From Nada to Gaga: Rapid Transformation in the time of Covid-19. Two case studies.
AbstractThis paper discusses how the pandemic and associated financial crisis along with reckonings with racial injustice in the U.S. demanded a rapid transformation of our institutions introducing new ways of working, changing the type of experiences we offer, having difficult conversations, and accelerating the adoption of technology. In the best cases, our organizations have learned from this time of experimentation and we will emerge as more human-centered, collaborative, agile and bold organizations. Understanding that there are huge challenges impacting our field with layoffs, open letters, unsustainable business models, and regressions to previous ways of working – how can we use what we’ve learned to respond to these ongoing crises within museums? The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and The Newark Museum of Art (NJ) provide two case studies.
Keywords: change, transformation, digital, collaboration,
It happened to all of us. Do you remember the moment in the pandemic when you realized that we were in it for the long haul and that a swift urgent response was needed? Suddenly, organizations across the globe were faced with the need to reexamine everything and envision new ways of engaging audiences through online and socially distant programming.
This paper discusses how the pandemic and associated financial crisis along with reckonings with racial injustice in the U.S. demanded a rapid transformation of our institutions introducing new ways of working, changing the type of experiences we offer, having difficult conversations, and accelerating the adoption of technology. In the best cases, our organizations have learned from this time of experimentation and we will emerge as more human-centered, collaborative, agile, and bold organizations. Understanding that there are huge challenges impacting our field with layoffs, open letters, unsustainable business models, and regressions to previous ways of working – how can we use what we’ve learned to respond to these ongoing crises within museums?
The Newark Museum of Art had an extremely limited virtual presence and digital infrastructure, and this disruptive moment accelerated the development of new digital and engagement strategies; a robust schedule of online programming, new ways of working collaboratively across departments, and the identification of new positions to support these changes. At the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, an ad hoc cross-departmental group, #teampivot, formed at the beginning of the closure to examine changing audience and community needs and assess ways that the organization could play a positive role in responding responsibly within our communities.
The Newark Museum of Art: Pushed into the Future
The Newark Museum of Art, in Newark, New Jersey, is the state’s largest museum. It holds collections of American art, decorative arts, contemporary art, and arts of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the ancient world. Founded in 1909 by revered museologist John Cotton Dana, it was established to promote the appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment of the arts and sciences.
The pre-COVID reality for The Newark Museum of Art was that of an organization still very much rooted in the 20th Century. The museum grounds and its collection were at the center of almost everything the museum did. With no digital programs, low adoption of technology across the organization, and one single staff member dedicated to technology, there had long been a virtual vacuum waiting to be filled. In addition to this, the focus on community, which was at the center of the museum when it was first created, had significantly diminished in the last couple of decades, while cross-departmental collaboration was still very limited with the various departments working in silos. Right before the pandemic hit, a new leadership team had just started addressing these issues and were developing a plan to create a more responsive, community-driven, 21st-century institution. The lockdown of 2020 served to accelerate those efforts exponentially.
Working in a New Way
There are many factors that contributed to this process of change, starting with the simple fact that staff was forced to work from home and tasked to continue reaching an audience remotely. Everything that needed to be done had to be done in a new way.
It was a necessity that digital technology was adopted across the organization, both for internal and external purposes, which in turn highlighted the need to upgrade and update any current systems. New technology was introduced; Zoom for internal meetings and live digital programs, Restream.io for streaming of live and pre-recorded video content, Google suite, and Webex for school programs, Miro and Mural to facilitate brainstorming during virtual meetings, and there became an increased emphasis on making use of social media channels as an outlet to reach our audience. Despite not having any experience with digital events, within a couple of weeks of the museum closing, we launched our first live program and within a month we had our first virtual community day, which was attended by over 3,000 people on Zoom and Facebook live. This pivot towards digital programming and the quick adoption of new technology facilitated a push for the creation of a digital strategy and laid the foundation for the development of a new website, and other in-gallery digital experiences, both of which are currently in progress. Concurrently important was the acquisition of new skills, by training existing staff and identifying needs for new roles to allow for the implementation of these strategies, including the hiring of a digital content manager, a part-time social media coordinator, a program producer, and a director of IT.
The resulting data from nine months of being a completely virtual museum shows that the same amount of people engaged digitally in 2020 as were engaged in-person in the previous year. A total of 194 programs throughout the year targeted various audiences; kids, adults, members, and teens. On Zoom, 9,834 visitors tuned in, and on Facebook and other social media platforms there were 84,000 live engagements.
Particularly effective programs included one-off events, as well as series. Community Day: Astro Fest with Astronaut Mae Jemison was a standout day of programming, highlighting the influence that a big-name who is relevant to the local community can have in drawing visitors to the event. 2,558 people attended Astro Fest.
School groups, which are traditionally a large portion of the museum’s visitors, were an area that the museum had the most difficulty with engaging during the first part of the 2020 lockdown. The numbers have begun picking up as schools develop their plans for remote learning. Reaching some of the school-age audience was possible in the summer due to a virtual summer camp, which exceeded expectations, with 249 households signing up.
A More Agile Institution
A dramatically steep learning curve meant that there was continuous change, which transformed the museum into a much more agile organization. Data was collected through follow-up surveys and learned from more quickly than ever before. This allowed for changes and the opportunity for new ideas to flourish and get tested right away, particularly when it came to virtual programs. The first round of virtual programs was more passive and academic, whereas the second round introduced a more playful and interactive element to much of the content.
Art Olympics, for instance, is an audience-driven competition where a guest museum joins the Newark Museum of Art, showcasing both collections through a series of rounds. Escape from the Ballantine House is a virtual escape room experience that was developed to bring groups of friends together and enjoy a challenge, while also interacting with the rooms of the Ballantine House, a Victorian-era mansion that is a part of the museum. A Murder Mystery game is being developed along similar lines, utilizing different aspects of the museum.
Programs were also put together at pace to respond to the social issues around the world. With social justice marches and the Black Lives Matter movement coming to the fore in the summer, the museum was able to offer programs that reflected on and explored these topics in new events that honored Juneteenth and the anniversary of the 1967 Newark Uprising. Other social justice issues were addressed during our Pride Community Day, Earth Day Celebration, a series of panels with local artists and through streaming of Black and LatinX short-films, followed by discussions with the film-makers.
In the context of digital programs, the museum tested a few different revenue models. While the majority of the programs were grant-funded and therefore free, starting from September 2020, we introduced a donation request when visitors signed up for a program, which brought in over $8500 in donations. The museum charged for programs that were not covered by grants, mainly camps and classes, and were able to cover the costs of the programs.
Escape from the Ballantine House was developed with grant funding. After offering some free sessions to fulfill the grant requirement, we offered it as a special event to companies and organizations as a group experience, charging $250 – $1000 per session. As of January 2021, we have had 6 sessions so far, covering the development costs.
Prior to the pandemic, communication and collaboration across departments was limited. With work-from-home conditions, many of the physical barriers of communication that previously existed were no longer an issue. Departments ceased to be spread across different floors and parts of a large, maze-like building. This made it much easier to collaborate within and across departments because of the ability to gather people in the same place in a faster way, and facilitated the implementation of a number of cross-departmental initiatives.
At the core of the cross-departmental relationships was the need to develop a common understanding of each team’s objectives and processes. These essential items were discussed in the initial meetings between departments and often took the form of a big idea document, which codified the needs of all involved.
A group called the Change Agents, with representation from each department of the museum, was assembled to assess and strategize about the ever-shifting implications of the museum’s doors being closed and to develop a plan for a possible reopening. Other task forces were put in place to shape strategies around engagement, digital and interpretation, science programming, and website development, while new cross-departmental teams were formed to develop exhibitions and discuss program ideas. While each of these initiatives required a significant time-commitment from staff, it resulted in better awareness and collaboration amongst departments. The hope is that there is more buy-in to ideas across the organization as the staff feels more empowered.
Developing Stronger Ties with the Community
The local community was deeply affected by the pandemic and the social justice issues that came to the forefront in 2020. According to the latest census, a little over 50% of Newark’s residents identify as Black or African American, a contingent of the population that has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. It was also generally accepted that the museum’s focus in the not-so-distant past did not resonate with the community, despite the institution being founded with that intention. Becoming more community-driven was thus critical for the museum, and a strengthening of support to constituents was implemented.
An engagement strategy focused on the community was developed in order to define the vision and principles by which the museum relates to and interacts with its various audiences and stakeholders and measures the impact of its efforts. This included looking at the potential of things such as partnerships and reciprocal promotion, as well as an approach to multilingualism and accessibility, and co-creation.
In order to reach the many Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking individuals across the city and beyond, programs have begun taking into consideration the need for bilingual promotion and participation. A presentation by the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art of the University of Puerto Rico was given completely in Spanish and reached over 1500 people between Zoom and Facebook Live, and most aspects of the museum’s Día de Los Muertos celebration were created for a bilingual audience. Closed captioning has also increasingly been used.
The number of partnerships with community organizations including, local artists, businesses, other cultural institutions and community organizations on events increased significantly, compared to previous years, including artists such as Willie Cole, Jo-El Lopez, and Bisa Butler, and local businesses from Coolvines, a boutique liquor store, to Newark Yoga Movement.
Partnerships were consolidated and built upon with neighboring cultural organizations such as the Newark Public Library, NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center), The Grammy Museum Experience, New Jersey Devils, and Liberty Science Center, etc. The museum worked with each organization to develop a partnership that appealed to and engaged the museum’s and the partner’s audience base.
Bonds with community organizations were also forged. Project Ready, a non-profit social justice organization, raised awareness of the importance of voting in Win, Lose or Draw: Battle of the Cartoonists, an election-themed drawing program. Equal Space, a share space that provides start-up resources, hosted a panel to discuss hot-button topics with the LGBTQ+ community, as part of the museum’s Pride Day celebrations. Many more are in talks to partner on future programs.
A relationship with the Office of the Mayor of Newark was utilized with the involvement of Mayor Ras Baraka in a reflective discussion on the anniversary of the 1967 Newark Uprising. In addition, a campaign to promote mask-wearing in the city in an effort to further prevent the spread of COVID-19 was realized together.
We also added a new section to the website which highlights content that is relevant to the community. This includes Studio Snapshots, a series of professionally produced short videos that offer local artists the chance to discuss and share their work.
All of this has served to increase the number of programs focusing on issues relevant to the community. Through these collaborations, the museum has also gained more insight into many different facets and needs of the complex structure of surrounding neighborhoods and is more equipped to better serve the needs of the community. In order to further advance this objective, moves are being made to embed co-creation in the continuing development of programs. An advisory committee of representatives of various constituents in the community has been assembled, with their first meeting taking place at the end of January 2021.
Becoming a 21st Century Museum
Thanks to the rapid transformation brought about by the pandemic and prominent social issues, in this short space of time the museum is much closer to the 21st-century institution that it aspired to be than where it was before the pandemic. It started with working in new ways, adapting to new technologies and becoming a more agile institution. Learning from our audience was important, as was working more cross-departmentally and developing closer relationships with the local community.
Challenges do, however, persist. Staff cuts have made it difficult to keep up with the ever-changing landscape and this will likely be exacerbated when the museum reopens its doors in the summer, as the organization will need to operate both in the virtual and physical world. While working remotely and the adoption of new technology has been embraced throughout the organization, we still lack important tools and procedures that can help us better work together. Although the response to our virtual programming has been strong, our Zoom audience is not very diverse, especially compared to our onsite audience, and we still don’t have the adequate tools to measure social media demographics. Staff have been very supportive of a renewed commitment to the community and in working more cross-departmentally. However, communication issues amongst departments continue. The speed of change has been such that we have not had the time to stop and reflect upon the changes we have made or question more deeply the nature of museums as a field, by challenging some of the traditional models, which therefore currently remain within the organization.
The process of change has forced the museum to reckon more readily with pressing issues and questions, and while trying to find answers it has significantly progressed in its aims, despite the loss of some staff and with limited resources. What a museum is in the future is a constant question, but at the dawn of 2021, the Newark Museum of Art appears to be pointing in the right direction.
Case Study from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is the only museum dedicated to a female artist in the United States. Since its establishment in 1997, it has upheld a mission to inspire audiences through the preservation, presentation, and advancement of the artistic legacy of its namesake. The museum is located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and offers insight into not only the artist’s paintings but also her creative process and the landscapes that inspired her. In addition to the campus in Santa Fe, the museum maintains O’Keeffe’s two homes and studios in Abiquiú and at Ghost Ranch, located about 50 miles north of Santa Fe; a library and archive; and a variety of collections relating to Georgia O’Keeffe and Modernism. In pre-COVID times, the museum and historic properties had a robust attendance with the large majority of visiting guests consisting of tourists to Santa Fe and the historic properties. Work was underway to identify programs to better and more frequently serve local non-tourist communities.
How do we #teampivot?
We were all there, no need to go into it in detail. All museums suddenly had the moment of disruption we weren’t looking for in March 2020 when we thought it was fine to leave the office plants on their own for a few weeks while the virus sorted itself out. Do you remember that moment when you realized this was for the long haul? Facing so many unknowns, individuals across the whole staff at the O’Keeffe Museum, and perhaps across the whole museum field, asked ourselves: how can we as individuals and as a museum help in this time of crisis?
The health crisis and subsequent reckoning with this country’s racial inequality, and the convergence of the two, created many needs in our community and world. This was the Museum’s opportunity to consider our role in society and have an immediate impact on people staying safe at home and addressing larger issues of inequity. While there are a lot of great examples of what museums can do, the O’Keeffe team considered how to marshal resources to pivot into action while also helping to meet longer-term strategic goals. Solutions had to recognize that teams weren’t any larger than before the crisis, in fact smaller with the impact of layoffs, and that many people across the staff had ideas and wanted to make a difference.
How could we organize ourselves to make the most impact?
A Framework for Decision-Making
The museum had a COVID task force to address issues of its closure, workplace safety, etc. To address impact through programs and resources, we created another ad hoc group called #teampivot. This team had the mission to envision and evaluate which opportunities would best meet the needs of our audiences and communities and how to best deliver those opportunities in the most engaging ways: What content? Which channels? What format? Targeted for which audiences? Who needs to be involved to get it done? To address these goals, the team consisted of representatives from content (Education, Communications, Museum Store, Historic Properties, Membership), delivery (Digital Experience), and process (Project Manager). Beyond the team, idea forms were developed so that anyone on staff could contribute to #teampivot. Cross-departmental teams existed before the pandemic to address content and program production, but the urgency of the moment was an opportunity to disrupt and improve upon existing processes with human-centered practices.
Initially, #teampivot used a simple strategic decision-making framework focused on effecting immediate impact while working towards long-term strategic goals by looking at projects and ideas in terms of impact and effort. When looking at 2 variables on a grid, the top of the vertical line is read as ‘high’ and the bottom as ‘low’. On the horizontal line, the right side is ‘high’ and the left ‘low’. The team discussed and evaluated items as they fell into one of the four quadrants to help guide how those ideas would be addressed.
- High Impact/High Effort (Top right quadrant) – Meaningful projects requiring planning
- High Impact/Low Effort (Top left quadrant) – Quick meaningful wins, do now!
- Low Impact/Low Effort (Bottom left quadrant) – Low hanging fruit, maybe worth doing
- Low Impact/High Effort (Bottom right quadrant) – Why bother?
While the evaluation of needs is subjective, we found value in the discussions which put communities and audiences first, focusing on feelings and needs in these trying times. We, like all museums, had been moving towards a human-centered model, but this shift can be slow in the pile of everyday work, processes, and the under-resourced nature of museum staffing. The disruption imposed on our field and the world caused by the pandemic provided the opportunity to flex these muscles and build this practice into everyday workflows.
As a straightforward example, moving lectures online was a low effort proposition, but how could we ensure that it had the highest impact? Knowing that our audiences and communities were feeling isolated, #teampivot discussed how to design the programs to mitigate the separation by helping people feel connected to others and the museum. Therefore, we encouraged attendees to introduce themselves in the Zoom chat, including instructions on how to use it. We had greeters (first formally, and later just as staff attendees) who made participants feel welcomed and to share additional resources, including opportunities to shop at the Museum Store and to support the Museum by becoming a member. These are all little actions but make a difference when thought through intentionally. In post-event surveys, attendees reported feeling more connected and appreciating something to “get them out of the house” while staying safe at home. This also served longer-term sustainability by building relationships between the museum and enthusiasts around the world.
Both the O’Keeffe and Newark Museums participated in a cohort of cultural and arts organizations funded by the Aspen Tech Policy Hub to create content to mitigate social isolation. The project, led by Michael Edson and Dana Mitroff Silvers, worked with participants using a variety of design thinking techniques to create impactful content quickly. Through these exercises, #teampivot created personas representing possible needs in the local New Mexico communities. Based on exercises practiced in the Aspen project, the team used Lego Serious Play, created design questions in ‘How Might We…’ exercises, brainstormed, and voted on solutions. Through this process, the museum pursued the creation of its first Spanish-language videos along with a series of creative activities in Spanish.
Process as a Tool in Effecting Long-Term Change
A key goal of #teampivot was to enact sustainable change. How could this focused and disruptive moment make the museum stronger, more responsive, and more nimble in the long term? The museum has a project manager of collections and interpretation who helps teams define and develop processes, especially those that are repeatable. By having a project manager on #teampivot, time was spent creating workflows that helped teams collaborate and communicate in systemic ways. New shared templates and calendars were developed for programs in progress, automated workflows assured that recorded programs had transcripts, were translated and published appropriately. By normalizing processes and workflows, the process between departments was more transparent and less time was spent in administration. These processes were adjusted over time to be more streamlined.
Building Relationships Through Stories: Sorting content channel strategies
As #teampivot identified opportunities for making an impact, it became clear that the museum’s publishing channels weren’t set up to deliver this content effectively. The main organizational website primarily served an audience of planning visitors delivering practical information to a tourist audience. Other visitors to the website, including Georgia O’Keeffe enthusiasts, researchers, and educators, were underserved, though a new Collections Online served some of those purposes. While this was a missed opportunity before the pandemic, it became a glaring gap once visiting the museum sites was no longer an option.
Initial steps reorganized and simplified navigation to focus on online content, programs, and activities, including a new O’Keeffe from Anywhere section of the website which would serve remote audiences far beyond the stay-at-home orders. But even with a reorganization of content, there seemed to be a missing outlet. Where could people find a recording of our lectures? Where could they share in the passion and discoveries made at the Museum? Where could they learn about the work of the O’Keeffe Museum in the community? Where could they be virtually swept away by the transformative beauty of New Mexico? The museum’s website did not showcase the personalities and work of the O’Keeffe Museum. It may be overdramatic to say, but it lacked the soul of the museum.
A new storytelling channel was developed called Stories from the O’Keeffe. Whereas Instagram served an audience of Georgia O’Keeffe enthusiasts with ephemeral micro-blog content, that audience did not have a strong relationship with the museum itself. The Facebook audience included people with museum relationships, but those relationships could best be strengthened by linking to longer-form Museum-created content. Stories from the O’Keeffe also allowed a centralized place on the O’Keeffe Museum website to find a library of original content, including the recordings of online lectures and programs.
The Stories from the O’Keeffe channel became an integral part of an ecosystem for relationship-building, allowing global e-newsletter readers to dive in more deeply and learn more about museum offerings. This, along with a service-oriented membership pitch, led to a membership offering less focused on transactional discounts and visitation. Stories from the O’Keeffe also provided a platform for diverse perspectives and voices to counter the somewhat problematic ‘institutional voice’ of an organization. Some Stories are authored with attribution, while recorded programs without additional commentary are served from the organization – allowing for individual and organizational content offerings to coexist and clearly be distinguished.
One example of the benefits of amplifying individual voices was written during the unrest and protests following the murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. The museum published a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, but what does it mean when these statements come from a museum? Is the museum’s commitment substantive or performative? Our museums are made up of individuals with their own experiences, so why not hear from them rather than from an unattributed institutional perspective? The museum’s then digital media specialist Nicole Davis, a Black woman from Minneapolis, wanted to share her perspective allowing for more substantive dialogue and reflection. The structure of the Stories channel provided a space for this personal perspective.
Feedback from readers indicates that Stories helped readers feel less isolated and expanded the O’Keeffe narrative:
“This story and the accompanying pictures of the vast blue sky and landscapes immediately lifted my spirits and I felt a sense of wonder and connection to Georgia O’Keeffe, the writer, and others who have been fortunate to go there.”
“Thank you for the Jean Toomer essay. A reminder that Georgia O’Keeffe had a wider circle of friends and acquaintances than the focus on Strand and Lujan tend towards.”
“The Viewfinder article was a lovely exploration. It’s a simple tool that works for professional artists and children alike. Thanks for bringing out that aspect of O’Keeffe’s painting.”
Stories from the O’Keeffe used the website’s CMS blog function to allow tagging and categorization to aggregate lectures, video, and program content. This was not a perfect solution, but it allowed a simple solution to help during extremely tight pandemic budgets. These low-cost approaches also allowed the museum to test solutions for an upcoming redesign of its website.
#teampivot is Dead; Long Live #teampivot: Disseminating practices into established teams
While the #teampivot discussions developed a method of prioritization of projects, it also led to the expansion of digital literacy in the organization. Once the team collectively designed and tested an experience with the help of digital and media specialists, that work expanded into the program roles allowing expertise in delivering an impactful online experience to thrive throughout the organization. Cross-departmental collaborations also established stronger relationships to take on projects and address longer-term needs in the community.
With expanded digital skills, transparent collaborative project management processes, and new content channels, it was time to fold these new ways of working back into larger established teams. As an ad hoc team, #teampivot identified needs and solutions. While the work of human-centered and community-centric design is far from complete, it became time to no longer silo this work in a separate group and instead infiltrate the processes and learning into established teams to sustain this work into the future.
Ultimately, the question is what are the long-term impacts of the situation created by the events of 2020? How can we hold on to the best of what we’ve learned and keep experimenting with new ways to be meaningful and impactful with our audiences and in our communities? Will our museums be able to continue their process of transformation, given that the global public health crisis persists and the ensuing economic downturn is likely to have a significant impact on the future of our institutions, as well as many other museums? How will we think differently about what types of programs are ideal for onsite investment and which can be richer conversations as online or hybrid programs while considering limited resources?
This past year, 2020, and maybe even moving into 2021, has simultaneously revealed both the vulnerability and creative resilience of our organizations and the people who work within them. The disruptions, uncertainties, and urgency in facing historic inequities have called on museums to look in the mirror and deeply consider their roles in society. Each of us working in or with museums has a part to play in sharing dialogues, programs, processes, and collaborations that help our museums be relevant and sustainable into the future.
Steven and Silvia would like to acknowledge all The Newark Museum of Art staff, without whom none of these important changes would have been possible.
Liz would like to acknowledge and thank the entirety of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum #teampivot group for their creativity, thoughtfulness and tireless efforts: Shannon Bay, Rana Chan, Nicole Davis, Debra Heslin, Micaela Hester, Melissa Jenski, Giustina Renzoni, and Stephanie Wilson.
Hyland, Steven, Filippini Fantoni, Silvia and Neely, Liz. "From Nada to Gaga: Rapid Transformation in the time of Covid-19. Two case studies.." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 29, 2021. Consulted .