Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Measuring Success: It’s Okay to Be Art

An Interview with Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City + Community Strategy

Part II of the series on the challenges and methods on making arts organizations and museums more accessible, diverse and inclusive

I had the privilege of talking with Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City + Community Strategy at Chicago's Place Lab.  She shared with me her unique take on the role of traditional measurement in successful outreach.

From the moment our conversation began, her commitment to social change was clear. Ferguson has her feet on the ground on Chicago’s South Side, where she both lives and works.

In her role at the Place Lab (a partnership between University of Chicago's Arts + Public Life initiative and the Harris School of Public Policy), Ferguson is part of a collaborative team of seven professionals devoted to Place Lab being "a catalyst for mindful urban transformation and creative redevelopment for equitable and livable cities."

Together the team conducts translation work, from "discipline to discipline, from institution to institution and community to community.”

Q: How does Place Lab’s vision of an “arts and culture-led neighborhood transformation” work?

A: We are “driven by what we are good at, which is a focus on design and cultural projection and art. It is embedded in our work.”

The programs are offered at no cost, but Ferguson challenges the assumption that offering a service for free is a magic bullet for reaching a local community:
Outreach happens -- it is NOT outreach just because it is no-cost

It happens “with strategic partnerships with other institutions; outreach happens in more formal ways but not necessarily traditional ways.”

Q: Can you tell me an example of a recent Place Lab project and what you learned from that project?

A:  “We outreached last summer to the four-block radius of the closed St. Laurence School (which had been sitting vacant for over ten years) by “flyering,” holding meetings – letting people know that there was activity happening here."

“We asked what are the problems of the building and how can those problems be addressed.”

“The building has three stories and had an incredible amount of broken windows. Construction typically involves boarding up windows, but instead, we connected artists with the community. A workshop, called Board Up: Patterns in Place, was led by artist Ruben Aguirre and drew from the history of the community and Ebony collection at the Stony Island Arts Bank.”

From the Place Lab website:

Place Lab held a grand unveiling of a geometric window design by local youth at the St. Laurence Elementary building, a former Catholic school that has sat vacant for the last 12 years. Several middle school students in the community helped design and paint window boards that will be used to winterize the building,

When the panels were unveiled, Place Lab had a party with a musicians procession and free school supplies. It was "really a ‘school party’ where neighbors came outside and stepped up, offering time and skills."

“It was a way of having a very early "advisory committee." What the focus might be was left very open within arts and culture.”

Q: What do you see as the limiting factor to effectiveness in reaching the community through art?

A: It is "interesting how we put pressure on our public spaces,” to do everything from transforming the community, increasing retail, and improving education.

This is what Ferguson calls the “magical building” effect, and maintains that “it is okay to be art,” as opposed to being able to measure and report stats.
To make and to do, that in itself is OKAY
Q: How can the success of a building like the Stony Island Art Bank be measured?

A: We are “trying to create spaces where people don’t have the expectation of ‘magical building,’ where it is perfectly valid and useful for a space to have a point of view and things that it does.”

“People think that because we are called a “lab,” that what we do is about data. We don’t do data analysis, we are the implementers and the observers (narrative, ethos and purpose).”

Q: Other than money what would you do with art on the South Side in the next ten years?

“There is such a legacy and history here. It has always been a creative place.” Ferguson envisions a “cultural renaissance” on the South Side, a “modern version of Bronzeville.”

“Our dream is to replicate exactly that, that people visiting, or from Chicago, know that you don’t need to leave the South Side to be challenged to find places that feel free to use the space, where we can experiment and iterate and create.”

Q: Do you do outreach to the “community”? Who is the community? When did the efforts start?

A:  "From what I understand, the first year before the arts incubator began was a year of listening and visits to document of the history of the neighborhood – to hear what people’s perception of the neighborhood are."

Listening is the first step in what is strategically part of the “Activation” of a neighborhood.

The concept of “Activation” evokes what Heddie Judah in an article for the Independent calls a place where "if all the inanimate objects in the world lay temporarily dormant, like a handful of seeds, waiting only for the benediction of creative rain to spring into life."

Ferguson continues, "through Place lab we have succeeded in ‘re-imagining the civic commons,’ working to bring on four more sleepy properties on the south and west side."

Q: Tell me more about the folks are who doing urban-based work?

A: The Rebuild Foundation is a “platform” for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation.

From the Rebuild Foundation website:

Founded and led by artist Theaster Gates, the projects of Rebuild Foundation support artists and strengthen communities by providing free arts programming, creating new cultural amenities, and developing affordable housing, studio, and live-work space.

The mission of Rebuild Foundation is to make art matter more by demonstrating the impact of innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial arts and cultural initiatives. The Foundation work is informed by three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter, and black things matter.

Read more about Rebuild Foundation:

Q: What would that transformation look like?

A:  Ferguson doesn’t have to think about that question, she answers, it looks like:
  • Stony Island Arts Bank
  • Black Cinema House
  • Dorchester Art & Housing Collaborative
  • St. Laurence Project
  • Black Artists Retreat
  • Archive House
The conversation with Isis Ferguson was enlightening and hopeful, reminding us that community outreach is not all about numbers, measurement and data – but rather the effect is better assessed in terms of tangible projects, people, and places.

Friday, April 14, 2017


Today:  How to measure success?  

Funding has creating an almost unbridgeable gap between numbers and the lives they represent.

A nonprofit is driven by its vision, for example “changing the world, one child at a time”.

But how exactly?

The nonprofit will build accessible playgrounds for young children between the ages of one and five. The playgrounds will be built in low-income neighborhoods with very limited green space.

Not only is it a beautiful vision, it’s a practical vision.  Children who had nowhere to play outdoors now have a place.  Children who play outside are healthy children.  Children who play outside are happy children.

With the goal set, the nonprofit does just as promised, designs and builds the accessible playground. The community response is positive; the families bring their children.  The kids playing are happier and healthier.  Were there challenges? Yes.  Were they insurmountable?  No.  In other words, the project worked.

Can we prove it?

Did we change the world one child at a time?

If we could measure success, that providing playgrounds had a positive impact on society, we would.

Stories help.  Photos help.  Success stories help.  Sometimes a rigorous long-term research project may measure, over time, that grades improved for children who lived in an area with a playground vs children who did not have a playground.

Now, let money enter the equation.  To change the world, one child at a time, we need money, which we request from private donations or government grants.  With the funding comes requirements.

The most popular requirement? Measurable Outcomes.  Achieve the outcomes, get the money.

So now, instead of changing the world (which is not easily measurable), we measure what we can: How many people walked in our doors, what was their age, ethnicity, income level etc.

When funding was involved the counting became more specific and perhaps at the cost of meaningful results (one child inspired) it became measurable results (1,000 one to five year old kids visited at least once this summer).

No one stopped to say we are creating an almost unbridgeable gap, between those numbers and the lives they represent.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Stay tuned for our next post, an interview with Isis Ferguson from Chicago’s Place Lab.  Isis has a unique view on the role of measuring success in the arts.

Saturday, April 08, 2017


It has been a long time since I pondered my mission in life, I'll still never get past addressing homelessness, mental illness and the effects of poverty on children.

That said, I find that community is at the center of it all.  And, taking a step to the side here,  art is at the center of community.  Art programs for inner city children, art for the sake of art, art to remind us who we are.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and my parents still reside there.  The area is called "Terror Town" by the sensationalist local news.  People I grew up with are still there (Zealous, across the street, and Theresa Moore around the way), but most are long moved away.  My parents love Mrs. Glinzy on the corner. Neighbor's Chuck and Jen dug us out of a storm with his snow blower this winter.

The next neighborhood over, is the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, academics and affluence and also the stomping grounds of Saul Alinsky and the Obama's.  Hyde Park put social activism on the map. Was it the "Ivy League" making a laboratory of the South side?  In looking back, I have to say yes..sort of...  The economic and racial divide was inescapable.  The High School I attended encompassed both, a microcosm; the two groups sat on opposite sides of the lunch room and attended separate classes "honors" and "regulars".

I came close to exploring this territory way back at Sonoma State University, signed up for a masters program is Community Psychology, etc. etc.  When I came closer to the subject, in my earlier 20's, I couldn't get a grasp on it.  I struggled with the way language enforces culture; I thought about knowledge and how we acquire it, I thought about oppression and government and women's rights.

But I never connected the dots.  In the end, I spent four years reading Jung and Teilhard de Chardin and John Dewey.  I found happiness there, in an almost ethereal abstract place.  I'm sure I would have gotten on well with Plato back in the day; I really liked to think about thinking.  I still do.

Today, returning to the my old "hood", I felt a pull, down from the abstraction of epistemology, straight down to the physical and the practical.  "Will I be safe if I go for a walk?"  "How many abandoned houses are on this block"?  "Does that one young boy, riding along up and down the block on his bicycle, have any friends?"

There was a lot of heartache, growing up and attending Myra Bradwell Elementary.  3,000 children, 87% African American children and then me, part of the 13% "White"statistic. I studied side-by-side with kids who had no hope, no means, no pathway out.  And when I was 12, I found a pathway out, or it found me, bused to a prestigious "Magnet School"; we were a rainbow school, where whites, blacks, asians, jews, catholics etc. were all on equal ground.

After surviving two years at Kenwood High in Hyde Park (lunchtime race riots, death threats) but after the rites of passage, a practical peace was built.  Then I ran away again, to another Magnet school, Whitney Young.   There it was again, that perfect rainbow world.  Two years later, Michelle Obama (not famous at all then) attended Whitney Young.  As did the, sometimes infamous, Jesse Jackson's daughter. The talented Wachovsky brothers who later wrote and directed "The Matrix" were there sometimes as well.   And me. and my two sisters.

Last month I found myself driving the streets of the South Side again; a lot of flashbacks.  That is where I first heard about Theaster Gates, his neighborhood activism, and the birth of the "Arts Incubator" at the University of Chicago.   Looking around for his art center, I passed a Mosque with red scrolling letters.  The message?

I couldn't help wondering, or else what?

Friday, March 10, 2017


Who loves museums?  Who currently comes to museums? Should we broaden this audience?  And if so, how?  What pitfalls are there along the way? I love museums.   Who doesn’t?  Turns out that is a complex question. Michelle Obama shed light on the question in her opening remarks at the Whitney Museum.  She pointed out that not all people feel museums are a welcoming place:
"…there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and … think to themselves…that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people."
Read the full text of the First Lady’s remarks here.

As many museums embark on a journey to become more inclusive, diverse and accessible I feel a general sense of unrest.  So many issues are involved and it is hard to dissect them and then to focus on just one at a time.

For help I turned to the amazing blog “Incluseum”.  There I was introduced to the Blogger Porchia Moore, a self-described Poet, Museum Nerd, Beauty seeker and Knowledge Keeper. 

Her post: The Danger of the “D” Word: Museums and Diversity helped by giving words to those feelings.

Moore argues that “diversity” is a racially coded term which masks hidden agendas and argues that museums 
“… should be cultivating lasting relationships with communities of color; and be certain that we are not just targeting them when we deem their participation to be culturally congruent.”
Moore cautions that minority visitors are not “merely niche or annual visitors” but instead “are long-term invested stakeholders with a unique set of values”.  Reaching people of color won’t happen unless their “narratives are celebrated as equally as important … to the system of values which permeate the traditional white mainstream museum” 

Are words as seemingly innocuous as “Diversity” coded words revealing a bias?  There is a growing body of work unpacking terms which are used in the strategic plans and missions of Museums across the country.  Terms which, on the surface, appear harmless, such as “Community” and "Diversity" are explored and revealed to have troubling connotations.

Museums are asking important questions such as:
  • How can we ensure that all audiences can access our programs, collections, and resources?
  • How do we actively deconstruct systemic bias in our field—and how will we measure our progress?

These and many more questions will be topics of discussion at the upcoming American Alliance of Museums 2017 conference.  The theme this year is:  Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums

Bonus Reading:  Incluseum also has an excellent set of tools and articles to use as conversation guides and catalysts as well as group activities here.

Coming Soon:

In Part II of this series we will explore the methods currently being employed to make museums more inclusive, diverse and accessible.  How do we attract and retain diverse audiences across borders and categories of sex, race, ethnicity, age, class, ability, language, sexual orientation, and gender roles and identity?

In Part III we will explore whether these methods are effective and how we can measure this effectiveness.  Is what we measure capturing our effectiveness?  How can we study the results?

In Part IV we will explore the tendency to cater to only our built in audiences; people with similar interests, science geeks, the museum nerds, the patrons of the arts.

To wrap up the series, in Part V will we will identify opportunities for future research.  We’ll also offer a “what to do next” list of essential reading on the topics we’ve discussed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


"Actions believed to alleviate the difficulties of a city can actually make matters worse." 
Jay W. Forrester

Jay Forrester penned his revolutionary article "The Counterintuitive Nature of Social Systems" (link to pdf full article) back in 1971.

His article is as relevant today as the day it was published.   Since 40 year old academic articles aren't likely to reach the public, I think it's a good time to revisit this masterpiece.

His article examines "four common programs for improving the depressed nature of central cities:
  1. ...creation of jobs by busing the unemployed to suburban jobs or through governmental jobs as employer of last resort;
  2. a training program to increase skills of the lowest-income group;
  3. financial aid to depressed cities from federal subsidies; and
  4. construction of low-cost housing. 
All of these were shown to lie between neutral and highly detrimental.

Forrester's investigation shows "how depressed areas in cities arise from excess low-income housing rather than from a commonly presumed housing shortage."
Forrester describes the counterintuitive downward spiral as efforts to help the poor miss their mark:
" and tax structures...combine to give incentives for keeping old buildings in place. As (the) ... buildings age, employment opportunities decline. As (the) buildings age, they are used by lower-income groups who are forced to use them at higher population densities. (Thus) ...aging buildings cause jobs to decline and population to rise. Housing, at the higher population densities, accommodate more low-income urban population than can find jobs. A social trap is created where excess low-cost housing beckons low-income people inward because of the available housing. Unemployed people continue coming to a city until their numbers sufficiently exceed the available jobs that the standard of living declines far enough to stop further inflow. Income to the area is then too low to maintain all of the housing. Excess housing falls into disrepair and is abandoned. Extreme crowding can exist in those buildings that are occupied, while other buildings become excess and are abandoned because the economy of the area cannot support all of the residential structures. Excess residential buildings threaten an area in two ways—they occupy land so it cannot be used for job-creating buildings, and they attract a population that needs jobs. Any change, which would otherwise raise the standard of living, only takes off the economic pressure momentarily and causes population to rise enough that the standard of living again falls to the barely tolerable level.

Want to read more? Check out blogger Andrew Taylor aka "The Artful Manager" as he takes on the same topic from a different perspective in a 2004 post called Finding Forrester.

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