Thursday, December 20, 2012

To the Top of the Case, To The Top of the Hall

Now Pack Away, Box Away, Move Away All! A visit from St. Entropy, who,  like St. Bernard, comes to the rescue of those lost in the drifts.

 ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, with nothing to prove—
We were still reeling from the museum’s big move.
There were boxes and boxes of…still more, smaller boxes,
Full of papers and pictures and foxes and rockses.
Huge jars stuffed with fish and enormous whale testicles
Teeny jars crammed with spiders and vesicles
The movers had helped out by acting as sorters,
Then submitted our names to the film crew of “Hoarders.”
Not a creature was stirring—they were packed in too tight,
Wrapped in paper and foam and unable to bite.
We sat on wood crates and used boxes as tables,
And discovered that…somehow…we’d lost all the labels.
The boxes stretched out to the vanishing point,
But not one helpful word could be found in the joint.
Remember the last scene shown in “The Lost Ark?”
This was seven times worse—and we sat in the dark.
Not a thing had been copied, not a word databased,
And our system collapsed due to very cheap paste.
Without opening every box that we had,
There was no way for us to move into our pad.  
This called for a nightcap. Or several. Or many.
Any solvents unpacked? Why, you guessed it—not any.
So the director (with curses) and curators (with whining)
Settled in for a night of unpacking and mining.
When all of a sudden I heard such a drone
I knew in an instant it must be my phone
I reached in my pocket, turned it on with a snap,
And what should appear but the Dear Santa® app!
It connected to Google and mapped our location,
Then demanded a password for verification.
My phone screen showed something all disjunct and frayed
Like one of those paintings by Thomas Kinkade™.
When, what to my wandering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight androideer
With a jolly old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than banner ads his coursers they came,
And he pulled out his Tablet and downloaded their names.
“Now Cyber! now Ebook! on Dunder! and Twaddle!
We must get there quick, we have no time to dawdle!”
And then in a twinkling, as I watched on the screen
Nick arrived at the door looking fit, lean, and mean.
A curator screamed, “My God!  It’s alive!”
So I aimed for his head and threw an MRM5.
Santa entered the room and got straight to unpacking
With ripping and tearing and general whacking.
He filled all the shelves, crammed the drawers, stuffed the cases,
Racked up the racks, leaving no empty spaces.
In a flash he was finished, and all was unpacked
And snugly assorted, complete and compact.
But nothing made sense, there was no order at all.
And what would not fit had been tossed in the hall.
“But Santa!” I pleaded, “How will we be able
To find the collections with nary a label?”
Santa smiled like a man who’s pulled off a great feat
He tapped on his phone and one box gave a tweet
“I’ve equipped each “thing” with its own RFID tag
They’re findable even stuffed deep in my bag.”
Sure enough every specimen, each object and box,
Now bore that sign of electronic pox.
Santa leaped in his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle
And away they all flew like the down off a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, without missing a beat,
“This system will work…until it’s obsolete.”

(Sally Shelton, John Simmons and Elizabeth Merritt always find the holidays a moving experience.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Museums and Digital Badging

Personal Learning Networks. Participatory Learning Environments. MOOCs. Gamification. Microcredentials. The world of formal education is in quite a state of foment these days, with new paradigms and alternate models of instruction and assessment of achievement gaining steam. One trend that has developed a tremendous amount of attention is the idea of badge systems as an alternative to traditional forms of indicating achievement. In this post Ed Rodley, exhibit developer at the Boston Museum of Science, explores two examples from the museum sector that are trying to use badges as a way to both acknowledge achievement in a professional development context, and foster community and encourage participation with museum visitors.

Just what are badges?
The idea behind badge systems is really quite simple. If you ever saw a Boy or Girl Scout with their collection of merit badges, then you’ve seen a badge system at work. The idea is that a badge signifies achievement in a particular task. Weave your basket , get the Basket Weaving badge, sew it on your sash, and everyone knows you’ve mastered basket weaving. The badge is a credential of achievement like a diploma, only on a much, much smaller scale. This is why badge systems are often referred to as microcredential systems. Some of the affordances of a badge system are that it works well for informal and interest-driven learning. You the learner decide which skills you want to pursue and therefore what badges you get. You can learn anywhere, anytime and have a way of signaling your achievement. Unlike a certificate from an educational institution, a badge can represent traditional academic achievement or “soft” 21st century skills. They can also represent commitment or interest, in a narrowly defined setting.  To their promoters, badge systems have the potential to fuel an explosion in online learning. To badge skeptics, they are a classic example of an extrinsic motivation that will get in the way of the learning that they’re supposed to represent. In other words, they fear that collecting badges will overshadow achieving mastery of the subjects those badges stand for.

The badge proponents have some powerful backers. The MacArthur Foundation, The Gates Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, and others have all committed tremendous time, energy and money into developing microcredential systems.  A quick search of MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning site will give you a sense of the energy behind badge systems and the diversity of ways badges are being considered for use in formal and informal education.  In the museum sector, badge systems are just getting underway include the Museum Computer Network’s MCNPro, and the Dallas Museum of Art’s DMA Friends & Partners program.

The Museum Computer Network - MCNPro
In 2011, The Museum Computer Network, a non-profit professional organization founded in 1967, conducted a community survey to see what services museum technology professionals wished the organization could offer. MCN’s members wanted to learn about the latest technology trends, find ways to expand their skills with new and emerging technologies, and get help starting to use these technologies in their museums. Traditionally, these kinds of opportunities have been bread-and-butter events at annual museum conferences, but the potential reach of a one-time-only conference event is tiny compared to that of an online event. So MCN partnered with LearningTimes, the company behind the Museums and Mobiles online conference and a leader in interactive online learning experiences, to develop an online webinar series called MCNPro.  This series of five web-based workshops will launch in December and cover topics like creating a video channel and getting into digital publishing. Workshop participants will earn a digital badge for their involvement, and have the chance to earn more badges by both taking more classes, and by sharing their own expertise with the MCN community as presenters. The badge system will serve both as a certificate of accomplishment and as a system for recognizing increased participation in the MCN community.

 Dallas Museum of Art - DMA Friends & Partners
The Dallas Museum of Art announced last month that they were doing away with paid admission. They also announced that they were replacing their paid membership systems with a free system called DMA Friends & Partners. Friends earn badges for participating in DMA events, and according to Deputy Director Rob Stein, badges will become an incentive economy that will hopefully serve as scaffolds for deeper engagement. So if you get the jazz badge for attending an evening jazz event, you can get a further badge if you go to the galleries and find artworks that relate to jazz. And if this doesn’t seem radical enough, DMA is also developing a point system for their badges that will allow Friends redeem points for rewards, from typical membership perks like tickets to special exhibitions to more boutique experiences, like watching a conservator at work.  These boutique experiences can then be captured while they’re happening and fed into DMA’s social media channels, published on their blogs and magazine, and reinforce visitors’ motivation to participate with the museum.  Stein even speculated that if systems like theirs become widespread, museum badge systems could grow into reciprocal programs that could allow people to spend points earned at one museum in another museum.

If you would like to learn more about digital badges, and their potential for influencing the future of education, Ed recommends these links:

Badge advocates
Could Badges for Lifelong Learning Be Our Tipping Point?

Six Ways to Look at Badging Systems Designed for Learning

Badge skeptics
Still a Badge Skeptic

How to Earn Your Skeptic “Badge”

A balanced approach
Badges for Learning: Threading the Needle Between Skepticism and Evangelism

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Learning from the Labrary

I’m rushing to meet my editor’s deadline for the text of TrendsWatch 2013 (spoiler alert: it’s about the future) so today I’m just jotting down some quick thoughts on an item in the news. (As Pogo's Churchy la Femme might say, “Monday Musings came on a Thursday this week.")

The first article I read in my morning scan was this piece from the Harvard Gazette about the Labrary—a student-designed pop-up space envisioning what libraries of the future might look like.  

RECON-TEXTS by Bri Patawaran
The prototypes featured in the Labrary’s inflated mylar home include Green Noise (three plants hooked up to an amplifier: touch the plants and generate your own horto-concert); an idea for MOOSL (“Massive Open Online Scientific Literature”) a “science platform of the future” that adds multimedia & interactive platforms to digital text); RECON-TEXTS, which bring the digital back to the physical by printing and binding one-off texts from research notes and annotations; and Furniture for Slight Distraction, which fights sleepiness with unsteady stools and provides just the right amount of productive diversion with ambient noise.

I love the way the students identify and attack assumptions about “present” libraries, notably:
  • That libraries are quiet, because quiet is a prerequisite to concentration & study. “I don’t study in traditional libraries,” comments one visitor “It’s too quiet.” Future libraries, notes the author notes “may not fetishize silence.” In fact, if the future of learning is about collaboration (as this and many articles suggest), and how can that flourish without lively conversation?
  • That libraries are about static texts, whether digital or virtual. “Future libraries might include ‘experience with living things’” noted Jeff Goldenson, the pop-ups faculty co-sponsor. Other prototypes in the pop-up played with food as text and invited visitors to become part of a “participatory photo opera.”
  • And most important (embedded in the premise of the project as a whole) that library designers need to specify and control how patrons will use space. One of the most important aspects of the pop-up was how people felt empowered to co-opt it for their own purposes—one student took it over for a project meeting, for example, and a local artist and designer set up a display of his book art.

Goldenson is quoted as saying “I want to make lending this space out as easy as taking out a book.” That statement points to a common challenge of museums & libraries-how can we give our audiences scope to invent their own uses for our resources? Are we willing to let go of our preconceptions about our core identities (libraries are places to borrow books and do research; museums are places to look at stuff) and discover what identify people would create for us, if we let them?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Museums: Essential Elements in the New World of Education

I’ve been writing a lot about the future of education: how we are on the cusp of transformational change, and how museums may play a vital role in the next educational era. Today Steven Lubar, director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, offers this spot-on summary of the forces working to unbundle higher education into its constituent pieces, and savvy suggestions for how museums can respond.

Education is imploding. It’s not just classes that are flipping. It’s the whole idea of what schools should do. Or not do: the New York Times reports that Silicon Valley billionaire dropouts think that the really good students should just drop out and become Silicon Valley billionaires.

But a moment of panic in education can be a moment of opportunity for museums.
What’s changing and how can we take advantage of it?

Teaching is changing. This is getting the most publicity. Online courses are everywhere. MOOCs – the ugly acronym for Massive Open Online Courses - are looming in the background, 100,000-student online courses that, though they have no financial model, and unknown efficacy, and limited subjects where they seem likely to succeed, have university administrators running scared. Smaller scale changes – the Khan Academy’s notion of having the students watch video lectures for homework, using the class for discussion and one-on-one work are taking off. So is the focus on measuring achievement, in a million ways. Badges for everyone, and everything.

Research is changing. While the traditional humanities are fighting a rear-guard action in defense of theory and the right of faculty to write only for other faculty, a sense of the importance public engagement and a connection to the wider world is getting stronger.

Publishing is changing. Academic journals and publishers are having a hard time. The web explodes with content, and faculty are realizing that if they want to make an impact, if they want their material read, the open web is the place for it.  

Employment in higher education is changing. Just search twitter for #alt-ac.
What can museums learn from this?

For a start, there are new opportunities to work with universities. As universities open the door to new kinds of teaching and research, museums should be at the door. Museums are good at public engagement. Let’s partner with universities to share our audiences.

Museum collections, openly available online, can serve as the raw materials for the world of on-line university research and teaching. But it also works the other way. As universities try to see what makes physical spaces interesting and gives them an edge in competing with MOOCs and other virtual classes – we suggest that real artifacts are the perfect complement to real interactions between faculty and students.

And in a world where opportunities to learn are increasingly distributed, where a student might get credit for a MOOC here and a badge there, museums can play to their strengths in offering a smorgasbord of activities for a student audiences. Museums have the content and know what works for teaching: now they can get credit. The Smithsonian has started offering badges. Museums should be ready when colleges start offering course credit for badges.

But museums will have to change to take advantage of the turmoil roiling our colleagues in education.

We’ll need to be open and available. We need to let our collections be used by others for their ends. That means sharing online collections and images as open data, being open to collaborations, letting go.

It means that we need to break down the walls that separate curatorial expertise and educational expertise within the museum. Curators and curatorial knowledge will have to be open to the public. The one rule of the web is disintermediation: no more gatekeepers. Curators will need to be open directly to their audiences. Museum educators will need to know collections and content. Those jobs will merge as the museum opens up.  

We need to celebrate our physical and social spaces. Museums offer the social experiences and direct connection with the real thing that universities give up as they move on line. We can play the role not just of classroom and laboratory but also student center.

Museums can come out of this stronger than they are now. With collections information and expertise online and available, and social spaces open for engagement, they offer a lot that universities need. Museums can take advantage of the confusion in the world of education to make themselves an essential element of the new world of education being shaped now – even if we don’t know yet what it will be. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Freegan Museum: Notes from an Experiment in Progress.

This Monday I posted some brief thoughts on free museum memberships, sparked by the experiment being launched by the Dallas Museum of Art. Bob Barzan, director of the Modesto Art Museum wrote to share his museum’s experience with going free.

The Modesto Art Museum is eleven months into a long-term experiment with free membership for anyone who asks. Our situation is unusual in that Modesto is a poor city (unemployment topped 20% during the recession), has one of the lowest educational attainment rates in the country, and until the founding of the museum in 2005, was the largest metro area in the country (pop. 510,000) without a nonprofit art museum. There was no tradition of art museum membership or support in the city. The Modesto Art Museum is small, our budget this year will be under $70,000. We are offering free memberships in an effort to increase both the number and quality of personal encounters with the museum because we see this as instrumental to accomplishing our mission.

Though official membership doubled to about 150, it is still very small, but I think official membership is becoming less and less important as a way to engage people. We realized more than ever that membership does not equal engagement, that some of our biggest donors and engaged supporters are not members and don’t feel a need to be. This seems to be so especially with the young. At one point we had no official members under 40, but they are among our most engaged supporters.

Free membership was one way we thought we could engage more people; but we also extended our policy of free admission to all events except fund raisers. I think it is important that we are doing both free memberships and free admissions together, but I think free admission is going to be more important in the long run.

Tours during Architecture Festival, photo
courtesy of Modest Art Museum
For example, this year the 5th annual Modesto International Architecture Festival, the largest architecture festival in the country, was nine days with dozens of events, all free. Several thousand people attended (up from 800 the year before), we received extensive media coverage, many dozens of people volunteered (we lost count), and it attracted enough corporate sponsorships and individual donations to pay for itself.

It is still too early to know where this experiment will take the museum. I think it could lead to the abandonment of official memberships all together. Here is what we have so far:

  1. More people are attending museum events than ever, up dramatically from previous records
  2. Many more people are volunteering, some taking on difficult tasks of research or fund raising
  3. It appears we will finish the year with both total contributions and number of donors up slightly
  4. In kind contributions from corporations and community organizations will be up dramatically
  5. Foundation and corporate cash support will be up significantly
  6. Facebook followers have doubled to 421. This is important because we get some of our demographic information from Facebook, and it has become a primary daily two-way communication opportunity
  7. We survey people at our events and exhibits to capture more demographic information including age, sex, zip code, and how they learn about museum events, but it is too early to make conclusions about what we are learning.
My concerns are:
  1. Will these positive trends continue and are they the result of our changes or an improved economy, both or something else all together?
  2. Will we be able to meet the budget demands of the future?
  3. How dedicated are people to the museum?
  4. And most importantly, is this helping us accomplish our mission?
One side note on the positive side for the future is that, if eliminating memberships works, we can change membership services saving time, energy, and resources.

If readers have advice or suggestions, I am happy to hear them. My sense is we are breaking new ground and that makes me both nervous and excited, most of all, though, I am optimistic.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Genomics of Art, Education & Commerce: Part II

This is the second of a two posts sharing my interview with Christine Kuan, Chief Curator and Director of Strategic Partnerships at—a web platform designed to help users browse and purchase art. Part 1 [insert link] explored Christine’s background, what is involved in “curating”’s content and’s business model. In this post, Christine talks about’s role in the art world, its partnerships with museums, and its ambitions for creating a broader audience for art. If you have your own questions for Christine, please pose them in the comments section, below, and I will encourage her to reply.

Q: Per conversation on the recent CFM Blog post about, what do you think’s role might be in canonizing art? Museums are influential players, as are major dealers, in identifying who is “important.” Will or services like it (on-line, algorithm-driven) change that dynamic?

CK: I think the beauty of the Internet is that the content is infinite and has already expanded the canon well beyond Janson and Stokstad. allows users to create their own experience of art—going from one work to another by genes, tags, artists’ names, geographical regions, color, medium, etc. What we’ve already seen is people follow major artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and contemporary artists like Mark Barrow. With more than 25,000+ artworks and growing, “importance” is relative, we’re also constantly adding more museums and galleries—it’s just a question of manpower on our end. The search algorithms only facilitate the discovery of artworks where the genes have been added by art historians, but the preferences and choices of our users is what creates their experience of And that experience is dynamic, it changes every time the user takes an action on the site.

Q: features digitized images of works in the collections of participating museums, as well as work that is for sale. Say a bit about those partnerships--what is the benefit to museums of sharing their digital collections on the site, and what is the benefit to

CK: Our 65+ museum and nonprofit partners use to further their own missions in different ways—they can feature exhibitions on our homepage, show highlights from their collections in our database, or sell limited edition artworks on our platform. Partners can choose to do as much or as little as they like with any or all of the options. The obvious benefit is more exposure and press coverage for the museum. Since launched to the public last month, we have had over 25 million artwork impressions. And, revenue-generation is clearly important to every museum, so we are also developing e-commerce features for this December and next year we’ll be doing print-on-demand. allows museums to reach a targeted audience of 100,000 and growing registered art lovers, students, curators, collectors and patrons. We’ve been working with museums across various departments because every department, whether it’s new media, marketing, communications, development, visitor services, merchandising, education, or curatorial can take advantage of our free platform and services. Museum partners have free access to our CMS so that have access to their content at all times and can update and upload new content at any time. CMS also provides real-time analytics and it syncs with our free Folio iPad app so museum staff can take their own collection images into the galleries, share images with educators, email works and notes to outside colleagues, or access their collection images anywhere they travel.

Q: Arts organizations in general are struggling with the issue of how to expand their audience beyond the traditional demographics. Does your research suggest that might reach a different, or broader, audience than currently patronize museums & galleries?

CK: Yes, I think that’s precisely what is about—reaching new audiences and the next generation. Nearly everyone I work with now is under 30 and digital technology is as integral to their daily lives as eating breakfast. It’s not an add-on or a luxury; it’s a basic element of life. It’s really changed my view of what the future will be like for the art world—technology is going to be critical to museums in every dimension of museum policy, operations, and programming. But technology is never going to replace what museums do in the analog realm—it’s going to amplify what museums do—create compelling exhibitions, tell stories, build community, help to preserve and conserve art, and cultivate new visitors and donors. The draw of the authentic object will never be displaced. The digital surrogate just stokes greater interest in seeing the real thing.

Getting people who are too intimidated or uninterested to go into a gallery or museum to feel excited about discovering art online, but more importantly, giving people the technological infrastructure, content, and tools to have a meaningful experience—that’s extraordinary. We’ve already had users write in to say they use for exhibition planning, research, art therapy, art history class, etc. We’ve also had people who have never collected art, buy works of art from because they want to live with an original artwork. This means that even in the short-term, we’ve engaged new audiences. Also, The Art Genome Project is critical to broadening access and engagement. To be able to get to Jackson Pollock works from “Splattered/Dripped” or “Abstract Expressionism” or conversely to go from a Pollock to other artists who employ the same technique, whether it is Sam Francis or Juju Sun—is a very powerful thing. is providing a user-driven way of discovery that doesn’t hinge upon a pre-existing knowledge of art history. This is important to the future of museum education, exhibitions, patronage, board development, fundraising, and visitorship. People want to engage with art and they want to learn more and be inspired. As leaders in the museum and cultural heritage community, it’s our mission to explore how technology can further discovery, access, and engagement. is working towards that end.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Monday Musings: The Price of a Free Membership

Monday musings are my way of sharing brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, with the hope that it will generate discussion and response. With that in mind, what do you think of this?:

I’ve been following with interest the news that the Dallas Museum of Art abolishing admission for the permanent exhibits and offering free memberships to all. I hear with increasing frequency from colleagues in cultural nonprofits that:
·         People don’t want to make long-term commitments such as season-passes or memberships anymore, they want their experiences a la carte
·         So many cultural and entertainment options now-a-days are free, non-profit cultural offerings need to be free in order to compete (though actually, Phil and I haven’t see unequivocal evidence that free admission increasing attendance)
·         People want real and meaningful engagement with organizations—they don’t want to be anonymous, interchangeable customers

Making memberships free in response to these drivers of change seems like a reasonable experiment. But how does the math work out? Some fiscal conservatives argue that museums should increase admission fees—if museums really offer something people want, the argument goes, people should be willing to pay the real cost of supporting museums rather than being forced by government to provide direct or indirect subsidies. Problem is, that would involve raising admission a lot. The median cost per visitor to museums in 2009 was $31.40—and the median non-member adult admission fee is only $7.

According the Alliance’s last financial survey (2009), over 90% of museums collect membership fees (59% have general adult admission fees). Earned income is typically about 28% of a museum’s support, and membership fees are the single largest source—bringing in a median of about 5.6% of operating income.

Seems to me that with membership, the tradeoff could be giving up cash income for other media of exchange that are, potentially, even more valuable. The two most likely currencies are:

·         Commitment (of time and attention). If museum fans switch their status from “members” to “in a relationship” it makes it easier to create repeat, small engagements that lead in the end to many small transactions—stopping by to see an exhibit at lunch, coming to an evening reception, using the museum as a place to meet up with friends (who, of course, are also members, or soon to be ones). This in turn can increase three forms of income:
o   Individual contributions (which constitute a median of 7% of operating income.) More people who know and love you translates to more people feeling warm and generous at the end of the fiscal year-particularly if they appreciate the value of what they got for “free.”
o   Increased attendance can be the first step towards creating and measuring greater impact, and greater impact can help make the case to third party funders that the museum is deserving of support. (Support from private or community foundations, corporate foundations and corporations typically bring in almost 9% of earned income)
·         Each interaction gives the museum the opportunity to increase other forms of earned income: most immediately from the museum store and food services (~ 7% of gross income overall, the net varies wildly by museum), and potentially long term from people, newly aware of what a great location it is, go on to rent the facility for a wedding, bar mitzvah etc.

·         Data. One reason people expect great stuff to be free is the proliferation of “free” web services that facilitate social interactions and sharing of content. How much personal data have you handed over to Facebook, Google, Instagram, Flickr, and their kin? Of course in the long run, successful web services do make money from their users—by savvy use of this data. People share crazy amounts of data about themselves with these services, which, in turn, milk it for all it is worth. Museums aren’t going to collect the volume of data that a global social networking site does, but given the blue ribbon credentials and spending habits of their core audience, I wonder if the data they do collect would be valuable to the right buyer. More subtly, I’ll be interested to see which museum first develops the savvy to mine and use this data themselves. A data base of what visitors “like” (in the web sense), how they interact with the museum online, who they share content with via social media—cross indexed against public demographic databases or personal profiles, could lead to immensely sophisticated mass personalization and audience cultivation.  

Contrary to the statement in the Dallas News article I cite in the opening paragraph, the DMA is not the first museum to institute free admissions and free memberships. Thursday we will hear from the director of one museum that has been trying this experiment for almost a year—and I’d love to hear from you if you know of others.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Should Museums Be Thankful?

Last week, before I began my big cooking blitz, I tried to make a list of things museums should be thankful for, but I came up dry. I’d spent the week trying to beef up my political scanning, and the results were pretty depressing. No matter how the current budget debate is resolved, both parties seem to accept a future in which government support for arts and culture (direct or indirect) is going to stagnate, at best, and possibly radically contract.

Many conservative policy makers frankly state their belief that government shouldn’t be in the business of supporting the arts. Here, for example, is a reply a colleague shared with me in response to an advocacy letter directed to fiscally conservative Senator Rand Paul (R-KY): 

September 18, 2012

Dear Mr. _____,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding support for the arts. I am a supporter and patron of the arts, however I think such programs are best supported through the generosity of private citizens and free of government influence and favoritism.
Also, in a time of trillion-dollar government budget deficits, we cannot afford to fund everything the government has funded in the past. I will continue my support for the arts in my community, but I cannot support federal government funding for the arts while adding to the national debt.
Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue. Please do not hesitate to contact me regarding future federal issues.

Rand Paul, MD
United States Senator

Well, that’s blunt. It echoes the sentiment I have heard expressed in newspaper comments, and on Twitter. Nina Simon highlighted one such comment from the debate over the millage proposal to support the Detroit Institute of Arts, to wit,  “Why don’t all the people who want the DIA to stay open pay fair market value for it?”

However this week, over the transom came an item that reminds me that however dark things sometimes appear, it could be worse. Apparently on Thanksgiving night, Fox News aired a panel discussion about the charitable deduction on Special Report with Bret Baier.  A correspondent who transcribed a recording of the show relays that conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said, in response to another panelist: 

"That's the major argument to retain the (charitable) deduction, because there are so many institutions that need and give and do and this helps them.

But there is another argument that I think is overlooked which is, all the other deductions and credits are ways for the government to influence you, exert its power over you.  For example, to buy a house instead of renting, because of the mortgage deduction. Charitable is the only one that's the opposite.

Charitable is the one where the government -- where you choose where the money is to go and the government is sort of adding power to your choices.  So it's strengthening all the institutions that Fred (Barnes) had mentioned, the churches, and the research institutions, the universities, the Rotary Clubs, and these are all the institutions of civil society that stand between the government and the individual.

So whereas the growth of big government over a century has diminished all of these institutions and marginalized them, these are the institutions that are the ones that are sort of the little platoons that stand up against the government.

So I would  . . . despite the fact that we have to do a lot of cutting of deductions, the only one I would protect entirely and exempt it from any of these cuts would be the charitable because it's precisely the thing that in essence drains some of the power out of big government and allows individuals to choose what institutions of civil society it wants to actually empower.  I'd keep it for only that reason, as well as the reason, of course, that the institutions that help the needy will need it."

(Here is the video for the whole segment. It's worth 6 minutes to watch it.)

So while conservative Republicans, on the whole, want to take the government out of the business of funding arts and culture, they are more than willing to encourage individuals to support nonprofits, as a form of direct populist support of public goods. (And don’t you love the idea of contributions to museums as a form of “sticking it to the man?”) 

This is of a piece with the trend towards characterizing contributions as "voluntary taxes." The recent founding of the Museum of Music by the CEO of Target was cited in an op ed piece yesterday on the NYTimes website as an example of a wealthy "self taxing" to support a social good. (I recommend you follow the public commentary on that op-ed, it is very interesting.)

Does this news qualify as something for which we can give thanks? I’m gonna have to think on that. Personally, I believe that one of the important things we do through government is hash out an understanding of the shared values and priorities that unite us. Personal giving may or may not be a viable way crowdsfunding public goods, but in any case it bypasses the deep, hard, messy and rigorous debate that forces us to explore, justify and maybe change our opinions about what deserves public support and why. As the writer of the op ed piece I cite above says, "the self-tax is at odds with a fundamental democratic principle--the idea that we raise money collectively and then, as a society, collectively choose how we will spend it." 

What do you think?

If you want to weigh in as Congress considers cutting the charitable deduction, you can use this contact form on the Alliance website to send a message to your representative.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Genomics of Art, Education & Commerce: Part I

 Recently I blogged about, a service built on “The Art Genome Project” that enables users to discover, learn about, and collect art that is suggested to them via a mathematical algorithm. That post provoked so much interesting discussion that I followed up with Christine Kuan, Chief Curator and Director of Strategic Partnerships at, to relay some of the questions raised by commentators related to’s educational goals, its for-profit business model, and its relationship to the art world. This is the first of two posts sharing her replies.

Q: What’s your background—how did you end up working for on this project?

CK: I majored in art history and English literature and then taught for a year at Beijing University. My first job, after getting my MFA in Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was administering The Andrew W. Foundation Mellon Chinese Museum Directors Program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Philippe de Montebello was Director then. I was deeply influenced by his philosophy of curatorial excellence and public mission. After that I was the editor of Grove Art Online at Oxford University Press, and then Chief Curatorial Officer & Vice President for External Affairs at ARTstor. In all of these roles, it was about building encyclopedic coverage of world art and cultivating relationships with people and institutions so that could happen.

John Elderfield,’s Senior Advisor and Chief Curator Emeritus of MOMA, approached me earlier this year about’s educational and scholarly ambitions. I became extremely interested in both the challenges of the project and the potential positive impact could have on the art world and on public engagement with art. The truth is, art isn’t as accessible to general audiences as people might think, particularly for low income and minority demographics and for people who don’t live in major cities., with its engineering, interaction design, and The Art Genome Project, is rethinking the way we provide online access to art.

For example, we have a gene for “Nude” which allows you to easily go from the Venus of Willendorf, 24000 to 22000 BCE to Peter Paul Rubens: Psyche, c.1612-15 to contemporary photographs of Kate Moss by Mario Sorrenti. This is significant not only for art historians, but for a number of areas of study—Feminist Theory, Popular Culture, Renaissance Studies, etc. Millions of images are already available at high-quality on the Web, but providing pathways and connections across 25,000+ artworks from all time periods and cultures in a way that everyone can utilize, not just experts in-the-know, is what’s really special about

Q: Your title at includes “Chief Curator”—how is what you do similar to what a museum curator does, and how is it different?

CK: It’s similar in the sense that I’m responsible for the overarching strategy for assembling the collections for and working with museums, foundations, artists’ estates, and individuals to cultivate those partnerships and relationships that will make our collections encyclopedic and compelling. We’re also going to be working on a number of online exhibitions in collaboration with various organizations, including Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), which is one of the largest archives of video art. While curators at museums are curating collections of physical objects and dealing with those issues around education, conservation, exhibitions, and public relations, I’m overseeing those same issues around digital assets—education, digital preservation, intellectual property, virtual exhibitions, and communicating our mission to our partners, potential partners, and the public. I’m always thinking about how we can represent a broader range of artists, geographical regions, different cultures and time periods and how we create a meaningful experience and service both for our users and for our partners.

Q. has both a profit motive and an educational mission. You’ve worked at both nonprofit and for-profit ventures—do you feel that being a for-profit affects the educational dynamic, and if so, how?

CK: Generating revenue is pretty much essential to every museum, nonprofit, and for-profit company these days. Even traditionally government-supported European museums have found their funding drastically cut in recent years and are searching for new ways to generate revenue. Whether it’s Target-sponsored free Friday nights at the museum or the Internet, we know that providing free access is the best way to pull in the largest number of visitors and to make the greatest impact. is building a robust, networked platform that is trying to anticipate where discovery, learning, and the art world will be 5-10 years from now. Today, 80% of art history students study contemporary art, and that the bulk of that art is being shown in galleries. Being for-profit, in the sense of taking a sales commission from artworks that sell through our website, is a sustainability plan that makes sense in the online realm and it enables us to be free to the public. I think the boundaries we draw in the analog realm really dissolve online—if you do a web search for any artist right now, you get works from commercial and non-commercial sources, and maybe also t-shirts, coffee cups, ads, birthday parties, and vacation photos. The difference is that is a curated platform that provides free, public access to art from more than 300+ galleries and more than 70+ nonprofit partners, including SFMOMA, The British Museum, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt: National Design Museum, Fondation Beyeler, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Diebenkorn Foundation, Canadian Museum of Inuit Art, Asian Art Museum, Dallas Art Museum, Calder Foundation, Walters Art Museum, The Royal Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Estate of David Smith, and others.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Monday Musings: What Could Disappear?

I’ve blogged before about the importance of factoring climate trends into long term planning and risk assessment. Continued news of museums in New York and New Jersey coping with the aftermath of Frankenstorm Sandy, and the UK suffering under extreme rain and flooding, prompted me to use this Monday musing to remind you to spend a little brain power thinking about future risks to your communities, too.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article called “WhatCould Disappear?” –the online version is an interactive look at how sea level rise is most likely to affect U.S. 24 communities. You can choose from three scenarios—a five foot rise (“probable” in 100 to 300 years); twelve feet (“potential” by 2300), and twenty-five feet (“potential in coming centuries”).

OK—let’s ignore the extreme projection for now. Heck, push the time frame far enough forward in geologic time and we are all going to perish in fire, ice or subducting tectonic plates.

But I’m not letting you off the hook for the 100 to 300 hundred year time frame. Even if you don’t expect your museum to be around in 2112 or 2312 (though you well might), you have an obligation to the descendents of the place and the people you serve. Does your community face hard choices about how it will adapt? Can you play a role in fostering these discussions?

It is highly likely that this question is pertinent to you. Fifty percent of the US population lives in coastal watersheds, and that share is increasing steadily. The distribution of museums in the US probably tracks this population distribution. Even if your museum does not serve a coastal community, you may have to absorb “climate refugees” fleeing their own submerged neighborhoods, as Houston did after Katrina.

Charleston, S.C.--19% Flooded
So go take a look. The article presents interactive maps for Baltimore, Boston, Charleston S.C., Houston, Jacksonville Fla., Los Angeles, Long Island, Mobile, New Jersey, New Orleans (88% flooded in the shortest time frame), New York City, Northern California, Philadelphia, Portland (both—Oregon and Maine), Providence, San Diego, Savannah Ga., Seattle, Tampa Bay area, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Washington D.C. and Wilmington Del. (If your community isn’t on this list, use the interactive map at Surging Seas.)

And after you’ve primed your futures-thinking pump, so to speak, make time to get together with staff, community members and other stakeholders to ask “what might things be like in our community in 2112? And is there anything we might do now to make that a better (and more secure) future?” 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Guess Who Endorsed You! And Why Should You Care?

About two months ago I started to get emails with the subject line “so-and-so has endorsed you,” originating from LinkedIn “on behalf of” the person doing the endorsing.

At first I thought it was some kind of scam/spam. It’s legit, though, part of a new feature LinkedIn has introduced. Apparently the old “recommendations” took too long to fill out, and were too sparsely used, so this social networking site figured out a way to reduce the process of giving props to your colleagues to a couple of clicks and a few keystrokes.

Once I realized that people actually were “endorsing” me it made me uncomfortable in a number of dimensions. The first uncomfortable feeling was guilt. Most of these endorsements came from people I know and respect, and I feel a certain obligation to reciprocate. But, envisioning the cascade effect of all this mutual endorsing, it began to feel a bit like a chain letter, which triggered resentment. Is it impolite not to respond? Will breaking the chain trigger bad luck (or, at least, hard feelings?) Some of the endorsements came from people I don’t recognize, offhand. Should I remember them? (Cue guilt, again). Or are they just hoping to trigger a reciprocal endorsement, a pro forma “why thank you, you’re great, too.”

Ack. Digital social awkwardness.

Part of me wants to simply ignore this phenomenon. I make only limited use of LinkedIn to begin with. To me it’s the electronic version of exchanging business cards, with about as much meaning. I accept “invitations to connect” from people I know, but also from people I have never heard from as long as they work in a museum or have a job I think is interesting and potentially relevant to my work. I ignore a lot of random others (triggering guilt, again). When I originally signed up for the service I hoped it might help me help me find someone who knows someone who knows someone I am trying to get in touch with. But I quickly found out the sort of people I can’t get to through normal channels—Bill Gates, Steve Martin, Oprah—aren’t going to make themselves available via LinkedIn.

However, a recent conversation with Nik Honeysett, head of administration at the Getty Museum, made me realize I shouldn’t ignore this endors-o-rama. It is part of a broader trend that might disrupt traditional credentialing. Used to be, you backed up a job application with a resume and listed three references. The resume listed your alma maters, degrees, honors, and past employment. Now the soaring costs of education and high unemployment are combining to lower the ROI on traditional higher ed. At the same time, there is an explosion of high quality on-line content, some of it from the best universities in the country, and some offered with formal grading. Many companies are tinkering with various forms of microcredentialling, including digital badging, to enable learners to assemble a verifiable resume from bits and pieces of credible training and experience. As soon as employers start taking such self-assembled curricula seriously, the traditional system of higher ed is going to start unraveling (faster than it already is).

With “endorsements,” LinkedIn is trying to innovate around the other part of the traditional resume—the list of references. Much of the criticism I’ve seen online about the endorsements attacks the very ease that drives the system. People report that they have been endorsed for skills they don’t have by people they barely know. They snark that if people really have something to say about your work, they can take ten minutes to write a LinkedIn “recommendation” instead.

I think the snarkers are missing the point. “Endorsements” don’t replace LinkedIn recommendations; they are doing something else entirely, something kind of neat.

Endorsements document the breadth of your networks, general reputation, networking skills and (to some extent) your influence. LinkedIn suggests strategies for building up your endorsements—most simply, by asking, and by endorsing others. So what if you boosted your online credentials by asking people you know to click “endorse?” That measures something useful: how many people you know, who you can reach via social media, and your ability to mobilize that network. There are useful resources and skills that you can, in turn, put to the service of your employer.

What if you aren’t part of the “in crowd,” yet, and can’t demonstrate you already know folks in my inner circle? Maybe you can show you’ve mobilized endorsements from most everyone in your college class, instead—a not inconsiderable feat, one I couldn’t have pulled off as a new graduate.

So unless and until you intend to share a graphic of your Facebook network of friends on your resume, maybe “endorsements” are a good way to measure and report on the extent of your weak connections. Go forth & endorse… 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Role of the Campus Museum in an Age of Distributed Education

The “future of the campus museum” discussion continues with this guest post by Rebecca Nagy, director of the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, a trustee of the Association of Art Museum Directors and President of the Florida Art Museum Directors Association. Rebecca takes on one of the questions I posed to encourage conversation on the future of the campus museum.

In her initial blog post about the “Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century” report, Elizabeth asked:  “With education increasingly unbundled and distributed, what is the role of museums in creating a sense of place?”

It’s a good question and one that academic museums take seriously, particularly as learning becomes increasingly diffused and digital. With an explosion of online course offerings, many students take classes from the comfort of home at any time of day or night, while others study at satellite campuses or in programs abroad. It’s hard to feel relevant to this cohort of students and it begs a question that stems from Elizabeth’s: Is it important that students experience works of art in person at the museum, or can a virtual experience be equally enriching?

All kinds of museums are grappling with that question and we’re racing to keep up with evolving technologies and the expectations of our audiences. At academic museums we know that students—digital natives—want immediate access to digital images and information on collections, exhibitions and other goings-on.  But will putting more art and information online actually motivate our students to visit their campus museums for meaningful, firsthand experiences of original works of art?

We know people crave authentic first-hand experiences, often in the company of crowds. We know they eschew early voting to experience democracy in action in line on Election Day, shell out big bucks to see favorite musicians on stage, and flock to Broadway to experience live theater. So, other than required class visits and assignments, what draws students to our museums? Although some seek solitary encounters with works of art, for most a greater attraction seems to be the excitement of gathering with friends, the chance to look, share ideas and interpretations, play, laugh, and experience art together. Facebook and Twitter notwithstanding, this kind of interactive experience is not replicated online. All the same, to appeal to students from a range of backgrounds and areas of study, we have to loosen up, be less stuffy, and relinquish some curatorial authority over how art is presented and interpreted. We need to let them participate and get them excited about art and museums during their college years. This way we can inspire them to be life-long museum-goers and arts advocates.

In a conversation of several museum and art administrators at the University of Florida earlier this month, we analyzed statistics showing that engineering students attend visual and performing arts events in greater numbers than students from any other academic discipline. Here at the Harn Museum of Art a recent Art in Engineering night brought out 792 people to celebrate the creativity of engineering students and faculty. They sang, danced, fashioned games for children and showcased their paintings, photographs, race cars, robots and other engineering projects. The engagement of engineers with the arts on campus reflects their inherent interest in creative endeavors. However, their full-on involvement with the museum and other arts venues is encouraged and facilitated by Dean of Engineering Cammy Abernathy, who had art history courses in college and says they changed her life. She and other faculty in her college get it. They know their students’ experiences of visual and performing arts ignite their creativity, leading to better engineering solutions and to products that have aesthetic appeal in a competitive global arena. They want to put the STEAM in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Math).

The Harn also has the full support of the University of Florida administration. Last year, we received a great new opportunity to reach students from all academic programs in a common freshman humanities course called “What is the Good Life?” Now more than 7,000 freshmen each year spend time at the Harn grappling with some of the fundamental questions of existence through study of great works of art from around the world. We’re getting them through the door for academic work and they’re coming back for fun, to share experiences with their friends and participate in programming.

Thinking back to those far-flung students accessing images and information about our collections online, they may not be able to visit the art museum on campus all the time. But, we can motivate them to visit other museums, galleries, sculpture gardens or public art installations wherever their studies and careers take them. Academic museums play a special role in shaping citizens who value the transformative power of the visual arts and the role of museums in making art accessible to everyone.