partnership in which we each presented at each other's events, linking our different programming strengths and audiences. No money changed hands. It was all about us amplifying each other's assets and helping meet each other's needs. 

Getting New Voices in Your Head 

The essential first step to this "community first" process is identifying communities of interest and learning about their assets, needs, and interests.

How does this critical learning happen? There are many ways to approach it. You can form a community advisory group. A focus group. Recruit new volunteers or board members. Hire new staff. Volunteer in that community. Seek out trusted leaders and make them your partners. Seek out community events and get involved.

We find that the more time we spend in communities of interest--hiring staff from those communities, recruiting volunteers from those communities, helping out in those communities, and collaborating with leaders in those communities--the easier it is to make reasonable judgments about what is and isn't relevant. It gets easier to hear their voices in our heads when we make a decision. To imagine what they'll reject and what they'll embrace.

If you want to make program decisions relevant to a group, the thing you need most is their voices in your head. Not your voice. Not the voices of existing participants who are NOT from the community of interest.

Here's the challenge: if this community of interest is new to you, it's hard to get their voices in your head. It's hard for two reasons:
  1. If you are interested in being relevant to a community that is new to you, you likely have low familiarity and knowledge of that community's assets, needs, and interests. 
  2. At the same time as you are learning about this community, stumbling into new conversations, your existing community is right there, loud and in your face, drowning out the new voices you are seeking in the dark. 
Anyone who has been through a change process knows this. You start with the community to whom you are already relevant, with their peculiar expectations and strengths and fears. And then, you decide you want the organization to be relevant to new people. People with different expectations and strengths and fears. You learn something about these new people: they prefer programming later at night, they're inspired by this kind of program, they want content in this language. If any of these changes threatens the experience of the people already engaged, they may revolt. They may say you are dumbing it down, screwing it up, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It's easy to give up. It's easy to just listen to the voices already in front of you. To stay relevant to them and shed your visions of being relevant to more or different people.

But you can't give up. If you believe in the work of being relevant to new communities, you have to believe those people are out there. You have to privilege their voices in your head. You have to believe that their assets and needs and dreams are just as valid as those of people who are already engaged.

Every time an existing patron expresses concern about a change, you have to imagine the voices in your head of those potential new patrons who will be elated and engaged by the change. You have to hear their voices loud and clear.

These new voices don't exist yet. They are whispers from the future. But put your ear to the ground, press forward in investing in community relevance, and those whispers will be roars before you know it.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you today: Who decides what is relevant in your institution? Have you ever seen a project succeed or fail based on interpretation of community assets and needs? 

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 2: Content vs. Form

In pop culture-land, relevance is all about now. Who's hot. What's trending. If people on the street are talking about X, the museum should be talking about X too.

This is the least useful form of relevance for the arts. "Now" is not an easy business model to chase--especially for institutions rooted in permanence. "Now" requires major changes to how we work and what we offer. "Now" comes off as disingenuous and irrelevant if done wrong. And now is not tomorrow. It is not the long term. It is just now. Endlessly, persistently, expensively, now.

I used to work at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. Our mandate was to be the museum of Silicon Valley--not of its material history, but its pulse of innovation. This was impossible. The exhibits we put on the floor were immediately dated. Their physicality, long timelines, and big budgets made them immutable objects. They didn't speak to the thrilling drumbeat of change at the heart of innovation.

The problem was not one of content but one of form. This isn't just a science center problem. It's a cultural institution problem. The solution is in focusing on changing form more than content. Changing hours and pricing. Curatorial processes. Interpretative techniques.

Consider the experiments at the New World Symphony in Miami, where they are performing classical orchestral music for outdoor "wallcasts" that include projections and visual content. Or Streb Labs, where choreographer Elizabeth Streb flipped the traditional dance model by opening a 24/7, open-access venue for practice and performance. Or museums that extend their hours to match working people's schedules.

These institutions are not being relevant by presenting cat selfies curated by a hot celebrity. They are making canonical content relevant by updating the form. 

William F. Buckley, the conservative political commentator, said: “Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas ... but because the idiom of life is always changing and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.”

Changing the form is about adapting to the vibrations of modern life. You can make "inaccessible" content relevant if you put it on a pedestal that speaks to today. The pedestal of today may be irreverent, or political, or multi-sensory. It may be loud or quiet. Digital or analog. The pedestals will keep changing with the times. The content needn't.

Of course, sometimes when you create a new format that prioritizes "the vibrations of modern life," those vibrations can affect the content. Consider the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum's "Rethinking Soup" lunch series, in which community members share a meal and discussion about social justice issues. Once you put that weekly lunch on the calendar, you're going to fill the bowl weekly with content. Sometimes, that content may be of-the-moment. Other times, grounded in the museum's collection. The weekly format doesn't prescribe contemporary content. But it makes space for it when warranted.

New formats introduce structural changes, whereas new content may only hit the surface. When a museum hosts a one-off community conversation in response to a national crisis, I often wonder: is this opportunistic? Are they taking up a hot topic briefly, only to retreat when the fire goes out? I worry that they will check it off the "relevance" list and forget about it. I worry they won't do the full work of changing to be more relevant in the long-term.

This kind of change is taxing. Relevance is only worth the effort when it is a gateway to utility and meaning. If making something more relevant makes it less meaningful, it's not worth it.

Consider the Victoria and Albert Museum's "rapid response collecting" program, which started in 2013. Curators acquire and display contemporary objects via "a new strand to the V&A museum's collections policy, which can respond very quickly to events relevant to design and technology."

I applaud the V&A for changing their acquisition format to be more responsive to modern life--no easy feat. Yet I'm unsure about its value. Museums have huge issues with overstuffed collection stores of dubious relevance to the modern day. Does collecting more stuff faster help improve relevance? Or does it accelerate an unhealthy emphasis on the "now?"

One of the objects the V&A collected is a pair of jeans produced at a Bangladeshi factory near another factory that collapsed. What's the value of a pair of store-bought jeans made nearby the site of the tragedy? This kind of relevance is a second-class offering to the cult of "now." If the V&A wants to speak to that tragedy, there other objects in its collection that could bring meaning (and relevance) to it. Objects rescued from factory fires. Objects made under duress. Objects that breathe life into the issue at hand.

"Now" matters, but not as much as utility and meaning. "Now" can distract from the real work of relevance--making cultural institutions useful, meaningful, and connected to people's lives. Not just now. Later, too.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you: How do you perceive the difference between relevance of form and content? Are there examples (of either) that have had lasting impact on the relevance of your institution? 

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.