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Being Social: What Museums Need to Understand for the Future

Adam Rozen – Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum – on why museums need a new model to thrive. Museums operate in a new participatory age. The big challenge now is the balance between traditional museum activity and the social and participatory demands from new younger audiences. Often weighted toward the side of tradition, museums can seem out of step. 

A group of 30 or so contemporary adults, representing a wide range of ages, meet each Thursday after work at a local museum. The conversations are lively, and the adults are self-led; they know each other and the museum well. The group gathers inside a gallery devoted to American art. They describe themselves as a knit punk crafts community, and in the gallery each artisan sits down and works on his or her individual projects, from knit wraps for fixed gear bikes, to elaborate scarves. Yet reflective in each person’s work are the dramatic colors found on the galleries’ walls. The knit punk crafters are just one of many groups that meet at the museum regularly.

The museum also hosts live drawing classes, sing along story telling for young families, gardening, in-gallery music performances, book clubs, yoga and tai chi. Still further, the museum has re-arranged its open spaces to accommodate a large and growing need for wi-fi usage, and has built a new coffee/espresso lab with that in mind. There are comfortable reading rooms based on those at university libraries, and a drop-in art studio. The museum is used to experimentation with its exhibitions, programs, and online activities, and also open to new ways to involve its online audiences. In doing so, the museum reaches the majority of its audience through the various combined forms of social media and museum activity.

The museum in the example above is the museum we all want to see, visit, and work for, regardless of all the variables. This museum exists as a service to its audiences and community and in doing so has become a visitor-centered, relevant, and needed organization. Our institutions are seemingly founded in historic paradigms and operating structures, organized by traditional roles, hierarchy, and a perceived system of order. Yet, within the existing museum model, individual departments (marketing and communications, visitor services, membership, development, education, online resources, and others) have been forced to modernize, not by choice but by necessity. Some, like marketing and communications, have had to embrace modernity, adapt quickly, and learn to compete with major for profits competitors for the general publics’ attention. As audiences, resources, and options have grown and shifted, retooling our external presence, marketing, and communication efforts have had to become a priority.

“Now is not the time to cut back on bold, high-quality programming or marketing efforts. To the contrary, at a time of economic distress, it’s more important than ever – though undeniably challenging – for arts organizations to take the long view and sacrifice quality or risk – taking in deciding how to invest their resources” – The Wallace Foundation

Historically, initial perceptions of a museum were derived from visiting the museum itself, where the lobby, gift store, café, and exhibitions made one’s opinion. Today, before the advertisements are seen, the museums online presence has augmented its reality. For instance, online visitors might come to expect openness, transparency, and even innovation when visiting the Powerhouse Museum Collection, The New York Public Library, or The George Eastman House, if their initial relationship with those institutions was formed online through the Flickr Commons Project. Membership departments are now becoming boutique, or customized to fit their changing audiences. Last year only a few museums offered ‘green memberships,’ an environmentally friendly membership option such as that offered by the Oakland Museum of California, or the Worcester Art Museum, where as now a Google search pulls up dozens.

Furthermore our programmatic efforts have shifted. Seemingly overnight the entire museum community has become a venue for adult themed activity, drinking, and live music performances. The social networking pages of these same institutions have morphed and multiplied in variety, with Friendster, Myspace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Tribe, Meetup, Four Square, and seemingly an endless variety of pages, profiles, and online promotions coming and going. Yet, despite these efforts – adaptation to online activity and presentation, membership customization, and social/cultural efforts being made to reach and sometimes pander to new audiences – museums themselves, for the most part, have not changed. Our basic operating framework are visiting hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Sunday, pre-determined payment structures, and a limited variety of activity at the museum and online.

Our audiences, in many ways, consider themselves experts. Their lives being digital, they’ve been exposed to cultures, trends, and activities from around the world. Their online participation through social media has altered the course of history by helping elect a new generation of Presidents into the White House to protect Iranian peoples. Today’s audiences have opened and closed local and global businesses, and triggered substantial change in our existing consumption model, from reviewing local businesses on, to reading today’s news on their iPhones.

At the same time, today’s contemporary adult audiences are life and activity enthusiasts, who have resolved to respect not just their parents’ hobbies, but those of their grandparents as well. Traditional activities such as knitting, sewing, gardening, and cooking share center stage with yoga and photography, and with their digital components. Such activities and projects are photographed, blogged, tweeted, and recorded to be shared on personal blogs, websites, and social sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr profiles and accounts. In a study conducted at the Japanese American National Museum:

“Research participants frequently brought up program ideas that related to their day-to-day interests and/or were more active in nature. These topics included: food, popular culture, music, gardening, and film. In other words, they wanted to be able to interact with exhibitions, not just look at them; they wanted the exhibitions to be relevant to them, not just the past”

These contemporary adults are looking to participate, socialize, and be involved – whether through community gardening, or after work groups devoted to books and TV. Adults are searching for activities to participate in, both new and unfamiliar, in an on-going effort to socialize, connect with their peers, and date.

The audience development conversation in museums has centered on advocating for a new contemporary adult audience — that of the Young Cosmopolitan, or YoCo, also referred to as the Young Adult, Grups, Grown Ups, or Contemporary audiences, among other names. YoCos are identified by their demographic qualifiers — They Comprise Gen X: adults born between 1967 and 1977, and Generation Y: adults born between 1978 and 1993 — but more importantly, by their psychographic traits. The argument made on behalf of this burgeoning audience is to not only invite them to the museum, but to engage them, with quality visit or experience. Today, adult evening programs pepper our cultural landscape but too many of these unfortunately follow a cookie cutter pattern. For most museums the adult evening formula of a DJ, bar, and film or some variation have become the norm, rather than the programming being personalized to the specific institution.

In another variation, social and cultural programming exists only at night and weekends, while the weekday museum experience remains unchanged. The positive side is the online growth of these programs, as museums expanded their social networking presence. Photographs, comments, and live streaming from programming are joining other, more participatory, online activities, such as wiki-style curating, or making collections images available for public mashups. Some have gone further, as Judith H. Dobrzynski identified, writing in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

“The ‘populist’ gospel for years, often translating that into exhibitions about guitars, hip-hop, or ‘Star Wars’ paraphernalia and live music nights with cocktails, DJs and dancing…Current thinking goes much deeper. Many young directors see museums as modern-day ‘town squares,’ social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps, for conversation or music or whatever. They believe that future museum-goers won’t be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it”

YoCos within museum culture have moved from the outside to the inside, and in doing so established an identity of importance. However, the dialogue needs to continue evolving, broadening the conversation on YoCos to a discussion of contemporary culture, and of contemporaries themselves. Moving away from demographics (segmentation based on gender, age, identity, etc.), towards psychographics (segmentation attributes relating to values, interests, attitudes, opinions or lifestyle), and in doing so, embracing today’s global, social, cultural audiences, and their uniquely digital lifestyles. A psychographic approach to audiences allows for the recognition of how adults today act, and interact, participate, exchange, shop, and consume. In a recent report, Wolf Brown refers to this as ‘life-long’:

“Many adults who are far from being professional artists conduct or sing in choirs, build furniture, weld, and quilt. In diverse arenas (e.g., writing for Wikipedia, the crowd-sourcing of solutions to technical challenges, the Van Cliburn competition for amateurs, and photo websites like Flickr and Shutterbug) there is strong evidence that there is much more creativity “out there” than we currently acknowledge or harness”

Digital identities, and psychographic interests, rather than personal characteristics and geographic locations, now define contemporary audiences. These days you are where your fill in the blank is (smart phone, laptop, game console, etc.). These contemporaries are likely to be participatory, aware, and involved. Additionally, they can be described as ‘Digitally Nomadic’ as they are mobile, technology-dependent, and continually shaping their online identities. For museums, the tasks of gathering home addresses may now become almost obsolete and soon email addresses as well, as technology and media/communication usage continues to change, and evolve. The new for museums will be a constant sense of exploration, experimentation, and adventure in gaming, social media, and communication exchange with the Nomads. The key for museums today will be institutionally adaptability and flexibility.

A vibrant online presence give museums the ability to engage audiences day and night, regardless of whether the museum is open or not. This could prove to be a winning lottery ticket for institutions looking for younger audiences. At the same time, museums need to have evaluative methods that take into account their online audience. The ability to move beyond traditional visiting hours, and success measured solely by attendance, to a formula that takes into consideration usage, and exchange, needs to become part of the new reality. In an article entitled The Anxiety of Age, Wolf Brown sites:

“A change in demographics that increases the target age market for the arts does not guarantee a corresponding increase in arts participation. To reverse the inexorable decline in arts participation requires a deep understanding of the root causes and the development of effective strategies to counteract them. To their credit, arts groups, with support from their funders, are experimenting with a variety of innovative audience development strategies, including adapting arts programming to attract younger audiences, segmenting arts offerings to appeal to varied attendee interests, participation through collaborative research and marketing initiatives among arts groups, and many others”

The challenge for many museums will become the balance between traditional museum activity and organization structure, and the social, cultural, and participatory demands from contemporaries. Exempting audience-based departments, museums are weighted toward the side of tradition. This imbalance puts museums out of step with their contemporaries. What is needed are new models from which museums can begin to work from. Within the museum community, several institutions have shown leadership in adapting and modernizing, in re-thinking the business-as-usual approach to visitors, programs, exhibitions, and economic sustainability. Looking outside the museum community, and drawing inspiration and learning from the business community, can also lead to new models of engagement, communication, participation, and usage. Working to address these questions acknowledges the necessary changes that must also occur within the museum community and within individual museums.

The existing museum structure is one in which individual departments provide support for the current project, in which curators create, the development departments fundraises, membership acquires new members, marketing and communications sell/promote, and education provides interpretation. Each department acts as a domino moving the direction of the exhibition or project. In this mode the visitor is last in line, and left outside the creative process.

As mentioned previously, this structure is inconsistent of how today’s visitors experience the museum. Adults today interact before they visit, by reading exhibition reviews on for instance; they interact during the visit with tweets and photograph posts; and after their visit—by posting pictures on Flickr or blogging. And that: if they visit the physical location at all. Museums must continue to progress apace the advances made by their visitors, and construct new models of engagement and activity for these audiences. Again, from Judith H. Dobrzynski, quoting Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center, “The biggest transformation is how we’re conceiving of social engagement with our audiences…we are working out the strategy for engaging in a much deeper way and a multiplicity of ways. It’s about breaking down boundaries.” The change Viso describes of the Walker Art Center is not what’s needed in museums today; it is what is required of them. Wolf Brown refers to this as ‘Active Participation:’

“If creative capital is not a luxury but rather is vital to personal and community well being, then the traditional emphasis on consumption (e.g. attending, viewing, appreciating, and listening to what the docents say) needs to give way to many more opportunities to produce and participate actively. The authorship, creation, and curation evident in new media are not just artifacts of new technologies, but expressions of a will to take part, engage, and leave a legacy”

An example is how businesses use social media to extend the company’s goals. In this scenario, online tools can help improve brand awareness, usage, and reputation, and immediately improve consumer trust. SmartBlog on Social Media, discusses Oliver Blanchard’s Buzz 2010 presentation, “Nonprofits need to calculate the return of investment of their social-media presence and use the money they’re bringing in or saving to accomplish those goals. Blanchard recommends nonprofits get around this by starting with their ultimate goal and planning backwards.” Exploring a business approach to audience development and engagement, along with rethinking communication and outreach will lead institutions forward. All departments of the museum are now in the customer services industry, joining their membership and front line staff in these efforts.

Understanding today’s contemporary audiences and their needs is simple, according to the Japanese American National Museum, “Younger audiences as a whole want to see their interests, experiences, and perspectives represented in the programming being represented.” Because programs like iTunes or iPhoto give users the ability to share, adapt, alter, construct, and curate, such models of engagement have become common and expected. Audiences need to perceive the museum as a flexible entity that allows the visitor to customize his or her visit. Different kinds of experiences for different people should be offered. Building brand awareness and loyalty, and hence attracting new audiences, depends on this perception. “External and internal perceptions is critical: how audiences perceive an institution can dramatically impact their desire to engage with the organization.” Here too, the connection between the business and museum model is identical. Ed Cambron, vice president of marketing and communications for The Philadelphia Orchestra writes:

“With audiences more fragmented than ever and having more options for both what they hear and where they hear it, a deep understanding of their real experience expectations is critical…Without ‘dumbing down’ one bit (in fact I’d call it ‘smarting up’)…By simply meeting them where they are on their own musical journeys, through intelligent packaging and clear communication, we believe that audiences, young and old, will become more engaged and attend more frequently”

Within our culture, several institutions are breaking new grounds with regards to visitors’ participation and engagement. In ‘Open Field,’ The Walker Center for the Arts has re-imagined their outdoor area, allowing artists and the public to turn once empty parks into an open arts space, in which picnics share equal footing with poetry readings. The Walker has gone as far to build a Tool Shed, in which it lends radios, blankets, playing cards, sketch pads, scissors, and even iPads. The Walker is not alone in their commitment to public engagement. The Dallas Museum of Art and The Bronx Museum have also invited their audiences into the curatorial, exhibition, and collection processes—changing not only temporary exhibitions and collection practices, but the role of the visitor within their institutions. And institutions such as the Japanese American National Museum have gone even further in both their experimentation, by co-curating programs with hip hop artist Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Giant Robot magazine. The Japanese American National Museum have documented and shared their progress in a white paper entitled The Cultural Museum 2.0: Engaging Diverse Audiences in America. These institutions are moving from survival mode, to driving mode and in doing so creating a living engagement strategy that translates from exhibitions to labels.

The economic climate has left museums and the cultural sector without sure footing. Financial uncertainty, a worsening economy, and long-term concerns of the museum community must be addressed by substantive change. Outside of the museum world, the for-profit community has adapted to the contemporary demands and changes of today’s adults. From marketing and communications efforts, to digital usage of communication exchanges, business has altered its approach to their audiences, and in doing so, evolved brand loyalty and usage. Likewise, audience participation has grown up. Contemporary adults have moved away from sitting and listening, or walking quietly and looking contemplatively at art and sculpture, to being active, loud, and visibly engaged, with interests and spending habits that are highly customized, personal, and extremely social. These changes have the potential to breathe new life into museums. As Carol Vogel writes in a 2009 article for The New York Times:

“Yoga classes and bicycle get-togethers may not be your typical museum fare, but in these rough economic times, anything goes…but lean times are bringing out a pioneering spirit as museum officials strive to develop creative strategies for what is undeniably a new world…More than before, institutions big and small have adopted the same mission: to transform once-hushed museums into vibrant cultural centers where the activities go far beyond what’s hanging on the walls”

Permission is no longer needed to experiment, and the movement to the online world no longer counts as a controversial topic for museum professionals. Museums today operate in a new digital, participatory age. For museums these changes require new thinking with regards to our audiences, collections, museum experience, and the basic role of the institution itself. As Carol Vogel writes, ‘once-hushed’ museums and galleries are now centers of social activity. It’s time to get used to it.

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

(prior Marketing Manager, Oakland Museum of California)

Notes | References | Bibliography

Chan, Seb. Social Collections, New Metrics, Maps and Other Australian Oddities: An Afternoon with Sebastian Chan. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. August, 2009

Dobrzynski, Judith H. 24 August 2010.No More ‘Cathedrals of Culture.’ The Wall Street Journal. <>

Flickr Commons.

Japanese American National Museum. The Cultural Museum 2.0: Engaging Diverse Audiences in America.

Kluger, Joe. Wolf Brown. No. 23. Published 2008. Sounding Board: Perspectives on Nonprofit Strategies From WolfBrown. The Anxiety of Age.

Rozan, Adam. 2006. Becoming Hip: Art Museums and Young Cosmopolitans. Harvard University.

SmartBlog On Social Media. 18 August 2010. Understanding Social Media ROI in the Nonprofit Space.


Time Out New York, Magazine. July 30 – August 5, 2009. Museums: The Actually Cool Guide. Issue 722.

Vogel, Carol. 19 March 2009. Wish You Were Here: Pushing for Innovative Ways to Attract Visitors and Connect With Audiences. New York Times: Museums Section.
Wallace Foundation. Engaging Audiences. Report On: The Wallace Foundation Arts Grantee Conference. Philadelphia, PA. 1 -3 April, 2009.

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