Friday, March 16, 2018

Futurist Friday: Sea-Level Report Cards

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) launched a project to create "report cards" projecting sea-level rise in 32 US localities through the year 2050. They plan to update the report cards every year in January. Because the reports are tailored to local conditions, VIMS hopes this will be a more useful tool for planning than the global projections distributed by NOAA. 

The VIMS report cards use data from NASA research that tracks the acceleration of sea-level rise, due to the melting of polar ice. Taking acceleration into account makes a big difference in the projections. As Greenwire points out, "using NOAA's linear sea-level predictions, Norfolk, Va., would see an 11.42-inch rise by 2050. Alternatively, the accelerated data show that levels will rise by 19.3 inches." (Museums in Norfolk include the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Children's Museum of Virginia, Hermitage Museum and Gardens, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, and the Railroad Museum of Virginia.) 

The thirty-two localities covered by VIMS report cards are:
  •     Eastport, Maine
  •     Portland, Maine
  •     Boston, Massachusetts
  •     New York, New York
  •     Sandy Hook, New Jersey
  •     Baltimore, Maryland
  •     Norfolk, Virginia
  •     Wilmington, North Carolina
  •     Charleston, South Carolina
  •     Savannah, Georgia
  •     Jacksonville, Florida
  •     Key West, Florida
  •     Key West, Florida
  •     Naples, Florida
  •     St. Petersburg, Florida
  •     Cedar Key, Florida
  •     Pensacola, Florida
  •     Grand Isle, Louisiana
  •     Galveston, Texas
  •     Rockport, Texas
  •     Port Isabel, Texas
  •     San Diego, CA
  •     Los Angeles, CA
  •     Alameda, CA
  •     San Francisco, CA
  •     Crescent City, CA
  •     South Beach, OR
  •     Astoria, OR
  •     Seattle, WA
  •     Ketchikan, AK
  •     Sitka, AK
  •     Juneau, AK
  •     Yakutat, AK

If your museum is located in, or near, these communities, you can use these projections to fuel your discussions of how your organization will cope with rising sea-levels, and how you can help your community make difficult decisions on how to adapt to future of rising tides. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Leading Forward: engaging with complex and controversial topics

I'm using the 10th anniversary of CFM, and the ninth year of this blog, as an occasion to revisit some of our most widely read posts. Today I'm re-posting an essay by Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President, Director of Interpretation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Originally titled "Beyond Neutrality," it's racked up an astounding 18,000 page views since it was published in 2016. I'm sharing it again now because you have the opportunity to hear Sean talk in person about tackling difficult topics. He will be keynoting at "Leading Forward: Shaping the Future of Your Historic Site," a working meeting being held March 23-24 at Mount Vernon, organized by the Alliance and our Historic Houses and Sites Network. There is still some space available, so you can register to attend one or both days (Sean is speaking on Saturday the 24th). 

Here at Eastern State Penitentiary we are rewriting our mission statement to remove the word “neutral.”

We believe that the bedrock value that many of us brought into this field—that museums should strive for neutrality—has held us back more than it has helped us. Neutrality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. At Eastern State, more often than not, the word provided us an excuse for simply avoiding thorny issues of race, poverty and policy that we weren’t ready to address.

Most visitors to Eastern State are white. Most are middle class, and most are tourists to Philadelphia. Ten years ago I would have argued that leisure travelers don’t want to explore the complex and troubling root causes of mass incarceration. At the time we did commission artists to explore these issues at the physical edges of our property, but our tours and historic exhibits focused squarely on the past. Nobody complained.

In some small ways I was probably right. Bipartisan support for criminal justice reform has grown dramatically in recent years. Ten years ago our staff was tiny, our resources modest, and our board of directors in transition. Perhaps we weren’t ready.

But mostly I was wrong. Development of our first Interpretive Plan in 2009 forced us to look more critically at our choices. Looking at a map of programming around the site, I had to conclude that our version of “neutrality” was mostly taking the form of silence. As a coworker said at the time, “Oh, we talk about race and the US criminal justice system every day…our silence tells visitors exactly what we think about it.”

I thought neutrality would create a safe space for visitors, but it was becoming clear that this space wasn’t safe for Americans who have experienced mass incarceration up close, within their communities.

We have tried to shift our focus to effectiveness and inclusion. We have found that many leisure travelers really will engage with these difficult subjects, but core elements of museum craft become more important than ever. Experiences need to be social, multi-generational, interactive and accessible to visitors who don’t typically learn by reading alone. They need to genuinely value the wide perspectives and personal experiences of the visitors themselves.

In 2014 we built The Big Graph, a 16 foot tall, 3,500 pound infographic sculpture that:
  • represents the massive per capita growth of the US prison population over the last 40 years;
  • compares the US Rate of Incarceration to every other nation on earth (we are highest by an enormous margin),
  • divides nations into those that practice capital punishment and those that do not;
  • tracks the consistent and disturbing racial disparity in our prison population over time.
Every visitor encounters The Big Graph. It concludes the main audio tour and is incorporated into every school tour. The text on signage is direct and blunt. The audio tour asks “So why does the U.S. need to imprison so many people?”  To our surprise, visitors consistently report that The Big Graph feels “neutral.”

In developing the companion exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration we faced a crossroad. We had dipped a toe into the pool of honesty about our perspectives, but we had maintained the illusion of neutrality. The new exhibit was shaping up to be a deep dive into issues of policy, race, enforcement and outcomes. Were we really going to say “on the one hand….?” It felt patronizing.

There are too many Americans in prison. Our staff knows it, our advisors know it, our Board knows it. And so we eventually united around a statement: “MASS INCARCERATION ISN’T WORKING.”  That phrase opens the exhibit in 400 point block letters.

Exhibits, tours and public programming at Eastern State have moved
away from a central focus on neutrality.  The new exhibit "Prisons Today"
(pictured) opens with the statement "MASS INCARCERATION ISN'T WORKING."
Today formerly incarcerated people sit on Eastern State's Board of
Directors and are employed as tour guides.  Photo: Darryl Moran.
Nearby a seven-screen video tracks the political rhetoric that has driven criminal justice policy since the 1960s. The video ends with admissions of humility and compassion from a set of current political leaders, stressing voices from the political right such as House SpeakerPaul Ryan. At a later point in the exhibit, visitors are forced to walk through one of two corridors, based on their willingness to admit if they’ve ever broken the law. Admitted lawbreakers are confronted with artist Troy Richards’ installation, asking if they see themselves as “criminals.”  He invites these visitors to leave written confessions. He also mixes visitor confessions with confessions from men in and women living in prison. Visitors try to guess which is which. They can’t.

If there’s a message to this exhibit, aside from the failure of our criminal justice system to justify the scale of its growth, it’s a call to empathy. Exhibit cases contain objects on loan from members of our tour staff who have been recently incarcerated. A beautiful and troubling film by Gabriela Bulisova tells the stories of six men and women impacted by the criminal justice system. A reading table includes “The Night My Dad Went to Jail” (written for children 5 – 8 years old).  Visitors are invited to “Send a Postcard to Your Future Self,” using a digital kiosk to create personalized electronic postcards that will arrive in two months, one year and three years. The postcards remind visitors of what they were thinking during their visit, and recommend ways that they can influence our nation’s rapidly changing criminal justice policies based on their responses to the exhibit content.

The journey to create this programming has changed our organization. Our Board of Directors now includes a scholar who studies race and incarceration and teaches inside prisons. It also includes a reentry professional who was himself incarcerated for seven years. [Full disclosure: like many museums, we lack still appropriate racial diversity on our management team; we know have work there to do.] 

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, was the model for more than
300 prisons worldwide.  It closed in 1971, after 142 years of consecutive use.
It opened as an historic site in 1995.  Photo: Darryl Moran
Our visitors—about 220,000 last year—aren’t expecting this programming when they arrive. Most want to see Al Capone’s cell or the site of the doomed 1945 “Willie Sutton” escape tunnel. I’ve grown to think that makes them the perfect audience to engage. Exit surveys conducted after The Big Graph’s completion reflect only 4% saying that the inclusion of contemporary content detracted from their visit. A full 91% of visitors reported learning something thought-provoking about today’s criminal justice system. The Prisons Today exhibit has only been open a few months, and summative evaluation isn’t yet complete. Press coverage and social media comments are encouraging.

Our audience has grown by more than 20% since we began addressing these complex and troubling aspects of American life. I once feared these subjects would suppress our attendance. I feared they would divide our Board of Directors and scare potential funders. I feared they’d harm staff morale, including my own. And I thought neutrality, whatever that meant, had to guide all of our programming decisions. I was wrong on every front.

Now I wonder what other misguided beliefs we’re leaving unexamined.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Community Curating: A Macro to Micro View

In the second post in our series previewing sessions at AAM2018, Michael Berlucchi (Community Engagement Manager, Chrysler Museum of Art), Sandra Bonnici (Associate Director of Education, Diversity, and Inclusion, Madison Children’s Museum),
W. James Burns, Ph.D. (Principal and Creative Director, Cypress & Sage Advising, Independent Curator), and Marcus Monenerkit (Director of Community Engagement, Heard Museum) tell us about a relatively new position in our field.

As a nation, a global community, and a museum field, we are faced with challenges of inequities in income, accessibility, and opportunity. The ways in which museums and cultural organizations respond to changing demographics, climate change, and the need to be relevant to their full communities will determine their survival. Some museums are responding by hiring community engagement curators (CEC’s) to engage local communities in an open dialogue about their needs, elevate the museum’s connection to local communities, and effect meaningful change through educational programming.

Eleise Theuer for the Chrysler Museum of Art
The relatively new role of community engagement curator (CEC) is being defined as museums identify how best to incorporate diverse audiences into their exhibitions and programming. We will be presenting a session, The Role of the Community Engagement Curator, on Monday, May 7, 2018, from 1:45 PM - 3:00 PM, offering multiple perspectives from community curators in children’s, art, anthropology, and history museums.

As they begin to focus on community engagement, museums see an increasing need for a dedicated person to interact with a broad and diverse audience and to ensure that community voices are heard –not just in a single exhibit or program, but as part of a sustained collaboration. This aspirational goal requires finding the resources to support one or more position, and many institutions make do with what they have in the meantime. Have you ever wondered how your museum could engage in this work with or without a dedicated position?

Eleise Theuer for the Chrysler Museum of Art 
Community engagement does not mean the museum has to neglect other institutional initiatives, but it is important to ensure that such efforts are sustainable and ongoing. Where do museums find the support to balance community interests with existing projects? How can museums of varying size and resources be inclusive in working with their communities? What does it look like to ‘engage’ with a community? Who gets to define ‘community?’ Why do we need partners in this work and who might they be? When do we know we are succeeding at community engagement/how is it measured? What do we do if it our initial efforts don’t work?

For many organizations the creation of CEC positions is designed not just to listen to our communities but to help our organizations recalibrate internal cultures and reposition us as places of dialogue, connection, and inclusion. At their core, museums are storytellers, but whose stories are we telling? How are we telling them? Are we reaching out to and co-creating with our communities in a culturally competent manner?

The roles of CEC’s go beyond outreach to help organizations review, reflect, and retool every operation, initiative, program, and process. This necessary, and often uncomfortable, change can lead to innovation and sustainability. It can also realign an institution’s work around its mission, visions, and values –and at times spark a reexamination of those values to ensure a shared vision with the entire community.

Eleise Theuer for the Chrysler Museum of Art
CEC’s spark questions, dialogue, and wonder in their institutions, and sometimes hold their museums, and the field at large, accountable by empowering everyone in their organizations to play a role in applying a lens of equity, diversity and inclusion to every aspect of their work. We begin to seek new ways of partnering, develop more inclusive language, redesign forms, dismantle inequities, and challenge practices that may benefit some but leave many behind. The goal is to become truly reflective of our communities.

Benjamin Boshart for Hampton Road Pride
The struggles that CEC’s face makes their successes all that much sweeter. The Chrysler Museum of Art, an institution that strives to “bring art and people together,” is a prime example of what organizational change can accomplish. In 2015, the museum made a strategic decision to focus on programs for core audiences, and to actively seek out and maintain meaningful relationships and partnerships with underserved audiences. They dedicated a staff position and resources to this effort. As a result, the museum has identified three key underserved audiences and hosted hundreds of programs and events. By establishing and fostering partnerships with key individuals and regional organizations, the Chrysler Museum has experienced unprecedented growth in attendance and community affection for its exhibitions, programs, and mission. Further, the museum has emerged as a nationally-recognized leader in inclusive practices by fully embracing the region it serves, especially local African American, LGBT, and military communities. Deirdre Love, Founder & Executive Director of Teens with a Purpose (TWP) observed in AAMD’s Next Practices in Partnerships that “The Chrysler Museum of Art sends a loud and clear message to our youth and the message is: ‘you belong here’ … Now, visiting the Chrysler feels like coming home.”

Would you like to create the same feeling in your museum? Join us in Phoenix, to elevate the conversation about community engagement curators, engage with peers, and be inspired to advocate for changes in your institution.

Michael Berlucchi is the Community Engagement Manager at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia where he creates and implements educational and community partnerships to engage diverse audiences across Hampton Roads, and develops new strategic initiatives to expand the Museum’s audiences, particularly those in underserved constituencies. Michael serves on numerous boards and commissions, including as an appointed member of the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission, president of Hampton Roads Pride, Teens with a Purpose, the Norfolk Tourism Research Foundation, the Princess Anne County Confederate Statue Roundtable, and the Virginia Beach Police Community Outreach Committee.  He is a graduate of George Mason University and the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia and resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Twitter: @mfberlucchi

Sandra Bonnici has over 17 years of experience in education program planning and community engagement; she develops and implements strategic initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as overseeing the visitor engagement operations at the Madison Children’s Museum, to ensure that all staff, board, volunteers and visitors feel welcomed, valued, connected and respected.

Dr. James Burns is Principal and Creative Director of Cypress & Sage Advising. Most recently he held the position of Director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art and the Center for Creative Photography, and prior to that was Executive Director for the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. He is a graduate of the Getty’s Museum Management Institute, and has worked in history, anthropology, and art museums for nearly three decades. He serves as Chair of the Curators’ Committee (CurCom) of AAM.

Marcus Monenerkit has worked museums for 18 years, beginning at the National Museum of the American Indian. He has a BA in Anthropology and a Masters in Nonprofit Studies. In addition to curating collaborative exhibits with the many Native communities in Arizona, he serves as staff liaison for the museum’s American Indian Advisory Committee.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Postcards from the future

Last week I flew down to Miami for the Contemporary Art in Historic Contexts Symposium at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Vizcaya gathered curators, scholars, educators, and artists from around the globe to delve into this topic, and I had the privilege of closing the agenda with a summary of the two days of presentations and panels. 

I’m looking forward to capturing some of those observations in a blog post, but meanwhile I’d like to share the output of a little futures exercise I led: four of our speakers wrote postcards from the year 2040, reflecting on what Vizcaya might be like in a world where it has become common practice to integrate contemporary art into historic houses and sites.

Dear Simone,
You know it has been 23 years since I first visited Vizcaya? I made the installation “liquid garden.” It was right after hurricane Irma and when you see the place now! It’s forbidden to come by car. There is a big parking lot for bikes.
Artists, designers and architects worked together with the team at Vizcaya. The village is reconstructed and has 5 artists in residency spaces.
Artists, work together with Vizcaya on questions and are commissioned to add new works on the estate. The house is intact but new artworks grow on the barge and an architect developed new follys in the garden.

Tanja Smeets is a visual artist who lives and works in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She created a site-specific work, Liquid Garden, currently featured in the Overload exhibit at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

Feb 27, 2040

Dear Mom,
It’s as if white supremacy, patriarchy and homophobia have ended here. Writing you from Vizcaya. Is this some land of utopia? But yet, do utopias have such complexity? Stories of difference abound here: laborers, the poor, multiple abilities, genders, races, ethnicities are represented. Not just in the exhibition, programming and storytelling, but also in who is at the table! Vizcaya is ahead of the curve. Could this be the death of museum homogeneity? Inclusion and diversity is not an add-on here, and it shows! The richness of social causes & local culture that are addressed through the energy of contemporary art is inspiring and incredibly relevant to our times. I can see myself here—far afield from the Jim Crow South you fled in the mid-20th century. Truly feels like the people’s museum. Can’t wait to bring you here for your bday next year. Love, Jennifer

Jennifer Scott is director of the Jane Addams Hull-House at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Hi Dear!
It is so refreshing to be at Vizcaya today. I visited all the museums in town and each encounter was overrun with technology and generally a multitude of options to experience the place. Vizcaya was different. Did you know that they decided to go against the trends and return to a visceral and analog engagement with the site. No tech, no interpretation, but rather a real commitment to the value of a personal reading/experience. It’s no longer clear what the place of the artist, curator, or educator etc. is! Oh, & it’s Jennifer’s Bday. Let’s sing!

Gina Wooters is Vice President of Museum Affairs at Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Nashville. Before accepting that position, she curated Vizcaya’s Contemporary Arts Program, and led the development of this symposium.

27 Feb 2040
Hey! I finally made it back here. It has been great being able to virtually experience the contemporary* art interventions thanks to Mark’s work. Last time I was here, I was disappointed I could not enter the rooms. It was great to be able to get close and personal with the furniture and art. I only got zapped by one work. The virtual experience was so immersive, I could almost walk through with my eyes closed. Wish you were here.
XX David
P.S. Sorry the postcard is in a poor state, it got wet on my swim back.
*Isn’t it ridiculous that we still call art “contemporary”

David Rastas is an independent curator based in London, Berlin, and Helsinki. His main curatorial practice has been integrating contemporary art into the architectural fabric of ritual space.

I encourage you to give this foresight exercise a try --nip down to your museum's store, buy a postcard, and write a short note that describes a visit in the year 2040. If your need some help imagining what that world might be like, read the scenario that formed the basis for the future issue of Museum magazine (Museum 2040). And share your thoughts by posting an image of your card on Twitter (tag @futureofmuseums) or emailing me a picture at emerritt (at) aam-us (dot) org. Heck, you can go retro and actually mail it to me (2451 Crystal Drive, Suite 1005, Arlington, VA 22202). I'd love to share a bunch of your "postcards from the future" here on the blog!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Guess, Grind or Ask the AI

Chapter three of CFM’s TrendsWatch 2017 examines how artificial intelligence—computer programs that mimic human abilities such as complex reasoning, language, and pattern recognition—can be harnessed for museum purposes. In today’s guest post Dexibit CEO Angie Judge previews a session she will chair at the 2018 AAM annual meeting profiling three case studies of museums using AI data analytics for planning and operations. This is one of a series of posts giving sneak peeks at sessions I’ve included in my annual Guide to the Future at the Annual Meeting.

MIT Museum: Kismet the AI robot smiles at you”
by Chris Devers licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Artificial intelligence is rapidly making its way into our everyday lives. Maybe it recommended the last TV show you watched, or was responsible for routing your recent car journey. Now, it might greet you in the form of a robot at your next museum visit, help your collections team with classifications, or get at a seat at the table during financial planning. One of the most practical applications of artificial intelligence is to forecast a museum’s commercial and visitor outcomes.
Previously, in most museums, predicting critical numbers such as visitation, revenue and capacity was a case of “guess or grind.” Either the museum’s team, in the interests of time, resorts to anecdotal opinion to create a hit or miss guesstimate, or a dedicated analysis team wades through years of data to provide accurate estimations. Such analysis is complicated, because so many elements influence a museum’s performance. While some factors, such as marketing or programming, are within the museum’s control many others, such as tourism trends or the weather, are not. Some factors, such as changing schedules of school terms and regional events, are obvious, yet finicky. And on any given day, all of these elements combine and influence each other to impact the result – the equation is rarely a case of simple math. To make a difficult situation worse, sometimes anecdotal opinion paints a different picture to the numbers – for example, when the significance of cruise ships is masked by the summer high season, misleading future projections.
One of the most powerful aspects of AI is machine learning—the application of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions based on large data sets. Algorithms designed to adapt to a museum’s unique circumstance can be trained on historic performance data to analyze the simultaneous impact of multiple factors and predict how these will play out. Not only can machine learning reduce months of hard work to a few seconds at the click of a button, it produces a more accurate result that helps museum marketers better manage for performance and a more granular forecast (even down to the hour) that assists front of house teams with everything from staff rostering to store inventories.
But using AI is not a case of letting the machine take over. Forecasts are only as intelligent as the data they receive, and need a well-executed analytics foundation. Predictions need to be configured for situations the computer can’t model from historical data, such as the impact of a refurbishment or the resonance of an upcoming exhibition. Data-informed museum management requires trust, so results need to be inspected for accuracy.
Some of the most interesting aspects of forecasting are its by-products. Knowing the fit of a forecasting model is important information for the museum team to understand to what degree a forecast can be relied upon. Understanding the comparative influence of various factors can help decision-making priorities. Seeing the upcoming plan of what’s on in and around the museum is equally useful for museum operations.
Forecasts are especially useful for informing performance management. Forecasts help managers understand projected performance to its goals, an important consideration when setting targets for employees. Once the forecast is created, tracking actual performance against this plan immediately shows where the museum’s execution is under or over expectation, triggering analysis and response by the management team to mitigate or make the most of the contributing situation. To achieve this, the museum needs a dynamic analytics capability in conjunction with forecasting to respond in an agile way to the world around it.
If you want to learn more about how artificial intelligence can be used in museum operations, join me at AAM2018 for Predicting the Future: Big Data and Predictive Analytics for Museum Forecasting on Sunday, May 6 from 1 – 2:15  pm, where panellists will showcase three applications of machine learning for forecasting in museums:
  • Predicting museum visitation with Keith Laba, Chief Information and Analytics Officer at Arizona Science Center
  • Predicting advance pass redemption and attrition with Heather Hart, Director of IT at the Broad
  • Predicting exhibition scenarios with Chris Michaels, Digital Director at The National Gallery, London

Angie Judge is the CEO at Dexibit, delivering big data analytics to predict, analyze and report on visitor experience and venue performance in visitor attractions across North American, UK Europe and Asia Pacific.

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