Friday, May 14, 2010

New Projects

Today I met the curator of Islamic art. I complimented her on the excellence of the newly-opened permanent Islamic art exhibit. Two days ago, I would have had nothing to say to this woman, I was happy that I'd had a chance to wander through that part of the museum.
Things on the third floor were pretty slow today. I send out a handful of emails, and was pretty much done for the day.

Around noon, I told Sondra that I was going down to the cafe to grab a quick bite and that I'd be back soon. She told me to grab a "slow bite" and to take my time and maybe check out a gallery or two.
So I took a long lunch and toured the new special exhibition: Through African Eyes. It was fantastic! One of the pieces reminded me of something I saw at the Harn not too long ago. It was a kente cloth made out of bottle caps and wine foils. The rest of the exhibition was great, as well. It was a little different from what I expected (truthfully, I don't know what I was expecting) but it was really interesting and very well put together. There were a few school groups with docents and I eavesdropped on their tours for a little bit, but I think I was making one of the docents nervous, so I left her alone after that. I don't know enough about African art or colonialism to dissect the exhibition much more, but I thought it was interpreted well, and provided a lot of contextual information. It was an interesting divergence from the VTS tour I observed yesterday.

Later this afternoon, I was offered two additional projects, which I promptly accepted.  One came from Sondra.  She has asked that in addition to my list of partners to be submitted to the AAMD, I create a synopsis of each program that could eventually be used in millage campaigns and grant applications.  For this, I will need to attend as many programs as possible, take some snapshots, and talk to some of the participants.  By combining my words and thoughts with those of the participants, the idea is that I will communicate the value of the program to the museum and the community.  I'm especially excited about this project because it means I get to GO to all of the programs that I'll be profiling.  I'm stoked!
The second project came from Larry, who is the head of Public Programs.  I was just headed out the door-- almost outside-- when he called my name and told me about this gem.  This year is the DIA's 125th anniversary!  To celebrate, they will be doing some guerrilla outreach that sounds pretty wild.  They're making reproductions of the most famous paintings in the DIA, framing them up in elaborate faux-gold frames and installing them all around the greater Detroit area.  I'm told there will be more than 40, total.  Once they've been installed, someone (read: an intern) then needs to GO to all of these locations to talk to people about  the art and why it's there.  The first painting to be installed will be Watson and the Shark, which I'm told is very popular with visitors.
Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley (1777)

On the whole, I'm really excited about these two additional projects.  Everything seems to be in line with my interests (which isn't hard to do, as I love pretty much everything about museums) and I'm thrilled to be involved with projects that will have a measurable impact on my community.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Big Picture

I had a fantastic meeting this afternoon.  The "Program Inventory Task Force" are definitely my people.  Not only did they compliment my shoes, but they're also involved in some really interesting stuff.

For a number of purposes (but it appears mainly to be for funding issues) this team has been assembled to inventory the programs that the museum conducts.  I don't have much more information about this group because we talked mostly about me and my own project(s) for the duration of the meeting.  See?  I told you it was a fantastic meeting.

As I said, I am working with the AAMD to create a map of the museum's "partners", with each "partner" represented by a colored dot on the map. 

Sample AAMD Partner Map

The people in the meeting with me had LOTS of thoughts on this, and it eventually turned into a discussion / debate about the definition of the word "partner".  Are corporate sponsors considered partners?  What about wedding receptions?  How about those community entities that we've reached out to, but have yet to ever use the museum's resources?  All good questions.

I couldn't come up with a concise definition either.  I guess I'm thinking of it this way: In a time when Detroit is so downtrodden and people are reluctant to support museums and other cultural institutions... what would you want to show those citizens to convince them that the DIA is out there, mixing it up with the community, and thus worth their support?

Do people care that we have deals with all of the area  hotels?  Maybe.  Do they care that we send a docent to School X every month to lead interpretive activities?  Probably.  I think it might be logical to identify those "partners" that hit home with the public (be they churches, schools, retirement homes, etc.) and emphasize our relationships with them.

The task force is working amongst themselves to compile a list of viable "partners", which I will later submit to the AAMD.  Their policy at the moment is to call almost everyone a "partner" and then look at my finished list and eliminate any that stick out or seem not to fit.

I don't have a better plan, so this sounds fine to me.

This first week of interning has been a little slow in terms of sit-at-the-computer work, so Sondra gave me permission to do a number of different things with my free time.  She told me I could feel free to tour the museum on my own and just wander around.  I also have permission to crash any of the public tours, which occur daily at 1pm.  And I was also invited to tag along on any of the school tours (only about 1000 kids every day.  No big deal.)

I took a public tour yesterday, another one today, and then a school tour.  I loved all of them for very different reasons.

The school tour was awesome. It was a combined group of 5th and 7th graders from the burbs, and it was a really good group of kids, so that helped.  The docent informed them that she would be using a method called Visual Thinking Strategies, and talked briefly about it before moving into the galleries.  It was really great to see VTS in action, but I noticed that the docent "cheated" (her words, not mine) a few times along the tour.  She later confessed to me that she wanted so badly to discuss the meaning of the art with the kids, that she just couldn't help herself--and ultimately dished a few historical details that are not VTS approved.  However, the group had done really well with interpreting the works, so her few comments did more to help than distract the kids.  I told her that I thought it worked well.  Also, I was unfamiliar with a few of the works she chose to present to the kids, so I was able to enjoy the tour in much the same way the students did, which was pretty fun.

My two public tours were also great.  The title of the tour is "The Big Picture" and it's a 45 min - 1 hr overview of everything the DIA has to offer.  In other words-- it's impossible.  I would actually say that it's more of a taste than an overview, especially since each docent gets to pick their own route.  I saw completely different galleries with each docent, which I thought was great.

Docent # 2 won me over with her interpretation of the Rivera Court.  It's a place I have been millions of times, but she still managed to show me new things.  That alone was impressive.  Another thing I liked about Docent #2 was her use of VTS.  Our group was all adults, but she still used the VTS methods.  Though, after she asked us "what's going on in this painting?" she then followed it with the "answer" and provided a lot of history.  This group of generally well-educated adults (many seemed to know a LOT about art) wasn't really at risk of becoming frustrated by hearing that their answers were "wrong"-- whereas that can be detrimental to a child's development of art appreciation.  It was an interesting combination of VTS and traditional interpretation methods, and I really liked it.

Here's something scandalous:  When the education director at the DIA first suggested that VTS should replace their current interpretation method, it did not go over well.  Many people in the museum perceived VTS as a threat to what the DIA represents.  After all, it's an art museum-- and VTS teaches NO art history at all.  But I give the DIA a ton of credit for taking what they viewed to be a very risky initiative and reinventing their education strategy.  Lucky for them, it now means they are on the cutting edge of museum education.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Visitor Experience

This morning, I was invited to sit in on a meeting titled, "Visitor-Centered Problem Solving Strategies". In this meeting were managers from most departments within the museum-- security, education, development, curatorial, etc. It was supposed to give these managers an the "tools" necessary to solve problems in their respective departments. It was titled "visitor-centered" problem solving because, according to their new strategic plan, everything that happens in the museum is supposed to contribute to a positive visitor experience. The idea is that "visitor-centeredness" is a trickle-down phenomenon.

It was interesting.

To illustrate how to use these problem solving tools, a sample "problem" was examined. The only issue here is that their "sample problem" isn't much of a "sample" at all. It's a real, glaring issue for all of the staff at the DIA-- visitor satisfaction. Recent surveys (one of which I took when I was at the museum last July) revealed that as many as one in five visitors are dissatisfied with the service they received while at the DIA. Something around 82% of visitors had a great experience, but in the grand scheme of things, there is still a great number of people who were less than thrilled.

So the meeting turned into less of a problem-solving workshop and more of a visitor satisfaction discussion (which truthfully, I found much more interesting). A lot of the concerns I think are fairly universal: The visitor services person was rude to me. Of course they were. You sit behind a desk for 8 hours a day, answering the same stupid question every 3 minutes and see how pleasant you are. That doesn't make it right-- it just makes it a reality. The visitors are right in that they deserve to be treated kindly and with respect while in the museum. So then it became a brainstorming session about why this has become such a problem and what is really making the visitors upset.

I was given a handout with actual visitor comments (only the negative ones, for the purpose of this meeting) and some of them were horrifying. One of the major themes I saw was that of staff who are trying to follow policies that don't always make sense. But when the staff are given no room to make decisions, both the visitor and the staff member become frustrated.

"I'm sorry, you can't use this entrance. I know it's raining. Oh, you have a heart condition? Sorry. You still have to walk around to the main door."

When I was working at the MHM, one of the best things my boss ever told me was that if I needed to break a policy to ensure the safety of myself or a visitor-- or if I was simply doing what I thought was best-- she would back me up every time.

In an emergency, I was NOT supposed to dial 911, but rather a special emergency line than rang to a facilities office in another building nearby. Then one day, I had a man collapse on my desk, panting and asking me to dial 911 because he was having a heart attack. So I called 911 and an ambulance got there a heck of a lot faster than if I would have followed the rules and called the facilities line. When later asked why I broke the rule, I explained myself and my supervisor backed me up, just as she said she would.

I don't think this kind of trust exists with the DIA's frontline employees. They are told to follow (sometimes seemingly pointless) policies to the letter... and they do because many believe that their jobs are at stake. And in the City of Detroit-- they probably are. Again, none of this makes it OK for staff to be rude to visitors. But after this meeting it became easier to see that there are a lot of factors at work in the quest for visitor satisfaction.

I am very interested in visitor surveys and the public perception of the DIA (and museums in general) so I found this morning's meeting to be right up my ally. I didn't learn much about "visitor-centered problem solving", but I did walk away with a deeper understanding of the problems the DIA is facing in terms of serving its visitors.

I will include the survey-results handout, along with the "Visitor-Centered Problem Solving Strategies Workbook", in my internship binder at the end of the summer. 
(That is more a note to myself than anything else.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Strategic Planning and Avoiding Museum Security

So... day two was exciting.  There are several ways to access elevators to the third floor offices.  I'm told that most staff use the loading dock entrance.  I think that's boring.  Loading docks are for registrars.  I like the galleries.  If I come in via the John R entrance, I end up walking through several galleries before I find the giant bronze elevator that will take me upstairs.

This sounds wonderful... except that today I got a little lost.  Apparently, security was alerted that I was wandering around the galleries without any credentials.  Oops.  Well, eventually Sondra found me and I was swept away to the security office to obtain an official badge.  Awesome.

But come on-- wouldn't you want to wander around here too? 

The hallway that leads to my elevator.

This is the insanely huge elevator to the third floor.

And once I got upstairs, I found my desk without getting lost.

My desk.

Today I worked on some stuff with the DIA's new strategic plan.  It was actually pretty interesting.  Their fiscal year is about to end (June 30) so they just had a strategic planning meeting where the staff were able to give their feedback on the main objectives of the plan.  Staff were asked to write their questions and comments on post-it notes, which were later used in some kind of activity (I wasn't at this meeting, so that's about all I know.)

I was asked to find general themes within these comments, organize them as such, and type them up.  It sounds mind-numbing, but it was actually really interesting.  It was almost like eavesdropping on the inner thoughts of the institution and it served as a great overview of the staff's most pressing concerns about the future of the museum.  I'm not sure if I'm at liberty to discuss what these concerns are... so I won't.  But some were what I expected (the obvious budget issues, etc.) while others were surprising.  Overall, I found it to be an interesting little project.

Yesterday, Sondra took a picture of me with her iPhone, and emailed it to the entire museum as a means of introducing me and soliciting for projects that they may need help with.  As a result, I had dozens of people stop me in the hallway today to say, "Hey!  You're that intern!"  Yup.  I'm that intern.

Tomorrow I have a meeting-- the topic of which is still something of a mystery, but I can't wait to find out.  At least everyone in attendance will know who I am.

Monday, May 10, 2010

This Isn't Just ANY Nonprofit-- this is the DIA!

So today was my first official day as an intern at the Detroit Institute of Arts-- and it was fantastic!

My day began with a tour of the DIA.  I didn't see much art, but what I did see was just as interesting... to me, anyway. 

As we were walking past the loading dock, I found myself standing on my tippy toes to look through every window out onto the dock.  I had a repress a delighted giggle as I thought about how much Dixie would love this loading dock.  It had multiple doors, complete with a huge overhang (to protect artworks from the elements), a great looking staging area, and a great big open space-- large enough for semi trucks to maneuver.  It was so cool.

My "office" is upstairs on the third floor.  All offices are on the third floor-- pretty much everything else is museum space of some kind.  I'm right up there with the director, Graham Beal.  His office is right around the corner from me.  It was a little depressing to look around the third floor and see how many empty desks and workspaces there are.  About a year ago, the DIA had a major staff cutback, and it seems that almost all receptionists and administrative assistants were eliminated.  As a result-- I have ample workspace to call my own.

The bulk of my mapping project can't begin until I have several meetings with other departments, which will happen later this week.  So Sondra, my supervisor, gave me a few things to read and review while I was waiting around this afternoon.  After some thought, she pulled an article off of her bookshelf and turned to me saying, "Have you ever read any Stephen Weil?"  I felt a rush of blood to my skull as I said, "You know, I have."  (I had major issues with a Weil article I read this past semester, in which he invented fictional museums (toothpick museum, anyone?) and then tore them apart for lacking in their relevance to visitors).  But the article Sondra gave me was actually much less infuriating.

Next, Sondra gave me an article that she said was a description of the educational methods used at the DIA.  It was a basic outline for teachers and docents about VTS or Visual Thinking Strategies.  My final paper for Art Education last semester argued that VTS was the future of museum education, and far superior to other methods of art criticism used with students in informal learning environments.  I was thrilled.

The third article... I haven't read yet.  But I'll be sure to give a full report when I do read it.  And I will... eventually.

Finally, I was handed a copy of the DIA's strategic plan.  I was really turned off to strategic planning after my fall semester.  I had the impression that they were done to placate administrators and board members, but this document was really well organized, and a lot of the goals and objectives seemed reasonable. 

By the end of the afternoon, I had a phone number, a DIA email address ( and access to the DIA network.  With these things established, I sat down at my very large workstation and ventured on to the DIA website, where I found something that stopped me dead.

My final paper for Dr. Willumson's museology seminar argued for the inclusion of historical and cultural context when displaying works of art in a museum.  I turned in this paper less than three weeks ago, so it is fresh in my mind.  Anyway... this is what I found:

Is art just art?  What was influencing the artists?

I love this ad.  Not only does it support the argument in my final project, but I think it sets up this exhibition to be really accessible for general audiences.  It gives a very general context, which I'm sure is expanded within the exhibition itself.  I haven't seen it yet, and I can't wait.

The title of this post says a lot.  It's something I overheard in the office, during a discussion about the dress code, but I think it could be applied to pretty much any aspect of the culture within this museum.  I've taken classes and read articles about working in the public sector and what it's like to work for a nonprofit organization... and none of that seems to fit the DIA.  This museum, while struggling in its own right, still has a massive budget, and a slick operation.  There are more people working on the third floor of the DIA than worked in the entire Department of History Arts and Libraries (which has since been disbanded).  Everything looks new and clean, and well maintained.  I had the feel of being inside a large, profitable company-- not a nonprofit cultural institution.

After all, it's not just any nonprofit-- it's the DIA.