"It's all about making personal, meaningful connections with a community, now."It sounds as if Mr. Sametz is frantically casing city streets with a heat-seeking metal detector, on the hunt for a miscellaneous batch of confused folks whom he can stun into "connection."
Who is this mysterious and desirable community with whom museums wish to connect? The general public is not a community. Nor is "everyone who doesn't currently visit here." The article suggests that museums have previously served one community--"traditional" museum patrons who are white and elderly--and must now be relevant to several other communities that are diverse in cultural, educational, and socio-economic backgrounds. This seems a little ungenerous to museums; while institutions may bestow more love upon wealthy, elderly donors than the general visiting public, museums have actively courted mass audiences for years. The problem--one which is not addressed in the article--is that museums have not been willing to cater to new target audiences to the exclusion of their traditional patrons. We're always happy for more bodies in the door, but if supporting teens means alienating seniors, there's a problem.
Connecting with communities means making conscious decisions that invite in particular people. It means making some conscious choices that push your institution towards being more of a "third place." The article references connecting with young people via social media, at-risk youth via exhibit co-creation, and urban creatives via public art installations. But it skips some of the fundamental design and operational choices that separate community centers from the rest of the civic and cultural landscape.
And so I'd like to suggest a few other ways to "connect with community." In most cases, they are less flashy than those covered in the CS Monitor, but that doesn't diminish their utility (or the challenges inherent in making them happen).
- Pick a specific community (or two). Don't say that your institution will be a "town square for the community." Which community? The Filipino community? The student community? The homeless community? Pick a group of people to whom you would like to be relevant, and work with them to deliver programs that meet their needs. When their needs conflict with other pre-existing communities' needs, make a choice. Prioritizing a community demonstrates that you care about them and are willing to defend their needs. The Brooklyn Museum allows skateboarders to use their public outdoor space, much to the chagrin of some locals. But they stick by the skateboarders as a community of value.
- Be free, nearly free, often free, or free for locals. Community centers don't ask you to cough up a $20 every time you come to hang out. While free admission has not been shown to shift the overall demographics of museum visitors on its own, it sets an expectation that this is a place you can use whenever you like, for as long as you like. It's not a recreational destination you visit once a year. It's a place you can use.
- Be open at times that your "community" is likely to come. I was at San Diego's Balboa Park two weeks ago for a workshop and spent a glorious evening wandering the gardens, outdoor concert halls, and sports fields. There were thousands of people in the park for plays, free music, and beautiful scenery. And none of the museums in the park was open. Extending museum hours makes it easier for people to integrate museum-going into their evening recreational time and diminishes the prepare-to-visit-destination behavior.
- Open your doors really wide. Lots of museums look like fortresses against the streetscape. They are protected by expansive parking lots or metal gates. The more museums can be porous to the outdoor environment and continuous with other neighborhood venues and businesses, the more easily people can flow into them as part of their day.
- Make time for staff to hang out with visitors. There are many museums that require all staff to spend an hour a week working the floor or the front desk of the museum. These programs are usually used to help staff have a better sense of front-line needs and challenges, but they're also an obvious way to help all staff literally "connect" with visitors. Recently, I've been talking with one art center about turning their "floor hour" into an "art hour" where staff can do whatever creative activity appeals to them and might help them relate to visitors. Not all staff want to actively lead tours or programs, but if "connecting with community" is a core part of your mission, then all staff should have some aspect of their performance evaluation tied to making nice.
- Appreciate regulars. Is a big corporation like Starbucks really better at promoting a sense of community than museums? If a barista can remember your double soy latte, why can't museums give special treatment to members and frequent visitors? I've been writing a lot about regulars and loyalty recently. There's no way we can serve a "community" if we act like amnesiacs every time they come back through the door. Museums need to develop ways to track frequency of use, whether with technology or otherwise As David Gilman commented, "How can we be friends if I not only keep forgetting things about you, but never learn them to begin with?"
- Make food and drink and comfy chairs available. In Ray Oldenberg's list of hallmarks of a "third place," food and drink ranks as not essential but very important. Museums are fatiguing. People like to sit down and drink a cup of coffee or a beer. Even better is the opportunity to drink a beer while checking out an exhibit--most museums separate food and comfort from the exhibit experience, creating a false dichotomy between the place where you hang out and the place where you engage with museum content. The ideal situation is one like that at El Rio, a bar in San Francisco that lets you bring your own food and also offers free barbecues and oysters every week. Nothing says community like free bbq on the patio.
- Consider operating a storefront in the community. If you want to reach out to a community that is not within walking distance of your institution, why not open a satellite in their neighborhood? One of the reasons that 826 Valencia is so successful as a tutoring center is its location right in the middle of a busy mixed-use urban neighborhood. The "community" doesn't have to leave their block to get there. Commercial real estate is cheap right now (and getting cheaper). The Denver Community Museum was an entire institution in a little storefront. Imagine what a big museum could do with a little space.
I'd like to close with a few words from the "About Us" section of El Rio's website. This bar ("El Rio: Your Dive") may be humble, but it "connects with community" with flying colors. Their About Us section is mostly not about them, but about the ways they want to connect with you, their potential community.
Check out the way that they welcome in different particular communities...
We are a mixed bar- all sexualities, colors, ages(21+) are encouraged and very welcome.Or how they communicate their values...
We are a bar so you must be 21+ to enter. We id folks we don't know.
We welcome people with disabilities. Our entrance and most of the club are wheelchair accessible, including the back deck but not the yard. Our bathrooms are not wheelchair accessible and do not have grab bars (and would not be accessible without assistance). We do not have a parking lot. For more information, please call 415.282.3325 We will do our best to accommodate you!
We have no dress code but a strong preference for tutu's and wigs.
We love nice people.
We love kids but can't allow them because of foolish laws.
We love people who clean up after themselves, a lot.
We love this place, it's our home.
We have a pool table, shuffle board, juke box and have been known to have very loud dice games.
We are a work in progress and open to hearing opinions so speak up. See the link to the left.
And a final statement...
And lastly, we are not for everyone but for those of you who feel welcome and at home, we are very, very happy you found us.