By Gonzalo Casals, Museum Maverick for the Mohawk Valley Session
Some of the key findings are trends that have been solidifying in the last decade. For instance, millennials have expanded the definition of culture to include categories and experiences such as food festivals and television, both forms of entertainment that a decade ago would have fallen way outside traditional disciplines. Newer generations are also redefining the way they consume culture, seeing themselves as active participants rather than passive audiences. Opportunities in which one can interact, share, and affect a cultural experience are the most popular among millennials.
This generational shift in cultural consumption is unfolding at the same time that the US is experiencing dramatic demographic shifts. A phenomenon once experienced only by large US cities is now expanding across the rest of the country. The rapid growth of Latino communities in the US, refugee relocation programs across the states, and immigrants leaving behind large metropolitan areas in search of more affordable lives in smaller cities and towns have contributed to this phenomenon.
City administrations, public school and library systems, and churches and other civic institutions are now faced with the challenge to rethink their public service in order to accommodate an increasingly diverse population. Museums and other cultural organizations are also struggling to shift their cultural offerings in order to accommodate these new participants that demand more interactive, relevant cultural experiences.
We are living in times that demand a more comprehensive rethinking of the role of the museum vis-à-vis its communities. Board members, executive directors, curators—indeed, all staff members—need to commit to a shift in organizational culture allowing for an audience-centric approach to our practice. A slow and painful process at times, it is nonetheless one that can result in a transformational experience for a museum, its staff, and its stakeholders.
Very much like the rest of the US, the various communities of central New York have experienced the effects of a changing cultural audience. Through a partnership between the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and the Greater Hudson Heritage Network organized a Creativity Incubator for museum professionals interested in exploring new ways of community engagement. With the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute (MWPAI) as a case study, we set out to explore ways in which the museum could make its collections and exhibitions, mostly focused on 19th- and 20th- century art, relevant to its immediate neighbors.
Applying an Audience-Centered Approach to the MWPAI
Since the 1990s, Latinxs and refugees from Bosnia, Russia, Burma, and Vietnam have relocated to Utica, dramatically transforming the demographic composition of the city. Many of the public schools and local community colleges are seeing second-generation immigrants populating their classrooms. Very much like their millennial counterparts in the rest of the country, these communities of ethnically diverse youth are trying to figure out their future, exploring college opportunities and entrepreneurship at the same time they assert their identities.
The MWPAI’s collection is primarily American fine art from the late-17th century to the present, European modernism, and 19th-century decorative arts.
With the premise proposed by the MWPAI education department that ‘viewing and experiencing art can make connections with science, math, and (even) sports’, relevant cultural experiences help connect Utica’s millennial community to the museum and its programs.
Through open-ended interviews with youth members of a local community center, museum professionals were able to utilize their expertise in understanding the interest, motivations, and needs of the community members. These valuable conversations taught us more about our targeted audiences outside the museum setting.
This strategy insists that museum professionals check their biases at the door and become open to a more expansive approach of community engagement. A colonizing practice is usually defined as a program or initiative in which those entering a community claim well-meaning intentions, yet through their work deplete existing dynamics and then leave (usually when funding runs out) without providing a sustainable model.
Some of the concepts we explored in preparation for this interview include:
- Understanding power dynamics and the privilege inherent in our roles and institutions.
- Shifting expertise to understand the value each person brings to the table.
- Moving from tolerance to empathy and compassion.
- Defying identity constructs through an intersectional approach to engagement.
- Creating an asset-based approach where we focus on the positive aspects of a community rather than its deficits.
- Making sure the work feels authentic and is a result of the values held across the organization.
- Putting an emphasis on breaching gaps and building power rather than meeting quotas.
Building on the accomplishments of the MPWAI education department, museum professionals were given access to four young adults from different refugee and immigrant communities. After the interview, the professionals were invited to explore the MWPAI galleries to find work for these candidates to do to connect with the audience.
Museum professionals were surprised how much they learned from the interviewees. The process helped them understand the stereotypes and preconceived ideas we create about our audiences. The process forced them to see the museum collection as a tool for engagement and not as an educational end goal. They were also able to think of their role in a different manner, from expert/teacher to facilitator/partner. For the participating youth, having a space to think about themselves and their communities and to share it with others was an exciting and empowering moment.
The Long-term Approach
The workshop was meant to introduce the concepts presented above and to model them in a participatory manner through the interviewing process with community members. It is an important approach that builds cumulatively and engages all its participants. More important, it demands a reimagining of the museum’s role in the community as a place that provides a reflection of that community to its members, and which will carry the community’s legacy into the future. We are now able to enjoy the legacy of many generations of New Yorkers that used their wealth to share their values and interests for posterity. Now that many cities in New York State are seeing an economic decline, who will make sure that the stories of our communities will exist in posterity?
Gonzalo Casals is the Director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City.