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“The most important thing is to have an impact on people,” said Kaywin Feldman to the Washington Post’s Peggy McGlone for an article in January 2019 about her historic appointment as the first female director of the august National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
In an era of political upheaval, climate change, demographic shifts, technological takeover, and economic uncertainty, forward-thinking museum leaders like Feldman are reconsidering what counts as success. Numbers of visitors, members, acquisitions, square feet, exhibitions, programs, publications, and social media followers have limited significance unless a museum is working intentionally to make a meaningful impact, enabling people and communities to live a better quality of life that is sustainable.
Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact by Randi Korn, founding director of RK&A, a company that works with museums and cultural organizations, presents a painstaking and methodical approach to her Cycle of Intentional Practice—planning, evaluation, reflection, and alignment in order for museums to have a more positive impact on people’s lives inside and outside the museum walls.
Intentionality and intentional practice are ideas that Korn has been exploring for a while, inspired by thought leaders in philosophy, museum studies, and evaluation. German philosopher Franz Brentano and American educational reformer John Dewey clarified for her how “intentionality is about deep, unrelenting focus of the mind and heart on a goal that requires deliberate actions to move toward that goal—even though the goal may be continuously slightly out of reach” (16).
Korn presents ideas of John Cotton Dana and Stephen Weil, leading twentieth-century museum thinkers who argued that museums need to make a difference. She also credits “evaluation provocateurs” and authors Hallie Preskill and Rosalie T. Torres with raising “evaluative thinking and evaluative practice from the program level to the organizational level by applying evaluative inquiry to pursue personal, team, and organizational learning” (16).
The second chapter sets the stage for the emergence of Korn’s ideas that form the Cycle of Intentional Practice. Here she discusses three interrelated events that affected museums and evaluative practice: the 1994 election, when Republicans took over the House of Representatives and Speaker Newt Gingrich presented the Contract with America, which included defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum Services; the introduction of the Government Performance and Results Act, which became law in 1999 and led the way to a new era of museum accountability; and the publication in 2001 of Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts by Kevin McCarthy, which exposed gaps in the research of the intrinsic benefits of the arts and their importance to society.
The next three chapters deconstruct, define, and explain intentional-practice work in museums. Korn starts with impact, which is at the center of the Cycle of Intentional Practice, because she believes that achieving impact is the museum’s core purpose. She clarifies the differences and relationships between a museum’s mission statement, vision statement, and impact statement. If museum staffers fear that too many statements may be confusing, she suggests that a museum conflate its vision and impact statements. Sample mission statements are presented alongside the impact statements of three actual museums as “a reminder that achieving impact is dynamic and interactive and includes two players—what the museum does and what audiences experience” (55).
Korn adapts what is known as the Hedgehog Concept from the for-profit sector to enable museum staff to create an impact statement by clarifying what they are passionate about, because passion is vital for producing quality work (51); their museum’s distinct qualities, because “achieving impact requires that a museum play to its strengths” (52); and what is timely and relevant to the museum’s audiences, because otherwise there is no impact (53).
Korn suggests limiting the number of target audiences to three or four to enable staff to better focus, prioritize, and manage resources, while continuing to welcome all other audiences. However, she suggests that after staff have spent a few years on the first group of target audiences, they identify new audiences for the next cycle or switch one audience out for a new one as objectives are met.
In chapter 4 Korn presents the principles that are fundamental to intentional practice and foundational to the workshop exercises described in chapter 5, with topics such as exploring passions, planning for basic audience research, developing indicators, reflecting on data, and aligning work with the impact framework. She strongly recommends that workshops be integrated with core-team working sessions to maintain focus and progress. If a museum cannot afford an outside facilitator to conduct the workshops, she recommends using guidebooks on the topic of facilitation approaches.
Ten case histories reveal the diversity of approaches and innovations that are possible with intentional practice. The art museums in the group include the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where staff developed a five-year strategic plan that emphasized collaboration; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose education department adapted its medical-students program, called Sherlock, for fifth and sixth graders; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, whose education staff worked to prepare for the institution’s first-ever education center in its new home on New York City’s High Line.
The book closes with helpful appendixes of sample impact frameworks and a proposed schedule for intentional-practice work, followed by a glossary, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Two supplemental books to read for inspiration and in preparation for Korn’s guidebook have been written by Nina Simon, the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH). The Participatory Museum (2010) addresses how museums can be innovative and effective in pursuing visitor participation and community engagement, while The Art of Relevance (2016) is a thoughtful exploration of what it means when a museum is relevant and makes meaningful connections to its audiences. MAH walks the talk of intentionality and impact, as illustrated in the Community Issue Exhibition Toolkit available on its museum website.
While Korn focuses on museums with which she is most familiar, there are other museums in the United States and around the world that have become models of intentional practice and community impact. Notable examples include the aforementioned MAH, as well as the Exploratorium in San Francisco; Parque Explora in Medellín, Colombia; the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina; the National Museum in Wales; and indigenous community museums in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Korn brings a wealth of multidisciplinary museum, academic, and professional evaluation experiences to the table, and her book is an excellent resource for museums willing to take the journey of intentional practice. The basic principles have deep roots in the history and evolution of museums. She offers a thoroughly researched and well-thought-out framework with tools for transforming museums that have not been engaged in intentional practice, as well as for museums that are seeking more effective ways to evaluate their ongoing impact.
Lecturer, Museum Studies Graduate Program, Johns Hopkins University