Showing posts with label business models. Show all posts
Showing posts with label business models. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Guest Post: A Shared Ethics for Museum Internships

Is your museum running on interns? In this guest post, CUNY lecturer and former manager of the Guggenheim Internship program Michelle Millar Fisher makes a passionate argument for the end of unpaid internships. It is a strong, museum-focused complement to an excellent three-parter on Fractured Atlas about the ethics and future of unpaid arts internships. 

One of the most poignant signs I saw waved during the Occupy Movement was held by a young woman who politely advised The System to "F**k your free internships." Free intern labor wasn't ever right, but it has become glaringly unethical in the current post-Lehman-crash era. That protest placard highlighted the unpaid internship as a simultaneous symptom and result of badly broken political and social systems.

If you're reading this at work, you're probably reading it within ten feet of an unpaid intern. It's probably a path you had to navigate too. There's a sense of "it worked for me...." And it does - it did work for me. I got my first real job in a museum (at the Guggenheim) after a life-changing internship. My supervisor was amazing, caring, and supportive. I worked so hard in those three unpaid months that I made myself indispensable and jumped ship from my home country (Scotland) and came to New York. My whole career path has been positively changed by that one internship experience.

However, my experience was an exception to the rule that internships increasingly prove: free labor contributes to the growing inequities of the non-profit labor system. Issues of class and economic status haunt the museum internship. You have to be able to afford to work for free in order to take an internship that will help you onto the career ladder. There are certainly excellent programs that try to circumvent this stereotype, and there are stipends to be had in some museums, but they are far from the norm.

My experience was exceptional for one simple reason: my internship at the Guggenheim was the only unpaid internship I ever did. It was the only one I could afford to do. It was made possible by a small, unexpected windfall. If I hadn't had the windfall, it's highly unlikely that as a first-gen college attendee I would have been exposed to the other opportunities it afforded me. (I have somewhat of a "control" in this social experiment in that my talented sister has plied a similar path to me, but was unable to afford the opportunity of one unpaid internship at a museum. Even though she worked just as hard as I did, it took her five years longer to get her foot on the arts employment ladder than it did for me.)

I have done my very fair share of perpetuating the cycle of unpaid internships. As an Associate Manager of Education, I coordinated internships at the Guggenheim museum for four years before I headed back to academia. I expanded the program from around seventy-five interns per year to over one hundred and thirty in almost every department of the museum. I loved my job, and I think many of the interns had amazing experiences at the museum because we tried to take care of them, introduce them to arts networks through a rich weekly seminar program, and encouraged supervisors to be the best mentors they could. But now, as I counsel my university students, I feel it unethical to recommend the same path I took. I have taken a firm stand. I will not forward unpaid internship postings that come my way and actively respond to the senders, even when I know them well as colleagues: “This is not ethical!”

Is unpaid participation in the life and operations of a museum always a bad thing? No. Are the worst offenders larger museums who know they can get away with asking people to work for free? Yes. Is it unethical to ask college juniors and seniors, graduate students, and recently qualified degree holders to undertake multiple free internships? Absolutely. Making small changes and offering some kind of basic compensation for interns in the arts would benefit us all. If the lowest wage on the ladder is zero, entry-level wages don't have to be much higher, and this affects the whole pay scale for the majority of those who work in non-director positions.

Would some form of universal museum internship standard mitigate this? How about a national Museum Internship Ethics Charter that would make three core promises to any museum intern:
  1. a stipend 
  2. a clear written statement of expectations given at the beginning of their internship 
  3. a final face-to-face evaluation with the internship mentor at the end of the internship 
I'm constantly surprised at how many students I speak with, even those who are working for college credit where this is meant to be regulated, do not receive any of these three components. A shared ethics on the subject of internships means a shared ethics for human resources in museum more generally. This type of shared ethics can only be a positive thing for both individuals at all levels, and the institution - and thus its visitors. Happy employees (yes, even interns!) mean greater productivity, creativity, and accountability.

 The students I teach in undergrad classrooms in New York are about a decade younger than me. They're the Internship Generation. The more I am faced with their predicament when they ask me about how to balance work experience that won't pay them with study and (especially at the city college where I teach) the jobs that are paying their tuition, or to write them letters of recommendation for unpaid labor, the more uncomfortable I have become.

How could we all better address this issue? Could museum managers agree to hire interns who need the work experience rather than those with a resume already the length of the Nile? Could they agree to put aside a small part of their yearly budget to compensate interns in some way? Could university instructors (especially those with tenure and a voice) steer their interns in the direction of paid opportunities, and campaign within their own departments to end the cycle of internships for credit? Could we all agree to a universal standard under the auspices of a body like the AAM? Are there already internship models out there that do this that we could learn from and offer as examples?

I'm truly interested in any discussion and feedback on this topic, and taking sustained action. I want to do better for my students, and to participate in the rethinking of a broken model I have helped to perpetuate.

What's your vision for the future of internships? Share your thoughts with Michelle and the Museum 2.0 community in the comments.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Psychology, Pricing, and Pay As You Will at the Children's Museum of Tacoma

my son, chucking money into the donation boxIn 2010, the Children's Museum of Tacoma was getting ready to move to a new, bigger facility. Over the years, they had noticed that 50% of their visitors were coming for free or at reduced cost--whether on free days or with special passes. When they moved to the new facility, they decided they wanted to radically expand access to the museum, AND increase revenue.

What did they do? They went to a "pay as you will" model. Now, they encourage visitors to become mini-philanthropists, enabling inclusion for all. Charging admission is a means test, and they want everyone to be able to pass.

The Children's Museum of Tacoma is two years into their "pay as you will" model, and it looks like a success. Attendance jumped from 40,000 at their old facility to about 120,000 at the new facility. Membership has doubled (now including new perks that extend beyond free admission). Attendance by low-income families is up. And while the average amount paid by each non-member visitor is down (dropping from $6 to about $3), the attendance increase means a net revenue gain. The museum launched this new strategy with a major grant from a funder (Key Bank) that provided five years of admissions offset--enough risk capital to give the museum time to grow into the new approach. The transformation of admission fees and its impact is documented beautifully in this blog post by Jeanne Vergeront. Check it out for a lot more details and numbers.

I called the museum because I was curious to learn more about the mechanics of communicating this approach to visitors. "By donation only" can offer a wonderful sense of welcome, or it can be misleading. (Consider the ongoing lawsuits at the Metropolitan Museum on this very issue.) I wondered whether "pay as you will" might come with its own confusion and stress for families without much exposure to museums--the exact people the museum is trying to make welcome. The "pay as you will" messaging is very different, for example, from Mixed Blood Theater's "Radical Hospitality" approach, which emphasizes completely free theater experiences.

"No cost" is much more clearcut than "pay as you will." Might "pay as you will" become another museum mystery, another source of threshold fear for visitors who don't have a yardstick by which to reasonably guess what they SHOULD pay to visit?

I spoke with Chad Russell, the Administrative Coordinator at the Children's Museum of Tacoma, about their experience. He told me, "We often get asked if there is a suggested donation, what should we pay. We don’t want to put any pressure on for a suggested donation – we want you to pay what you think.”

Chad also told me:
  • They have donation bins throughout the museum, so if people don't want to give much when they first walk in, they can pay somewhere else. Some people will donate more on their way out (but are not prompted to do so).
  • They train their frontline staff to engage with people about WHY it is pay as you will, explaining that your donation makes it possible for other kids who couldn’t afford it, so they can come play for free. Some kids apparently come in with their piggy banks, proud that they can pay to attend the museum--because whatever they have to offer is valued as exactly enough.
  • When people are stressed about how much to pay, he says, "before we went to this model, the cost was about $5 at the door." This might help more literal-minded people feel comfortable with an ambiguous system.

To me, this seems like an improvement on the norm... especially in a children's museum, which has a high number of repeat visitors (who can become familiar with the system over time). I can imagine families deciding on a value and paying it fairly consistently with little stress. I can imagine the cute rituals of kids, excited to contribute personally, proud to be part of making the museum available to all. But I can also imagine visitors being confused and stressed out--which is even worse in front of your kids. 

Does "pay as you will" fundamentally change the relationship between the institution and community members with regard to the cost and perceived value of the experiences inside? There's still a transaction--or at least a conversation--at the gate. Is that a good thing, because it invites/requires people to grapple with the cost of providing these experiences? Or is it just a different wrapper on same old means test

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Should Happen to Underperforming Nonprofit Organizations?

"I want death panels. I want to kill organizations that aren't showing their value."
--Devon Smith 

Now that's the kind of sentence that makes you put down your fork.

Last month, I had the good fortune to join a few brilliant people for a "Dinner-vention" about the future of the arts in America. In the course of the conversation, Devon Smith, a social media consultant from Threespot, started talking the problem of arts organizations that are no longer relevant or useful to their communities. [Watch the two-minute conversation between Devon and Clayton Lord starting at 14:25 in the video below.]


Devon didn't mince words. "Some organizations are going to die," she stated. "I want to incentivize them to die quicker." She argued that we need a way to correct for the fact that nonprofits don't operate in a traditional capitalist marketplace, and therefore aren't subject to the market forces that might otherwise cause them to fold when they are no longer useful. Hence, death panels.

For a long time, I agreed with this argument. Like a lot of people, I am incredibly frustrated by organizations floating on endowments that allow them to sail on regardless of impact or community relevance. I'm pissed off that well-capitalized organizations that engage a narrowing constituency can raise millions while young organizations struggle to be viable even as they produce powerful work for growing communities. I agree with Devon that more mergers and accountability would be a great thing. I wish organizations would focus more on creating amazing work than on sustaining operations.

But here I sit, the director of a museum that almost closed, squirreling away money for an operating reserve. I am part of the problem. And proud of it.

As I've watched arts organizations struggle over the past few years, I haven't thought, "gee, it's great that the market is causing these places to shut down." I haven't thought, "wow, the market is really resetting our field in a productive way." Instead, I've thought, "this is wasteful and depressing."

Consider two high-profile arts closures in 2013: that of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and the 3rd Ward. Neither of these organizations closed because of a collective decision that they had outlived their usefulness. They closed for capricious financial reasons, and they left disappointed artists and participants in their wake. Could each have offered MORE community value? Absolutely. But when market forces hit arts organizations, it doesn't necessarily mean a more useful outcome than when arts organizations are insulated from those same forces with cash reserves, endowments, and other potential hindrances to change.

And let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the market does a better job at this than nonprofits. When the dotcom crash started killing off companies in the early 2000s, my DC housemates scavenged strange gifts from vacated offices. We decorated our group house with purloined office chairs and giant motivational posters--the detritus of an industry that was massively hemorrhaging. Yes, the market corrected for the dotcom bubble. But it did so in a way that was wasteful and chaotic.

What's the alternative to this waste? We have the opportunity in nonprofits to create a MORE efficient marketplace than capitalism offers. Instead of talking about "creative destruction," I think we should focus on creative reinvention. I firmly believe that there is more value to be created, faster and more efficiently, by reinventing and transforming existing organizations than by killing them and starting again. 

Consider the museum I run. In 2011, we were on very shaky financial ground. Our cash balance was zero, but that wasn't the only asset we had. We had a gorgeous building in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz. We had an army of long-time donors, members, volunteers, and participants who invested a lot in the organization and cared about its longterm future. We had a dedicated staff that wanted to make this museum as good as it could be. We had a vision for the museum as a thriving, central gathering place in the community.

As we transformed our programming in pursuit of that vision, we were able to tap these existing assets to quickly and dramatically increase our value to the community. We were able to do that faster than we ever could have if we had started anew.

You could argue that if the museum had closed, the resources that had gone into it--money, effort, goodwill--would have been redistributed in the marketplace. But we know that's not exactly what would happen. There would be a lot of leakage. There would be a lot of waste. It would take much more energy to recapture those assets than to redirect them.

And so I issue a challenge to people who are frustrated with arts organizations and their limited relevance to your community: reinvent them. Recombine them. Reenergize them. Instead of starting your own organization, find a way to add value to one that already exists. House your program in an underutilized library. Pitch your project to a struggling symphony. Sure, some of those organizations are not going to change, or not enough, to be worth your participation. But some will.

Forget killing. Forget life support. Let's revitalize our communities, and the organizations that engage them, with the courage and creativity they deserve.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Who Counts? Grappling with Attendance as a Proxy for Impact

When you count attendance to your museum, do you include:
  • people who eat in the cafe?
  • people who rent the facility for private events?
  • people who engage with your content online?
  • participants in offsite outreach programs? 
  • volunteers? 
This summer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the kind of "how sausage is made" story that rarely gets written about the arts. It's about museum attendance and how the five big, free museums in St. Louis count it. There's quite a range. Summertime concerts at the history museum? Those count. Outdoor movies at the art museum? Nope. At the St. Louis Science Center, the focus of the article, there was a particularly creative perspective on attendance, including numbers for offsite board meetings, parades where staff made a showing, and attendance at a school next door. The only form of engagement lacking in the article is online participation--which for many museums, could yield the highest numbers of all.

Even if you consider some of these counting strategies to be egregious, the basic question is still relevant: who counts? When I reflected on our museum, I realized we have some inconsistencies in how we calculate attendance. For us, annual attendance includes programmatic activities onsite and off (about 10% of our programming is conducted at community sites). That means daytime visitors, event participants, school tours, and outreach program participants. It does not include facility rentals, meetings, fundraising events, nor people who might see us at a community event but not directly engage.

What's missing from this picture? I think you could reasonably argue that we should be counting:
  • researchers who come in to access information in the archives
  • people who rent the museum for a private event that includes a curator/artist tour of exhibitions
  • kids in museum summer camps
  • people who visit the historic cemetery that we manage
  • people who talk with us online about historic photos we share or blog posts about the collection
And then there are the weird inconsistencies. Why do we count participants in an art activity for families at a community center but not members of the Rotary Club to whom I give a presentation about the museum? Why do we count visitors who tour the galleries chatting with their friends but not visitors who tour the galleries chatting with a staff member (i.e. as part of a meeting)? 

This doesn't even get to the potential parsing of people's intentions. If someone comes to an exhibition opening for the free food, do they count? If a kid gets dragged to a museum with their parents, do they count? If someone has an epiphany about art outside the museum, do they count?

Probe too deeply and the question gets absurd. The more important question is not WHO counts but WHAT counts. Internal to an individual museum, relative attendance--changes over time or program--can yield useful information. But if you try to make meaning out of attendance comparisons across institutions, you start juggling apples and oranges. While many institutions separate attendance by program area, I don't know of any that separate attendance into "impressions," "light engagement," "deep engagement," etc. - categories that might actually have meaning. 

What is meaningful in the context of achieving our mission? That's the number we should be capturing.

The Relationship Between Attendance and Impact

How can we measure impact? That's a huge question. Let's look at it in the narrow context of the relationship between attendance and impact.

What is the information value of attendance? Attendance does a good job representing how popular an institution is, how used it is, and how those two things vary over different times of day, days of the week, times of year, and types of programs.  

But does attendance demonstrate mission fulfillment? Unless your mission is "to engage X number of people," probably not. For some institutions, like the MCA Denver, attendance is seen as a very poor measure of impact. But for almost all museums (even MCA Denver), attendance is correlated with impact in some way. 

For attendance to be correlated with impact, you have to find a way to articulate a theory of change that connects attendance to your mission (inspiration, learning, civic participation, etc.). And then, you have to be able to calculate a conversion factor that relates the number of people who attend to the number for whom the mission is fulfilled.  

Imagine managing a shoe store. Your mission is to sell shoes. Attendance is the total number of people who walk in the door. Of those people, 10% actually buy shoes. That means 10% is your conversion factor; if you want to sell 5 pairs of shoes, you need fifty people to walk through the door.

Now let's say your mission isn't just to sell shoes, but to build relationships with customers who will love your shoes and buy more of them in the future. Maybe the conversion factor from first sale to repeated sales is 20%. Now you have fifty people who walk through the door, five who buy shoes, and one who will be a longtime customer.

Now let's turn back to museums. The St. Louis Science Center's mission is to "ignite and sustain lifelong science and technology learning." What's the conversion factor from a single visit to that mission? 

I'd start by splitting the "igniting" from the "sustaining." You could argue that any single visit or interaction with the Science Center--at the facility, out in the community, online--could have the spark of ignition. But sustaining lifelong learning requires a different level of commitment. That count could include people who are visitors/members for 10+ years. Or volunteers who participate on a weekly basis. Or students who visit at some point and go on to careers in science and technology. 

It's not easy, but the museum could define the indicators that it considers representative of sustained learning. It could count those incidences. With some effort, you could calculate conversion factors from igniting to sustaining for each major program area. And if you knew the conversion factor for general attendance from igniting to sustaining, you could actually generate an estimate of how many of the kids zooming around the facility are likely to sustain a lifelong interest in science.

Looking at it in this way would also allow institutions to expand beyond reductive "all about attendance" approaches to demonstrating impact. You could argue that some of the most important work of "igniting and sustaining lifelong science and technology learning" has nothing to do with attendance to the science center. It might involve producing ad campaigns linking science to community issues, or advocating for job training programs in technology, or designing curriculum for community colleges. And again, if you could designate indicators for the kinds of learning impacts possible through these efforts and the conversion factors from igniting to sustaining, you could count and present them. 

So perhaps the St. Louis Science Center's annual report could look like this:
"Our mission is to ignite and sustain lifelong science and technology learning. We know that not every spark leads to a blaze, so we focus on igniting as many sparks as possible and making strategic investments in programs that are likely to sustain learning for the long term. 
We ignited science and technology learning this year through ongoing exhibits, educational programs, outreach in the community, and online interactions, which reached 3 million people. These sparks grew into sustained lifelong learning for at least 400 people, who got involved in local technology hobbyist projects, who pursued careers in science and technology, and helped us facilitate learning experiences as volunteers at the museum. 
We also focused this year on working with the countywide adult education agency to start an intergenerational science program at three senior centers throughout St. Louis. While this program only involves 40 people per site, all of them are participating in the kind of deep science engagement that is proven to lead to lifelong science and technology learning."
Too unwieldy or unorthodox for funders? Maybe in the beginning. But in an age of nonprofit accountability and increasingly sophisticated evaluation strategies, I think this kind of approach could be useful. What do you think? 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

One Small Step for Detroit, One Giant Leap for Museum Ethics (Maybe)

Over the past three years, the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) has served as the museum poster child for the debate on the public value of the arts. Last year, the DIA was saved from financial crisis by voters in its three neighboring counties who elected to take on an additional property tax to support the museum. And now, in the past month, Michigan's Attorney General and State Senate have blocked the emergency manager of Detroit from seizing the DIA's collection to pay off the city's debt.

Like last year's tax, this newest development is an important step for the DIA, but it has even greater impact on the field overall. From a non-museum person's perspective, it's a little mysterious.

What's Happening in Detroit

Detroit is in serious trouble financially. The city's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is pursuing many options to avoid bankruptcy. One option he put on the table in May is to sell off the DIA's multi-billion dollar collection of art. The DIA and its collection are owned by the city, which makes it a city asset.

Museum supporters and art lovers were up in arms about this proposal, arguing that these "cultural gems" are held in the public trust and should not be shed to pay off creditors. But this argument for the public value of the art is tough to uphold in a time of severe challenges. Detroit's city leaders are looking at a host of tough choices, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to the idea that a bunch of artwork matters less than emergency services, schools, parks, and any number of other city programs and assets that might be slashed to avoid bankruptcy.

For museum wonks, there's a more specific ethical reason that the DIA's collection should not be treated in this way: we don't see museum collections as assets on the balance sheet the same way Kevyn Orr does.

The American museum profession has an ethical standard that says "in no event shall they [funds raised by deaccessioning collections objects] be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

In other words, in the museum world, if you sell artwork, you must put the proceeds into a restricted fund to either purchase or preserve other artwork in the collection.

Of course, Kevyn Orr doesn't see it that way--he sees the DIA's artwork as assets, and that's not unreasonable. This DOES come up when museums go bankrupt, at which point collections can be seen as assets by creditors. However, in this case, it is not the DIA that is going bankrupt but the city. If the city (or state) forces the DIA to violate museum ethics to satisfy city debts, it will have grave consequences for the museum and for the museum world.

Think of Artwork like Organs

Here's a weird but apt analogy: organ donation. For large organs like the heart and lungs, there is a national body that governs all organ donation and distribution in the US. All organs are given voluntarily without compensation (usually by dying people), and then the national body manages a list with complicated algorithms to determine who receives which organ.

Imagine if Detroit's largest hospital had an organ donation program, and Kevyn Orr required that the hospital violate medical ethics by selling any large organs received to the highest bidder. This could be a significant income stream for the city and help settle debts. At the same time, it would likely lead to that hospital and its surgeons facing grave consequences in the medical world... just like the DIA will face if the city forces it to violate museum ethics.

I know organs and artwork are different, but the situation is functionally the same: a professional field with a particular code of ethics whose rules may or may not be recognized by government bodies. That's why it is so significant that the Michigan Senate voted to take on the American Alliance of Museum's code of ethics regarding collections - it functionally means that the state is acknowledging and abiding by the professional standard in the museum field.

Complications and Ethical Dilemmas

But let's not start cheering just yet. There is an ironic sidenote to this "victory" for museum ethics. At the same time as this controversy is playing out in the public arena via Detroit, museum professionals are in the midst of debate about whether the ethics of deaccessioning still apply. A recent article in Museum magazine (published by the American Alliance of Museums) talks about the ugly realities of how a collection may be sold if a museum goes bankrupt. The Center for the Future of Museums, which is also run by the American Alliance of Museums, has been hosting a virtual "ethics smackdown" on its blog about the ethics of deaccessioning over the past several weeks. Only a small percentage of museums are formally signed onto the AAM code of ethics. While deaccessioning may be a museum sacred cow, it is not broadly considered our field's most important challenge.

I feel conflicted about this whole question. On the one hand, it drives me nuts that the ethical rules around deaccessioning force museums to protect objects in a way we do not comparably protect other core aspects of our work. There is no requirement that if you cut an educational program that you have to use the funds saved from that to fund other educational experiences. I've worked with museums that have hefty collections and restricted acquisition funds but are closed to the public because all of their dollars and assets are wrapped up in objects and none in public service or access. I can also see the argument that it actually makes museums MORE relevant if our assets are considered fair game in a situation like Detroit's--just as important and just as endangered as other core services.

On the other hand, I feel strongly that as arts are generally misunderstood and marginalized in the public eye (and funding sphere), it's important for us to do whatever we can to help people understand WHY artwork is like organs, and why these objects remaining in the public trust matters. In an offline conversation about Detroit, Margy Waller, who is brilliant at framing the public value of art, put it this way:
The arts are already pretty much ALWAYS seen as a low priority among things of public value. In fact, they're (I want to say we're) often seen as a private matter -- and not a public good at all. 
The arguments about sale of DIA art strike me as forming inside that frame. And if it happens, I worry that it would reinforce what is already the dominant way of view of the arts --- and set back our case-making: that the arts create places where people want to live, work, invest, and visit -- all things Detroit desperately needs right now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Conviction? Check. Money? Check. So What's Keeping the Arts Sector from Embracing Active, Diverse Audience Engagement?

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a funder that shocked me. If you asked me a month ago what the biggest barrier was to American arts organizations adopting practices that support active engagement in the arts by diverse participants, I would have said two: money and legitimacy. There are more than enough people in the field who are enthused about active participation, and recent reports like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change have sparked field-wide conversations about how philanthropy might more equitably support institutions that serve marginalized communities. We have the arguments and the energy. So what's missing? The funding and validity that a major foundation can provide. I've always assumed that slow-moving, big, traditional, white- and upper-class-serving arts organizations are buoyed in their practices by funders who tacitly approve of their activities with their donations. Move the money, and the field will move.

Turns out it's not that simple.

I was talking with Ted Russell, a senior program officer from the James Irvine Foundation, one of the biggest arts funders in California. I asked how their new Exploring Engagement Fund (of which my museum was an early grant recipient) was going. He paused. He said they've been somewhat disappointed by the applications they've received and surprised by the mixed response in the field to their new approach to arts grant-making. Some have raised the question of whether the Irvine Foundation is "too far ahead of the field" with a grantmaking strategy that focuses on active arts engagement for all Californians. 

In the fall of 2011, the Irvine Foundation released a high-profile new arts strategy that focuses on the "who, how, and where" of arts engagement, with a focus on reaching nontraditional audiences through active participation in nontraditional venues. This was coupled by a shift in their funding, with all foundation arts funding moving into the Exploring Engagement Fund that requires grantees to address at least two of the "who, how, where" goals in each project.  

I was thrilled when this happened for two reasons. First, and close to home, it meant the possibility that the Irvine Foundation might become a funder of the work we do at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History around active arts participation and social bridging. But secondly, and more importantly, it meant validation for active participation in the arts. It meant dollars for marginalized communities. It meant opportunities for experimental practice. It meant one of the "big guys" was moving in what I see as the right direction towards making arts institutions more relevant to our diverse communities. It felt like a lucky break for the things I care most about.

But Ted made me realize it's not that easy. It is just as hard to be an activist funder as it is to be an activist organization. For the Exploring Engagement Fund to be successful, the Irvine Foundation needs really good applicants who WANT to do the kind of experimental, forward-thinking work that Arts Program Director Josephine Ramirez describes in her vision for the program. I assumed, given the energy around active participation and diversifying audiences that exists in the field, that there were lots of prospective grantees like my organization just waiting for this kind of opportunity to open up. It seems that the Irvine Foundation assumed similarly, and that the results have thus far not lived up to their (or my) hopes.

Why not? 

I don't think the problem is the Irvine Foundation's approach, or even their communication around it. The "who, how, where" strategy is clear and well-reasoned. In a lot of ways, the Irvine Foundation's challenge is comparable to that which any organization that changes its strategy faces. Who exactly is the market for this new approach to arts funding? Just as an institution that changes its focus has to either attract a new audience or engage its traditional audience in a change process, the Irvine Foundation has to execute this new strategy in partnership with its grantees.

To be successful, I see three tasks ahead for the Irvine Foundation:
  1. Help traditional arts institutions understand and connect with the new strategy. Ted told me that the Irvine Foundation staff have learned that they have to work on how they communicate about the new strategy and support capacity-building for organizations to be able to be successful in the new paradigm. Longtime grantees have relied on Irvine for years for one kind of support and now see themselves being thrust into a different set of expectations. Even organizations that care about community engagement could be stymied by the creative challenge to hit two of the three "who, how, where"s with a single two-year project. It's not surprising that they push back against the changes. Part of me wonders whether it's worthwhile to invest more money in trying to convince traditional arts institutions to embrace active engagement--but then I realize that that's the work I've been trying to do for a long time. I think a strong way to do this is by reaching out to program staff directly. I know there are people within traditional arts institutions who will be empowered by Irvine's new strategy--people who feel frustrated that their passion for serving low-income families is met with lip service, or people who are pigeonholed into an education zone because of their enthusiasm for active art-making. I'm hopeful that those individuals and departments will go to their development directors, who are spinning their brains around trying to repackage their organizations in the "who, how, where" paradigm, and offer a way forward for funding AND increased priority on Irvine's vision for the arts in California.
  2. Actively recruit new grantees who may now be eligible or appropriate for funding. I have no doubt that there are many incredible artists and organizations that could do wonderful things with funding from the Irvine Foundation. But those individuals and institutions may not be on Irvine's map... and Irvine may not be on theirs. The kinds of organizations that focus on active art-making and social practice are different from those that focus on arts consumption. Organizations that work in nontraditional venues may not label themselves as arts institutions. Organizations that engage marginalized communities and have long been shunned by major funders might not attend to the strategy shifts of those foundations. Just as working with "nontraditional" audiences often requires more intensive forms of engagement, working with nontraditional grantees will require the same.
  3. Have courage. I believe in a few years we will point to Irvine as a catalyst for significant change in the arts sector in California and around the country. But being on the leading edge is scary. It requires confidence that the grantees and the projects ARE out there. It requires turning a deaf ear to complaints from institutions that aren't willing to engage audiences in what Irvine feels are the most effective ways. I have no illusions that the Irvine Foundation (or any foundation) will continue to put forward an approach that works personally for me or my institution. But I sincerely hope that every foundation will continue to be thoughtful and courageous in constructing grantmaking strategies that they feel will do serious good in the community. 
When funders change their ways, it matters. It ruffles the landscape. It lays the groundwork for real change. And sometimes that might mean "being ahead of the field" with a big old carrot that gets some stuck organizations moving forward. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Public Argument About Arts Support as Seen through the Lens of the Detroit Institute of Arts


Earlier this month, the Detroit Institute of Arts was "saved" by a voter-approved property tax (called a "millage") in its three surrounding counties. The millage will provide about $23M per year for ten years to support operations, during which time the DIA hopes to raise $400M to enhance its endowment and replace the operating income from the millage. Residents in the three counties that pay the millage will receive special benefits: free admission to the museum and expanded educational programming.

I'm not going to comment on the reasons for the millage or its merits from an arts management perspective--please check out Diane Ragsdale's excellent post for a round-up of commentary and some hard-hitting opinions about the big picture. I'm focusing on the community response to the prospect of the millage and the way the public debate reflects broader conversations about the public value of the arts.

Analyzing Public Comments in the Detroit Free Press Online

The pre-vote public commentary in the Detroit Free Press about the millage is like any online newspaper commentary: polarizing, extreme, and highly varied in tone and reasonableness. But the arguments trotted out represent how far we have to go in articulating the public value of arts institutions (and helping our supporters speak the same language). It's like a giant, free, no-holds-barred focus group that represents a true range of arts users and non-users.

Reading through the 300+ comments online reminded me eerily of the extraordinary 2010 ArtsWave report on the public value of art (full report here, my synopsis here). The report, which focused on Cincinnati, found that the common arguments for public support for the arts don't hold up for most people. In the executive summary, the authors identified several common assumptions that "work against the objective of positioning the arts as a public good." Here are three of those assumptions and their substantiation in the Detroit Free Press:
  • The arts are a private matter: Arts are about individual tastes, experiences and enrichment, and individual expression by artists. 
    • This perspective was rampant in Michigan. As one Detroit Free Press commenter wrote: "You are not getting it. Your cultural outlet is art galleries and symphonies. Mine is tractor pulls, MMA and the occasional anvil shoot. But why is yours more deserving of my tax dollars?"  
  • The arts are a good to be purchased: Therefore, most assume that the arts should succeed or fail, as any product does in the marketplace, based on what people want to purchase. 
    • Several Detroit comments were in this vein. Commenters asked reasonable questions about why the museum couldn't balance the books, but more importantly, they kept coming back to the argument that if the museum was successful, it would be financially viable. One commenter told a DIA supporter: "[if you support them] just send the DIA a $20 check. Why force everyone else to do it? If all the people that plan to vote yes just bought a membership to the DIA, there would be no need for the property tax. Vote with your money instead."
  • The arts are a low priority: Even when people value art, it is rarely high on their list of priorities.  
    • Detroit, like a lot of cities, is struggling financially on many levels. Many comments on the DIA fell in this category, e.g. "I would rather my $20 goes to my local schools, police, or fire if they are going to raise my tax." Many of the comments also suggested that it was unfair for people throughout the counties to support an institution in the middle of the city.

Community Case Statements for the Public Value of Art

So what do we do with these assumptions? The ArtsWave report suggests that we need to make effective, specific case statements for public support of the arts. Several commenters in the Detroit Free Press in support of the millage tried their best. Their arguments ranged in success, mirroring the discussion in the ArtsWave report about the utility and shortcomings of common case statements (see page 15 of the report). Here are just two arguments that were notable for the difference in the responses they sparked:
  • Unsuccessful argument: Great cities should have great arts institutions. As one commenter said: "it's so embarrassing to come back home and find that people in this area don't care for the gems we still have, just no sense of pride here."
    • Rebuttal: That's elitist. Lots of negative and ambivalent reaction to this case statement. This kind of comment was common: "Your elitist tone is what turns people off from wanting to pay higher taxes. The whole 'we know how to spend your money better than you' attitude is condescending and false."
  • Successful argument: Great museums improve quality of life and the value of the region. "it’s just not about a museum, it’s a local AND regional “quality of life” issue. Whether it’s visitors from the suburbs or from out of town, or possible families contemplating relocation, or the city residents themselves…people look at the Entire Big Picture….Education, Culture (Symphony, Opera, Museum), Sporting venues, Shopping, Crime & Safety, etc."
    • Rebuttal: none. Interestingly, these kinds of comments on the website did not spawn heavy critique or vitriol. This was also the argument put forth in news articles by politicians--that cultural amenities, schools, and neighborhoods are all important when courting businesses or prospective homeowners.
This second argument is one part of the case statement that ArtsWave recommended for the city of Cincinnati. Their recommended case statement is:
A thriving arts sector creates “ripple effects” of beneļ¬ts throughout our community. 
They elaborate that:
The following two ripple effects are especially helpful and compelling to enumerate:
  • A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument. 
  • A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.
Looking at news articles and public discussion, it seems that the DIA's supporters won the day with the first of these arguments. I hunted through the Detroit Free Press discussion with the second ripple effect in mind, but I couldn't find evidence of it in the comments. I found some comments about the fact that the DIA provides programs for schoolchildren and poor families, but that falls into the "services" case statement that often yields unfavorable comparison to "core" civic services (schools, police, social services). I found only one comment about the diversity of visitors to the DIA, but that was presented in rebuttal to someone saying it is an elitist organization. There were no case statements for the DIA that emphasized how the museum brings us all together, connects counties, or creates bridges.

Opportunities for the Future (and for Other Struggling Arts Institutions)

This issue and the discussion surrounding it highlighted to me the value of the ArtsWave report as a proactive tool for advocacy. No one wants to wait for a life-or-death situation to start testing out case statements. If I were running the DIA, I would have used the ArtsWave report to map out talking points during the millage debate. And as the director of an organization rebounding from financial crisis, I'm thinking a lot about what messages support our future and how to encourage not just staff but our members and friends to think about the museums in those terms. Every time a visitor talks about enjoying the museum, I smile. But when they use phrases like "making the community a better place" or "part of something bigger," I'm thrilled.

And what to do when the advocacy is successful, as in the case of Detroit? I'm surprised by the little the DIA has said publicly about the millage effort and its outcome. I understand that the museum was restricted in public statements during the campaign, but afterwards, I expected a much more aggressive reframing. In thanking people for supporting the millage, the DIA focuses on granting benefits (primarily free admission) and makes almost no commentary about what these taxpayers have done and are doing for the future of the DIA and the vitality of the Detroit metro area. I can understand why regular citizens (or irregular, depending on what you think of people who comment on newspaper sites) might not focus on social case statements for the DIA. But the institution should jump on that. There's a missed opportunity to reframe what the millage means and the role of community support in museum funding when saying thank you.

It's probably a useful exercise for any institution to ask: what are the messages about our value that resonate most--not just with our own supporters, but with the people in our community who don't know anything about us? If people were debating the future of our institution in the paper, what would they say? How can we equip our supporters with the strongest case statements so they can be champions and not pariahs? And how do we engrain those arguments into our operations so they are self-evident?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Event-Driven Museum, One Year Later

A year ago, I wrote a post speculating about whether events (institutionally-produced programs) might be a primary driver for people to attend museums, with exhibitions being secondary. Now, a year later, I've seen the beginnings of how that question has borne out at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), as well as hearing from folks around the museum industry about the interplay of exhibitions and events at their own institutions.

And so, in this post, a few findings, and more questions.

Many museums, big and small, thrive on events. I had originally assumed that this phenomenon might affect smaller museums in smaller markets more than large urban institutions, but I've since learned from colleagues at big hitters like LACMA and the Dallas Museum of Art that the majority of their visitors attend through events. One director of a children's museum even told me that they "eventize" normal operations--calling a Saturday a "family festival" without changing the planned programming--to draw more people. At our museum, about 68% of casual visitors (non-school tours) attended through events this year.

This isn't true for every museum. There are still many museums in large tourist centers with a hefty one-time audience. Zoos, aquaria, science and children's museums boast a significant "anytime" audience of families who return again and again. But for art and history museums, especially outside the biggest tourism markets, I wouldn't be surprised if events drive the lion's share of attendance, period.

At our small museum, events have driven a huge increase in attendance, community partnerships, and media coverage. We're still crunching numbers for the close of the fiscal year, but our attendance has more than doubled from 17,349 last year to about 36,000 this year. The vast majority of that increase has come through attendance to new events.

These events don't just increase audience. This year, we produced our events--especially the 3rd Friday evening series--in partnership with over 700 artists and community organizations in Santa Cruz. Events enabled us to partner with diverse groups who brought in new audiences and programmatic opportunities. We turned a place where “nothing happens” into a place where something was often happening. We got media attention each time we hosted an event, and within a year, we were celebrated by the local weekly as “a major go-to hotspot… that keeps things fresh and fuels the creative fires of Santa Cruz.”

So why is this happening, and what does it mean? Here are three possibilities I'm toying with for why events are taking center stage at museums:
  • Culturally, we are shifting to a more event-driven society. Recreational time is down, people are more scheduled than ever, and “casually” visiting a museum is irrelevant to many people, especially those who live outside large urban cultural centers. Festivals—whether of jazz, visual art, ethnic identity, or historic reenactment—are experiencing record attendance even as more permanent institutions that offer the same content are struggling. People want to come for the weekend, the moment, the event. (Note: this is a hypothesis with little data to back it up. Can you help with some concrete information to confirm or refute this idea?)
  • It's less about the event than the timing. Audience behavior could be more driven by museum hours than by the type of activity offered. Events mostly happen in the evening or on weekends, outside of work time. The majority of our exhibition hours do not. Maybe if museums were open from 3-10pm instead of 10am-5pm, the attendance would be higher overall. However, it is worth noting that at the MAH, a Saturday without an event during daytime hours typically draws half as many visitors as a Saturday with even a very low-key drop-in program. 
  • Events generate media buzz and attention with greater frequency than exhibitions. The more events we do, the more we get known for events, and the more people attend during them. If society is more event-driven than ever, we have to give people explicit (and frequent) reasons to think of museums as an "anytime" experience, or they never will attend casually. This could be a worthwhile long play that introduces people to the value of a weekly "museum moment," or it could be an uphill battle against the reality of how and why people prefer to engage. 
I'm most interested in the first of these, and I'm genuinely curious to hear about any studies or data that might shed light on the (real or imagined) cultural shift towards events. In talking with executive directors of a range of arts organizations, it really does seem that festivals are performing better than their regularly-scheduled counterparts. I don't know if that has always been the case or whether festival formats are just now in ascendance. What have you seen, both from the arts management side and from your own experience as a consumer?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Belgian Beer-Brewing Monks Taught Me about Non-Profit Business Models

If you want to drink the best beer in the world, you'd better be ready to work for it. A recent episode of the design podcast 99 Percent Invisible chronicled the hoops people jump through to get a bottle of Westvleteren 12, which is produced by the monks of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in Flanders, Belgium. You can only reserve a bottle by phone. You must pick it up in person at the Abbey at a specific time on a specific date. You can only buy a small amount, and you are limited to one purchase every 60 days.

The episode is mostly focused on the thrill of the hunt, and all the attendant ways exclusivity fuels desire. But late in the episode (minute 9), when the supplicant finally drinks the beer at the monastery, he is underwhelmed. The beer is terrific, but the experience is unfulfilling. He feels anonymous. He feels disconnected. He made it to Mecca, and it's kind of eh.

Why the disconnect? As Roman Mars, the show's host, puts it, "You, the consumers of beer, are not the real customer. God is." The monks make beer to support their monastic lifestyle, not to serve consumers. The exclusivity and the complicated path to purchasing the beer are not branding strategies to trump up the value of the beer. They are limitations that enable monks to spend most of their time being monks.

Listening to the podcast, I was struck by its strange connections to the non-profit world's approach to funding. In many ways, the monks have a much more practical approach to the problem of supporting their mission than the rest of us do. They brew beer to provide the income to support their religious work. It's the ultimate case of unrelated business income. They don't want their beer-brewing work and their prayer to be commingled; they are intentionally separate. Whereas non-profits work hard to fit everything they do under one mission, the monks split it up. The beer supports the mission. The beer is not part of the mission.

In the arts, this bears directly on the current debate around "art for art's sake" versus "art for community development." Not every arts organization is fundamentally focused on connecting with and engaging audiences. While a few are, the majority are only slowly pivoting towards a primary focus on audience engagement. Some do so with gusto, seeing the opportunity for transformation, relevance, and new relationships with the public. Others do so half-heartedly. Some even feel forced to do so. They want to be art monks, not customer-serving businesses.

It's totally valid for an artist or an art organization to have a monastic approach. For these organizations, the ultimate audience--the one they care most about--is something else. It could be "art" with a capital A, the pursuit of social justice or innovation or institutional critique. I've talked to plenty of non-profit artistic directors and curators who will say that the master is the work... or if not the work, the artists behind the work. To them, audience engagement is a distraction at best, a dilution or bastardization at worst.

So why do they even consider it? These days, a few key arts funders are shifting towards public engagement through art. Everyone is strapped, so organizations try to move with the funders. Monastically-inclined institutions pursue donors who support public engagement with the work, and they package the work into a kind of sausage they can sell to audiences. The result is not Mecca. It's something less than, something that often frustrates artists and audiences alike.

Community-focused organizations have the same problem in reverse. Even if they primarily care about deep engagement with audiences, these organizations often have to talk about "artistic excellence" to get noticed by traditional arts funders and donors. Community organizations without brand-name artists can be denigrated as "craft centers," even if the outcomes of their engagement efforts are tremendous.

The problem is that no one--neither art monks nor community-driven organizations--are entitled to funding. We all have to find supporters and customers who can help us pay the bills. Maybe, instead of shifting with the traditional funding, all kinds of arts organizations should be proudly and blatantly seeking out unrelated sources of income. I recently heard the director of a major performing arts organization pejoratively refer to for-profit music venues as "bars with bands" as opposed to organizations that exist to produce and present "real" music. But is it any less problematic to be supported by grants and high ticket prices than by beverage sales? Does it lead to more "pure" programming decisions? I don't think so.

We are always told that everything we do should flow from our mission. Maybe instead, we should think like the monks and figure out how we can make sure everything we do serves our mission. There are arts organizations (including my own) that get significant amounts of their operating budgets from endowments, real estate, or parking garages. There are innovative arts organizations that are led by volunteer staff members who make their money as teachers or engineers or marketers. Maybe we shouldn't apologize for these "non-mission-based" sources of income. Maybe we should pursue more of them. After all, they are what allow us to pursue our missions--for whomever our ultimate audience may be.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yes, Audience Participation Can Have Significant Value

For years, I'd give talks about community participation in museums and cultural institutions, and I'd always get the inevitable question: "but what value does this really have when it comes to dollars and cents?" I'd say that these techniques support audience development, repeat visitation, membership, maybe could even attract new kinds of donors... but I didn't have numbers to back it up.

Now, I do. Or at least preliminary ones. Last week, the local newspaper did a really generous front-page story on my museum (the MAH) and the changes here over the past eight months since I started. In the summer and fall of 2011:
  • attendance increased 57% compared to the same period in 2010
  • new membership sales increased 27% compared to the same period in 2010
  • individual and corporate giving increased over 500% compared to 2010
We've also had incredible increases in media coverage of museum events (like that Sentinel article), new programmatic partnerships with several community groups, and private rentals of the museum for community events. After a really painful financial starting point, we've been in the black every month and have established a $100,000 operating reserve.

I'm incredibly proud of all the staff, trustees, volunteers, collaborators, visitors, and members who have made this happen. We started the summer with no money and a strategic vision to be a thriving, central gathering place. We just started to try to live up to that vision, partnership by partnership, activity by activity. We're hearing on a daily basis that the museum has a new role in peoples' lives and in the identity of the county. It feels pretty amazing.

It also feels amazing to see some of my theories validated in this way--that giving people the opportunity to actively participate does really transform the way they see the institution and themselves. I can't say that any one experience--working on a collage with other visitors, swinging on a hammock, discovering a participatory display for pocket artifacts in the bathroom--directly contributed to increased attendance and giving. They all have in concert, and they build on each other. We have a LONG way to go to really become that "thriving, central gathering place" in our vision, but it's immensely gratifying to see that we are on the way. It's always shocking to me when a visitor will say, "it feels so comfortable here," or "I love how it's opened up to the community." I can't believe it when I hear words from the strategic plan come out of people's mouths.

There are at least three significant things that have contributed to our success thus far:
  1. A clear strategy. Our team focused this year on just three things: making the museum more comfortable, hosting new participatory events, and partnering wherever possible. The broad mandate to "open it up" was backed up by a lot of activity on multiple fronts--comment boards, participation-specific internships, program formats that allow us to slot in enthusiastic volunteers easily, more flexible uses of some museum spaces, and a range of options and opportunities for collaborators. 
  2. Community response. Every time we've tried something new, we've gotten lots of support in terms of media coverage and enthusiastic attendance. This community was ready for a museum that reflected the unique creative identity of Santa Cruz. We try to design every new program with a partner organization with an audience for whom that kind of content or format is already appealing. We've had a few programmatic misfires, but for the most part, our new projects are succeeding because the newspaper wants to feature them in the "best bets" and people are game to come out and try. It helps that we're in a small market and we have focused on two audiences--families with kids 5-12 and culturally-inclined adults without children--for whom demand exceeds supply in terms of local opportunities for affordable cultural experiences. 
  3. Trust and love from our old friends. Our long-standing donors and board of trustees have been amazingly enthusiastic about the changes at the museum. They supported us financially when we were on the skids, and they are continuing to support the future of the institution. They are excited to see new people in the museum and to hear their friends talk about the museum in a new way. Almost to a person, our donors understand that we are reaching people with a variety of modalities and that they don't have to personally like every experience or element to feel great about the service the museum is doing in the community. We're starting a new campaign based on the "renewed ambition" of the museum and we feel confident about the future.
All of this said, I know we still have a lot of work to do--this truly is just the beginning. Going into the new year, we're focusing on:
  • making exhibitions and collections as participatory as our public programs
  • transforming our volunteer gallery host program into something more interactive 
  • helping members feel more like part of the family with us and with each other
  • finding and testing out innovative formats for participatory history experiences (it's been easier to get started on the art side, and we are a museum of art AND history)
  • figuring out ways to measure impact beyond anecdotes, especially with an incredibly limited budget/staff for evaluation
  • pushing forward on partnerships that allow us to reach and support marginalized people in our community

In a week when I'm super-stressed out about the work ahead, it's good to take a minute and celebrate what we've done. Thank you all for helping shape my thinking on museums and for your smart, critical, energetic eye on this work. And the next time someone questions the benefits of letting audiences actively participate, send them to Santa Cruz.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Art of the Steal: Access & Controversy at the Barnes Foundation


Last week, I finally watched The Art of the Steal, an arresting documentary on the controversy around the evolution of the Barnes Foundation from a suburban educational art facility to a major urban art museum (to open in May 2012). The documentary raises basic questions about donor intent, legal execution of eccentric peoples' wills, and, most interesting to me, the definition of access to a collection.

A quick background on the Barnes Foundation. It was founded in 1922 by Albert Barnes, a wealthy scientist who collected what is now considered an incomparable collection of Impressionist and Modernist art. Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso--Barnes collected it before it was popular in the U.S., and he collected the best of the best. With the help of educational philosopher John Dewey, Barnes founded the Barnes Foundation as an educational facility in Merion, PA, near Philadelphia. Unlike most art collections, Barnes' art was neither exclusively private nor a public museum. It was primarily used as a teaching collection for youth and adult students. The Barnes Foundation allowed a limited number of public visitors two days a week, but visitors were second-class citizens compared to the students.

Barnes protected his vision for the collection in his will. The art could not be sold, reproduced, loaned, or traveled. The school was to continue. There were slight concessions to public visitation, leading to capped attendance of about 60,000 per year. However, over the past thirty years, Philadelphia leaders clamored for the art to move to the city and be made more accessible to visitors (projections suggest the new facility will welcome 250,000 per year). The film documents the incremental subversion of Barnes' will and the eventual development of a new, highly public home for the collection in Philadelphia--exactly what Barnes despised and sought to avoid.

The documentary is shrill at times, with several Barnes Foundation stalwarts ominously repeating the word "conspiracy." There are cringe-worthy art critics who decry Barnes' rivals as "people who know nothing about art." But the fundamental story is fascinating and really challenged some of my basic ideas about museums. Despite my focus on populism and access, I am sympathetic to Barnes and his followers, who feel strongly that a serious injustice has been done.

The civic and cultural leaders who successfully challenged the original intent of Barnes' will had two basic arguments for the transformation of the collection:

  1. The Barnes Foundation was struggling financially. A move to a more accessible venue in the center of Philadelphia would increase attendance dramatically, thus bolstering finances.
  2. The Barnes collection is an incredible cultural artifact that more people should be able to access. Demand exceeded availability for public hours in the Merion location, and that demand constituted a valid public concern, one that foundations and politicians felt necessary to address.

I think both these arguments are bullshit. Let's look at each one closely.

First, let's talk money. The strangest thing about the documentary was the insistence by all parties--those who supported the move to Philadelphia and those who wanted to preserve the Barnes in Merion--that increased attendance would solve institutional financial crises. I kept scratching my head and thinking, what kind of art museum makes big money on attendance? Most art museums get a maximum of 10% of their income from admissions.

Consider two examples in the Philadelphia area. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which welcomes about 800,000 visitors per year, had income of $80.4M in their 2010 fiscal year (based on their public 990 tax form). Of that, $3.9M (5%) came from museum attendance, and an additional $1.7M came from special exhibitions (2%).

Now, another institution--the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which welcomes 54,000 visitors annually and manages a school for community members as well as BFA and MFA students. Their total revenue in 2010 was $16.2M (their 990). Of that, $1M came from attendance (6%), and $9.3M (57%) came from the educational program.

What's healthier for the financial viability of the Barnes Foundation--focusing on being a school, or focusing on being a museum? I don't see how a four-fold increase in public attendance--saddled with the significant costs of operating a large urban museum--will ensure stability.


Second, let's talk about access. If a donor designates a particular use of his or her property, how closely does that have to be followed? If a large body of civic and cultural leaders feel that the designation is no longer culturally relevant, does that matter? If someone owns something unique (and bars its reproduction or transfer), how much "public good" does that collection have to confer before the owner's wishes are challenged? And on a more practical museum management level, are there multiple ways to validly define access to a collection?

I don't feel qualified to answer the first three questions. But I do feel confident in my answer to the last one: yes. There are many ways a collection can be accessible or inaccessible (check out the UCL report Collections for People for a rigorous review of this). There are some collections that are entirely private. Others are accessible seasonally to a handful of visitors. There are publicly-owned collections that are only accessible by appointment or through digitization efforts. There are objects you can see, and objects you can't.

The Barnes Foundation was inaccessible to visitors who wanted to come to the facility, pay an admission fee, and view the art in the galleries. At the same time, it was deeply accessible to a cadre of teachers, students, and artists who spent prolonged periods with the work.

The controversial reconfiguration of the Barnes Foundation suggests that the first kind of access is more important than the second. That attendance trumps depth of experience. That center city trumps suburb. That granting access to 60,000 people per year is not sufficient to appropriately meet the demand to view the collection. That that demand has a moral public value.

In museum circles, we often say, "numbers aren't everything." But when we say that, what other things do we offer up as alternatives? Can we make a compelling quantitative argument for the benefits conferred to students at the Barnes Foundation, many of whom engaged in multi-year art and horticulture programs? How many one-time 1-hour visits does a three-year course of study equal? Is it really "better" to have 250,000 visitors shuffle through a museum than to give a deep experience to a few hundred? Who gets to decide?

The Barnes Foundation was not founded as a museum. It was founded as a school that used a privately-held art collection as its curriculum. I don't see why museum standards of access should be applied to such an institution just because it would be politically convenient to do so.

And that, I think, leads to the real reason governors, mayors, and heads of Philadelphia-based charities pushed to move the Barnes Foundation to the city. The Barnes collection is an extraordinary cultural jewel, and Philadelphia wants that jewel in its crown. It doesn't really matter if the collection is accessed by 60,000 people or 250,000 people, whether those people have a deep experience or not, and whether their admissions tickets will improve the institution's financial health. What matters is that Philadelphia can tout the Barnes collection and its wonders in its tourism and marketing materials for the city.

In some ways, this is a good thing. It implies that civic leaders do understand the incredible value of cultural institutions as identity-builders and tourism-attractors. But I don't think that justifies such a blatant disregard for donor intent, trumpeted with a one-note, "more attendance = better" horn. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Hours Should Museums Be Open?

An exhibiting artist approached me recently at an evening event at the museum. "Hey!," he said, "I have some feedback for you. You know, the hours that you're open--they're not very accessible for people who work."

He's right. They aren't. We're open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. And if you work and or have a family, that doesn't exactly make it easy to visit.

This isn't rocket science. But it's a question that many museums seem to address inadequately. We try so hard to make our visitors feel welcome and comfortable once they're inside, ignoring the glaring obstacle that may prevent them from even getting in the door.

It's interesting to me that so many museums debate admission fees but don't get comparably riled up about open hours. Some of the most innovative, community-focused museums I know of are trapped in the 11-5 game, and it's frankly a little bizarre--especially from visitors' perspective.

The obvious outcome of daytime hours is fewer visitors. But it also has a lot of other chicken-egg effects. Imagine if a theater or jazz club was only open during the day, and what conclusions one might draw about audience type and preferences based on that decision. For example, in museums:
  • Retirees and vacationers--two groups with daytime availability--become primary audiences that receive significant attention and subtly influence programming choices. Who would be "core" audiences if our institutions were open from 3-9pm instead of closing at 5? How might programming shift to support them?
  • Evening events provide rare opportunities to experience the museum after work. Are these events popular because of programming, or are they popular because of the hours? Would events be as significant in the experience of young adult audiences if there were more opportunities to experience the exhibitions after work without special programming?

In thinking about whether, why, and how we might rethink hours at my institution, I've come with the following list of pro's and con's for shifting the hours later.

PRO:
  • more accessible to working people
  • more symbiotic with times people are recreating downtown (dinner, happy hour, shopping)
  • separates school tours from public visiting hours, which can be helpful in a small building
CON:
  • requires changes to staffing and signage
  • can't rent the museum for lucrative evening events as often. If we're open every evening, it cripples this business. If we're open only a few evenings, it may confuse visitors.
What do you think? What questions should I consider in examining this? What have you seen change--or not--when hours change? What institutions are worth looking at to learn more? I'm particularly curious about other cultural and community organizations--libraries, performing art spaces--and how hours impact their use and value.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Getting in on the Act: New Report on Participatory Arts Engagement

Last month, the Irvine Foundation put out a new report, Getting In On the Act, about participatory arts practice and new frameworks for audience engagement. Authors Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard pack a lot into 40 pages--an argument for the rise of active arts engagement, a framework for thinking about ways to actively involve audiences, and lots of case studies. It is framed as a kind of study guide; pop-outs provide questions that tease out opportunities and tensions in the narrative. This report is not an end-all; it is the opening for a conversation.

Here's what I think is really strong about the report:
  • Coordinated, succinct research findings supporting the rise of active arts engagement. Pages 9 and 10 pull together data from the NEA, the Irvine Foundation, Dance/USA, RAND, and the Knight Foundation to tell a tight, compelling story about the demographic shift from consumptive to active participation and the extent to which traditional arts audiences are also participating in art-making outside of traditional arenas.
  • Excellent case studies, especially from the performing arts sector. I've often been asked about examples of participatory practice in theater, dance, and classical music, and this report is a great starting point. I was particularly inspired by the case studies related to art and civic action (like Paint the Street) and intrigued by the "implications" pop-outs asking questions about how the case studies might impact your own organization's practice.
  • Useful differentiation in their Audience Involvement Spectrum (see image at top) between programs that provide "enhanced engagement" and those that invite audience members to make contributions that impact and alter the end result. It can be easy to conflate engaging activities with participatory opportunities, and I'm glad they were explicit about the difference.
  • Useful definitions of participatory activities as "curatorial, interpretative, and inventive"--this is a reframing of the Forrester research framework for online participation which is probably more appropriate to the arts context.
  • Useful designations of four broad goals for active participation (page 14):

    1. Participation in Service of a Community Need or Societal Goal
    2. Participation in Support of, or as a Complement to, Artistic Vision
    3. Participation in Service of an Artistic Process or Product
    4. Participation as the Fundamental Goal


What's challenging about the report is how many different frameworks it presents. I counted at least five different schemes in the six-page section on "Participatory Arts in Practice," and none of these were explicitly referenced in the subsequent case studies. I found many of the frameworks useful, but the lack of context and detail was frustrating. How did the authors come up with the intriguing blend of curatorial, interpretative, and inventive opportunities shown in the Audience Involvement Spectrum's Venn diagrams? Why is a photography contest an example of "crowd sourcing" wheres a community drawing contest is an example of "audience-as-artist"? What's the relationship between the goals of participation and the techniques employed?

I admire and wholly appreciate the brevity of this report, but I fear it's too short to be genuinely useful for organizations that want to act on it. The authors present complex ideas about active arts participation, and it's clear that a lot of research and thought went into their work. I'd love an extended version with more explanation about how these frameworks might work in practice, how they map to the case studies provided, and how organizations with particular participatory goals might best achieve them. If the goal is for organizations to adopt these frameworks as their own, I think we need a lot more supporting material--and maybe fewer different taxonomies.

What do you get out of the report? What next steps do you think we need to make it as useful as possible--and how can we, as active participants--take the lead?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Public Service, Advocacy, and Institutional Transformation


Yesterday, I had lunch with Monica Martinez, the ED of Homeless Services for Santa Cruz county. I was amazed not only by her energy and intelligence but by her simple, transformative goal: to end homelessness. As she said (and I'm paraphrasing):
We're not in the business of giving people food or a bed in perpetuity. We're in the business of finding a solution to this problem. Our goal is to tackle the root causes of this issue and provide people with services that help them transition out of homelessness. Sure, sometimes that involves a bed or a meal for awhile, but not forever.
Talking to Monica, we found that we have a lot in common in trying to transform how our respective institutions serve and interface with the community. Monica is trying to reposition her organization as a social justice organization working on solutions to end homelessness. I'm trying to reposition our museum as a cultural hub supporting creative and intellectual community growth. Both of our organizations are classically seen as insular organizations that serve specific, closed audiences--homeless people in her case, cultural elites and students in mine--and we're both trying to demonstrate that our institutions not only have value for the whole community but also opportunities for everyone to get involved in a meaningful way.

Our conversation made me reflect on the museums that most inspire me from a public service perspective--institutions with missions that stretch far beyond their walls. This isn't so much about expanding outreach services as it is about fundamentally repositioning what the institution is there to do. A few personal favorites include:
  • the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, whose vision is to make the Northside the best place to raise a child in the city by supporting diverse programs (not all museum-led) throughout the troubled neighborhood
  • the American Visionary Art Museum, whose mission is simply to "expand the definition of a worthwhile life" by presenting and encouraging creativity in untraditional venues
  • the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has grown into a full-scale advocacy operation with a clear mission to save the oceans and inspire conservation
  • the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, which strives to be a cultural instigator that changes the way people throughout the city engage with each other
I know that every museum has these ambitions to some extent and that the rhetoric of many crosses these boundaries. But how many institutions are really aggressively transforming their work away from service to a narrow band of audiences to community-wide advocacy work? These museums work differently. They have different goals they are shooting for.

I know my museum is very far from these goals--we're still just laying the groundwork to be able to provide consistent cultural services to the community. But even as we do so, we're thinking about it in terms of changing and supporting how culture and learning happens in the County, not just at or via our programs. That's why I'm talking with people like Monica, to understand how the museum can be a partner in how we make progress throughout the community--not just at 705 Front Street.

I want our museum to be the host for dialogue--not just through panel discussions, but through exhibitions and events and commissions and community experiences that both invite and challenge people to engage with each other around the issues that matter most. And I think that requires us to be an advocacy organization--not for homelessness or oceans or children--but for the power of art to transform, the power of history to enlighten, and the power of a welcoming host to spark new ideas and change.

Does this sound like director-ish bloviating to you, or is it useful? How do you see institutions living up to--or falling short of--these kinds of goals?