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2016 September 3

MAH’s MuseumCamp 2016

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In my preparation for retirement, I’ve been exploring possibilities for what to do after I’m no longer a professor. As part of this prep, I applied for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s “MuseumCamp“. I’ve been following Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0 and Santa Cruz MAH blog for some time, and I was interested to see more about how things worked at MAH and how they influenced other, much larger institutions.

One line in the announcement of MuseumCamp particularly caught my interest:

We especially encourage people of color, non-female people, people over 50, and/or people working outside of traditional museums/visual arts to apply.

Three out of four of those apply to me (only the “of color” is not applicable), so I applied for the camp, though making it clear that this was more of a casual interest for me than a burning need, and that they should give the slot to someone else if they were full.  Back in April, they sent me a response

I really appreciate you applying to MuseumCamp (and being honest about your level of interest). We ended up having 3x as many applicants as spots, so you are not on the list for 2016.

Later on, though, there were some cancellations, and they offered me the slot at the beginning of August:

If you’re still interested and available, I wanted to extend an invitation to MuseumCamp this summer. I know you applied with the caveat of not wanting to occupy someone else’s space, but we have the room and would love to have you.

So I decided to go and see whether MAH and museums in general would be a good place for me to direct my attention once I’m no longer spending almost all my time being a professor.  I’m not an “art and history” person, but I’ve enjoyed some of the exhibitions and events at MAH, and I have a lot of respect for how Nina Simon has turned the MAH from being an almost-dead local museum that only a few people cared about to being a major cultural institution in Santa Cruz in a very short time.

The theme of the camp this year was Change Making, which is pretty broad, as they were including social change, institutional change, and personal change. The structure of MuseumCamp was intermediate between a conference and an unconference—things were highly scheduled in order to pack in a lot of activities, with some time slots highly structured (workshop times, lightning talks, …) and some very open times (work on zines).

The “unlearning workshops” the first day were intended to stretch people a little outside their comfort zones and get people to “shift gears and be fully present for camp”. I chose to attend Activist Puppet-making with Grant Wilson and Paper Pop-Ups with Jason Alderman.  Since both of these involved art projects using my hands, they were a little outside my comfort zone, but not as far as ones like Ballet and Modern Dance Play, Changemaking Yoga, or Icebreaking Icebreakers.

Grant Wilson is known locally for the large body puppets that appear in various Santa Cruz parades, which he explained the use and construction of. It was interesting to see the construction details (like how the approximated 25-lb (12kg) frames were attached to backpack frames), and to learn about “creature staplers”, which are more formally referred to as sword-point stapler pliers or spear-point stapler pliers. The main models seem to be the Arrow P35S, the Rapid HD31SP, the Markwell MPL3CSand the Bostitch P6C-8P, though there is also a generic ST103 model that comes with many different retailer names and costs more than the better known stapler names. They cost about $30–$60 and provide a strong join for corrugated cardboard that does not require access from the edge of the cardboard (if you are willing to have a stab hole from inserting the anvil through the cardboard).  Another useful resource was the book Wise Fool Basicswhich discusses (among many other things) how to build the large puppets. It would have been nice to have more hands-on construction (building a generic face, for example), but the workshop was worth the time anyway.

Jason Alderman’s paper pop-ups workshop was much more directed in getting us to learn one particular (but very versatile) paper-engineering technique.  The result I produced was only suitable for putting on the fridge (which is where my wife puts the art given to her by the elementary-school students in her library), but I think that I understand the technique well enough now that I could design a greeting card using it, and could even teach it to middle school children if I practiced it a few more times.

I found the workshops rewarding, but I was not as thrilled with the next activity “Change speed dating”, which was a fairly standard sort of ice-breaker.  The lightning talks after that were quite good, giving examples of change accomplished or in progress by four of the campers. Dinner by India Joze was excellent, and I had some good conversations with the people around me.  The Power Hour of Fun was probably the least comfortable activity of the day for me, and I had to step out of it several times to control my irritation.  It was clearly focussed on raising group energy for extroverts and may have been successful at that—I’d be curious to find out what the reactions were of the other introverts, though.  I don’t know if I was the only one who found it mentally exhausting rather than stimulating.

The second day started with a whole-group activity to try to choose topics for zines, which worked ok, but could have been a bit smoother if they had let people vote with stickers for their top 3 choices on all the proposed topics rather than trying to whittle down the number by vocal responses first.  I felt that the whittling down was based more on the feelings of the organizers or the loudness of a small number of people, rather than making sure that everyone had something they were interested in.

The zine topic generation was followed by a choice of one of four workshops.  None of the topics were particularly aimed at me (as an engineering professor, I was a bit outside the mainstream attendees, who seemed to be mainly museum or library professionals, with a few random others mixed in—mostly from social science, art, or humanities backgrounds), so I chose to go to Nina Simon’s workshop. I chose her workshop mainly because I have found her blogs to be thought-provoking, so I figured I would get something out of her talk, even if I wasn’t the target audience.  The topic was somewhat different from what was described in the printed schedule, and was both more and less relevant than I had anticipated.  She talked about making change from the role of an institutional head, and focussed less on community relevance than the title had suggested.  I have some roles in which I am in charge (like Program Chair and Undergraduate Director), but I’m never the person in charge of the budget or hiring and firing, so some parts resonated with me and some not so much.  It was a thought-provoking talk, and it did include some good conversations with the people at the same table.

The rest of the day was spent working on our zines.  There were 17 groups of about 4–5 people, and I ended up on a team whose topic was “a dictionary of activism for non-activists”, though one of the first things our group did was reject the dictionary approach and just go for an introduction.  Our group were almost all introverts, so we agreed on a working method where we would get together at intervals to divide up the work, share what we had done, and get feedback, but do most of our work independently.  It turned out that two of the group were vegans, so we went to Cafe Gratitude (I’m not sure whether this restaurant is part of the Los Angeles chain with the same name or not) for our first meeting over lunch.  We decided on what articles we would include and who would do what, then split up to do the work. We got back together every couple of hours, including dinner provided by Taquitos Nayarit (a Watsonville taqueria that I was not familiar with), until we finished at about 9:30pm (after the deadline, but not the last group to finish).  The results were not as bad as I had feared, but it is still clearly a one-day effort.

I think that one of the biggest take-home messages for people is that it takes a long time to put together even a tiny 8-page zine. I already knew that from having laid out and printed art newsletters for my son’s kindergarten or first-grade classes, about 14 years ago, but I think that it was news to a lot of the campers.

On Friday, we had more lightning talks in the auditorium, from five more campers.  This group was a mixed bag, with some really inspiring talks and some that I would rather not have been present for (I won’t embarrass people by identifying which are which).  That was followed by two unconference sessions, where any one could propose topics for conversation, but they had to attend the session they proposed.  I did not propose any, so I was free to choose.

The first session was on car-free living, but only three of us showed up (all of us already car-free for several years), so while we had an ok conversation, it was not as stimulating as a larger group, nor useful in conveying advice to people interested in becoming car-free.

The second session was on design thinking for social work (a follow-up on one of the lightning talks).  The conversation there was interesting and gave me some things to think about how the processes used in engineering and design could be applied in other fields.

After the unconference sessions, we folded and stapled our zines (100 copies of each). Here is where I made my biggest contribution to the Museum Camp—I brought in my saddle stapler from home:

A saddle stapler, or booklet stapler, is an indispensable aid to producing neatly stapled booklets quickly.

A saddle stapler, or booklet stapler, is an indispensable aid to producing neatly stapled booklets quickly.

It seemed that no one at the conference had heard of a saddle stapler before, though some had used long-arm staplers. The approach that the MAH staff had planned on used ordinary office staplers and rolling up half the zine to get it to fit within the short arm—a very tedious and sloppy method, though one that most of the zines still had to use, because there wasn’t enough time to staple 1700 zines with only one saddle stapler. Three might have been enough and five certainly would have been, but at $40 each, I’m not sure that MAH would have wanted to buy that many, even if they had known they wanted them.

I also considered introducing people to the “bone folder” for making sharp creases, but decided that it was not as important, so didn’t mention it, though I did use it for about 150 zines. I showed a few people the trick of reversing the staple side of a pile of zines every 10 zines, both for easier counting and to keep the stack level so the zines don’t slide everywhere, but again, this was a small point that was not worth pushing out to everyone.

I ended up with one copy of each of the 17 zines, which I still have to read:

The zines look very colorful as a stack, but I've no idea yet what the contents are like.

The zines look very colorful as a stack, but I’ve no idea yet what the contents are like.

MuseumCamp ended at the beach, with presentations by each group about their zine. The presentations were mostly amusing, and at one minute each, none were long enough to get boring. I had a couple of good conversations, both at the beach and on the walk back to the museum.

Overall, I had a pretty good experience at MuseumCamp, even though it was aimed at a different target audience, but I don’t think I would get much out of repeating the experience. (If MAH want’s to borrow my saddle stapler, though, I’d be glad to lend it to them, as I rarely use it.)

2016 July 19

Americans for the Arts poll

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Americans for the Arts  Public Opinion Poll Overview has recently published a summary of their opinion poll about the arts. It does not come as a surprise to me that people are broadly in favor of the arts and participate at a moderately high rate—the questions are “motherhood-and-apple-pie” questions that would be difficult to disagree with. Some numbers are a bit lower than I would hope to see—only  68% of adults attended an arts event in the past year, and some are higher than I would expect—27% donated to an arts organization.

What Americans Believe About the Arts

The American public is more broadly engaged in the arts than previously understood—believing that the arts not only play a vital role in personal well-being and healthier communities, but that the arts are also core to a well-rounded education.

1. “The arts provide meaning to our lives.” 63 percent of the population believe the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences,” 64 percent feel the arts give them “pure pleasure to experience and participate in,” and 73 percent say the arts are a “positive experience in a troubled world.”

2. “Most of us seek out arts experiences.” Seven in 10 American adults (68 percent) attended an arts event in the past year, like going to the theater, museum, zoo, or a musical performance.

3. “We often experience the arts in unexpected places.” An even greater proportion of Americans (77 percent) say they experienced the arts in a “non-arts” venue such as a park, hospital, shopping mall, or airport.

4. “Across demographic groups, the arts are part of our lives.” People of color were more likely to attend an arts event than their white counterparts (71 percent vs. 66 percent). Higher rates of attendance for people of color were noted for multiple art forms, including dance, museums, and theater.

5. “Arts institutions add value to our communities.” Regardless of whether people engage with the arts or not, 87 percent believe they are important to quality of life, and 82 percent believe they are important to local businesses and the economy.

6. “We donate to the arts.” 27 percent of the population (more than 1 in 4 Americans) made a donation to an arts, culture, or public broadcasting organization within the past year. Donors were typically younger and had higher incomes and education.

7. “We will support candidates who want to increase arts funding.” Americans are more than twice as likely to vote in favor of a candidate who increases arts spending from 45 cents to $1 per person than to vote against them (37 percent in favor, 16 percent against).

8. “We believe the arts are part of a well-rounded education.” Nine in ten American adults (88 percent) agree that the arts are part of a well-rounded K-12 education.

9. “We believe the arts should be taught in grades K–12.” 90 percent believe students should receive an education in the arts in elementary school, middle school, and high school. 82 percent say the arts should also be taught outside of the classroom in the community.

10. “We are making art in our personal time.” Half of all Americans are personally involved in artistic activities (49 percent) such as painting, singing in a choir, making crafts, writing poetry, or playing music.

11. “We engage in the arts because it makes us feel creative.” Among those who are personally involved in making art or displaying art in their home, 60 percent say that “arts and music outside of the home” makes them feel more creative—a rate that jumps to 70 percent for Millennials.

12. “Social media increases our exposure to the arts.” 53 percent of social media users say that they are more exposed to the arts thanks to connecting online. 59 percent agree that art created on social media is a legitimate form of art.

13. “Yes! Tattoos are art.” 27 percent of Americans boast a tattoo (12 percent have more than one). Three-quarters believe that tattoos are a form of art (73 percent).

14. “The arts unify our communities.” The personal benefits of the arts extend beyond the individual and to the community. 67 percent of Americans believe “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity” and 62 percent agree that the arts “helps me understand other cultures better.”

15. “Despite the benefits the arts provide, not everyone in our communities has equal access to the arts.” Despite the individual and community benefits, just 45 percent believe that “everyone in their community has equal access to the arts.”

Source: Americans Speak Out About The Arts, Americans for the Arts. 2016.

*The 3,020 respondents self-identified by race and Hispanic ethnicity. For the report, the “white” category is non-Hispanic whites. Included in the “people of color” category are blacks, Asians, all Hispanics, and others.

I’ll have to dive into the full report or even the supplementary data tables to see exactly what questions were asked and what biases there were in the survey. One that they note is that the survey was done online, and that the non-white subset of the sample skewed somewhat higher on education and wealth than the non-white population as a whole.

The higher attendance by non-whites coupled with the perception of unequal access is a little disturbing—particularly given the emphasis on appeals to elderly white people by so many of our major cultural institutions. Of course, there is an obvious reason for the the appeals to old white people—the same reason that people rob banks: because that’s where the money is. But younger generations are more interested in the arts, and so more should be done to incorporate them into the life of our arts institutions.

I am pleased that our local museum, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, makes a point of reaching out to the whole community and attempting to bridge divides. I think that they have done an excellent job of including young folk (high-school and college age) in their events and planning, as well as a moderately good job of including Mexican culture (the main non-white culture in our area). I think that there is more to be done in incorporating Mexican and local Mexican-American art into the museum.  They did recently have a very good display of the Kinsey African-American Art and History Collection, even though the African-American population in Santa Cruz County is quite small—about 1.4% according to the US Census.  The Hispanic population is about 33.3%.

I was a little surprised that the poll found that 27% of the population have tattoos—in Santa Cruz, I would find an even larger number credible, but in the Midwest the numbers are likely much smaller. I wonder whether this number indicates a sampling bias in the survey, which would call all the numbers into question, or if tattoos really have become so mainstream.

I’m also a little surprised that MAH has not done a tattoo art exhibit yet (or did I miss one?), since tattoo art has been a big thing in Santa Cruz for a long time.  For those of you who care, I don’t have any tattoos—not from any philosophical, religious, or æsthetic reason, but because I’ve never been able to think of any artwork that I’d be happy to have on my body permanently (also, I dislike pain).

I was interested in seeing what “arts and culture” events were the most popular (in terms of attendance in the previous year):

  • Zoo, aquarium, or botanical garden 36%
  • Historic site 30%
  • Musical performance (Classical or popular) 29%
  • Museum of history or science (including children’s museums) 25%
  • Theater performance 24%
  • Museum of art 23%
  • Visual arts, crafts exhibition, art gallery 22%
  • Opera/musical theater 13%
  • Dance performance 13%
  • Art or film festival 12%
  • Literary event 8%
  • Other 3%
  • None 32%

I’m surprised that they did not include a category for arts and crafts fairs, antiques fairs, maker fairs, Renaissance fairs, and so forth—many people attend such events, but would probably not think of them in the context of this survey.

I also wonder how much of the attendance is “for the children’s sake” rather than personal interest—the heavy emphasis on zoos, aquaria, historic sites, history and science museums suggests that there may be some deliberate educational component for kids, rather than personal enjoyment.  (I go to science museums and aquaria for fun when I travel, but many people do it only with kids.)

I note that theater minus musical theater is still at 11%, almost as big as opera/musical theater alone, which is pleasing but surprising—musical theater seems to get a lot more advertising and get performed in much larger venues than non-musical theater.

2015 November 25

3rd Friday November: Radical Craft Night 

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Last Friday, my wife and I went to a “3rd Friday” event at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History:

Radical Craft Night is back at the MAH! Challenge your traditional notions of craft at the MAH’s Radical Craft Night which takes crafting to the extreme.  Join us for a night of workshops, demonstrations, collaborations, performances, and making at the MAH:

Source: 3rd Friday November: Radical Craft Night – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

We’re museum members, mainly to support the work that MAH is doing in community building and creating art, rather than because of any intrinsic interest in the museum.  Before Nina Simon took over management of the museum a few year’s ago, it was a terribly boring history museum with generally uninteresting art exhibits.  They did some useful work in maintaining history archives and publishing local history books, but that was about it.  Under Nina’s leadership, the museum has really blossomed, with twice monthly events, lots of partnerships with other groups in the community, and much more interesting galleries.

The crafts night turned out to be a little less “radical” than I might have expected from their advertising, but it seemed to be a great event for kids (too bad they weren’t doing that sort of thing a decade ago, when our son was the right age for it).

For example, the blacksmithing was not a “demo” (we’ve seen plenty of blacksmithing demos), but was instead a chance for kids to don safety goggles and hammer hot steel on an anvil.  They had two portable propane forges set up and two anvils—and kids (mainly boys) were lined up for turns to make something.

The hand-cranked sewing machines were also a fairly popular setup, more so than the backstrap weaving (set up with too long a warp for the time available) or the triangular looms.

There were a lot of other crafts, like the fabric greeting cards and bubble-wrap printing, that would have been good for 6–10-year-olds, but they were not what I’d consider “radical”.  They were popular with kids, though, and parents had brought lots of kids.

Perhaps the high point of the event for us was the wearable art fashion show, which was a selection from a larger event coming up at the Rio Theater (though not as big as the fashionArt show in September).  There were only a couple of pieces that looked actually wearable, but a number were amusing.

My wife and I had already seen the surfboards that were the first ones made in California (which are being sent back to Hawaii 2015 Nov 30), and the good Uncommon Threads wearable art display in the main gallery, which runs until 2015 Dec 6. So we used some of our time at the event to look at the history gallery, which was remodeled this summer.

The new history gallery is more interesting than the old one, includes more recent history, and seems to have a less biased viewpoint. All the captioning was done in both English and Spanish, and looked like it had been professionally written to have about a 4th-grade reading level, which is appropriate for the school field trips that the museum gets.  We would have liked there to have been some more in-depth information on individual items (like the baskets and the feather cloak) for adults—perhaps QR codes could be used to link to web pages for each item?

We would also like to have seen a photo of the big tents that kept downtown businesses alive for months after the Loma Prieta quake—there was a lot about the quake itself, but not much about the rebuilding from the quake, which played a major role in reshaping downtown Santa Cruz.

We’re not likely to go to many 1st Friday or 3rd Friday events (by the end of the week we just want to rest at home), but it was worth going to this one for me, just to see the museum being so active.

2013 December 14

Boxes to the museum

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The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz frequently asks its members (and anyone else who gets their newsletter) for items that they need for some family art project.  This month, they said

We’re looking for brown cardboard boxes to build a giant cardboard castle for our upcoming Winterpalooza family festival in January. They can be dropped off at the front desk during museum hours.

I checked whether they were looking for just large cardboard boxes, or whether they wanted all sizes.  They said

We’re currently taking all sizes. Thanks for your message clarifying this. Please drop them off at the front desk when you have a chance. Our hours are Tues-Sun 11-5PM. Fridays open late till 9PM, and closed Mondays.

So yesterday I cleaned out a bunch of the more useless sizes of boxes from our attic and loaded up my larger bike trailer with 50–100 of them:

There are more boxes here than it might appear, since I filled each box with smaller boxes.

There are more boxes here than it might appear, since I filled each box with smaller boxes.
The trailer was made (a long time ago) by John Welch.

A few bungee cords to keep the boxes from blowing away and I was ready to go.  At the museum, I parked my bike in front, unhitched the trailer and wheeled it into the lobby, where they had me unload the boxes.

I should remember to keep an eye on their ongoing wish list also, in case there are other things I’d be glad to get rid of that they have a use for.

2013 August 18

Exploratorium having financial problems

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A newspaper article from Friday talks about hard times at one of my favorite museums: Exploratorium cuts 18% of staff as attendance lags.  It seems that they are losing their big financial bet on pulling in lots of tourist dollars by moving to a new waterfront location (from the lovely old Palace of Fine Arts from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition).

I’ve not been to see the new Exploratorium yet, which is supposedly 3 times the size of the old one.  It’s gotten good reviews (the old favorite exhibits are still there and they have new ones), but people are complaining about the increase in price (from $15 to $25, if I’m reading the complaints right).  The increase in price may have something to do with the lower-than-expected attendance.

It worries me that they are reducing their staff already—and I’m curious which staff they are getting rid of.  If they are losing the executives who did poor financial planning for the move, it might be a good thing.  If they are losing the staff who design, build, and maintain the exhibits, it could be a rapid downward spiral. Knowing how most organizations work, they’re probably keeping incompetent executives and firing those who do the real work.

I suppose I’d better make plans to visit the Exploratorium this winter (on a school day, to minimize crowding), lest the museum suddenly discover they’ve lost even more money and close completely.

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