Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Audience Engagement Conversation at Western Museums Association


The Western Museum Association was kind enough to invite me to speak on a panel about engagement at their annual meeting in Boise. I was joined by: 
  • Scott Stulen, Director & President, Philbrook Museum of Art 
  • Maren Dougherty, EVP, Communications and Visitor Experience, The Autry Museum of the American West
  • Adam Rozan, Director of Programs & Audience Development, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
  • Phillip Thompson, Executive Director/Board President, Idaho Black History Museum
I wrote out my planned remarks here last week, but below are some of the highlights of what we really talked about.

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The panel included people from different types of museums (history and art), scales of organization, and people with different specialties. Despite these divergences, we found great convergence around the big issues in the field.

Phillip’s early remark about museums was an invocation for everyone. He noted that coming from technology and medicine, he wasn’t hampered by the norms of the field. As an outsider, he immediately saw that museums were operating “under a business model that doesn’t work.” He then went on to note that we run museums with the hopes of being supported by philanthropy, when in fact we could have a product that people want. However, in order to accomplish the former, museums would have to transform to be more consumer-driven.

I was struck also by Scott and Adam’s repeated notes about interrogating the sources of knowledge. Scott told a story about the edict to not step on the grass in his lovely italianate gardens. When he investigated the source, he found the tradition was from a long retired gardener. Rationally looking at the system caused him to make a different choice. He allowed people to walk on the grass and added tables to make the space inviting. While some long time members of the community were unhappy with change, scores of new people came in.

In many ways, the subtext of our whole panel was that change will mean your audience will be different, but that’s not bad. As I said last week, there are people out there who could like you. They don’t know what they’re missing. But you can feel their absence in your empty galleries. Often the loss of visitors is completely due to your structures. Adam told a touching story about his late father, who suffered from Alzheimer's. His mother, the caregiver, called potential outings to see if they had family restrooms. If they didn’t, she couldn’t visit. We are turning people away without even noticing.

We also have a culture of not treating the people who are coming right. Maren talked about the importance of including people at public events, even if they don’t go in the galleries. Bringing people in means often changing your idea of what an ideal visit looks like. She also noted it might mean finding ways to meet real needs. At her organization, she noted serving seniors was important, as this is rare in Los Angeles, but also serving families in an unstructured way. Rather that forcing people into the programs they wanted, they looked for what people wanted and solved for that. This often requires real problem-solving. Maren also got the largest “wow’s” from the audience when she talked about the issue of alcohol and museum programming. People are used to carrying around beverages; museums need to keep works safe and facilities clean. Their institution has started experimenting with giving out beverages at parties in branded adult sippy cups that visitors can take into the museum’s theater.

Another big topic was the issue of demonstrating your desire to change. Phillip and Scott spoke about transformations of procedures to enable change. Phillip, for example, wanted more college students as he is on a college campus, so he put a college student on the board. Adam also talked about leading change in his teams often by rethinking work with them.

Making change is not without stress. And, in many of our prep conversations, we talked about the real challenge of changing human systems. But at the same time, almost every museum professional I’ve spoken to speaks of how visitors don’t feel welcome. It feels like the data is pretty damning. We need to change.

What are your thoughts on audience engagement and change? Share here in the comments or on social. 

What are your thoughts on audience engagement and change? Is there a line in the sand; is there too far when it comes to being visitor-centered? What is something you hope to see in the future of audience engagement? Share here in the comments or on social. 

As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Audience-Engagement Successes and Failures




Author: Seema Rao

This week I’m talking about being human-centered. I’m including some failures. Why? Well, exposure of failures helps us learn and helps us lead. As a leader, sharing failures helps normalize fallibility. As a person, it reminds you are human, and that’s good. Everyone in this field is human and as such fallible. If aren’t failing, you are either deluded, blind, or failing so hard you’re blinded and deluded by your work. (I will say that the two programs I will mention occurred fifteen years ago, and many jobs ago. I have had more recent failures, I assure you. But there is one caveat with sharing failures. They are rarely just your fault. So, make sure to be transparent with others involved before sharing.)

Audience-centered for me is a subset of human-centered. Audiences are a portion of the humans in the museum ecosystem. As first-time parents, they are the focus of most attention, almost to a fault. They are certainly an important raison d’etre of our field, though not the only one. The reason I think of a museum as human-centered is that to become audience-centered your organization has to center people. You have to get through the feels. You have to get at the motivations. As a collective, the staff needs to grow emotional awareness and empathy for others. Without an internal understanding of humanity, it’s hard to be audience-centered.

Practically, being audience-centered touches every aspect of staff work. If the decision-making factor to be what is best for your audience, your choices change. Signage goes from subtle enough to be hidden to useful to visitors. Labels go from ideal for my scholarly friends to legible to broad audiences. Gallery Talks become conversations instead of lectures (well, for some audiences).

The clarity of being audience-centered can be transformative and also daunting. Most of our common practices have been related to audiences, but not centered on audiences. We did what we could to foster audiences who thought like us. Centering audiences more broadly means hearing people who aren’t like us. People will not like you. Some people will not ever like you. But there are also some people who might like you if they get to know you. That’s who you are going to win when you become audience-centered.
Becoming whole audience-centered is a bit like learning to make friends once you mature. In middle school, you’re willing to change to make friends. In high school, you might refuse to bend at all for potential friends. As adult, you get it’s a give and take, a mutual growth. Some organizations might think they have to change totally. That isn’t being audience-centered; that’s being faddish and unsustainable.  

If your metric is more people in the door, you might be tempted to completely twist and transform yourself in a brazen attempt to get people in.  Here is one failure I remember from my early days of audience-centered. When I ran an adult studios program, I started reading a great deal about the rise of craft culture (this was in the pre-Pinterest days). I ran scores and scores of classes, like purse-making and shoe-decorating. The classes sold, but it took me away from what was the real goal of our program, connecting people to collections through action. In that year, I raised enough money to completely cover my salary, but I didn’t actually grow our audiences. People took the class they wanted and left us. The program had shifted too far from the mission to keep people tethered to the organization. And, I was exhausted. After a great deal of consideration, I stripped the program of those ancillary classes. Profit decreased but repeat attendance increased. In the end, our organization for this model better for our visitors and our needs.

So how did I figure it out?
1.     I actually listened. I decided to talk to people. We did quick surveys and I did interviews. Then I demonstrated that I was hearing them but making some of the changes that were suggested.
2.     I tested the waters. I didn’t completely shift the program at once. I tried a few new things, and then asked people what they thought.
3.     I was willing to get it wrong and change. Visitors make a number of adaptations to come to us. Our hours, our rules, our spaces, all place restraints on visitors. If we’re asking them to change, we have to also make changes.

Museums often don’t have enough clout to be about to be community-centered or audience centered on their own. They often need to look to other fields (or other types of museums) for partners. One of my hardest projects was a museum-library partnership. As a lifelong library patron, I was thrilled about this partnership. While museums might be haven or destinations, libraries have always been a home to me. I walked into the project expecting synergy and rainbows. I was woefully wrong. What went awry? 

What did I learn: 
4.     Partners need to understand each other. We didn’t do our due diligence to understand the differences of norms. We didn’t articulate where our norms overlapped and where our goals connected. We didn’t give ourselves time to create a collective language.
5.     Partners need to plan together. Being transparent about goals is the first step, but then if you want to get to the end together, you have to chart a shared path. If you don’t, you’ll be met with many roadblocks.
6.     Partners need to share success. Success and credit are infinite properties. Hoarding them will not make you more successful and will devalue your future relationship with your partners. Find ways you can both benefit from success.

In summary, for me, being audience-centered is putting the people at the middle. Most of my points above might be summarized as: remember people matter; remember people have feelings; remember not to crush or ignore those feelings.

If you choose to focus on human-centered work, your organization will reap many benefits, including increased visitor engagement and attendance. But you need to increase internal capacity, including emotional intelligence and commitment to changing the means of work. The benefits certainly outweigh the investment, though. Human-centered is in essence letting the heart of your mission shine through the people of the museum.

I've written a bit more about audience engagement on my other blog, including co-creation and partnership

As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

What is Audience Engagement?


Prehistoric skelaton suspended above museum visitors

Audience engagement is the easiest and hardest thing about our work.

Let’s start with the easy. We open our doors and let people in. We’ve done it for a couple hundred years. We understand things like door count and fire code. We get exhibitions and installations. We’re pretty good with time tickets. We’ve got casework and collection care sorted. Many of us spend some quality time getting good stuff on the walls. We’re doing our best.

But our best might be the challenge. Our best is defined within the norms of our field. Our best articles are the ones we define against what our other scholar friends are writing. Our definitions of the best exhibitions are either best for our field or what we think is best for our visitors.

And, before all my research and evaluation friends have an attack of “but wait!,” I will say that I’ve seen incredible changes in our field in my almost twenty years in. I’d guess these changes barely register for visitors. Why? Society is changing. T’was and always will, certainly. But the rate of change has been FAST. And our museum change rate is glacial. The clash is basically the thing that keeps museum leaders up at night.

How do we make the right changes to make the most of audience engagement given our museum culture? What changes to museum culture allow us to best grow audiences without destroying the best of our core competencies? How do we make the choices that will keep museums from going extinct? This last question isn’t hyperbolic. Audience engagement is part and parcel to the survival of our work. Our future isn’t promised. We make it.

So, this month, I ask you a few questions: What are the challenges in audience engagement? What are your successes? What are your hopes for the future?

Before we get to the work of discussing audience engagement, this week, let’s talk definitions. What is engagement?

I’ve been thinking recently about the words we use in our fields. We often preference words with nebulous and complicated meanings as a way of seeming “with the people.” Experience is one of my favorites, and not just because it’s my job. Experience is a word you might be able to feel and know, but it’s hard to pin down. What is not an experience? What is the metric of a good experience?
Experience and engagement are a bit linked. A good experience is usually engaging. Engaging is a word that overlaps welcoming, interesting, surprising, and audience-appropriate. Engaging and experience are absolutely in the eye of the beholder if you will. Death metal will not be engaging to me even if performed in the loveliest place on the planet by the loveliest people with the greatest visitor experience strategies. We all have things that no effort will sell. So, engagement is about connecting some people.

Engagement has grown in importance to museums because we feel like there must be more people who could feel connected to our organizations. On some level, that’s an assumption based on our own high opinion of ourselves. We believe we are awesome, so people should want to come. But one another level, it’s an admission of fault. We were doing engagement by just opening our doors. We’re pretty sure that’s the wrong way to do it. We know empty galleries aren’t the point of our work. And, we know we need to do better.

But, herein lies the challenge. What does audience engagement mean? To me, it means transformation. It means every little part of our work. It’s about systems. Digital, parking, signage, board relations, everything is about transforming our work.

People are at the definition of engagement to me. It’s a word that stands in for all the efforts we make to connect people to collections. (I talked about all the people last week).   

Next week, I’ll talk about some of my audience engagement including a couple failures. B/c failure is about learning.

In the meantime, how do you define audience engagement?

As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)