Monday 24 October 2011

You have this week ...

Earlybird registration for the National Digital Forum conference has been extended until 28 October.

If you haven't already checked out the programme, you should. As co-convenor, I'm obviously completely biased, but I couldn't be prouder of this year's line-up - or more grateful to all the people who are putting time and energy into presenting at the conference.

If you want an objective sense of how high the quality is, consider this. One of my heroes, Seb Chan, blogged this week about presenting at Web Directions South about digital cultural initiatives. Nearly every one of the projects he name checks will be represented at NDF: Tim Sheratt’s work with the digitised newspaper collections in Trove; New York Public Library’s historical menus project; the Australian Dress Register; the  Old Weather project with the Citizen Science Alliance using old ship logs from the National Maritime Museum to gather geolocated climate data form the past. That's just four of the 50+ speakers we'll be presenting. Hurry up - you don't want to miss out.

Wednesday 19 October 2011


An interesting write-up of Portland Art Museum's new brand. (It works, you know. The first person I showed it to said 'That's a big friendly P', and that's about what they were aiming for.)

Monday 17 October 2011

Oceania goes free for a day

The simple things

It fascinates me that exhibitions that take six months of research and soul-searching can be indistinguishable in their final effect from a selection of works made within a single day. I guess the lesson is that if you have a rich vein of work to tap, and know how to make stuff look good on a wall, a fast show can also be a good show.

Hamish McKay's current show of four Don Driver works exemplifies this approach. Quickly assembled, it's nonetheless a visually satisfying experience - complete unto itself. As a die-hard Driver fan, I have no pretensions to objectivity here; I just think you should get along to the exhibition.

Friday 14 October 2011

Line them up

Friday nerdy fun: the kerning game (not just addictive - pretty, too).

Wednesday 12 October 2011


 As the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver nears its opening day, the press is gathering (and covering more than the sale of four works from the collection to create an endowment).

I feel like a bit of a dummy - I didn't realise that Still released so little of his work to the market; I think of him alongside Rothko and Pollock, not as someone who needs to be hoisted higher in the firmament (maybe I can thank my lecturers for that). Dean Sobel, the museum's director, makes this explicit in a Wall Street Journal interview:

"We are going head to head with Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning and Newman," he says. "The goal for us is to put Still back in, to show the greatness of him and that he was the great innovator of the movement. He creates Abstract Expressionism before all the others."

The WSJ makes an interesting point about the challenges of opening a single-artist museum:

Creating a constituency for a one-artist museum can be tricky even when, like Georgia O'Keeffe or Andy Warhol, that artist is widely known (and loved) and has a local base (Santa Fe, N.M., and Pittsburgh, respectively). Still, a loner who was born in North Dakota in 1904 and died in Maryland in 1980, with several stops in between, had decreed that his life's work should go to any city that would erect a museum solely for his works—and nothing else, ever. Denver just happened to win the competition.

Fast Company's Design blog makes the same point from an architectural angle:

Museums for single artists are tricky. They’re monuments to figures who loom larger than life and, as a result, they can skew all-too-easily toward cliche or, worse, outright cartoon. But architect Brad Cloepfil, of Portland-based Allied Works Architecture, was the right man for the job here. His best designs, like the low-slung Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the forthcoming National Music Centre in Calgary, are tough on the outside, sweet on the inside, with big, bold gestures and thoughtful floorplans. Plus, he’s some kind of genius with light, feeding sun indoors through slits and crevices and peepholes in the architecture, like little blasts of heaven.

These are all interesting things to think about in light of the ongoing fundraising for the Len Lye Centre. I can only hope that some rubber pants turn up in the archives.

Monday 10 October 2011


Following on from Ursula Nordstrom - a Guardian interview with the blissfully unrepentant Maurice Sendak. (I challenge you to find a better opening para from last week's news).

Friday 7 October 2011

Fantasy lives

I have spent all this week pretending I am Ursula Nordstrom. While I type up proposals and estimates and web copy and bash out emails about wireframes and webforms and whatevers, inside my head I've been Nordstrom, at my desk in New York, banging away on my typewriter sending hilarious, heartfelt, cajoling, placating letters to Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak and E.B. White.

This is because I'm reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, the most gripping book I've read in months. It's not because the letters between the editor for childrens books at Harpers Booksand various writers, illustrators, friends, enemies, librarians, reviewers, teachers and children are full of drama and intrigue. They're more like a wall of words coming at you, in a tone that I'm sure some would find annoying but which I find entrancing. I've just finished her letters to E.B. White about the illustrations for Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web - she auditioned a number of artists, but settled on Garth Williams:

You will see that in the sample drawings for Stuart Little Mr. Williams did one picture in different techniques. We like the more detailed technique, don’t you? He was careful about lots of small but important details. For instance, in the picture of the doctor examining Stuart, Stuart is standing up. Mr. Williams had him lying down in the first sketch but changed it because he was afraid he might look like a little dead mouse if he were lying down. (That is probably a silly detail to pass on to you, but it was somehow encouraging to us.)

The exchange over Charlotte's Web is especially endearing; here she is on a round of changes to the illustrations:

On #1 Garth has changed the position of the door. On #2 he re-did it so that Fern has hair more consistent with the other drawings. On #3 he re-drew it so Mrs. Arable looked less like a young girl, more like herself in other drawings. (On #3, if you agree, Mrs. Arable looks a bit whiskery-y and we can have a couple of the little lines taken out. I may be imagining it through.)

Nordstrom's voice reminds me a little of Tammi Taylor in my great crush 'Friday Night Lights' - an impossibly friendly bulldozer of politeness, enthusiasm and relentless forward motion. It's such a pleasure having her inside my head right now.

(You can read a proper review and more extracts in this Open Letters Monthly article, which is where I first heard of the book.)

Wednesday 5 October 2011

How you play the game

I firmly believe everyone should read everything Atul Gawande writes in the New Yorker. Doing so will make you a wiser, more thoughtful, more expanded person. Intellectually more attractive. Better.

So in case you missed it, here's Gawande's latest piece, Personal Best. In it, Gawande asks why some professions - like sports and singing - have coaches, and others - like his own, surgery - don't. He opens by noting that his own performance as a surgeon has plateaued. He has mastered the physical skills needed, and gained the experience that allows him to deal with exceptions to the norm:

As I went along, I compared my results against national data, and I began beating the averages. My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.

Gawande looks at case studies from school teachers to professional violinists, and then takes on a coach of his own, a retired surgeon, who observes him during an operation:

Osteen also asked me to pay more attention to my elbows. At various points during the operation, he observed, my right elbow rose to the level of my shoulder, on occasion higher. “You cannot achieve precision with your elbow in the air,” he said. A surgeon’s elbows should be loose and down by his sides. “When you are tempted to raise your elbow, that means you need to either move your feet”—because you’re standing in the wrong position—“or choose a different instrument.”

He had a whole list of observations like this. His notepad was dense with small print. I operate with magnifying loupes and wasn’t aware how much this restricted my peripheral vision. I never noticed, for example, that at one point the patient had blood-pressure problems, which the anesthesiologist was monitoring. Nor did I realize that, for about half an hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound; I was operating with light from reflected surfaces. Osteen pointed out that the instruments I’d chosen for holding the incision open had got tangled up, wasting time.

That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years. It had been strange and more than a little awkward having to explain to the surgical team why Osteen was spending the morning with us. “He’s here to coach me,” I’d said. Yet the stranger thing, it occurred to me, was that no senior colleague had come to observe me in the eight years since I’d established my surgical practice. Like most work, medical practice is largely unseen by anyone who might raise one’s sights. I’d had no outside ears and eyes.

Gawande also points out that coaching has become faddish in recent years - from life to Twitter, you can seemingly get coached in anything.  In fact, the project management/software development methodology we use at work, Scrum, has regular reviews and coaching as one of its central tenets; it's all about iterative improvements to the way a team works. Bringing in a set of outside eyes to review how a team is working together or a process is moving can be hugely beneficial, but I think it needs a framework in which the coaching isn't intrusive or threatening, but normal and welcomed.

As always, I can't help but compare this back to the days when I worked in museums and art galleries. Reviewing something after it's done - like the success of an exhibition - is pretty much useless. You can say all you like that you'll 'use these learnings in future projects', but let's admit it: we rarely do. But reviewing how things are going every day or every week or every fortnight, and deciding *then* how you're going to make things work better - that's coaching. That's how you get a little bit better all the time.

Monday 3 October 2011

Paying through the nose

A few weeks ago on the radio I talked about the Oceania exhibitions at Te Papa and City Gallery (in brief: Te Papa surprisingly good; City Gallery surprisingly dull).

The thing that exercises me most about this show - content and presentation aside - is the entry charge. Now, sure, $10 is not a lot for two shows. But given that there's funding from MCH, and that the City Gallery show is about half made up of Te Papa collection items, and that it's these two institutions' jobs to put on exhibitions, I felt that I'd already paid that $10 a couple of times through taxes and rates.

I can only assume that the entry charge is meant to capitalise on the intended audience for the exhibitions - the people visiting for the Rugby World Cup. Based on the afternoon I spent at the two exhibitions, it's not exactly going to be a money spinner. City Gallery was as deserted as I've ever seen it, and the rest of Te Papa was heaving, but I would have spent that 90 minutes with a handful of other people.

It also interests me that this is the third paid show (including Kusama and Crown Lynn) since City Gallery reopened following renovations in late 2009. In fact, if you total the three runs up (Kusama 27 Sept 2009 - 7 Feb 2010; Crown Lynn 29 Jan - 25 April 2011; Oceania 6 Aug - 6 Nov 2011) that's verging on a year's worth of charged shows.

In this case, $10 doesn't feel like a valid attempt to recover costs, but a hurdle that's keeping visitors out. And that's particularly sad in the case of Te Papa, as this is a show more people should see.

If you want to read something more coherent and insightful about entry charges, you might like to check out these two recent Art Newspaper pieces: To charge or not to charge and New York's great museums could do better.