Saturday 1 December 2012

Going back to gallery land - presentation at NDF2012

At the National Digital Forum this year, I gave a different kind of talk to that I usually give. It made me feel unusually exposed, and when I was up on the stage, I couldn't tell whether the audience was coming with me, or watching me in bewilderment (or boredom). However, the way that people responded after the talk made me feel this was worth sharing. So, here goes ...

Going back to gallery land - National Digital Forum, Wellington, November 2012

I’m feeling a little nervous about this talk. I’m quite used to getting up in places like this and talking about topics I know well, or making grand-gesture calls for change, or getting what one friend of mine describes as "all breathy" and aspirational.

In fact, DK’s talk yesterday – the excitement and urgency that radiated in that moment – made me look back over my opening remarks from last year’s NDF.

The Doing Good Shit statement Matthew recalled yesterday came from an article titled ‘What Big Media can learn from the New York Public Library’ by Alexis Madrigal, published in the Atlantic in June 2011. Reading the article – and preparing for Michael Lascarides’ keynote – the phrase that jumped out for me was giving a shit. Madrigal was talking about the tenacity, the bullheadedness, the inspiration and the desire that’s needed for people like us to keep pushing our institutions forward in order to serve the people we are here to serve.

Here’s the relevant quote:
I'm convinced the NYPL is succeeding online because of desire. The library's employees give a shit about the digital aspects of their institution, and they are supported in that shit giving. I mean this in the most fundamental way possible and as a damning critique for media companies.
Those remarks were definitely me at my hand-waving best. This year’s different. This year I’m a different person. And this year’s talk is different: a little more reflective, a little more speculative, and a little more personal than I am used to. But let’s give it a go.

When I originally proposed this talk, I was the General Manager at Boost New Media. I was going to do a talk about being a good client - having sat on both sides of the table, I felt like I had a lot to offer.

Things change. But I promised that talk, so I’m going to do it, hopefully in less than a minute.

My advice for being a good client is as follows:

First. Build a trusting relationship with your vendor. Don’t think of them as vendors. Think of them as the other half of your team. Trust them for the expertise you hired them for. And act in such a way that they trust you in turn.

Second. Be customer focused. I’d love it if this didn’t still need saying, but it does. And it’s not about stopping the logos from getting bigger and the About section from filling up with pointless crud. It’s about using your knowledge of your customers to decide what work you prioritise and how you make the hard decisions.

Finally. The hard decisions are usually around money. Go with a time and materials project on a capped budget. Take your trust and your customer focus, and use these two tools to deliver as much value as you can within the budget you have available.

And that’s it. That’s my best, condensed, advice.

So. Things change. In the time between submitting that proposal and standing up here, life turned upside down, and instead of being about being a good client, this talk is more of an experiment. It’s about floating a few ideas into the air, and seeing how they fly.

Today is my 24th day as Director of the Dowse Art Museum and Petone Settlers Museum. I’ve swapped the private sector for local government, things on the web for things on the wall, Cuba Street for the Westfield mall. I’ve been living in a state of exhilarated exhaustion that I’ve only ever felt once before. Even in this short time, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more challenged or more fulfilled in a job.

I should tell you a little bit about the Dowse. We’re a contemporary art, design and craft museum in the heart of Lower Hutt. We’re a young institution - we opened in 1971, part of a moment in New Zealand’s history when a number of regional centres decided to bolster their identities by establishing art galleries that were both strongly community focused and outward looking. Hence we have a commitment both to listen to and serve the people near us, and to be nationally and internationally ambitious. We’re a team of between 14 and 25 - depending on how you slice it. We’re big enough to do things, and small enough to be nimble.

The leap from running a web company to becoming art gallery director can seem a little unfathomable. Going into the interview process, I had to frame up - for myself to start with, before I could even begin to explain it to others - how six years of working on the web equipped me to run a contemporary art museum.

And it surprised me what I came up with. There are the obvious things. Budget management. Stakeholder relationships. HR. Strategy and planning.

Then there are the less obvious things. Six years spent arguing for engagement, sharing, openness, prioritisation, experimentation, customer focus: this is a mindset that transfers surprisingly well.

When people learn that I have come from a web company, they mostly assume that this means I’ll be good at talking to IT and at making my phone work. And they’re so wrong. I’m not in the least technical.

When I left Boost, I wrote an essay about what I was leaving behind. And the thing I realised I’d really miss - poker nights and dirty jokes and massive tea rounds aside - was the language of the web developers.

I assembled in that essay an alphabet of the phrases and names and acronyms my devs used. Some of these were as familiar to me as my fingertips. Some of them were incomprehensible, and often delightful. When I think about the language of my Boost experience, I see a trail of stepping stones across a fast-flowing river; the stones were the words and concepts I knew, which I’d balance on and jump between: the water was the stuff that was foreign to me, that washed around me and slowly transformed into understanding. I didn’t understand half of what my devs said, and it didn’t matter. In a way, it made it better. The process of wrapping my head around their language, and the areas of creative slippage, were so good for my thinking.

There was an eight week period between applying for this job and starting in it. In that time, I held two worlds inside my head - my accustomed experience of the web world, and my imagined experience of the art museum. And I started to find myself increasingly thinking in metaphors.

Metaphors allow us to understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another. They are a bridge between the familiar and the unknown. They can be a way to make sense of new things.

And they can also be a way of making a new sense. There’s that notion of creativity emerging from misunderstanding. Artist historian Francis Pound used this when talking about New Zealand artists of the 1950s, who absorbed American Abstract Expressionism through small black and white reproductions. A painter like McCahon looking at a squitty black and white Frank Stella didn’t see texture and nuance. Instead, he saw hard lines and strong contrast.

I found this happening inside my head as I sat surrounded by one world and thought my way into another, mentally shifting from Boost to the Dowse.

One of the metaphors I found myself thinking about a lot was THE STACK. Inside my head, whenever someone mentioned THE STACK, I saw racks full of VCRs. I have a somewhat better understanding of the concept than that, but that’s what I saw.

My Boost boss Nathan advocates that when you start a new project, the first piece of work you do should take you all the way through the stack. Whenever he said this I pictured a bright line connecting the darkest recesses of that rack of VCRs to a person lying in bed late at night with their laptop open.

I started using THE STACK as a metaphor all the time. ‘You need to take them through THE STACK!’ I would urge people when they asked me for advice about how to tackle this or that.

And then it dawned on me that I have my own stack - and that as a metaphor, it can encompass every piece of planning I need to do, every decision that I need to make.

You see, for years I have been presented with diagrams that I didn’t understand that sought to explain the organisation I worked in to me. Cylinders and chubby bars and strange dotted lines. I never took them seriously. They never helped me think.

And then, to my own internal horror, a few weeks ago, I started to draw these diagrams myself. But I drew them like THE STACK.

At the bottom there’s the vision. Why are we here? What are we for? What do people want from us?

Over that there’s strategic planning. Where are we going? How long might it take? How do we know when to change direction? How will we know that we’ve gotten there?

Then there’s what we do. These groupings are still taking shape, but they look a little like this:
  • Collection management
  • Exhibitions and publishing
  • Outreach, public programmes and education
And at the top, at the end of this process, there’s the users.

Or, the audience

Or, people

Or, maybe ... fans.

At NDF in 2009 Nina Simon said every decision should be able to be traced back to your mission statement.

Actually, she said this:

I need to be able to draw a bright line at any time from vision to fans. Every decision needs to go through the stack. Which budget to cut? Which extra-curricular projects to take on? Not just big decisions, small ones too. Is it more important to be on time to a meeting, or to talk to a visitor?

Then I had a slow-dawning realisation. This happens to me occasionally. The ‘Oh, honey. You can be a bit slow, but you get there eventually’ moments.

I realised my stack isn’t a straight line. It’s a circle. It’s a bangle. It’s the fact that our fans and our vision need to be the same thing. That’s how we succeed.

How I will do this, I still don’t know. I mean, God, when you’re breathing the turbid air of administrivia, it’s almost impossible to raise your eyes to this level. But I’ve learned to do it before, and I will make it happen here.

There are other metaphors I’ve been thinking about. About how being a professional visitor to galleries is like being a developer who can’t resist flicking open the View Source screen; you’re always moving between being with the art, and looking at how the works are hung, spaced, lit, interpreted. About how we need non-JavaScript fallbacks in the real world, for people who don’t have smartphones for our QR codes, or English as their first language for our wall labels.

But there is one metaphor I keep returning to.

A friend told me a story recently, after he found out I was changing jobs. He’s a smart guy. And he said he visited a certain gallery after their redevelopment and got so frustrated and felt so stupid walking around the spaces, constantly hitting corners and deadends, that he left. And that he probably won’t go back. And this was a guy who really, really wanted to be involved. He really wanted to feel like this was for him.

We can’t afford to have our visitors feel stupid and wrong. We just can’t.

And we really, really can’t afford to have them feel like this.  We’ve learned on the web to support people, when we or they do something wrong. User experience design is all about trying to make everything go well - and helping correct things swiftly when they don’t.

Our buildings need to be like this too. Our exhibitions need to be like this - subtly, but helpfully. And most of all, our front of house staff need to be like this. They need to be our Fail Whales, our Top 20 Awesomest 404 pages. They need to have the knowledge and authority to do whatever it takes to make sure no-one leaves our buildings feeling like a failure.

[A little sidenote. I have been thinking lately about how hard we agonise over our website homepages. We want them to orient and delight; serve and inspire; be ever changing but also consistent, reflect our personalities and also welcome the visitor in. And then we build museums and galleries where you walk into a space that has a shop, a cafe, a big empty functions space and a person or two behind a big desk. Suse Cairns published a post over the weekend about priming for the museum visit that closely relates to this point, and I totally recommend you read it.]


So far, I’ve been talking about conceptual metaphors - this is like that. (Actually, I suspect I’ve been talking in parables, but let’s run with my chosen figure of speech.)

There’s another kind of metaphor - the non-linguistic. It’s been suggested that this is how art, music and dance work on us. When we hear a piece of music and it makes us feel sad, when a painting unsettles us, when a dance excites us - this is a metaphorical mapping between the art form and our human experience. It is a connection between us and another person, another time, another emotion.

Emotion is something I have been thinking about a lot this year. This year I was torn open. And it was horrific. It was also, in its own way, beautiful. One of the side effects of being for the first time in my life totally raw to the world has been the deeper and stronger way I respond to art.

I cry all the time over books - in the privacy of my own home, on buses, in the street. I weep unashamedly in art galleries. When Michael Parekowhai’s Venice Biennale work was installed upstairs, I sat against those long white walls and I listened to people play that red piano and I let the tears fall down my face. When I visit Auckland Art Gallery and I sit in front of Are there not twelve hours of daylight? I let myself go in a way I would never have had the impulse or the confidence to do before.

I recently read an article about Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate. Talking about what’s happening at the Tate Modern in particular, one of his peers, John Elderfield, said that we’re now seeing a period of radical change in how people use museums.

He was quoted saying: "It's not only about looking closely at works of art; it's moving around within a sort of cultural spectacle. I have friends who think this is the end of civilisation, but a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things that transport them."

This quote jelled with some things I’ve been thinking about for a while. One is a thought that goes back years, to a day when I heard a commentator on Radio Sport talk about a rugby game in terms of spectacle. He didn’t mean this in a ‘what a total freaking disaster’ kind of way. He meant it as an event designed for the viewers, built around a physical contest between two opposing sides. It made me realise that ‘spectacle’ does not have to be a dirty word. It can mean an event or experience that is carefully crafted to evoke a reaction. That reaction does not have to be dictated, but the expectation is that the viewer or participant will be aware that they are in a moment. 'Spectacle' in this sense means memorable, meaningful, moving.

The second is a feeling - a questioning - that I have. I wonder if we have become a little timid. Our visitors are hungry for experience. I want to explore what it might mean to have more emotion in our museums. To have more personality. To have more connection - between our visitors, our staff, our artists.

This desire is the kind of thing that makes me daydream. I want to end this morning on two of my daydreams.

The first is my Museum of Emotions.

My Museum of Emotions started with an uneducated observation, based on a bunch of books I had been reading. It was about how men used to (say, up until the early 20th century) have intimate friendships with each other - close, even impassioned, correspondences and conversations - that operated outside the domestic and sexual zone of wives and mistresses. And that today, this intimacy seems lacking in the lives of many of the men I know.

I had been thinking about how our language has become impoverished. How we have fewer words for love, for friendship, for our feelings. How words have become watered down over time - words like melancholy or chivalry once had entire schools of thought built around them, rather than meaning ‘a bit depressed’ or ‘holds doors open for women’. And when our language is impoverished, our ability to describe or share or face our feelings is likewise diminished.

The Museum of Emotions is not about collections, civic pride, or community involvement. It is a place you can go to to experience emotions that have fallen into disuse, emotions that are foreign to your workaday life, or emotions that have not been part of your life yet.

It’s not a place to learn about emotions. It’s a place to feel them. I had a conversation with Michael Edson about this idea. He talked about a museum where you programmed exhibitions and performances explicitly designed to elicit emotional responses. I talked about a room that you went into where someone would radiate an emotion towards you, like perfume rising off warm skin.

So whether this is through art in its various forms, or through some kind of speculative Matrixy-Minority-Reporty magic, I don’t know. This idea is probably not realistic. But as a metaphor for dreaming about the kind of experiences I want to create for people through my life and my work, it's invaluable.

My second daydream brings us a little closer to the normal themes of NDF.

Anyone who is kind enough to follow me online will know I’ve gone a little bit crazy for Digital New Zealand’s set-making functionality. It wasn’t my idea at all, but I was involved in the implementation of sets, and I’ve become an avid set maker.

I make sets for a number of reasons.

I make sets related to projects that I want to do in the future - they’re a way of gathering together and quickly annotating items, usually artworks in public collections.

I also make sets as a way of exploring an idea or a thesis. For example, I recently made a set of nearly 100 items, triggered by seeing an exhibition of new work by Peter Robinson and finding myself thinking really hard about what felt like to me “1990s” art. I used DigitalNZ to sift through public collections and pull out works that spoke to me of this period, a decade that seems characterised by a new consciousness or self-consciousness: of our art history, of our place in the world, of sexuality and the body, ethnicity and identity, language and communication, of how art is made, framed and disseminated.

I make sets to accompany blog posts and to pull together galleries of images for the spots I do on Radio New Zealand - I can do this more quickly on DigitalNZ than I could if I contacted the institutions individually and asked for permission to reproduce their works on the RNZ website.

And I make sets to amuse friends, as private/public gifts, and because I find myself moved by what I see as I pore through this treasure trove.

I also pay a lot of attention to the sets other people make. At the moment, there is no way to search for sets on the DigitalNZ site, or to see sets other than those presented on the homepage. If you want to find them, you really need to follow set makers on Twitter and jump on the links they send out. The little DigitalNZ Fan Club tumbler I set up was a work-around for this problem - a way of finding and sharing these sets. Of course, this is totally reliant on me being dedicated enough to keep adding to the site, and I can’t thank Donna Robertson enough for sharing my love for these things, and also sharing the load - unprompted - of adding them to the site.

I have a little extra insight into the public sets (for which I am very, very grateful). I am fascinated by the overlaps I see between the sets. For example, sets of images of people reading are popular - set makers tend to be bookish types. There were two early sets that contained almost identical items - one titled ‘Woman on left, leaning on table’, after the cataloguer’s description that helped aggregate them; the other titled, simply, ‘Elbows’. A friend and I both made sets, entirely independently, months apart, of images associated with safety campaigns.

There is, I think, a kind of meaningfulness that accrues to images as they are repeatedly collected. In a way, the restricted ability to see other people’s sets gives a kind of purity to this data. It’s not just the same few popular images - say, Eric Lee-Johnson’s laughing kitten from Te Papa’s collection - being used over and over again. When an image is added to multiple sets, it is more likely to be - I think - because it has an intrinsic quality that moves, intrigues, or tickles people.

Of course, having seen this, I want more. I want to see which images are the most-collected. I want to see, when I’m on an item landing page, all the sets that that item belongs to. I want, when I’m looking at someone’s set, to be able to suggest further additions. I want to make sets collaboratively. I want someone to play with the set data and see if there’s any kind of pattern to which items are popular with set makers. (i’m going to give you a hint. The bigger and more luscious your images, the more likely you are to get set love.)

And I want more than that again.

For a long time I have been frustrated that I can’t search our collections by emotion. Cataloguers record a factual description (‘Boy, aged approximately five, wearing woollen pullover and crying’) but rarely emotional tone or content (‘Boy, aged approximately five, wearing woollen pullover and crying with frustration’). But I want to type happy or sad or loving or bored or awed into a search box and get a stream of results.

So, I want to source emotional interpretations of historical photos, and then let people play with the data.

This is how kind of how I see it working. There’s a wagon wheel - a little like a colour picker - with the names of emotions around the circumference, each allocated to a shade. The colours are paler towards the centre (the centre is kind of emotionally boring) and deeper towards the edges; the edges are intense emotions.

Images are presented alongside the emotion-picker. And people drag and drop each image onto the emotional zone that seems appropriate for it.

Then we take this metadata, and we use it not just to power search, but also to present the emotional attributes alongside each individual photo.

Maybe this is shown as a version of the emotional wheel with each data point on it. Maybe it’s as little colour samples complete with their closest emotional descriptor, so you can see the shades and strengths of associations. Maybe it’s as pie graphs – this image has been rated as 100% happy, as 50% bored and 50% lonely, as 90% joyful and 10% dangerous. Who knows. It’s good to have some things to work out.

Anyway. That’s just on the screen. Then I want it out in the world.

I can imagine displays where the emotional spectrum is presented as a long horizontal stream, with the images floated over the slowly-changing colours. I imagine curating a show based on the emotions that you see emerging in your collections. I imagine an experience that plucks out the most emotionally divergent images, and tries to draw out why they move people in such different ways. I imagine people making things that blow my mind.

Note - I am keeping this post just as I gave the talk, but I also wrote an illustrated and slightly extended version of the following section, which includes the full Charles Simic poem quoted above. 

There’s something else that keeps me returning to this idea. Let’s go back to the DigitalNZ sets again. I have a set called ‘You Move Me’, which is mostly just for me. It’s not a set I’ve ever publicly shared. It brings together images that do just that - that move me.

Some of them are easily parsed. Colin McCahon’s Scared, for example: the stark, brave statement in white paint flung against on a black background: I AM SCARED. I STAND UP. Ian Scott’s joyous, sexy, carefree Leapaway Girl. A photo from 1905 of three blind old men in matching beards, pipes and uniforms, sitting on a bench on the verandah of the Ranfurly Veteran’s Home. A man and a woman kissing at the Wellington Railway Station, watched by the partial profiles of two soldiers.

Then there are the items that are less explicit. There is a photo I feel great tenderness for. It’s by John Pascoe, and it’s from 1943. It shows Laurie Walker, the owner of Manuka Point Station in the South Island, standing in profile, head bent over his hands, reading a letter. Next to him stands his horse, also in profile, patiently waiting for him. It is so quietly reflective, so peaceful, so intimate, and when I look at it I hear the silence of my childhood, sitting in a paddock in the middle of nowhere, no-one else in sight, reading my book, waiting for my father to come back from wherever he’d gone and collect me.

There’s an image that I find endlessly forlorn. It’s so bland, when you describe it: it’s a photograph, taken in about 1935, documenting a pothole on Molesworth Street. An empty section of street, the bottom part of a row of shops, and a pothole. But I feel this wave of loneliness whenever I look at it.

And there’s a 1950 photo from the Evening Post that I find incredibly romantic. It’s titled, simply, ‘Man and bird’. It shows a young man, his hair ruffled by the wind, wrapped in a trenchcoat, in Evans Bay here in Wellington. In the background, there is an overturned bicycle. And in his arms, he cradles a huge, powerful dark bird.

Every time I look at this photograph, I think of Richard Brautigan’s ‘The Castle of the Cormorants’:

Hamlet with
a cormorant
under his arm
married Ophelia.
She was still
wet from drowning.
She looked like
a white flower
that had been
left in the
rain too long.
I love you,
said Ophelia,
and I love
that dark
bird you
hold in
your arms.

These are all intensely personal reactions. They are me feeling myself into the images. This is metaphor in action.

And the point of this little diversion into my feelings is this. I still don’t know what my prompt for Emophoto is. I don’t know whether I want to ask What emotion do you see in this photograph, or if I want to ask What do you feel when you look at this photograph. These are intensely different questions, and would lead, I think, to entirely different results.

At the moment, this indecision doesn’t really matter. This idea is pure daydream. I’m not like Chris and Tim -- I’m kind of talentless. Or ... skill-less. If I was still at Boost, I could probably cajole Emophoto out of a couple of the guys. As it is, it’s living in a set of sketches and a Google doc that I visit occasionally to remind it that I still care. And now it’s out here, to see whether anyone else finds it interesting.

So that’s where I’m at. I had a bunch of other things I thought about talking about this morning. About how metadata is a way of turning looking into seeing (thank you Petra for giving me this phrase).

About the notion of the sensitised or sensitive museum; a physical space that senses your behaviour and shapes itself around you, about data-driven curating and push-notifications and those freaky gloves that record your pulse and skin temperature as you look around exhibitions.

About how much harder it is to tweet when you’re an art gallery director than I ever thought it would be, even when - perhaps especially when - you’ve been bleating on about openness for god knows how many years. This subject is even brighter in my mind after reading the notes from the director’s roundtable at the MCN conference.

In this session Janet Carding, director of the Royal Ontario Museum, described their new website. It’s designed to democratise staff access: every staff member will be able to blog or tweet without moderation. Carding herself joined Twitter to model behaviour for staff and move things forward; in the session, she asked for tips about blogging because she needs to start doing this too.

This is quite a usual pattern - directors taking on new technology at the behest of their staff, leading through doing. But I’m a little unusual right now. I’m the first person since the 1970s to come from the private sector to run one of our art galleries. I think I’m the first person to come from a web background - with all the things that means, all the things we come here each year to celebrate and question and reinforce - and run one of New Zealand’s cultural institutions. I’m possibly the first person of my generation to do this, the first of the people who are comfortable with living their lives - or some carefully curated version of it - online.

So, I tweet. I blog. I radio. About art and artists and art institutions. All the time. A lot. But now the personal and the professional are smashing up against each other. I don’t have the safety net of putting ‘My views are personal and not necessarily those of my institution’ on my twitter bio, because they are both.

Talking about my job and my team - talking about art  - which are things I love doing, which are the things that make me happy, which I kind of think is the purpose of my job - has suddenly become a little dangerous; not just for me, but for my organisation. The risk of putting a foot wrong and standing on a landmine I was completely unaware of is actually quite real. And it’s nerve wracking, and it feels very isolated at times, and yet I will not stop.

Because I firmly believe that this openness - scary as it can be - is one of the most powerful and scalable ways we can be friends with our fans; that other half of my bangle.

So. I have a bunch of things to talk and think about, and I’d love to do that with you all. But for now, I just want to say thank you. Not just for your time and attention this morning, but also for being the community you are. Someone asked me yesterday if it was weird being back here, given my new job: I told them I felt like I was back with my people. So … thank you all for being you. I hope you all enjoy the rest of the day.


Nina Simon said...

Thank you for sharing this, Courtney. It's beautiful and scary when you take a risk. Good luck and let me know if I can ever help.

suse cairns said...

Courtney, I was moved then and I still am. I think sometimes people choose teachers whom they wish to emulate and learn from, and it strikes me that you are going to be one of mine.

Courtney Johnston said...

Nina, Suse --

The things you say here just reinforce for me the way I felt at NDF this year. I don't think we realise quite how lucky we are to be part of this community; I do think we'll look back in our old age and marvel at the openness, the support, the curiosity. The way we all learn from and teach each other. It's remarkable.

Anonymous said...

Your talk was one of the highlights of NDF2012, beautiful and moving. It made me feel good about the way I sometimes get really excited/sad/joyous about the stuff I am teaching kids in our wee museum--I'm not sentimental dammit, I'm PASSIONATE! Objectivity/impartiality is important when imparting the facts about an object but emotion has a huge role when telling the story of that object. So thank you, again, for being so open.

Courtney Johnston said...

Aaron - thank you so much.

Yesterday, I watched one of our educators sit a class of intermediate-aged girls in a circle, and talk to them about how pieces of jewellery can hold memories and emotions, and how these can be passed down and between people, and change over time. Then this broadened out into a discussion of what body adornment can be - from lockets to hats to things that are dangerous to wear. But it was that personal and emotional link that started it all. If we can make that personal connection, we can use that as a way of introducing all sorts of facts and new information and new perspectives ...

(Plus, I would always rather hear someone speak with evident passion than with evident objectivity. I don't think one excludes the other - but I think one draws people in easily, and the other is a harder row to hoe.)