Participation: It’s In the Air These Days

January 27, 2011

Participatory engagement in the arts and culture was a front-burner topic this month at Slover Linett. Here in Chicago, we co-sponsored a talk by Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum, to an audience of 130 museum professionals, funders, and consultants. Online, Cheryl Slover-Linett helped Alan Brown present a webinar on participatory cultural practice.

The days of the one-way street are numbered. As today’s consumers expect to play more active roles in their cultural and leisure experiences, cultural organizations from science centers to symphonies are changing the ways they think about engagement, shifting from presentational to participatory modes.

That was the recurring theme in recent weeks at our firm, starting with an event we co-hosted with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Widely-cited museum experience designer, consultant, and author Nina Simon gave a powerful presentation to the Chicago-area museum community about how to reconfigure museums as platforms for visitors to build upon, rather than as content providers responsible for interpreting culture with a single, institutional voice.

Simon suggested that museums begin thinking of themselves as places for everyday use, as trusted hosts for social experiences, and as places for making and sharing — not just seeing and exploring. Sharing insights and images from diverse environments, programs, and exhibits around the world, Simon demonstrated that participatory design can be an energizing new way to fulfill museum’s missions.

Later in the month, Cheryl Slover-Linett presented a “second view” on participatory engagement for a webinar featuring noted arts researcher Alan Brown, of the firm WolfBrown. The webinar was the first in a series of “executive briefings” to be offered through CultureLab, a small consortium of arts consultants from the US, UK, and Australia. CultureLab (which is not to be confused with our new innovation enterprise, Culture Kettle) is based at the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago.

In his presentation, which is available for download here [pdf], Brown explored recent research findings about the links between personal participation in artistic activities and attendance at professional arts performances. Noting that the nonprofit arts system in the US has not traditionally supported personal artistic practice, Brown called for better frameworks for understanding and incorporating participatory practice in the overall arts ecology.

Sarah Lee, who leads Slover Linett’s arts and culture research practice, says both presentations were timely and inspiring. “Nina and Alan are both such important voices in the international dialogue about how culture works, and we’re proud to be able to call both of them colleagues and friends.” Participatory experience, notes Lee, is “more than just a passing buzzword. It’s a broader change in society that’s bubbling up in every domain, including museums and the arts. The question is how we, as a field, respond and how we harness it.”

For more information, or to talk about how participatory engagement works at your organization, please contact Cheryl Slover-Linett by email or at (773) 348-9204.

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