Yesterday I attended the New York City Museum Educators Roundtable Annual Conference, “Are We Listening” (thanks to receiving a Scholarship from NYCMER). Although I will be writing a fabulous webssay for the NYCMER website which will touch on my experience and take-aways from this day-long program, I would like to share a few thoughts that are circling my mind….
Maxie Jackson, Senior Director Program Development at New York Public Radio and our morning keynote, spoke candidly about his experiences moving from “producer-driven” to “audience-driven” radio programming. He highlighted the need of targeting and reaching non-audiences, potential audiences as well educating those who are currently served by expanding program efforts and initiatives for the wider community. A total side note: I think it is great on the part of the conference committee to bring in a speaker who does not work in museums to discuss broader challenges and issues that we in the non-profit world are facing.
Jackson provided practical resources and outlined his process towards growing an audience via diversifying offerings. Jackson’s four steps towards diversity include:
- Program mission: Creating and managing a mission to fill the void of what is currently missing from offerings.
- Research base when developing program concept: Reach out to the emerging audience by working with organizations who already serve this community and meet with them, make that human connection. In doing this, find the balance between the expectations of this group and where your core audience thinks you can go.
- Staff resources for authentic engagement: Include job postings through a variety of channels to create a diverse pool of applicants with diverse experience and exposure to strengthen inclusive program ideas and program development. As an institution open yourself up to analysis: Do you speak with authority? Are you providing authentic engagement? Are you willing to hold yourself accountable?
- Audience engagement: By participating in information gathering you can be educated by your community. Stimulate the “American conversation,” perhaps by first focusing on a specific emerging audience and expanding along the way while super-serving your core audience. Communicate with your core audience that you are “doing them a favor of broadening the world around them.”
These methods are intensive which is probably why his results are so fruitful. I really took to heart Jackson’s call to extend beyond niche programming to develop offerings that are relevant to audiences not served. Applying these ideas to museums, considerations for authentic engagement via inclusive programming for current and emerging audiences will provide countless benefits but may also provide challenges in shifting mindsets, ideas, and goals.
In thinking about Jackson’s keynote, I’m also mulling over a recent article I read in the May-June 2009 Museum, “Deliberately Unsustainable” by Nina Simon which considers the nature of museums to survive through cautious and calculated measures and calls upon these institutions to consider benefits of taking risks and pursue mission statements “foolishly, rashly or successfully – in our activities every day.” In her article, Simon states, “Unlike startups and rock stars, museums aren’t structured to shoot for the moon and burn up trying. They’re made to plod along…..The problem arises when the desire to sustain overcomes the desire to be superlative and more resources go to surviving than succeeding.” Simon encourages museums to “make it” by surviving and succeeding via offering “core services that people depend on” and “services you provide that make you awesome” (how you support your community).
I find connections between these ideas and Jackson’s remarks, which I am still processing. In an effort to sum up my thoughts (I promise, no more direct quotes), it’s not enough to narrowly serve your core-audience with niche programs nor is it enough to provide diluted experiences for emerging audiences. With rapidly changing demographics, neither is sustainable. We are at a point and time where museums can cultivate new audiences through exciting programs with zest and ambition. Therefore, a commitment to reaching out to non-audiences and working with core audience members in the development of more inclusive, meaningful programming needs to be prioritized and sought through creative perhaps risk-taking approaches (consider it cutting edge programming). For museums to remain relevant we need to bring core, emerging, and non-audiences into a shared conversation so we are all present and all listening. This will bring to surface the problems, concerns, opportunities, and solutions to new programming ideas awesome for all.