Since the 1960s, artists have been critically examining the practices of museums, at times critiquing the idea of what a museum is and how it presents its stories. One of the most influential exhibitions of Institutional Critique was Mining the Museum–installation by artist Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society, in collaboration with The Contemporary.
In this episode–25 years after Mining the Museum–the Punks explore the role outsiders such as artists and external consultants play in driving creative change and innovation within museum practice. What can outsiders do within the institution that permanent staff cannot? What are the limitations they face? And how does a reliance on external talent impact the sustainability of progress in the museums they work with?
George Ciscle has mounted groundbreaking exhibitions, created community arts programs, and taught fine arts and humanities courses for close to 50 years. He trained as a sculptor, studying with Isamu Noguchi. For 15 years he developed high school interdisciplinary curriculum and work-study programs for the emotionally disadvantaged. In 1985, he opened the George Ciscle Gallery where he promoted the careers of young and emerging artists.
From 1989-1996 Ciscle was the founder and director of The Contemporary, an “un-museum,” which challenges existing conventions for exhibiting art in non-traditional sites focusing its exhibitions and outreach on connecting artists’ works with people’s everyday lives. From 1997-2017 , as Curator-in-Residence at Maryland Institute College of Art, he continued to develop new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences by creating the Exhibition Development Seminar, Curatorial Studies Concentration and the MFA in Curatorial Practice.
Jen Brown (The Engaging Educator)
Jen Brown (Oleniczak) is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator. Through EE, her pedagogical approach of Improv as Continuing Education has reached over 25,000 people – all non-actors!
Since 2012, Jen has given three TEDx Talks on the power of Improv, grown EE to three locations in NYC, Winston-Salem, NC and LA, and recently began The Engaging Educator Foundation, a 501(c)(3) which offers free and low-cost Improv workshops for educators, at-risk adults, teens and students on the Autism Spectrum. Jen holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, St. Joseph’s University and Second City.
Currently, Jen happily resides in Winston-Salem with her husband, who she met while teaching an improv class – and no, he wasn’t the best person in the class, in fact, he was the worst.
Read the Transcript
Jeffrey Inscho: (singing)
Suse Anderson: Ice (laughs)
Jeffrey: Suse, how are you?
Suse: Ah, good day Jeff. I’m really good Jeff. What about yourself?
Jeffrey: Uh, I am getting ready to be on vacation mode here.
Jeffrey: So, I am like-
Suse: That’s sounds good.
Jeffrey: Yeah. I am ready to be, uh, under a palm tree … um … on- on a beach and-
Jeffrey: … some hot sun with a cold beverage.
Suse: A serious vacation then.
Jeffrey: This is a serious vacation.
Jeffrey: This is no wi-fi.
Jeffrey: This is … this is disconnected.
Suse: Ah, so you’re not gonna have any sense of how, uh, people react to this- this show once we push it out this- this month?
Jeffrey: It’ll- it’ll be a surprise.
Jeffrey: A few days … a few days when I get home we’ll see how … we’ll see how people like it. Uh, hopefully, uh, don’t at me on Twitter. (laughs)
Suse: (laughs) That’s great. How- how often do you actually intentionally unplug? Do … You- you do it pretty often don’t you?
Jeffrey: I do. I do it quite a bit. I do it … uh … I do it s- … uh … substantive- substantively at … you know, every couple months I try to just because of the nature of my work being digital, and fast, and … um … connected all the time. So, I try to like just take a- an intensive week and step away. So, that’s next week.
Suse: That’s really interesting. I actually don’t think I’ve done anything like that for a long time. But now with a-
Jeffrey: Oh, you should do it.
Suse: Well that’s … N- now that, um, I’m only a few months away from motherhood and the kid coming along-
Suse: … I’m actually trying to start … um … moving away from technology-
Suse: Just ’cause I don’t want my first few months of my- my child’s life to be-
Suse: … my head embedded in- in something digital.
Suse: I want it to be engaged with her; and so, I’m actually pretty consciously now starting to create some barriers for myself.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I- I think once- once your daughter comes along … um … w- we’re gonna have some interesting discussions about the place of technology in children’s lives and the next generation’s lives. I- I, you know, I look to my kids and I’m … I- I sometimes I don’t even recognize the w- … the world that they’re growing up in.
Jeffrey: You know, and, um, I guess that’s, uh, maybe we had the same thing with our parents when- when we were kids, you know? The kind of like parents don’t like your rock music, but, um … I don’t know.
Suse: Yeah. I think that’s-
Jeffrey: It’ll be-
Suse: I- I think that’s-
Jeffrey: It’ll be just-
Suse: … really interesting and, e- even similarly thinking about museums differently for me.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suse: I only had the realization this week. That it will be the first time I really regularly go to museums with children instead of as an adult.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Yep.
Suse: And, how differently I’m going-
Jeffrey: Wow, yeah.
Suse: … to experience them.
Jeffrey: You’re gonna go see a lot of dinosaurs.
Suse: Yeah. That’s fantastic.
Jeffrey: So, do we have any followup from the last episode? I kind of feel like the self-care episode was pretty well received. We got a lot of nice- nice Tweets and reactions to people telling us how- how they take care of themselves. Um …
Suse: Yeah. I think that’s true. I mean to be fair it’s not a … it’s not a topic that you’re going to be really nasty about to … (laughs)
Jeffrey: True. Yeah.
Suse: Most of the time. Um, but yeah.
Jeffrey: For sure.
Suse: I- it was interesting to see how many people it resonated with and that they’re really w- … there does seem to be a very conscious-
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suse: … effort that people are making to figure out what is and isn’t working for them in terms of museum careers and I-
Suse: I’ve noticed that trend continuing around just online conversations that I’ve been seeing happening lately.
Suse: Around how people prioritize themselves and- and what their needs are within their careers.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Um. I also want to apologize to some people, um, who requested stickers. Um. We’re still waiting on a- a reorder, so, uh, we did send out another shipment, but we have a- a- a backlog that- that we’re working to fill. So, just hold tight. Stickers are on their way.
Suse: And keep asking us for them.
Suse: But, just know that they might be, uh, lovely surprises when they arrive (laughs) as opposed to, uh, ones that you’ll get immediately.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Cool. So, um, Suse what are we talking about today?
Suse: You know, today we are talking about a thing that I think is a really interesting dynamic. We’re talking about that role of outsiders in museums and in pushing change in museums; and that can be outsiders like artists.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suse: For artist inventions, but also the importance of … uh … commercial practitioners and vendors; and how people outside museums are often really … um … important catalysts for-
Suse: For change and transformation.
Jeffrey: Yeah. This is … this is something that I- I- I, you know, I’ve been … it’s been on my mind a lot lately just because the studio is kind of tasked with thinking about what- what skills and resources need to be internalized for a- a museum-
Jeffrey: … of the 21st and- and, you know, now that we’re well into the 21st century, the 22nd century. Like we gotta be thinking about that. So, um … thinking about what we outsource, what vendors we work with versus what we bring in to the fold is something that … um … I am really cognizant of at this point. So, I’m looking forward to having this discussion with our two amazing guests this month.
Suse: Yeah. It- it’s funny. I’ve also been thinking about this topic, but particularly since I left, uh, working within a museum and went back into academia is just really thinking about, well, what my role is now as someone who sort of straddles these worlds of I’m no longer an insider in museums, and yet it is still my world absolutely and completely.
Suse: So, who are we talking to today, Jeff?
Jeffrey: We have a couple rock stars this episode. We have, uh, George. Who, um, many of our listeners may, uh, know from founding the Contemporary in Baltimore and, um, being a driving force for, um, one of the … I- I would say one of the most influential exhibitions, uh, over the last couple decades Mining the Museum.
Jeffrey: Uh. In Baltimore with Fred Wilson.
Suse: Absolutely. I had an absolute fan-girl moment when he said yes.
Suse: And, (laughs) to coming and talking to us today and I’m really, really excited about it. We’re also talking to, uh, Jen otherwise known as the Engaging Educator. Who does really interesting work bringing improv and improvisation techniques into museums as well as into many other spaces; and she is gonna talk to us about what she gets from working with museums and we’ll get to dig a little deeper into both of those.
George has mounted ground-breaking exhibitions, created community arts programs, and taught fine arts and humanities courses for close to 50 years. He trained as a sculptor studying with Isamu Noguchi. And, for 15 years he developed high school interdisciplinary curriculum and work study programs for the emotionally disadvantaged. In 1985 he opened the George Gallery, where he promoted the careers of young and emerging artists.
From 1989 to 1996 Ciscle was the director and founder of the Contemporary, an un-museum which challenges existing conventions for exhibiting art in nontraditional sites. Focusing its exhibitions and outreach on connecting artists’ work with the people’s every day lives. From 1997 to 2017 as curator and resident at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he continued to develop new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences by creating the Exhibition Development Seminar, curatorial studies concentration, and the MFA in Curatorial Practice.
George, welcome to the show. It is so great to have you here.
George Ciscle: Thank you for the invitation.
Suse: Uh. So, we are talking today about outsiders in museums and I- I- I think sort of that balance between insiders and outsiders; and I’ve always been really excited about the Contemporary and the work that you did there. So, you were founder and the first director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Which continues today as a nomadic non-collecting art museum. In its early years the Contemporary was dedicated to redefining the concept of the museum.
I’d really love to hear a little bit about how the Contemporary started and what drove you to seek to redefine or reimagine museums and museum practice.
George: Yes, that is certainly the core question. And, um, I always when I talk to my students I want to put this in sort of historical context because in, uh, 1989, um what was going on, certainly in the museum world, uh, looked a lot different than almost three decades later.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: Um. So, I always try to put that in a context because in 1989 we look back at that point in history, especially in art history and the art world, it was the height of the culture wars.
Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: And, uh, during the culture wars as we know, uh, people really were looking at the- the work, you know, of Serrano, and Mapplethorpe, and … uh … and Annie Sprinkle, and people like that; and- and questioning the government. Meaning our government was questioning, you know, who is this art for? Why are we putting funds towards this? And, it was a … um … it was an unfortunate time. It was a very difficult time. Um, but the … the fortuitous thing that I think that came out of that was that museums had to start questioning what they were doing; because they were being accused of being elitist in terms of what, you know, what they were showing, the artist they were choosing, because they were not seeing a relationship, um, to the world outside of the art world on terms of the larger audience.
So, my interest really was in looking at that. Looking at could we exam, explore, deconstruct what a museum was in 1989. And that in- … that included many areas. It wasn’t just looking at what museums collect, and how they collect them, and their exhibition practices, but also very important elements. Such as, their board make up, their staff make up, you know, the people that were making the decisions, raising the monies for this. And, out of that, uh, really to- to me was the core question of audience.
Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: So, (laughs) all of that to me in 1989 was about who was the audience for museums outside of the museum world. So, outside meaning of the museum members, of artists, you know, of collectors, of art historians. All very important audience, but it was a very … it was a limited audience. And so, I really wanted to r- … sort of raise the- the- the other question was who cares? (laughs)
George: Who- who- who cares beyond that- that audience that already was existing and supporting the museum, um, beyond that. And it’s-
Jeffrey: You know-
George: Yeah. Go ahead.
Jeffrey: Yeah. George, this notion of audience centrality even in 2017-
Jeffrey: Is, uh, it considered to be … um … I- I guess a mildly progressive, um, idea. And so, in 1989 I mean you’re talking about this in 1989, 1990, um, that must have been … uh, uh … must have blown some minds. That- that-
George: Well it was interesting, um, in ’89. I remember ’89, and ’90, and ’91, uh, Lisa Corinne and Jed Dodd, staff members who worked with me back- back then at the Contemporary. We went to AAM, uh, conferences.
Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: And, uh, no where in any panel, in any discussion, in any thematic discussions were they talking about audience, uh, like we are right now. Right? Like museums are today. And so, it’s interesting that- that it was quote unquote revolutionary. Not just the concept of what a museum might be, but the fact that … that no one had ever really … And, I’m not … I’m not saying that no one. You- you- you notice I haven’t mentioned education departments and museums, right?
Jeffrey: Sure. Sure.
George: (laughs) Because the education departments were the ones-
George: … looking at audience. Right? But, they were looking at audiences that were more in pro- … programmatically, in terms of what they were doing and they- they were doing and continue to do incredible work. You know? But, it wasn’t the curatorial staff that was doing that. It wasn’t the directors that were … or the boards that were dictating what the mission of the museum might be that included the larger audience.
But, the education department, of course, was; because it was made up mostly of artists. (laughs) Uh, who were really not just practitioners in the field, but really saw what they were doing as important beyond just their own studio.
Jeffrey: Yeah. George, what … uh … at, you know, in those early days of the Contemporary, what- what affordances or freedoms came from being a museum without a space, right? Without- without a building?
Jeffrey: Or a museum without-
Jeffrey: … a collection.
George: Yeah, exactly.
Jeffrey: And- and then on- on the opposite side of that, what were some of the constraints you had to deal with kind of working outside this more traditional legacy model?
George: Right. Well I- I would … I would say certainly the- the freedoms were that we really were able to be nomadic. We were able to go into different communities. We were able to form collaborations and create resonances that the projects and the exhibitions we did were really almost customized. Site specific, if you will, to that artist, their work, the content of their work, the audience, uh, where- where we’re taking these projects to, uh, whether that audience was a traditional audience or was a nontraditional, you know, a- a nontraditional audience.
And, so we had these freedoms to- to create these very interesting, uh, dialogues, uh, with artists and with communities, um, throughout that. And, also I would say the freedoms it gave us was to … because we were questioning what a museum was w- we had to question ourselves. So, (laughs) we were constantly looking at what we were doing, why we were doing it, and sort of using this as a- a- a continual constant assessment tool going into these different communities.
Um. I would say the- the re- re- restraints of it back then, were that unlike today, um, it was not a … not, um … uh, Baltimore or- or elsewhere even. Uh. It was not a collaborative community. Right? So, both the art community and the community at large. So, everyone talked back then about the pie … the pie. (laughs)
George: Yeah. So that- that was the huge discussion.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: Right? And, so we were … there were front page articles before we even did our first project in Baltimore, uh, with museums have existed in Baltimore, saying we don’t need, right, we don’t need this. Right? We hadn’t even done anything yet, (laughs) to even show people how … what it … what it may have been different than what they were already doing. But, they were really trying to say, well the pie … Again it had to do … It didn’t really had to do with a concept what we were doing, or saying well let’s expand the contemporary art world here.
It really had to do sadly with money.
George: And- and because again back to ’89, the culture wars it became about money. Uh, it became about that the funding was being pulled from museums who were doing e- exhibitions that weren’t reaching a wider audience. And so, it’s interesting to think about that how the funding, of course as we know, shifted away from exhibitions into audience development and community outreach. Uh, so I’d say with the re- … the … that restriction really was that it wasn’t a collaborative community so we were working in isolation from … I don’t mean the artist community, but I mean the institutional community, because they felt that again that- that funding pie and that … and, um, … membership pie and all of that, and from foundations was only so large; and it … and it was not gonna … it was only gonna be the cut into six slices. Not eight.
Suse: Huh. It- it’s interesting, ’cause when I think about … um … Mining the Museum, which is one of … one of the things that we wanted to talk to you about, which was such a revolutionary exhibition, uh, created 25 years ago. It- it was, as far as I’m aware and I’m sure you can talk to this, a collaboration between the Contemporary, and the Maryland Historical Society, and- and obviously artist Fred Wilson.
Suse: And, in that exhibition for- for people for listeners who might not be familiar with it, basically Wilson came in and subverted the way history was being told and presented within the museums. So, he- he used the collection, and the archives, and the resources of the historical society to highlight histories of African-American slavery and stories that really hadn’t been told within the museum context.
Suse: So, Wilson was essentially critiquing the idea of what a museum is through his intervention, but obviously you as the Contemporary were also critiquing what a museum is. But, you … uh … this- this notion that actually it was not necessarily a collaborative space initially, you must have been forging so many connections … uh, uh … that were then quite challenging both I’m- I’m sure from all sides. Can you talk just a little bit about then the germination of this exhibition? How it came together, and then how it affected your own thinking about m- museum practice, and what a museum should be doing?
George: Right. Well it’s interesting because, uh, Mining the Museum was our fourth project.
Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: Um. We’d only … we were only two years old. And, uh, the three projects before that, that we had done, uh, visual aids a photo manifesto US … uh, photography from the USSR, and soul shadows urban warrior myths. So, exhibitions really dealing with very timely topics, um, in terms of what was going on in 1990 and ’91 especially. Um, uh, mass incarceration, uh, the y- … uh, censorship in the USSR by artist, and- and o- obviously the AIDS epidemic, right? But, these … and so, these three projects in our first two years were getting a lot of attention here in- in Baltimore and, um, a lot of support and- and interest, and- and excitement. Right?
And, people were starting to understand very much this exploration. How we were trying to connect artist, and art, and audiences. Right? How to sort of connect people’s everyday life to what contemporary artists were doing. People understood that. But, no one in those three projects ever talked about or wrote about the first question that we had, (laughs) as an institution. Which was de- … what defines a museum. Right?
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: So, no one was talking about that. Right? Even though … So, no one was talking about these, uh, case studies. Right? But, they were very impactful, effective exhibitions without question. So, we after our- our second project … a- after the second project and going into the third, said to ourselves, um, both the board and- and staff, Lisa Corinne, and- and Jed Dodd, and- and the board, and myself really talked about, wait a minute, let’s stop a second. We’re doing s- … we’re doing work that obviously people are receiving very well. Uh, in the … in these three different communities. Because again those three … uh, uh … were not in- in institutions. They were in nontraditional spaces.
Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: Um. So, we said to ourselves, we need to choose a project and artist. That the whole purpose of it is to question a museum. (laughs) Right? And so, we of course looked at obviously the history of, you know, artists. Uh. You know like Hans Haacke and, uh, Andrea Fraser, and other people who certainly had been doing that. Right? Uh, in their own prac- … in their own practice, but we wanted to as an institution to say, well, what would happen if we used that as the guiding force of a project?
And so, we started looking at artists, emerging artists at the time. This is 1991. And we knew of Fred’s work, uh, in … at … in commercial galleries and in alternative spaces in New York and the Bronx. So, we- we were aware of what he was doing and we certainly knew that his practice was a- almost a faux museum practice. In terms of using, you know, reproductions of objects and, uh, you know, creating spaces that look like natural history museums, and things like that. But, we know had never actually worked in a museum or worked with real objects.
And so, we brought Fred, uh, to Balti- … we brought Fred to Baltimore, um, basically to look at all the museums here; and took him on a tour and, um, in the long run by the end of the day the Maryland Historical Society was his number one choice. Uh, because when he went into that museum, he came out and he said, where- where am I? (laughs) Where am I in this museum and where is my s- … where is my story? You know, as an African-American, uh, represented in here?
Jeffrey: Hmm. That- that-
George: And, origin.
Jeffrey: Yeah. That origin story is … is so interesting. Um, and you know I- I think, you know, even though Mining the Museum was a cross-institutional partnership and an artist intervention, you know, looking … looking back on it I kind of, and maybe this is just my personal view of it or I’m sure some other people have this view, but it’s … it almost seems like it took a lot of bravery for the Maryland Historical Society to be a part of this, and almost is-
George: They- they deserve so much credit for that. It’s very interesting that you say that because, uh, people sort of a- a- a- assume that they got all this criticism for doing it, uh, you know, uh, for doing this kind of project.
George: For being under the microscope. Of course the opposite as a matter of fact history the … the history books sort of show, I mean, the majority of the history books were, you know, presented as their project. Um, and, uh, you know, we the Contemporary of course, you know, worked with Fred, and presented the, uh, proposal, you know, to the … the- the Maryland Historical Society, and, you know, created the collaboration, and what the parameters would that … would that be. Um, it … So, all that was an uncertainty as a collaboration that- that Fred was at the core of and the two institutions staff, and volunteers, and docents, uh, worked together. You know?
So we- we created that structure, um, um, subsequently, uh, from that. And, also I would say that so- so that being the case, so now we had Fred, we had this artist who was really interested in this opportunity to work in the museum with a real collection. To sort of tell his story. You know? Through his eyes, but with their work. Um. But we also had this uncanny opportunity (laughs) that again we did not plan, but became apart of the scheduling that AAM’s first conference in Baltimore, was in, uh, 1992.
Jeffrey: Oh my gosh.
Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: So, all that … so-
Jeffrey: Perfect timing.
George: So, we’re like … when we found that out it was like, okay, let’s schedule. Can we … can we? Can the historical side and the contemporary in terms of our, uh, planning, um, can we s- … Are we able to schedule this for when that is here? Um. So, which of course we did and, um, and over 4,000 delegates came, uh, during that- that weekend … that week-
George: … to see the exhibition. Which of course forced us … And of course the New York Times came and covered it. And, it forced us to, uh, fortunately to ex- extend the run of the show so that museum from all over the country, uh, came with their staffs, uh, and met with the contemp- … especially with the Contemporary to really talk about that. With their questions, uh, the- their museums questions were what’s next? (laughs)
George: So- so, that was the course. No one had … I mean, we knew what was next. The Contemporary, we were all … we were all from there-
George: … with Alison Sorren in the back of a 1957 Chevy pick-up truck. Going into-
Jeffrey: (laughs) Right.
George: … 80 communities and five states.
George: So, we knew what was next for us, but the question was, well, what happens now? Would … How do you … Can you d- … sustain this? Meaning- meaning in terms of a museum, uh, its practice. So, yes. The historical society, back to you’re saying in terms of the bravery, without question that they, um, uh, people had and still acknowledge that. That they were really the heroes in that and that they also allowed the Contemporary as an outside, as a young … I mean we were just new kids on the block. Uh, to be able to come in there (laughs) and- and … You know the … it’s the oldest institution in the state of Maryland. You know? (laughs)
And so, here we were the youngest.
George: Um. Coming- coming and so it was an-
Jeffrey: Oh. That’s … yeah.
George: … interesting collaboration in terms of- of that perspective also. And, also of course thinking about the audience that we were bringing into there was not just this museum field, but were artists. So, artists from our community and outside the community ra- … had rarely ever entered the doors of the historical society.
Suse: George, do you think that … the- the museum or in fact the museums in general can perform this kind of introspection themselves without an external catalyst? I mean I think you- you’re talking about having so many delegates come and see this exhibition at AAM’s conference and how that led to this question of what’s next. But- but how important is it being able to work with an external catalyst for something like this?
George: Well it’s interesting. When, um, at … when it was ov- … the show was over and the director or it … L- L- Lisa and I, uh, met with and the board presidents, we all met to- to talk about this, right, and, um, the board was asking the historical society’s director and the curators what’s- what’s next. And, they looked to us wanting us to continue collaborating with them. Uh. As sort of the answer to that. Right? Which is an interesting answer. Like that- that they were actually open to us con- … staying there in- in their home and work- working, you know, together. Uh, but of course as I say we were onto other things.
But, my answer to them was that, well the answers are easy. It’s artists, artists, artists. Right? (laughs) So, Fred made that. You know? Yes we fac- … we … we had the idea in terms of what our next project would be. We engaged him in- in that. We commissioned him to do the work. We created a collabor- collaborative structure for- for it and the process. Yes. But, Fred … it- it- it’s the artist and everything the Contemporary did was always centered around the artist. Um, but he’s the one who did that. So, yes. It’s always wonderful, uh, to have collaboration, to bring outside people, and perspectives, and to look at different working processes. But, for me it really is about what … the- the artists is the one who has the vision.
We- we … The Contemporary didn’t have the vision for my museum. Fred did. Right? We just have a … O- our vision was basically to say how- how do we open this up to give artists opportunities, you know, to make these connections with audiences outside of the art world?
Jeffrey: Right. You … George, you have no idea how many meetings I’ve been in at work where- where Mining the Museum has come up as a reference and, you know, I almost like I it- it … as we were kind of thinking about this, you know, I almost placed the … placed the … that exhibition as like the … like the A.D. (laughs) You know? Like it’s after Mining the Museum, everything kind of like, uh, seems to … the perspective seems to- to change. And, I’m wondering if, um, you feel that anything has changed in museums, and the way that we deal with stories, and with history since …. since that exhibition? Um-
George: Well I think without question they have.
Jeffrey: … or do you think that that exhibition has had a- a lasting impact on the sector?
George: Yeah. Uh. Without question and- and again w- whether it- it … even if it doesn’t directly go back 25 years ago to Mining the Museum in terms of what’s happened since then, right, because again there are other factors we have to look at. In terms of the culture wars, and funding shifting, to audience development from- from- form the government, and things like that. So, there- there are certainly lots … lots of f- factors, right, in- in all of that. And, artists- artists also came more to the forefront in terms of working in museums, right? They were given a- a- a- a voice, uh, uh, not just a curatorial voice, but also a- a voice in- in terms of, um, how they work in museums. Right?
So, I think that this … There has been a great change. You look at AM today. You look at the last 10 years of the … of the themes of the AM conferences. Right? Every single one of them have to do with audience, and engagement, and equity. Every single one, right? So, there is a huge shift and a … and a focus now. Not that there’s still for- for change. There has to be still room for it, if not why are we still talking about Mining the Museum? Why (laughs) … Why are we still having these conversations if- if it … if our- our approach and our methodology of working in museums has completely shifted?
No, it’s certainly shifted and certainly we see that in- in … um … the training, you know, of curators, and the training of educators, and, uh, and people in museum administrators. That in their training they are now having to talk about, you know, who is the audience for these institutions.
Suse: Yeah. George it’s actually listening to you makes me feel incredibly optimistic, uh, because there is a sense, I think sometimes when your working, uh, as a progressive practitioner or someone who is seeking to make change, sometimes it feels like such a, um, you know, that you’re- you’re really pushing the sort of proverbial rock up a hill. But, you’ve been really doing progressive practice and boundary pushing work for close to 50 years now within the sector. I’d love to hear just any particular insight that you’ve gained from … from being progressive over such a long period of time and- and what lessons you’d pass along to emerging practitioners or those who are still concerned with change and concerned with trying to put the audience at the forefront, uh, and really think about what museum practice is today.
George: Well, I- I would say that I always sort of look at the … what the creative practice of an artist is in terms of their process in working making art. Um. And- and certainly it all begins it … with, you know, research. You know? It- it begins reflection. It begins with an idea, um, before you know how to develop it. Right? So, for me, uh, and people who are looking to- to make change in the field, um, one really has to sort of step back and really examine, do that research in terms of what the history of the practice is, right, because again, there are a lot of good things we’re still … we need to still retain that happen in museums.
With our … you know we … we’re not going to, uh, negate that. But, we need to I think … I say to my students all the time, know the history, but also then figure out in terms as- as an artist would do. What are the options before you edit down to the final one that’s gonna be the- the most effective. You know, as- as your … as your art, or as your ex- exhibition, or as the project you’re working for. So, I’m- I very much … um … and, I think within in that is- is inherent the willingness yourself to change, and to adapt and to adjust. Um. I very much am an advocate in terms of a- a consensus model of- of working, uh, as a team.
And so, I always talk to my student about that. About to me the real success of the Contemporary, um, was not just the projects, was the we. And, I mean the we. I mean this, uh, it wasn’t me as the founder. It was the we. It was the staff. It was the board. They were all the partners and collaborators. It was all the hundreds of volunteers. All that worked to carry out an artist’s vision. And so, I- I think that- that one needs to know how to … to- to make- make decisions together as a team. That there’s not this hierarchy of the decision comes on high and everyone else carries out the work for you.
Jeffrey: George, before we let you go, I just wanted to touch on, um, something that came out of, um, the recent, uh, talk you gave with Fred Wilson, um, celebrating the 25th anniversary or Mining the Museum. This happened a few weeks ago. Um. And, this notion, um, I’m not sure if it was you or Fred who br- brought it up. I can’t remember, but the notion that a museum should be a place where anything can happen. Um. Notion that- that a museum should a- a delightful, surprising experience. Um. I’m wondering if … um … if, uh, … I- I assume I know the answer to this, but, um, if you … if you still believe that if, um, and if- if you feel, um, that we’re making progress toward that end.
George: I- I feel just … just as if Fred when he walked through the door at [inaudible 00:34:51] just like he said, where am I in this? Right? Where- where am I in this? I think for me that this museum space and again the Contemporary tried to do this in the environments we created as these un-museum, you know, spaces. That it has to be a welcoming, inviting environment, right? I want to be able when I say to my students like, you know, I- I want to bring my aunt Doris. We all have … I want to bring my aunt Doris.
Jeffrey: Yeah. (laughs)
George: Like, you … so wh- wh- what am I bring her to, right? What is she experiencing? Does she feel at home? Does she feel welcome? Does she feel that this is part of what she can talk to me about? So, yes. They certainly are these and sh- … need to be places of again that we welcome and invite people into; and I think we’re very fortunate. It’s interesting almost three decades later in Baltimore, like five years ago, our two major museums became free. Right? And, the different I mean you could look at the statistics in the … at the Walters and the BMA and see just at … so this is not just in terms a number but issues of diversity of the audience. Right? Of the difference that that made because it- it- it made them places where there were another … wasn’t the obstacle of education, knowledge, income (laughs), right?
It was just our doors are open to all, and- and to me that’s … I mean that has to be them message, right? I mean it’s another … nother … uh … quandary, uh, challenge of course once they get in- in there. Inside the doors then what happens, and what are they looking at, and what- what it means to them, and who’s interpreting it, and what they’re collecting, and all … and also like how they said, uh, before like who’s making the … those decisions in terms of the board and the staff. But- but- but I think those things are shifting also.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I think that’s a great place to end. (laughs)
Suse: Yeah. Uh huh. Amazing. George, thank you so much.
George: Oh, thank you.
Suse: Just as Jeffrey was saying-
George: And- and- and thank you for sponsoring what you’re doing.
Suse: (laughs) Indeed. Well when- when Jeffrey was talking about how influential, um, Mining the Museum has been in his work, similarly for me it- it was I think a- a definitive moment was learning about that exhibition, ’cause it really shifted the way I was thinking about museums and museum practice. So, to have the opportunity to talk to you about its history and- and all of the issues that have come out of it, has been an absolute delight.
George: Thank you.
Jeffrey: Jen is the founder and artistic director of the Engaging Educator. Through The Engaging Educator her pedagogical approach to … of improv as continuing education has reached more than 25,000 people. All non-actors. Since 2012 Jen has given TEDx talks on the power of improv, grown The Engaging Educator to three locations in New York City, Winston-Salem North Carolina, and Los Angeles. And recently began The Engaging Educator Foundation, which is a 501c3 offering free and low cost improv workshops for educators, at risk adults, teens, and students on the autism spectrum.
Jen holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, Saint Joseph’s University, and Second City.
Jen Welcome to Museopunks.
Jen Brown: Hey. Happy to be here.
Jeffrey: I’m glad to have you. Um. Been wanting to talk for a long time. Um. So, uh, The Engaging Educator does work with museums but also with fortune 500 companies, startups, universities, and a broad kind of range of- of- of clients you have. Before we get to far into this interview, can you just talk to us a little bit about how the museum sector became one of those focus areas for your company?
Jen: Sure. Sure thing. Actually the museum area is where it all started. I was an actor for a long time. When … Decided in New York that I really was not happy being a actor. So, I went back to school for art history at City College and one of my professors actually flat out told me, he’s like, “You are no curator. You should look into museum education,” because I was so excited with making museums accessible. I- I would fight people in class pretty much when it was the whole like high and mighty art conversation.
So, I still remember this single professor from City College, Professor Hauser; and he’s like, “You are a museum educator ten-fold. Go do this.” And, I applied for an internship at the Guggenheim and the rest is kind of history on that front, because I worked there for a few years when I realized that I really missed improv. So, when I went back I was looking at improv in a very different way because my nickname at the Guggenheim was the Show Pony, by Sharon Vatsky.
Jen: Which, she’s- she’s lovely, but I still to this day, when I ask her about that, she’s like, yeah, you don’t get ruffled. You go out there, and you do what you gotta do. And, it was so much of my improv training that got me in that place to begin with. So, when I started EE, the Engaging Educator, I was offering class only to museum educators, and then from there it ended up opening into like educators from schools, random sales professionals; and I finally made a choice that I was like, hey, I am not gonna turn my head at money. I’m gonna say yes to this and will teach everyone except actors.
So, while I still work with a lot of museums, we also do work with corporations, and schools, and kids, and people on the autism spectrum. Museums are still my … like they’re close to my heart. So, I just actually got back from a consulting job with the Ringling in Sarasota, and right before that I was in Sarnia in Ontario with the museum. So, we’re still very, very rooted in museums. We also just happen to say yes to everyone.
Suse: Huh. Which I guess is very much, uh, the- the improv notion of yes and. You know? The- the you- you start in one area and then you take the possibilities as they … as they come along and you accept those gifts. So, I guess tell us a little bit more then about w- why improv? Like what- what the techniques or what it is in improvisation that can really help the museum work, or really work in general?
Jen: Well I think the biggest thing is the idea that improv is … is rooted in communication. So many people misunderstand it. I- I ask everyone at the beginning of improv workshops, like, what’s the first thing that you think of? And the answers range from like terror, to Jerry Seinfeld, to laughter, to spontaneity and really it’s just listening and responding. And, I’m museums I think it’s something that we don’t often do very well. Shockingly many other careers feel the same way because the same problems that I see in educators, and docents, and boards from museums they’re the same problems on different levels for kids in school, or teachers at schools, or even some of the companies that we’ve worked with.
I think communication skills is the biggest draw in people signing up for improv workshops. Whether that be presentation skills. They want to be better speakers, or they want to listen better, or they just want to have some fun doing what they do and their taking something like that idea of risk taking. So, while improv like touches all of these different ways, I think personally, the idea of being able to just listen and respond to a moment, and be in that moment, and actually be able to be present, and speak to it, and- and do a good job in that moment. (laughs) In the sense of you’re not thinking 20 steps ahead. You’re not thinking of your own agenda. You’re really focused on the here and now. Which is something that we don’t do anymore.
Jeffrey: Right. That’s so interesting that, um, that broad view you have of- of multiple sectors and seeing commonalities or consistencies that run across them. Do you notice anything different or special about the museum sector compared to the other areas, uh, other sectors that you work in?
Jen: Absolutely. Um. When I work with museums, I’m usually working with either like education. So, we’re thinking like museum educators, docents, anyone that’s dealing with the public. Visitor services is another branch that we do a lot of work with, as well as with boards. So, uh, the museum’s board we might do a story telling workshop or communication workshop. And, what I find very specific with museum’s is it’s really hard sometimes to get people to just have fun; and we talk about the idea of having fun and being light-hearted, and I think we take … we all take ourselves so seriously no matter what profession.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jen: I feel like museums for some reason has this like it doesn’t matter if you’re in visitor’s services, or if you are a docent, or if you are a child … like an educator that’s working through K through 12, you have to learn to laugh at yourself, and you have to get out of your head sometimes. And, I find that museums are the- the sector that has the hardest time with that. And, we’re working with like accountants, and salespeople, and like Viacom CEOs, and people that are working in sales. And, museums have the hardest time getting out of their heads and just having a little levity.
Suse: Yeah. I’m really interested also that boards are a big part of the-
Suse: … the people that you work with, ’cause in- in- in some ways, and this might be a really naïve perspective, I think that education and that makes sense. I think about visitor services and these communication skills make sense, but if you’re talking about communication as being core to this, then having our boards be part … like be part of this process or go through this process sounds hugely important, but to me pretty unintuitive. I’d love to hear a little bit more about sort of A, whether that’s the same work that you’re doing or whether there are different expectations when you’re working with boards and also just a little bit more about what that … what those outcomes start to look like.
Jeffrey: And how it comes about. Like how do you get invited in to talk … to work with the board?
Jen: Absolutely. So, when we’re working with anyone, it all starts with their goals. I make sure to have conversations with any museum, any board, any visitor services department, whatever it is and it’s always that breakdown of like, what do you want to accomplish? I don’t really accept the answer we want everything fixed; and I’ve gotten that answer before. (laughs) So, it’s not … it’s not me just making a joke. Like I’ve literally had a museum saying well we have a lot of problems. Please fix them.
Jen: And it’s like I’m not … that’s above my pay grade beyond anything.
Suse: (laughs) Yeah.
Jen: And, I- I’ll try and it’s really coming down to those core issues. So, thinking about boards and things not being incredibly intuitive like you wouldn’t think like, oh, a board should take an improv class. Well a lot of times a board is drawing together a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, and they need to find some commonality under a mission, under a focus and that lies in this idea of communicating ideas. So, we don’t end up a lot of times working with the board first. We’ll do a workshop with another department and someone will say, oh this was incredible for X or this really worked out for our facilitators becoming better to communicate to our visitors. Maybe we should try something like this for the board.
So, it’s similar work. Not the same in the sense of when I’m working with the board, it ends up being revolving around both their mission statements and the idea of communicating the mission of the board, of the museum, being able to talk about the museum, or foundation, or whatever umbrella organization is pulling that board together. And, then also the idea that always comes in, we get the people want to have fun. We want to get to know each other in a different way and have fun. And, it’s that part of improv that I have a love hate relationship with in that sense of team building.
Where when people call me for a team building activity, I cringe and think of a trust fall,
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jen: Because I don’t do any of that stuff. (laughs)
Jen: But, people understand that word team building. So, I always say it’s a side effect. It’s never a core focus. We do laugh together. We get to know one another. And, what ends up happening specifically with board workshops is they become more comfortable speaking about areas in the museum that they have to be ambassadors for. Much like with museum education, you’re an ambassador to that museum. You are talking about the collection, the objects, the educational programs. Whatever you’re doing, you’re still speaking about something and have to be some sort of I would say … I don’t want to say expert ’cause I hate that word. But, it’s more of like an authentic voice on the subject.
Jeffrey: Right. So, Jen, the focus of this episode is- is kind of on the infusion of outsider perspectives into the museum whether that be artist interventions or commercial kind of interventions like yours. Um. Do you think there are things that you have license to do as an outsider within an institution that’s … that like internal staff are- are unable to do? And- and why do you think this might be the case?
Jen: Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone into organizations, museums specifically, and heard, I really want to say this but I can’t. So can you? And, that- that whole mentality of someone else coming in from the outside it’s- its both sides. It’s that and it’s also if someone’s coming in from the outside and they’re telling you something, you might listen to them a little bit more because it’s a different voice, because it’s someone with a different perspective, because someone is looking at it in a different way.
I … when I come in, I- I make sure that I am working for the goals that I was hired on. Like I have an objective. Someone has asked me to do something. At the same time, I probably never will see these people again. So, that’s not saying I’m gonna go around and, excuse my language, be- be an ass; but I am going to be really honest because that’s the kind of person I am.
I was just doing a workshop like I said with the Ringling and I- I was talking about this. We were walking around with the docents, after it was a new class of docents. They’re all fantastic lovely people. And they were throwing around all of these really academic terms. And, I kept like raising my hand and saying, “What does this mean? What does this mean? What does this mean?” And, I feel like as if I was a member of the staff that wouldn’t necessarily be taken in the same sort of way as it was with me; because I spent all- all morning with them. Showing them like, hey, you need to reach people where they’re at. You need to talk to your audience. Not at them. We’re working on leveling the playing field. Making this accessible.
So, me calling out something like that, with that much forwardness and- and being that abrasive, was something that they actually thanked me for afterwards; and at the same time it was received in a way that it was constructive criticism because it wasn’t the voice that was kind of nurturing them through things.
I think as an outsider you- you both have that ability and then at the same time there’s that problem that comes in where you could be seen as just a satellite workshop; and, that’s why I really try to incorporate as much as like the museum’s pedagogical approach to whatever we’re doing into what I’m doing because if you’re just a satellite workshop … We’ve all gone to them. Like you go to one and you’re like, hey, that was fun. I’m never gonna use this again or I’m never gonna do this again. At the same time the ones that happen once that incorporate language that you’re used to hearing, or talk about things that you know are happening in your museum, or works that are on the wall, or objects in the collection, that sticks a little bit more.
So, being an outsider you kinda … it’s like a double-edged sword. Where you can say all this stuff and- and it doesn’t matter kind of, as long as you stay on mission; and at the same time you can say all this stuff and it doesn’t matter because-
Jen: … they can chose never to listen to you again.
Suse: It’s one of the things I find sort of funny and I- I- I- think it could be frustrating. Although, I- I choose never to be frustrated by it. Uh. As an academic is, you know, I- I can teach things to my class and then I bring an external person in who can say very similar things and … but they listen to quite differently from me. In part because they are coming from this outsider and, you know, coming from immediately from the professionals, as opposed to me. Whose now teaching and- and-
Suse: … and I find that a really interesting dynamic. But, it makes me wonder whether museums, or classrooms, or other institutions actually need to bring in those external voices and those external perspectives to work through difficult or challenging problems, or even just to reframe the current problem.
Jen: I think it’s really important for the outside … Not just because I’m an outside source. (laughs)
Jen: But, at the same time thinking about what I do, not just for museums, in the sense of working on your speaking skills. When you’re constantly listening to the same voice, that has the same cadence, and the same movement, everything that’s happening. So, your voice is moving at something that can be akin to white noise if you don’t think about changing it up and becoming more dynamic. I think the same thing happens when we’re listening to people in professional development or in class. If it’s constantly the same voice, then you can tune it out after a while. If you hear things in different ways and you’re getting these different methods of input, they tend to stick a little bit more because you’re hearing all different tonalities. You’re hearing all different manners of speaking. You’re hearing different ways of presentation. Because, everyone has a different speaking style.
I- I’m very upfront when I’m consulting because that’s generally what I’ve been asked to do. If I’m … When I was teaching at a museum and leading, uh, leading a PD for peers, I was a little different and I- I know I was a little more apologetic because I’m like these people are my peers. Like I’m telling them … I’m basically going into their house and rearranging their furniture and they didn’t ask me to. Whereas, if I’m coming in as … as a … as a consultant or as an outside force, someone’s hired me to do this and someone’s asked me, hey, rearrange our furniture and we’ll put it back if we don’t want it this way; but for now rearrange our furniture. (laughs)
So, I think the- the voice, and the different ways of speaking, and then the just the different ways of presenting information helps different learning styles learn. So, that in the end-
Suse: And how-
Jen: … it’s a … it’s a good thing.
Suse: Y- yeah. I hadn’t even considered really the physicality of it, or literally using different language, or like- like sometimes I think you think about, uh, when someone is coming in and speaking about things that you yourself know, and believe, and have been speaking to, uh, you know. I think there can be a certain level of frustration but I hadn’t actually put together how important just actually difference becomes … And, also as you say you have then liberties to … you- you’re not having to engage in the long term dynamics. You’re not having to engage in these long developed relationships where this conversation or this series of conversations it’s just one of a- a- a much longer dialogue. You’re actually being able to come in and say, well, no, let’s just focus on this issue as opposed to having to think through all of those other factors.
Jen: Absolutely. It’s a … it’s- it’s always interesting because I- I get the side wh- when coming into any organization. So, museums, yes. Every organization. I get the side that’s presented to me and then I get the side that’s in the first 10 minutes.
Jeffrey: (laughs) Right. Right.
Jen: (laughs) Which on occasion are very different sides. And, then I get the participant’s side which either happens like midway through, afterwards, in an email after. And it’s just … it’s just fascinating because you’re dealing with people. So, of course there’s relationships that are happening and some of them might not be great, and some of them might be amazing, and there might be a big set of change happening in the museum or in the organization. And that I find is- is when I come in sometimes is when there’s like a huge change happening in the organization or something needs to be different.
So, there’s all of this tension that’s already being built in because of change. It doesn’t matter if you’re … I’m spontaneous. Change makes me a little crazy sometimes. And it’s … Change is stressful. So, that- that energy builds itself in sometimes. So, it’s a … it’s it’s a big psychology experiment, I think, coming in from the outside because you’re suddenly like thrown into this microcosm where everyone’s been existing just fine and you’re … It can be frustrating and I- I just … I love it because it’s a moment that I know that it’s like these people … You’re getting what you get right now and you can choose to take it. And, I tell everyone before we start.
And, it was something that I actually heard from an outsider workshop at the Guggenheim. Where a group psychologist came in and her first sentence to us was, “You can like me. You can hate me. You can like what I do. You can hate what I do. Make up your mind at the end.” And, I say that to every group I’m with because you give them the option to choose and then they don’t spend the whole time trying to make judgments about you. It also ties into improv in the sense of, okay, you’re in the moment. You’re not like thinking about, oh man, I’m hungry, or, oh man, I want to go to lunch, or when is this over, or what are we doing next. You’re paying attention to the here and now.
And, then after if you want to send an email like, hey, this was a waste of my time, or I felt like this didn’t do anything, by all means go for it. You can really see a person’s mentality when you say that though, because if they spend the whole time judging and thinking about it, then they have a hard time themselves being in the moment.
Jeffrey: Yeah. For sure. So, Jen you … I … you know, you approach your work with the EE through- through a lens of professional development, or continuing education, and I think that’s really great because I … because I- I kind of feel like you’re contributing to the capacity of the museum. Uh. Boosting their in- internal resources kinda by building up, uh, their internal skill sets. Um, and so like when you’re gone, they can implement the learnings. Right? It’s … And the museum itself doesn’t become reliant of you in perpetuity.
Jen: Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely not.
Jeffrey: Um. Right?
Jeffrey: And- and they’re not outsourcing their core competencies to you. So, they’re kinda bringing this stuff in and, you know, some other nonprofit or some other for profit, um, agencies aren’t so healthy for the wellbeing and sustainability of museums. Is- is this something that you’re consciously aware of and- and is it … is it … how important is that to the aspect off your work? Kind of onboarding these new skills?
Jen: Yeah, I’m so consciously aware of this. (laughs)
Jeffrey: Okay. Good. (laughs)
Jen: Like as- as a … I’m so aware of this and I’m glad that it comes across like that because I- I- I can’t stand when it’s like a one off that takes away from … it’s a one off that is all bells and whistles. A one off workshop or a program that comes in and it’s like great now what? Like so what?
Jen: And, that’s such a big question that we actually ask during workshops. Like after every activity I do with museums, specifically with everyone, museums specifically in this example. we’ll do the activity and then we’ll have a reflection. So, it’ll be, okay, so what? Now what? And, how that so what is like how does this apply to your every day? How does this connect with whatever area you’re working with in museums and how are you going to use this? Now what? When we did workshop for SFMOMA before they even reopened, I worked with all of the docents, educators, the- the term that they use is I think specific to SFMOMA. We’ve also worked with their visitor services. So, in this instance it’s just the people that are giving both public and school tours.
And, before they even opened we were talking about how we could continue to use this and incorporate this into every day programming when the museum reopened. I just came … I just was back at SFMOMA, they’re open clearly in May and come to find that some of the new- new class we’re doing a yes and activity and this one gentleman raised his hand and he said, “We already do this in the gallery.” And, the person that hired me Julia Chows says, “Yeah, Jen taught everyone how to do this.”
Jen: “So, what you’re seeing is them doing it,” and, it was such a lovely moment because I tell people, I’m like, this is not proprietary. Like you don’t need me to do this. These are skills that even if you don’t work at the museum anymore, you’re gonna need to know how to be a better listener and you’re going to have to yes and someone in the sense of yes I hear you. So, I’m affirming what you said and I’m adding information instead of saying like, yeah, yeah, whatever, but here’s the real story. Well, actually here’s the real thing.
So, I- I really do believe in that idea of professional development and continuing education for staff, because if you give them tools to make things better and to make a change, then you don’t have to depend on all of these outside sources. I- I’m thrilled that if a museum’s like, hey, we do this all the time or we warm up in staff meetings with one of your activities. I’m like that- that’s amazing. Thank you for telling me so, I know that things aren’t going out into the ether. And, at the same time I’m always happy when I end up coming back and they’re like, hey, we’re doing this. Now what can we do next?
So, I see they’re actually … it’s like going to the gym. I see that they’re like doing the first set of workouts and they’ve plateaued. So, they want to one up it or do more.
Suse: Yeah that’s nice. This idea of it being a platform where you can build on. A- a lot of what you’re talking about can really be sort of distilled down or extrapolated like … ex- extrapolated out to being about an organization’s ability to embrace change or transformation and to build on the change that’s been happening. Which can be pretty intimidating. Especially for, you know, the legacy institutions and also I’m sure some of the private enterprise you work with. Do you then see the work that you’re doing as really being more at that sort of meta level of organization change and transformation or is it much more about sort of tactical immediate skills and- and- and sort of is it of the moment or is it that really long term sort of organizational change?
Jen: I think it’s both and I think it’s- it’s both a little bit in- in museums specifically because of how we run those workshops or how I teach those workshops; because I- I let people know from the get go. Say, I’m working with educators, I say, “Well some of these activities if you have a tour today or a program today, you literally could take this activity and do it immediately.” So, in that sense it’s affecting both the long and short game of we want our tours to be more interactive and we want our programming to be more audience centric. And, at the same time, I also do the idea of like risk taking in improv as a big g- goal that happens with museums or the ideas of yes and communication, and audience centric, and visitor centric. And, that’s more of a long game because you can’t change a behavior immediately you have to work on something like that.
And- and so, it’s a bit of both in the sense of they’re looking to be more interactive or looking to be more visitor centered; and at the … at the same time that can be something immediate because I’ve had people leave the program and go to give like a spotlight talk on an artwork, or go to give a program right after and I get an email that day saying, hey, I used this and it was awesome. So, that’s very immediate like I took this. I don’t feel like I have to work towards something. I can use it right away.
Jeffrey: Hmm. So, that’s all … it’s just so fascinating. Um. Before we wrap up with you, Jen, we’ve been following the discussion online, on Twitter that’s kind of been happening over the past couple days about when and why people leave the museum sector. I think it’s, um, you, and Ally Rico, and, um …
Suse: I think SEMA’s been part of it.
Jen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jeffrey: Jen, and … yeah and SEMA’s part, SEMA, previous guests have been part of it. So, can you tell us a bit about your transition from being an insider to and outsider, and maybe the factors that- that played into that to the extent that you can talk about it, and do you think that any of the resistance factors that we have talked about in- in this entire interview, things from organizational change, or whatever contribute to staff churn? Museum staff churn in- in some way?
Jen: Ab- absolutely. I … I was extremely lucky with one of my museum positions. So, in New York for the … for people that aren’t familiar, if you want to teach, you freelance at a lot of different organizations. So, you’re not just at one place. If you’re at one place, you probably have a lot of admin responsibilities as well. And, even today outside of the museum field, I am not an admin person by any stretch of the imagination. (laughs)
Jen: And, I’m comfortable admitting that flaw.
Jen: And, it’s okay. I- I really enjoyed the teaching aspect. So, I was jumping around with different organizations for years. Like, I was at the Frick Collection. I was at the Guggenheim. I was at the Queens Museum. I was at the Children’s Museum of Art. I was at the Transit Museum. So, in- in all of these different experiences I found that wh- when I was actually at the Guggenheim as an educator I was so lucky, because I was encouraged to take risks and what I was this- this outside theater perspective on things was actually encouraged and embraced by people there. My supervisors, my fellow educators and I think I was told no once there when I had an idea; and that was when I wanted to grow bacteria in a summer camp program.
Jen: So I was-
Jeffrey: They said no?
Jen: They said no and shocking. And, then they later … Sharon actually I’m sure remembers this, ’cause she called me later … emailed me later and she’s like I was just grossed out. You can do it if you want to; and I was like no.
Jen: I’m over this idea already. It’s fine. ‘Cause it was a Kandinsky workshop that we were thinking about.
Jen: So, we looked at … Anyways, there was art tied in. It wasn’t just growing germs in the Guggenheim.
Jen: And- and at- at the same time though, I- I saw in a lot my other organizations, as much as I got from the, I saw this inability to kind of embrace a new, or change, or try something different and not the same old, same old. So, when I … when I saw EE like being something that I actually could change and it was something more than just the- the few school groups that I ended up having, I could actually think about ha- having other educators really start to focus on working with their audience. And, I- I didn’t get that same opportunity with some of my other organization is the sense of even though I was on staff, I would be like, hey, I can totally lead a workshop for you guys; and people were like no. No thanks.
Meanwhile, my coworkers were like why do I have to pay to take your class? You work here? Like you should be giving it to us for free. And, I was like I have offers. Not happening. I don’t know what to tell you right now. (laughs) So- so, in the end it was this idea that I was like, I can do more as a … as a outside person than having to sort of answer to whatever powers that be. Whatever ideas that be as well as I knew for a certain extent that I was getting more and more outside of the box with a lot of my teaching. I- I knew that some of my improv activities and some of my theater based activities that I was proposing were … sooner or later would get shut down; and had been shut down at other institutions. In the sense of like, it’s too active. It’s too much. That’s not how we do things here.
And, that … I- I can’t. Stagnancy isn’t something that anyone’s really happy with deep down, and I definitely am not. So, when I … when I left it was less to do with the conversation that’s happening on Twitter right now. Which is fantastic with the idea of salary and- and this idea that museum professionals are not often taken care of for a much as experience that goes into it; and more to do with the idea of like, well, this is how we’ve always done it and we’re not changing. This is to different. And, for me it was like I had to step out in order to step back in.
So, when I stopped working at an institution as an educator, that’s when I think more institutions we’re like, hey, do you want to lead a development session for us on improv in the galleries or on communication. And, that’s when I knew that it would have a- a- a more of a lasting effect. So, I- I wasn’t in a position … I- I feel the salary thing. My husband actually works at a museum. So, I’m still very much embroiled in the museum-ness in that sense; and it’s … uh … it’s- it’s just this strange, strange world out there with museum people need to be appre- … We- we do so much. Otherwise it would just be stuff collecting dust.
I mean it … Visitor’s services, guards, e- everyone that touches the public, like that’s the opinion. People aren’t necessarily gonna remember the thing they saw. They’re gonna remember how they felt when they saw it, and all of that builds in. Like you got to a restaurant and you have a terrible waitress, you’re gonna remember the terrible waitress. Not the food, and same thing with museums. It’s all customer service in the end.
Suse: Yeah. That’s fantastic. It’s funny you talking about what you can do and, you know, from inside and outside and, uh, part of … part of my thinking in when we were coming up with this episode is, of course, I’m not straddle- straddling this insider, outsider role as being back in academia but also teaching to museum studies. And, one of the reasons that I ended up going back sort of to this outside from within the actual museum was in part because I felt like I could make such … um … greater impact by being able to teach the- the next generation of people coming up through. As opposed to being within a single institution. So, I think there are lots of … lots of reasons why we have this sort of straddling between the inside and the outside.
Jen: I think that’s- that’s a good … having that, having some outside perspective be kind of a connection or a core because I- I mean I tell museums all the time and I’m not- not afraid to say it from the rooftops about anything. Like we all need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Like take a wheel. Make it work for you and make it better. Don’t keep trying to create this next big thing. Like work on … work on what you have an make it … make it work and in that sense of people … Like sometimes museums get so insular. Where they’re not talking to one another. Like, we say we talk to one another at conferences and we know we don’t. And- and having like an outside point, a reference where people can say, oh, hey me too. Or, oh, hey I- I go through this too.
That’s why the Twitter chat sometimes are so incredible. Like I tweet museums. Being able to have like that connective tissue where people can have that me too moment. They can … they feel like they’re going through a similar thing.
Suse: Yeah. Absolutely. Jen, thank you so much for- for joining us on the show. This has been really, really wonderful and it’s so nice to hear more about your work, but also your observations from connecting with so many institutions. Um. Both with in the sector and beyond it.
Jen: Absolutely it was awesome to ha- … be here. Thank you guys for having me.
Suse: So, that was amazing. They were two incredible interviews, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Yeah. I, you know, I think the fact that they come from different de- … perspectives, um, balancing the artist intervention with-
Jeffrey: … the private enter- enterprise and intervention really give a full picture of the impact that, um, outside thinking can have, uh, on- on a museum.
Suse: And, how it uses actually a really important thing. I- I know that when I was sometimes working in museums, uh, seeing outsiders come in and hearing them be able to say things, um, with- with a different level of recognition could- could sometimes actually be a little … a little frustrating.
Suse: But, it’s also an incredibly important thing. I think Jen’s point that people actually speak differently, and they actually use different language, and they have these different abilities to, um, to interact because they’re not trying to balance, you know, the same dynamics that you are day in and day out … day out.
Suse: Is a really significant thing.
Jeffrey: Yeah, and you know even that the, you know, the tactic of bringing in an outside voice to help tell the story or t- … or tell the, um, um, the … tell the mission that- that you … that you’re trying to move forward within your own institution is something that- that- that many of us in the museum sector utilize right? I- I bring people in and talk about, um, progressive ideas. The, um, to- to- to my museums and I hope that, um, the- the network of … of progressive museum workers can use each other in that way.
Jeffrey: Um. You know, e- … it doesn’t … you don’t have to be a huge, uh, museum community rock star but you know, bring in outside voices from other museums in your city. You know? To talk about things. Drinking about museums. All that stuff.
Jeffrey: You know?
Suse: Absolutely. I mean and even this is sort of part of the point of Museopunks right?
Suse: Is that we get to talk to people who will push us and challenge us to think about our own practice, but also it- it … I mean it’s a great reason to talk to people who can phrase ideas differently, or who are just thinking about them with different background.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Definitely. So, all of the things we talked about today on this episode links, uh, everything, uh, show notes can be found at Museopunks dot O-R-G.
Suse: Yes, indeed, and we absolutely have to, as always, thank our presenting sponsor. Museopunks in presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums and we are so grateful to be working with you.
Jeffrey: Thank you AAM. Uh. You can find us on Twitter at Museopunks.
Jeffrey: And, with that, Suse … I think we’re done.
Suse: Is that it? I think we’re done?
Jeffrey: We’re done.
Suse: Amazing. I can’t wait to talk to you next month, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Next month. Bye bye.