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Audience Engagement: How Museums Learned to Love their Visitors

Adam Rozan on how museums should be mindful of every opportunity to delight audiences. Perhaps being average had become the modus operandi for many museums. But then a new interpretation of the traditional museum model emerged. 


Adam Reed Rozan is Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Massachusetts. The Audience Engagement Division team at WAM focuses on attracting and retaining diverse audiences to the museum through the creation of fresh programming, expanded museum promotion and deepening the museum’s connection to the community and beyond. Rozan has held audience engagement, marketing, public relations, teaching and programming positions at Harvard University Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Children’s Museum, Boston Public Library and Oakland Museum of California. Rozan earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Elon University, N.C., and a master’s degree in liberal arts in museum studies from the Harvard University Extension School. He has consulted widely on the topics of social media and audience engagement and has written numerous articles for and, among others, as well as speaking at museum conferences globally, including MuseumNext Indianapolis in 2015 and the 2012 edition of the Museum Ideas conference in London

Interview took place in July 2016:

Q: What does audience engagement mean to you and your museum?

Audience engagement is a directive, an approach to looking at museums afresh and focussing on the way they interact together with audiences. Put another way, it is a form of jumpstart for museums, adding sometimes new and alternative perspectives but most often helping to reconnect various areas our institutions and audiences together.

“Audience engagement is a form of jumpstart for museums, adding new and alternative perspectives”

It works to create a range of positive, stimulating experiences for audiences throughout their visit, and everything that comes along with that idea, including understanding pre- and post-visit experiences, and how to ensure visitors come back again.

For the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) it means both a commitment to our guests and a focus on overall guest experiences across the institution. It is an active process, not a static one. Meaning we are always trying to improve what we do and learn from our projects, so that each is better, more engaging, thoughtful than the next.

Q: In what ways have you introduced participatory practice and how does it change the social impact of your organisation?

It starts with an invitation. More and more we’re inviting audiences to participate in our projects. This is exciting, because when you invite the public in to participate ownership changes hands. Projects go from being understood and talked about as the museums’ to being shared initiatives with your audiences. We even hear visitors saying things like “You have to see my artwork in my show!” That’s exciting because projects need to be as much about the audience as they do the objects.

We began by testing this idea on a manageable scale, and in ways that were designed to help us evaluate the response and levels of success. Some of these initial programs were our One Day Artist Residencies, where we encourage and celebrate art making among our public audiences, and our weekly Nude Drawing program, where we invite our community together for live nude figure drawing each week in one of our galleries. Playing with ideas of ownership and community, we invited our audiences to bring their garden gnomes and flamingo lawn ornaments to our lawns, for two different celebrations. Public response was terrific!

Our current project Meow, which looks at cat-themed art, featured an open call to anyone who wanted to have an artwork included. What resulted were 230 artworks brought in from our community. These include paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, digital works and more. We entitled this show the Community Cat Show. It may be the biggest such public engagement project to date for WAM, and it works in part because it demonstrates an openness to considering what art is for other people–while being paired with exhibitions about cats organized by curators.

“Ideas emerge out of question-asking and the freedom that comes with not trying to know everything”

The other thing we do is ask ourselves a lot of questions – and try not to assume that our answers are the only answers possible. What would others say, people within the wider museum field but also from our community? Ideas emerge out of question-asking and the freedom that comes with not trying to know everything, but to inquire about everything.

This manifested in us asking what does it mean to be a community minded organization? We are nowhere near fully answering this question, but we have over the past few years realized many new roles that we can serve.

We became a meeting space for many organizations and groups. We expanded our understanding of what it meant to be a classroom and for whom. One idea was to become home to a farmers market – which we are. We are also now a polling location for local, state and national elections. Our community votes in the museum, they see art in the museum, they meet friends and family in the museum, they use the museum for educational and business purposes. The museum is a place for our community to live, where art, learning, and participation remain central features.

Q: Museums are facing complex challenges and to become more effective boundaries are being blurred between departments – how is this approach working at your organisation?

Museums are amazing places to work, I honestly believe that they are magical places to work. Outside of my work at Worcester Art Museum, I’m an adjunct faculty member in the museum studies program at Harvard University’s Extension School. I teach my students about how museums are changing, why they must change, what this change looks like, and most importantly, how they can participate in this great new era for our cultural institutions. However, the practice itself is always harder than the theory. Truth is it takes a lot of work and focus not just on the product but the structures that create great work. I think about this a lot and we’re lucky to work in a time when so much writing and thinking on organizational structures, team dynamics, and models from the for-profit and non-profit is taking place. I think this sometimes supports people’s openness to new ideas.

“We’ve worked hard to shake up traditional organizational models for new ones that are unique to us”

At the Worcester Art Museum, we’ve worked hard to shake up traditional organizational models for new ones that are unique to us, that work for our culture and goals. Doing so allows us to come up with a way of working that helps us accomplish our goals, learn from our mistakes and successes, and build better, smarter and more capable teams in real time.

Some of this started when I arrived at the Museum, and we changed the management structure to create the Audience Engagement division. This includes education and public programs, and communications and marketing, as well as visitor services. In practical terms this meant that all of those functions of the Museum can come together with unified leadership to collaborate with our curatorial department, our conversation department, etc.

Q: How do you bring together your online and physical visitor experience?

This is one of the great questions happening now in the museum world and of course unique and varied by institution. For WAM the question is asked differently: how can we better plan for audiences that will use their smart phones while visiting the museum? Their experiences with their phones and with being online are now one and the same, so our thinking is to work with this in mind, to embrace it and ask how can we use these new technology rich experiences to created a more meaningful and lasting visit.

Q: There has been a long-term and purposeful move away from the traditional one-size-fits-all approach of museums towards one of providing unique and distinctive experiences, often with the audience participating in and guiding the experience. In what ways is this approach being successful at Worcester Art Museum and how does it benefits the audience?

For me this move is not so much of a move as a destination and I not only think that we are there, but that we’re past that point. Many museums have welcomed the change, embraced it, and those that have are doing things that previously were unheard of in museums. Yet their still is a whisper out there about all of this with a sense of surprise and confusion.

Three examples of how this has happened at the Worcester Art Museum. One is with our Meow project that I mentioned before, a perfect example of how to blend formal art museum experiences – like our Captivating Cat exhibition, organized by a guest curator and taking a more traditional and art historical approach – with audience engagement, through our Community Cat Show, featuring art of all kinds from people in the region.

Another example are our live nude drawing programs, which function on multiple levels. We need students–audiences who want to learn to draw. We need a model, someone from the community who is willing to pose nude. And unlike most museums that have nude figure drawing classes, we do ours in our galleries, so other visitors to the Museum wind up as participants because they may be wandering through the galleries too. (But we do put up signs to let people know – and participate – before they walk in.)

The third example is our recent SAMURAI exhibition, where we balanced a small but interesting trove of artworks from our holdings, with 23 practicing artists – many outside the traditional museum genre – whose work often focuses on the samurai mythology.

Q: What can museums learn from other types of organisations in finding ways to build a positive and productive model for audience engagement?

Everything. We should pick and choose what works and what doesn’t, borrowing from for-profit and non-profit alike. As our consumers evolve so should we. The model should be less reactionary and more akin to evolutionary adaptation. Loosely borrowing from this scientific idea, we should be evolving and adapting to meet the specific needs of our audience or customer, situation, geographic location, and all of the other specific situational changes that defines our unique circumstances.

“The modern museum is one that is forever evolving, changing to meet new demands and unforeseen challenges”

Q: Finally, how do you see museums in general and audience engagement in particular changing in the future?

What museum has not changed, morphed from what it was to what it is? The modern museum is one that is forever evolving, changing to meet new demands and unforeseen challenges. I am not scared of this. Rather, I think we need to embrace it, it’s exciting. Art is one of the oldest and most elemental forms of human expression. Art is not going anywhere. The question is will museums as a whole change, will we in the museum community be able to change fast enough for our audiences. Or, will we fail and become irrelevant

Adam Reed Rozan
Director of Audience Engagement
Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

Audience Engagement: How Museums Learned to Love their Visitors is the title of the course Adam teaches in the Museum Studies program at Harvard University’s Extension School

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