Dispatch from the Bay Area, Part II: Beyond Dynamic Adaptability

On October 24, I was invited to be one of three official bloggers for the one-day Beyond Dynamic Adaptability conference in San Francisco, along with Clay Lord and Adam Fong, whose contributions you can read at the links above. (Disclosure: that means I was paid to write this post, but no one associated with the conference or its sponsors has seen or approved it prior to publishing.) “Beyond Dynamic Adaptability” may seem like an unwieldy name (especially following “Embracing the Velocity of Change,” sheesh!), but it makes sense once you know that it is the sequel to another well-received conference in 2010 that was known as the slightly-less-tongue-twisting “Dynamic Adaptability.”

Beyond Dynamic Adaptability was all about the changing nature of cultural participation, a hot topic on just about everyone’s minds these days. In keeping with the theme, the conference itself was organized in such a way as to invite participation, especially towards the end of the day with two-hour “fishbowl” sessions in which “panelists sit in a circle in the center (the ‘fishbowl’) and discuss the topic, with an empty chair for interested audience members to jump in to the conversation.” In addition, artistic practice was more deeply infused into this conference than just about any other I’ve seen, even the performance-happy GIA conferences. A cadre of Bay Area superstars curated the Art Bar, an imbibing-friendly home for performances and readings in an actual bar at the hotel, which at various points apparently involved such shenanigans as Alan Brown getting interviewed by a drag queen and conference participants performing haikus about their experience. Jessica Robinson Love and her team at CounterPULSE also curated and produced several performances sprinkled amidst the morning sessions, one of which was a multimedia extravaganza featuring percussion instruments, portable lighting, and a giant inflatable fish dangling from the ceiling, and another involving 70 arts administrators being trained in African dance. Anyway, let’s just say that on any number of levels, this wasn’t your typical arts conference.

Since Clay and Adam focused most of their attention on the fishbowl sessions, I’ll devote time instead to the opening keynote panel, featuring Ben Cameron from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Josephine Ramirez from the Irvine Foundation, Dante Di Loreto (the executive producer of Glee), and Nina Simon from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, and moderated by John Killacky (executive director of the Flynn Center in Burlington, VT and former arts program officer for the San Francisco Foundation).

The panel began with a snippet from Cameron’s much-viewed TEDx speech from 2010, which posits that we are undergoing an “Arts Reformation” to parallel the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, whose arts giving Cameron heads, has been funding innovation for quite a while now, focusing on new pathways to program leadership that are discontinuous from previous practice – a hard left turn rather than a soft right. Cameron shared that, contrary to common belief, in his experience, the big champions of change are audience members and the biggest obstacles often come from the ranks of board and staff. Yet without money, any talk of innovation is nothing but hot air. Speaking of innovation, in describing the new artist fellowships that Duke is offering over the next ten years, Cameron proudly declared that the foundation “ripped off” (that’s a direct quote, folks) what he considered to be the best elements of various existing artist support models, such as Creative Capital, United States Artists, and others. (Not to skip ahead too much, but it does make me think of the opening plenary of the Independent Sector Conference which I attended a week later, in which speaker Andrew Hargadon argued that innovation is more about synthesizing existing ideas than generating new ones.)

Josephine Ramirez spoke next about the Irvine Foundation’s new arts funding strategy, which is most directly concerned with audience engagement, focusing in particular on new ways of making arts and art-making happen. Ramirez also shared some of her own previous history creating spaces for active participation as Vice President of Programming and Planning at the Music Center in Los Angeles, which included innovations like hosting dances on the plaza, holding flute choir rehearsals in the lobbies, and singalongs in the backroom theater in Walt Disney Concert Hall. As part of her presentation, Ramirez projected the “audience involvement spectrum” from a new white paper commissioned by Irvine and written by Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard of WolfBrown (confessing that she wished it had been called the “audience/participant involvement spectrum”). Createquity readers may remember this white paper from a blog post back in June, which shared a solicitation from the report authors for ideas of participatory arts programs that could be shared as one of the case studies in the document.

Ramirez was followed by Di Loreto, the executive producer of Glee. The show has accumulated a base of rabid fans who recreate the choreography to the week’s shows in their own homes (we were treated to this rendition at the event). Di Loreto maintains that the fan community grew organically and was not actively cultivated by the show, at least at the beginning. In this way audiences can leverage new technologies to become part of the show, although it’s worth noting that creations from earlier generations, such as the Star Wars movies and Star Trek TV shows, have inspired similar creative fan communities. Echoing a theme I’ve written about before, Di Loreto asserted that it’s “so much more fun” to be on stage than participating from afar, and that the content needs to be “truly exceptional” in order to reverse that equation.

It’s fair to say the show was stolen, however, by Nina Simon, who is currently the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History but is better known to readers as the author of the Museum 2.0 blog and her book, The Participatory Museum. Simon is simply an electrifying speaker, and her firsthand stories from her experience as a first-time museum director provided inspiration aplenty. At the time that she took over the Museum of Art & History, the institution was struggling to survive. Few in the community outside of the museum’s in-group even knew where it was (even though it’s in the center of downtown), and Simon and the rest of the staff took 20% pay cuts to help get through the first year. Given the museum’s heavy reliance on and need for volunteers, Simon instituted a novel volunteer recruitment strategy: as soon as visitors to the museum walk in the door, they are greeted by a friendly staff member and invited to leave a suggestion. After they do so, Simon follows up and, if she likes the idea, asks the visitor to lead the suggested initiative. She has steered the museum toward a model in which the museum turns around suggestions from the community to implementation in 72 hours. (The highlight was when the roller derby team got in touch – that was about the coolest collaborator the museum could have asked for!)

Simon reports that her strategy of radical openness requires that she let go a certain degree of control and her own urge to take herself and her institution seriously. When interns create fliers with tons of typos, she doesn’t care.  But it’s been successful: the museum raised $240,000 in the past 6 months.

The positive energy created by the new innovations has been infectious on a number of levels. Simon made a video of a champagne party with her staff to celebrate the first $50,000, and the museum took in a bunch more money as a result. The museum’s board has been supportive as well – as Simon dryly noted, “if you can save a financial situation, they will accept anything.”

A recent initiative involved inviting audience members to help create the labels for items shown on the museum. “It’s ridiculous to imagine that our staff knows everything to know about what’s in the museum,” Simon said, citing a recent surfing exhibit as an example. Simon’s total focus is on the audience – not the artists whose work is featured in her museum. She will not apologize for this. A rearrangement of a space within the museum to a more lounge-like atmosphere led to a public spat with the artist whose work was on the walls, who disparaged the new environment as a “petting zoo.” After seeing that visitors were now spending more time with her artwork as a result of the changes, the artist and Simon reconciled and the former now runs the bike valet for the museum on a volunteer basis. (Did I mention this is Santa Cruz?)

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Simon’s assertion that she cares more about the people who walk through the door of her museum than the artists whose work is displayed there drew some shocked murmurs from the audience, and provides a useful frame for understanding the rest of the conference. Given the theme of participation, it was impossible for me to avoid thinking about how Beyond Dynamic Adaptability itself worked (and didn’t) to put the audience at the center of the experience, as Nina Simon does in her museum – and whether this was ultimately a good thing.

In her opening welcome address, conference organizer Rebecca Novick explained that the structure of the sessions would begin on the traditional side of things and gradually get more and more “participatory” as the day wore on. Performances with giant inflatable fish hanging from the ceiling notwithstanding, the morning’s sessions were pretty traditional, with speakers on a stage, audience members in a darkened theater, and barely any time for questions. In fact, the first audience question of the day was not asked until over three hours into my conference experience. And yet this portion of the day was the most memorable and enlightening for me, with solid presentations from not only the panel described above but also Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin on the nature of audience engagement; and Jessica Lustig on the history and successes of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

By contrast, during the afternoon’s highly participatory “fishbowl” session, I found it difficult to keep from checking out, even though the session’s facilitator was the same person – Nina Simon – who had so energized me in the morning! Two crucial things were different about this session compared to the panel described above. First, instead of a darkened theater, the fishbowl took place at the center of a hotel ballroom, which rendered participants awkwardly difficult to see and hear (since someone’s back was invariably towards you). Second, as facilitator of the conversation, Simon naturally took a back seat to her fellow presenters, who struggled at times to grapple with the broad discussion question of “How can we invite audiences to become active collaborators?” in a coherent and concise manner. As advertised, an extra chair was placed the midst of the center circle for an audience member to join the discussion, but it remained empty – instead audience questions were taken from where people were sitting in the room. I am curious how the session might have gone differently if the “open talk show” format had been followed.

Regardless, the day’s events left me with more questions than answers about effective formats for artistry and participation, and the overlap (and balance) between the two. For me, the morning panel was successful largely because of Nina Simon’s unique talent as a performer of her own ideas, which was deployed in a context designed to take maximal advantage of that talent. Similarly, many of the most successful sessions I experienced at Grantmakers in the Arts were effectively one-person shows: great speakers taking on interesting, on-topic subject matter. That’s not very participatory, but it worked. At the same time, as an audience member there is rarely anything so frustrating as to be sitting in a mediocre session with something to say, but without an opportunity to say it. I am left thinking that perhaps participatory formats end up being a sort of insurance strategy: they ensure that the experience won’t be a disaster, but they make it hard for genius to shine through. Does that mean, strangely enough, that incorporating audience participation into your programming is actually less risky than the traditional way of doing things?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted November 7th, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the reflections and your kind words. I found the fishbowl awkward (obviously) and so we quickly moved to small group discussions, which were received incredibly positively. Interesting that about 1/3 of the people left the room when we switched to this wholly participatory format — did it seem like it wasn’t valuable if they weren’t learning from the “experts” in the front/middle of the room? Did group conversation seem like unpleasant work?

    In other conferences, I’ve worked really carefully to scaffold sessions to encourage and support active audience participation. In the case of BDA, we weren’t able to sculpt our sessions–the speakers were assembled by the conference organizers, we weren’t able to use images–and for me, that’s challenging. I often feel like creating a good participatory experience requires more “show control” than a straight performance, and yet it’s often treated more as a free-for-all, making it hard to achieve the level of control required to make it really cook.

    And as someone who revels in performance, I’ve had to get over myself and believe in the process–that participatory formats can create more lasting results than even a dynamite solo show. I know from the past few years that workshops I’ve led (in which I speak very little) are a heck of a lot more successful in terms of long-term impact and actual change happening than the talks I’ve given.

    • Posted November 8th, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      Thanks very much for your response, Nina. I did stay for the small group discussions, but didn’t write about them since I didn’t have a whole lot to say. I can’t speak for the other groups, but the people in mine had a hard time getting a lively discussion going, and the length of time we had led to some awkward pauses. It sounds like others who stuck around for the roundtables had a better experience, so I’m glad for that. But I agree with you that designing participatory experiences is kind of an art form in itself. It takes a lot of work! Also, I suspect that part of the issue is that domain expertise and excellent facilitation skills are both rare talents, and it’s even rarer to have them live in the same individual.

  2. Rebecca Novick
    Posted November 8th, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ian – thanks for your great analysis and your participation (and to Nina as well, of course). I think your questions are really interesting, as is Nina’s response about the fishbowls. Each one of the five was quite different, but they all had elements of what you’re referring to — the badly staged panel — why are their backs to me? For me, the experiment I was interested in — how we can we model different kinds of participation at a conference — led to a lot of learning that I imagine is applicable for that kind of experimenting with audiences. For example, as Nina describes, I learned that you need to plan more not less for more participatory experiences, and not just tack them on.

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