Tuesday, June 20, 2017

To B Corps or not to B Corps—A Case Study

 Some people think that because museums are nonprofits, they are not allowed to make money. Cue my mantra: nonprofit is a tax status, not a business strategy. A financially successful nonprofit can use surplus income to improve services, scale up its work, and do more good in the world. The widely held belief that mission-based work is inherently unprofitable is being challenged by an increasing number of for-profit companies that embed a goal of making the world a better place into their business models. Some of these companies voluntarily become certified as “B Corps”—documenting through a third party the ways in which they benefit their employees, their community and the environment. And there is no longer a simple dichotomy between nonprofit and for-profit: a growing suite of “hybrid” legal structures, such as benefit corporations, allow businesses to balance financial profits with the achievement of mission-related goals. Where could museums fit into this growing set of options? In researching that question, I came across Biomimicry 3.8, a for-profit company, certified as a B Corp, that uses the study of biological structures and processes to “transform the world by emulating nature’s designs and core principles.” I reached out to Nicole Miller, managing director at Biomimicry 3.8, and she explained a bit about their history and their work.
Nicole Miller,  Managing  Director
Biomimicry 3.8

Nicole, can you give our readers a brief description of what Biomimicry 3.8 does? What kinds of products and services do you provide?

There are three primary components to our business – consulting, training and thought leadership. Our consulting team delivers biological intelligence to help companies design new products, processes, buildings and even cities. Companies often want to support their efforts to use biomimicry as an innovation strategy, so we train people how to DO biomimicry. We offer everything from one-week immersions to a Master’s of Science degree through our partnership with Arizona State University. And our thought leadership team sets the vision for the next frontier of innovation inspired by nature. A recent example is the “Factory as Forest” concept. We are now helping companies design their facilities to function like the local forest next door, producing net positive benefits to people and their communities.

Your organization is a certified B Corps—tell us what that means.

For us, it means being focused on doing good vs. doing less bad. B Corps are companies dedicated to a purpose beyond their bottom line, on social and environmental factors that impact their business. The certification process holds companies to a higher standard of accountability and transparency that is not often seen in business today. Collectively, B Corps are redefining what “success” means in business, which is really important to us. We want to demonstrate that success comes from happy and engaged employees who are empowered by their work to save the world, no matter how small the impact might be.

So Biomimicry 3.8 is a mission-driven company. What is your mission?

Our mission is to help change-makers transform the world by emulating nature’s designs and core principles.

That sounds like a mission that a natural history museum might have!  You have a sister-organization, the Biomimicry Institute, that is a nonprofit. What is the relationship between the two organizations?

Yes, it’s been a journey navigating the roles of the two entities. After (Biomimicry 3.8 co-founder) Janine Benyus wrote her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, companies started calling and saying, “we want you to help us innovate using nature” so the Biomimicry Guild was launched to support the growing requests. Shortly after the Guild was established, it was clear that the work went beyond consulting and we really needed a nonprofit entity to support growing the meme of biomimicry. So the Biomimicry Institute was born. The two organizations operated independently until we began to find there was overlap in our efforts. We decided to bring both entities under one brand, Biomimicry 3.8, to streamline our efforts and reduce redundancies. This worked great, until it didn’t. It was a 2-year experiment that ultimately created more work for our internal admin teams, so after much consideration, we decided to pull the two apart. We still work together very closely to align our strategic goals and priorities and leverage our efforts. The Institute does amazing work in the student education space with K-12 programs, a global design challenge and AskNature, which is an open innovation platform to support biomimetic design.

I understand that Biomimicry 3.8 is in the process of changing its legal status from a for-profit company to a benefit corporation. What does that mean, and why did you decide to make that change?
A benefit corporation is a type of for-profit corporate entity that includes positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals. They are required to consider the impact of their decisions not only on their shareholders but also on their stakeholders (for example, their community, or the public as a whole.) We decided to make this change to demonstrate our commitment to ensuring our company makes a positive impact on society, our employees, the communities in which we work, and of course, the environment. We are dedicated to helping people see the value in learning FROM nature, not just extracting nature’s resources.

So your company has worked a bit in all three worlds: for profit, nonprofit and hybrid legal structures. What are the advantages or disadvantages of each?

What I have learned is any of the structures can support making money and delivering a positive impact. Of course, what you do with that money is limited by your structure, but in the end these structures come down to taxes and how the world perceives you.

What about the practical differences in governance? 

A board of directors holds the fiduciary responsibility of the financial and organizational health of the organization or company regardless if nonprofit or for profit. In general my opinion is nonprofit boards have a lot more oversight of the organizational direction and details, therefore working with them does take more time. Shareholders typically want to see the financial returns and focused on the numbers. With B corps or mission-aligned company investors understand they are investing in something bigger than just a financial return and so there usually focus on other aspects of long term stability, beyond finances. This is just my opinion. I have served on for profit and nonprofit boards and each one was unique on its structure and oversight - it ultimately came down to personalities and leadership style.

What advice would you give people creating a new mission-driven organization and trying to decide whether they should be for-profit, nonprofit, a benefit corporation or other hybrid?

Often if you are doing mission-driven work, you can quickly be labeled as nonprofit “type” company. I think another misconception is that nonprofits don’t make money. What is exciting is to have structures like Benefit Corporations that allow you operate in a space of being for-profit oriented – proving that doing good is good business. My advice would be to examine what it would take today to build a 100-year company. Is it to teach, is it to manufacture, is it to do both? Then, establish a structure to support that. And like nature, understand that you always need to adapt to changing conditions and should have a structure that can best support that.

Not too long ago, the US was pretty clearly divided into three sectors: for profit companies, dedicated to, well, profit; government agencies that provide shared public goods and nonprofits that exist to improving the world in some way. How do you think the rise of hybrid legal structures will affect these traditional sectors, particularly nonprofits?

The rise of hybrid legal structures is really enabling more flexibility in what a company can do to support its mission. It’s less about having to fit into a box that limits their growth and capabilities. This is such an incredible shift, from an economic standpoint and because it enables companies to give their employees a platform to make a difference.

What led you to choose to work in a mission-driven company? How does Biomimicry 3.8 align with your personal values and motivations?

Luck, proximity and passion. Prior to joining B3.8, my work was in product development, global supply chain management, trade and commerce. I saw first-hand EVERYTHING that is required to make on-trend products, move goods across oceans, and support the growing demands of a throw away society where it is cheaper to buy something new then get it repaired or put it back in the value chain. No matter what I did to influence positive social and environmental practices with my suppliers, the negative externalities were well beyond the control of my company, and even industry. It was very overwhelming for me. Rather than continue to contribute to the negative impacts, I wanted to work on the solution. It was at that time I was introduced to biomimicry. I was working in Montana where Biomimicry 3.8 is headquartered, and it didn’t take long for our worlds to collide. I was fascinated by the topic and was so shocked to learn the company operated in my backyard! In my career, I have always played the role of a builder, so when the company was looking to grow its business model, we clicked. The timing was perfect. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Companies with Benefits, Part 2: B Corps or not B Corps, that is the question

Tuesday I blogged about Benefit Corporations—a relatively new kind of “hybrid” legal structure for mission-driven for-profits. Today’s post is about B Corps—companies participating in a certification program that measures their impact on the world. I wish to heaven whoever made up the names for these entities hadn’t made them so dang similar. I spent the first year I was reading and thinking about them confusing the two, and occasionally mangling the terms. Here’s an ultra-simple primer:

  • Benefit corporation” is a legal status. Companies incorporated as benefit corporations have a legal obligation to deliver both financial and social/environmental returns to their stockholders.
  • Certified B Corporation”—often shortened to B Corp—Is a voluntary certification system available to for-profit organizations. Administered by the nonprofit B Lab, B Corp certification attests that a company is meeting certain criteria to demonstrate how it operates responsibly with regard to the environment, its workers, its customers, its community, and its governance.

How are they related? Benefit Corporations and B Corps are both manifestations of a growing movement to “use business as a force for good” (as B Lab puts it). As such, it is yet another factor “fuzzing the boundaries” between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Some companies double down, incorporating as Benefit Corporations and becoming certified as B Corps.
Comparison of Certified B Corporations and Benefit Corporations from  B Lab

How does certification work? 
To become certified as a B Corps, a company:
  • Completes an impact assessment that measures its effect on its community. As with LEED certification, a company has to achieve a minimum score across four segments (governance, workforce, community, environment). 
  • Meet the legal requirements for certification; including updating the company’s mission statement, getting board and shareholder approval and filing amended articles with the appropriate secretary of state.
  • Sign the B Corp “Declaration of Interdependence” and B Corp Agreement

Why do companies choose to become certified as B Corps? 
(Over 5700 are listed on the B Lab site.) The reasons listed by B Lab include a mix of altruism and opportunism. B Lab envisions a day when “all companies compete to be best for the world” in order to create “a more durable and shared prosperity for all.” As I noted in TrendsWatch 2014 (in the chapter For Profit for Good) a majority of consumers care about the behavior and reputation of a company and factor this into their purchasing decisions. B Corps certification is one way for a mission-driven for-profit company to demonstrate it is living up to its ideals. And it can help companies recruit employees: 85% of Millennials want their work to make a difference in the world, and 71% want to work for a company that encourages global or community social responsibility.

What kind of companies decide to become certified as B Corps
I’m sure you’ve heard of some of them: Ben and Jerry’s for one, the ice cream company famous for its activism and devotion to the environment and workers’ quality of life. On their B Lab page, they avow their mission to “advance new models of economic justice that are both sustainable and replicable.” The online marketplace Etsy is another, describing themselves as “a people-powered company with a social mission.”  Patagonia, a business built around outdoor sports, ties their success to the health of our planet. These three companies are all huge, but many small businesses choose to become certified as well.

Why should museums care?
As with Benefit Corporations, B Corps represent one more trend blurring the boundaries between for-profit and nonprofit organizations. As more for-profits find ways such as B Corps certification to verify their mission and impact, they will exert pressure on nonprofits to clarify how their own missions are distinct, and deserving of philanthropic support, and to be equally accountable for results.
If more museums choose to be for-profit (I included a short list in the previous post), they could use B Corps certification as a way to demonstrate their dedication to mission and to benefiting their community.

Take some time to browse the B Lab listing of B Corps, read these companies’ descriptions of their work and see how they articulate the “change they seek.” I’ve found a lot of businesses that share a lot of values with our sector, and are in some instances doing related work. In coming weeks, I’ll feature some of their stories on the Blog. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Inflatable Refugee

#Migration #Refugees @immigration_mv 
Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Companies with Benefits, Part 1: Benefit Corporations

I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I engage in some deep, extended geeking about business models in coming weeks, via a series of essays and guest posts exploring changes in business and philanthropy that are reshaping the niche museums occupy in society. First up is an exploration of benefit corporations: what they are, how they impact museums, and how they may shape the future.

One challenge facing the whole nonprofit sector is that the distinction between our work and that of for-profit businesses is increasingly fuzzy. This is, in part, our own dang fault. A lot of what museums do to earn money is indistinguishable from for-profit counterparts: we sell stuff in our shops, we run restaurants, we rent out our space for weddings and graduation parties. Many of the distinctive mission-related things we do (conducting research, preserving collections) goes largely unseen and unknown. Many of the visible mission-related things we do go unappreciated (For example, Reach Advisors reports that only 12% of the American public thinks of museums as educational.)

Not all for profit businesses are in it
"just for the money"
Part of this fuzziness comes from the way the for-profit sector behaves as well. I’ve never bought into the dichotomy of “for-profit: money grubbing, bad” v. “nonprofit: altruistic, on the side of angels, good!” I know plenty of independent business people (including many museum consultants) who choose to do what they do because they believe their work makes the world a better place. And many of these people make decisions based on more than the bottom line. Sponsoring the local teen soccer team may get a business' name on their jerseys, but the The Hole Thing probably spent more on the uniforms than they get back from a resulting uptick in donuts sales.

Then there’s the fact that some high profile museums are for-profit entities: Biltmore, a huge historic house/site in North Carolina; the Museum of Sex in NYC; the Dallas World Aquarium; the City Museum in St. Louis; and Graceland, to name a few. Frankly, people may not know or care whether a museum is nonprofit or for-profit. Both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the International Spy Museum here in DC started out as for-profit entities, before eventually applying for 501(c)3 status. Even when they were for-profits, I knew of people who volunteered their time and donated objects to those museums. And many for-profit exhibit venues are indistinguishable from museums, to the public at least, especially when they host exhibits such as plastinated human bodies or animatronic dinosaurs.

Now there is a new trend further blurring the nonprofit/for-profit boundary: the rise of hybrid legal structures. The most prevalent of these is the benefit corporation, a type of for-profit corporation that is legally obligated to create material positive impact on society and the environment in addition to financial profitability. Shareholders hold the benefit corporation accountable for its financial, social AND environmental performance. This provides the benefit corporation with legal cover for making decisions about operations that may reduce the financial return for investors—things like paying a living wage, sourcing materials from sustainable sources, or supporting minority-owned businesses via their supply chain.

In 2010, Maryland became the first state to pass benefit corporation legislation, and now this legal structure is authorized by 30 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. As  of April, 2015 there were over 2,100 active benefit corporations in the US. From this modest start the movement is gaining steam nationally and internationally. Italy has authorized a similar kind of entity, Società Benefit, for the whole country.

Why doesn’t an organization devoted to fulfilling a social or environmental mission simply incorporate as a nonprofit? I’ve asked that question of a number of people who run benefit corporations, and they usually flip the question, asking “Why would we want to be a nonprofit?” They often see nonprofit governance as problematic and inefficient, and grant funding as coming with too many strings compared to relatively small awards. Also, nonprofit status itself confers fewer benefits than it used to: payments in lieu of taxes are increasingly common, and tax reform may well shrink charitable donations in coming years.

Perhaps most compelling is this argument: if you have a choice between being a donor, and producing a social good with your money, or being an investor in a company that produces a social good AND gives you a return on your investment, which would you pick? Nonprofits may pride themselves on transparency and accountability, but they often do a sloppy job of quantifying their social or environmental impact. Benefit corporations are required to use comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third-party standards to certify their social and environmental performance.  

The rise of benefit corporations is being driven in part by established philanthropies. Funders such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and Omidyar Network (a philanthropic investing group) are growing increasingly impatient with the seeming inability of billions of dollars in philanthropy to actually solve problems. Lots of programs alleviate poverty, or homelessness, but we still have large populations of people who are poor and homeless. Large scale challenges, like climate change, will clearly require large scale solutions. That’s why MacArthur Foundation launched 100&Change competition last year, promising $100 million to fund a winning proposal that promises to make measure progress towards solving a significant problem.

Even large scale philanthropic support can only go so far. Foundations are legally obligated to give away at least 5% of their assets each year in grants, but the leaders of foundations are becoming increasingly aware that they might have more influence on the world with the other 95% of the money they control, via the investments they choose to make. For that reason, foundations are joining the ranks of so called impact investors who put their money into companies that deliver both financial returns and social/environmental improvements. In April, the Ford Foundation announced it would devote $1 billion of its investments to “impact” funds, prompting me to blog about the implications of foundation impact investing.

The amount of money foundations can invest to produce social good is dwarfed by the massed funds of individuals. In 2014, US foundations controlled $715 billion in assets. As of March, 2016, Americans held $6.8 trillion in all employer-based defined contribution retirement plans, $4.8 trillion of that in 401(k) plans, and that’s only one small piece of the investment fund landscape. The US is seeing rapid growth in the number of investors choosing, or pressuring their fund managers to choose, socially responsible investments. As of 2016, $7 trillion was invested in strategies focused on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) causes in the US, compared to $639 billion in 1995 (source here). Impact investing is a subset of ESG that focuses on producing active good rather than merely avoiding harm. Last year investors put $22.1 billion towards 8,000 such impact investments, and there is about $144 billion total in the impact investing market.

If, or when, the number of benefit corporations reaches critical mass, they will be able to tap into these cause-based investor dollars as a group. I can see a future in which I could not only choose an investment portfolio that does general social good, but a fund that promises specific returns, such as educational impact, along with my financial dividends.

Why should museums care? Here are a few reasons that have occurred to me: 
  • The proliferation of benefit corporations—financially self-sustaining organizations documenting the good they do—Is yet one more trend that may lead the public to question why nonprofits deserve their charitable support.
  •  As successful benefit corporations create a growing body of for-profit business models around doing social and environment good, museums can use these examples as inspiration for developing their own mission-related earned income streams. At very least, it will help museum closely define which of their mission-based activities are immune to monetization (collections storage? academic research?) and hone their pitch on why those functions are worthy of philanthropic or government support.
  •  If the benefit corporate structure system and impact investing mature and intertwine as their proponents hope, they will create a massive source of capital for mission-based organizations. In that scenario, it might be attractive for a museum to become a benefit corporation, satisfying shareholders rather than members, in order to tap these funds; or to create sister organizations with benefit corporation status in order to have the best of both worlds.
For those of you who held out to the end of this essay—I’d love to see your comments below. Next up, a briefing on B corps, a voluntary certification program that  for profit and nonprofit companies can use to demonstrate their social and environmental  accountability.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

When Museums and Theatre Work Together

One way museums can court new audiences is to incorporate other forms of storytelling into their mix. Combining museum experiences with poetry jams, zines, dance, music and other formats can bring potential new fans into the museum while expanding the horizons of folks who already love our work. Today's guest post, by members of the Bated Breath Theatre Company based in Hartford, Connecticut, describes one such mash-up: that brings immersive theatre into the museum. And (bonus) they share data on how their collaboration with the New Britain Museum of American Art actually cross-fertilized their audiences. 

Most Bated Breath performances start before the “play” starts, so in our participatory play Beneath the Gavel about the art market, upon arrival at our performance space in The New Britain Museum of American Art the audience had to, in order to receive an auction paddle and an auction book that doubled as a program, register for the auction.

Beneath the Gavel, New Britain Museum of American Art, Photo: Will Gangi

Bated Breath, like most theatres, traditionally struggles to collect information about their audiences, so we embedded some simple survey questions within the auction registration process. This article shares our insights from the data about our 4 evening performances and one of our matinee performances, all of which were packed houses. (One matinee performance was for students from the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, but the students were delayed in arrival and we had to skip the registration portion of the play.)

We wanted to know whether our audience were regular supporters of our company or of the Museum, and we learned that most were new to Bated Breath and 40% were new to the Museum. And, critically, while some people traveled great distances to see the performance for a personal reason, two-thirds of the first time visitors to the Museum were Connecticut residents and therefore a part of the Museum’s target market.

Almost three quarters of the audience was having their first Bated Breath experience. Forty percent of the attendees at “Beneath the Gavel” were on their first visit to the New Britain Museum of American Art, and two-thirds of those (not shown) were Connecticut residents. We also saw that our performances engaged infrequent patrons. More than half of the attendees had attended theatre performances or visited museums three times or less in the previous year.  (For about 15% of our audience, this was their first visit to a museum or a theatre performance in at least a year):

More than half of “Beneath the Gavel” participants had never or only infrequently attended theatre or visited museums in the year prior.

We did ask some questions about how people learned about the performance, but our multiple choice answers didn’t correctly anticipate the audience’s responses so those answers weren’t very useful. In particular, we did not place any questions about the role of open rehearsals at the museum in promoting the show. For example, one Museum member told us on opening night that she had seen the show advertised in the museum’s newsletter, loved theatre and thought it interesting, but decided that the ticket price was too high. Then, on a regular visit to the Museum, she stumbled upon an open rehearsal for the piece and was hooked. So many people told us similar stories verbally that we concluded our multiple choice answers were not useful. (Next time we embed a survey into the play, we’ll be sure to start the analysis earlier so we can improve the questions as the play’s run continues.)

Beneath the Gavel, New Britain Museum of American Art, Photo: Will Gangi

One fascinating thing we discovered in the data was about how different the audiences between the performances were, and we think this data has some subtle but profound implications for how museums should schedule us in the future. For example, we had only one public matinee performance, held on a  Saturday afternoon. We immediately saw that this audience was different: the audience was older and was three quarters women. And the surveys revealed a different history of relating to the arts:

Of all our performances, this audience was the least likely to be on their first visit to the New Britain Museum of American Art (24%) and the least likely to be on their first visit to a museum in the last year (9%). This audience was the most likely out of all of our performances to be on at least their 7th visit to a museum this year and the most likely to be on at least their 7th theatre attendance this year. (Despite this depth of arts engagement, this audience was also the least likely to have been familiar with Bated Breath.)

We think this means – and the anecdotal audience comments back this up – that the matinee performances attracted theatre lovers and the museums’ most dedicated supporters, particularly those who were theatre lovers. This one public matinee performance introduced an audience with a deep passion for theatre to our unique brand of art and was received as a huge gift to the museum’s most dedicated supporters. 

In sum, we found that when museums and theatre work together, they produce art engagement that is greater than what either can do alone. And we discovered powerful evidence that some of the subtle scheduling decisions can unlock even greater successes. We’re looking forward to applying some of these lessons to our next theatre collaboration with the museum world.

This post originally appeared on 8/25/2016 on the Bated Breath blog, titled "When museums and theatre work together, the result is more than the sum of the partners." The Bated Breath website profiles a number projects with museums, such as About Freedom: In 3 Acts, created in collaboration with the Amistad Center for Arts and Culture, and the Toulouse-Lautrec Project at the Wadsworth Atheneum. On that site you can also find press coverage of the off-Broadway debut of Beneath the Gavel featured in Forbes, American Theater, Artsy and other publications.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Refresh Your Reading: Summer 2017

I know that in reality summer is just as busy as any other season, but somehow it feels to me as if I have a little extra time to breath, step back from my daily news feed and expand my horizons. In case you feel the same, here are a few recommendations for blogs and podcasts to add to your own queues. I hope they help you find some kindred spirits and refresh your work.

The newest blog in my feed is A Latina In Museums, where Karen Vidangos shares her thoughts on “museums and the contemporary issues they face.”  In recent posts Karen shared her observations on the 2017 AAM conference, on using social media to reach diverse audiences, and musings about the entry fee (i.e., student debt) required to enter the VIP club of museum work.  (You can also follow Karen on Twitter at @latinainmuseums).

Karen is a newly minted museum studies graduate. At the other end of the career spectrum, Dan Spock has been working in our field since he joined the Boston Children’s Museum as a designer in 1983. Now director of the museum at the Minnesota Historical Society, Dan has launched a new blog--Wunderkammer—to share some ruminations he’s developed in over three decades of museum work. His second post (which went up this week) is Exploring the Emotional Landscape of Risk and Failure. Failure being one of the trends featured in TrendsWatch 2017, I was very interested. (Dan on Twitter is @danspock.)

I also recommend you take a look at the Studio blog, documenting the work of Jeffrey Inscho and his team of “cultural technologists” at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. This week Jeff launched a series of posts that will document the Studio team’s development of a new kind of mobile experience: a museum chatbot called Muse.  “Muse will leverage the Studio’s user-centered design process and make use of leading-edge technologies like natural language processing and image recognition, to create an artificially-intelligent chatbot capable of providing useful information when a visitor is on-site, as well as surprising and engaging correspondence from afar.” And the Studio crew will be sharing the resulting open source code on Github, so you can build on their work!

Museopunks cool new logo by
Selena Robleto, Red Velvet Creative
On the podcasting front, I am SO HAPPY that after a nearly three year hiatus, Jeff Inscho and Suse Cairns have relaunched Museopunks with the support of the Alliance. The first new episode is a stunner: in The State of Love and Trust, Suse and Jeff interview Dr. fari nzinga of Southern University at New Orleans, and Adriel Luis, curator of digital and emerging media at the Smithsonian Pacific American Center. (On Twitter: @jinscho, @shineslike, @fari_nzinga, @DRZZL.)

Your turn to share! What’s on your blog roll and podcast list? Share your recommendations in the comment section, below, or tweet links tagging @futureofmuseums.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Fish, Museums, and Neuroscience

As a biologist, I'm familiar with the “edge effect”—the increase in biodiversity that occurs at the boundary of two habitats, such as forest and field. As a museum person, I believe in the power of the metaphorical application of this concept to our field. Inviting professionals from diverse backgrounds, with deep expertise developed outside museums, can result in an explosion of ideas and discovery. This week's guest post by Tedi Asher describes one such collision: Tedi is a PhD. neuroscientist recently recruited by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. Let the experiments begin!

Dr. Tedi Asher.
Photo credit Kathy Tarantola
I’ve recently found myself a fish out of water, a neuroscientist working in an art museum.

Before you run down the avenue of assumption, let me clarify that I have no background in art or museum studies. Sure, I liked to draw as a kid. Sure, my family is full of artists. Sure, I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. and spent many of my childhood weekends visiting the Smithsonian as well as smaller private galleries that dot the city. But that, my friends, is where my experience with art ends.
Yet, here I find myself employed by an art museum. Let me explain….

Throughout my life I have been highly attuned to the emotional experiences of others. I always wondered why and how we experience emotions as we do. I began a formal investigation of these questions with the inception of my neuro-scientific career in 2003, when I began working in the neurobiology laboratory at my college, where I studied learning and memory in the common fruit fly.

I later went on to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience, during which I investigated the neurobiological underpinnings of aggressive behavior in mice. While fulfilling, fun, and illuminating, these laboratory-based experiences kept me at a distance from object of my curiosity…human emotion.

So, when I serendipitously stumbled upon an ad from an art museum looking to hire a neuroscientist I jumped at the opportunity. After all, where else, but at art museums, can one witness such breadth and depth of emotional experience?

This is why I accepted the position of Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA this past spring. PEM’s mission is to create transformative experiences. Simple enough. Or is it? It turns out to be a rather complicated business; one which Dan Monroe, PEM’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, feels is best approached by gaining insight into how the human brain processes the physical world that comprises our external reality, and in doing so, inspires the emotions that constitute our internal milieu. You can learn more on Monroe’s thoughts about this from this recent New York Times story.

I have been tasked with investigating how our brains are wired to appreciate art and how we can use such knowledge to inform exhibition design. What, you might be wondering, does that even mean?! Well, folks, after about a month on the job, I have some ideas to share with you.

Brain specimen with work from the PEM collection (see
note at end of post.)
The ABCs

I started with the basics: the biology of vision. Our visual system is empowered to detect brightness, color, motion, contrast…the list goes on, but you get the idea. In short, we appear to have a very powerful capacity to see. But, we must bear in mind that what we see, and how we feel about what we see, is a product of neurons in different parts of our brains talking to one another. Therefore, the way that these circuits are wired greatly impacts our visual and visuo-emotional perception.

Take, as an example, the sense of vibration or motion we experience when looking at a design composed of two colors of different hues (what we think of as color) but equal luminance (brightness). Color and luminance are processed by two different neural pathways in the brain: the "what" pathway assigns objects an identity (e.g. this is a chair) and can detect color. The "where" pathway assigns objects positions in space (e.g. the chair is next to the table), but cannot detect color, only luminance. When looking at an image where both colors have the same luminance, the "where" pathway cannot differentiate between the colors and therefore can’t assign them a position within the image, which results in the sense of motion and instability that we experience.

The idea, then, is that perhaps we can use such insight into the structure and function of our visual system to design exhibitions that generate a strong emotional response.

The XYZs

There are many “higher order” processes that are relevant to exhibition design: How are our attentional resources allocated in museums? When mixing media in an exhibit (e.g. auditory plus visual stimuli), which modality will most effectively impact our emotional reaction? How do we best absorb new information that will stay with us long after we have walked out the front door of the museum?

I now spend my workdays combing the scientific literature that address questions like these, which is fascinating. Better yet is bringing my findings into meetings with other PEM staff and applying the data to an exhibition, inspiring novel approaches to presenting works of art. These highly creative individuals latch onto neuroscientific findings and run with them in ways that I could never envision.
Finally, this new opportunity has allowed me to return to my childhood pursuit of comprehending the origins and dynamics of human emotion. I hope you’ll come along on this journey with us here at PEM.

To learn more about the Barr Foundation grant that funds my position and about PEM’s decision to hire a neuroscientist, see this recent front page story from the Boston Globe and this recent post on PEM’s blog, Connected.

Visitor in PEM gallery. Photo credit Allison White.
Dr. Tedi Asher is Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The position — which marks a first for an art museum — supports PEM’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from the Barr Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At PEM, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.

1) Image juxtaposed with brain specimen: Olivia Parker (American, b. 1941) The Murderer's Brain, 1996, printed 1980 Inkjet print 21 x 35 inches (53.34 x 88.9 cm) Peabody Essex Museum, Museum purchase with partial funds from Susan and Appy Chandler, 2014 2014.28.10

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Making of ¡NUEVOlution!: collaboration, ambiguity and a willingness to fail

This week’s guest post documents the benefits of an agile approach to exhibit development. Staff from the Levine Museum of the New South—Kate Baillon (VP Exhibitions 2007 - 2017), Kamille Bostick (VP Education 2015 – 2017), Janeen Bryant (VP Education 2007 – 2015),  and Oliver Merino (Latino New South Coordinator)—share their experiences developing the highly lauded exhibit ¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South.  Their story illustrates how remaining open to input can help museums to “fail forward” to success. For more on incorporating productive risk taking and failure into your operations, check out CFM’s latest forecasting report, TrendsWatch 2017

October 2015. 
The fifth grader looked up at the large map of the U.S. and distracted her class as they read snapshots of Census data. “It smells like paint in here,” she said.

That wasn’t exactly the reaction we wanted from visitors to the ¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South exhibit, but it was fitting. Levine Museum had spent a month mounting the exhibition, nearly three years developing the content and processes that informed it, and several years before that honing the concept. But even though the exhibit had been up for more than a month and had received more than a thousand visitors, it did smell like paint, because exhibit staff had still been adding touches. Installation hadn’t fallen behind. Instead, it had continued to grow thanks to our willingness to listen to community input.

Just prior to the opening of the exhibit, the team added a participatory sculpture, reconfigured spaces so they were more intimate, and adapted and revised interactives based upon community feedback.  
Courtesy Rodrigo Dorfman

¡NUEVOlution! developed out of multiple rounds of community input in conjunction with our curatorial team and Darcie Fohrman. In order to tell a complex, changing and current history, exhibit designers, developers and staff knew they could not and should not handle the story alone nor could they accept a single approach. 

In the past 25 years, the Southeast emerged as America’s fastest-growing “immigrant gateway,” with Latino population in many cities going from barely 1% to 10% or more.  Such rapid change has brought both stresses and opportunities—not only for communities but for the future of cultural institutions. As AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums has pointed out, by 2040, whites will no longer be the US’s majority racial/ethnic group – but currently only about 1 in 10 core museum visitors are people of color.   

Each of these factors and the larger questions they raised compelled the Museum to take a critical look at what was driving change in Charlotte. In 2010, we had mounted the exhibit Changing Places which looked at demographic change in the Southeast, but subsequently recognized that the key lever in Charlotte was the impact of Latinos on the region. 

In 2012, Levine Museum of the New South launched the LATINO NEW SOUTH Project.  As a first step in the five-year initiative, Levine Museum invited the Atlanta History Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to join in a “learning network” to explore the Latino experience in the southeastern U.S.  Because Latino immigration is transforming the entire South, including our three cities, it made sense to have partners in several parts of the South to understand the historical change. We believed that museums could play a vital role in the work, and that sharing information between institutions would help each of our organizations find effective strategies to truly engage Latino partners. 

In Cornell University professor Michael Jones-Correa’s 2011 study "All Immigration is Local," he observed that efforts are underway in almost every city to address immigrant integration, – full and meaningful participation in community life –  but there is little trading of information between cities.  

Our curiosity, and willingness to share in the learning process led us to successfully apply for a MetLife-funded Innovation Lab for Museums grant, administered by CFM, which completely shaped how the NUEVOlution! exhibit came together. Guided by EmcArts, the Lab called for “half-baked” ideas and we went in with questions, not answers. Questions informed the project, questions informed the sessions, and questions informed questions. We asked about what we didn’t know. Using what we learned, we decided to create an exhibit, and we approached the exhibition process the same way. The entire creation was to be a process—intentionally self-reflective around the ideas that emerged.

We developed ¡NUEVOlution! using feedback loops and rapid prototyping. Community feedback informed story selection and interactive development --even the logo and exhibit title were crowd sourced. Daring to learn something new, apply it, try it out on key stakeholders and then listen to what they had to say. Really listen. We did not just say “thanks for your input” and continue on down the original path, but were willing to stop and take in what we heard and try to make it real. For example community input directed us to make the exhibit more experiential than originally conceived. Another key component was flattening the traditional hierarchical structure of exhibit development. In the development of content and design elements, all feedback was considered and weighed equally. Topics were explored and developed with sustained community groups and their feedback was incorporated at every stage of exhibit creation; all staff were asked to weigh in and give their feedback - either in group settings, or via email or direct communications with the exhibit team.  Throughout the process, we checked for resonance with our audience, and did not just depend upon a topic’s relevance or top down direction. This meant that the exhibit had relevance, community buy-in and the audience awareness of the project was building from each of the feedback sessions. We had created community ambassadors for the project. 

Using this model resulted in several “big ideas” that successively changed the exhibit’s focus and required the redesign of sections and content before arriving at the final version of the exhibit. One of our early visions for the exhibit, “New South Revolutions” put the Latino impact in the context of a new wave of influencers following the sharecroppers, mill owners and boomtown builders in the preceding decades. There were three different versions of this exhibit vision with one being highly youth-focused. Another “big idea” for this exhibit centered on the concept of home and creating a sense of home. Each time we tested and tried out what the exhibit could be –its stories, its activities—we realized something more. The story was more than just a chronological shift, and yes, it was about home, but was bigger. We needed to think about identity and place-making. 

A few months before the exhibit opened, a final feedback session revealed that many people wanted to make sure there was more nuance to the stories told in the exhibit. It was important that immigration was a part of the collection of stories, but it was not THE story, they wanted to ensure that the stories shown were not just stories of struggle but also of successes. They also desired a focus on language, race, and ethnicity. Because of this session, the Museum added sections “Leading in the Mainstream” and “Origins” and new interactives.

Courtesy Rodrigo Dorfman

To create an exhibit like ¡NUEVOlution!, museum staff had to put aside our egos and cultivate a real willingness to listen and engage differently. The process required us to develop a tolerance for ambiguity, the messiness of authentic  collaboration, openness to failure and the need to recreate based upon feedback. But the final product—wet paint and all—was immensely better due to this iterative approach to exhibit development.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Philanthropy in the Age of Scale: MacArthur Foundation 100&Change

 Last year the MacArthur Foundation launched 100&Change—a competition for a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal to make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem. They invited proposals to address any critical issue, and indeed the submissions ranged from health to education and environmental sustainability.

100&Change exemplifies the rise of high-impact philanthropy, as funders increasingly are inclined to make “big bets” that result in transformative change rather than being satisfied with incremental progress.

In February MacArthur announced the eight semi-finalists and now they’ve release a public, searchable database of nearly 1900 proposals submitted to 100&Change. This database provides a fascinating overview of who applied, what problems they chose to address and how. Studying these proposals can help museum people think about how their own work can create solutions that are (to quote MacArthur) “radically different in scope, scale and complexity.”

I want to give a shout out to three museums I found in the database that were bold enough to apply. (There may be others—I found these through key word searches--let me know if you find any I missed.)

The San Diego Zoo tackled extinction, proposing to save critically endangered species of animals and plants by scaling up the world’s largest cryopreserved collection of living gametes and seeds  (San Diego Zoo’s Our Frozen Zoo® and Seed Bank).

The Chicago Botanic Garden pitched a plan to strengthen global food security by cultivating the use of symbiotic soil microbes that enhance crop plant tolerance to drought. In contrast to the development and sale of (patented) drought resistant cultivars by big agricultural businesses, this approach would create low cost, sustainable solutions controlled by local farmers.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Drexel University) framed many of the big problems facing humanity (climate change, water and food security, loss of biodiversity) as part of a larger “Failure to use knowledge to address the ongoing disconnect between human and natural systems at a time when humans are revealed as the dominant species impacting the planet.” They proposed to tackle this meta-problem with a meta-solution: building a network of academic institutions and problem-solving practitioners to create a paradigm shift in societal problem solving.

May I lead a (digital) standing ovation to these institutions for envisioning how their museums can help solve urgent, global, intractable challenges.

MacArthur isn’t simply abandoning the proposals that didn’t make the final eight. They are refining the indexing and organization of the proposal database, creating a system that links related proposals, and may help match them to potential funders. The judges also provided feedback to all applicants. You may remember the Alliance entered the competition (I blogged about it here), with a plan to meet a significant portion of America’s need for equitable, high-quality early childhood education through incubating museum-based programs. We didn’t make the cut, but the feedback we received was very encouraging. One reviewer wrote “This is a stand-out proposal and the best of my batch -- it is bold, innovative and highly leveraged. I love everything about it [including] the use of existing museums as new vectors for achieving ECE outcomes.” Those reviews have fortified our resolve to refine the idea and continue to pursue funding.

MacArthur has announced its intention to repeat 100&Change every three years. I encourage you to start thinking now about how your museum could play a significant role in solving an important problem of our time. Please share your ideas with your colleagues and with me, here on the blog or over on Museum Junction. Together we can incubate ideas for how museums can lead in an Age of Scale

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Build it and will they come? Co-working considerations for Museums

Tui Te Hau
At the AAM annual meeting, I hope to see you at the session I’ll be moderating on the emerging trend of museums running business incubators and co-working spaces (Sunday, May 7, 4 pm). One of the newest of these enterprises is Mahuki, an innovation accelerator run by Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. Mahuki won’t be represented on our panel, but in today’s guest post Tui Te Hau, general manager of Te Papa’s Innovation Hub, offers some advice for museums considering starting their own co-working or incubator space. And Tui knows whereof she speaks, having headed up Wellington’s Fashion HQ business accelerator and establishing Lightning Lab, New Zealand’s business acceleration program. (Her longer bio is well worth reading.) You can still register to join us in St. Louis. 

Museums and galleries with spare space have an opportunity to enter the co-working realm and provide office facilities for businesses and others in their community.  The benefits include revenue from rents and other charges, leveraging physical space and co-location with entrepreneurs that creates energy, excitement and momentu

m in your organization.  Co-working takes more than just providing the space and you can increase your chances of success and save yourself big headaches with a little forward planning. 

Here are my top three insights from spending a decade co-located with entrepreneurs in business incubators and accelerators –

It’s a real estate play
Co-working is a real-estate or rental business model and unless money is no issue for you, you need to create a value proposition that will attract and retain individuals and businesses to choose your space.  You also need to secure tenants who can and will pay the rent (every month and on-time)! 
The tension is that you will also want to have quality tenants that align with your brand and positioning.   Maybe it’s art-tech focused businesses in a gallery.

This means you need to determine a pricing structure and selection criteria that will enable you to run the co-working space sustainably and have the right mix of teams in order to deliver value to your organization over and above the rent you receive. 

Of course you can just run your space purely for profit and then maybe who is in the space isn’t so important.  Equally, you could run it totally altruistically and not charge (I wouldn’t though).
But here’s the other tension – the mix and quality of the existing tenants are what attracts new tenants to come be located with you versus the other cool space down the road.

The first year is generally the honeymoon period when your brand spanking new facility and your marketing enthusiasm attracts awesome teams.  Its year two and beyond where it can become a hard grind if you aren’t constantly reviewing and enriching your value proposition to attract the right mix of teams (and meet your financial targets)!

Time base your offer
My number one tip is to build in check points in your agreements with your tenants. Possibly a trial to start and then a review on a six monthly basis.  Don’t sign an open ended agreement.  You need the flexibility to be able to move people on.  Some people are just plain awful to be in a space with, others can be super awesome but aren’t paying rent, or are really messy. 

Just Co-working?
Energy and momentum is the fuel of business (that, and endless supplies of good coffee).  You need to bring energy into the space on a regular basis.  This could be through workshops, seminars, community rituals (like doing the daily crossword).   People like to co-work because of the co - the opportunity to interact with others. Other considerations include music, fit out and furniture. Don’t go too far – it’s not party central.  The culture and vibe of the place will be determined by the mix of teams you have but you are a key player.  You need to be actively thinking about this continuously. 

I would also be mindful of when you might start to operate like a business incubator and begin to provide entrepreneurial services to tenants.  This is not a bad thing to do and it is a natural way to bring in energy – it’s just that it is very resource intensive and is something you should do consciously and with a plan.  

There are a number of awesome organizations that do this for a living and you could consider partnering with someone to run your co-working space. In New Zealand we have the awesome Biz Dojo who love to share their co-working mojo with others.  There is also a lot of information online to help you.

Through co-working I’ve had the chance to work alongside a rich mix of interesting and smart people. I’ve been there at ground zero for businesses that have gone on to be superstars and I’ve had a lot of fun.  I’ve also had to have difficult conversations with people – those who don’t shower, hog the meeting rooms and had to address the rumor that people got a little more intimate than appropriate onsite after hours.  Mostly, I’ve had to manage a lot of competing expectations; “no we aren’t going to start providing organic fruit baskets every week” and “yes I love your business and you’re team really makes this place hum – but it’s not in lieu of your rent”.  For your parent company – its meeting their expectations that they are providing something that the community values and makes us all look good.   There are lots of other considerations but this will get you started.  Good luck!