Facing a Decline in Audience, Museums Reimagine Themselves

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Quick--what's the common denominator among the following items? A workshop on how to perform a breast self-exam; a graffiti wall; a microgrant program to support imaginative projects that benefit a neighborhood; a special mental health program for adults with life-threatening illnesses and their caregivers; and studios designed to encourage middle- and high-school students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The answer: These programs and projects all take place at museums.

Yes, museums. Almost forty years ago, Duncan Cameron wrote a piece called "The Museum, A Temple or the Forum," in which he argued that although museums' primary mission is to be "temples" that showcase the best cultural production, museums must also foster "forums" that showcase cultural dialogue and process--forums that allow people to engage with the essential, challenging issues of the day.

Museums have for more than a century offered programs for schoolchildren, and before then offered lectures for adults on topics directly related to the museum's mission. Today, however, faced with the heterogeneous demands of a diverse society--all of our intellectual, emotional, psychological, and medical needs, and more--many museums are engaging with communities in unconventional ways. Their motivations are not entirely pure and mission-driven, however--museums are fighting to stay culturally relevant.

Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts released their 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (PDF). Among the findings:

[A] smaller segment of the adult population [in the U.S.] either attended arts performances or visited art museums or galleries than in any prior survey. . . .Nor were bad economic conditions in 2007-2008 the only factor at work. . . . Since 1982, the share of 18-24-year-olds who report having had any music education in their lives (now 38 percent) has dropped by more htan a third. For visual arts training, the proportion (now 21 percent) has nearly halved.

The findings also suggest museums need to broaden their outreach to different audience segments. For example,

Compared with most other activities, Latin music concerts and outdoor performing arts festivals attract larger groups of young audiences, including adults at lower education and income levels. Similarly, new data about arts-going at schools and religious venues can yield fresh insights for arts administrators and community leaders.

The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed exploring the details of the study's consideration of Latino audiences. Drawing on the NEA study and conversations with museum professionals, Gregory Rodriguez concluded,

This suggests that the most effective and realistic way for museums to catch up with demographic shifts is to try harder to reach the growing college-educated, English-speaking Latino middle class. In particular, they should be trying to create cultural habits of museum attendance among first-generation college graduates. And, yes, though they may want to occasionally create exhibits that are ethnically targeted, these guardians of houses of curiosity should not assume that educated non-Anglos aren't also curious about the wider world.

There apparently is funding to support such outreach. For example, in 2009, the National Science Foundation sponsored a conference for museums and other institutions of informal science learning on expanding informal science for Latinos. In addition, the Smithsonian Latino Center distributes grants of Congressional and private sector funds to Smithsonian units and museums seeking to "promote Latino achievement or contributions."

ARTzineonline argues that changes in museums' roles are long overdue. In particular, museums need to democratize the experience of learning about art by making themselves more accessible intellectually and physically:

Museums, art museums in particular, must embrace the people who create art. A museum should be a place where artists create and sell their wares. A place where any person of any color or cultural background can be free to experience the full range of the Arts. Museums must stop being these “guarded vaults,” they must become thriving places much like the “suburban Malls” without the Madison Avenue hypocrisy. Venues where people can come in and stroll the grounds, without having to pay an exorbitant fee to experience Art—how it is created, to watch artists at work, and maybe get an opportunity to create their own Art, and buy art for their homes.

I've written before about the importance of museums engaging in civic discourse about history, art, science, and technology. But the latest study on arts participation from the NEA, coupled with the reality of declining museum budgets during a prolonged recession, suggests museums need to rethink the ways in which they engage with their audiences and communities. It may be that museums need to emphasize their geographic communities more than the intellectual affinity group that constitutes their audiences--in order to grow those audiences long-term.

Whether it means exploring art museums' potential as therapeutic agents, working with community-based artists to create contemporary public art, extending citizen science opportunities to working-class youth of color, practicing affirmative action in its own hiring in order to bring more diverse perspectives and experiences to their staff, or facilitating conversations about immigration among law enforcement and communities, museums need to reconsider how their missions might be broadened to better serve the needs of their communities, even as they showcase the best cultural production or the latest scientific research as demanded by their mission statements. In short, museums need to reflect on the twin charges emerging from, and reflected in the title of, the 1992 American Association of Museums report Excellence and Equity. (In 2002, Jeannette Thomas analyzed museums' progress in this regard; you can download her report (PDF).)

If you want to keep an eye on the latest innovations by museums as they reinvent themselves, check out Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog and Elizabeth Merritt's blog for the Center for the Future of Museums.

What about you? Do you feel welcome in museums? Do you feel as if some types of museums are not designed with you in mind as a prospective audience member? What might museums do to be more welcoming to all people?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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