Let's Revolt! Changing How the Arts View Value and Engagement

Posted by Angela Venuti, Apr 19, 2015 0 comments

Let's talk about starting a revolution. For rising arts leaders, we have a unique time period when our voices are not only valuable and needed as employees, but also make up a desired audience. Many of our institutions want to engage the young professionals and, hey, that's us! The world is changing and our organizations are trying, desperately, to catch up. The idea of "audience engagement" seems to be subjective but constantly discussed in our industry as a must-have. But what would be the best way to bridge our work with our peers?

The best advice is to start using your voice as an audience member. Does your institution want that elusive unicorn of a young professional to attend, participate and engage more? If you know the reason they aren't getting more young professionals, say something. It’s a good start even if change may not occur overnight, but it's a good start. When you start thinking of yourself outside of your organization, and as a visitor, it strengthens and brings purpose to your voice.

Some of the biggest trendsetters in the museum industry are branching out to new audiences by opening their doors and their minds. Our philosophy at the Museum of Photographic Arts had always been “art is for everyone,” but our admissions price didn’t always reflect that, acting as a deterrent for those who couldn’t afford to participate. Seeking to change this, we decided to venture to new territory and adopt a free admission with a twist. The twist is asking for a voluntary donation that creates a "You tell Us" experience.

After researching success among museums who wanted an open door policy for visitors, we received a grant to implement a “Pay What You Wish” admissions trial. On certain days, we ask our visitors to tell us what they would like to pay. For me, one of the ways I started to exercise my voice was by examining audience engagement. Rather than tradition, which dictates that arts organizations are the steward of the trendy cultural values, this policy lets the audience tell us what is valuable to them. And poof! Engagement. Interacting with guests during the first few weeks is pretty magical. They appreciate the options, and the ability to evaluate what their experience was and to tell us, compared to a set admissions price telling them what the value is.

Next, I needed to face the reality of membership numbers. As the proud Membership Officer, I noticed a steady decline in how members perceive the value of their membership. In membership-land, the value is typically based on admissions prices and other usual benefits -the same ones that almost every museum seems to have on their membership page. But, oh no, not the trendsetter museums! They chose to do it differently and drastically. This was the pivotal time in my organization to use my voice and make a change.

Now that we have a new admissions policy that is inclusive, engaging and valuable, how could I create a membership program to rival it? Pretty soon we'll be launching an entirely innovative type of membership program: low-cost, monthly and interest-based. Rather than traditional memberships that guess what their members want and provide many unused 'valued' benefits, these new subscribers will tell us their interests. Our new model focuses on fun, mission-driven programming relating to their passions, not segmenting our members and offering experiences simply by the level they opt to pay into.

Your organization won’t begin changing overnight, but they may begin their thinking, and that is by far the most important first step to take. With an “art is for everyone” philosophy, you tear down segmentation and welcome the community. Next, creating the “you tell us” experience allows your new visitors to enjoy and give you feedback. The best part? Your voice as both a staff member and audience member is valued.

Takeaway points:

1) Adopt an “arts for everyone” philosophy

2) Use yourself as an audience member

3) Think about how to use a "you tell us" form of engagement

Interested in joining the conversation? Meet us in Chicago for the Arts Leadership Precon during Annual Convention 2015!

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