Saturday, 25 June 2016

Reading List, 25 June 2016

China Mieville, writing for the Guardian, muses on the English pictureskew:
The picturesque is the framing and formulation of a landscape, and it is in the gaze. Not precisely beautiful, but pretty. Charming. Scenic. But there is an inextricable counter-tradition. Not a contradiction to the picturesque, but its bad conscience. ... This bad picturesque works by skewing the framed scene, the picture. It mispronounces the terms of the picturesque, so let mispronunciation give it a name: this is the pictureskew.
Mieville's discussion of the history of the picturesque and its dark cousin reminded me of Francis Pound's 1983 book Frames on the land, which divided New Zealand colonial-era landscape painting into a number of genres. I never think of that publication without thinking of Hamish Keith's writing-off any import in the publication with the first sentence of his review, which opens with the words "In this slim, pink book ...".

In Seattle art world, women run the show. While I'm a little dubious about whether gender-dominance should be presented as a win, I enjoyed (unusually for me) the visualisation that shows connections between female figures in the visual arts in Seattle and the people they considered to be mentors and supporters. The construction of something similar in New Zealand would be really interesting.
Consider this: for those who have journeyed from Greater China to the UK – whether passing through or in a bid to find new ways of living here – will they and their descendants forever be fated to continue being Chinese? Is their Chineseness something they ought to resist?
En Liang Khong for Frieze on the 30th anniversary of Manchester’s CFCCA (Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art). Meanwhile in Aotearoa New Zealand Hainamana has launched, 'committed to fostering contemporary Asian New Zealand arts and cultural discourse'.

The 'can it be serious art if it has many makers?' debate: Terry Teachout on the (over)use of the word 'masterpiece'.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Final report: visitor experience in American art museums

The day has finally come - I've submitted my report on my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust-supported trip late last year around art museums in seven different American states.

I've called the report Getting closer, looking deeper, coming back sooner: The visitor experience in American art museums, mostly because I found myself ready to PDF up my long-laboured-over document and realised I'd never considered a title for it and needed something quickly.

Below are the preface, areas of focus, and bullet-point conclusions from my research trip for context. You can also download the full report (49 pages) 

Preface 
If the museum is to flourish in the 21st century, it cannot afford to be solely a place of retreat from society. It must stimulate, provoke and engage, as well as offering a place for contemplation or consolation. It must be a place in which we can share in a commonwealth of ideas. (Serota, 2015)
Since the 1970s the stereotype of the museum being a starchily exclusive place for the quiet contemplation of rarities by those with the educational and social advantages to appreciate the experience has been steadily challenged, not least by people working within the sector.

In New Zealand, a wave of new galleries in regional cities (the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1970; The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, 1971; the Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North, 1977) explicitly set out to make the best of New Zealand's cultural production available to local constituents. An account of the opening of the Manawatu Art Gallery began:
People contributed [to a fundraising drive] because they knew the gallery would not be another city monument to an elitist arts society. Luit Bieringa has deliberately tried to make the gallery as accessible as possible to all the people of the Manawatu, whether their interest be in functional pottery or conceptual art. (Spill, 1977
Over the course of the 20th century, museums reoriented from a focus on collecting and categorisation to a focus on public service by way of education. This shift saw the visitor grow in prominence in the museum's view of its own operation. Over the past two decades, the visitor has shifted again, now to the centre of the museum's operation. Museums are increasingly seen as social spaces, and today's greatest innovations in museum operations are inspired by the social and economic changes intricately entwined with the rise of the internet.

The GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector has avidly adopted the affordances of the internet to find new ways - from social media channels to podcasts to releasing 3D scans of collection items - of connecting the public with their offerings, and to enlarge the voice of individuals within the museum. I count myself fortunate both to have come of professional age in this part of our sector, and to have the opportunity through this research trip to explore some of the world's most vibrantly innovative museums, and better understand how they strive to serve the audiences today, and plan for those of tomorrow.

Areas of focus

My proposal for WCMT funding focused on researching four areas of museum operation:
  • Connecting with visitors through digital technology 
  • Visible storage displays 
  • New models of membership programmes 
  • Outreach programmes serving people on the autism spectrum and people with dementia, their families and caregivers 
Due to several staff not being available at the time I was visiting, or staff turnover at institutions, I was not able to conduct a great deal of research into the outreach programmes I had identified in my original plan. I met with several educators during my visit, but learned little beyond what I already knew from reading online resources.

However, as I travelled, I found myself focusing a great deal on three aspects of the visitor experience that I had not expected to study closely: exhibition spaces specifically designed to introduce new visitors to the museum's collections and exhibitions, such as those recently created at the Brooklyn Museum and in development at the time of my visit at the Baltimore Museum of Art the museum store, as a site for preparing for and reflecting on the museum visit the role of visitor hosts in American museums compared to their New Zealand equivalents.

As a result I have not included a section on outreach programmes in this report, but have written up my observations on key visitor experience trends in a fourth chapter.

Quickfire conclusions

Each of the four focus areas has its own set of conclusions. Here are the highly summarised points from these:

Digital innovation 

  • Leading museums are focusing on developing 'eyes-up' experiences that encourage closer looking, questioning, and further discovery after the physical visit (Cooper Hewitt and Brooklyn Museum)
  • Museums are using digital projects as part of their overall branding efforts (Cooper Hewitt, DMA, Brooklyn Museum, media stories on opening of Los Angeles' The Broad and SFMOMA in San Francisco) 
  • External funding focused on digitally-enhanced visitor experience at individual institutions may be discouraging collaborative development, and projects focused on online users of museums (Bloomberg Philanthropy) 
  • There is a danger that digital brands may become disassociated from the physical visiting experience (Walker Art Center) 

Open storage 

  • Open storage initiatives continue to offer an more 'free range' and exploratory experience for visitors, compared to modernist exhibition design, and also assure visitors that not all the collection is ‘locked away’ 
  • Some open storage displays are becoming tired, and feel static (Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum) 
  • There may be lessons for digital innovation projects fuelled by external funding in the model that seems to have been established by the Henry Luce Foundation grants for visible storage (significant initial investment and then dwindling ongoing attention/funding) 
  • Digital projects are offering alternative ways to blend digitised collections with the physical visit (Cooper Hewitt's Immersion Room) 
  • New 'orientation' galleries with mixed density displays may offer a more engaging option for contemporary audiences (Brooklyn Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art)  

Membership programmes 

  • Free entry-level membership options are being offered in tiered membership programmes to encourage traditionally non-visiting audiences to attend museums, and to increase repeat visitation (DMA and MIA Minneapolis) 
  • 'Free' membership is often an exchange of the visitor's data for this access; this data can be used in many ways, from better understanding audience demographics to targeting retail promotions 
  • The introduction of free membership programmes accompanies a revolution in the understanding of the visitor host role (DMA) 
  • Collection of significant amounts of data from our visitors creates new ethical obligations for museums over how this data is collected, stored and used 

Visitor experience 

  • Major art museums around the United States have astounding collections, but can feel repetitive when visited in quick succession. 
  • Even small displays that buck this trend for can convey a strong and individual sense of place (BMA)
  • Museum stores can play a significant role in communicating the vision and personality of a museum (American Visionary Art Museum, Mia) 
  • Large museums can induct new visitors and help them to engage with large collections through thematically-curated, cross-collection introductory galleries (Brooklyn Museum, BMA) 
  • Smaller museums can distinguish themselves by cultivating distinctive personalities and ways of relating to people (American Visionary Art Museum, ASI)

Final report: visitor experience in American art museums

The day has finally come - I've submitted my report on my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust-supported trip late last year around art museums in seven different American states.

I've called the report Getting closer, looking deeper, coming back sooner: The visitor experience in American art museums, mostly because I found myself ready to PDF up my long-laboured-over document and realised I'd never considered a title for it and needed something quickly.

Below are the preface, areas of focus, and bullet-point conclusions from my research trip for context. You can also download the full report (49 pages) 

Preface 
If the museum is to flourish in the 21st century, it cannot afford to be solely a place of retreat from society. It must stimulate, provoke and engage, as well as offering a place for contemplation or consolation. It must be a place in which we can share in a commonwealth of ideas. (Serota, 2015)
Since the 1970s the stereotype of the museum being a starchily exclusive place for the quiet contemplation of rarities by those with the educational and social advantages to appreciate the experience has been steadily challenged, not least by people working within the sector.

In New Zealand, a wave of new galleries in regional cities (the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1970; The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, 1971; the Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North, 1977) explicitly set out to make the best of New Zealand's cultural production available to local constituents. An account of the opening of the Manawatu Art Gallery began:
People contributed [to a fundraising drive] because they knew the gallery would not be another city monument to an elitist arts society. Luit Bieringa has deliberately tried to make the gallery as accessible as possible to all the people of the Manawatu, whether their interest be in functional pottery or conceptual art. (Spill, 1977
Over the course of the 20th century, museums reoriented from a focus on collecting and categorisation to a focus on public service by way of education. This shift saw the visitor grow in prominence in the museum's view of its own operation. Over the past two decades, the visitor has shifted again, now to the centre of the museum's operation. Museums are increasingly seen as social spaces, and today's greatest innovations in museum operations are inspired by the social and economic changes intricately entwined with the rise of the internet.

The GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector has avidly adopted the affordances of the internet to find new ways - from social media channels to podcasts to releasing 3D scans of collection items - of connecting the public with their offerings, and to enlarge the voice of individuals within the museum. I count myself fortunate both to have come of professional age in this part of our sector, and to have the opportunity through this research trip to explore some of the world's most vibrantly innovative museums, and better understand how they strive to serve the audiences today, and plan for those of tomorrow.

Areas of focus

My proposal for WCMT funding focused on researching four areas of museum operation:
  • Connecting with visitors through digital technology 
  • Visible storage displays 
  • New models of membership programmes 
  • Outreach programmes serving people on the autism spectrum and people with dementia, their families and caregivers 
Due to several staff not being available at the time I was visiting, or staff turnover at institutions, I was not able to conduct a great deal of research into the outreach programmes I had identified in my original plan. I met with several educators during my visit, but learned little beyond what I already knew from reading online resources.

However, as I travelled, I found myself focusing a great deal on three aspects of the visitor experience that I had not expected to study closely: exhibition spaces specifically designed to introduce new visitors to the museum's collections and exhibitions, such as those recently created at the Brooklyn Museum and in development at the time of my visit at the Baltimore Museum of Art the museum store, as a site for preparing for and reflecting on the museum visit the role of visitor hosts in American museums compared to their New Zealand equivalents.

As a result I have not included a section on outreach programmes in this report, but have written up my observations on key visitor experience trends in a fourth chapter.

Quickfire conclusions

Each of the four focus areas has its own set of conclusions. Here are the highly summarised points from these:

Digital innovation 

  • Leading museums are focusing on developing 'eyes-up' experiences that encourage closer looking, questioning, and further discovery after the physical visit (Cooper Hewitt and Brooklyn Museum)
  • Museums are using digital projects as part of their overall branding efforts (Cooper Hewitt, DMA, Brooklyn Museum, media stories on opening of Los Angeles' The Broad and SFMOMA in San Francisco) 
  • External funding focused on digitally-enhanced visitor experience at individual institutions may be discouraging collaborative development, and projects focused on online users of museums (Bloomberg Philanthropy) 
  • There is a danger that digital brands may become disassociated from the physical visiting experience (Walker Art Center) 

Open storage 

  • Open storage initiatives continue to offer an more 'free range' and exploratory experience for visitors, compared to modernist exhibition design, and also assure visitors that not all the collection is ‘locked away’ 
  • Some open storage displays are becoming tired, and feel static (Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum) 
  • There may be lessons for digital innovation projects fuelled by external funding in the model that seems to have been established by the Henry Luce Foundation grants for visible storage (significant initial investment and then dwindling ongoing attention/funding) 
  • Digital projects are offering alternative ways to blend digitised collections with the physical visit (Cooper Hewitt's Immersion Room) 
  • New 'orientation' galleries with mixed density displays may offer a more engaging option for contemporary audiences (Brooklyn Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art)  

Membership programmes 

  • Free entry-level membership options are being offered in tiered membership programmes to encourage traditionally non-visiting audiences to attend museums, and to increase repeat visitation (DMA and MIA Minneapolis) 
  • 'Free' membership is often an exchange of the visitor's data for this access; this data can be used in many ways, from better understanding audience demographics to targeting retail promotions 
  • The introduction of free membership programmes accompanies a revolution in the understanding of the visitor host role (DMA) 
  • Collection of significant amounts of data from our visitors creates new ethical obligations for museums over how this data is collected, stored and used 

Visitor experience 

  • Major art museums around the United States have astounding collections, but can feel repetitive when visited in quick succession. 
  • Even small displays that buck this trend for can convey a strong and individual sense of place (BMA)
  • Museum stores can play a significant role in communicating the vision and personality of a museum (American Visionary Art Museum, Mia) 
  • Large museums can induct new visitors and help them to engage with large collections through thematically-curated, cross-collection introductory galleries (Brooklyn Museum, BMA) 
  • Smaller museums can distinguish themselves by cultivating distinctive personalities and ways of relating to people (American Visionary Art Museum, ASI)

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Reading list, 18 June 2016

Imagine a tv series about the art world that was this thoroughly researched: How "Silicon Valley" Nails Silicon Valley.

Spain's left-wing, anti-austerity party Podemos releases its manifesto in the style of an IKEA catalogue, aiming to create "the most-read manifesto ever produced".

Marcus Wohlsen for Wired: Gawker's bankruptcy is how the free press dies, one VC at a time

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

On the radio

After a five month hiatus, I'm back on the radio today at 11.40-ish am, and really excited about it. I'm going to be talking about:


Monday, 13 June 2016

Digital humanists love network visualisations, but ordinary people say, ‘so what’?

The title of this post is taken from a recent talk by Mia Ridge, Network visualisations and the ‘so what?’ problem. In the talk Mia (who is a digital curator in the British Library working mostly with pre-1900 archives but also a long time proponent of better uses of the web to get people using and understanding the holdings of cultural organisations) addresses some of the things that really concern me about the use of visualisations and interactives in the cultural sector: specifically, the question ‘What does this tell me that I couldn’t learn as quickly from a sentence, list or table?’.

That is my question with so many of the visualisations I see, especially the network ones, which seek to show you links between people, objects, places, dates, all of these things, some of these things, and/or other things.

A recent example that floated across my feeds is this visualisation of Miles Davis's legacy, as represented through mentions of him in various contexts on Wikipedia pages (from artistic collaborators to 'drug users').



It's a truly beautiful thing, and it certainly has the "spronginess" that Mia mentions as one of the appeals of visualisations like this.


But I still don't feel like I get a lot more from it than I do from the sub-1000 word write-up, and while pop-up boxes and swirling colours indicate connections and sites of information to me, I don't feel better informed than I do by a similar paragraph.

One of Mia's most salient points, to my mind, is this:

Sometimes a network visualisation isn’t the answer … even if it was part of the question. 
As an outcome of an exploratory process, network visualisations are not necessarily the best way to present the final product. Be disciplined – make yourself justify the choice to use network visualisations.
I've been pondering visualisations as a small part of a much bigger question (well, bigger for me, currently): how do you give a visitor to an art exhibition the context and detailed info that will open up the work to them? I think about this all the time - it's my job - but I've also been thinking about it a lot since visiting Space to Dream at Auckland Art Gallery, which exposed how superficial my knowledge of South America is. How could I have gleaned the information I needed about relationships between countries, about political movements and protest, about art and culture, that I needed to get the most out of the opportunity to see all those works brought together?

In light of this, I was intrigued by Jarrett Fuller's A Rough Sketch for a Video Essay as Design Criticism, recently sent to me by a friend. Fuller - using the Eames' films, and Orson Welles' last film, F for Fake - asks whether video, rather than writing or graphic design, is the best medium for describing and critiquing design for an audience.


I'm not exactly sure what separates the video essay, as Fuller details it here, from a short documentary., except the intent: which is much the same, I suppose as saying that what separates the curator's wall panel from the reviewer's column is intent.

We all tend to use the tools we're most skilled at and excited by to express our ideas - writers with words rather than pixels, for example, a data visualiser with graphics rather than sentences. This points to an exciting future however where more curators may come from a design background (or schooling where basic design and coding is built in) and we can more easily find ways of inducting audiences into art than the current mis-match of text panels to artworks allows ....

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Weekend reading, 11 June 2016

A virtuoso profile of Vito Acconci by Randy Kennedy for the New York Times

Rebecca Mead for the New Yorker on My Friend Flicka


Ken’s passion is urgent, intense, and deeply confusing, as first passions always are. But the fact that Ken’s passion is mediated through an equine object gives “My Friend Flicka” a subtlety and accessibility that would be harder, or perhaps impossible, to achieve as effectively with a human love story. My son would not be able to say that these are the themes that are holding him spellbound as we read “My Friend Flicka,” and I certainly could not have done so at his age. But I’m sure he’s learning more about love and its exigencies from this book about the entwinement of a boy and his horse than he could from reading a hundred—frankly embarrassing—teen-crush scenes from contemporary Y.A. lit.
Shan Wang interviews Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby on the launch of the Code Switch podcast for Nieman Labs.

Gray paint, high heels and 'meaningful people': Robin Pobegrin's 'How a Dealer Prepares for the ‘Most Important’ Art Fair of the Year' in the New York Times.

Mind-bending graphic notation of classical music for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

More quotable-quotes than you can throw a stick at: Francesco Bonami Says Curators Are 'Self-Delusional' and 'Irrelevant' in Today's Art World.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Heads up, heads down

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to AllofUs helps British Museum create new interactive experiences, an article on the DesignWeek website that describes a consultancy's insertion of a touchscreen station in the British Museum's recently redeveloped Renaissance and Enlightenment galleries which "unlocks content and points users towards artefacts".


It's hard to tell from the brief article and the images how compelling this experience might be, but the insertion of stations into a gallery space goes against the current American "heads-up" trend for technology in galleries, like the Cooper-Hewitt's Pen and the Brooklyn Museum's Ask app, or SFMOMA's new app, which combines "mind-blowing audio content with cutting-edge indoor positioning technology". I've written a lot about this approach, which seeks to get visitors looking more closely at actual art and less at their own or the galleries' screens, as I draft my acquittal from my research trip around American art museums last year.

I'm also curious about whether the terminals are using any of the work done by Good, Form & Spectacle about a year ago on their 'spelunker' for the Waddesdon Bequest, an exploration website for the works displayed in these galleries, as detailed by George Oates.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Reading list, 4 June 2016

This TLS article on the demise of reference books and the (slow, imperfect) rise of Wikipedia led me on to three new Wikipedian artefacts: snowclones ('X is the new Y'); citogenesis (citations based on circular reporting) and Wikipedia has more...

The NYT continues coverage of art stored in free ports - frankly, the storage isn't the issue but the tax dodging sure as hell should be.

A detailed write-up from ACMI on their latest audio guide - a web app offered over their wifi network, with as few steps as possible to get the visitor to the audio. Covers UI, staff training, and use as calculated by analytics.

From one ACMI experiment to another - expat Lucie Paterson writes up getting the ACMI shop online for $5K (an unusually, counts staff time as a cost in her accounting).

Rebecca Mead re-reads My Friend Flicka as an adult, and as a love story.

"The only negative voices are from Wellington" - Paula Morris writes up the launch of the (Auckland-based) Academy of New Zealand Literature. The comments make for interesting reading, and all up, a good piece of posterity - in many ways.

I'm normally pretty dismissive of the through-a-single-character study of technology usage but I have to admit, This is what it's like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing got to me.

The first review I've seen to really take exception to the blue-chippery of SFMOMA: SFMOMA Cruise Ship Makes Port With Trophies Aboard.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Reading list, 28 May 2016

Artsy, in collaboration with multinational financial services company UBS, has partnered in series of short web documentaries on the art world, starting with auctions and followed by galleries, patrons and art fairs. Touting themselves as lively yet nuanced introductions to each topic (I will agree with the lively, at least) they are remarkable largely for the talent they've gotten in front of the camera - and the claim towards the end of the first clip that Modigliani's Nu couché, auctioned at the end of last year for a record $170M, "will never be seen on the market again".

The Brooklyn Museum has been having rocky time in its neighbourhood recently, with a number of protests around both exhibition and partnership choices and the announcement last week of voluntary staff buy-outs. The New York Times recently wrote up other upheavals in the museum - this time its re-installation of its Egyptian and American art galleries.

This sound remarkable: The Self-Taught Artist Who Casts Cardboard “Actors” in All His Films on Hyperallergic.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Reading list, 21 May 2016

A suitably hyperbolic account of The Rise and Fall of Ultimate Fighter Conor McGregor, by James Parker for The Atlantic.

Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe announce they are shutting down The Toast - this moment rang bells for me:
And having said that out loud, we both felt a FRISSON OF ENERGY, which took us by surprise, because we have loved making this site together so much. I honestly do not remember which of us was the first to say “well, revenue is sort-of getting back on track, but how long do we want to keep doing this anyway?” but I do remember what a relief it was that we both felt that the answer was “less than a year.”
bell hooks took a lot of flak on social media for her assessment of Beyonce's Lemonade. hooks is one of those figures and writers I know by osmosis rather than extensive reading, so it was fascinating to go back to this 1999 interview, resurfaced by the Washington Post for Women's History Month. This overview of some of the articles they re-published is also interesting.

Lana Lopesi continues her run of thoughtful essays with Safety In Numbers: Poly Twitter and Carving Out Digital Space for Pantograph Punch.

Curating for the Contemporary Pacific; 95 theses by Sean Mallon and the Pacific area curators at Te Papa along with Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and Fulimalo Pereira at Tamaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, Ane Tonga at Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa and Leafa Janice Wilson from Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Reading list, 14 May 2016

Perfume critic Luca Turin is blogging again.

Alphabettes is a 'showcase for work, commentary, and research on lettering, typography, and type design. ... here to support and promote the work of all women in our fields.'

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History director Nina Simon marks five years in the job with a what I've learned post. I've really appreciated Nina's public sharing of the way her museum and her thinking has changed over her time there.

Shelley Bernstein is leaving Brooklyn Museum for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Along with Nina and Seb Chan at ACMI Shelley has been one of the most influential people in the web/cultural world at large, and for me personally. Enormous amounts of good will and excitement going her way.

Speaking of moving on, I found Carole Robinson's piece for The Spinoff about her last day at 3News, published in the wake of  Mark Weldon's resignation, surprisingly affecting.

Two new reports out in Britain about arts attendance and perceptions and realities of the benefits of the arts: