Friday, March 10, 2017

MUSEUM VISIONS - AUDIENCE - PART I

Part I - Museum Visions Series

Who loves museums?  Who currently comes to museums? Should we broaden this audience?  And if so, how?  What pitfalls are there along the way?

I love museums.  Who doesn’t?  Turns out that is a complex question. Michelle Obama shed light on the question in her opening remarks at the Whitney Museum.  She pointed out that not all people feel museums are a welcoming place:
"…there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and … think to themselves…that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people."
Read the full text of the First Lady’s remarks here.

As many museums embark on a journey to become more inclusive, diverse and accessible I feel a general sense of unrest.  So many issues are involved and it is hard to dissect them and then to focus on just one at a time.

For help I turned to the amazing blog “Incluseum”.  There I was introduced to the Blogger Porchia Moore, a self-described Poet, Museum Nerd, Beauty seeker and Knowledge Keeper. 

Her post: The Danger of the “D” Word: Museums and Diversity helped by give words to those feelings.

Moore argues that “diversity” is a racially coded term which masks hidden agendas and argues that museums 
“… should be cultivating lasting relationships with communities of color; and be certain that we are not just targeting them when we deem their participation to be culturally congruent.”
Moore cautions that minority visitors are not “merely niche or annual visitors” but instead “are long-term invested stakeholders with a unique set of values”.  Reaching people of color won’t happen unless their “narratives are celebrated as equally as important … to the system of values which permeate the traditional white mainstream museum” 

Are words as seemingly innocuous as “Diversity” coded words revealing a bias?  There is a growing body of work unpacking terms which are used in the strategic plans and missions of Museums across the country.  Terms which, on the surface, appear harmless, such as “Community” and "Diversity" are explored and revealed to have troubling connotations.

Museums are asking important questions such as:
  • How can we ensure that all audiences can access our programs, collections, and resources?
  • How do we actively deconstruct systemic bias in our field—and how will we measure our progress?

These and many more questions will be topics of discussion at the upcoming American Alliance of Museums 2017 conference.  The theme this year is:  Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums

Bonus Reading:  Incluseum also has an excellent set of tools and articles to use as conversation guides and catalysts as well as group activities here.

Coming Soon:

In Part II of this series we will explore the methods currently being employed to make museums more inclusive, diverse and accessible.  How do we attract and retain diverse audiences across borders and categories of sex, race, ethnicity, age, class, ability, language, sexual orientation, and gender roles and identity?

In Part III we will explore whether these methods are effective and how we can measure this effectiveness.  Is what we measure capturing our effectiveness?  How can we study the results?

In Part IV we will explore the tendency to cater to only our built in audiences; people with similar interests, science geeks, the museum nerds, the patrons of the arts.

To wrap up the series, in Part V will we will identify opportunities for future research.  We’ll also offer a “what to do next” list of essential reading on the topics we’ve discussed.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

NONPROFIT IDENTITY CRISIS?

It seems like yesterday, but I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for twenty years. Last month I attended a conference on non-profit policy. It was a conference, like a dozen others I’ve attended over the years. At the breakfast talk I was half asleep, but the keynote was so electrifying that I woke right up. After the talk, as I stood in line to talk to the keynote speaker, I said hello to Flo Green the Executive Director of the organization sponsoring the conference. We started talking about how ironic it is that nonprofits have come under attack for being too much “like a business”. We've all been working so hard for the past twenty years to have the work done by non-profits taken seriously. The approach being to emphasize that we were no different than any other business: professional, hard working, corporate, etc. And now we find the entire non-profit sector under attack, because if you can’t tell the difference between us and a business then maybe we don’t qualify for the much sought after IRS tax-exemption. How ironic to achieve SO much success that we could lose it all.

So Flo says to me "you know charity means love”. And I paused, taking that in. How had an act of love turned into a business? How had we arrived at this moment? Was the attack valid? Did we, in fact, no longer warrant our tax-exempt status? The hot button issue (raised by Senator Grassley) right now is “what exactly is the difference between a nonprofit hospital and a private hospital” and if the public can’t tell the difference, and the IRS can’t tell the difference, maybe the emperor is not wearing any clothes after all.

The scary part is that if they win that one, which type of non-profit will be next? The question casts a chill over the whole non-profit sector (I don't dare say non-profit industry do I?). It turns out that now (having done every other aspect of business) we must turn to marketing and branding, because without a clear discernable identity, we may not exist at all in the long run.

Back in the '80's, I worked for a young idealist administrator. He captivated me with stories of the origins of nonprofits, and how they had all sprung into existence in the '60's out of political action and social change movements, out of revolutionary spirit. He and I both used to pine for those days. We didn’t want to sit in an office filling out forms, we wanted to get out there and HELP people.

Because nonprofits had existed for my entire lifetime, I couldn't grasp that they had such a short history and had not even existed before that. I never thought to ask but wait…what did exist before that? And the answer was charity. Charity came from the rich giving to the poor, and a whole heck of a lot of that charity came through the Church. Twenty years later we have become "partners" with every government agency and/or private enterprise that we can manage and so have changed in character from our charitable roots. But if our "Look and Feel" is no longer the same, are we not still devoted to helping the poor (whether it be nutrition, early childhood education, feeding the hungry, training the unemployed, etc. )? See follow-up article: Solving the Nonprofit Crisis