This past week I read Nina Simon’s new book, The Art of Relevance. I am a tremendous admirer of Simon and have many times used her transformation of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History from an object-oriented museum to a participatory museum as one example of how to make a permanently failing arts organization more broadly relevant. As I recently remarked in a keynote address:
Since Simon became executive director of her museum, attendance has tripled, membership has increased by 50 percent, and more than 4,000 local artists and community groups have collaborated on exhibitions and cultural events. The museum has gone from five years in the red to three years of significant budget growth and surpluses. Simon has led an institutional turnaround based on creative risk-taking, grassroots participation, and unexpected community partnerships. This is social enterprise at its best.
Simon uses the analogy of doors, locks, and keys as the driving metaphor for relevance, which she defines as “a key that unlocks meaning.” She elaborates on her metaphor (on p. 29):
Imagine a locked door. Behind the door is a room that holds something powerful—information, emotion, experience, value. The room is dazzling. The room is locked.
Relevance is the key to that door. Without it, you can’t experience the magic that room has to offer. With it, you can enter. The power of relevance is not how connected that room is to what you already know. The power is in the experiences the room offers … and how wonderful it feels to open the door and walk inside.
Simon is an accomplished blogger and from a structural standpoint her book feels like a series of blog posts riffing on one giant question: How can mission-driven organizations matter more to more people? It is divided into 43 small (2-5 page) sections bundled under five broad themes. It is also chock-full with vignettes—concrete examples from her personal life, from her experience at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and elsewhere, and from other organizations (both cultural and not)—all aimed at demonstrating her points.
Simon also brings forward a bit of theory to support her anecdotes and propositions. She references cognitive scientists, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s “theory of relevance”— which explains how people are successfully able to convey and receive meaning (i.e. understand one another). According to Sperber and Wilson, relevance is a function of effect and effort. The more positive cognitive effect you experience when processing new information, the more likely you are to perceive that information as relevant; at the same time, the more you have to work at understanding new information, the less likely you are to perceive that information as relevant. Simon asserts that Sperber and Wilson’s “criteria for relevance apply to both extraordinary and everyday experiences” and gives the following example to demonstrate the theory deployed in such a manner (on pp. 32-3):
Imagine you are considering going out to see a movie. You start seeking relevant information. You read a review that gets you excited about a particular film (a positive cognitive effect). You feel confident you’ll enjoy that movie. If it’s playing at convenient times at a theater nearby (low effort), you’re set. You buy a ticket.
But if the movie is not showing nearby (high effort), or the reviews you read are conflicting and full of muddled information (negative cognitive effect), you’re stuck. You don’t get the useful conclusions you seek. It takes too much effort to find the right key to the door. You stay home.
Simon has many admirers in the arts and culture sector and at least a few detractors—in large part because she is a courageous bucker of the status quo. The participatory strategies that Simon advocates for achieving the goal of “mattering more to more people” are not without controversy. Simon has taken heat from those who see the move toward “participation” as detrimental to the very purpose and nature of fine arts institutions. Simon deals with this head on in her book. In a terrific section called OUTSIDE IN on insiders, outsiders, and inside-outsiders, Simon first fesses up to her her own tendency toward “insider entitlement” when it comes not to art, but to wilderness areas. Simon admits that she tends to be turned off (revolted, even) by parks (like Yellowstone) that have worked hard to make themselves more accessible and that are now not only jammed up with people but spoiled by ice cream vendors, paved paths, and other amenities that destroy the experience for purists like Simon.
She demonstrates sympathy with “protectionist-insiders” in the arts and other realms writing:
We all have our own personal Yellowstones, the insider places we want to protect from change. Embrace your inner insider for a moment. Think of something you love just as it is. A restaurant. A fictional character. An art form. A park. Now imagine someone saying publicly, “We are going to make X relevant to new people. We’re going to make some changes and open it up to new folks. We need to be more inclusive.”
When you are on the inside, this doesn’t sound like inclusive language. It sounds threatening. It sounds like the thing you hold dear being adulterated for public consumption. … It looks like a shift away from what was. A dilution of services, a distortion of values. That shift means loss, not gain.
Simon then considers the situation from the perspective of those who might come if only they could see a door and if only they had a key to open it. Simon refers to these inclined outsiders as “almost comes” and suggests that organizations need to cultivate “open-hearted insiders … who are thrilled to welcome in new people.” She eventually concedes the value of making Yellowstone accessible to all, through recognition that the great national parks should be for everyone; that making parks relevant to more people helps to establish their value and justify investments in sustaining them; and that as an “elite park user” she has access to resources and “backcountry trails” where she can achieve the “natural” experience she is seeking.
When I read this section on insiders and outsiders I immediately thought of Center Stage, a professional resident theater in Baltimore that I have often referenced in talks. In the 1990s Center Stage’s artistic director, Irene Lewis, began programming many more plays by African American writers, or about the African American experience, or featuring African American actors—in an effort to become more relevant to her community, which was 67% African American. (Theretofore, like many resident theaters at the time, Center Stage tended to program white plays, featuring white actors, performed for white middle class subscribers.) In response to Lewis’s shift in programming a significant number of its subscribers walked out the door. Jon Moscone (now at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) tells a similar story (from his time at Cal Shakes) in the introduction to Simon’s book. He writes:
…in 2011, we presented a Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale, directed by and cast entirely with artists of color. Our longtime audience rebelled. It broke open a new conversation with key stakeholders and board members, who saw the shift in relevance away from them.
Simon’s Yellowstone analogy, as well as the examples at Center Stage and Cal Shakes, demonstrate that what makes an experience relevant for insiders can be at odds with what makes it relevant for outsiders. Making one’s organization more broadly relevant requires standing up for values like inclusivity even if they don’t sit well with current patrons. One of the lessons from Center Stage’s successful transformation—as well as that of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History—is that such transformations can take a long time. It took ten years for Center Stage to replace its lost subscribers with those who shared its new values and vision. Too many organizations wade a few steps into the water with these sorts of efforts and then retreat in haste when the initial response is a complaining patron base. This is not work for the faint of heart.
Simon’s book provides encouragement, arguments, and concrete examples for those trying to figure out how to make their organizations more broadly relevant – but it does something else that is perhaps more important. It is great fodder for a discussion on some of the most important questions that organizations can ask themselves: Who are we for and why? What is the long-term risk of catering to a declining patron base at the expense of broader relevance? And what do we lose if we set our sights on being for outsiders (or “almost comes”) and not just insiders?
A brief email exchange with the sculptor Carter Gillies (who recently wrote a guest post on intrinsic value) really brought home for me how much is at stake in the way organizations answer such questions. Carter shared with me a conceptualization of intrinsic value by the brilliant UK cultural policy wonk John Holden. Holden has lately taken to thinking of intrinsic value as having three deployments (i.e. ways in which we tend to use the concept). Taking some liberties, if I were to substitute “relevance” (or mattering) for “intrinsic value” Holden’s three deployments might look like this:
- A dance work matters because dance matters (you can’t express a dance idea without something called dance).
- A dance work matters to the extent that I (or you, or anyone else) attend dance and have an emotional or spiritual or intellectual response and think, “This matters to me – I get something out of this experience.”
- And a dance work matters to the extent that a group of art world experts/enthusiasts (or protectionist-insiders in Simon’s terms) say it matters.
Real-world experience and theory would suggest that this is contested terrain and that these three deployments have the potential to undermine or threaten the other. The more an arts experience matters to the masses in a personal/subjective way, the less it (often) matters to elites. At the same time, the more we emphasize that dance must matter to as many people as possible (in a personal subjective way) the more we may undermine the idea that dance (as a way of expressing an idea) matters even when a particular dance work matters to very few people, or none at all.
As I finished Nina’s book I was left with three thoughts:
First, as inspired as I was by the book the research scientist in me was yearning for some empirical studies (i.e. experiments) as well as some more robust theorizing. While Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory seems to be a good starting point for understanding how one makes the choice to buy a ticket to the symphony or not, it may be limited in its capacity to explain relevance inside the concert hall, for instance. Aesthetic experiences don’t seem to be entirely akin to straight two-way communication. Anecdotally speaking, there are works of art (both visual and performative) that were quite off-putting to me at first (i.e. had a negative cognitive effect) and that required quite a bit of effort for me to grasp them, which ended up being incredibly rewarding (seeing Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz at the Walker Art Center in 2006 comes to mind). Moreover, the arts experience is constituted by more than the connection an individual may have with the art work itself. Simon addresses this in her book but Sperber and Wilson’s theory seems a bit overextended if used to explain how various elements (e.g. place, people, art, amenities, ancillary activities, past cultural experiences, trust in institutions, expectations) may combine to yield an experience that is perceived as relevant or not. For instance, perhaps being with people like you trumps an artwork you have to work hard to understand?
Second, and related to point one, considering that arts organizations are, in the main, in the business of creating aesthetic experiences one could argue that they should be much more well-versed in the nature of the aesthetic experience and the process of aesthetic development. All arts institutions (especially those with an educational mandate as 501c3s) need to be, as I believe Simon is, infinitely curious, willing, and eager to experiment with various ways of helping people connect with the art. As Simon says in her book, getting people to locate the door and walk through it is not enough—once they get to the other side the experience needs to be meaningful otherwise they won’t return. I would argue that, in particular, arts organizations should become experts in helping people cultivate an aesthetic sensibility–that is, helping them to expand and deepen their capacities to enjoy various types of aesthetic experiences.
Third, reading Simon’s Yellowstone analogy I was struck by Simon’s admission that she was able to let go of her “insider’s entitlement” with regard to Yellowstone (in part) because, as she put it, “as an elite park user, I have plenty of resources at my disposal, from maps to rangers to well-maintained backcountry trails.” Yellowstone is able to cater to both casual park users looking for ice cream vendors and paved paths and benches and signs, as well as elite users looking to get off the beaten path and tramp around on the areas that newcomers would be unprepared to explore. If you extend the Yellowstone analogy to the arts it suggests that arts organizations might need to have different brands, experiences, and resources for insiders and outsiders; or that cultural institutions might need to specialize in one of these. Indeed, it’s an interesting question (from an ethical, aesthetic, and economic standpoint) whether diversification or specialization would be a better approach?
Simon’s book is a quick read and a must-read for mission-based organizations (most especially cultural organizations) that believe they could and should matter more to more people.