If museums and galleries want to be more successful at engaging and representing their community — and the full panoply of experiences their community enjoys — they must be willing to take a courageous leap into the vast unknown.
Haneef Khan is a professional campaigner and Director of Advocacy at Blue State Digital UK, a global values-led creative and campaigns agency with its European HQ in London. Over the past 10+ years he’s helped museums and galleries such as Tate and Natural History Museum apply lessons from fast-moving political campaigns to their digital programmes. As a digital strategist and campaigner, he has worked with both the Labour Party and the Democratic Party, the latter most recently on their successful 2018 midterm election campaign.
Speaking on the barbarous nature of politics, President Harry Truman once allegedly remarked, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
The quote is likely apocryphal, but its sentiment holds true — unlike the comparably graceful world of museums and galleries, politics is a gruelling business. The two disciplines really couldn’t be any more different, and yet, as I’ll explore in this article, there is a great deal that cultural organisations can learn from contemporary political movements.
We live today in an age of activism that’s seen the power dynamic between established institutions and ordinary people fluctuate and change at an increasingly accelerated pace. Right now, even while poverty festers in our communities, wealth inequality grows, and ordinary people suffer, citizens have more tools and more power than ever before to shine a light on corruption and injustice. It’s clear to me that the future of our society will be defined in part by this tense, unrelenting struggle — where control oscillates between the powerful and the once powerless. We’ve seen this not just in politics with the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter, but also in the techlash movement, as employees organise against Silicon Valley royalty to reshape the future of their companies. Some of the largest brands of our time (Patagonia, Co-op) have internalised the importance of adapting to this bracing shift, employing grassroots strategies from the realm of politics to empower citizens to improve our world. I intend this article to be an energising act of encouragement to any museum or gallery looking to do the same.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen some stunning educational work in cultural institutions. As a relatively young, liberal, mixed race man, I’m heartened to see how much focus there’s been on engaging both black and minority ethnic groups and working class communities, as well as righting the wrong of women’s underrepresentation in the arts. But one thing that the world of politics can teach us is that true change comes not just from educating, philosophising and debating, but from an organised struggle against an unjust status quo.
If your organisation wants to change something about this world — whether it be an advocacy-focused goal such as tackling the creative patriarchy, raising money for an underfunded project, or simply better representing the community in which you’re based — the best way to achieve this is to transcend two-dimensional models for community participation, such as talks and workshops, and develop more expansive, fluid and creative opportunities for ordinary people to participate.
One of the most interesting debates that’s raging within the political community right now is about what the future of community organising should be. Should we choose traditional ‘small’ organising, the most adopted model for organising, defined by its discipline and decades of professionalisation, or what has now become known as ‘big’ organising, a model typified by its de-professionalisation? In ‘big’ organising, volunteers are elevated into influential roles in programmes, as was the case with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign, which saw volunteers run entire field offices, and even go as far as establishing their own.
While ‘small’ organising is closer to the model that museums and galleries currently use, I expect that we’ll soon see the most enterprising institutions embrace the latter, more decentralised approach, thereby engineering more scalable opportunities for civic participation. Either way, one thing is patently clear: while both models diverge at various points, they also coalesce around one hopeful truth — that community organising isn’t about the one organising the many, it’s about the many organising themselves. This is because pure community organising is defined by shared leadership — by giving agency away in service to a higher goal, not hoarding it like a monopolist. The great success of Tate’s Tate Exchange project was that it reimagined its own public engagement model. Tate replaced scholarly talks with facilitated conversations with people from all echelons of society, and swapped academic tours with creative, constructive and participative experiences. This, for me, is not far from a gold standard community engagement project — civic action with a crashmat.
But what would happen if, in addition to these bold acts of solidarity, galleries and museums left the confines of their walls and entered into the community? To coffee shops and pubs; to high streets and country parks, just as political campaigners do. In politics we often talk about meeting audiences where they are, rather than where is most convenient. But while there are scores of great examples of this within the progressive movement, perhaps the most innovative blueprint for this idea is the work of Assemble, whose Turner Prize-winning, multi-disciplinary work has reimagined social practice by collaborating with communities to help them ideate their way to a better future.
If museums and galleries want to be more successful at engaging and representing their community — and the full panoply of experiences their community enjoys — they must be willing to take a courageous leap into the vast unknown. After all, show me an energised evangelist for your cause and I’ll show you someone who has, at some point in their life, been coached and supported into that evangelism.
Now, if you’re convinced of the need to enter into communities to bring about change, you’ll need the right tools and technology to mobilise them from online to offline. Digital organising, a discipline that we might describe as the use of technology to inspire and mobilise supporters to transcend passive forms of political participation and become active agents in a social movement, has been talked about relentlessly since the 2012 U.S. election cycle.
A little-known fact about the Hillary For America campaign is that while email (surprise, surprise) was the biggest driver of grassroots donations, the second-biggest source of funds was via SMS. Hillary’s broadcast SMS team, run by a small number of passionate digital organisers, raised over $9 million from 1.2 million subscribers. And that’s not all. They also generated 5.8 million phone calls via their phone-banking tool, mobilised over 250,000 grassroots social media volunteers to get out the message heading into Election Day, and trained over 50,000 new grassroots volunteers remotely. According to Jess Morales Rocketto, the Digital Organizing Director at Hillary For America, most of those new volunteers had their first campaign interaction through that training programme.
Museums and galleries can, right now, begin employing the learnings of political organising programmes to their digital campaigns by asking supporters for their phone numbers and consent to contact them, acquiring an SMS tool, and steadily building a programme founded on the principles of community organising — of respecting, empowering, and including supporters in their everyday work. In doing so, they’ll experience a touch of the surging engagement rates that political organisations are enjoying right now. I’m of no doubt that SMS will be the next battlefield on which campaigns will be fought in Europe. The question is, how quickly can non-profit organisations take this insight and ready themselves for this next digital plateau?
In employing lessons from the resistance, you’re likely to face, well, resistance. This is to be expected. When you’re in the business of upending tradition and process, and embracing risk by doing things differently, it’s common to feel like a humble rowboat besieged by a military armada. But have faith that once you’ve achieved your goal — once you’ve made that first incremental step towards progress — you’ll have the dual satisfaction of being one of the first out the gate in your community, and well on your way towards a better future.