Monday, April 6, 2009

Is Creativity a Team Sport?

In a recent post, I asked people to suggest "Museums Worth a Special Trip." One thing I've noticed about the museums suggested is that many, if not most of them, are the products of strong-minded founders. Which begs the question, "Is Creativity a Team Sport"?

It seems a lot more straight-forward, if less democratic, to pursue one person's design vision than to sit through endless meetings trying to come to consensus among staff and advisors on the direction of an exhibition, or a set of exhibitions, in the case of a new museum.

The National Science Foundation, among other granting agencies, has essentially mandated an exhibits approach that makes all sorts of consensus-building techniques an essential part of the "creative" process --- but has this approach resulted in more interesting exhibitions?

Art Museums seem more willing to turn over their galleries to individual artists for installations, usually with very good results. How can less "auteur" minded institutions like Science, History, and Children's Museums take advantage of a strong-minded individual driving the exhibit process forward, rather than the oft-venerated "Exhibits Team"? (I'd love to see Olafur Eliasson put together an exhibition at a Science Center!)

The "Creative Team" Conundrum also rears its ugly head when thinking about visitor studies and that Web 2.0 favorite, "crowdsourcing".

In the case of visitor studies, many visitors are only able to come up with variations of exhibits and exhibit themes they are already familiar with. Every museum stocked according to audience surveys would likely include a rocket ship, a dinosaur skeleton, and a mummy --- not bad, necessarily, but not exactly moving the exhibits field forward either.

Crowds and focus groups are notoriously bad at choosing innovations, which is why companies like Apple don't use them. Apple’s attitude is that sometimes, to truly innovate, you’ve got to go beyond giving people what they say they want. Building consensus often builds mediocre, and "safe" (rather than interesting) design decisions.

Maybe we need to bring in more "trouble makers" like Fred Wilson to shake up our staid exhibition development models. As Kathy McLean said in a previous ExhibiTricks interview, "I don't really need a lot of money or time to do my dream exhibitions ... I need organizations that are interested in presenting unusual, thought-provoking experiences."

So what do you think? Better Exhibit Teams or More Exhibit Auteurs? Let us know in the Comments Section below.

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  1. I think we have been mired right in the middle of the bell curve--team-based exhibits with the team consisting primarily of museum staff. I think we need to expand our practice to include more of both tails--turning our collections and galleries over to a crazy genius who comes up with stuff no one else would have thought of, and, other times, inviting the audience to help us create spaces that make them feel comfortable and welcome. Challenges, comfortable and familiar warmth. Both are good. The losing proposition is cafeteria food--it neither stimulates the appetite or feeds the soul.

  2. Interesting. The last two exhibit programs I worked on were "team-based" but it came down to individuals on each team being responsible for large swaths of work -- I did much of the writing for one exhibit program, but I couldn't have done it without a support team of researchers and designers. There are good and bad points to the team approach, but I think that saying "creativity isn't a team thing" is doing a disservice to the very creative teams of artists, designers, writers and curators who interpret the intent and content of an exhibit. These things just don't spring fully formed from one person's mind. My experience has been that a creative team (if left to do their job properly) can be quite strong and come up with very good things.

  3. I wondered this very same thing (and wrote about it) after I saw the "Exhibitions that Changed My Life" session at AAM in 2007 and also read Elaine Gurian's piece "In Defense of the Museum Superstar" which starts with the charming sentence "I was wrong!" and explores the potential for individuals to create powerful experiences.

  4. I think you have hit on something. The museums that I find most remarkable, and memorable, tend to be the products of one individual (or family) who walks to the beat of their own drum. I don't think that means take away the team all the time, but sometimes relegating the team to a supporting role and allowing one creative vision.

    Thinking about it more, the museums I find most remarkable tended to have a founder that had the vision. Not necessarily a curator or guest curator. The founder had the luxury of doing whatever they wanted, while a curator does not necessarily feel likewise. Additionally, that founder becomes part of the story, so visitors know who the creator is and can get an idea of the inspiration, motivation. I know museums are increasingly likely to say who is behind the exhibit now, but I still think that if we want truly creative, different exhibits, we need to give more ownership, private and public, to the curator in charge of it. And more freedom. It adds to the exhibit experience and that attribution is increasingly expected by the public.

  5. Thanks for the comments!

    @ccpetersen: I agree 100% about needing other folks to create things, but that's implementation rather than ideas. What concerns me most is how the "team approach" often creates mushy, mediocre ideas.

  6. Great teams are led by great leaders. These leaders come forward with vision and let their teams bring it to life.They also retain the right to modify, and give feedback to be sure that vision is unspoiled.
    Consensus may not be needed for design process, but may be needed for making sure an exhibit meets mission, is marketed properly, and finds funding from the right places.

  7. Thought provoking post- In my experience leading, observing, and being a part of creative teams, I am inclined to agree that the best quality work is usually generated by an individual. If not for the reasons outlined by Nina in her post, then for the simple challenge of effective communication between group members for the production of a cohesive and polished product. The working dynamics of the team make all the difference. As Nina said, a life changing exhibit "speaks in a distinctive, unapologetic voice--whether that voice reflects a single person or a team." The ability to meld many voices into one, though not impossible, is easier for some more than others. I generally prefer to work on creative products individually, yet I don't deny that under the right circumstances a team effort can go above and beyond any indiviual's initiative.