I’ve been working with a colleague on last year’s Annual Report for 4Culture, the arts, heritage and preservation agency I work for in King County. The challenge is to deliver the facts and figures that are the very reason for being of an annual report, and somehow impart the energy and accomplishment of our activities and interactions with our community that happen over the course of a year. It’s a challenge that has made me revisit the website redesign for Public Art I worked on several years ago with the brilliant and ever-patient Sean Stearns, that has served to inform other redesign for 4Culture’s online presence. How do you tell a story fairly simply when it has complexity?
Several years ago I was excited about the idea of storytelling entering popular culture. I had not only been working on fiction in my own writing but had been developing how to tell the story of 4Culture online, and specifically 4Culture’s public art practice, for four years. Story was how I talked about this work, and how I framed it to my director and the advisory committee as I worked with them to budget and plan for implementation. The online resources we ended up building for Public Art and then for the overall organization aren’t perfect but they are rich. The stories are there, the challenge is how to bring them to the surface – something I work on doing in my writing practice every day. We are looking to evolve the site to better tell our stories, but that’s part of the process. Everything online has to change, as in the end it is a living thing made up of complexity and a myriad of influence. Three years, tops, and you need to refresh your architecture. So it’s all a work in progress, always.
I was grateful to the Bancroft Library for the site they developed for the centennial of the fire in 2006, and to New Media Consortium, which grew out of San Francisco MOMA’s multimedia interpretive program, for which they developed Pachyderm, for the models that led my thinking as I worked. Museums had to problem solve the loss of viewership at the same time as music and movies were struggling with a changing business landscape. People had a lot of other ways to enjoy culture. So museums figured out that it wasn’t enough to simply have a great collection; you had to tell its story in such a way as to intrigue the public enough to engage with that collection. You had to get them in the door with that story, or you had to offer virtual interaction that was valuable enough to garner financial support. And with social engagement (event and social media) they crafted a new model of how the public interacted with the museum, and to the redefinition of what a museum’s mission should be. Culture always leads.
The museum was a huge inspiration to me in crafting storytelling for our agency. The nexus of story and culture, culture and commerce is an informing mechanism of our time. The aim is to tell authentic stories that will connect with an audience. This is also the mission of the fiction writer. Solving design and content problems toward an end of telling the organization’s story, I often meditate on my own practice and how the nut of the thing remains the same, and successful outcomes can be measured by the same yardstick. Is it real? Do I care? Can I connect?