Thursday, November 25, 2010

Further Excellent Adventures in Visitor Participation, Part 2

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London 

Last week brought you part 1 of current visitor participation exhibits in London and here comes part 2!

Adventure #3: MOVE: Choreographing YOU at the Hayward Gallery 

A few weeks ago I went off to the Hayward Gallery to see/dance my way through their current exhibition of sculptures and installations created by artists and choreographers. The exhibition had some great things, my favorite being a series of small rooms you go through filled with balloons and ball-pit balls that did really force you to move and think about your movements as you tried to navigate the space. 

 There was also a section of ceiling with gymnastics rings of different heights that posed the challenge of crossing the space without having your feet touch the floor. Loved this, but for some reason the day I was there you couldn’t hang from the rings. Wish this had been available! 
Sadly, the exhibition wasn’t very crowded on the day I went and I seemed to be suffering from a little too much self-awareness. Each area had Gallery staff posted there and one area actually had professional dancers dancing in the space. Because it was so quiet, I felt quite shy about using the objects with the Gallery staff staring at me as the only participant. I walked through all the exhibit areas a few times and there were some spaces that were empty the first time I visited but then had a visitor or two interacting the second time I was in. 

When the space was empty, it wasn’t necessarily clear what one could do there and it took some imagination to think about how the pieces might be used. Upon my return, I could see visitors climbing on and doing different things which provided some inspiration for thinking about what you might do with the items in the room. 

Among my favorite things were small items made of mesh and scrim that were used in dance productions that you could manipulate. I found these very approachable and interesting as you could pick them up and test the many ways the material could be manipulated in your hands (or with your feet..or head) and imagine how they could be used on stage by a dancer. 

I longed to return with my children because I knew they would run around using all the equipment but we have been unable to find a day to go downtown due to extra-curricular commitments on the weekends. Maybe during the winter break we’ll have a chance to go and I’ll have to write an addendum. 

Here’s a photo of one of the rooms – I found it hard to figure out what to do without models and when the objects were all static. The exhibition ended with a computer area that housed an amazing collection of videos, interviews and performances by various dancers and choreographers. I spent quite a bit of time going through a small percentage of the material, which is something I never would have been able to do with two children in tow. 

Adventure #4: The Museum of Everything 

OK, so the exhibition I went to last week wasn’t very participatory, but the concept of the Museum of Everything is so I thought it belonged in this round up. The Museum of Everything advertises itself as a space for artists and creators outside modern society. The first exhibition was a selection of 800 works by na├»ve and unknown artists and curated by leading art figures in London. The second was an exhibition at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in which the Museum of Everything invited unintentional, unseen, unexhibited and unknown artists of Greater Britain to bring their work in for display in one of the greatest museums in the world. In three days, they were able to display over 200 works to over 100,000 visitors, which provided exposure to artists who would otherwise not be seen by this audience at this venue. 

What is very participatory about the Museum of Everything is that they will take any idea from the world out there and consider it. Their website asks that “If you are a non-professional, non-traditional or non-exhibited artist, or if you know one living or long-gone, or if you have some work you think might float our boat, even if you're just a chancer who wants some work displayed in The Museum of Everything, please email us at” 

Which brings me to yesterday’s exhibition. Exhibition #3 is curated by Sir Peter Blake, a British artist and collector who has an impressive collection of naive art. This large exhibition, all based on a circus theme, includes collections of photos of circus freaks, Punch and Judy and puppet displays, miniature fairgrounds and large-scale side-show banners. Peter Blake’s best known work is the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and taking a look at that will give you an idea of the aesthetics of the exhibition. 

The interesting and approachable labels were written by Peter Blake and gave detailed explanations of who the artists were and why the objects were special to him. My two favourite collections were the needlework of Ted Wilcox and the dioramas by Walter Potter. Ted Wilcox was an ex-serviceman who learned how to sew while he was in the hospital recovering from injuries. He created embroidered versions of pin-up girls from magazines and also several versions of Alice in Wonderland. Ted Wilcox embroidered pin-up girl Walter Potter’s dioramas were really something to see. Walter Potter was a famous taxidermist and people would bring him animals that they found or that died on their farms. At some point, Mr. Potter became interested in creating dioramas that include stuffed animals in scenes mimicking human life. In other words, his dioramas are a lot like 3D versions of those paintings of cats or dogs playing cards. 

While he was a well known taxidermist at the time, some of the taxidermy is actually pretty bad and the whole thing has an amazing kitsch element to it. The gallery was full of children sketching different dioramas as they are in turn hilarious and grotesque. My favourites were a series of squirrel boxing scenes as well as a large diorama with squirrels sitting around a living room.

Every once in a while it’s important to attend an event like this because it reminds you that some of us in the Museum business can get a little too stuffy (no pun intended) and take ourselves too seriously and sometimes exhibitions should just be fun and open to whoever wants to make them. 

I would have taken more photos but these signs were posted throughout the space 
Here are some of additional take-aways from these adventures in participatory exhibition: 

• It is wonderful to encourage participation, but consideration should also allow for visitors who might be intimidated and not want to participate. Plan for voyeurs, too. 

• If you are advertising a participatory exhibition, make sure you let people know what they can and can’t interact with. It’s a disappointment to arrive at a Museum and something you are looking forward to trying is unavailable (at least put a sign at the front desk so expectations are in line before entering). 

• Don’t forget to have fun if you are working with a subject where it is appropriate. Visitors can tell whether or not the developers and designers actually enjoyed themselves during the process. 

Thanks for following along!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Looking Deeply in the Art Museum

By Maria Mortati

A few weeks ago, I again participated in an Enormous Microscopic Evening, this year at the Hammer Museum. It's an event created by the artist-run Critter Salon, and was supported by the Machine Project residency at the Hammer.

I ran the DIY Scope table, letting folks play and helping them assemble a variety of viewers from found objects. The audience was delighted that the Hammer was supporting this event, and I had countless folks asking me if they would "do this again".
Young participant chooses her lenses.
I've written a few times about the idea that artists make great public programmers. They are experts at exploring ideas and figuring out how to involve others.  The goal at this event was to "celebrate and demonstrate the range of equipment people are using to explore the invisible". Phil Ross, the force behind Critter, described the event as a "large microscope jam session".

The fact that this event was held at an art museum was a nice foil for Critter's objectives:
"CRITTER presents cultural events that focus on the way science is practiced in everyday life, taking form as talks, classes, demonstrations and workshops."
It underscored that point and caught an audience who typically comes to "look" in an art museum by surprise. Visitors were exposed to a variety of ways of looking and navigating in the barely visible, and often academic world.

It was a fantastic success. I had kids and adults coming back for more after making a loop around the room. The layout of which was arranged with the the DIY table in the center, with the full regalia of microscopists forming the edges. 

Feel free to visit the Flickr set by Machine Project here. Photo courtesy of Machine Project/Marianne Williams, poster by Critter Salon.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Speaking of Humble Materials...

RE-CREATE show entries spanned use and metaphor.
By Maria Mortati

How funny just after Justine's recent post on "do humble materials belong in museums" I happened upon Julia Storrs of the Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA) setting up for an exhibit opening this Friday night called "RE-CREATE":
"Re-Create is a recycled art competition and exhibition that is open to student artists (K-12) in Oakland schools. Students are invited to create artwork using discarded or reused materials and compete for prizes."
The "museum" operates out of an empty storefront on Oakland's waterfront. For this exhibit, kids collaborated in teams to practice their 4 R's (reduce, reuse, recycle and... rot).
Julia Storrs,  curator, artist, and teacher, with one of the entries.
Using humble materials and backed up by a well-defined program, kids rose to the challenge– creating some wonderful collaborations on a variety of scales. This exhibit is ephemeral, and the raw storefront space is a perfect backdrop for the kid's art.

If you have the opportunity, go see it! Opens this Friday night, 54 Water Street (Jack London Square) 6 - 8 pm.
Visit their website for the skinny.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Asian Art Museum Wants Your Input

By Maria Mortati

Today I received a request to participate in a survey* for the SF-based Asian Art Museum. I always think what is most interesting are the questions asked. 

If you are so inclined, and especially if you live in the Bay Area, give it a try. What do you think they are thinking about?

*They are not a client of ours.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Further Excellent Adventures in Visitor Participation, Part 1

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

Artist Ai Weiwei at the Tate Turbine Gallery   
Despite the weather and some of the strange habits of the natives, London is a wonderful place to live. Particularly if you are a museum person. Every week I head out to some fabulous exhibition and feel very lucky to live in a city with such a rich variety of museum offerings and I always come home having learned and/or experienced something new.

The months of October and November were especially abundant in offerings. The latest crop of exhibitions has been highly interactive and participatory in different ways and has included visitors at various levels. In fact, there were so many great things to tell about that this blog entry became too cumbersome and has been broken into two parts. Look for Excellent Adventures Part 2 in the coming weeks!

Adventure #1: Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern 

First, I went off to the Tate Modern to see the new installation in the Turbine Gallery. I didn’t really know anything about what it was going to be, but have always loved the installations in this space and was prepared for something engaging. Indeed, I really enjoyed the exhibition.

The Turbine Gallery is an enormous, former power plant space and it was filled with ceramic sunflower seeds conceptualized by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. There are over 100 million of these hand-painted porcelain seeds laid out in a giant rectangle pattern throughout the Gallery. Artists worked in small-scale workshops in China hand-crafting and painting each seed, which is overwhelming if you really think about it. The exhibition calls for visitors to contemplate China’s export and manufacture of porcelain and about what “made in China” really means. The exhibition is also timely as Ai Weiwei has been under house arrest in his native China in order to stop him from holding a party to commemorate the forced demolition of his Shanghai art studio. The police were back at his house last Wednesday and Ai Weiwei currently feels that there is a very real possibility that he may go to jail.

The installation during my visit on October 13, 2010 
This was not top in my mind as I was walking and lying down on this vast field of sunflower seeds. The Gallery had the look of a beach. People were lying down, doing cartwheels, picking up the seeds and looking at them and taking a moment to immerse themselves in a work of art. A bank of videos is located adjacent to the installation allowing visitors to send the artist a video message or tweet (to which he will respond) or respond to questions that the artist has posed for visitors.

I came home and told my two daughters about the exhibition and how we should plan a day for all of us to go see it. But it was not to be. It turns out that it was deemed that there was too much porcelain dust being created through visitor interaction and that the exhibition is now hazardous – I was lucky because I happened to be there the last day visitors could see it without standing behind a wire fence. Very sad and I can’t imagine that there isn’t another way to handle the situation. Perhaps visitors could purchase a paper mask in order to interact with the piece as it was conceptualized?

What the exhibition currently looks like
I’m sure there are more complicated ramifications, such as visitors dragging the dust into the art galleries (and I am aware of how hazardous porcelain dust is) but it does make me wonder about our extreme fear of lawsuits these days.

Attempted Adventure #2: Things at the Wellcome Collection

Our next idea for family participation in a museum exhibit was to submit an item for the “Things” exhibit at the Wellcome Collection. My enthusiasm about this exhibition stems from having worked on an exhibition in the early 90s at the Bay Area Discovery Museum called “Kids Collect.” For this exhibition, Bay Area children would submit their collections to the Museum and it was always amazing what came in. There were the usual suspects: baseball cards, troll dolls, erasers, and random rocks. But there were always submissions that were wonderful surprises, such as a collection of items from nature that a two-year-old gathered on his weekly walks with Grandma and a beautiful collection of keys. The exhibition highlighted the basic human need to find meaning in objects, to collects things, and to pause and think about how something that we might view as trivial becomes really beautiful when cared about and curated. For these same reasons, this exhibition appealed to me.

Some of our erasers. 
My daughters really enjoyed creating knit self-portraits for the London Science Museum and they were eager to have another participatory experience.

They both spent a lot of time thinking about what objects were meaningful to them and what might be the best submission for this type of exhibit. After much deliberation, they decided that they wanted to submit their Japanese eraser collection because they both have items that they include and also because they are items that their friends in America collect (and send them) but are unusual here in London. I also have several old Japanese erasers (my favorite being an obento box) that a friend gave me in the early 90s, so this seemed like something we could all get around.

We gathered all our erasers together, but ended up getting foiled by life and the necessary parameters set out by the Museum. The exhibition was ten days long: visitors could drop off items (had to be smaller than your head) between the 12-19 of October and you had to come back and pick your item up between October 21-23. Items could be loaned or donated and my daughters were very clear that they wanted their erasers back. On the day I planned on dropping off our “Things,” I ended up needing to help a friend with her chickpoxed daughter, and we realized looking at the calendar that we wouldn’t be able to both drop off and pick up our erasers the following week. There was an option to submit a photo of your things, but my girls just weren’t that enthusiastic about a lesser level of participation.

I’m hoping that the Wellcome Collection turns this into an annual event and that we are able to participate in the future. We’ve already done the hard work of figuring out which object(s) we’d like to submit and maybe we’ll have better luck next time. We did really enjoy the task of thinking about our objects and particularly liked the videos on the website of selected folks talking about their objects. It’s delightful to be a voyeur into the world of people and their stuff!

Here are some of my take-aways from these two participatory exhibitions:

  • Logistics and process are necessary but try not to make the process too complicated for participants. Keep your audience and their abilities in mind. 
  • You never really know what hazards will present themselves so you need to always remain flexible. 
  • Don’t forget to have fun if you are working with a subject where it is appropriate. Visitors can tell whether or not the developers and designers actually enjoyed themselves during the process. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming to you soon......

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reasons Not To

Justine Roberts, Principal

A girl and her horse.
In my most recent post I talked about some of the reasons I love seeing familiar materials in museums.  Frankly, cardboard and make-dos and space to spread out can keep me and my family occupied for hours and deeply satisfied with the experience.  

But museums can be skittish about using recycled materials.  

Space, Time and Money

There are operating implications of using recyclables, and those have real impacts on staffing, budgets, and space.   Keeping exhibit areas supplied with repurposed materials does take staff time.  Someone has to build relationships with donors, sort materials when they come in, and keep track of what is needed.  Space is required for drop-off, sorting and storage.   

These are real, but I wondered what that commitment looks like in practice.  So I called the Recycle Shop at the Boston Children's Museum.

Boston Children’s Museum has run their Recycle Shop program since 1971.  They staff it with one full time Supervisor, and there are other folks who pitch in part time (either interns or art department staff).  So the program takes the equivalent of 2 FTEs. 

Generally they do not have problems stocking the shop.  There are things they do not take – 3-ring binders, books, computers eg – but they get a steady stream of supplies and have a sustainable roster of donors.  There are approx. 30 folks who contribute twice a year and many one-shot donors.  Twice a week they drive a van to pick up material from commercial donors.  These are all within a one-hour radius of the museum meaning that their relationships extend from Southern Maine and New Hampshire, West to Worcester and South into Rhode Island.  The only reward donors get is recognition in the annual report. If someone donates material of real value they can take a tax write-off and there are occasionally passes to the museum available, but the Recycle Shop Supervisor wisely gives those to the guys at the loading dock.

Now, BCM has taken this to a HIGH level of commitment by making these materials available to the general public through their shop.  The public can come into the museum and shop for supplies without paying admission - and the supplies are very affordable, sold by the bag for $4 or $7.  The museum does use the same supplies in house and the art department gets to pick what they want before they stock the store.  But the program is bigger than just supplying the art room.  It might sound like a lot of work to prep donations and ready them for sale to the public but the Supervisor estimates it takes 10% of his time to sort and break down materials.  That's only 4 hours a week.

As far as space required to run the program, BCM does maintain 1,500SF of off-site storage where they have a 6 month backlog of supplies, another 100SF of on-site storage, and the 400SF shop.

I'm not trying to say Boston is the model for a recycle art program, I realize its an investment.  But because of that it is a good reference point for understanding what you can do with less space, fewer FTEs, and no public store.  

East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, CA
On the other hand, I can imagine a kind of swap shop event where a few times a year the museum throws open the doors to the public and sells materials, bringing the makers and doers and crafters and tinkerers into the museum and building audience while raising money at the same time.  Imagine the potential for relationships with corporate donors that can transition into other kinds of support over time.  Imagine the good will and public value that can be built by demonstrating that "green" is not something you buy - its something you do.  For one weekend the museum could become like the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse or Extras for Creative Learning in Boston, MA.

Loss of Predicability

Another operating issue I hear about is concern that recycled materials are less predictable and standardized.  Staff may need to spend time assessing what they have to work with and coming up with appropriate projects for visitors. This takes time, requires skills and flexibility that may not already be on staff, and means that staff have to split their time between interacting with the public and developing activities – effectively pulling them away from what is most likely their first priority.  

There are a host of related issues of course such as: Where are staff supposed to develop these activities?  Is it appropriate to have staff doing their own creative work in public?  Is it realistic to expect staff to juggle visitor needs in the moment with advance planning for the next day? Does this model require new or different people?  These are questions that need to be answered within the culture of each organization.  But the flip side is that staff who invent the programs they run have more at stake, and the goal would be that their own feelings of investment will spur them to be more creative and engaged.  Their job pushes more toward education, and they become more integral to the visitor experience.  And there are resources out there for inspiration and structure - my favorite being the book Beautiful Stuff.

Some museums have solved these challenges by allowing visitors to invent the project.  These museums are offering materials, context, workspace and a social environment.  Visitors bring the imagination required to figure out what to do. 

That is understandably anxiety provoking. What if visitors are lost in the space, or need help, or don’t know how to get started?  Well, it depends what you want them to learn. Is this about creative problem solving? About finding new ways to look at the familiar and seeing new opportunities in the everyday?  Is it about tapping into their inner genius and creativity?  Is it open-ended and process oriented?  If the answer to these questions is "yes" it seems like giving visitors more room to contribute is a net positive.

And what about the mess?

And what about how messy these materials looks to the public?  When you have lots of legos on the floor it looks messy. When you have scraps of fabric, wood and string the concern is that it looks dirty – like waste.  How do these pictures read to you?

Chicago Children's Museum
But the reasons to use repurposed materials extend beyond the sense of possibility they communicate.  Their presence in the museum also speaks to organizational values and ethics.  They embody sustainability.  Using everyday materials to reinvent with also challenges visitors to consider how the same energy and innovation used to create original products can be turned toward addressing leftover materials.  What should we do with the things we no longer need? With the waste products of our manufacturing processes?  With the used and old?  Working with these materials empowers visitors and gives them direct experience with their own ability to reimagine, and reinvent, what is, ultimately, their world.  And what a lesson that is!
Mega Model, Austin Children’s Museum Maker Faire 2008.  A collaborative city made from trash and leftover materials by visitors.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Do Humble Materials Belong in Museums?

Justine Roberts, Principal

There is a long-standing practice, tradition even, of using recycled and repurposed materials in museum exhibits.  Back in 1993 when I worked at the Bay Area Discovery Museum one of the most popular exhibits was a little diorama creation area where kids used cardboard boxes (new) and then cut up donated magazines, carpet samples, film canisters, cardboard tubes and other doodads and assembled entire worlds of their own invention. I was responsible for the donated supplies for this activity space and I would regularly contact new sources for scrap and left over material.  The challenge was to find pieces that were safe to handle, easy to manipulate and came in large enough quantities.  But the central criteria for success, which I discovered by watching how the visitors interacted with the exhibit, was that the materials needed to be humble. 

Familiar materials which visitors could easily identify – like bottle caps – lent themselves to reinterpretation whereas obscure small metal springs were not immediately understood.  In the museum setting, visitors actually responded enthusiastically to the possibilities inherent in the common, every day, leftover materials that they knew from home.  It was the context of the exhibit – the ability to make a mess, the scale of the work area, the social nature of the space, the examples left behind by other visitors which could serve as inspiration, and the explicit freedom to reinvent – all of which set visitors’ imaginations loose.
Providence Children's Museum
This past weekend at the Providence Children's Museum my own kids spent a long time building with bottle caps.  To be honest, I was really pleased.  I have one daughter who collects things and periodically I have to edit her own bottle cap collection. So what fun for her to encounter such abundance, variety and permission!

Over the years I have collected examples other museum exhibits that put everyday materials into visitors’ hands from science centers and children’s museums.  Here are a few other examples I really like that repurpose or reuse the familiar in surprising ways:
Invention at Play, The Lemelson Center invites kids to repurpose kitchen tools as design elements and create their own artwork, finding new ways to see the familiar world.

Paper airplanes at Columbia Memorial Space Center, in Downey CA encourage design, testing and redesign as visitors search for the perfect combination of loft, speed and accuracy in their creation.

Acton Discovery Museums, Rube Goldberg style ball runs turn humdrum hardware into a platform for play

Some of these are more designed than others, and some are more open-ended.  Clearly they have different learning goals, aesthetics, different target ages, and even different frames for thinking about how people learn in museums.  But in all of these examples the use of everyday materials is intentional, even central to the visitor experience.

The assumption behind these exhibits seems to be that visitors will be empowered by familiar and accessible materials.  They encourage visitors to think about how they can continue experimenting at home – as if saying “you too can make a contraption out of leftover hardware” or “look how easy it is to investigate the principles of flight”!  The materials take some of the mystery away from complex ideas and suggest that the key ingredient is actually the visitor, not fancy equipment or expensive supplies.  Science, art, design, engineering, creativity, imagination and understanding are all within visitors’ grasp.

Unfortunately, there are many museums that feel pressure (from donors, staff, trustees, and the audience . . .) to provide unique materials that are customized to their environment, and not commercially or otherwise available.  The argument I hear is that museums need to set themselves apart and justify the cost of admission.  Humble materials are just not different enough.  That view discounts the environment of the museum, the staff, the context, the space and time of a visit and all of the ways in which museums ARE different from home or school, the library or the park.  It is not just the stuff kids touch that makes the museum.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Statement by Americans for the Arts on the 2010 Election

Justine Roberts, Principal

Americans for the Arts released a statement today from President and CEO Robert L. Lynch.  The intent is to position the arts as part of the economic development and job creation platform on which many members of Congress successfully ran and to begin coordinating that message at the grass roots level.  

This message is very consistent with that from the President's Committee on  the Arts and Humanities, including the point that artists themselves are underemployed so that investing in arts education and art projects offers the opportunity to put people back to work AND stimulate tourism, urban redevelopment, and workforce development all with the same investment.

In his statement, Lynch identifies Senate and House members who have been advocates for the arts, as well as governors who have made a commitment to incorporating support for the arts into their local development efforts.  And if you haven't read the Congressional Arts Handbook it is a great primer to the issues and people involved.  Lynch also reminds us that Americans for the Arts is about the begin research on the Arts and Economics Prosperity IV study (you can sign up to participate on their website).  His statement reads:

 “Frustration with the nation’s lack of economic recovery is clearly top of mind among voters and candidates.  Likewise, nonprofit arts organizations have also felt the sting of the recession with state and local government arts funding dropping as much as 16 percent, and private charitable gifts to the arts declining $1.2 billion in just two years.  Additionally, individual artists have been experiencing unemployment at twice the rate of other educated, professional workers.

As our newly-elected leaders at the federal, state, and local levels focus on creating jobs and growing the economy, it is imperative that they understand the profound role the arts play in spurring economic growth and job creation. The nation’s 100,000 nonprofit arts organizations are part of the small business sector, and the nation’s 2.2 million professional artists are among the millions of business entrepreneurs fueling the economy.  It is also important that our newly-elected leaders appreciate the connection between arts education training and the development of creative and innovative workforce skills, which are essential to future workers to compete effectively in the 21st Century global economy.

For the past four years, the House of Representatives initiated several hearings to spotlight the role of the arts in both the economy and in workforce development, yielding more than $100 million in new public investments in the arts and culture. Americans for the Arts looks forward to working with the bipartisan Congressional Arts Caucus and Senate Cultural Caucus on Capitol Hill to continue educating freshman members on how the arts fuel our nation’s economy.  We want to congratulate three of the four Caucus members who were up for re-election on their convincing win last night and look forward to working closely with them in the 112th Congress.  They are Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Representative Todd Platts (R-PA), and Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY).  We also look forward to working with Representative Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Representative Mark Kirk (R-IL), both already champions of the arts in the House, as they move into their newly elected Senate seats.
At the state government level, several arts champions— based on their record in other public offices or platform statements—have been elected as Governor. They include Governors-elect Jerry Brown (D-CA), Dan Malloy (D-CT), Tom Corbett (R-PA), Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), Lincoln Chaffee (I-RI), Mark Dalton (D-MN), John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Rick Snyder (R-MI).

Locally, there were 232 Mayoral elections in cities with a population of over 30,000. Among the many new promising arts champions, Providence, RI Mayor-Elect Angel Taveras and Louisville, KY Mayor-elect Greg Fischer identified the arts as a way to harness local talent and creative energy to power the economy.

Americans for the Arts will soon begin conducting the next installment of national research to document the size, impact, and trends of the nonprofit arts industry for its Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study.  The previous study demonstrated that the nonprofit arts industry generates $166.2 billion of economic activity annually, which supports 5.7 million full-time equivalent jobs.”

What you can do

American's for the Arts has identified a number of steps that they feel are useful at the start of the new Congress, and especially for new member of Congress to, as they put it, "welcome and educate".  Their suggestions are geared both for individuals and for organizations.  These include (and below I am quoting from their email):

  • Send a letter of congratulations to each elected leader representing your community (federal, state, and local levels) and identify yourself or your organization as a resource on arts policy issues.
  • Ask all freshman members of Congress to begin thinking about joining the bipartisan Congressional Arts Caucus or Senate Cultural Caucus.  We will be sending more information about this in the coming weeks.
  • Work with your state and local arts advocacy organizations to develop a unified message to your newly-elected state and local leaders.
  • Save the dates of April 4-5, 2011 to come to Washington, DC for National Arts Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill.  We especially need grassroots advocates representing the districts and states of newly elected Congressional members.
We'd love to hear how your museum, or arts organization is working locally to make the case.  Do you have support at the State level?  How about your national representatives - do they get it?  Are you optimistic about federal funding and where do you see the priorities heading, is there likely to be increased emphasis pushing in a particular direction - STEM? STEAM? Art Education? Community organizations?  

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tuesday Talks with the Presidents Committee on Arts and Humanities

Justine Roberts, Principal

I thought it was really in keeping with the way this administration uses social media to hold an on-line chat with the Presidents Committee on Arts and Humanities.  This was presented as one of the Tuesday Talks which are an opportunity for citizens to have access to policy makers from different parts of the government, ask them questions, and get substantive answers in a mediated conversation. Its not a debate, and there is no mechanism to follow up or clarify your question if you aren’t getting a pointed answer.  But its not unlike a talk radio show where there is a host to keep things moving and a guest with subject expertise.  There are three ways to particpate in these Tuesday Talks: you can go to to jump in, through Facebook in advance or also live.

This particular Tuesday Talk was part of National Arts and Humanities Month (October) and took place on October 19, 2010.

The PCAH is an independent group appointed by President.  It was founded 1982 under Reagan and has 35 members including working artists.  Its role is to work at the national level on advocacy, programs, issues, opportunities and sustainability related to the arts and humanities.  There are three government agencies that are considered partners of the PCAH: NEA, NEH and IMLS.  But PCAH works with other government departments as well, and with private partners too.  As a committee made up of government and presidential appointees, they bridge public and private and work with both – bringing together groups that aren’t always partners to work on the question of strengthening investment in the cultural life of the USA.  Over the years the PCAH has conducted research and policy analysis, catalyzed programs, and built international relationships.

Each PCAH has its own character and emphasis.  Past committees have focused more on the economy – Preserve America for example was about preserving our historic architecture and civic spaces for tourism and as a basis for economic redevelopment.  This particular group is very concerned with arts education and sees advocacy - making the case - as a central piece of how they can move the needle on participation.  Chuck Close, the first ever visual artist to serve on the PCAH, says they want to remind "educational institutions of the importance of arts education both in and of themselves, and integrated into the rest of the curriculum."  

These are the areas this committee seems to care most about:
  • Make the case
  • A call to action
  • Identify models and opportunities to replicate them 
  • Work with other government departments - advocate for the arts and how the role they play
  • Give awards to recognize success and catalyze investment

This all adds up to trying to build a movement.  No small thing.

I liked the chat format. And was really pleased to hear Chuck Close speak - what an inspiring advocate he is!  

There was about an hour total and time for 9 questions.  One person read questions aloud and moved the conversation along.  She selected questions about the creative economy, arts education, the influence of the PCAH on policy discussions, role models, making the case, and how to get involved.  

What didn’t come up was international cooperation and the importance of arts/culture embasador and cultural exchange.  The reason that is surprising is because it is part of the mandate of the group and in the past few years they have worked on international projects notably in Haiti and China.

The whole discussion was worthwhile (click to watch) but I wanted to summarize some of what I thought of as the key points the Committee made.  

1. Make the Case.  The committee acknowledged that there is work to be done on making the case for how the arts contribute to formal education, and about how the arts and artists contribute to economic revitalization.  Committee members repeatedly talked about how important it is to articulate the difference that artists and arts organizations make:
  • To Economics and urban renewal by moving into abandoned neighborhoods like the NJ Performing Arts Center in Newark which is planned as an anchor for that city's revitalization.  
  • To Education by building capacity, enthusiasm, ongoing engagement, and creativity.  They help many different kinds of learners stay in school and support their success through self-esteem and increasing their passion to learn.  They help teachers to feel they have a real stake in educating their students and give teachers permission to explore other ways to get information across. 

2. Build on Success.  They are working to identify existing operating programs that can serve as models to roll out more widely. Programs like Studio in the School are great for individual artists but they also benefit the education system and whole communities.  

3. Artists themselves are a resource.  The committee has also been working on the idea of an artists corps which is a group of working artists that can participate in projects nationally.  Chuck Close has an idea for a “put and artist to work” model like WPA - so increasing direct employment opportunities AND having an impact on schools at the same time.  At the same time, the NEA is developing a program called Our Town which will pilot programs that engage artists.  Our Town grows out of Art Works which is about showing that art does work! In education, community development, economics etc.  

4. This is a non-partisan conversation.  The Committee was created under Reagan and historically has been broadly supported.  They are involved in advocating for the arts inside government - with the DOE about education reform and the role of arts in education and the Domestic Policy Council e.g.  But their goal is to stress that the arts are good for society in general but also in an important local way irrespective of politics of a community.  Art and culture are an important part of society; are our national identity. 

5. Partner, Partner, Partner.  The arts are important to workforce development.  They can teach people how to pose a question, and identify a problem, not just find the answer.  A 2010 study of CEOs lists creativity as a critical skill.  There is a need to have corporate partners who recognize the need for a prepared workforce – one that understands how to think critically, pose questions, collaborate, etc. 

6. Advocacy starts at home.  If you want to get involved look for a local initiative to help out with, or opportunity to teach.  Talk to the PTA and work on showing the local chapter what difference the arts are  making in their community schools.