Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Does Your Institution Really Need to Be Hip? Audience Development Reconsidered

Last Friday night, my museum hosted a fabulous (in my biased opinion) event called Race Through Time. It was a local history urban scavenger hunt that sent teams of 2-5 people out into the city to track down as many historic checkpoints as they could over the course of an evening. The event was oversold, and participants raved about the experience.

We created Race Through Time in partnership with a local networking group called Santa Cruz Next, whose primary aim is to support and celebrate ways that young professionals can and are changing our community for the better. Race Through Time was designed specifically for this audience of 30 and 40-somethings looking for fun social events with a Santa Cruz bent. We saw Race Through Time as an opportunity to share our mission around engaging with history with a new and highly desirable audience of young professionals. Everything about the event--from the time slot to the tone of the content to the music played--was designed for that audience.

When Friday night rolled around, we did see a crowd that skewed decidedly younger and hipper than our standard museum audience. But we also saw something else: parents and teenagers, grandparents and grandkids, elderly couples, out for a fun scavenger hunt evening. Yes, there was the 40-ish lawyer who effused that she'd never seen so many young people in the museum before. But there was also the couple in their 70s who told me this was the most fun they'd ever had on a Friday night in Santa Cruz. And from my perspective, it was this diversity that made the event unique--and made me rethink the way that cultural professionals typically approach audience development.

I've written before about the "parallel vs. pipeline" approach to new audience development. The concept goes like this: if you want to invite in people who don't traditionally engage with your offerings, you offer them an experience that is so tailored to their unique interests and preferred modes of engagement that it really is only for them. Performances just for teens. Late night mixers at museums for young adults. The experience is dramatically different from the norm and the audience is very targeted. It's a parallel experience, one that may or may not be eventually integrated into the core "pipeline" of traditional experiences and audiences.

We thought that Race Through Time would fall in this category--that it would be 90% people from the Santa Cruz Next young professional crowd. But it was more like 60%--enough for all those young people to feel like they were in the right place, but not enough to feel like it was "their" event alone. There were twenty-year old hippies. There were grizzled cyclists. There were families. It turned out that there were many different kinds of people who were excited about an active, adventurous approach to history.

This gets me thinking about whether the most productive programs for cultural organizations from an audience development perspective are not wholly parallel to the norm but somewhere just slightly outside, somewhere that links the typical to the possible. Maybe being incredibly hip one night a year or month or week is not enough to help the audiences who come to those events connect to the institution writ large. Those events bring in specific crowds for singular experiences, but to what end? If you have a wild event that feels like a spaceship landed on your institution, what happens when the ship leaves the next day?

Museums are not for specific crowds alone. As Elaine Heumann Gurian has often noted, the magic comes when cultural institutions bring together people who don't typically mix. As someone who can feel a bit alienated at events with homogenous audiences--even people who look like me--I appreciate the opportunity to be in a crowd that includes me without being prescriptive or limiting.

We lose something if we focus too narrowly on specific audiences. I've started realizing that at First Fridays, when our museum swells with people out on the town for an art experience. We are by no means the hippest First Friday destination in Santa Cruz, and sometimes, after a long evening at the museum, I'll head out to a gallery and look longingly at the young, cool artist crowd gathered within. I love hanging out with those people in those hip venues. But I also love that the museum invites those young adults in along with elderly folks in wheelchairs, families with toddlers--the happily un-hip.

And so I'm letting go of the idea that we have to be exclusionary to attract young people and looking for more diverse alternatives. The marketing argument has always been that we have to segment, that we have to tailor. But what if we segment to "people who like to meet people who are not like them?" I think that's a stronger community value proposition than becoming as cool--and limited--as an institution with a tightly-limited audience.

Do our institutions really need to be hip to be successful? Or do they just need to be welcoming, open, comfortable places that offer a diversity of experience? I realize I may be totally biased on this since I'm watching it happen in my own institution and my own community, and I'm also personally not a very hip person. What do you think?
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