Museum Hackers Target The “Not For Someone Like Me”

In the last week I have seen mention of Museum Hack, in both Bloomberg (h/t and Washington Post (h/t Nina Simon). The company does customized tours of museums from a particular frame of reference.

For example, their Badass Bitches Tour,

…shares stories of female artists, muses and subjects. (Versions of the tour are also offered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, National Gallery of Art in the District and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.) Over the course of two hours, we hear about witches and their love of psychedelics; we view works dedicated to the African goddess Oshun, who has inspired the art of Beyoncé; we peer into the dollhouse-like miniature rooms conceived by artist Narcissa Niblack Thorne; and we chew on the fact that works by women, historically, are largely underrepresented in art museums.


…a tour tailored to “finance bros,” for example, will immediately take them to the most expensive object in the museum, with a blunt discussion of its worth—an entry point to engage the newbie audience.

For Harry Potter fans, there is “The Completely Unofficial and Definitely Unlicensed Boy Wizard Tour”

Their core mission is to “go after people who think museums aren’t for them.”

This was a top response in the recent Culture Track survey among people who don’t participate/attend/visit arts and culture organizations. It is also a goal of Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative. Not to mention Nina Simon’s whole raison d’etre.

According to the news stories, Museum Hack is increasingly being hired by cultural organizations to train their docents to present the content in a more accessible manner in terms of language, context and delivery.

My first thought was that there might be a lot of push back from cultural institutions who felt like this was dumbing down the experience what they have to offer.  (Though the fact Museum Hack brought $200,000 in revenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year is something to be dismissed.)

The thing is, people who regularly visit museums already have different motivations for doing so that may not align with the assumptions or goals of the institution. I have written about John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Experience before. What is described as the motivations of the a Experience Seeker pretty much aligns with the tour designed for “finance bros.”

While the experience provided at a cultural institution can often delight, you can’t control what type of experience people expect to have.  Falk’s identity scheme acknowledges that the same person might not return to the same museum with the same agenda. They may be acting as a facilitator for others during one trip and simple seek to recharge the next time around.

From what I have read their focus seems to really be more about storytelling and forming an engaging narrative about what is found in the museum rather than trying to exploit pop culture trends.

I have often seen titles for university courses that invoke pop culture associations that don’t always follow through and deliver on the promise of an engaging course.  There is probably less to complain about in terms of misrepresentation in a two hour museum tour than a 14 week university course.

One thing I was curious about that I didn’t see mentioned in either of the two articles was how many people who have never entered a museum have used their service versus how many regular museum attendees are signing up for the change of perspective.

I can believe that someone who never entered a museum might pay $59 for a tour that resonated with their interests. It would be good to know how often that happens because it could further refute the argument for free admission days.

Research already shows that free admission days are largely attended by those already in the habit of going to museums. Indications that people are willing to pay for an appealing experience might go some distance to bolstering museum finances.

The Books Are Due Back In Four Weeks. The Painting, Next Year

Back in February I wrote about how the Akron Art Museum and Akron-Summit County Public Library were teaming up to lend art to local residents. At the time, the only other similar program I was aware of was at Oberlin College. At the time, someone wrote and said their local libraries had been doing that for a long time as well.

Sure enough, a piece appeared on Hyperallergic about 10 days ago listing or linking to visual art lending programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver,  Braddock Carnegie Library,  Minneapolis Art Lending Library , Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Williams College, Kenyon College, University of Minnesota, Harvard, University of Chicago, University of California, Berkley.

I am sure there are quite a few more.

Many of those listed have been lending art for decades. The University of Minnesota appears to be the oldest having started in 1934.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver initiated their program, which started with commissioning 25 pieces by 20 artists, with the intent of showing Denver residents the importance of artists by allowing them to take the works home.

Some of the older programs have started to investigate the impact and motivation for borrowing the art.

MIT’s Student Loan Art Collection has existed since 1969, and in a recent lending session, 975 people entered a lottery for 600 artworks. Demand also exceeded supply when the University of Chicago revived its lending library after a 30-year hiatus.


This year, both MIT and the University of Chicago created surveys that aimed to determine whether students who borrowed art also became patrons of cultural events and spaces. (The results aren’t in yet.) Of the MCA in Denver, Lerner said that some borrowers may have a previous interest in particular artists, but he expects others to start “following” the artists whose work they borrow. At the MCA’s library launch event, 21 out of 28 borrowers told me that they didn’t know any of the participating artists. Several lottery entrants said they were participating because they wanted to hang original art in their home for free.

When the University of Chicago set about reviving their program, they assembled “a student-staffed Collections and Acquisition committee” to help make the collection more inclusive and diverse.

I am going to try to keep my eyes open for any news about the results of MIT and University of Chicago’s study. The fact that demand exceeds supply at nearly every one of these programs and the institutions need to run lotteries indicates there is definitely an interest.

Whether this interest overcomes a perceptual/time/physical barriers to visiting a museum/gallery will be of interest to me. People may fully embrace the opportunity to enjoy an art work in their home, but still consider museums a place other people go.

Artists Are The Only Asset Found In Every Community

The video of ArtPlace America’s CEO Jamie Bennett’s keynote at an Invest Health convening came across my feed recently.  What I found valuable in his speech was that he laid out an argument for the value of the arts that didn’t pivot to economic statistics.

Around the 6:50 mark he starts to talk about the factors that influence those who move into a community in making the decision to stay: social offerings; openness to new ideas and people; and aesthetics.  He says arts and culture bring all those things and helps people feel rooted in a community.

His definition of art and culture is inline with that expanded definition embraced by everyone from the National Endowment for the Arts and respondents to the recent Culture Track survey. It is the parks and food trucks as well as the opera houses.

He talks about arts and culture as a facilitator of social cohesion citing the observations of drumming circles and informal arts by an anthropologist working at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Bennett said that the anthropologist found that the act of “…art making, doing and experiencing art together, acts as a master identity.”

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded.   Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

The a-ha moment for me came around 9:15 when Bennett mentions that artists are the only asset that exists in any community. Not every community has a waterfront to develop, transportation infrastructure or an anchor institution (i.e. higher ed, medical) around which to build industry.  You can count on those who practice and participate in the arts being in your community. With some investment, those people/groups can form the basis around which community cohesion can be cultivated.

He talks about the process of Creative Placemaking as something that has to be particular to each community -“resident centric, locally informed and holistic.” You can’t copy what works somewhere else and expect it to work in your community.

While the local arts community is well-placed to respond to the needs of their community, the challenge to them is to shift their perspective to focus on creating solutions for challenges in their geographic community rather than thinking about responding to their community of donors, subscribers and peer institutions.

As an example, he cites the efforts of Springboard for the Arts in helping to mobilize 600 artists to help mitigate the negative impacts of two years of light rail construction on residents and businesses in St. Paul, MN.

Bennett says the success of this project ran contrary to many of the assumptions and expectations people have. He points out the solution came from artists who already lived in the community. No one was brought in from outside to help save the neighborhood. All the positive associations about arts and culture the project inspired didn’t require the construction of an arts center, nor was it dependent on a physical arts oriented facility or cultural district. The focus was on the human beings involved.

His comment that really intrigued me and I hope is true, is that many of the businesses in the area who benefited from the 150 events the 600 artists created have started diverting promotional money to commissioning work because they saw the events brought in more business than advertising did.

Bennett’s thought process might not immediately satisfy a government official or policy maker that wants the promise of quantifiable results. However, there is something compelling in the argument that the arts and culture community is an already present asset that can be mobilized to effect.  If they are soliciting support employing this rationale it will be incumbent upon many arts and cultural entities to start focusing on addressing the challenges in their region rather than doing more what they have done in the past.


Hey You Damn Kids, Come On To My Yard!

About three years ago, I heard about the PorchRokr Festival in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.  I had since learned that there was a whole series of Porchfests that have sprung up since the 2007 inaugural effort in Ithaca, NY.

Just before Thanksgiving CityLab had an article that mentioned the revived interest in porches as an architectural feature, citing the Porchfests in the process.

To younger urbanites, he says, porches look like stages. In the Instagram age, the front steps have become places to see and be seen, throw a rocking concert or party, and to foster metropolitan community in a walk-by, stop-in-for-wine sense. “Not by design but by accident—by having strangers descend on their yard, having a musician play, sharing a beer, and meeting some new folks—I gave all these people a tool to look at what porches mean in a new way,” Doyon says.

In 2016 as part of the lead up to the PorchRockr festival, the organizers were holding sessions to teach people how to replicate the festival in other communities. They also held 4 workshops on consecutive weeks to teach participating music groups how to get organized for the festival, deal with stage fright and engage in banter with the audience.

At one time porches and front stoops were central to communal life for families and neighborhoods and show hints of reclaiming that role again.  According to CityLab, one woman in the Buffalo, NY/Toronto, ON area sponsors a whole series of events.

In the warmer months, on her own front steps, she also hosts a “Stories From the Porch” series of speakers on art, history, and culture. Her events have attracted participants as young as 11, who—like her twentysomething kids—love hanging out on the porches. Glica takes pleasure in redefining her community’s relationship to an American architectural feature once dismissed as old-fashioned. “It’s subtle,” she says. “In 10 years we’re going to go, ‘When did that happen?’ But it’s definitely happening.”

While these types of activities can certainly manifest as outgrowths of an organization’s current activities, as someone who believes every bit of creative activity helps to cultivate the cultural ecology of communities, I offer these ideas up to readers as things they could do as individuals as well.

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