Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Abundant Spirit: Ukrainian Views on AAM's Conference

Before the annual AAM conference, I wrote about the chances you'd have to hear from my Ukrainian colleagues, Ihor Poshyvailo, Eugene Chervony and Tania Kochubinska about their work--and current issues in Ukraine. We had an amazing time in Seattle and I thought Uncataloged readers might be interested in hear their perspectives on the conference and what it meant to each of them.

From Eugene:

The most inspiring thing about the conference was the sharing of different ideas and what museums are doing in own organizations. Understanding of this big museum family every part of whom are doing great things in different parts of the world. At the same time I am understanding how much people did not come who have to share with others. 

One surprising thing was the similarity of problems in Ukrainian and US museums. We have very different circumstances in museum field, but problems are common for both environments - human resources, capacity building, decreasing of exhibit costs. Based on it we are sharing ideas with each other to increase our perception of solutions for the problems. Communication and linkage between professionals are very important and it has been proven again. Another surprising thing is that our ideas from unknown country could be very successful in other countries who have very developed and stable museum environments.
The size of the conference and development of museum industry is very memorable and it is hard to imagine such things in my country. A lot of great museum professionals are coming to present to the annual meeting and it is really great to understand that around you people and authors of books, that are standing on your shelf!
From Tania:
If to think about the conference generally, first of all, it is about communication and ideas exchange. What is great about any conference, it is about meeting professionals of your field from different contexts. If to talk about Seattle, it was all extremely welcoming, and it was really stimulating to be a presenter (with a great thanks to Linda Norris), for the 1st time in my life, and to share experience, and being heard and discussed. What I was really surprised about was that at the AAM conference that (despite the keynote speakers that of course which gathered major audiences) all the sessions were attended equally. You could see the equal amount of people coming to quite different sessions, whether the speakers presented leading museums or were from museums of a local value. It seemed to me that people were more interested in what is unknown rather than known and familiar. The audience seemed not to have preconceived expectations.

But at the same time, strange feeling of dischronation has always accompanied me because of coming from a quite different context into a safe society with different problems and different social reality. Getting into a new context makes you always rethink your own values, and this time, particularly.
And from Ihor:
It was my first experience of participation in the AAM Annual Meeting and Museum Expo. I was deeply impressed by the concentration of creative thinking and challenging opportunities for the museum world at that Innovation Edge in Seattle. I have never felt such a positive energy lavishly generated by a museum family of over 5000 participants from 50 countries at almost two hundred sessions in the spacious and hi-tech Washington State Convention Center.

It was so exciting to listen and even to talk to iconic persons of American museum field. Great to hear keynote speech of David Fleming on museums and social justice, and his referring to Ukrainian museums which try to be socially inclusive and go beyond traditional thinking.

But no less exciting was participating in a series of presentations and discussions in a frame of the International Track sessions focused on global aspects and cultural perspectives. And such an honor for the Ukrainian museum delegation to share its challenges, approaches, hopes, lessons and preliminary results on the road to change. This happened due to our American colleagues namely Linda Norris and Tricia Edwards with whom we hold a fantastic discussion on how constraints make us more creative, getting so many inspiring ideas from the audience. It was also a fantastic pop-up session on challenges and threats for the museum sector in Ukraine, presentation of the Dynamic Museum project at the "Lessons from the International Community”, meeting with the American Committee of ICOM. It was so nice to see familiar and friendly faces of our American colleagues who have invested so many time and efforts in building bridges between our museum communities.

Intensive days of the innovative gathering in Seattle have overwhelmed me with new feelings, inspired with new ideas and empowered with new tools for making change back home. It was a good start for a smaller but no less important museum initiative – “Visitors Voices” project which will be bringing the best American practices in transforming museums into places where diverse viewpoints and independent perspectives can be freely shared.
All of us give great shout-outs and thank yous to Tricia Edwards, our co-presenter and co-organizer of the entire effort (and photographer of our post-session relaxing at the head of the post); Dean Phelus of AAM, who helped make so many things possible; the United States Embassy in Ukraine and the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation,  who provided financial support; and ICOM-US, who provided a platform for additional presentations. From my own perspective, I'll long remember the ICOM-US lunch, where Ihor, Tania and Eugene, stepped forward to talk movingly and spontaneously,  about the power of art, the meaning of museums, and the ways in which we all need to work together.  And of course, thanks to all of you who introduced yourselves, asked a question, had a drink with us, or in any and every way made our Ukrainian colleagues feel a welcomed part of the larger museum community.

I could see, around the web, from photos and comments, that Eugene's innovative leaves (below) created from constraints were memorable for many others at our session. They symbolize a kind of creativity and abundant spirit and generosity that I hope always to see in our work.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What's Your First Step in a New Job?

One of this year's mentees, Megan Wood,  writes about her path in a new organization.  We've already had some great conversations as she explores new ways of working in a new organization.  I look forward to following her path through this coming year.

In February I took on a new position with an organization that is the middle of growth and exciting change.  My new job is on the leadership team as the Associate Vice President for Education & Visitor Experience at the Historic Ford Estates, which includes the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House and the newly acquired Henry Ford Estate.  I am only the second person to have a job with “education” in its title at this institution, so there is a lot of opportunity to grow and expand current offerings.  I have also been fortunate to be able to hire new staff and build a team focused on daily and special learning experiences.
It is both exciting and intimidating to start off anew with a team.  Exciting because of the chance to go my own way and intimidating because there is only one chance to have a fresh start.  I want to create an environment where people feel comfortable experimenting and unafraid of failure.  I also want to create an environment of collegiality and teamwork.
I decided to take a few crucial steps:
  • Start off with a team meeting and look at personal preference styles. 
On the advice of my mentor, Linda, we used an online tool to examine our dispositions towards Gardner’s learning modalities.  We talked a little bit about what we look like as a team.  It was interesting to see how individual personal interests manifest in learning style, and to keep it in mind as we move forward in planning and development of programs and experiences.
  • Use an ideas board to document and share creativity.
One of the Try-It’s from the book, Creativity in Museum Practice talks about an idea board that anyone can post to and capture ideas, images, or text that reflects the creativity we want to capture in our own work.  Instead of creating a work Pinterest board, we decided that the physical reminder of our ideas in a shared workspace could help inspire and ignite us as we work together and individually.
  •  Lay out my evolving philosophy on teamwork and leadership.
As currently structured, everyone on the team will be a team member or a leader in turn, depending on the project.  As the boss, I decided to make it clear what my philosophy is, so I sent around a one-page document that includes values like listening, care and service, respectful discourse, simplicity and clarity, and joy and lifelong learning.  I want to make sure that whoever we work within the organization, that my group is respected for their ability to lead and to be lead.

So far I am happy with the work and ideas that have been coming from my new team and can see some areas where I can improve as a leader.  We continue to meet as a team every other week, and then I meet with each person individually on the off weeks.  I hope in a few months’ time I will feel we have success in cultivating a creative and open environment, and I hope to share what I’ve learned through this experience.  Stay tuned…

Friday, June 13, 2014

Scared of the F-Words?

Fear.  Failure.  They're scary words.  We hate to admit them,  we don't often want to own up to them, and they affect our work more than we like.   Over the last two weeks, I've been in two great conversations where we used them; owned them;  we embraced them; to move the process of change forward.

I've been working with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on the re-interpretation of the Stowe House for a little over a year.  As you can imagine, that is many, many conversations among many, many people about how to create a historic house experience that really embodies the Stowe Center's social justice mission, in addition to caring for the house and collections.   This week, we brought a team of 20 (yes 20!) together to do some serious thinking as we're now at the decision-making stage.  Designer, evaluator, development people, architect, curator, director, educator, front-end staff, community members, scholars, playwright.  We were all around the table.
In planning the day, Shannon Burke, Director of Education and Visitor Services and I realized that everyone (including us) had fears about the project.  We decided to surface them first thing.  Using just a flip chart, I wrote down the fears that the group shared.  None of them would really surprise anyone who's been through a big project:  not enough money;  losing the audience we have; not gaining new audiences;  not doing enough training;  not having the new experience be "magical;"   not getting everyone on board; have the experience be not diverse enough;  too much technology;  not enough technology;  can we find a clear theme and make it real?   

It was a pretty big list.  But I flipped over the page and we didn't talk any more about them until the very end of the day. After a great, inspiring day, full of new ideas, connections, and more, we flipped the page back and went through the fears.  Some fears had gone away--but there were definitely still some fears left.  The good news though, is that I think most people in the room felt the fears were now manageable.  We'd made progress on the day, but knew that there was much work to do.  By surfacing and sharing fears, we turned them from the big monster under the bed to something we can work on together.

But what about failure?  Many of the Stowe Center team's fears were about failure.  At the New England Museum Association's Young and Emerging Professionals meet-up last week, Rainey Tisdale and I shared some creativity information (Rainey's awesome speed networking creativity dance-off will have to wait for another post).  I took on running the Failure Olympics.   Divided into Failure Nations, each group had to create a Failure flag (my favorites:  the crumpled paper and the lonely stick with no flag);  share their own stories of fails and lessons learned; and then nominate someone to compete in the Failure Olympics by sharing their stories in front of the whole group.  The winner:  a complex tale of ants, ant farms, exhibit openings and a shy young professional who learned that asking for help is better than having a pile of dead ants.  

What do both these conversations have in common?  Exactly that.  They were conversations.  In each setting, we tried to create an atmosphere of trust--and fun--so that fears and failures were easily shared, rather than hidden under our desk.   It takes zero dollars to do this--it just takes a willingness to listen and to talk.

Dear readers,  what's your best/worst failure story?

Top:  the Failure Olympics, center:  Stowe House meeting,  bottom:  failure flag creation.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

#getoutofizo Why Should You Care?

I first visited Izolyatsia, the innovative cultural center in Donetsk on a cold, rainy November day in 2011.  A few of us dashed through the raindrops and found ourselves in a huge warehouse, where equally huge portraits of salt and coal miners marched up hills of coal and salt.  The huge installation, by Cai Guo-Qiang has continued to stay with me (you can read my earlier post on it here).  I continued to keep an eye on the center's activities and last May had the opportunity to tour the site, learn about its work with artists and with the community, and get to know their energetic, passionate staff as we met with high school students to think about industrial history here.  When I think of Donetsk, this is one of the places I think about--a place that shows the ways in which art can engage communities and could help transform Donetsk's industrial landscape to a place of beauty and creativity.

This week, the news came out that Izolyatsia had been directly targeted by the separatists now active in Donetsk, taken over at gunpoint and the staff evacuated to Kyiv.  They issued a statement on their website that included the following to the "Prime Minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic about the takeover:
However, on the following day, June 10th, the employees from the former Izolyatsia factory still present on the territory noticed that the DPR militia under the influence of alcohol had looted the rented offices of the foundation, vandalising private property, and removing equipment, tools, the contents of the foundation’s safety vault, including the private property of its employees. Meanwhile, the foundation’s representatives were prohibited from recovering artworks, documents and personal belongings.

There are also permanent installations on the Izolyatsia territory, some of which cannot be dismantled or removed. Unless the territory is immediately vacated by your subordinates, we insist on receiving reimbursement of the costs associated with these site-specific works.

Meanwhile, it is essential that the foundation representatives gain access to artworks that may be removed from the territory, and which include such items as paintings, sculptures and various artefacts made by contemporary Ukrainian and foreign artists.

Within the last four years numerous artists, curators and art managers have been working together to create, install and maintain these works. It is these unique works which have given Izolyatsia its identity in Ukraine and internationally. This initiative has transformed the territory of the former factory into a popular social venue for local residents and tourists.
It's abundantly clear that Izolyatsia was specifically targeted--and that should concern every one of us in the arts.  The rationale that the space was needed for warehouses is absolutely false, and a chilling echo of the old Soviet practice of turning churches into warehouses.   Art exhibitions, a maker lab (one of the first museums I saw a 3D printer available for use), performances, lectures, films, programs for families--all of these opened up a wider world for the community that the separatists would now close down.

Why should it matter to you?  It should matter to all of us every time a creative organization is targeted by those who would silence it.  What can you do from your desk?  It's hard to know what to do, but I suspect one of the most important things we can do is pay attention.  Like Izolyatsia on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and keep up to date on what's happening.   I look forward to the time when I can return to Ukraine, to Donetsk, to see what exciting new thing Izolyatsia is planning.