the new book by museum pioneer Nina Simon
If you’re in the museum world, or in the art world, or trying to create things that speak to a larger audience than the one you automatically have, you should read this concise and rapid-fire book. Nina Simon has provided here a rare and much needed service: she has taken a single, well-described question – what does it mean to be relevant? – and explored it thoroughly and with focused rigor. The question is all the more important to ask because it is one that is usually avoided in favor of knee-jerk responses, generalized guilt, accusations and lamentations. How can you be relevant to people unlike yourself? Why should you be?
To tell the truth, I honestly wasn’t sure that this book would be relevant to Odyssey Works or to me personally until I landed on the line “The urge to entertain can be a serious distraction from relevance,” and then I got it. Relevance is not about pandering, it is not about dumbing down, it is not about diluting your work to serve a political agenda; relevance is about communicating in a fashion that connects that which you wish to communicate to the place of meaning in the other person. The urge to entertain is the urge to use any means at hand to maintain the attention of a person at the possible expense of the reason you wanted that person’s attention in the first place. At Odyssey Works we talk about the problem of immersion for the sake of immersion – throw somebody into an interestingly designed space and the performance will be that much better – keep them entertained and they’ll be wowed. But there is more to immersion than just being physically surrounded by something – there is a psychological immersion and a narrative immersion that can happen. This is what happens when a story fills our consciousness and binds with our everyday experience. And this leads to the most important level of immersion – what you might call a spiritual or an ontological immersion – when the work at hand surrounds and integrates with the workings of meaning in your life. The urge to entertain, while important at times as a tool for comfort and intimacy, can easily stand in the way of this immersion, or of what Nina Simon might call a real relevance.
The book speaks about these issues from a slightly different perspective (that of organizations reaching out for audiences) but one that is germane nonetheless (I’m trying my best to avoid overusing the word “relevance” here.) She has a few basic ideas of interest; the first is that what you do or what you are can be thought of as a room, and that that room has a shape and a door, and that there are people inside the door and people outside the door. I think of this as form and content, and that you have to reconsider both the room itself and the door to the room when thinking about making your work relevant. These are questions of empathy, of knowing both how to invite someone easily into what you do (the door) and then how to do something (the room) that has meaning for them. If your work is relevant but the invitation doesn’t speak the person’s language, then you get nowhere. Worse, if the invitation is fantastic but the work is not relevant you’ve pulled off a frustrating bait and switch.
The second idea of interest is that to make your work relevant you need to know it and own it so that in trying to find relevance you don’t water it down so much that its appeal has destroyed its intrinsic value. Outside the museum world I think this is what is called selling out.
Finally (though there are other ideas worth mentioning that I won’t get to here) there is the notion that being relevant requires one to be in relationship with the audience, and that relevance is not something one can manufacture from one’s imagination of the other but that it requires an open, questioning, and inclusive view of the other. You might say that in order to be relevant, one must be able to really see the audience, rather than one’s image of the audience.
Through the book she examines examples of museums and art organizations (including Odyssey Works) as well as religious organizations and even Coca Cola. It’s thorough and practical and uncynical and even, at times, poetic. I’ll leave you how she leaves the book, with a coda that is nearly Rumi-esque in its poetry:
“Relevance is about making it worth it. Flinging open the door to the treasure. Bringing darkness into light.
What does it feel like to unlock that door? To find out, practice empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of the outsider beyond the door.”
The Art of Relevance is available on Amazon.