Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Role for Museums in the Urban Renaissance: Reviving Skills of Craftsmanship

One topic I’m researching now is how museums deploy their assets—tangible and intangible—to promote equity in their communities. In today’s guest post Erin Sheets and Russell Davidson tell us how the Albright-Knox Art Gallery used its reputation, knowledge, and community connections to create a sustainable program helping unemployed women and men acquire skills, and jobs.

Orientation on the first day of class
at Assembly House 150
“Why is the museum involved in a workforce-development program?” We’ve heard that comment more than once since helping to establish SACRA (Society for the Advancement of Construction-Related Arts). The heart of the matter is this: we believe that art has the power to generate creative approaches to the challenges we face today and those we will encounter tomorrow. 

 In an effort to put this conviction into practice, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery established an on-site Innovation Lab in 2014. Through convening interdisciplinary thought-leaders, the Innovation Lab serves as a catalyst for creating new and dynamic approaches to pressing issues in museums and contemporary society. The Lab strives to define new models for museums in the twenty-first century as productive and engaged creative hubs at the center of social and civic vitality. SACRA is one of the projects incubated in the Lab.

The seeds for SACRA were planted several years ago when Dennis Maher was an artist-in-residence at the Albright-Knox. Buffalo, once a thriving metropolis, has witnessed the exodus of industry and a decline in population over the past few decades. Vestiges of its former grandeur remain: buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and H. H. Richardson dot the landscape. An extensive network of Frederick Law Olmsted–designed parks runs throughout the city. Just south of the city, in East Aurora, the Roycroft Campus housed a community of artists and craftsman influential in the Arts and Crafts movement in the late nineteenth century. The region boasts some of the oldest housing stock in the country—historic in character and much of it in need of restoration.

After decades of decline, the past few years have brought a renewed sense of vitality to the region. Some pockets of the city have experienced population growth of more than fifty percent. Despite this progress, the renaissance has not reached all of the city’s residents. Unemployment remains above twenty percent in some neighborhoods, and this rate is even higher among traditionally underserved populations. At the intersection of these two needs: people in desperate need of jobs and buildings in dire need of restoration— the museum spotted an opportunity to help our community.

The museum worked with Dennis and his architectural non-profit space, Assembly House 150, to create SACRA—a training program that imparts fine carpentry skills to men and women in need of employment. The pilot program began in September 2017 with seven men and six women identified in partnership with Erie County Department of Social Services. Over the course of fifteen weeks, students learned valuable lessons in safety, acquired carpentry skills from some of the area’s leading craftsmen, and gained hands-on experience with instructor-guided building projects. In addition to these hard skills, students were coached by local employers on workplace expectations, interview techniques, time management, and other soft skills crucial to workplace success.

Acting as a catalyst, the staff at the Albright-Knox helped to create a business plan, develop relationships with government partners, community organizations, specialized trainers and employers, and also played a role in interviewing the trainees. The museum was integral to securing start-up funds including an Our Town Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and support from individuals and corporate donors that were initially out of reach for our smaller partner organization. Over the course of the next three years, ownership of SACRA will be transferred to our partner organization, Assembly House 150. In the meantime, Albright-Knox staff are helping this artist-led non-profit to build the infrastructure it will need to stand on its own.

Assembly House recently began the process of registering the SACRA program as an accredited, non-degree-granting certification program through the New York State Department of Education, which will further open the door to government workforce development funding for future classes. This, combined with an anticipated in-house design and build team available for hire on local projects, will help sustain the operating costs of the program in the future.
The first class of SACRA Students
Since the first class’ graduation several weeks ago, seven students have been offered positions for which they would not have been considered before participating in SACRA. The remaining students continue to interview and work towards full-time employment.

It is unusual for a museum to work in the realm of workforce development but we have discovered that what makes our approach different also makes it effective. Rather than simply connecting students with a 9 to 5 job, SACRA emphasizes craftsmanship and artistry, imbuing work with a sense of dignity and purpose. Already, this program has been more successful in terms of job placement than just about any other the Department of Social Services has been involved with. We anticipate that as it grows, the program will provide long-term benefits for the students and for our community.
The program’s graduates with Dennis Maher
after having received their certificates

Erin Sheets is Manager of Major Gifts at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, and her colleague Russell Davidson is Innovation Lab and Special Projects Manager. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ready to Prototype? Applications now open…

In the final chapter of CFM’s TrendsWatch 2017, I argue that museums need to recognize that failure is a necessary part of a successful design process. As a sector, we need to become comfortable with positive failure—but it can be hard to take what seem to be financial and reputational risks in quest of better outcomes. So I’m tremendously pleased to share an announcement from Knight Foundation, which has just launched an open call for prototyping projects that test ways of using technology to connect people to the arts. This action gives positive feedback to nonprofits willing to “fail forward,” as well as providing funding and training to support that approach.

The call is being issued through the Knight Prototype Fund, which helps people quickly develop and test early-stage ideas. It will make $1 million available to galleries, museums, performing arts centers, theaters and arts organizations of all genres, with awards of up to $50,000. In addition to the financial award, the program will provide training in innovation methods and opportunities to learn from others in the funding cohort. I talked to Chris Barr, Director of Arts at the Knight Foundation, to learn more about the open call.

EM: Chris, why does the Knight Foundation support prototyping?

CB: Our prototype fund removes some risk for people to experiment, and gives some very basic training wheels to help organizations work in this way. Organizations can test whether this idea they have in mind is something desirable by using iterative cycles of development and roughing things in front of audiences and users.

EM: Is this a new area of focus for Knight?

CB: We’ve had a prototype fund for 5 years now, focusing on journalism and libraries, but this is our first time focusing on cultural institutions.

EM: What do you think is the power of this approach?

CB: We think there are some tremendously effective principles that cultural organizations can learn from the tech sector: creating a minimally viable project; working in a lean, agile, way; failing fast and “failing forward.” Look at the power of Ideo’s 3 maxims: feasibility, desirability, viability. The answer to “is it feasible?” is almost always “yes,” given sufficient resources. But do people want what you intend to design? That’s harder to answer. We love it when we get feedback from grantees along the lines of “we found out that the thing we wanted to make, nobody would have used it! So instead we are going to do this.” That’s the kind of thing that happens through the processes of prototyping and the design thinking. There is a lot to be learned from the act of making, especially in the early stages of a project. Then, how do you make it sustainable? It’s not just about creating value, but also figuring out how to capture value. We’ve seen a lot of success around the component of desirability, through human-centered design training.

EM: What is the biggest barrier to getting organizations to adopt this approach?

CB: It requires a bit of a cultural shift within cultural organizations. So much of what we do is to develop things behind the scenes that we share with the public after all the polish is done. With technology, there is never a final product; there is a version 1, 1.2, etc. We want to share this “show our work as we go” orientation with organizations not used to working that way. We are trying to import some aspects of culture from the technology sector into the cultural realm, make space for people to feel free to experiment and come to different conclusions than they started from. In that sense, this is not a typical grant program.

EM: What kind of projects are is Knight hoping to fund?

CB: We are often looking for projects that are not just practical, but also have a good question behind them that needs answering. The question could be about the technology, or about engagement. We are not asking applicants to define exact outcomes—we hope they will propose to test a hypothesis. If we just end up where we expected we were going, I would wonder if that was really success.

For more information: 
Knight Foundation staff will offer “office hours” from 1 to 2 p.m. EST Feb. 21, to answer questions about the new program. You can join the discussion via this link or connect via telephone (no video) at 1 (888) 240 2560, Meeting ID: 885 685 111. More information, including the application, is available at prototypefund.org.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Your Guide to the Future at AAM 2018

Every year I write a futurist’s guide to the AAM annual meeting, recommending sessions that explore trends shaping our world and examples of museums adapting to those trends. This being the tenth anniversary of CFM, I’ve cast a broad net, tagging sessions related to any of the themes we’ve explored through our lectures, reports, and six years of TrendsWatch. The listings in this post provide one way to navigate the plethora of offerings at the conference with the uber-theme of strategic foresight.

This year the AAM annual meeting is in Phoenix, May 6-9. Early Bird rates end tomorrow (Friday February 16). If you haven’t yet, register now to save some money!

Before I dive into the sessions, a word about CFM in MuseumExpo. Every year since our launch, we’ve orchestrated a little glimpse of the future in the exhibit hall: everything from communal drawing to a demonstration of Google Glass. This year, building on the exploration of Artificial Intelligence in TrendsWatch 2017, CFM will host a demonstration of chatbot technology in partnership with staff of The Studio of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Chatbots are computer programs designed to simulate conversation with human users, and museums are just beginning to explore a number of potential applications for this technology including wayfinding, answering queries about the collection, and providing gamified visitor experiences. At the demo, housed in the Alliance Resource Center in MuseumExpo, attendees will have the opportunity to try out an early version of the Carnegie’s chatbot, Muse. On Monday and Tuesday, from 2-3 pm, Studio staff will hold “Chatbot Chats” to help attendees explore how conversational artificial intelligence can improve the visitor experience.

And now, the session recommendations:

Sunday, May 6

1 – 2:15 pm
This session explores another museum application of artificial intelligence: predictive analytics. The panelists will present three case studies, including the use of machine learning to forecast museum visitation.

This session explores creative ways that history and art museums are connecting with immigrant populations and their approaches to co-creation.

TrendsWatch 2017 advanced the case that museums need to embrace imperfection, and rapid iteration, in order to create things people want to experience and use. That can require a profound organizational culture shift! In this session staff of The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry shares its experiments using intentionally unfinished pop-up exhibits to engage audiences in a new way. 
And for a deeper dive into interactive, user-centered design, follow up with either of these two sessions in the next time slot:

2:30 – 3:45 pm
This hands-on classroom session will explore how a five-step process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) can develop welcoming, inclusive, and collaborative museum experiences.

Participatory design merges community engagement and design thinking to identify smart approaches to persistent problems. This hands-on workshop takes the mystery out of participatory design by providing a step-by-step process that attendees can put to work at their own museums.

4 – 5:15 pm
CFM session!
CFM director Elizabeth Merritt (that's me) will lead a discussion with three thought leaders who contributed articles to the recent special issue of the Alliance’s Museum magazine set in the year 2040. Alliance CEO Laura Lott will speculate about the future of nonprofit leadership, sustainability advocate Sarah Sutton will sketch a vision of museums as vital partners in responding to climate change, and Omar Eaton-Martínez, from the National Museum of American History, will challenge us to consider whether the United States may someday need its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Monday, May 7

8:45 – 10:00 am
Elif Gokcigdem (editor of Fostering Empathy Through Museums) is joined by Thomas Rockwell (Exploratorium), Orna Cohen (Dialogue Social Enterprise), and researcher Zorana Ivcevic to lead attendees in interactive exercises on fostering empathy.

The need for meaningful metrics is a theme that runs through much of CFM’s work, and when it comes to education, there is a growing consensus that social/emotional learning is as important as mastery of facts or skills. This session promises to explore how museum professionals can measure learning beyond cognition, including feelings, attitudes, empathy, and behavior.

1:45 – 3:00 pm
I indexed this session under both Empathy, and Migration, as Kathleen Quin from the Penn Museum will present a case study of a new exhibition at the Penn Museum that pushed visitors to empathize with Syrian refugees and those trying to salvage cultural heritage.

This session highlights museums that are engaging incarcerated audiences and creating bold new programming with incarcerated artists and storytellers. Presenters include staff from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Tolerance, and Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

I was very disappointed that Tui Te Hau couldn’t join us for last year’s panel on museums and coworking/incubator spaces (though she did contribute some thoughts via this post on the CFM Blog). I’m thrilled that she’s giving a session in Phoenix, focusing on Mahuki, the innovation hub she directs at Te Papa in New Zealand. In this session she will talk about how museums can apply the Mahuki innovation/accelerator model to their own community engagement strategies; build relationships with the investment, start-up, and investment communities; and employ new ways of supporting diversity and inclusion in activities that also contribute to the community’s economy.

Speculating on museum jobs of the future is a favorite pastime here at CFM! (See, for example, the new jobs section of Museum 2040.) Twenty years ago “community engagement curator” was a job of the future, and it is still a relatively new and evolving role. This session will present multiple views of how community engagement curators (and those with similar titles) position themselves to act as conduits between the public and the museum.

Tuesday, May 8

8:45 – 10 am
In the wake of the Charlottesville riots, newspapers nationwide have called for the removal of Confederate war monuments from public spaces—and for their “safe housing” in museums and history centers. At this roundtable, historians, curators, educators, and architects will moderate a discussion with the AAM community about this complicated proposition.

This time slot also presents two options for diving into museum applications of virtual reality:

Nik Honeysett, Chief Executive Officer of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, moderates an open discussion about how to create virtual reality experiences that are inclusive and enhance learning. Breaking down the creation process, the panelists will look into the nuts and bolts of how two museum virtual reality experiences were produced.

Three museums that employ virtual applications and 3-D technologies will share methods and outcomes of their work. Panelists from Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, the Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art, and the Toledo Museum of Art will discuss challenges, share practical and technical constraints, and present examples of digital engagement.

1:30 PM - 2:45 PM
Staff from the Sept 11 Memorial, US National Holocaust Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum will talk about how they foster empathy to tackle genocide, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

If you’ve read TrendsWatch 2017 you know that I LOVE THIS SESSION. It premiered at the annual meeting in 2012, and since that time has usually had standing-room only crowds. This year the organizer writes: “Resources squandered, stakeholders alienated, deadlines missed: we honestly admit our biggest blunders and what learned from them. A crowdsourced contest awards the AAM Epic Failure Trophy of 2018 to the most honest person in the room.” Go. Share. Emote. Vote. 

3:00 – 4:15 pm
As the population ages and rates of dementia increase, museums have the potential to directly impact public perceptions and quality of life for individuals with dementia and their care partners. Presenters at this session share how several museums have used historic collections to create new opportunities, including group programs and training tools, and explore potential challenges of offering such programs.

4:30 – 5:30 pm
This is an opportunity to join the Latino Network to discuss how current immigration politics and policies affecting immigrant and refugee communities have an impact in museums worldwide. The organizers encourage you to bring your questions and share your approaches to this issue.

Wednesday, May 9

10:15 - 11:30 AM
This talk show format session will examine, challenge, and describe efforts to achieve and assess empathy at an organizational level. Moderated by Gretchen Jennings, the panelists are drawn from the Minnesota Historical Society, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Museum Studies program at George Washington University.

The Sustainability Excellence Award recognizes museum practices that reflect a significant change in policies or approaches, resource use or environmental impact. This session will explore this year’s winners’ roads to success, behind-the-scenes challenges, reflections on progress, daily inspirations, and more.

11:45 – 1:00 pm
This session offers three approaches to interaction design deployed at NMNH and NMAH. Each space has a different target audience and a different model for engaging visitors—all three promote interactive, inquiry-based learning.

Presenters will share how Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Denver Art Museum, and the Museum of Texas Tech University & Lubbock Lake Landmark have integrated accessible technologies into their collections and programmatic interpretation. Speakers will discuss challenges, including practical and technical constraints, and share examples of accessible technologies.

3:00 – 5 pm
One core story element in CFM's most recent publication, Museum 2040, was the rise of “hybrid organizations”—institutions that merge formerly separate functions such as senior center and preschool, civic center and school—or museum and hospital. On this tour you can catch a glimpse of this possible future at the Mayo Clinic Center for Humanities in Medicine, where they integrate the arts and other expressions of human culture into the healing environment. This behind-the-scenes presentation and tour will focus on a collaboration that to brings museum theories and practice to nontraditional spaces.