CONTENT VERSUS FORM
Some institutions get caught up in chasing trends, arguing: “if people on the street are talking about X, we should be talking about X too.”
No. If people on the street are talking about X, the organization should ask: is X something that matters to us, too? Does X belong in our room? And if so, how do we want to address X through the lens of our mission, content, and form?
This is not about chasing the “now.” “Now” is the least useful form of relevance. “Now” is not an easy business model to chase–especially for institutions rooted in permanence. “Now” requires major changes to how we work and what we offer. “Now” comes off as disingenuous and irrelevant if done incorrectly. And now is not tomorrow. It is not the long term. It is just now. Endlessly, persistently, expensively, now.
I used to work at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. Our mandate was to be the museum of Silicon Valley–not of its material history, but of its pulse of innovation. It was impossible. The exhibits we built were immediately dated. Their physicality, long development timelines, and big budgets dragged them down. They didn’t dance to the thrilling drumbeat of change at the heart of Silicon Valley. They were immutable objects plunked on the sidelines.
The problem was not one of content but one of form. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the right stuff or stories to share. We didn’t have a process, or form, to share them in the right way.
If you are grappling with relevance, changing the content you present isn’t the only solution. In many situations, changing the form—process, hours, pricing, rules, techniques—is more effective. Free Shakespeare in the park makes the precious public. Flipped classrooms send lectures home and recast the classroom as a place for discussion and debate. Libraries that stay open late invite people to learn on their schedules, their terms.
Some institutions completely shift form, dramatically changing the people to whom they are relevant. When Diane Paulus wanted to connect young Boston residents to the American Repertory Theater, she turned one of their stages into a nightclub. She launched a revival of The Donkey Show, a wild retelling of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream full of salacious disco dancing, audience participation, and lots of glitter. The Donkey Show shifted the theater from a stodgy sit-down experience to a boundary-busting dance party, attracting younger, more diverse audiences to a pioneering form of experimental theater.
Any organization can experiment with new forms to open new doors. Streb Labs is a bustling urban warehouse where dancers practice, learn, and perform in a 24/7, open-access environment. The Laundromat Project presents community art workshops in—you guessed it–laundromats. Monica Montgomery’s Museum of Impact presents pop up exhibitions on human rights issues, moving quickly to collect artifacts and produce programs on the issues as they happen, where they happen.
These institutions are not being relevant by presenting cat selfies curated by a hot celebrity. They are making canonical content relevant by updating the form.
Of course, sometimes when you update form, those changes can affect the content. At Streb Labs, the open-access format of the facility makes professional dance company rehearsals public, changing the relationship between dancers, choreographers, and audiences. During open rehearsals, community members stroll through the space, sit down for a spell, take a phone call, walk out the door. Founder Elizabeth Streb and other choreographers can see in real time what made community members tune in and out—and they often adjust the choreography accordingly to maximize audience engagement. At the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum’s “Rethinking Soup” lunch series, community members share a weekly meal and discussion about social justice issues. Once the Museum put that weekly lunch on the calendar, they felt committed to filling the bowl regularly with content. Sometimes, that content may be of-the-moment. Other times, grounded in the museum’s collection. The weekly format doesn’t prescribe contemporary content. But it makes space for it when warranted.
New formats introduce structural changes to the room, whereas new content may only change the room temporarily. Both are important, but they have different functions. Imagine a library with an author speaker series and a desire to connect with local activists. The library could make the speaker series more become more relevant by featuring authors speaking about politics, local issues, or civic engagement. That’s changing the content. But if library’s format requires booking speakers a year in advance, it’s unlikely that those speakers will be able to respond to timely community issues as they arise. If the library presents the speaker series on the same evenings as city council meetings, activists are unlikely to attend. If the library does not make room for dialogue with the audience, activists may not feel engaged.
If, on the other hand, the library shifts the format of the speaker series alongside the content, the modified program may have more relevance. If the speakers can be booked more nimbly to speak to issues of importance, if the timing fits civically-involved residents’ schedules, if the audience can get involved—all of those things would likely increase the relevance of the program to local activists. Maybe the content doesn’t need to change very much at all.
When an institution hosts a one-off community conversation in response to a national crisis, I often wonder: is this opportunistic? Are they taking up a hot topic briefly, making a quick change in content only? I worry that they will check it off the “relevance” list and forget about it. I wonder if they will do the full work of changing formats to be more relevant in the long-term.
This kind of change is taxing. Changing formats means changing how you work, when your institution is open, how it’s funded, and who you employ. Even a small change in format—pricing, hours, check-in process, languages spoken by staff—can require a significant effort.
The effort to change form is worth it when the alternative is constantly plugging in new content into traditional formats in a game of relevance whack-a-mole. It’s expensive and tiring to keep producing one-off experiences for different audiences. One play each year for that community. One festival each year for this community. Professionals sometimes ask, “why does that community only come when we do this one program?” The answer is that that program is relevant to them. It’s the only door they’ve got, and it’s only functional once a year or once a month or however often you make that content available. When you change the form of what you do, you can build new permanent doors for new people. Doors they can use to access value anytime they want.
Want to know what it looks like when an institution uses changes in form to engage hard-to-reach audiences? That’s what the next chapter is all about.