A Tale of Two Strategies: Participation and Organization at Adobe Books and SFMOMA

(Calcagno Cullen is a multimedia artist and arts administrator living in San Francisco, California. She is currently the education associate for school and teacher programs at SFMOMA and board member and gallery director at Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative. -IDM)

In recent years participatory culture has subverted consumerist habits, mass media production, and even our social interactions. People who wouldn’t previously have considered themselves creative are getting opportunities to become true collaborators in producing what they consume in fields where once they could only serve as audience members. Nowhere is this more true, arguably, than in the San Francisco Bay Area, the birthplace of parklets, Twitter, and Yelp. It’s clear that the lines between producer and consumer are being blurred in arts administration and education as well. Organizations of vastly differing sizes are adjusting to our changing culture in their own ways, altering how they interact with the public and how the public interacts with them.

Viewed from the outside, the two organizations I work for could not be more dissimilar, and yet both find themselves enveloped in this trend. Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, where I head the gallery and serve on the board of directors, is a small, community-run bookstore and art gallery open since 1989; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), meanwhile, where I work in the education department, is a large, international collecting institution of modern and contemporary art. Both are at crucial points in their history, and progressing in divergent directions in their vision for public participation and assessment of their educational goals. SFMOMA is reaching to be more experimental, more integrated into daily life, and more collaborative, while Adobe Books is realizing that it must become more like a museum in many ways (more organized, more curated, with a developed mission statement) in order to stay afloat. These organizations are evolving slowly towards each other, providing us with a unique window into how cultural institutions are balancing educational priorities with dueling needs for top-down curation and creative collaboration.

Both Adobe Books and SFMOMA are known as culture makers, information disseminators, and artistic/cultural venues in San Francisco. And both, in the past year, have left their longtime homes. SFMOMA has decided to infiltrate the city and beyond with creative programming and artist projects, “on the go” until 2016 while the museum is closed for an expansion, and Adobe Books was pushed out of its longtime home on 16th Street due to rising rents and gentrification, recently relocating to a cozier space on 24th Street. The similarities end there. SFMOMA has over 200 employees, and has the resources to maintain a strong presence in the city, with or without an actual building. Adobe Books, by contrast, could not survive without a store; it is known locally as “the living room of the Mission,” and providing a space for people to meet and for the public to gather is a crucial part of who we are. Though Adobe Books’s art gallery is now fiscally sponsored through Intersection for the Arts, the bookstore portion is still just that, a store, with goods to sell.

 

Adobe Books at its new location on 24th St. Photo by Tiffany Seinz.

Adobe Books at its new location on 24th St. Photo by Tiffany Seinz.

The Story of the Community Bookstore

Clay Shirky argues in his book Here Comes Everybody that organizing without organizations is the modus operandi of the 21st century, writing that “unlike sharing, where the group is mainly an aggregate of participants, cooperating creates group identity.” Adobe Books, though a sole proprietorship for nearly 25 years, has seemingly always operated on a community-run, collaborative model. By stepping back from curation and allowing community members to give life to the space, former owner Andrew McKinley was able to establish Adobe Books as a safe harbor for ideas, a place for meeting and doing, and a spot of artistic intervention for many.

Adobe Books is a natural spot for self-directed learning. Despite a more tightly curated selection of books in our new, smaller spot on 24th Street, as a mostly-used bookstore with an ever-fluctuating inventory, most customers come in with the expectation of finding something they didn’t yet know they wanted. Because the programming is mostly developed by the visiting public, free programs happen easily and often. Only just recently has the Board of Directors created an online events calendar, or a website at all for that matter. Yet, as Shirky might have predicted, this lack of organization did not deter people from coming into the space; if anything, it fueled widespread neighborhood involvement. People came to the Adobe space on 16th Street for the books, the people, and the likely chance that something was going on: an art opening, music performance, poetry reading, etc. This scarcity of management also gave the makers and doers of the community a sense of comfortable ownership over a space where they could speak their peace, make their mark, host a party, or even take a nap.

In 2013, however, with a rapidly gentrifying Mission District and steeply rising rents throughout San Francisco, time was running out for a bookstore that operated more like a community center than a for-profit business. Transitioning into a cooperative business with a fiscally sponsored gallery seemed to be the only option for survival. With significant seed funding from a successful Indiegogo campaign, Adobe Books has financially found a new lease on life. At the same time, as a cooperative with a managing board of directors, we struggle with how much to curate the space rather than let the community dictate our programming.

The new 24th Street incarnation of Adobe Books is a bit more reserved than before. With 14 directors full of their own artistic ideals, the pressure of fulfilling the promises of a successful crowdfunding campaign, and the gallery’s new fiscally-sponsored status, we feel the responsibility to be organized and thoughtful about our decisions. As an administrator by trade, I must admit I garner some pleasure from drawing up loan agreements, event MOUs, and vendor contracts. I like that we maintain a calendar, and that price negotiations on all book sales is no longer the norm. As I happily file reimbursement forms, I do wonder if all of this “organization” is slowly killing the community space that Adobe Books used to be.

Artists in the Adobe Books gallery often give me sideways glances when I hand them a loan agreement—the sort of formality that has never been instituted before. More and more inquiries about book readings, concerts, and other events are being directed to a single events manager, which is just as convenient for us as it is inconvenient for the person inquiring at the front desk who has to remember to scribble down the correct email address. Adobe is learning to be more top-down, and all the while asking ourselves if this structure is worth the exclusion that often comes with this sort of organizational map.

 

SFMOMA takes programs "on the go" with Mark di Suvero's sculptures on Crissy Field. Photo by Dominic Santos.

SFMOMA takes programs “on the go” with Mark di Suvero’s sculptures on Crissy Field. Photo by Dominic Santos.

A Museum On the Go

In contrast, SFMOMA is ever so slightly turning bottom-up, and learning that providing arts experiences with a listening ear can be more relevant and valuable to today’s population than white walls with a system for dispersing information about objects.

At SFMOMA, even the education department has a directive to curate its offerings for the public in a more or less top-down way. As with any museum, we have both the task of engaging the public as well as protecting a historical archive. However, SFMOMA is unusual in our commitment to becoming part of urban life for the residents and visitors of San Francisco. In the 2.5 years of its closure, the museum has committed to activating the city in exciting ways, perhaps echoing the recent rise of socially engaged art. Projects like Project Los Altos in the town of the same name and our decentralized exhibition of the 2012 Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) awards insert art into everyday life. David Wilson’s SECA piece literally directs viewers to follow itineraries through San Francisco to find secret art interventions, with all journeys commencing from the closed museum doors. While some SFMOMA departments may see the temporary displacement as a hindrance, asking questions like “how will we keep membership numbers up with no museum admission?”, the education department frames it as an opportunity to do what we’ve always wanted to do, reaching out into neighborhoods, schools, and communities to participate in art projects and programs that reflect the dynamics of our city.

Rather than taking a soapbox approach to its educational programs, SFMOMA is developing two-way partnerships with schools and creating new public programs that rely heavily on audience participation. This year we are piloting several school projects that are part artist commission, part school curriculum, and part student-driven learning. These efforts are still in their infancy, but show promise in that both parties seem willing and excited to collaborate to bring contemporary art to the classroom in dynamic new ways. Our public educational programs are evolving as well. As part of our Project Los Altos exhibit, the Education Department is asking artists who participated in the exhibition to create a series of participatory art instructions to be printed in the Los Altos Town Crier, the local newspaper. Responses and documentation from those who choose to participate will be documented on the web as well as a few printed in the following week’s paper. After decades of hearing the likes of Paulo Freire and Sir Ken Robinson tell us that creativity and two-way communication between the educator and student are essential for dynamic learning, educators and education administrators are finally translating these ideals into actual teaching practices. We’re seeing the rise of Visual Thinking Strategies and other inquiry-based learning methods, evidence of the impact of participatory trends in our culture on museum education. The fact that education as a discipline has been at the vanguard of this shift means that museum educators are freer to adapt more quickly.

 

“You Do Have to Relinquish Some Control”

Forging new community partnerships is crucial to the health of  SFMOMA while it is without a building. Whether this comes as a welcome change or not, our 2.5-year closure may be exactly the catalyst necessary to transform SFMOMA into a leading 21st=century institution, one thoroughly and intentionally engaged in its community. On the other hand, newly burdened by rising rent and the bureaucracy of organizing a cooperative (by-laws, articles of incorporation, etc.), Adobe Books is pushing hard to be structured while still maintaining its grassroots spirit. Both of these organizations have been molded by San Francisco’s unique, evolving culture, and transformed in recent months by both strong community support for the arts as well as by the money and change that comes with the city’s most recent tech boom.

This climate seems to have pushed San Francisco organizations to experiment with new methods of community collaboration, to search for the perfect balance between curatorial control and open source content. To stay relevant in today’s San Francisco, I suspect that more organizations will be striving for this middle ground—less “institutional” than the stuffy collecting museums of yore, yet more bureaucratic than the scrappy organizations that were once able to maintain cheap spaces in the city. As J.S. May, Chief Advancement Officer of the Portland Art Museum, recently said at the National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture, “You do have to relinquish some control.” Just how much control to withdraw remains a pertinent and ongoing question for each individual institution – and as San Francisco’s experience demonstrates, large and small organizations have much to learn from each other across the resource divide.

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  1. […] The Cultural Data Project and Its Impact on Arts Organizations, and Calcagno Cullen’s A Tale of Two Strategies: Participation and Organization at Adobe Books and SFMOMA. In addition to her crackerjack analytical skills, Jackie is an exceptionally gifted communicator […]

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