Museums that act like startups: An Interview with Amy Heibel

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Back in August, we launched a blog series to explore the innovative mindsets and methods that museums embrace that resemble startups and technology companies. Today we bring you our conversation with Amy Heibel, VP of Technology, Web and Digital Media at LACMA.

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Brendan Ciecko (BC): I’d love to learn more about the work that you do at the Art + Technology Lab at LACMA.

Amy Heibel (AH): We started the lab a couple of years ago. We give grants to artists to do experimental projects that use technology supported by a group of advisors from academia and private industry who give in-kind and financial resources. We’re interested in encouraging new work and we don’t require that the artists produce a finished work of art while they’re in the program, We ask that they share the process with our public so that people are exposed to the process of experimentation and iteration.

BC: So it’s very much like an open environment, an open platform, for your visitors to get a sense of the iteration? From how you described it, with the open and transparent process, is the process even considered part of the art, in some ways?

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Image via LACMA.

AH: It is, yes. We actually care more about being transparent about the process than we do about getting a finished work of art. If we cared most about a finished work of art, we would not be taking risks. This is more about showing what artists and engineers and scientists have in common—a shared methodology of experimentation and having an idea, testing it, and iterating from there.

“We deliberately try to open source the process.”

BC: I know from being part of a startup and working with many startups, that the network of mentors and different perspectives from people that have such great expertise has a great impact on the way you think through your process. Can you tell me more about the advisory side of these collaborations? 

AH: We do a quarterly advisory board meeting between the artists and advisors. John Suh of Hyundai (our title sponsor), Chris Malachowsky, one of the founders of Nvidia, Brian Mullins, CEO of DAQRI, and Gwynne Shotwell, COO of SpaceX are just a few of the advisors.

Sometimes the process is really just the advisors exposing the artists to their way of thinking about a problem and coaching them through thinking about the project that they want to do, and then the artist goes and does it, more or less on their own. Sometimes it’s a very close collaboration where the advisor is not only helping them formulate their idea of what’s possible, but also right there alongside them as they do it, giving them access to software and tools and engineering advice and other kinds of support.

We did an augmented reality project with John Craig Freeman and DAQRI. DAQRI was completely involved from start to finish in every aspect of the creation of that project. John Craig used their photogrammetry studio and he received software and an EEG headset from them that hadn’t been released to the market yet.

“It’s ultimately up to the artist what form the collaboration takes. We just bring them in and expose them to the advisors and then see where a match emerges.”

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Image via John Craig Freeman.

BC: That’s great! Because you brought up DAQRI… Over the past few years, we’ve started to see the LA startup scene build tremendous momentum. Companies like Snapchat, Fullscreen, and DAQRI are leading that charge. Does this momentum, and the people from that ecosystem, ever cross over and have impact on LACMA? Is there interchange from startup to LACMA, and from LACMA to startup?

AH: Yes. The lab is informing all kinds of thinking that’s going on at the museum because it’s kind of unusual for an art museum to run a project that’s this open and this experimental. We generally acquire and show works of art that have already been created and evaluated. This is very different. The way that the advisory companies think and their reasons for being interested in the project have been illuminating for the museum. A lot of the people who come to the lab’s public programs are themselves from LA startups or they’re part of the academic side (e.g: Design Media Arts lab at UCLA). It facilitates a lot of dialogue in that way. As you said, it’s a super exciting time in LA. We did an original version of the Art and Technology program in the 60s and it was, likewise, a time of great change in LA in the technology sector, in a very different way. But it’s a similar moment in that there’s just so much energy around innovation in the private sector!

BC: You have an interesting background—I saw that you’ve consulted and worked with a few technology giants, like Google and NetApp. Are there any aspects of the work you did that transferred over to the work you now do in the museum world?

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AH: I did some work training and coaching product managers at Google as a consultant. What was interesting is that you got to see how seriously an organization like Google takes organizational culture and what it means to create innovation space for their employees. All of the product managers that I coached were developing their own products on the 20% time policy that Google has. They were explicitly given the space and the support at work to pursue experimental projects of their own design. That was really interesting for me to see. Museums tend to do things in a way that’s organized around hierarchies and areas of specialization, whereas the private sector is ahead of us in experimenting with ways to be more entrepreneurial.

“I think my exposure to Silicon Valley, flatter organizational structures, and more project-based ways of working definitely informs the idea of the lab.”

BC: That raises a very interesting point, especially bringing up Google’s 20% policy. What do you think the organizational structure of museums will look like in the future?

AH: Your timing is good as I recently gave a presentation on this very topic at Communicating The Museum in Istanbul! I spoke about organizational culture in museums.

“If you get culture right, the technology will happen.”

We’re research organizations, we’re historical institutions. Our job is the preservation of culture, and the work that gets done in the humanities has changed completely as a result of emerging technology. It’s helpful now for people working in the humanities to understand algorithms and data structures, not just books and archives. I think it’s a big hurdle to get over to change the orientation of a museum to fully encompass today’s technological capabilities in the study and preservation of art and culture.. It’ll have to happen because the way that we interface with our visitors is changing so dramatically, we just have to figure it out. It’s a fairly significant shift in the way that we think about ourselves, and it will affect everything, including the way that we hire, train, and staff our projects. 

We’ve got a brand new position that we just created at LACMA called “Digital Literacy Specialist” - the role will be to work with the staff and figure out where they are in their digital literacy now, and where there’s the opportunity to develop them so that we can get more value from their work. There’s a big culture shift going on!

BC: Are there any things that LACMA does that are inspired by startups or other technology companies?

AH: Yes, is the short answer. The lab is the obvious example and I think everybody at LACMA would point to the lab as well. I run the web and digital media group here and the way that we do projects has changed. We used to apply for a grant, and then we would go and hire people to work with us to do things. Now, we are much more nimble. Now the philosophy is, go find a partner, ask them if we can pilot. We get something out there as fast as possible, make sure that we know how to get useful data, analyze it, see what people are really doing, and then iterate from there. This is quite different than the way most museums have done things in the past. We now try to knock new projects out in less than 6 months and learn what we can and move on from there.

BC: One last question, on a lighter note: what’s your favorite piece at the museum right now?

AH: I love the Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada show! It’s great to be showing work by an artist who’s from LA who was inspired by issues that were unfolding in LA in his lifetime.

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Image via Hyperallergic. 

Want to hear more from Amy? Follow her on Twitter @aheibel.

Are you a museum that functions like a startup? Or a museum that simply loves startups? Let’s chat.