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How a small arts organization on Vancouver Island is dreaming big with design thinking: an interview with the Nanaimo Art Gallery

Julie Bevans

Julie Bevan, Executive Director of Nanaimo Art Gallery

Always on the look out for stories of museums and cultural organizations using design thinking strategies and approaches, I was delighted to meet Julie Bevan, Executive Director of Nanaimo Art Gallery in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, at the Getty Leadership Institute this past summer.

Nanaimo Art Gallery, located on Vancouver Island, presents exhibitions by contemporary artists, maintains a growing collection of art works by significant artists from British Columbia, and hosts workshops, lectures, and other public programs. The Gallery is bravely stepping into the world of human-centered design, and recently collaborated with a group of local cultural organizations working together to build engagement with communities in Nanaimo.

Jackie Duys-Kelly

Jackie Duys-Kelly, owner of Awarewolf Creative

I spoke with Julie Bevan and project facilitator Jackie Duys-Kelly, owner of Awarewolf Creative, about the initiative. As Jackie told me, it’s rare in Nanaimo that organizations are interested in or familiar with design thinking, and the project was a new experience for the Gallery.

Our conversation was interesting to me because it demonstrates how small organizations can leverage the power of design thinking by moving quickly, taking small steps, and being open to a new way of working. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

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Dana Mitroff Silvers (DMS): Tell me more about how this project came about.

Julie Bevan (JB): A group of us were pulled together by the City of Nanaimo to inform the creation of a Cultural Plan for the City, and out of that plan our Cultural Manager’s Working Group was formed. There were seven leaders representing various cultural organizations including Vancouver Island Symphony, TheatreOne, Nanaimo Museum, Nanaimo Archives, Crimson Coast Dance, The Port Theatre, and a representative from the City’s Culture and Heritage department.

Nanaimo Art Gallery exterior

Nanaimo Art Gallery is located on the eastern edge of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, on the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Image via Google Street View.

One of the things we identified very early on is that we are relatively small organizations. Nanaimo is not large. We live on an island. So we needed to talk about ways to pool our resources to make a greater impact, and this project was about establishing an identity and brand for all of our organizations.

DMS: And how did you chose a design thinking approach?

JB: Well, we didn’t know what we were doing! We didn’t consciously choose design thinking—we brought in Jackie to facilitate exercises to get us thinking in new and different ways about how to engage with communities in Nanaimo. We wanted to work with someone who had fresh approaches and was not entrenched within our organizations.

DMS: It’s interesting that you bring up this notion of not being “entrenched” within an organization. Tell me more about that.

JB: Generally speaking, in a lot of smaller cultural organizations where budgets are tight and teams are small, sometimes people overlook the importance of the process and are focused on the end product. There is this sense of “let’s create this new thing and get it out there” without investing time and thinking and involving multiple perspectives to inform the creation phase.

The spirit of design thinking is about inquiry and asking questions  …. We want to model an inquiry-based approach and embed that into all of our activities. The very act of asking a question is an invitation to participate and respond.

Julie Bevan

JACKIE DUYS-KELLY (JDK): These arts organizations are about understanding people and communicating more effectively. And that is what the design thinking process is about, too. It is a form of dialog with your audiences and a way to connect more deeply with their needs.

JB: And we are interested in thinking about the process at our organization. That’s how many artists work. We really want to invest in the process. The spirit of design thinking is about inquiry and asking questions. And this fits quite closely with the Gallery’s artistic program. We are modeling an inquiry-based approach and embedding that into all of our activities. The very act of asking a question is an invitation to participate and respond.

DMS: I love that notion of design thinking as an invitational, inquiry-based approach. I don’t know if I’ve heard that before.

JDK: You know, until you experience design thinking, you just think that it’s a bunch of hokey whatever. But once you experience it and start asking questions, it’s like, “Wow, I never thought of that!” New ideas start forming. You start exploring ideas from different angles.

Empathy map

An empathy map for a visitor named “Art.” Image courtesy Nanaimo Art Gallery.

DMS: So what did you do in your design thinking sessions?

JDK: In the first gathering of the group, we worked to get them to think about how their audiences experience the creative cultural sector. We developed an Empathy Map and everyone put themselves in the shoes of an audience member and examined what their experiences look and feel like, and what their challenges are. Then we broke into teams to do brainstorming activities to consider what our audiences are currently experiencing, and what we hope to have them feel and experience in our organizations.

DMS: And how did it go?

JB: People really enjoyed the process and we learned more about each other’s work. It was a nice way to take conversations in positive, new directions without getting bogged down with limitations, objections, and minutiae. After that, the group met monthly and dug in more deeply. We talked with people in the community along the way to get their feedback around an identity and brand that could work like an umbrella to promote all of our organizations.

Design thinking session at Nanaimo Art Gallery

Design thinking working session with the Cultural Manager’s Working Group. Image courtesy Nanaimo Art Gallery.

DMS: What kind of insights did you arrive at?

JB: One of the insights we had was that while a lot of these organizations are recognized outside Nanaimo, the local community could be more aware of what our arts and culture organizations offer, and the ways our work contributes to the cultural, social, and economic vitality in our region. So we learned that we needed to consider our communications to specific community stakeholders and provide them with different kinds of tools and language, and forge partnerships with organizations working to promote tourism and economic development.

DMS: What is happening now?

The organizations are continuing to work together quite closely. We launched the project we developed collaboratively, Love Arts Nanaimo, in the spring, and it’s had successes and failures.  We are re-grouping in the next couple of weeks to talk about what’s next. t

We have an advantage at Nanaimo Art Gallery in that we are small and nimble and we can experiment. We can try things and shift and pivot.

Julie Bevan

DMS: Are you using any design thinking strategies for other projects as well?

JB: Yes, definitely. Going forward, at Nanaimo Art Gallery, we are planning to work with Jackie in early 2018 to apply design thinking to questions related to visitor experience and map the direct and indirect ways the communities we serve access the Gallery. Our team at the Gallery is also embarking on the creation of a digital strategy in 2018, in conjunction with two other art galleries in British Columbia, and design thinking is a tool that we could potentially use there too.

We have an advantage at Nanaimo Art Gallery in that we are small and nimble and we can experiment. We can try things and shift and pivot. While we may have fewer resources than a place like the Smithsonian, we can embed new ways of working and create an organizational culture where curiosity and learning are prioritized.

The process and principles of design thinking are not intimidating. It’s scaleable, it’s energizing, and ultimately, it’s about asking questions and exploring ideas from multiple angles.


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