You may have seen him around on our blog, but Koven Smith is actually the Blanton’s Director of Digital Adaptation. In our latest installment of Behind the Blanton, a series profiling different Blanton staff members, we sat down with Koven to learn a little bit about what he does in and outside of the museum.
You’ve previously worked at the Denver Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among other places. Is there something that sets the Blanton apart from other museums you’ve worked at?
Koven: The sense of purpose among the staff here is particularly strong–from the beginning I could feel a strong motivation among everyone on staff to do something really special and wonderful with this museum. The fact that (relatively speaking) we’re still a fairly young museum also motivates everyone. The possibilities are wide open.
Drinking About Museums started as a low-key meetup for people who work in museums. When I first moved to Denver, I used to have regular lunches with Kate Livingston, who was then at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and we’d have these wide-ranging conversations about museum futures and strategy and whatever. At some point we figured that it would be a good idea to invite other Denver museum people to be a part of these conversations, and one meetup at the Cheeky Monk later, Drinking About Museums was born. I thought up the name while watching an episode of “Doctor Who.”
After we did our first one in Denver, Ed Rodley, an old colleague/friend of mine from Boston called up and asked if he could steal–he probably said “use”–the name for a meetup they already had going. At that point it had never occurred to me that this would be replicable anywhere else, so I was like, “oh yeah, sure!” Once the Boston crew did it, Drinking About Museums started popping up everywhere. I just saw that there was one in Italy, which to my knowledge is the first one in that country. They’re in Russia now, South America—I think the only continent that there hasn’t been one, to my knowledge, is Antarctica. Turns out people who work in museums like to talk about museums while they drink beer.
How does your background in music fit into what you do here at the museum, if it does at all?
It kind of does. My background in music is actually as a composer–that was what I studied at Berklee. I suppose that when a project is going really well at the Blanton, it feels very similar to the process of composing or rehearsing a large group of musicians. I’m constantly scoping in and out to figure out what needs to be adjusted to make something work, or how to change direction on a large project so that it has the impact we hoped it would. When a project is going well, it feels like a great rehearsal when every musician is at the top of his or her game, and everybody’s on the same page. So it’s more of a conceptual similarity than something more direct.
What’s your favorite part about your job at the Blanton?
I love when I’m able to see a new way of looking at a problem. Museums by nature are pretty tradition-bound and generally speaking are not always willing or capable of addressing a problem in a different way. One of the things that appeals to me about the Blanton is that there’s a real willingness to do that. So the part that I love is saying “Oh, let’s take this thing that most people take for granted and let’s pull it apart and look at it in a very different way and see if that enables us to come up with a solution that makes more sense for us.”
I’m happiest when I feel like I’m able to do something that enables [the Blanton] to move faster or get ahead of the field. For instance, we’re starting to look at different ways of delivering text information in gallery spaces and researching how information density affects visitor experience. The willingness among the Blanton’s staff to look at issues in new ways means that we might be able to find a better (or at least more deliberate) way of doing this that could be useful for other museums as well. It’s really cool.
The best part about living in Austin is…?
I love 91.7 KOOP. I love Deep Eddy. I love that I can come to the Blanton on a Saturday afternoon and see Line Upon Line Percussion play, and then see some Nancarrow player-piano pieces performed “live.” I love that even grocery stores here have bands playing. That’s just amazing to me. I love that Black Star Co-Op is a short bike ride from my house. Austin is just filled to the brim with wonderful things.
Extra big thank you to Koven for taking time out of his busy day to chat with us. You can also visit him online.