Thursday, April 26, 2018

Which New Audiences? A Great Washington Post Article and its Implications about Age, Income, and Race

This weekend was thrilling for me. The Washington Post covered the MAH's transformation as part of an article about museums engaging new audiences. The whole second half of the article was dedicated to our work:
Smaller museums can be especially scrappy in finding ways to connect with the community. One that has found remarkable success is California’s Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Executive Director Nina Simon, who was hired in 2011, says that in the years following the global financial crisis, the facility was struggling.  
“At the time, we thought it was financial trouble, but it turned out it was much deeper than that,” Simon says. Museum attendance was at about 17,000 a year, and primarily made up of retirees and schoolchildren. Simon knew something had to change.  
“We said, if we’re going to make this museum successful, if we’re going to make it meaningful in the community, we’ve got to increase the number of people we’re reaching and we have to diversify who they are,” says Simon, who explores the concept of audience engagement and participation in her books “The Participatory Museum” and “The Art of Relevance,” as well as on her blog, Museum 2.0. She says that the museum made changes in hiring and board recruitment practices, and invited the community in to help reshape the facility into a place that reflected and represented its people and their interests.  
The impact was dramatic. Within three years, attendance tripled. Audiences of all backgrounds found ways to connect with museums as it presented exhibitions with the help of foster youth, migrant farmers, roller-derby girls, mushroom hunters, surfers and incarcerated artists, among others.  
In September, the museum unveiled an adjoining plaza called Abbott Square, which includes an indoor public market and food hall with six restaurants and two bars (it’s managed by a partner/tenant, Abbott Square Market), along with an outdoor performance venue with live music, yoga and art events. The plaza serves as a kind of front porch to the museum, ushering visitors old and new.  
“I always say we did not transform our museum by building a fancy building or by bringing in van Gogh,” Simon says. “We changed our museum by reorienting on our community and really saying we exist to be of, by and for you, and to help build a stronger community.”  
It’s something that any museum, of any size, can work toward.
I'm extremely proud of this coverage and appreciate journalist Kate Silver for including us. I'm also always interested in how the national media portrays changes in the cultural sector.

This article subtly juxtaposes two interpretations of what it means to "engage new audiences." The first half of the article covers high-priced events like adult sleepovers and Museum Hack tours at major urban museums. The second half covers our work at the MAH (and by implication, at other "scrappy small museums") to collaborate with community members to co-create institutions for people of diverse backgrounds.

At one point in the first half of the article, Kate writes:
Across the country, you can see a burst of creative approaches within these cultural institutions, all designed to draw in new audiences: yoga classes, pop-ups, custom beer, cat film festivals, nighttime parties with signature cocktails and DJs, dog-friendly days, scavenger hunts and more.
What does this list have in common? Youth. Urbanity. Affluence. Whiteness. This list doesn't include many approaches that I see transforming museum audiences, like political activism, multilingual programming, intergenerational events, or cultural festivals. Even in the section about the MAH, Kate chose to only obliquely reference the work we've done to involve, feature, and hire more people of color. Race and ethnicity are not directly mentioned in the article, but whiteness is implied throughout.

Reading this article made me wonder: what are the greatest diversification issues in museums today? When we talk about the need to engage new audiences, who are we primarily talking about? This article implies that the most important new audiences are white, urban millenials with money to spend.

I'd argue that age and income diversity are important, but that racial and ethnic diversity is a bigger issue in museums today. This is both an issue of practice and of media coverage.

On the side of practice, there's a much longer history and body of organizations working on audience age and income diversity than on race. Conference sessions on reaching young people. Access programs aimed at low-income people. There are many examples across the US of organizations (including the MAH) that engage the full age and income diversity of their communities.

But when it comes to race, there are fewer exemplars, fewer shared practices, and less media coverage. Many are working on it, but only a couple has been recognized in the field or media for fully engaging the racial/ethnic diversity of their community (with the Queens Museum at the top of this short list). I see race as the most important audience diversity issue of our time.

Lots of institutions--and popular media--have helped change the perception that museums are for old rich people. But we're still a long way from changing the perception that they are for white people. We've got a lot more work to do--and a lot more articles to inspire--to effect that change.
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