Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Got a Question For Ya...

What does the Super Bowl have to do with historic preservation and museum collections?
My answer: more than you'd think.

I would love to say that I watched the Super Bowl this past weekend, with fingers turned orange from Dorito dust and hair matted under a wedge of foam-rubber cheese, but alas, I'm not much for professional football.  I did, however, catch some of the commercials and was especially impressed (like many others) with the poignant ad for the new Chrysler 200.

As a native Detroiter, living well outside of the mitten at the moment, I find vignettes like these tug at my heart strings very easily.  Once the goosebumps and the thrill of landmark recognition passed, I began to consider the commercial more critically (because I'm a grad student and that's what we're conditioned to do).

After reviewing the Monday morning roundup of commercials, I was most struck by the contributions from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  At present, a link to the Chrysler ad and accompanying article is prominently displayed on their homepage.

Yes, the National Trust for Historic Preservation had something to say about a rapper's attempt to hawk mid-sized sedans.  Notably, they said this:

Let me be upfront: I realize this is not a commercial about historic preservation. And whether or not Chrysler genuinely loves Detroit and its struggling stock of historic treasures is irrelevant because, at the end of the day, they have a very clear bottom line: Sell cars. I get it. However, in my eyes, the ad clearly linked preservation to progress — to the rebirth of a city that “has been to Hell and back.” The screen capture of Eminem in front of the restored and insanely gorgeous Fox Theater with “Keep Detroit Beautiful” glowing on the marquee says it all. Cue the choir (of course there was a choir!) and you’ve got water works.
I also found the overall look and feel of the commercial to be deeply moving. For me, it showed that cities are alive — and can die. And the juxtaposition of progress and the city’s real but often sensationalized ruins was beyond poignant. Yes, moving inventory is critical to Detroit’s recovery, but so is historic preservation.
(Read the entire article here.)

For Michiganders, I felt this point was an obvious one-- of course Detroit needs historic preservation.  We've all been heartbroken, watching beautiful and historic buildings decay before our very eyes.  So much of what is seen in the news is the dilapidated, abandoned Detroit.  I was a little offended that the author of this article seemed surprised that Detroit has something worth keeping.  But that aside, I very much like the idea that the city's recovery is dependent on historic preservation as well as car sales and I was impressed that the ad seemed to highlight the preservation efforts that have already been successful within the city.

Fox Theater
There were images of the Diego Rivera murals at the DIA, which not only capture iconic images of the auto industry, but are also one of Detroits points of pride.  There were also images of historic downtown buildings that have been flawlessly preserved for decades (That is the part of Detroit with which I am most familiar). There was also the Joe Louis memorial, The Spirit of Detroit, and shots of our historic churches.  Most notably, there was the Fox Theater.  Arguably one of the most stunning buildings in the city, the Fox underwent a $12 million restoration in 1988 and is still sparkling.

I think it's rather symbolic that the ad culminates at the Fox Theater.  In a way, highlighting the success of this historic preservation project represents what could happen all over the city.

Fox Theater
But the message on the marquee of the Fox Theater read like a call to action for historic preservationists: KEEP DETROIT BEAUTIFUL.  The author of the NTHP article finished by saying "I couldn’t agree more. Americans are capable of making — and saving — great things."

Indeed!  And what acts as a testament to that assertion better than a museum?

Those final thoughts bring to mind an object I saw while at The Henry Ford this past December.  My dad and I spent a great day in the Henry Ford Museum while I was home in Michigan for the semester break and after our visit, we both agreed that our favorite object on view in the museum was a set of Johansson gauge blocks.

I had never heard of such a tool before we saw them at the museum.  I can't explain the science behind them any better than Wikipedia, but I thought the way they were exhibited and interpreted in the context of the museum was just great.

Johansson Gauge Blocks
Sure, they don't look like much.  In fact, I would have walked right past them except that they were alone in a display case all their own.  Something clicked in the museum-awareness part of my brain and said, "This must be important!"  And sure enough, they were.  These blocks essentially represent the entire Detroit automotive industry.

Henry Ford used these instruments because their precision in measurements allowed Model Ts to be assembled without employing "fitters" (people needed to adjust individual parts so that they fit together correctly), which saved money but also further contributed to Ford's efficiency in mass production.  The same mass production assembly line that allowed the automotive industry to take off in Detroit and centuries later, inspired Super Bowl commercials.

Eminem said, "This is Detroit and this [make cars] is what we do".  Well, "this" is what we do because of these gauge blocks.

The above pictured set of blocks is not Ford's own.  His set is not metric and is engraved with his name on every single block.  Ford's personal set of Johansson gauge blocks is impeccably preserved and on display in the Model T exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum.

Indeed, Americans are capable of making and saving great things.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

White Kids on Bicycles: Museums' Most Important Target Audience?


Here, in Florida, I almost feel like it's a four letter word.  Nobody wants to talk about it out loud, but lots of people ask me about the details of the city in private, with a kind of morbid curiosity.  "Are there really bears in downtown?"  "Do people really shoot raccoons and sell the meat to survive?"

When I first got back to Gainesville, I met with my advisior and he had just as many questions about the city-- albeit much more relevant and realistic ones.  I'm happy to answer them.  I don't want people to think of Detroit as some kind of scary, forbidden place full of mystery and lore.  In that meeting, we talked a lot about the arts of Detroit.  Of course, there is the DIA, the Detroit Symphony Opera, etc.  But there is also the electronic music festival, The Scarab Club, the Heidelberg Project, and other more grassroots art movements.

When I was finishing up my internship at the DIA, Larry (programming director) asked me about my likes and dislikes, in an effort to find out more about the DIA's newest target audience: 20-somethings.

My birthday last week might even push me out of the most sought-after group: early 20-somethings.

I urge my countless readers to watch ALL of the videos presented here.  Palladium Boots (for some reason...) teamed up with Johnny Knoxville, of MTV's "Jackass" fame, to create a series of three videos that spotlight the "other" side of Detroit-- you know, the side that's not eating raccoons.

Don't let Johnny Knoxville's association with "Jackass" fool you (Dad!)-- he takes a very respectful, curious, compassionate, and intelligent approach to the city. 

One segment features restaurant owner, Larry Mongo, who speaks about owning a business in Detroit.  He told a story about how he closed up his restaurant after a string of murders in the neighborhood, leaving it closed for a long period (I don't believe he specified... but it sounded like more than a month).  After being closed for so long, he said one day, a group of "200 white kids on bicycles" were outside the restaurant, asking when he would open again.

Yes, hipsters are moving into Detroit.  As Larry states, they're not taking over-- they're just filling in the gaps in much the same way that African Americans filled in the gaps when the white community left Detroit.  Now that everyone has left, the hipsters are filling in.

There is a movement brewing in Detroit.  These kids, in their late teens and early twenties, are active in the community and are passionate about bringing art and life back to Detroit.  These are the people that the museums want to target, and with good reason!

It's no wonder that Inside|Out has been such a hit!  The community is thirsty for that kind of outreach and "beautification".  I realize that projects like this are like a band-aid on a gunshot wound.  Certainly, 40 fake paintings aren't going to revitalize the city.  But, I think it will do a lot to inspire and motivate the people who see them to continue in that direction of change and regrowth.

I've touched on this before but, it has been hotly debated among museum professionals so it's worth discussing again: What is the purpose of a museum?

A lot of museum professionals believe that museums exist to collect, preserve, and display works of art.  Others argue that civic engagement is a necessary function, in addition to those listed.

I think it depends greatly on what the community needs.  In Detroit's Cultural Center, students and recent graduates of Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies are the biggest catalyst of the revitalization of that area (it's one of the fastest growing and trendiest areas of the city).  As the Palladium videos show, the young people of Detroit are motivated and willing to work on facilitating change in the city.  I think they can find a partner in the DIA. 

Detroit does not need a stoic, static building full of paintings.  It needs an active organization that can fill some of the gaps in the failing school system, provide a partner to CCS and WSU students, as they take on public art projects in the city, be a  place where Detroit residents can gather to discuss art, politics, community projects, or anything at all.  Civic engagement needs to be a major component of the DIA's purpose, as it sits in the center of a city that is desperately attempting to become re-engaged!

I'm not sure if Detroiters realize what an ally they could have in the DIA.  But if they do, I urge them to vote about it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Semester, New Internship

Some time has passed from my last entry and a lot of things have happened.

Most notably, I am back in Florida and three weeks into the semester.

Also, I have yet another internship (now called a "practicum" for reasons I don't quite understand). This time around, I'm at the Florida Museum of Natural History (or, FLMNH), working in the education department, developing programs for seniors and adults. I am completely thrilled with this assignment. I have had programming experience in the past, so this project seems totally accessible to me-- yet I've never programmed for adults, so it's new and challenging. In short, I'm stoked.

In other happenings, one of my intern projects from the Detroit Institute of Arts is now in full swing. DIA: Inside|Out has been featured in the Detroit Free Press, Canadian Press, CBC, Detroit News, Metro Times, USA Today, Crain's Detroit Business, and ArtDaily.org!

That Canadian Press article was also featured in a dorky professional newsletter that I get, called Dispatches from the Future of Museums.  It's actually one of my favorite museum news sources, so I was really excited to see the project featured there.

Inside|Out seems to be getting a great reaction from the public, but really, how could it not? I've had several friends back in the Detroit area tell me about various paintings that they have seen around town.

It's been so rewarding to see (even if it's from a distance) this project come to fruition and be so successful. I'm really happy with the way the paintings and labels turned out. For a while, it looked as if the labels would be cluttered with corporate sponsors' logos, or be made of low-quality materials... but they look fantastic! I'm really glad that our committee held their ground with that issue.

All 40 reproductions should be installed by the middle of September, but a bunch of them are already in place-- including one on everyone's favorite Italian restaurant.  Here are a few shots of our little piece of the DIA (click on any one of them to enlarge):

The Fruit Vendor

The painting is located right next to our kitchen door

Though this photo is reminiscent of a "Where's Waldo" book, the painting is still visible.  Can you find it?

A map of all the locations and artworks can be found here.  And the DIA website, of course, has a little feature on it as well.

More photos of the various paintings can also be found at the Inside|Out flickr site.

I can only hope that my current internship will pan out to be as rewarding and educational as my time at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Already, I think this practicum was a good choice for me. I was wavering back and forth about what classes to take this fall, and when I had one schedule slot left to fill, I didn't want to settle for a course that wasn't of great interest to me. So, I decided to go a different route and spend 9 hours / week at the Florida Museum of Natural History. From the few meetings I've had, and the bit of initial research that I've done, I can tell that this will be 3 credits well spent.

Certainly, the FLMNH differs from the DIA in many ways, including content, size, location, and budget. Yet, I can already see many similarities in the general operations and some of the challenges that have been discussed-- many of which I think are universal among museums of all kinds.

So this just leaves me wondering... when will we be installing these in surprising locations around Gainesville?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Formative Evaluations

My last project at the DIA was just as fun and interesting as everything else I had been working on all summer, and I'm a little disappointed that I didn't have more time to get involved with it.

Museum evaluation is actually very interesting to me.  I like to know how the visitors perceive the museum-- is it meeting their needs?  Their expectations?  Are they enjoying themselves?  Are they actually learning anything?  Is our message being received by the public?  And I find evaluation to be tied very closely to education, as the answers to the above questions are generally addressed by an educator.

The DIA appears to take evaluation very seriously.  They have their own evaluation department that works with many areas of the museum (staff engagement surveys to membership evaluations and visitor surveys). 

My last project involved formative evaluations of some labels for an upcoming exhibition called, "Fakes, Forgeries, and Mysteries".  I wish I were going to be in town for it-- it sounds pretty cool. 

The DIA actually tests every label before it goes up on the wall.  More specifically, they test interpretive labels and texts.  Those labels that just describe the artwork don't really change.  I love this.  I love the idea of presenting the draft of the label to the public, asking if the text works for them.  It just makes so much sense.  And honestly, it's not that much work.  I know it sounds really labor intensive to test every single label, but it's just not that bad.

All of the necessary supplies for label evaluations

Each draft label is printed out on regular paper and taped to a wall in the museum (frankly, in the scope of this entire project, I was most nervous about taping things to the walls of the DIA) and then 10 visitors are asked to read the label(s) and answer some questions about what they read.  Generally, 2 labels are tested each time so it goes pretty quickly.

The draft label on the wall, along with sample artworks

For two days, I was charged with standing near the Rivera Court, temporarily mounting the draft labels, and interviewing 10 people per day about their thoughts on the texts.  I really liked it.

To some, I'm sure this sounds like a painful task, but I really enjoyed for a couple of reasons.  First, I got to talk to visitors.  I love talking to visitors.  A buddy and colleague of mine, who works at another museum said, "I take my employee badge off when I walk through the galleries so no one will ask me anything".  We could not be more different in that respect.  In his defense, he's only been working at his current museum for a few months, so he doesn't really have the knowledge base to feel comfortable answering visitors' questions.  I, on the other hand, have been coming to the DIA for the better part of my lifetime and can tell you where the bathrooms are without blinking.

As a "prize" for participating, each visitor gets a postcard of an artwork in the DIA.

One of my "hobbies" while at the DIA this summer, was to walk around the galleries when I had some down time, and listen to people's conversations.  It sounds creepy, but I'm interested in what they are saying about the art and about the museum.  I like listening to how adults talk about art with kids, and how people engage with each other in conversations about art.

So it was a real treat for me to stand in the hallway and ask visitors questions.  Plus, I was able to give directions to elevators and bathrooms all day.

The other thing I liked about this project was seeing the results.  Because each label is only read and evaluated by 10 people, it's possible to see the results very quickly.  For example, after about 6 interviews, I was able to find a pattern and see that people had trouble understanding the third paragraph of a certain label. 

It's instant evaluation gratification and I loved it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pan Asian Cuisine, Formative Evaluations, Recommendations, and 20-Something Hipsters

Over jalapeno sake and Korean food, I was told that the DIA's Executive Vice President had been given the recommendation to hire me as soon as I graduate.

I spent much of last night, before my last day on the job, wondering if I had done any good.  In my last post, I mentioned the projects I completed and spoke about their value to the organization, but I was still wondering whether or not I had actually done a good job.

So I guess that answers that.

Larry and Michelle took me to lunch today and I really enjoyed it.  I feel particularly invested in the 125th Anniversary's DIA: Inside Out, so it was nice to have lunch with the rest of the team before I leave.

Larry had very complimentary things to say about my work and mentioned that he told the EVP that she should hire me as soon as I'm done with school.  After which he said, "Wait... when are you done with school?"  A year and a half seems like a long time for the DIA to wait, but I suppose it's not unheard of.  On top of the fact that I am fantastic, there is another reason why the DIA is interested in hiring me (and people like me).  Larry spoke briefly about an initiative called the 15/15 project (or something like that), which aims to add 1,500 young, college educated, Detroit residents (living around the cultural center and Wayne State University) to the DIA's membership.

So, all of a sudden, hip 20-somethings are the DIA's target demographic.

(This revelation was followed by Larry asking how old I am (24) and then asking my feelings about Andy Warhol, contemporary art, and Damien Hirst.  It feels kind of nice to be a target demographic-- suddenly, everyone is interested in my thoughts on things.)

To target this demographic, the DIA really needs to have some 20-somethings on staff, which is the other big reason why Larry was so willing to recommend me.

Interestingly, I think that a large percentage of the DIA's visitors are already local 20-somethings.  While they may not actually be members, I have noticed a lot of people my age wandering around the museum on a daily basis.  In fact, yesterday, I was doing some more formative evaluations for an upcoming exhibition and more than half of the people I spoke with were younger people, and young couples seemed to be the largest demographic I saw all day.  This is purely anecdotal evidence, of course, but it seems to me that the 20-something Detroiters are already interested in the DIA, but perhaps they are not being cultivated for memberships.

So that was my last day at the DIA;  Asian food, recommendations, formative evaluations, and hipsters.

Except that I don't really think this is my last day, so much as it is my last "official" day-- perhaps my last day in the building, but I don't think it's my last day at work.

There are two projects that remain unfinished:

1.) DIA: Inside Out
Inside Out is a major undertaking and I have offered to help Michelle with emails and phone calls in any way that I can.  I made contacts and established relationships with several Detroit-area businesses and Downtown Development Authorities, and while I have given them all of Michelle's information, I was their primary contact until now, so I will continue to field any of their questions and concerns about the project, as they arise.  And Michelle has offered to keep my updated on the overall progress of the project.  As I said, I am very invested in this project and I would like to continue to be a small part of its realization.

2.) AAMD Maps
The data for the maps has been sent off to the AAMD.  But, of course, it will take some time for the fellow at the AAMD to process the information and generate the maps.  I expect that he will have some questions about the way I broke down the information, or some organizations' addresses, or Canadian postal codes, or any number of other things before the maps can be completed and I have been the only person working on this project, so it seems silly and ill-advised to suddenly dump it on someone else's desk.  I am still in contact with the AAMD, and will continue to be their primary contact until the maps are complete and in Sondra's hands.

An intern's work is never done.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Inside Out

I'm in the last days of my internship and I've been pretty busy, trying to tie up all of the loose ends in each of my three projects.  Today, I'm entering the last bit of data for the AAMD Maps and I hope to have everything sent off to the AAMD by this afternoon.  I'm also giving all of my program synopsis sheets one last proof-read before I print them off.

And much more exciting, we finally picked a name for the 125th Anniversary Project!  Yesterday, we were supposed to have a committee meeting but Michelle was out, buttering up some of our prospective locations and Courtney was off working on the construction of the frames, so that left Larry and I as the only two in the office.  So Larry and I sat in his office, discussing the general progress of the project and my part in it, when he finally said, "Alright, we need a name for this thing-- what do you think?"

We had a meeting with the marketing department last week that involved a lively brainstorming session to come up with names for the project.  Some were better than others.  A few of the rejects were:
Drive By Art
(Not such a great image in Detroit)
Severe Weather Art
(Which started as Art in the Sun, but then became a play on the tornados we've been having all summer)
Art Attack
(Which I actually really liked)

The list of ones we liked was pretty long, but in the end, it was Larry and I that selected the offical name for the project:

DIA: Inside Out

The runner up was a name that I actually coined: Off The Wall.  But Larry pointed out that we're actually putting these paintings on walls, so it's not such a great play on words.

Either way, I love the name we came up with and I was thrilled to play such a large role in selecting it.  I might not be around to see the paintings go up, but when I read about it in the paper, I'll know that they're using a name I helped select-- and that's just as satisfying.

On that same note, I will not be around to see the paintings be installed because my internship is (sadly) coming to an end on Friday.  Inside Out is far from finished, so Larry has asked that I find another intern (or two or three) to replace myself on the project (he even suggested that I conduct inverviews!), so I submitted the resume of a former classmate from CMU (Fire Up!), put a note on the Emerging Museum Professionals Facebook page and asked a former prof to email the offer to his students.

The fact that I need to replace myself at the DIA seems to go against most of what I read this weekend in the New York Times.  The article talks mainly about the notion that interns should not be abused and worked to the bone without receiving "payment" of some kind, be it college credit, a stipend, etc.

The article states that:
In April, the Obama administration issued a fact sheet listing six criteria aimed at preventing employers from violating the Fair Labor Standards Act with their unpaid internship programs. Among the stipulations: that the training the intern receives must be similar to training that can be obtained in an educational setting, that unpaid interns don’t displace a paid employee, and that the employer does not derive any “benefit” from the intern’s work.
Ok, so...

Training similar to that of an educational setting:  Check.
Must not replace a paid employee: Check.
Employer does not derive any "benefit" from the intern's work: Ummm...

What exactly do they mean by "benefit"?  While at the DIA, I did a lot of things that I think were helpful to the organization.  I wrote up program synopses that can be included in donor packets and grant proposals, I entered a ton of data into the AAMD database for mapping our community outreach-- which will be useful in our upcoming millage campaign, and I secured several locations for DIA: Inside Out, which I also helped name.

Last night, I was explaining to my dad that while these things were helpful, my absence after Friday will not be noticeable... until I thought about Larry's request.  Perhaps I did provide a measurable benefit to the DIA.  Without knowing Obama's definition of "benefit", it's hard to say.  But let me say this, I do not feel cheated or used by the DIA in any capacity.  I am incredibly proud to say that I played a beneficial role in the success of a museum that I love dearly.

And I didn't even have to pay $42,500 to do it. 
(Seriously, read that article!)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Art Camp in Pictures

I took a bunch of pictures at Art Camp last week and have been meaning to post them, so here they are, in all of their ridiculous, messy glory:

Creating creatures and environments

Painting pink penguins

Chatting with Mr. Byron

This fold-out chalkboard divides the two studios.  Cool.

A giraffe in Africa

Mixing colors can get messy...

 Thank goodness we have plenty of aprons to go around!

Working hard on her imaginary roller coaster

It all culminates with an art show for parents and family on day 5

Parents, admiring their students' work

Learn more about the DIA's summer art camps and see pictures from better photographers than myself at http://www.diaartstudio.wordpress.com/ and www.flickr.com/photos/diaartstudio.