Monday, August 03, 2009

Eight Other Ways to "Connect with Community"

Last month, the Christian Science Monitor published an article entitled, "Museums' new mantra: Connect with community." It took me a couple weeks (and various museum blog responses) to realize what bugs me about this article--it treats "connecting with community" as a marketing ploy, a "mantra" rather than a mission. While there is much talk about supporting participation and making museum content relevant, the word "community" hangs like a poorly-defined carrot on a shtick. The article ends with this unfortunate quote from marketing consultant Roger Sametz:
"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).
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?"
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
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.
Or how they communicate their values...
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.

10 comments, add yours!:

Michael Nobleza said...

Thanks for the post! At Zeum, we have struggled for the past three years around the trade-off between maintaining the profitability of our nonprofit museum and our Community Outreach and Engagement Initiative. You hit the nail on the head with the idea that Relevance should be a guiding principle in our work in the community. Conveying our mission in meaningful ways is also important, not just as a trite marketing strategy.

Thank you for this thoughtful reflection!
Michael Nobleza
Director of Development & Marketing
Zeum: San Francisco's Children's Museum

dgilman said...

Nicely done. However, I'd edit #8 to read - Consider operating in the community. Why don't museums do pop up booths in transit stations? Or parks? Or malls?

I don't realize I want to connect with the museum until I experience it. So the museum, which actively wants to connect with me, needs to get me where I live - and while a storefront is one place, the strategy works everywhere.

As someone who is not in the museum world, I often here that most museums have many more assets than they can display at any one time. By deploying those pieces to the far flung reaches of the community, you'll get me excited, and I'll be more likely to come visit you.

Of course, connecting the dots, when I do experience the museum out in the wild, be sure to remember that when I visit the mothership. Discount on admission, membership, or even guidance to point me towards the larger version of what I've already experienced is always appreciated.

Yes, there are logistical, security, and personnel issues, but those don't matter as much as adopting the strategy of engaging the community where the community is. Everything else will follow.

Roger Sametz said...

While there is always a risk when a single phrase from an hour-long interview is extracted and attached to one's name (mine, in this case), I see my comment that museums have to make "personal, meaningful connections with a community" as being in sync with the "Eight Other Ways to 'Connect'" that you've outlined here. Perhaps what is most at issue is that the quote seems to suggest there's only one community, when in fact there are always many. "Community" can be as big as a metropolitan area in which an organization sits, or a very specific group with unique attributes.

My comment, and others from the interview that were not published, spoke to the need for museums (or orchestras or ballet companies, for that matter) to "connect" with their different, possible--multiple--communities, not because marketing wouldn't be successful without doing so (although it won't), but, rather, because every cultural institution has to prove its relevance to current and prospective constituents if it's to fulfill its mission.

If people (teenagers, parents with kids, older folk) don't feel a "personal, meaningful connection" with a cultural institution (museums in this case), they're not likely to visit often, their visit is likely to be short, and they're certainly not likely to support the museum's mission by contributing time and money––both totally necessary if the museum is to embark on any of your "Eight Other Ways"––many of which require dollars from people who need to feel the personal and meaningful connection I described before offering their financial support.

And, of course, if a museum doesn't build a connection with its communities (or many connections in the different ways that are appropriate to each community), it can't––dollars to one side––fulfill its mission because fewer people will experience the collections, educational programs, films, or the time and space for reflection that museums provide. Unless an organization aims to be a scholars-only research archive, a museum doesn't exist without people experiencing it. So building connections so that people from different walks of life feel a connection with a museum––take pride in it, bring their friends, hang out, find something that is relevant to them, come back, support––is both good and necessary.

If a novel marketing program helps to get people in the door who would otherwise not cross the threshold, that's a good thing. Indeed, your list includes a fair number of such marketing initiatives. The key to success in any of them, though, is to build on interest, increase connection, and ultimately build meaningful long-term, two-way relationships.

Museums, and other cultural organizations, do need to connect––not as an add-on, but as a core part of who they are and who they are becoming––if long-time patrons as well as those who are intimidated to visit for the first time are to benefit from the value that museums can add to individual lives, and to communities––large and small.

Nina Simon said...

Thank you for your comment. I used the adjective "unfortunate" to describe your quote not because I doubted the sentiment behind it but because the editorial process seemed to generate an unclear soundbite.

I agree with your comment in its totality and sincerely hope that many non-profits (of all kinds) are working hard to identify and serve their constituent communities thoughtfully and wholeheartedly.

Tina Kubala said...

One thing I love about my nearest big city of St Louis is free admission. The Zoo, the Art Museum, the History Museum, and the Science Center are all free to walk in the door. And, you know what? When I go, I'm far more likely to open my wallet for food offerings and gift shops then when I to pay to get in the door. All of them also offer memberships for special exhibits and benefits. My best friend and I have have had memberships to all but the history museum.

Eric Siegel said...

Courteous of Rio to remind people with disabilities that they can't be bothered to install a grab bar in the stalls. So, in case an old person was thinking of coming, or someone like a vet amputee, they would realize that they can't use the bathroom.

They obviously are flat out disingenuous when they invite people with disabilities to call them for help "we'll do our best to accommodate you." What are they thinking? Walk you to the bathroom and wait outside the stall?

I know it happens that people make inaccessible places, but they should't be held up as models for inclusion.

Nina Simon said...

Excellent point. It's a weird statement - I guess I assumed they were being specific so people would know what was and wasn't available to them, but you're right - not a model of inclusion.

Dimitry van den Berg said...

Nice post, but you can replace the word community with the words 'main target group(s)' and you will get a marketing story instead. Still community sounds better (more lovable/nice) then target groups. You don't want to sell your want to involve people. For me as a museum marketeer it is the same thing.

Jacob Zimmer said...

A difference that might be drawn between "community" (a deeply troubled term) and "target groups" (abid)- is that a target group is always "other" and "them" and we are trying connect in the way that we are trying to connect the bail of hay with our arrow.
A community - at it's best - is something that artists and our houses are also part of. There is less "them" and more "us."

While there is a bit of language game in this, and I believe in better, more conscious marketing from arts organizations - I do think its an important distinction that shows up in unfortunate ways when it's not attended to.

Lenny D said...

Thanks for the 8 ways. As a museum visitor, I respond to museums that are open when day-jobbers like me can visit, and having real staff to talk with -- not just part-timers who never meet the staff, never work on the exhibits, etc. But as museum staff, I sure am glad to have weekends off ... hmmm.

On a side note, El Rio was a longtime favorite place, especially free oyster happy hour. Nice to see them get a cap-tip.