Wednesday, July 07, 2010

How Can You Attract New Audiences Without Alienating Your Base?

Most of my work contracts involve a conversation that goes something like this:
"We want to find ways to make our institution more participatory and lively."
"We want to cultivate a more diverse audience, especially younger people, and we want to do it authentically."
"But our traditional audience doesn't come for that, and we have to find a way to do this without making them uncomfortable."
Audience development is not an exercise in concentric circles. You can't just start with who you already have in the middle and build infinitely outward. In most cases, growth means shifting, and shifting means that some people leave as others come.

This is incredibly scary. It requires trading a certain history for an uncertain future--a nerve-wracking prospect no matter the situation. It's particularly scary if your institution relies primarily on private donors, members, and gate sales to cover operating costs. When funding is tied to a specific subset of your audience, you get protective of them, even if they are not the people most likely to ensure viability and sustainability in the future.

So what's the solution? I don't know - and I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments. Peter Linett recently wrote about institutions that pursue "parallel" programmng for new audiences instead of trying to entice them directly into the traditional "pipeline." His argument is that in many cases, reaching new audiences requires new programs. If new programs are sufficiently different from the traditional ones, they may be more effective as standalone program tracks than as gateways to the traditional experience. As Peter wrote:
If someone enjoys Arts Event A because it’s social, informal, energetic, fun, and hip, why should we expect her to also enjoy Arts Event B if B is individual, formal, quiet, serious, and traditional (at least in its presentation, if not artistically)?
While Peter was writing about youth, this approach is often also used to invite in ethnic groups. Many museums offer programs for specific days like Dia de los Muertos or Chinese New Year to attract new audiences. This "parallel" strategy even applies to experiments in new forms of gallery interpretation. Most museums that offer interactive exhibits, media elements, or participatory activities offer them alongside traditional labels and interpretative tools.

I employ the parallel strategy all the time in my work. It's the easiest way to get new experiments started. It's always easier to sell a new visitor experience element as an additive element rather than a replacement for what came before.

But there's a big problem with the parallel strategy. Parallel programs require additional dollars. They are often segregated to specific grants, programs, or departments rather than being integrated as core offerings. If the traditional program remains sacred and new visitor experiences can only be additive, parallel programs will come and go with grant funding and the fundamental experience will not shift. At some point you have to make some "or" choices. You can't always do "and."

Two institutions I see making this "or" choice in exciting ways are the Brooklyn Museum and the Oakland Museum in California. In both cases, the institutions started with "and"--layering on parallel programming for specific audiences. And in both cases, the institutions eventually started making more tough decisions to make those new audiences and programs more central to the ways they plan shows, program events, and even how their membership structures work. (And in Brooklyn's case, there's recently been great debate about how this approach affects the institution's overall image and impact.)

At the Oakland Museum, a longstanding successful parallel program, the Days of the Dead community exhibition and celebration, became a touchstone in the museum's recent overhaul (read more on this in Chapter 8 of my book). As staff members talked about their goals for the redesigned museum to reach more diverse and localized audiences, they repeatedly said, "we want it to be like Days of the Dead." As a parallel program, Days of the Dead is hugely successful in terms of audience numbers and engagement, but not all staff members felt comfortable with its radically co-creative approach. As project director Evelyn Orantes commented, "This is a program that challenges the basic ideas about how art is displayed." When the staff embarked on the institutional redesign, they debated how to embed the radical Days of the Dead approach into more aspects of the visitor experience. The result is an institution that is impressively committed to audience voices, diversity, and participation--not just in one program, but in the label text, the exhibits, and the overall visitor experience. The parallel program's success gave them the confidence to take a bigger risk across the whole institution.

And I guess that's the key for me. Parallel programs are a great way to get started with a new audience or new interpretative strategy. But once you can show that they really work, maybe even succeed beyond your wildest dreams, they shouldn't be a dead end. They should boost your confidence (and your board's, and your colleagues') that you can make changes to your core program. They should be a starting point for a conversation about how the whole institution might grow and shift.

And that change might alienate some traditional audiences. Staff members at one museum said to me directly, "We don't want to be the museum for ladies who lunch anymore." If you don't want to be that place, you have to be willing to let those ladies go--or at least, not to put them at top of mind when planning future programming.

How do you approach this problem of frustrating traditional audiences when trying to move in a new direction?
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