Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Want to Work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History? Now's Your Chance.

This week, I'm celebrating three years on the job as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. This spring marked a big conceptual shift for me and the museum. We are now squarely out of turnaround and into growth mode. In three years, our attendance has tripled, we've built a solid financial footing, and our involvement in the community has increased. But there's still plenty of work to do.

We spent three years doing more with less. Now, we're ready to make the investment to do more with more.

What does that mean? Most significantly, we are adding three full-time positions to our team. That's a big jump for an existing staff of twelve.

We are now hiring three new positions:
Each of these people has an important and complex problem to solve. Our Curator will lead the way in bringing together professional artists and non-artist participants in the development of powerful exhibitions. Our Community Programs Coordinator will deepen the one-off relationships we form with many different visitors and groups throughout the community, bridging connections among them. Our Director of Development will be a close partner to me and a strategic weaver of inclusion, participation, and fundraising.

It's really important to us to find amazing people, and we know they can come from anywhere. For us, staff diversity means variation in work background and perspective as well as demographics. We've found the best way to attract diverse people is to change the way we approach necessary job qualifications. We try to minimize requirements of very specific degrees or experiences that might block talented people from applying. Instead, we focus on qualifications that are based in how you approach your work and what you are able to do.

To assess these less resume-friendly qualifications, we develop tailor-made job applications to the attributes and abilities needed for particular roles. Applications demonstrate how you respond to diverse scenarios and tasks. We've found that these applications give us much better information than a resume and letter alone. It helps us understand a bit about how you work and think. And it demonstrates your committed interest in the role.

If you think that you are the right person for one of these jobs--or if you know the right person--I hope you will check out the job descriptions and consider applying. Also, today's the last day to apply for summer internships. Thanks in advance for spreading the word.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Quick Hit: Five Great Links

This week, a kitchen sink of inspiring bits.

Museums, Politics, and Power is a new blog that lives up to its name. It presents global perspectives on these juicy, interrelated issues. It is the online counterpart to a conference of the same name that will be hosted this fall in St. Petersburg. Three intrepid blog managers are soliciting contributions from all over the world, and so far, there are posts from Belarus, Canada, Germany, Northern Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine, and the US. The content is meaty, multi-lingual, and timely.

I'm one of the guests in the newest episode of Museopunks, a podcast series by Jeffrey Inscho and Suse Cairns. The topic is online professional identity. My career has been shaped significantly by blogging. It's something I think about often but rarely talk about. The podcast let us dive into the topic and discuss how online and offline worlds complement and complicate each other.

Elsewhere in podcast-land, Radiolab did a fascinating piece about cultural appropriation and gate-keeping in hip hop music. It asks basic questions about who can define authenticity and quality in an art practice that was historically based in a specific cultural identity but is now being assimilated/exploited/expanded. Sound familiar? Some serious parallels to curating exhibitions and performances, especially with living artists.

Speaking of contemporary artists, one of my favorite recent blog posts was this thoughtful essay by artist Brian Fernandes-Halloran about navigating the compromises between artistic ambition and the marketplace. As Brian puts it: "What happens when an artist’s inclinations towards her/his work conflict with her/his ability to sell and keep making it?"

Finally, if you need a hit of inspiration and historical museum-making, I strongly recommend checking out the Boston Stories project. Boston Stories chronicles the radical, human-centered work at the Boston Children's Museum in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This website is a little oddly organized, but it is a treasure trove of essays, videos, and downloads related to the amazing work of Michael Spock, Elaine Heumann Gurian, and many many honored museum rabble-rousers. For example, check out this research report [pdf] from 1969 on the use of visitor research in the development of exhibitions. This stuff is so early it's practically prenatal.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Who is an Artist? On Naming and Expertise

Rebecca sat down next to me at breakfast and asked, "How was the hike yesterday?"  
I replied, "Good. It was more of a walk. But it was beautiful." 
Her: "You're a serious hiker, right?" 
Me: "I guess so."

This simple exchange--or one like it--happens every day. We question our abilities. We confirm our expertise.

I noticed this conversation because it happened during a break at a two-day meeting where people heatedly debated the question of who is an artist. In that context, this simple exchange about hiking got me thinking.

What does it mean when someone says she is a hiker, or a scientist, or an artist? It can mean:
  • I do this thing often.
  • I do this thing at a high level of ability.
  • I have expertise in doing this thing.
  • I make my living doing this thing.
  • I consider this thing to be a core part of my identity.
  • I affiliate with this thing.
  • I aspire to do this thing professionally, and I am affiliating to build that future for myself.
Some professionals believe strongly in the power of aspirational affiliation. Last week, I heard a curator advocate strongly for the "everyone is an artist" frame of thinking. When you tell a child or an outsider that he is an artist, you empower that person to join a community of art-making. At the same time, you expand the definition of art and make it more inclusive. 

Other professionals believe that expertise needs to be protected. Last week, I heard an immensely talented performer say he "dances but isn't a dancer" because he doesn't do it every day. A person who dedicates their life to making art has a different way of seeing and engaging with the world. It's valuable to honor and acknowledge that difference.

Each of us defines these lines differently, and I don't think there can be one answer. There are reasonable arguments for delineation based on credentials, experience, talent, intention, time on task, and personal connection. 

I know within myself, in the small example of hiking, I froze for a moment when I was asked if I was a serious hiker. I started thinking: well, yes, this is a big part of my identity, but I don't really do it that often anymore, but I like to do it at a high level of intensity, and compared to the general public I do it a lot, and I often plan vacations around it, and probably when I am in a less crazy time of life I'll do it more... 

I experienced a half-second of heart-racing existential self-questioning just to answer a very simple question. 

I also noticed a kind of social distinction shaping up around the exchange. When I said "it was more of a walk," I was also saying "this isn't up to my standards of hiking." When she asked, "You're a serious hiker, right?," she was also asking, "You distinguish yourself from others in this way, right?" The use of the word "serious," like the use of the word "professional," started to draw a clearer line between me and Rebecca--a line that made me uncomfortable. I didn't want to exclude her from past or potential shared hiking experiences. But subtly, I did.

All of this makes me think three basic things about how we name ourselves:
  1. It's personal. Even if you think you have the way to define who is an artist or a scientist or an expert, each individual may still choose to affiliate (or opt out) based on his/her own standards. 
  2. It's relational. The things we call ourselves and each other do impact the way we see and treat each other. 
  3. It could be much richer and more expansive. A word like "artist" is a heavy hammer to impose on every nail. If the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, can't we have fifty words for artist? If we can add more nuance to the ways we name ourselves, we can move from debate to dialogue about the opportunities inherent in a diverse and complex world.
How do you interpret the question of who is an artist/scientist/expert?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Hemingway: A Simple Online Tool for Better Short-Form Writing

Exhibit labels. Promotional text. Grant proposals. For many arts/museum professionals, writing text in 100-word chunks is a daily activity.

And unfortunately, a lot of that writing is lousy. There are great references for better art writing, but we don't always use them. We pack sentences with high-falutin vocabulary, pepper them with clauses, and wrap them up in insider language.

Recently, I discovered an online tool that can change that. It's called Hemingway. Its intent is "to make your writing bold and clear."

It does this by offering everything you wish Microsoft Word grammar check provided:

  • it keeps track of word count, sentence count, paragraph count, and character count.
  • it highlights sentences that are hard to read. 
  • it highlights phrases that are unnecessarily complicated.
  • it marks adverbs and uses of passive voice.
  • it judges "readability" by calculating grade level of the text (apparently using an average of several scoring rubrics).
  • it doesn't flag stylistic flourishes like intentional incomplete sentences. Like this.

I started using it for exhibit labels. When writing exhibit labels, I am constantly checking and rechecking the word count. I use online calculators to assess grade level. It's a pain and Hemingway takes that pain away.

Then I started using it for chunks of grant proposals. Word counts matter there too. In proposals, it can be easy to fall into jargon and long, convoluted sentences. Hemingway has helped me declare where I used to meander.

Hemingway has one big downside: right now, it's just an online app. You have to copy and paste text in (and out) to use it. I'm hopeful that they will release a desktop app soon.

And of course, it doesn't actually channel the voice of Ernest Hemingway. As many have observed, Ernest Hemingway scores low on Hemingway. The app encourages clear, declarative writing, which makes it a poor fit for many creative endeavors. But exhibit labels or marketing brochures? It's ideal for that.

Now I find Hemingway infiltrating my brain when writing almost anything--including this blog post. It is at an 8th grade level, with four adverbs and two hard-to-read sentences. I can live with that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

What I Learned from Beck (the rock star) about Participatory Arts

In December of 2012, the rock musician Beck released his latest album, Song Reader. Song Reader didn't come as a CD, or an LP, or a bunch of digital audio files. It is what it sounds like: a book of original sheet music, beautifully designed and complemented with artwork and text. There are twenty songs in Song Reader. But if you want to hear them, you have to play them yourself--or check out hundreds of interpretations shared by musicians on the Song Reader website.

There are many artistic projects that offer a template for participation, whether a printed play, an orchestral score, or a visual artwork that involves an instructional set (from community murals to Sol LeWitt). Beck's project is unusual because he deliberately resurrected a mostly-defunct participatory platform: sheet music for popular songs. In his thoughtful preface to this project, I reconnected with five lessons I've learned from participatory projects in museums and cultural sites.

1. Constrain the input, free the output.

In my experience, the best participatory experiences are as constrained and clear as possible in the invitation offered, and as open-ended as possible in the outcome generated. Sheet music is a beautiful analogy for this.

The fact that there is no original recording by Beck of the Song Reader songs, no model upon which "covers" would be based, frees the reader to imagine the songs in any number of ways. As Beck put it:
The opening up of the music, the possibility of letting people work with these songs in different ways, and of allowing them a different accessibility than what’s offered by all the many forms of music available today, is ultimately what this collection aims for. These arrangements are starting-off points; they don’t originate from any definitive recording or performance. 

2. Level the playing field for participants of diverse backgrounds.

One of the things I always focus on in participatory exhibit design is ensuring that everyone has the same tools to work with. When community contributions are presented as second-class content, that negatively affects both the quality of the contributions and the perception of the product. If there are museum objects and visitors' objects on display together, all should be afforded the same level of exhibit design, labels, etc. If there's a talkback area in an exhibition where people can make drawings, visitors should have access to the same kind of paper and colored pencils that was used to generate seed content.

These kinds of participatory projects can actually de-motivate because participants can't possibly measure up to the display model. If Beck is in a fancy studio and you're in your garage with your ukelele, why bother?

Beck talks about this in the context of learning to play music as a young artist. The music he listened to on the radio "got its power" from studio techniques. He described it this way:
When I started out on guitar, I gravitated toward folk and country blues; they seemed to work well with the limited means I had to make music of my own. The popular songs, by contrast, didn’t really translate to my Gibson flat-top acoustic. There was an unspoken division between the music you heard on the radio and the music you were able to play with your own hands. By then, recorded music was no longer just the document of a performance—it was a composite of style, hooks, and production techniques, an extension of a popular personality’s image within a current sound.
Of course, Beck notes the irony that sheet music is not exactly accessible to everyone, especially at a time when many people are making music digitally in all kinds of ways that don't start with standardized notation. But when it comes to building from a template, sheet music has simple power. As Beck puts it:
I think there’s something human in sheet music, something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it—it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it.

3. Everything old is new again.

Sheet music is not a new technology. Beck was inspired to launch this project by the popularity of sheet music and songbooks in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, a popular hit could sell tens of millions of copies of the sheet music, which translated to tens of millions of people playing and singing the songs in their own homes.

Thinking about this, I was struck by the resonance with conversations swirling in the arts field about "little a" art: art that happens in the home, in churches, in parks. There seems to be a hunger these days to document, research, and celebrate the diverse places and ways that people make and share art outside of formal, recognized institutions.

While any family theoretically can start a home singalong or a neighborhood play-reading group, it often takes a tradition, a formal structure, or a template to prompt this kind of activity. Song Reader looks back and encourages reengaging in a tradition that fosters participation. Similarly, when a theater adopts a talking circle practice, or a museum starts a knitting group, the institution is reconnecting with traditional templates for participatory engagement.

4. Participatory processes often (and sometimes unintentionally) restructure the product.

When you are developing a participatory project with non-professionals, it usually involves changing the process from the norm. That's expected. What's less expected is that the product itself is often restructured to meet the particular needs and assets of the participants involved. For example, a history museum might traditionally develop exhibitions internally, with one curator writing the labels in third person (even if drawing from primary sources). That same curator, when developing an exhibition in partnership with community members, may take the opportunity to produce labels in multiple first-person voices of the participants. Their involvement creates an opportunity to create a slightly different product.

Similarly, Beck found himself writing songs differently when writing for the songbook instead of the studio. He noted:
I started to think about what kind of songs have a quality that allows others to inhabit them and to make them their own. What is it about a song that lets you sing it around a campfire, or play it at a wedding? Is it the simplicity of the sentiment? A memorable melody? What makes certain songs able to persist through any era, and adapt themselves? ... 
The songs I would write for one of my own records began to seem less appropriate than songs written in a broader style. At times, I struggled against my own writing instincts—where was the line between the simplistic and the universal, the cliché and the enduring? Classic songs can transcend and transform a cliché, magnifying a well-trodden phrase or sentiment and making it into something elemental. But often that approach descends into banality and platitudes. My appreciation for the ability of songwriters to avoid those pitfalls drove a lot of the writing here; still, I have little idea whether any of these songs managed to find that line. In the right hands, maybe they’ll be able to come a little closer to it.
This gets a bit at the confounding question of how to measure "quality" in a participatory project. Is quality sheet music the same as a quality pop song? No. They are designed to do different things.

5. It's complicated.

Song Reader brings up several familiar questions about participatory arts:
  • What happens when an artist creates a participatory process instead of a traditional art product?
  • Who owns the products created by that process? Who owns them in a legal sense, but also who is perceived as the owner/originator/creator of the products?
  • Are the products created via such a process of worse, better, or equivalent quality as traditional art products?
These questions were particularly present as I scanned the Song Reader website, which feels partly commercial, partly community-based. The content and quality of the songs shared varies widely. But that's part of the point - that the same song can be played reggae or country, by a string quartet or a girl in her bedroom. It can be the basis for a contest, a giant concert, or an evening at home. It can be the spark a personal art practice or a community gathering. It can be a big mess, or a quiet surprise.

As Beck puts it: "That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project."