Growing Our Community


Today’s session – Generation X: How Soon Is Now – at the California Association of Museums annual conference was a standing-room-only affair. We probably crammed close to 100 mostly GenX-ers into a room at the Napa Valley Marriott – as I joked, probably all of the GenXers at the conference were in the room!

Our presentations ran the gamut from personal stories about growing up as latch-key kids to introductions to 19 international museum leaders (who happen to be GenX) to career advice to look for institutional needs and match them with your own strengths. 

As at our original session at AAM in 2012, we struck a nerve. The Q&A following the presentations went on well past the official end of the session – until finally I “pulled the plug” at 11:30. 

Hopefully some of you reading this were at the session – we’d love to know what you though. Tell us in the comments – or if you have a lot to say, become a blog contributor! Email me jennifer at caleshu dot com and I’ll be happy to invite you.


We’re baaaaaack….

It’s been almost two years since we started this movement and community, and the Gen X Museum gang is back together again – this time for the California Association of Museum‘s annual conference in lovely Napa, California.

Join me and this diverse group of museum GenXers for our session: Generation X: How Soon Is Now from 10 – 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, March 6:

  • Jennifer Caleshu, Director of Earned Revenue, Bay Area Discovery Museum;
  • James Leventhal, Deputy Director for Development, Contemporary Jewish Museum;
  • Amparo Leyman Pino, museum consultant;
  • Renee Donmon, Membership Director, Charles M. Schulz Museum;
  • Salvador Acevedo, Principal & President, Contemporánea;
  • Jada Hansen, Executive Director, Hennepin History Museum;
  • Michael Wall, Vice President of Research and Public Programs, San Diego Natural History Museum;
  • Paloma Patterson, Museum Staff for Development and Administration, Mendocino County Museum
Gain a wide perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing Generation X and reflect on your own leadership practice as we fly through our presentations pecha kucha style – 20 slides each for 20 seconds per slide. We’ll have a rockin’ soundtrack and plenty of time for our open mic. 

Delusions of Grandeur : My Museum and Twitter

I was an early convert to Twitter, and I’ve been tweeting since before 90% of other users set up an account. I joined in 2009 after a year’s urging by a local madman interested in hyper local news, and I signed up just before the Balloon Boy incident, a news story involving a lost child, a soaring homemade balloon, and a pair of loathsome parents hungry for media attention. Balloon Boy sold me on Twitter when someone tweeted from the scene that the boy had been found hiding. Five minutes later, CNN told the world.

When I ran a small art museum almost a decade ago, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. There was only our website, press releases, and word on the street. To update our website involved emailing our webmistress a request to update the site, her getting around to it, and no one’s knowing quite what impact that would have. Press releases were another thing altogether. In spite of the demonstrated, consistent interest in arts and culture, no newspaper does a very good job with arts and culture, and we send our press releases to an industry that more than any other is confined to antiquated models of success and has suffered from an inability to change. Word on the street was even more sketchy than our website or press releases.  Sometimes in my more poetic moments, I imagine what I would have done with social media had it been at my fingertips in 2002.

On Saturday, January 4 I chimed in to a question from @ExtrovertedMuse about Twitter, museum retweets, and advocacy. My morning was mostly making breakfast for two children and keeping them from fighting, but there was enough meat on the bones of the conversation to keep me thinking about it all day.

These important points emerged:

1.    Tweeting or retweeting museum content is a kind of advocacy, simply a small part of it.

2.    Museums are resistant to tweeting content from other museums.

3.    Most museum planning processes fail to embrace and include social media or advocacy.

Tweeting is a kind of advocacy, and it is a small part of what advocacy is and a small part of what a museum should be doing in promoting its programs and its place in a community. Using Twitter can be a simple reminder to people that a museum is in their midst. Museums are incredibly diverse and complex, and the 140 character limit can break down museum jargon to something a normal person can read. Tweeting well is a skill; a good tweet requires an economical use of words that keeps it simple. Advocacy is simply telling people what you do. It is telling people what you do simply. Twitter will do that.

Advocacy is a difficult charge for museums. Advocacy is a movement from inside the museum field from activists worried about the future of museums. Advocacy is telling those outside of museums what is going on to boost support for museums across the board. Very few museums have advocacy as part of their mission or even as part of the job description for their director. When museum associations like mine urge members to participate in advocacy, we run into a slew of problems. Advocacy doesn’t seem to be mission related. It is not in the director’s job description. It is not as comfortable to do as the research, exhibit, or program that is consuming a particular person’s time. It could be a little too political (but I assure you it is not). It may even be assumed that statewide, regional, and national museum associations will, as membership in these associations suggest, automatically produce an advocacy effort. These obstacles and assumptions leave museums empty at the newsstand, in government budgets, and, quite literally, empty.

Museums’ resistance to use social media for advocacy or at all to its greatest influence is another daunting obstacle. Slow to change, some museums see social media as a free way to self promote, and they find out that it isn’t free. It takes thoughtful staff time to engage in social media, and in a time of shrinking budgets and belt-tightening, social media also remains outside the comfort zone of directors, board members, and typical corporate communications structures. A rather well-run museum may have trouble creating a quick, engaging strategy for these communications without the leadership to support it and alienate the converts in the ranks who see Twitter as one of the last raging, exciting, free places on the internet.

Museums tweet what they are doing but too seldom retweet what another museum is doing, even one on the other side of the country in no direct competition for visitors or attention. Museums seldom stretch to tweet about what is going on in the field of museums. Museums seldom retweet content from other museums’ accounts or pass along advocacy messages from associations or other advocates.

Sometimes museums will interact when an organized effort is at hand with a relevant hashtag like #askacurator on a special day, but we not see “Break a leg!” tweeted colleague to colleague about a new exhibition’s opening. Every museum has the potential to link to another. There are endless opportunities to showcase one museum’s collection that relates to a major opening at another. Museums on Twitter often seem to exist only for themselves in a desperate attempt to self promote, and the field suffers from its own failure to make connections, museum to museum, museum to field, and museum to visitor.

Most museums have not taken as much time to plan in any area as may be ideal. No one can spend all of their time planning. The last thing anyone worries about is advocacy; this shortcoming shows itself again and again in communications. Museum people, almost in spite of the great stories museum collections have the potential to tell, hesitate to share what they know with the people in the galleries or in positions to establish policies that could secure the stability of museums for future generations.

Planning takes the same kind of staff time away from operations that advocacy does, but museums do tend to engage in planning as a pre-requisite for funding or simply to give shape to their forward momentum.  The time is ripe for museum planners to examine how an institution will handle its communications, participate in advocacy, and do both exceedingly well with some simplicity. Twenty years ago it was mail. Ten years ago it was email. Yesterday it was Facebook. Today it is Twitter. There will be many people still paying attention to Facebook and Twitter tomorrow. The day after tomorrow it will be something else, and it is our delusion of grandeur to assume that important people are paying attention or that anyone is listening at all.

What Is A GenX Celebrity? What Becomes A Legend Most?

I wasn’t surprised to hear about Lou Reed’s death. It wasn’t terribly untimely; he didn’t die young and in his prime. He didn’t O.D. The way I found out (one of my imaginary friends on Facebook) wasn’t ideal. The first thought I had was that I had lost my musical true magnetic north. You may not know Lou Reed’s music or the fantastic Baby Boomer life he led hobnobbing with Andy Warhol and David Bowie, recording with guys who would later become total art dork rock loyalty (Yes).

Lou Reed’s voice probably first came to my ears on old rock and roll radio, and I like to think he would have liked that. It was probably not his best work. It was probably Walk On The Wild Side in all of its demented mellowness. I liked his voice. It was his alone like Bob Dylan’s or Woody Guthrie’s, and it was the flip sides of those folk coins. If you don’t exactly sing like butter, you can still take a song and sing it if you have the balls to do it. You just have to sing it your way, and it helps a lot if the words are good.

I bought my first Lou Reed album at the Goodwill in Lebanon, PA. Rock and Roll Animal. It didn’t come with a white sleeve for inside the cardboard sleeve. Far as I know, it might never have had one because it still doesn’t. I still play this record, and it got a lot of time yesterday on the turntable. I can remember jumping around and air guitar playing Sweet Jane in my college apartment, The Barn at Slippery Rock, and last night I grabbed up my daughter and played her like a guitar while we spun around in the dining room. She was hollering, “I’M NOT A GUITAR DADDY!” but I really didn’t give a damn. This passes as good parenting in my house, and our family is an independent standing unit free of the influence of grandparents and their churches and ideas about what work, love, and history were. We are on our own.

Lou was on his own something like that. He made his own way, and he made a lot of music in his life. He was out there, hard to put a label on, and for Gen X, I think he represented that you could do that. You didn’t have to be one thing. Lou Reed was a hippie, a punk, a jazz guy, a folk guy, an electronica guy, a noise guy, an indie guy, an alternative guy, and if you’ve heard the Velvet Underground demo tapes, he could also play it Country and Western too. This ability to change hue, be a Chameleon, resonated with our own situations and the false notion that we were isolated. We were anything but isolated from knowledge, and the isolation we clung to was feeling like we didn’t quite fit into the Boomer World Domination Plan. In that typical way, we took our cues about isolation from a Baby Boomer like Lou Reed until the Truth was told by others our own age. Lou Reed stayed on my turntable even after his influence on other bands I liked seemed like a distant memory. It’s like Lou Reed is an obvious influence on everything. Rock and roll? Of course Lou Reed is in that. You don’t need somebody to tell you that any more than you need someone to tell you there’s a lot of German in the English language.

Lou Reed was perfect. If you were sitting in your tiny bedroom in a tiny place six miles from the interstate that led to the nearest big city two hours away, Lou Reed would tell you on the FM station that you should flee your rural nowhere. You should get to the nearest city where there was something happening. That something was Rock and Roll. That something was art and people your own age who understood your deal. Your hometown sucked, and you knew it. The city wouldn’t be perfect. That much was clear. You might end up a junkie. You might end up living next to a family of city rednecks who beat their kids and yelled all the time. It wouldn’t be perfect.

He wore black; all the best ones do. He rode motorcycles, and he liked art. It’s said he liked to argue, and it’s said he was kind of quiet. I’m kind of relieved I never met him. I saw him play on the New York tour, Tower theater, Philly, but I never actually met him or met anybody who knew him. One of my biggest fears is that if we’d met, it wouldn’t have gone well. We’re both off the hook now.

Well just like a GenX workaholic I was sick in bed this weekend and just thought I’d animate my old Master’s Thesis.. couldn’t I have just rested?? No!! Now my video is being shared this week in one of the Professor’s classes that I originally quoted in my thesis! All before 8am Monday.. this is why I love working (wait I don’t actually have a job) … and social media!

I feel like I finally did something important.  Something bigger and beyond anything I have done before. Yes, I have been making art my whole life and many works; paintings, digital art, sculptures and videos, caused people joy & happiness.. this is nice, I love this.. but those works don’t actually help save lives or influence positive global change or directly help contribute to healing the world, Tikkun Olam in Hebrew.

Well, actually I do feel my other work is important too.. but in a different way. Museum engagement, using social media to mentor teens & teach art history, and creating innovative digital art IS really important and our world is a much better place for it!!! But I somehow feel different, this time, because I used all these components together to address the idea of using art history for social change.. in this video I use 14th century Jewish art history, during the Black Plague, to address cultural intolerance, social violence, genocide through a feminist perspective. I use the ‘marginalized of the marginalized’ in this story to confront issues that are relevant today.

In this video, I share a story of the Erfurt Ring, its history and other objects that relate to the 14th century bride and recovered treasure. I propose the idea of a strong feminine game character and offer an opportunity for the future development of a Digitally Immersive Engagement Experience. I would like to use it as an Introductory Video for a future Kickstarter Campaign to produce a Game for Change experience for museums, audiences, and people who wish to learn more.. Learning more and sharing (two vital actions in most social media sites) helps contribute to healing the world too!!

get off my (museum) lawn!

Originally posted at my blog, Cabinet of Curiosities. It may or may not be a coincidence that my opinion of the articles in question is smack dab in the middle. Such is a Gen-X life. 

Maybe it’s just me but is it “dump on museums” month? First arts writer Judith Dobrzynski bemoans how participatory museums have caused “high culture” to hit the skids. Then CNN Travel senior producer James Durston makes a point of telling us why he thinks museums suck. All of a sudden, museums have everybody’s knickers in knots.

My first reaction was of the “Oh, no they didn’t!” variety. The museum industry is my baby and resisting my first instinct to tear into this conversation like a rabid mama wolverine was pretty challenging. So I took a deep breath, read both articles and the comments multiple times, and tried to unpack what was before me.

I’m showing my Gen-X stripes here but I read most of Ms. Dobrzynski’s “High Culture Goes Hands-On” in the voice of comedian Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man: “In my day, art museums were elitist and stodgy and nobody talked or had fun and we liked it.”

Grumpy old man

Take this passage:

In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.

True, museums are repositories and stewards of human material culture. But since when has visiting anything been a passive experience? Even a seemingly mundane trip to the grocery store involves multi-layered engagement. How do you expect people to find that beauty and inspiration without activating their senses? And to suggest that the “uplift” gained from quietly viewing so-called masterpieces has more inherent value than engaging in robust conversation surrounding contemporary art is the epitome of hubris. Is the experience worthless because it isn’t the way you prefer to engage with art?

Just for grins, let’s visit the other end of the spectrum with Mr. Durston’s “Why I Hate Museums” where he takes issue with museum funding:

Many of the world’s biggest and best museums are dependent on public money. London’s Natural History Museum needed £82 million ($128 million) to operate over 2012/2013, and nearly £46 million of this, 56%, came from government grants. The Smithsonian has been government funded to the tune of $811.5 million for 2013 — 65% of its total costs. Yet these are still cited as among their country’s best ‘free’ activities.

And while he admits he hasn’t given much thought to how museums contribute to economies, he goes on to say:

But the collect-and-cage policy that defines the visible exhibits, much of which is not even visible most of the time, is anathema to an engaging experience.

More experience, not less. Caged objects, no food/no photo policies, mismanagement, and museums that glorify their architecture over their contents give him the blues. Drama, excitement, and theater should be the order of the day. On its face, this is an argument I can agree with. Audience engagement is central to what I do as a museum employee. Unlike most of the commenters, I don’t assume that Durston, a self-described “museum-phobe”, is a dundering, uncultured idiot. He’s right. Some museums come off like their administrators are allergic to fun. But isn’t saying that museums are important while simultaneously insinuating that none of them are worth supporting financially the worst kind of backhanded compliment?

These articles present as thirsty click-bait, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is the rancid divisiveness that’s sprung up as a result. As others more eloquent than me have pointed out, applying an “either-or” mentality to this discussion is ridiculous. All humans aren’t alike, so there’s no way to craft a singular experience that appeals to everyone. Yet we continue to focus on the differences when we should learn from the commonalities. It’s a distracting shell game that accomplishes nothing except pitting one side against the other in a tiresome, age-old argument.

Despite the disparity of their arguments, Dobrzynski  and Durston are saying the same thing: Museums are letting me down. So instead of name-calling, let’s put our collective brains together to figure out how to create open, encouraging environments that allow the peaceful co-existence of a variety of experiences, from quiet contemplation to boisterous activity.

That’s the only way to serve us all.

Leaving Flowers For Andy

Earlier this week The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, one of the family of Carnegie Museums, announced a special happening for what would have been the artist’s 85th birthday. In cooperation with a church and a technology partner, the museum established a 24/7, night vision enabled live on the web camera feed at Andy Warhol’s grave to capture and perhaps protect the grave of one of America’s most well known and celebrated artists.

The news of this has traveled the world two or three times over by now, and you’d have to live under a goddamned rock not to have heard of it by now. What it all means? I know what one of my mentors Clyde would say. He would say, “It’s very interesting stuff. VERY interesting.” Sometimes we have conversations like this about the significance of things, and believe it or not, Clyde is nothing like Artie Feldman on Laugh In in a Nazi helmet and uniform holding a joint. It is interesting. When I shared it on social media channels, most people voted with the acid in their stomachs and said “Creepy!”

In the course of my service as an art, culture, and museum soldier, I probably have attained the rank of First Lieutenant. Maybe it’s a Brevet rank only, and I am really just a sergeant doing 1st Lt. things because all the 1st and 2nd Looies are dead. This has crossed my mind. Rank of any kind has its privileges, and one of those has been I have met some of the leading Andy Warhol scholars in Pennsylvania, the home state to an artist most often associated with New York City. How Pennsylvania clings to its sons and daughters is also interesting to me. New York could lay claim to Andy, but Pennsylvania, at least for now, has won the battle in the culture wars to keep Andy close to home. Scholarship about Andy is plentiful, and I have met more than a couple of people who met Andy somewhere along the line.

So here’s where I tell you I am some kind of expert on Andy Warhol or Pop Art, right? I don’t know if I’d go that far. I know more than the Average Bear about Andy Warhol, and I’ve given it a few days to have an opinion about the spectacle that is a live feed of a celebrity grave. It is a little creepy, but like one of the scholars I know might say, “That’s SO Andy!” She never met him. She doesn’t and didn’t approve of his approach to making art. She projects her own morality onto Andy’s. All of this seems like it would fall in the negative column, but for the most part, her scholarship is, taken with the pill that is knowing her, a very good start to understanding Andy Warhol, the last half of the 20th Century in America, and the looming threat of celebritization that is now our daily evening menu on television.

An author and curator I know well would fall into nearly the opposite camp, and she would say, “Andy would have been embarrassed to death by this.” She, too, brings her own gentle problems to the task of figuring out who Andy was. I think she would prefer to go back in time and hug him to writing about him. Yet she knows hugging him would have made him feel like a plank of wood on an alien planet with voluptuous probes wrapping around his bony parts. The damp warmth of a human embrace might have melted Andy on this planet.

One of the collectors I know who met Andy would probably say, “I don’t know what Andy would have said about this – unless it was his idea. Then he would just snow you about it anyway.” If you ever heard Andy being interviewed or talking about his art, this is probably the wisest piece of insight you’ll ever get about Andy Warhol. The former director of the Warhol museum, Tom Sokolowski, would probably come pretty close to the same conclusion although there’d be more swearing and a better delivery.

Andy was profoundly strange and creepy. He was incredibly self conscious, but he was also highly self aware. Andy was, in fact, spiritual and clingy about his strange-outside-of-Pennsylvania ethnic Catholicism. He loved his mother. He ate tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich every day for lunch. He liked getting one over on the art world, and mostly he wanted to be liked and was lonely. This sounds to me like he was just like the rest of us. I’m not sure even he bought completely into the idea that “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Andy’s minutes are longer than mine.

The camera at his grave captures fame seekers, art mourners, weirdo worshipers, museum people on pilgrimages, and curious kids. Most cemeteries and graveyards are lonely places; families don’t hop in the station wagon and go see grampa’s grave on a Sunday afternoon after Mass and lunch these days. They used to. Those were different times.

Mistakes Were Made

There was a conference session in Baltimore called Mistakes Were Made, a repeat performance of a session at last year’s conference that I couldn’t attend. I did watch the conference on Twitter, and Mistakes Were Made was definitely memorable.

I loved how packed it was in the room. There were a few sessions that got so full they kept people out of them after a while, but they were just letting everybody into this one. That had to be good.

The idea was, we all make mistakes. Except in this session, there would be a thinning of the herd and an award given for the biggest professional mistake in a museum.  We’d break into groups and share stories and then the finalists from each group got to share up front, then everybody’d vote. Some lucky son of a bitch would have to carry around the Calder Cup sized trophy of a pig leaping through an atom or some such.

My group was all strangers. I was the only guy in the group, and I might have been the oldest. When my turn came, I found I was actually very shy about the mistakes I’d made in the field. I couldn’t decide what to tell. I tried to tell them all, but I tried to avoid the biggest one. Or that other one, maybe just as big but very different.

“I don’t know,” I struggled, “I’ve destroyed works of art. I’ve been asked to resign. I’ve pissed off donors. I can’t decide which one to tell anyone about.”

And there was sort of a silence floating out there. It was the kind of silence you get when you are in trouble. You’ve been asked to explain yourself, and you didn’t. So now there’s silence until you do. Come out with it, already! It will feel good to get it off your chest! How bad is it anyway?

“There was this time I rented out the museum for an AIDS Action Organization to have a dance party. It was out of control from the onset. Everybody got super drunk, and I’m sure there was some ecstasy going around. There was a guy in leather chaps, and it was like the Village People were all there. They did horrible things in the bathrooms. The things I had to clean up…ugh…”

I sort of drifted to the memory of my own shock and disgust at having to throw away used condoms that were on the floor. There were several. It was disgusting because it was disgusting. Like when my son or the gray old men lobbyists at work leave the seat up. Didn’t your mama teach you anything? That seat goes DOWN, dude. That’s where it lives. And by the way and way, you put your used condoms in the trash so I can’t identify them as condoms. That’s not too much to ask, right?

My group was looking really uncomfortable with what I’d just said. They were lost in their own thoughts about this, and I’m willing to bet half of them immediately thought it was the gayness that I was disgusted by. That was not the case, but I hadn’t really clarified that at all. I hadn’t explained in that brilliant Seinfeldian manner “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I was fucked now. I wasn’t go to be our finalist, not like I’ve ever been big on trophies. You can win without winning. You can win in your own head, and everybody is so sensitive about gay rights these days, you dare not sound like you are some kind of bigoted homophobe. You are encouraged to post that you are a LGBT Ally on Facebook and share something by George Takei daily. I get that. It’s like a seat I left up.

Mistakes were made. I should have told them about when I was busted by the Director with a girl in my office or when I was busted by a board member setting up my band’s amplifiers and full rig in one of the galleries to practice there at night. I should have told them the story of blowing up a Jenny Holzer installation or destroying dimmer switches. I should have told them about the time I refused to return an art loan from a huge donor because I hadn’t been directed to do so that day. Mistakes were made. We make lots of them.