Key Take-Aways: Americans for the Arts Public Art Marketing & Community Engagement Webinar Series

In Fall 2014, I was invited to lead a webinar for the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network (PAN) Public Art Marketing & Community Engagement Digital Classroom series. Part of PAN’s ongoing online leadership development program for public art professionals, this 4-part webinar series focused on how to communicate to different groups of people why we need public art, and how to make public art as visible and impactful as possible—in both physical spaces and online.

The four lectures were organized by sub-topics: “Introduction to Marketing and Community Engagement” (September), “Promoting the value of your public art collection” (October), digital and online strategies (my session, in November), and education (December). See a full summary of all topics and speakers here. Each hour-long slide presentation led by one or more public art experts was coupled with a recap conference call session for participants.

Though each “class” ostensibly addressed a different topic, several key themes ran through all of them, including:

WHAT “marketing staff”?

Many of the classroom participants represented public art programs in smaller (sometimes rural) communities, with only a single public art manager and without dedicated communications staffs or budgets, or in some cases websites (beyond a rudimentary public art page on a local arts council site) or Facebook pages (due to the restrictions of governing agencies).   I realized that I shouldn’t only present examples from established organizations in urban art hubs, but tailor my presentation at least partially to administrators without as many resources (or as large an audience) at their disposal.

For this reason in addition to presenting a case study from NYC-based nonprofit Creative Time and inviting as a co-presenter Caitlin Martin, digital marketing manager from Philadelphia’s Association for Public Art (aPA) to present aPA’s robust Museum Without Walls app and digital media platforms, I invited Rachel Cain, Program Manager for the Public Art Archive (PAA). PAA is a database and mobile website of public art collections from around the world. Cain presented the benefits of uploading one’s public art collection to PAA as a low-effort, low-cost alternative to creating an original website. PAA also provides social media exposure and a free mobile site and mapping feature to help the public find and learn about each art collection (Similar sites that aggregate online collections include Culture Now and Mural Locator.)

My co-presenters and I also emphasized simple strategies that any organization can try in order to increase online exposure. For example: creating unique hashtags for each public art project and encouraging the public to post and tag photos of the work; or searching for related tags and locations on Twitter and Instagram to find, like and share photos and comments that people are already making about the public art.

Slide detail from Rachel Cain's Public Art Archive presentation, demonstrating PAA's mobile collection mapping features.

Slide detail from Rachel Cain’s Public Art Archive presentation, demonstrating PAA’s mobile collection mapping features.

Sample Instagram post from Association for Public Art, showing the use of searchable hashtags to get more notice for the post.

Sample Instagram post from Association for Public Art, showing the use of searchable hashtags and locations to attract more notice for the post.

The other three presentations contained a wealth of advocacy, visibility, and collaboration advice applicable to public art programs of all sizes:

The importance of language

In her introductory webinar, Margaret Bruning, Director of Civic Art at the Los Angeles County Art Commission recommends avoiding the word “marketing” altogether and treating it as synonymous with “community engagement.” Terms like “research and development” or “public input” can also be more attractive to government agencies who might balk at allocating resources to “advertising campaigns.”  Whether writing a press release or designing an education program, it is important to tailor your methods and your message to the interests, abilities, AND culture of different audiences. Since the term “public art” itself can be so widely misunderstood, Robin Nigh, Manager of the Art Programs Division for the City of Tampa, suggested “focusing on what public art does, not what it is,” specifically “the positive impact that art in the public realm can have.”

The importance of documentation–including numbers! 

To communicate public art’s value to both government “authorizers” and the general public, Robin Nigh recommended developing a “cheat sheet” with such data as percentage of the city budget used for public art, other funding sources, and the “rate of return:” for example, how many people walk or drive by the work. Both Nigh and Bruning’s presentations were brimming with not only enticing photos and feel-good community testimonials, but easily digestible graphs, charts, and statistics. Nigh recommends the National Endowment for the Arts as a resource for the types of metrics that speak to government officials.

Sample graphic from The Los Angeles County Arts Commission presentation.

Sample graphic from The Los Angeles County Arts Commission presentation showing annual accomplishments

Sample graphic from the City of Tampa presentation demonstrating per person investment in public art.

Sample graphic from the City of Tampa presentation demonstrating taxpayer investment in public art

We can also track number of visits, downloads, likes and comments on a public art app, website or social media page. NYC’s Public Art Fund has cited Twitter and Instagram comments in e-newsletters to demonstrate public interest in its temporary public art installations.

According to Kirstin Wiegmann,  Director of Education and Community Engagement at Forecast Public Art in St. Paul, MN, “Sharing examples from [the public art field] from around the world is a great way to…stretch your community’s imagination to something very innovative.” Forecast’s ongoing Public Art Review journal, website, and large physical library are resources for tracking the latest developments and publications in the field.  The Public Art Archive can be mined for exemplary public art in other cities that can help make the case for the value of public art worldwide and get a community excited about an upcoming commission.

The importance of partnerships 

To quote Margaret Bruning, “Public art is not something we do TO a community, but do WITH it.” Bruning described several projects engaging artists in extensive community collaboration, such as Project Willowbook. After a “cultural asset study” to determine existing neighborhood cultural resources, artist Rosten Woo went  “door to door in order to curate a Home, Garden and Vehicle Tour of Willowbrook,” building upon what was already there rather than imposing something new on the community.

Wiegmann cited several Forecast projects co-developed by artists and schools to meet specific educational and physical needs.  Carrie Christensen and Anna Metcalfe’s Glacier Hills Elementary school water garden installation taught students engineering and environmental science and helped mitigate sidewalk ice buildup.

Successful partnerships also result in opportunities for cross-promotion and “cultivating public art advocates,” in the words of Robin Nigh. Both Bruning and Jared Quinton, Creative Time’s Digital Marketing Manager, described partnering with neighborhood groups who know how best to present new projects to their own constituents. For its Fall 2014 funkgodjazz&medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn installations in Brooklyn in partnership with local history organization Weeksville, Creative Time hired a community liaison to forge mutually beneficial relationships with local businesses, churches, restaurants, and schools. Creative Time gained access to their promotional channels and provided basic content they could tailor to their own audiences. In return Creative Time brought new audiences and offered increased visibility not only through its digital media, but through some of the public art itself: i.e. free advertising on the community radio station organized by participating artist Otabenga Jones & Associates.

Otabenga Jones & Associates, "OJBK FM Radio" installation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn featuring a community radio station and live events. Photo: Creative Time

Otabenga Jones & Associates, “OJBK FM Radio” installation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn featuring a community radio station and live events. Photos: Creative Time (left), author (right)

Otabenga Jones & Associates, "OJBK FM Radio" installation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn featuring a community radio station and live events. Photo: Creative Time

Several administrators of smaller programs described partnering with their cities’ museums, tourism bureaus, schools or parks departments to distribute materials like brochures, public art maps/apps, and even public art surveys, include public art in bus or walking tours, and plan joint education programs.

Social media should also be thought of as a form of community engagement rather than advertising. Following, sharing and liking relevant posts by other organizations can result in more organic reach. In addition to the standard announcements about upcoming projects and events, Caitlin Martin of aPA suggested developing participatory quizzes and photo contests about public art, or themed posts that tie into local traditions or internet trends, such as Benjamin’s Franklin’s birthday or “William Penn Wednesday” in Philadelphia (See aPA’s Facebook and Instagram for more examples).

Association for Public Art sample "Throwback Thursday" (#tbt) post

Association for Public Art sample themed post tying into the “Throwback Thursday” (#tbt) social media trend. #tbt posts can feature historic photos of artworks or artists coupled with fun historic facts.

The importance of the temporary to the permanent   

Temporary commissions and events can spark renewed community engagement with permanent artworks. A series of site specific performances by Heidi Duckler Dance Theater at the East Los Angeles Civic Center included a public art tour, an outdoor performance with dancers mimicking the poses of sculptures in the fountain, and a curbside discussion. The dancers also involved 70 summer campers in creating their own interpretive dances inspired by civic art.

Image from Heidi Duckler Dance Company's "Public+Art: Three Ducks in a Row" performance at the East Los Angeles Civic Center, 2013

Image from Heidi Duckler Dance Company’s “Public+Art: Three Ducks in a Row” performance at the East Los Angeles Civic Center, 2013

Martin recommended “low budget events with high impact” to also gain new mailing list subscribers and social media followers. aPA has hosted “Instameets” inviting popular local Instagrammers to take photos of public art, public art bike tours, sculpture tango parties, and “flashlight mobs.”

Finally, effective educational signage can provide not only pertinent information but opportunities for people to further engage on their own, such as links to websites or cell phone tours. Wiegmann cited several exemplary downloadable public art walking tours (including Boston and the Albuquerque Zoo) with questions and activities to guide groups of all ages, all appropriately tailored to audience, artwork and location (i.e., how much time people are comfortably able to spend with each piece).

The importance of involving (and recognizing!) the artists

In addition to hiring seasoned community artists for community collaboration projects, the LA Civic Council builds an individualized community engagement plan into each artist’s contract that is “authentic to the artist’s practice.” Wiegmann described several ways in which Forecast Public Art holds artists at the core of the organization’s community engagement work and advocates for best practices, including grants and technical assistance for emerging artists and a “Making it Public” workshop series that trains artists in everything from fabrication to marketing. “Public Art Scramblers”  offer opportunities for artists and cross sector professionals to connect.

Artists can also help build a social media presence by creating unique Facebook pages or Instagram accounts for their projects, with regular updates on both construction and public interaction (I cited the example of A Touch of Modern’s Achilles the Giraffe sculpture from the 2014 FIGMENT sculpture program on Governors Island).

In-progress documentation by A Touch of Modern of their sculpture "Achilles the Giraffe" at the FIGMENT Summer Long Sculpture Program on Governors Island, NYC, 2014

In-progress documentation by A Touch of Modern of their sculpture “Achilles the Giraffe” at the FIGMENT Summer Long Sculpture Program on Governors Island, NYC, 2014, shared on a unique Facebook page and Instagram account created for the sculpture

For funkgodjazz&medicine, a project that privileged social practice and temporary events over large-scale easily-photographable sculpture, Creative Time built its social media campaign around compelling stories and quotes from the artists, including photos of their past work. Quinton recommends social media as a way of also supporting artists’ careers by both posting about artists’ outside projects, and featuring worthy artists who aren’t given actual public commissions with the organization.

Example of a Creative Time Facebook post (on artist Simone Leigh) leading up to "funkgodjazz&medicine" (summer 2014)

Example of a Creative Time Facebook post (on artist Simone Leigh) leading up to “funkgodjazz&medicine” (summer 2014)

The importance of prioritizing! 

For busy public art managers, developing a clear, realistic, and easily communicable marketing and engagement plan is an important first step. Administrators without large support staffs can still identify ways to partner with community groups and artists–both on and offline–to produce, document and share work with maximum relevance and impact, including experimenting with events, education and interactive media. Initiatives like Public Art Archive and Public Art Review are important resources for connecting with the field as a whole for both inspiration and influence.

As a public art administrator, the ability to build engagement into all stages of a project is more important than being a “marketing and PR expert.” Overall, this webinar series provided not only some overarching principles to guide this engagement, but some easy and cost-effective strategies.

Which ones will you try?




How I spent my summer vacations: Reflections on two years of “Museum Camp”

Nina Simon giving an opening intro to Museum Camp 2014 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Photo: David Shaw

Nina Simon giving an opening intro to Museum Camp 2014 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Photo: David Shaw

I am grateful for the sleep-away camp experiences I had growing up. Camp helped me learn how to connect with strangers in a new and uncomfortable place, largely through shared rituals and challenges (from campfire songs to field days to bunk chores). I was able to try new activities in a supportive environment offering both an escape from everyday life and the safety of structure and routine.

Now, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) has been exploring the power of “camp” as not only a formative childhood experience but a powerful professional development tool. MAH’s Executive Director Nina Simon initially proposed “ditching conference experiences for camp experiences” in 2009, and brought this vision to fruition in summer 2013 with the MAH’s inaugural “Hack the Museum camp.” This program gave 75 diverse museum professionals 48 hours to design an unconventional exhibition for the MAH’s main gallery that was previewed to the public on the last day of camp. In 2014, the MAH partnered with NYC-based arts service organization Fractured Atlas to host a second camp for 100 professionals interested in “social impact evaluation” with Nina Simon and Fractured Atlas research director Ian David Moss as co-directors. During both summers, participants got an immersive, 24/7 live/work situation complete with group meals, planned activity periods from morning to midnight, and even the option to camp out in sleeping bags in the galleries and trek to shared showers at a local gym.

I was lucky to participate in both camps. Though I eschewed actually sleeping at the museum both summers, I found myself as fully engaged, inspired, and rejuvenated by this camp experience as I was when I first left New York City for four weeks at a Southern New Jersey farm-turned-arts-camp at age 12. Now that I’ve just completed my second Museum Camp, I’ve summarized my thoughts on what makes MAH’s specific camp model so effective (and thought-provoking):

Initial “Team Parkpothesis” brainstorm at Museum Camp 2014

Initial “Team Parkpothesis” brainstorm at Museum Camp 2014

Fostering learning through shared problem-solving

After Museum Camp year 1, Simon reflected, “It is amazing to actually DO things with colleagues in professional development situations instead of just talking.” Any youth development professional will tell you that hands-on learning is the most effective kind, but conferences I’ve attended as an adult have rarely offered participants the opportunity to create or research something with tangible outcomes. At museum camp both years, the group of geographically and professionally diverse participants was split into teams of 5 to do just that, with expert “camp counselors” acting more as facilitators than instructors.

Posts by Nina Simon, Paul Orselli and Maria Mortati all describe the 2013 camp groups’ endeavors to create “risky” exhibits from various museum objects. At “Social Impact Evaluation” camp this year, each group was assigned a site or program in Santa Cruz and developed a related research question, hypothesis, and data collection methods. We had to actually conduct this research out in the community and analyze the results in the span of approximately 24 hours. In many cases this evolved into the use of similar DIY, interactive and wacky tactics to our exhibit designs the previous year, consistent with the MAH brand of participation (for summaries of all the group’s projects, see as well as James Heaton’s and Nina Simon’s reflections).

Both years, to achieve the daunting outcomes in the time allotted, we all had to actively teach ourselves and each other new things: In 2013 I figured out how to create an enlarged digitally printed puzzle of a ceramic vessel to help people look more closely at the object itself. This year my team had to employ heightened compromising and listening skills as we struggled to reach a workable hypothesis about our research site of Santa Cruz’s San Lorenzo Park. From my graphic designer teammate, I learned not to underestimate the value of old-fashioned poster paper charts and post-its for group brainstorming. I learned new ways of approaching people to take surveys through my community advocate teammate.


Interactive puzzle activity I designed for 2013 “Hack the Museum” exhibition, as part of my group’s overall exhibit designed to make people look more closely at a Bruce Anderson ceramic urn from the MAH collection.

Interactive puzzle activity I designed for 2013 “Hack the Museum” exhibition, as part of my group’s overall exhibit designed to make people look more closely at a Bruce Anderson ceramic urn from the MAH collection.

Setting us up for success by setting us up for failure

Museum camp is built on the principle that we will be our most innovative when working under “absurdulous” constraints (to use a popular word from “Hack the Museum” camp) that would normally be seen as a recipe for failure at our jobs. In 2013’s camp, knowing that our exhibition would be presented to the public as an “experiment” freed us from having to stick to expected gallery conventions. This year we had permission to test out un-conventional data collection methods without worrying about whether the results would influence funders or organizational decisions–resulting in what Simon called “a small test tube of ideas and possibilities for opening up the way we do social impact research.

I believe that my group this year in some ways “failed” in our research by relying too heavily on people’s self-reporting to determine how their memories of San Lorenzo park connected to their park use. The experience might have been better if we had been able to do a “test run” of the method and improve it at a final research session—most groups also reported that they could have benefited from this revision process.

Signage in San Lorenzo Park prompting people to take our survey

Signage in San Lorenzo Park prompting people to take our survey

Yet as a result of seeing what didn’t work as well in my group and others’, in future program evaluations, I will know how to design survey questions with less room for interpretation, and know when it’s best to use observations or in-depth interviews rather than surveys. I will probably experiment more in future evaluation work with engaging signage, props, and even participatory art activities, which is something I think my group and others did very well (one group did a “one minute art project” in lieu of a traditional survey; another handed people funky buttons and observed willingness to wear them as an indicator of their willingness to be “ambassadors” for downtown Santa Cruz). After my second year of camp especially, I am convinced that that in any type of work I can sometimes be more effective if I privilege constraints over thoroughness in my approach.

This 2014 Museum Camp team created a “one minute art project” in which people drew how they were feeling on stickers and placed the stickers to correspond how they had traveled to the Santa Cruz boardwalk that day.

This 2014 Museum Camp team created a “one minute art project” in which people drew how they were feeling on stickers and placed the stickers to correspond how they had traveled to the Santa Cruz boardwalk that day. Image courtesy of the “One Minute Art Project” group

Using ritual and fun to re-connect with our own creativity

Team-building activities and organized breaks were important both years to work flow as well as shared culture. Daily “siestas,” morning yoga, spontaneous dancing, long walks to outdoor locations and even a beach swim in 2014 kept us refreshed and satiated our desire to network with a diversity of individuals outside our work groups.

I have also found as a curator of participatory art that encouraging adults to act like kids helps spark the type of creative risk-taking associated with a time in our lives when we were less afraid of judgment and failure. At Museum Camp, we were served hot chocolate or college cafeteria-style cereal buffets, and invited into a “confessional tent” reminiscent of middle school slumber parties. In 2014, a rollicking karaoke night ended with a group sing-along to “We Are the Champions” which was repeated to close out the last day of camp in true summer camp huddle fashion.

I found the overall experience in 2014 less work-intensive and more social, with three rather than two days to complete the assignment and a less concrete deliverable—an online reflection and photos as opposed to something on view in a public gallery. Though in some ways I missed the faster-paced, higher-stakes feel of 2013, I appreciated the active learning that still took place during the “fun” breaks, such as the conversation I had with a camper from a different group about how we’ve approached curating contemporary art for children.

Groups working hard on the “Hack the Museum” exhibition, 2013. Image: Maria Mortati

Groups working hard on the “Hack the Museum” exhibition, 2013. Image: Maria Mortati

My experiences at both camps support Nina’s hypothesis that there’s something truly valuable about networking with diverse, talented professionals in the context of shared problem-solving interspersed with organized fun. Some questions still remain in my mind, however:

How can we best define key terms?

In her reflection on the first camp, Simon admits that  “everyone’s definition of risk is different,” and this caused some confusion especially among non-museum professionals in how to approach designing a “risky” exhibit. In 2014, the term “social impact” proved easier to research at some of the groups’ sites that at others. Certain local programs had clear missions for impacting participants that easily informed a research hypothesis (i.e. that First Fridays at the MAH encourage interactions between strangers) while unstructured public spaces (like San Lorenzo Park) did not. I’m also not sure that all groups’ research questions actually related to impact, as opposed to short-term behavioral change or existing attitudes.

When do program evaluation activities interfere with evaluating typical behaviors in a space—and when does evaluation become another form of programming, or marketing? (a hat-passing activity performed by one of the groups in the museum, for example, was a social intervention in itself in addition to a tool for measuring strangers’ interactions). Simon points out that while “every active research method is an intervention,” many of the groups’ interventions “yielded really interesting information that was not visible in more passive research methods.”

How can we balance small group experiential learning with traditional “conference style” instruction and reflection on best practices?

Each camp began with hands-on workshops by counselors on key methodologies that informed how we approached our assignments, and in my case future work in the field. The exhibit I curated right after camp last year incorporated concrete suggestions from Nina’s “effective prompts for exhibition participation” workshop (in addition to an overall “riskier” approach inspired by camp). Though it would have been hard to take any more time away from the group work, I would have liked to not have to choose between all the different workshops both years, or at least have access to full video recordings of the ones I missed. “Lightning talks” by fellow participants inspired us with real life examples of innovation, and given the wealth of experience all these presenters clearly had to share, it would have been nice to also build in time for Q&A with them.

How can we stay connected and inspired?

Camp Facebook and Twitter groups have been great tools to discuss both logistics and ideas before and after camp, and continue to share our individual work. Could there be more formal ways to continue to congregate around thought provoking questions or help each other solve problems that come up in our day jobs?

Where else can we set up camp??

If camp is the professional development format of the future, how can we make conferences, and even workplaces, more camp-like, whether we are designing exhibitions, running programs or evaluating this important work we do?