Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Place and Space

I've been musing about the differences between history and art - two subjects I love dearly. Years ago I wrote an article entitled "History: A Thing to Study, A Place to Go," in which I addressed the differences between history taught in the academy and history presented at a historic site. For me, history as a place has always been paramount. When you learn about history at a particular place, when you are in the place where something happened, the experience is physical and emotional as well as cognitive. It's a richer experience. I have had many times when I actually felt like I could touch the past.

My experiences with art are different. It's not about the place, it's about the space. Recently I was in the new modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute. The gallery spaces, and the vistas across space into other galleries, heightened my senses. Viewing the art, and watching other visitors viewing the art, was a layered physical and emotional experience.

So, I'm wondering about place and space and how they affect me. I'd welcome thoughts on this.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Smiling with Brian Peterson

Review: The Smile at the Heart of Things...Essays and Live Stories
Brian Peterson

Despondent on a summer afternoon. In a day, I devoured Brian Peterson’s lovely memoir on art and artists, life, love and marriage, work, museums, human strength, habits-of-mind, diminishment and death. Now nothing in the house is worth reading or watching or even doing, so ardent and tender and enduring are his stories.

This is the story of an artist – first a musician and composer, then photographer – taking on the cape of a museum curator and reconciling the positions over decades. If you work in an art museum, you understand very well why art historians, not artists, run them, and you know that Peterson faced a Herculean internal struggle.

Of course he had me at the first chapter Thirty-five Steps. This is the climb to his office in the James A. Michener Museum,, a climb my DNA knows. His office is in the room where I grew up, as oldest daughter of the old jail’s last warden. The Michener Museum, its art and the many people who have made the stunning regional Bucks County museum, began life in a dank 1880s Richardsonian-type jail with 30’ high walls and locked down visitation. In two pages Peterson describes the Sisyphusian work of the curator, virtually guaranteed required reading for all aspirants to this lofty position.

Peterson apportions his thinking in five headings: Nourishment, Honesty, Beauty, Depth, and Hunger.

Under Honesty, Peterson brings us the title story The Smile at the Heart of Things: Emmit Gowin’s Spiritual Journey. It a story full of danger and love. Peterson shows us – really makes us see -- the gift of a photograph of Gowin’s wife and child, or any work of art that moves us. It’s personal. First person. Subjective. He says:

Despite the fragmented nature of our lives; despite the reality of evil, violence, and death; despite the trials and horrors that life can heap upon our plates; despite all these things, Gowin’s photographs tell me that spiritual and emotional health is not only possible, it may be as natural as breathing. [1]

In Depth, he brings us below the surface of the earth, mind and body of boy and man. We come to know his life-long relationship with his geologist father and the tender family moments at the end of life for his father-in-law. His boyhood friends appear and teach and so do his grandchildren. He brings us into his at-first unequal and then not, friendship with George Rochberg .

Hunger, real hunger, is always fruitful.

He helps us understand the virtues of hunger in its many forms. Leaving us with:

Nothing good happens unless you’re hungry[2]

His final reflections are on the museum exhibition, the major production in any museum, which is a ritualized form of nourishment in which an organized group of paintings, sculptures, photographs, etc….a body of work, is offered to the public in the hope that its aroma will be so tempting that it simply museum be tried. A way of feeding our hunger.

One of the museum’s patrons anonymously provided the funds to allow Peterson to write this book. This is the fruit of sophisticated philanthropy. Rare. Graceful. And with a work of lasting effect.

I’ve decided now that I’ve written this. I’m going to start at the beginning and read The Smile at the Heart of Things a second time.
[1] p. 127
[2] pp. 232, 233.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Embarassing Social Messages

This post reports on unintendedly embarrassing social messages, illuminated by Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate, and Virginia Heffernan, NYTimes, The Medium Commentator.

I realized this week that my social network sent notice of my birthday to distant acquaintances, casual friends, clients, and business colleagues. Mortifying.

A reading by the Poet Laureate Kay Ryan on Tuesday provided solace.


Connections lie in wait--
something that in
the ordinary line of offenses
makes offense more great.
They entrap, they solicit
under false pretenses,
they premeditate.
They tie one of
your shoelaces
to one of a stranger,
they tie strings to purses
and snatch as
you lean down, eager
for a little something gratis.

And last month, Virginia Heffernan’s piece in the NYTimes took a new, for me, slant on the whole idea of being connected, an excerpt below

Only the poor — defined broadly as those without better options — are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl — original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.
Let Them Eat Tweets: NYTimes Magazine,
Virginia Heffernan, Sunday, 04/19/2009

And I learned that May 22, 2009 – the date in question -- is the release date for the movie Night at the Museum II: Battle at the Smithsonian. The first in this series was so, so bad in every way. However, I was thinking that we could all take ourselves out for some pre-summer-silly/stupid in honor of my birthday and our love of museums. And in praise of museum guards, who never get the props they deserve.
Please don't send an cyper-card to celebrate my milestone, but if you want to share ways to disconnect or to control your cyber life (I am not doing email in the morning), feel free to post them here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

WW II Lookout Tower

Today, with brisk wind and billowing clouds threatening rain, Will Lowe and I join Michael Zuckerman for a tour of the brilliantly restored and just opened World War II Lookout Tower. This stark and beautiful six story concrete structure – the last of it’s kind in New Jersey, introduced by simple, effective didactics, evokes the fear and courage of the Greatest Generation and tells the story of a now all but forgotten chapter of America’s early involvement in WWII. Towers such as these and massive bunkers hidden throughout the Jersey coastline protected strategic industrial centers – such as the Philadelphia Shipyards -- along the Delaware River and bay.

The project has been supported by a strong partnership:

Everyone associated with the project should, in my opinion, take enormous pride this accomplishment.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Being strategic in volatile times

One of the responsibilities of leaders and managers is to pay attention to the strategic challenges and opportunities facing their organizations. This is a difficult enough task in normal times; it becomes particularly challenging in the volatile times in which we find ourselves today. There is so much noise being generated by people trying to make sense of emerging developments that it can become almost impossible to see the forest from the trees.

So how is a manager to attend to this responsibility? One way is to engage in the continual practice of strategic thinking and action. This involves the process of scanning the horizon, identifying and making sense of emerging opportunities and challenges, and considering what appropriate responses the organization might make to what is going.

In working recently with a client on their strategic agenda, I was helped by the way that John Bryson frames Strategic Issues. He defines these as “… a fundamental policy question or challenge affecting an organization’s mandates, mission, and values; product or service level and mix; clients, users, or payers; or costs, financing, structure, or management.” (Bryson Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations p.30)

What is helpful in this definition is that strategic issues are only relevant to the extent that they impact on core aspects of the organization's purpose, life, and work. By using the lens of Strategic Issues, you can focus on what is truly important to the organization. With the attention focused on issues rather than solutions, you can open up your options for what you might do. Of course, there is a tension created when you are facing issues and don't have a clear resolution in sight, but Bryson believes that this tension is actually useful as it prompts organizational members to engage in discussion and debate that can lead to organizational change.

You are freed up from being concerned about situations where there is nothing that you can do, and you can direct your energy to the things that you can influence. Strategic thinking should have an action orientation, and so you help the organization focus on what it can do to address strategic issues it faces.

While there is an obvious strategic issue facing most organizations in the current economic and financial crisis, it is important that we not allow ourselves to be diverted from consideration of other, equally consequential, issues that may affect the mission and operations of our organizations. One tool I have found helpful over the years is the STEEPLE framework – its usefulness lies in its wide vision of analysis, and a reminder to consider each one of its component parts.

Some starting questions to explore:

* Social:
Organizational and social issues, including competition/cooperation, capacity, management commitment, beneficiary engagement, conflicts, etc.
* Technology:
Cost, availability, supply-times, replacement periods, maintenance, electricity, software, infrastructure, training, support, etc.
* Economic:
Economic and Financial status and trends; inflation, cash flow management, financial management systems, procurement, etc.
* Environmental:
Weather patterns and fluctuations, seasonal changes, natural disasters, etc.
* Political:
Elections, parliamentary processes, policy and legislative processes, cabinet changes, etc.
* Legal:
Legislative and Governance environment, development of new laws, enforcement of laws, illegal/corrupt practices, penalties, etc.
* Ethical:
Ethical behavior of stakeholders (including staff, suppliers, beneficiaries); adhering to ethical standards of behavior, etc.

Using this tool to consider and assess the likelihood of a variety of factors, you can then apply the Strategic Issues lens to focus on just those key issues that have the potential to impact on the purpose, products and services, stakeholders, and economic base of the organization.

Our website contains a number of tools and other resources to help you deepen your capacity for strategic thinking and action

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Inspired to Make Trouble

Inspired To Get In Trouble

John Lewis inspired over 300 advocates this morning, prior to visiting their representatives in the U.S. Congress in the first Museum Advocacy Day. Yesterday, we were schooled in the fine art of advocacy by Washington’s best, led by AAM’s own Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied.

The clear message, laid out on AAM’s website is increased funds for and reauthorization of IMLS, museums as educators and economic engines. Delegates were also encouraged to ask their senators why they voted the way they did on the Coburn amendment to the federal stimulus package.

This amendment, which excluded museums from competing for stimulus funds, passed the senate 72 to 23, stunning the museum community and raising a nationwide response. The amendment changed in conference but aquarium and zoos are still prohibited from competing for these funds.

John Lewis’ penetrating gaze and inspiring words reminded us that 535 people come daily to the U.S. Capitol to create a more perfect union and to strive toward democratic ideals. We in museums, he insisted, have an obligation, a mission and a mandate, to make our work enlightening, to uplift, and to get in the way of injustice for the nation’s citizens and for generations to come.

For my part, I'm hangin' with the Pennsylvania delegation (my home state) and with folks from the District. Today is a banner day for us in DC as the Senate votes on giving the citizens of the District of Columbia an actual vote in the House of Representatives. Washingtion is almost too exciting these days!

AAM deserves a big helping of thanks for their work to make this happen for us today. My dream is that someday we'll need to rent the convention center for our advocacy training. Can you imagine what we could do if we had 4000 adament museum people, many of them board members, on the Hill, speaking on behalf of the cultural infrastructure in this country?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Generation O, 13ers, and the Convergence of Museum Talent

Who imagined when we launched the Convergence of Museum Talent in 2006 to illuminate the rising leadership transition that a 13er would become the president elect? Born in 1961, Mr. Obama is known to the demographers as a cusper: an individual who bridges generations. Not only has he shown us a new way to look at race in this county, he has brought us together into a new demographic: Generation O. As Heather Havrilesky said last month on Salon, A leader has emerged allowing Gen Xers to finally understand the Boomers’ earnest, self-important prattle

Mr. Obama’s election requires us to begin a search for another way of being. As his email to supporters said on the evening of his election victory …this all happened because of you…we made history…stand by… In the ensuing weeks we’ve seen that the Presidential Transition Team has rapidly positioned itself to engage many of us in the process, keeping expectations real. It’s not going to be easy but we will prevail is the message.

The 13ers/Gen Xers are taking over now, as they should. Specifically, in the museum world, the Emerging Museum Professionals group has been institutionalized at AAM, as we hoped

As for the “official” Convergence 13ers, Paul Orselli has become the program chair of MAAM’s Creating Exhibitions, Kim Fortney is now MAAM’s President, Amy Lewis Hofland produced Texas Collects Asia - a very big deal! Sean Ferns’ exhibitions on drug use in America traveled widely, while Wayne LeBar and his colleagues reopened the Liberty Science Center to international acclaim – these are just a few successes from the Convergence group.

We all need to again thank Dan McCollister and the good folks at the McCollisters Transportation Group. Their financial support allowed us to profile at the AAM meeting in 2006 and support Jessie Newburn to build our website and provide strategic thinking throughout the project. Greg Stevens provided public relations throughout and George Jacobs gave us space in Museum Design which was a great bonus, too. We had sessions at AAM, MAAM, and VAM, and a plenary at the Pennsylvania Federation so thanks to all those association leaders for seeing the value in the topic.

Just What is a 13er?

“13er” is the term coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, to describe the generation of Americans born between 1961 and 1981. This generation is the thirteenth generation since the founding of our country.