Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yes, Audience Participation Can Have Significant Value

For years, I'd give talks about community participation in museums and cultural institutions, and I'd always get the inevitable question: "but what value does this really have when it comes to dollars and cents?" I'd say that these techniques support audience development, repeat visitation, membership, maybe could even attract new kinds of donors... but I didn't have numbers to back it up.

Now, I do. Or at least preliminary ones. Last week, the local newspaper did a really generous front-page story on my museum (the MAH) and the changes here over the past eight months since I started. In the summer and fall of 2011:
  • attendance increased 57% compared to the same period in 2010
  • new membership sales increased 27% compared to the same period in 2010
  • individual and corporate giving increased over 500% compared to 2010
We've also had incredible increases in media coverage of museum events (like that Sentinel article), new programmatic partnerships with several community groups, and private rentals of the museum for community events. After a really painful financial starting point, we've been in the black every month and have established a $100,000 operating reserve.

I'm incredibly proud of all the staff, trustees, volunteers, collaborators, visitors, and members who have made this happen. We started the summer with no money and a strategic vision to be a thriving, central gathering place. We just started to try to live up to that vision, partnership by partnership, activity by activity. We're hearing on a daily basis that the museum has a new role in peoples' lives and in the identity of the county. It feels pretty amazing.

It also feels amazing to see some of my theories validated in this way--that giving people the opportunity to actively participate does really transform the way they see the institution and themselves. I can't say that any one experience--working on a collage with other visitors, swinging on a hammock, discovering a participatory display for pocket artifacts in the bathroom--directly contributed to increased attendance and giving. They all have in concert, and they build on each other. We have a LONG way to go to really become that "thriving, central gathering place" in our vision, but it's immensely gratifying to see that we are on the way. It's always shocking to me when a visitor will say, "it feels so comfortable here," or "I love how it's opened up to the community." I can't believe it when I hear words from the strategic plan come out of people's mouths.

There are at least three significant things that have contributed to our success thus far:
  1. A clear strategy. Our team focused this year on just three things: making the museum more comfortable, hosting new participatory events, and partnering wherever possible. The broad mandate to "open it up" was backed up by a lot of activity on multiple fronts--comment boards, participation-specific internships, program formats that allow us to slot in enthusiastic volunteers easily, more flexible uses of some museum spaces, and a range of options and opportunities for collaborators. 
  2. Community response. Every time we've tried something new, we've gotten lots of support in terms of media coverage and enthusiastic attendance. This community was ready for a museum that reflected the unique creative identity of Santa Cruz. We try to design every new program with a partner organization with an audience for whom that kind of content or format is already appealing. We've had a few programmatic misfires, but for the most part, our new projects are succeeding because the newspaper wants to feature them in the "best bets" and people are game to come out and try. It helps that we're in a small market and we have focused on two audiences--families with kids 5-12 and culturally-inclined adults without children--for whom demand exceeds supply in terms of local opportunities for affordable cultural experiences. 
  3. Trust and love from our old friends. Our long-standing donors and board of trustees have been amazingly enthusiastic about the changes at the museum. They supported us financially when we were on the skids, and they are continuing to support the future of the institution. They are excited to see new people in the museum and to hear their friends talk about the museum in a new way. Almost to a person, our donors understand that we are reaching people with a variety of modalities and that they don't have to personally like every experience or element to feel great about the service the museum is doing in the community. We're starting a new campaign based on the "renewed ambition" of the museum and we feel confident about the future.
All of this said, I know we still have a lot of work to do--this truly is just the beginning. Going into the new year, we're focusing on:
  • making exhibitions and collections as participatory as our public programs
  • transforming our volunteer gallery host program into something more interactive 
  • helping members feel more like part of the family with us and with each other
  • finding and testing out innovative formats for participatory history experiences (it's been easier to get started on the art side, and we are a museum of art AND history)
  • figuring out ways to measure impact beyond anecdotes, especially with an incredibly limited budget/staff for evaluation
  • pushing forward on partnerships that allow us to reach and support marginalized people in our community

In a week when I'm super-stressed out about the work ahead, it's good to take a minute and celebrate what we've done. Thank you all for helping shape my thinking on museums and for your smart, critical, energetic eye on this work. And the next time someone questions the benefits of letting audiences actively participate, send them to Santa Cruz.
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