Sunday, November 24, 2013

Steal Like An Artist

Some books just leap out at you and make you read them. 

"Steal Like An Artist" by Austin Kleon has been one of those kind of books for me --- packed with ideas, quotes, and anecdotes that really resonate with me and my creative practice.

Rather than giving the whole book away in this blog post (which would really feel like stealing) I'll share one idea, one quote, and one way of working that will give you a sense of what author Kleon is up to.

The idea "Don't wait until you know who you are to get started" is one that appeals to me very much. There's a tiny "kick in the butt" inside that idea:  "You're ready! Just start making stuff!"  But there's also something inherent in that idea that as both a parent and a teacher is appealing to me too:  "It's ok if you're young and don't have it all figured out, you can still make/do cool stuff." 

How about this quote from Jack White: "Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want --- that just kills creativity." As Austin Kleon, points out, the right constraints can lead to your very best work.  Embrace and work within those boundaries and see what you can make happen.

One of the ten axioms about creative work in Steal Like An Artist is: Be boring. (It's the only way to get work done.) Kleon shares several anecdotes in this section of the book about how regular habits and taking care of yourself (and the people around you) give you the mental and physical fuel to fire up your creative work.  (There's a reason Patti Smith tells young artists that its important to go to the dentist!)

So grab a copy of Steal Like An Artist (It's probably best to buy it at Amazon or your local bookshop, than actually stealing it!)  I think you'll find lots of good stuff inside to drive your own creative practice forward.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Newport News: Impressions of the 2013 NEMA Conference

The 95th Annual NEMA (New England Museum Association) Conference just finished up in Newport, Rhode Island.  Having never been to Newport before, I couldn't help thinking of something Mark Twain said in his autobiography:

"Newport, Rhode Island, that breeding place, that stud farm, so to speak, of aristocracy; aristocracy of the American type."

And since the first night's evening event was a fabulous party held at The Breakers, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's "summer cottage," it was hard not to see the point of Twain's quote.  

But despite being surrounded by many incredible historic mansions, the 2013 NEMA Conference itself was quite accessible and filled with lots of practical information.  The conference theme (which was crowd-sourced last year) was "Who Cares? Why Museums Are Needed Now More Than Ever."
This year, NEMA offered a conference app, and many session handouts were made available via a download section of the NEMA website. 

Obviously I couldn't attend every session and event at the Conference, but here are some impressions of the things I did see and participate in:

Is Your Museum Ethical?  Hats off to Session Chair Rebecca Smith for being willing to raise a set of tricky issues that come up in the museum business.  The session was well-attended with good opportunities for session attendees to participate in resolving hypothetical ethical dilemmas.  Julie Hart, from the American Alliance of Museums, also spoke about resources available from AAM in this regard.  Check out the PDF handouts from the session on the NEMA website.

Telling a Better Story Outside the Walls of Your Museum  Session leaders gave some great tips on "setting the stage" for indoors experiences with outdoor installations.  Among many pieces of common sense advice that stuck with me were exhortations that "little impressions add up" so maintenance and repair, especially of outdoor exhibits and signage are important, and that it is important to test outdoor components, especially those involving digital technology or electronics, to ensure they work as intended.

Creating Experiences for Visitors to "Think with Their Hands"  Of course I'm biased since I was a presenter at this session with colleagues from Art, History, and Children's museums, but this deliberately "hands-on " session gave participants many different ways to think about how content could be translated into meaningful gallery activities and/or exhibits by letting visitors (and staff!) "think with their hands."  One resource mentioned during this session was the Great Big Exhibit Resource List, a constantly evolving list of exhibit materials and suppliers.

Gaming in Museums: From Low-Tech to High-Tech  This active session gave us opportunities to play with and evaluate actual museum game concepts.  We also discussed the broad concept of "barriers to entry" and ways to make games and museum game installations most broadly accessible. You can check out a session handout here

Valuing Neurodiversity: Interns with Asperger's Syndrome in a Museum Gallery Guide Program  Of course museums and museum people constantly strive for accessibility in our programs and institutions, but it is often difficult to think about the practical steps needed to accomplish those goals.  This session provided great background information, as well as practical tips and case studies, on how to provide access and opportunities for people on the autism spectrum.  Two takeaways here were to break tasks into small chunks, and to look for ways to minimize "surprises" or unexpected situations for people along the spectrum (whether visitors, staff, or interns.) Great handouts available via the NEMA website. 

Perfecting Your Elevator Speech  The title is pretty self explanatory, but Dan Yaeger, the Executive Director of NEMA gave a funny and engaging presentation on a topic that we could all probably benefit from thinking about a little more.  Excellent handouts here.

The two last things I'll speak about are: 

1) The "Demonstration Stations" (short demos on focused topics that took place in the Exhibit Hall) which seemed from all reports to be a resounding success.  I think this idea could be replicated at other museum conferences as well.

2) The PAG (for Professional Affinity Groups) Lunch Sessions were another great way to network and gather with colleagues from like-minded  groups (like Exhibits folks, or Museum Directors).  The Exhibitions PAG described several interesting exhibits collaborations, including the "Curiouser" exhibitions that took place at the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium at Roger Williams Park.

Of course it wasn't all work!  I got a mini-lesson on how to balance on the "spinning globe" ball from circus and vaudeville master Reg Bacon (pictured below) during Friday's coffee break!

All in all, I found this year's NEMA Conference to be extremely well-organized --- filled with many opportunities to learn, as well as many chances to network with peers.  Major, major kudos to the NEMA staff and this year's conference organizers for a job well done!  I hope to meet more ExhibiTricks readers in Cambridge, MA at the 2014 NEMA Conference.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Moving Minds and Bodies: An Interview with Christina Ferwerda

Christina Ferwerda is an independent professional who bridges the worlds of museums, education, and movement. Her practice drawing from museum experiences, and moving (dance, yoga) has been an important part of her development as a teacher and a learner.  Working in Museum Education for over 10 years fueled Christina's desire to make varied cultural spaces more user-friendly for people of all ages, and led her to start working in Exhibition Development.  She currently works with partners in New York City (her home base) and North America as well as on projects abroad.

I was excited and pleased that Christina was able to provide this interview for ExhibiTricks!

What’s your educational background?  Well, I had a really hard time deciding what I wanted to do - I think as you grow up, there is a certain pressure to know what you want to "be" when you get older.  I started college as a journalism major, but found the field so cutthroat and competitive: it was a real turnoff. Therefore, my undergrad degree became a mishmash of a variety of fields - journalism, art history, studio art, and theater. I was surprised that Marquette University let me graduate! Now that I work on exhibit development, I can see how all of those fields fit together, but at the time I just wanted to finish, and felt like that combination of fields represented a path of some kind.

After I finished undergrad, I moved to Paris (by accident! I went for vacation and didn't return for 2 years). While there, I studied French history and culture at La Sorbonne. And when I moved to New York, all of these experience came together with a graduate degree at Bank Street College of Education. It became clear that my skills could be used to create education programs and exhibits for everyone to enjoy.

What got you interested in Museums?  I grew up in a very small town in New Hampshire, and therefore museum-going didn't really figure into my young life - I spent most of my time finding bird feathers in the woods with my sister. However, in college I started to notice how much imagery and art helped me understand and express myself. When I went to Europe for the first time in 1998, I went to basically every museum I could find. And the true, transformative experience came when I found a late Picasso painting "The Matador and the Nude" (1970). I sat in front of that painting for about 2 hours, just thinking about the various shapes, lines, emotions and experiences that must have informed its making. After that, I was hooked. Today I go to tons of museums, as well as performances of various kinds.

Why Yoga AND Exhibits?  Great question - so many people ask me about that, and are curious about how I can make a living doing both.  So many of the experiences that museums provide center around providing a very concrete bit of information in a creative way - as institutions strive to help the public understand complex ideas and opinions. The goals of a regular yoga practice are very similar, however the ideas that are being communicated are often very philosophical and internal. What interests me is the intersection of the two - the very generalized idea and the personal embodiment. Making physical shapes that are connected to things we see and concepts we understand bring a more developed grasp of the information.

A very simple example that I use very often in teaching yoga is to cue my students to imagine that they are in a comic book, as Superman, and that their foot or hand is being accompanied by the word "POW" in the jagged text box. The visual informs a very physical and concrete movement and a sensation of energy in that part of the body, and the movement of the body brings a real visceral understanding of the image.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit design work?  I think the most important connection for my personal work is through yoga.  I really learned about having  a "practice" - coming back to the same ideas and goals, but constantly trying to explore and be inventive with them to find new and interesting approaches. Very often when I'm working on complex projects, I'll find a related movement goal and try to push the two forward together. This past winter, when we were working on the first children's museum in Bulgaria together,  I was struggling with language and the language barrier. Therefore, I chose a complex yoga pose that is highly connected to creativity and expression (the famed Scorpion pose). Of course, as you practice, you embody and think about those goals. I found a great method of communication that worked for the project and moved it forward.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out about the intersection between movement and museums.  Of course, there are quite a few resources online to learn about the latest in movement research and museums. However, I tend to try and go to as many things as I can in person - performances, exhibits, and especially performances or movement classes AT museums. The two fields are starting to intersect and overlap more and more, as the divide between performance and art becomes blurred into performance art. I also find it incredibly important to watch the way people travel and move within an exhibition - are they comfortable getting on the floor, or attaining a different view of an object, and is that posture available to them? I learn quite a bit that way.

I've recently been a bit disappointed in yoga classes that are offered in museums and cultural institutions - its such a rare opportunity to draw from the surroundings, and I haven't often found classes or teachers that make reference to the artwork or setting that surrounds them. I'm hoping to see a more conscientious connection between the two in years to come.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?  I'm a huge fan of Olafur Eliasson - I will go and find his exhibits whenever and wherever I can. His work has a really nice physical and visceral quality. I saw him speak, and he discussed striving for his work to have a "wow" moment, followed by an "aha" moment - one gets excited and hooked, but that curiosity fuels a revelation. That goal shines through his work and is something that I try to keep in mind when I'm thinking about yoga classes or museum experiences - that the experience should be physically and mentally exciting, and that the experience will feel more complete if there can be an educational realization tucked in there somewhre. I think the museum I've been to the most is MoMA, I like the way that sightlines and divisions of space create little "surprise" moments with art. To me it feels very personal, like I'm getting a special showing of the artwork. 

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects? Well, I'm about to head to New Orleans to install Moviehouse NOLA, a small social history and contemporary art exhibit. It's been a very challenging and rewarding process, building an exhibit about movie theater history there. I'm also continuing to work on a children's discovery room for the Florida Museum of Natural History and of course, continued work on Muzeiko, a children's museum in Bulgaria. They are all at different stages of development, so it definitely keeps me on my toes!

I'm also continuing to work on bringing movement to spaces infused with meaning - I just taught at a Zen monastery, and will be leading another retreat there in July. The movements are based on Zen philosophies and the life of the Buddha, and I'm working with an amazing co-teacher Kristen Mangione.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be? Ha, this changes every day for me! Recently, though, I've been thinking a lot about "the walking man" - a concept that Bill T. Jones used in exploring his last piece "A Rite."  Walking is so mundane, yet we rarely think about it. I'm sure there is some amazing research about culture, body language and walking . . . .

Thanks, Christina for sharing your thoughts and insights!  You can find out more about Christina Ferwerda and her work moving minds and bodies via her website or Twitter feed (@rationallunatic).

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