STARTing Our Engines at the Tucson Museum of Art

This article is part of Plinth’s features series, which provides an informal space for in-depth analysis and conversation on issues in the museum field.

By Michael Fenlason with Katie Perry

“This changes everything.”

I stared at that sentence for half an hour before deciding to use it as my subject line for an email to my CEO, the Tucson Museum of Art’s Robert Knight. Like most museums, we had spent the past several years tempest-tossed by a rough, calamitous economy. We had researched every grant, held numerous fundraisers, raffles, and artisan sales, and we had reduced controllable expenses to the bare minimum. We had made good, sound business decisions at every turn and were still being challenged by the economy and our place in the world.

We had to change everything. I was suggesting to my employer that we consider a radical new programmatic agenda. Pushing for change is often considered something of an insult, as if saying that the past has not worked implies that the stewards of that past were responsible. This certainly was not the case. “This Changes Everything” meant that I was asking for a series of uncomfortable institutional conversations on questions that spoke to the core of our work. In January of 2013, I sent my CEO an email with thirty programmatic ideas: participatory experiences, outreach possibilities, pop up museums, social practice events, engagement happenings for specific under-represented groups, new uses for multimedia, programs for Millennials, and partnership opportunities with other arts organizations and artists. This was not in my job description.

Change is Not an Insult

I’ve always been a believer that change is not an insult. This phrase has all the possibility of being an outstanding business cliché, like thinking outside the box or moving the needle or getting thrown under the bus. As a guy who’s spent most of his professional career not only being thrown under the bus, but actually waiting at the bus stop, I can tell you that change is really not an insult. Change is inevitable, and it behooves us to embrace that rather than viewing change as insulting or attacking.

In the absence of the obvious market pressures that drive change in the corporate sector, museums can be oblivious to the need for change. At the end of the day, many museums are old-school. But our institutional model doesn’t have to be old-school – in fact, the very survival of traditional cultural institutions requires a thorough reimagining of this model. You can’t ask your patrons what they want, because they’ve already bought your product. You have to welcome the curious. You have to help widen the circle of patrons. You have to listen, not just talk.

While we may have tax-exempt status because of a belief in the intrinsic value of the arts, being nonprofits doesn’t preclude us from being successful, attracting crowds, or responding to audience desires. Many organizations struggle because they see themselves as somewhat removed, as if arts and cultural organizations are a special class – “we provide value, you’re welcome.” The truth, of course, is that arts institutions also operate in the spheres of leisure and entertainment; community members choose to visit these institutions as a use of their personal, discretionary time. If museums and cultural institutions don’t offer compelling uses of this time, people won’t show up.

The Real Competition is the Couch

The Couch is the internet, cable, satellite, streaming video, digital media, and all the products of home entertainment delivered to patrons in their pajamas. Everything we do in the arts can be seen on the Couch. How do we define ourselves in the context of this new Living Room?

The Couch has it all. The Couch has driven down the price of books, music, film, and television. The Couch lets you eat more than just popcorn. On the Couch, you can make noise during the symphony and the opera. You can pause Shakespeare to use the bathroom. You can print the painting. You can even re-edit the film, Photoshop the painting, and remix the music. The Couch engages. The Couch is participatory and interactive.

You might say (and you’d be right, in my opinion) there’s really nothing like hearing a symphony live, or standing in front of the rich impasto of a Van Gogh, or seeing a stage performance by a gifted actor. But how do you compete against the Couch? How do we communicate the experience of public art patronage and engagement? If we are, indeed, an arts and cultural institution, the focus of our tax ID status is about education. It is about sharing the cultural heritage of the world, broadening access to these resources, and providing public spaces for people to be challenged and inspired both by the likes of Mahler, Shakespeare, Verdi, and Rembrandt and by their own ideas. It’s also about supporting public dialogue and delivering content in ways that private, individualized Couch spaces cannot. With notable exceptions, many of our arts and cultural institutions have not been successful in this regard. What then must we do?

Art Speak Art and Patron via Tucson Museum of Art Art Speak Art and Patron via Tucson Museum of Art

Hare-Brained Schemes

Working with Katie Perry, our Grants Manager and Development Associate, and a Museum intern, Graham Thompson, we developed the idea of START as an organizational device to address this challenge and begin to execute more public, participatory programs that would combine the unique resources of the museum with the democratic, interactive elements in which the Couch excels. Get STARTed was the next phase of a project initiated by a Flinn Foundation planning grant. The initial plan of the project was, quite simply, to expand our Museum hours in order to encourage participation. Thursday night operating hours were extended from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM, extending the Museum’s ability to reach the average citizen who works 9-5 and whose free time is valuable. What we found, however, in the course of the evaluation of this project was that merely being open was not enough. We had to do more, but it had to be a special brand of more. We began to examine who would benefit most from these extended hours. Looking at our average demographic, it becomes clear: 93% of TMA patrons are under the age of 18 or over the age of 60. Entire generations of potential art lovers and future sustainers of culture are, though we are ashamed to admit it, being overlooked by TMA.

One difficult hurdle of institutional change is that there is rarely any money for it; paradoxically, the lack of money is often the impetus for change. The first step the START committee took was to evaluate our assets. We have a large, four-acre campus. We have a foundation-supported evening of extended hours. We have a great many artists in our community who are associated with individuals or programs at the Museum. With the aim of developing our assets, we married the programmatic ideas with the time and real estate. Our resulting programs may not work for every museum, but we are confident our process will.

What’s the Big Idea?

Fundamentally, we did not allow the tail to wag the dog. We created these programmatic ideas with the notion of inclusivity and outreach. We weren’t looking for data-driven outcomes. We were looking for people. We didn’t develop the programs to get a grant. We developed the programs to grow interest in our mission.
When analyzing the assets, we could not avoid the liabilities. We had no money for the program, an already over-taxed staff, and a brand problem. Museums often feel their brand should speak for itself. But we found this at Urban Dictionary, a website visited by the very group we were hoping to attract:

Something human beings clearly saw at some point in time but is now extinct

“Now museum, now you don't.”

2. museum

A girl that's nice to look at, but impossible to get remotely intimate with.

We’ll spare you the associated quote.

Clearly, we needed to think beyond our existing models of cultural institutions. In terms of a model for an art museum, we had discovered that our institution could both present and empower others to generate art. Utilizing our campus and the skills, ideas, and talents of our arts community, this is how we started START.

START has three main components:
1) Risky, entrepreneurial, outreaching programs designed to be a worthy competitor for 20- and 30-something’s time.

2) Beginning the dialogue with our community in expansive public programs that disallow exclusivity. We beta tested the possibilities with an event called Art on Tap, a craft beer and new art event that offered the public the opportunity to taste local craft beers, meet community arts groups, and look at the art work of over forty talented local artists. Offering artists an opportunity to create and show work in a buttoned-down environment is to a certain extent a singular feature of the START program.

3) Create from the community and the staff of the Museum a collective of artists and art lovers to create programming. The members of the group are diverse in their interests, field of work, career level, and include young entrepreneurs and business owners, teachers, lawyers, non-profit employees and volunteers, students, Museum staff, and, most importantly, young and emerging artists themselves. By charging no membership fee and requiring only a minimal time commitment, we aimed to widen accessibility and address the income and class barriers that can limit participation.

Get STARTed kicked off on March 20 with The Arts Speak, a community-wide festival of tolerance, diversity, and discussion in art. Inviting artists and arts organizations to speak to issues they care deeply about through their art, The Arts Speak was held in four locations with numerous artists and arts organizations presenting work. By empowering artists to make art, and by creating opportunities for artists to display art, we had begun the significant challenge of building a base of interest and activity. Both Art on Tap and The Arts Speak were successful, both financially and aesthetically. In terms of traditional museum practice, we found that more than 1,200 people from the two events entered the Museum galleries for the first time. We raised a significant amount of money from the two events (admissions and underwriting respectively) and were able to create a core group of emerging artists who help generate and execute programming.

The programs we continue to create are designed by the people, for the people, and gain authenticity in being so created. Current programs in include:
My Muse as a Woman Who Hates Me: An evening of theatrical monkeyshines and live art performance by award-winning playwrights, filmmakers, and artists.

La Dulce Video: An evening of cutting-edge art videos splashed on the great wall of the Museum complemented with gourmet desserts. Each video will work in tandem with live musical performers.

Out Beyond Ideas is a Field: Sufi master Sharif Graham speaks of the tradition of dance, richly illustrated by live dance performance and counterpoint by a quantum physicist.

To Dance at a Wedding: Working with artists Simon Donovan and Eugenia Woods, START creates a wedding of gender quality that includes live art, music, and human sculptures.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, we have developed art festivals that speak to the underrepresented in our community through a program called The Half Made Whole: A Four Story Jump. The Half Made Whole creates the structure for individuals and groups to form a mini-festival of their art, social practice, and advocacy.

Art Speak Human Mural via Tucson Museum of Art Art Speak Human Mural via Tucson Museum of Art

The works associated with this program are diverse in both form and scope. In The Versions Of Guadalupe, Filmmaker Josh Parra creates a two-step art and film conversation on what it means to be Latino in America. Like Love the Archers Are Blind is a large scale LGBTQ event composed around the conceit of a gay wedding and featuring LGBTQ artists and performers. Joan is Burning (The Strada Theatre Company in association with START) presents a devised piece on the future of women and women’s issues in America, including a film by Courtney Martinez and music by Tristyn Tucci. 3AM: In the Absence of Time and Memory is an arts mash up of music, film, and theatre that discusses the uses of free speech, the media, and art. While many of these programs may not fit for all museums (or even all art museums), we are developing The Half Made Whole into a manual for social engagement available to anyone seeking to create civil dialogue.

We will also plan a number of series throughout the year in response to community issues and consumer (patron) response. For example, over 90% of Museum visitors are from out-of-state and experience the Museum during the winter months. In our desire to better leverage what resources we already have available and to reach out to the members of our permanent community, we feel that we should not let our hot summer months deter us from fully utilizing our campus. Thus, the Museum will present the Caliente series, programs designed with a “hot” night at the Museum in mind:

Museum Noir: Art after Dark takes a noir twist as the Tucson Museum of Art hosts a fashion show by local “hot couture” purveyors Hydra and a performance by Don’t Blink Burlesque! Tough guys will be making martinis and Art Brutes will be presenting their wares. Dames and Palookas abound.

TMI at TMA: Too Much Information at the Tucson Museum of Art, as we present a series of performance artists laying bare their thoughts and ideas, featuring Mat Bevel.

What’s Written on the Body: A juried contest in association with tattoo artists across Tucson. Winners win free ink.

Bacchanal: Artists will have the opportunity to present new art inspired by the Classical period. The evening includes a riddling Sphinx, a Delphic oracle, a lecture on mythology, and a Satyr play. It is, however, also a toga party.

Increased traffic, revenue, and interest at the Museum is increased traffic, revenue, and interest for both its physical location (downtown Tucson) and the concepts it represents (art, culture, community). The programming creates vast opportunities for partnerships in order to cross promote other Tucson organizations and businesses and to engage audiences that may otherwise not have thought to set foot in a near-century-old art museum. There is so much in our complex world that can be considered art, and it is our intention to make those connections known and awaken the minds of those who traditionally find no meaning in art museums to new possibilities. We are stewards of a museum that belongs to the community, not its gatekeepers, and a mere member and representative of a long-living, vibrant local culture, not an exclusive arbiter or interpreter of it. We break this perception, and our standard practice, by embracing the unpredictable, the un-curated, the comic, and the authentic.

The Tucson Museum of Art mission statement, Connecting Art to Life, is deceptively simple. Such connection can take many forms and meanings, and will vary according to age, personality, and social climate. The Museum would like to experiment with expanding the connections we can help people make. Broadly speaking, in a culture and society where the extraordinary is becoming scarce due to the light-speed flow of information, miracles of modern technology, and demythologization of culture, art is a final stronghold of mystery for the Millennials and Gen X-ers and Y-ers. Members of the current young generations are certainly not apathetic to culture. In fact, with the speed and availability of information exchange and the facts of living in a world increasingly global and diverse, studies indicate that they perhaps value it more than any prior generation. Yet meaning in art, for them, is found via routes and experiences not traditionally associated with the museum. They find value in the unique, local, and extraordinary rather than the elite and well-known canon. The can find this value—and participation and engagement –from their Couch. With these factors in mind, START responds to this community by offering programs and events to get people off The Couch: programs designed to strip down the alienating hallowedness of the museum concept and make art in all its myriad forms the central, accessible idea.

via Tucson Museum of Art via Tucson Museum of Art

Press Send

TMA is Tucson’s oldest and largest arts institution. Celebrating our 90th anniversary this year, we boast a four-acre campus, an expansive education center, and a collection of over 8,700 objects. We want people to forget all of that. We show our community how truly, tangibly valuable TMA, the arts, and our local cultural organizations are to Tucson. Sometimes our community shows us. If you’re reading a magazine that comes from the point of view of inclusivity in museum practice, you’re probably in the category of “the converted.” You might also know that change in traditional arts institutions is a Herculean task. The circumstances that enabled the Tucson Museum of Art to effect the change we needed may be specific to our institution, but I am confident that they present relevant ideas in generating value for a broader demographic. Organizations like the Inclusive Museum are the repositories of ideas and institutional creativity, and as arts and cultural organizations move away from competition and toward collaboration, we must seek to effectively use these ideation platforms. “This Changes Everything” is surprisingly easy to write.

The present challenges, the efficacy and convenience of The Couch, will not change. The Tucson Museum of Art has the good fortune of expansive, visionary leadership, but the conversations were still heated, the questions surrounding our mission and its core still impassioned. Change is difficult, but creative thinkers inside your organization must press send.