Jawnty Approach To Museum Tours

A few months back, I wrote about a new approach, inspired by the National Forestry Service, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA was adapting to combat poor impressions visitors might have upon arrival.

About two weeks ago,  I saw a story about their Barnes Jawn(t)s program where they hand over the tours to unconventional guides.  People can choose to take a tour with seven different guides who will provide their own perspectives on the Barnes’ collection.

(It appears technically, there may be 9 guides. According to the article, the first tour was conducted by “Madhusmita Bora, a classical Indian dancer, and Ashley Vogel, a staff member with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.”)

The jawn(t) program is described as:

Join us for evening tours full of make-believe as we play fast and loose with everything you thought you knew about the Barnes. In Philadelphia, jawn is a catch-all word for anything. A Barnes Jawn(t) is an anything-goes tour of the collection with a fascinating Philly personality as your guide. These off-the-cuff, sure-to-run-off-the-rails tours are led by a diverse array of community leaders, artists, and comic-book nerds—all experts in their fields. No two tours will be the same. After taking a Jawn(t), you’ll never look at the Barnes the same way again!

My read on the project is that they are, in part, trying to combat the idea that visiting the Barnes Foundation “isn’t for people like me” by having people with whom you might better identify lead the evening tours.

You may recall a few months back I wrote about Museum Hack which conducts themed tours in various museums around the country, also billing themselves as an unconventional approach.  The Barnes approach seems to be in the same vein, but much more focused on the perspective of the individual guide.

I was wondering if the fact these tours start an hour after closing time was intentionally chosen so attendees’ potentially first visit to the institution would involve a more intimate group rather than interacting with the large number of daily visitors–or just a matter of convenience to accommodate people getting off of work.

Actually, I just noticed all the tours are on Tuesday when the Barnes is closed making me additionally wonder if some portion of experience is being customized and prepared for the tours earlier in the day. (Given the stipulations Albert Barnes made about how the art was to be displayed, I would suspect nothing about the galleries themselves is changed.)

Contributing to the impression that there might be some special customization going on is that they list a local group as the organizer:

Based in Philadelphia, Obvious Agency is an interactive design collaboration between Joseph Ahmed, Arianna Gass, and Daniel Park. The agency works with cultural institutions to explore new ways to engage audiences through custom games and interactive performances. The group also produces the artistic work of its members, including Go to Sleep, a real-life adventure game about insomnia. Commissions include the Diamond Eye Conspiracy through Drexel and Temple Universities.

I was interested to see this partnership/collaboration with an outside group as an indication of possibilities for other arts and cultural organizations.

Varied Advice & Insights On Creative Placemaking, Economic Impact

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the Creative Placemaking conference I attended, I wanted to share some general thoughts and ideas I had picked up.

Regardless of whether the setting is urban, suburban or rural, there are a number of communities experiencing really difficult times. A number of panelists discussed the need to address the community trauma before you ever talk about economic stimulus. You can’t just walk in and position something as a solution to the problems in the community until those problems are aired and people have a sense that they can move forward from there. Otherwise the issues will likely continue to fester and undermine the foundation of what you are trying to accomplish.

When it comes to investment and grant making in rural communities, it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that one of the factors contributing to the low level of investment is geographic remoteness. David Stocks of the Educational Foundation of America (which ironically is not involved in education) talked about how program officers will need to invest a lot more effort into bringing support to rural communities.

They might need to take a plane to a regional airport and then drive 2-3 hours before they reach a community. There is also the issue of trying to identify what organizations would make good anchor partners for the work they do.  There is a need for both funders and community organizations to work at expanding their relationship networks to increase the chances that their orbits will intersect.

Marie Mascherin who works for New Jersey Community Capital, characterized her organization primarily as a lender. She talked about how lenders viewed placemaking activities which was a perspective you rarely get. All the same, she warned those in attendance that her organization was atypical in that they got a lot more involved with the community and projects they were working on than most similar lending organizations.

John Davis who was involved with bringing vitality to both New York Mills, MN and Lanesboro, MN passed on a piece of advice he had received from a college professor – don’t make excuses, even about money, for not finding a creative solution. Basically, don’t let lack of money (or other things)  become default excuses about why things can’t be accomplished. In a rural setting where resources are scarce, you pretty much have to try harder to find creative solutions.

(Honestly, “work even harder and don’t make excuses,” wasn’t something I wanted to hear, but wasn’t exactly news.)

Davis also talked about an argument he made to a local government that was balking at renovating a building. He noted it would cost them $35,000 to demolish the building or they could invest $35,000 into renovating the building and have a more valuable property they could sell later if his project failed.

His project didn’t fail, but that concept dovetailed in an interesting way with a comment Ben Fink of Appalshop made about a prison project being proposed near Whitesburg, KY. He said that the $300,000,000 prison was being sold to the community as, at best, creating 300 new jobs. He noted that was $1,000,000 a job–compare that to how much benefit $1 investment in arts and culture has for a community.

It occurred to me that is something to look into and leverage proactively with governments and decision makers. Rather than waiting until it comes time to ask for funding to be renewed, when a discussion comes up about providing tax breaks or subsidies for companies, it might be useful to mention that $1 invested in creative placemaking/arts/culture/education in the community is more efficient.

While I am on the subject of economic activity, in one session I bluntly asked Jeremy Liu of PolicyLink about the veracity of economic impact claims being made by organizations and communities. He said if they are using analytic tools like those offered by Implan, the numbers are dependable.

In the past I have mentioned my concern with arts and culture organizations arguing for funding or policy changes citing the benefits of art and music on learning and test scores when such benefits are only weakly supported or have been debunked.

What has worried me is that decision and policy makers will learn about the lack of evidence for these claims and perhaps actively wield it against the arts community. By the same token, I have often wondered at the rigor behind claims of economic impact of creative activity in communities and feared what might result if they are debunked.¥

A few other tidbits people offered-

Don’t become hyperfocused on placemaking. Don’t value place or a project over the community. Even if you are in a group, no project is completed in isolation.

If you recall in the very beginning of my post yesterday I mentioned that I gained an appreciation and broader perspective on the different roles that contributed to a placemaking project from governments to funding/loan group to community members to the people executing the work, placemaking is a function of many entities working together.

I feel like I am citing him a lot in these last two posts, but I appreciated Ben Fink’s insights about establishing relationships with people in the community. He said the first real shared connection you will make with someone is rarely associated with the project you are trying to accomplish. As an example, your aim may be to solicit participation in a building renovation for a maker space but the initial basis of your relationship is a shared interest in 19th century steam engines.

He said that building community support and participation happened in the same way friendships develop. It is heavily dependent on the dynamics at the formation of the project. If participation is by invitation only, one person ends up being in charge. If you form a clique of interested parties, it becomes insular. But if the project begins with the intention of leaving the door open, interested people will start to gravitate toward the project as they see work happening.

¥- None of this compromises my assertion that while arts and cultural activity may generate economic activity, steady employment, positive social outcomes and quality of life, the none of this is a measure of the value of arts and culture.

Broader Conceptions Of Creative Placemaking

Last week I attended the Creative Placemaking Summit for the Appalachian region.  As much as I have read and written about Creative Placemaking, I don’t think I fully understood the what it encompassed until I attended this conference.

Hearing multiple people from various communities talk about the whole process of their projects from the involvement of government officials to securing funding and structuring financing to the sweat equity the arts and cultural invested in renovations, everything coalesced to provide me with a more complete understanding.

The topics of discussion and the level of detail were entirely different from what I have encountered at other arts and cultural conferences.  It reinforced for me that things don’t just happen in a vacuum. You can’t just plant art somewhere and assume economic and creative vitality will be attracted like honeybees if you can just stick it out long enough.

I had written about projects like the Poetry Parking Lot in Lanesboro, MN holding it up as a cool, creative idea. But having John Davis of Lanesboro Arts talk about how that project was driven by a desire to have tourists use that lot and how the renovation of a bridge to provide a pedestrian connection to the downtown was an important element provided a new context. The haiku on the light posts in the parking lot were only one of the incentives to use that parking lot. The others were the improved access afforded by the bridge and the two hour parking limit on downtown streets.

What I came to recognize was summarized by a comment one of the presenters made during the conference – Arts and cultural organizations need to realize creative placemaking can’t really be supported by grants.  Basically, just having artistic activity isn’t going to create economic vibrancy. Someone is going to have to arrange for financing and loans. Even in those cases when it isn’t the arts and cultural organization arranging for the financing directly, they are probably going to have to negotiate and partner with people who are doing so.

In some cases local banks won’t/don’t get into creative placemaking financing because the projects are outside their experience. You may need to cultivate a long term relationship with a regional CDFI (Community Development Financial Institutions).  Where most arts oriented conferences will have discussions about cultivating relationships with granting organizations and funders, this creative placemaking conference spoke more about relationships with CDFIs and community development corporations and foundations.

In some cases, the focus of placemaking efforts was in a much broader context than I am accustomed to hearing. One presenter talked about a project in Jersey City, NJ driven by an alliance of artists and arts groups. Their hope was to renovate a building with a community arts center on the first floor and affordable housing on the second through fifth floors. However, they determined if they had to give up something, it would be the community arts center. The fact that an alliance of arts oriented people felt that affordable housing was more important than a creative space made an impression.

In another session, Ben Fink from Appalshop talked about how they were getting involved with energy projects. He admitted it may seem strange that an organization founded on broadcast media and performance was advancing solar energy projects in coal country. Part of the reason is that high energy costs are threatening the existence of a number of local entities from bakeries to bluegrass festival sponsoring volunteer firehouses. He said the end goal wasn’t the completion of the solar project, it was to use solar energy to power the next projects.

The conference was populated with stories of groups that were renovating old buildings and storefronts and providing a place for the community to give voice to their creativity, but there were also stories like those in NJ and Appalshop that expanded my conception of the role arts and cultural organizations could play in the community.

If you have the opportunity to attend either the national or regional conference summits, it may be worth your time and the added perspective. It was actually less expensive to attend than some other conferences I have been to. (Not sure if that is the case for all the convenings since the cost for past and future conferences are not available on the website.)

Your Phone Tells Me You Were In An Art Museum, Now You Are In Starbucks….

Last month NPR had a story discussing how lawyers were sending ads for their services to people in hospital emergency rooms thanks to technique known as geofencing which allows one to identify cellphones entering to certain geographic area.

Geofencing is something retailers use to offer you coupons when you approach the area of their shops. The use around hospitals raises some privacy concerns. Everyone in the hospital is bound by law not to reveal information about your visit, but those gathering information from your phone signal are not.

Once someone crosses the digital fence, Kakis says, the ads can show up for more than a month — and on multiple devices.

To Kakis, this is just modern-day target marketing. In his pitch to potential clients, in an email reviewed by WHYY, he calls the technology “totally legit.”

But Massachusetts’ attorney general, Maura Healey, offers a different response.

“Private medical information should not be exploited in this way,” Healey says. “Especially when it’s gathered secretly without a consumer’s knowledge, without knowledge or consent.”

This type of service is widely available and can be used for all sorts of useful purposes. If you can see that people attending your events are also frequenting various restaurants and other businesses in your area you are able to take any number of actions like coordinating promotions with the businesses or providing evidence of economic activity in your community.

You can also geofence other arts organizations in your region as a way to identify people who are inclined to participate in arts and cultural activities and provide them with information about your own activities.

Of course, the technology can assist in some questionable practices as well. You might send general ads about “high quality performances at half the price and free parking” to people who have visited an arts organization in your area that charges higher pricing. Or you could directly disparage other organizations with people who enter or pass near their buildings.

As I understand it, you currently need to provide ad content to a service provider who sets up your ads in the same way a broadcaster might. By which I mean, it has to pass through human hands and they could potentially nix something as blatant as “Why are you walking into that crappy theater when you could be in a modern facility that allows you to eat at your seat and has a fun all around atmosphere. There is still time to come to Acme Theater.”

However, I imagine within a handful of years, you will be able to delineate your own geofencing using an online map and upload an ad from your office as you would to a social media site. It may be difficult to track who is attacking your reputation while people are buying food from your snack bar.

Now personally, I don’t see a lot of arts and cultural organizations getting this cutthroat. They may send out something along the lines of “If You Liked The Dali Retrospective, You Might Like….”

However, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that an electronics business, video streaming service or cable company might geofence your organization and send something like “After a hard day of work do you really want to get back in the car, try to find parking, get home at 11 pm and pay the babysitter when you could stay at home and enjoy being in control of your experience with your gorgeous entertainment system?”

I anticipate that there will be debates about the ethical use of techniques that allow marketers and others to track people’s movements as these practices become more common and wide spread.

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