Alpine Institute’s 2018 #TheStateofRace Symposium

The Aspen Institute had their annual State of Race Symposium last week. Journalist Juan Williams moderated two panels: one about politics and a second about hate speech. As Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Comcast Corporation, David Cohen suggested in his opening remarks, the symposium aimed to ignite discussion about race in America today.

The Findings

While social media journalists, including myself, documented the remarks on Twitter, overall the remarks highlighted the tension in our nation. We are a nation formed through racial strife, and these roots crack the very firmament of our contemporary society. Discussants to various degrees discussed the current President in relation to white supremacy. Normalcy has been transformed with the white supremacy becoming a public norm, rather than an open secret. The acceptance/ visibility of white supremacy can be seen as a result of other transformations in society, namely stagnating job opportunities and the diversification of the knowledge production and the rise of social media.

The remarks of the symposium painted a picture of American Society in 2018 as a churning cultural clash between the youngest generation of voters and the oldest one. These two groups are drastically different, coming of age in oppositional eras. The oldest sector of our society is the baby boomers, born in a period of unprecedented prosperity. The youngest voters were raised in the greatest period of insecurity in nearly a century. While the oldest sector of society might have earned a lifestyle that they hope to maintain, the youngest voters do not even imagine or hope to live that way.

The response to this cultural tumult has been multifold, according to the Aspen Institute speakers. Older voters were fueled by fire to vote against diversity, globalism, and tolerance. A small sector of the population, say less than 2000 people, decided to generate an enormous about of hate online, according to the Twitter, diversity officer. Women came out to fix the government, standing up to run for office in unprecedented numbers. Asians are expressing their political rights and highlighting the heterogeneity of the community. People of color and marginalized people are fighting tooth and nail to get into the rooms that matter, in every arena, and some are succeeding. Overall, marginalized people are pushing  to make a change while the traditional seats of power are attempting to defend the status quo.

Extrapolating from the Symposium

Chuck Rocha, Strategist and President of Solidarity Strategies, pointed out an important divergence in media and knowledge consumption amongst the oldest and youngest voters. Older people still get their news by watching television. Older people use the platform to help determine the value of the speaker. The youngest voters are indiscriminate in their knowledge conduits but very discriminating in the sources. Young voters value the speaker, not the platform.

Rocha’s observation is huge for all knowledge producers (media, education, politicians alike.) Solely sharing that information over traditional channels will garner a small, aging, but important and wealthy, demographic.  Therefore, knowledge needs to be produced and disseminated in old ways AND new ones. Knowledge needs to be shared by valued “experts” as well as by influencers.

I was struck how America, as described by the presenters at #stateofrace, was very much in line with the comments from Culture Track describing the cultural habits of Americans. According to Culture Track, younger adults are brand-agnostic, experience seekers, looking for peer-nominated experts, unlike older adults who build relationships with institutions often based on perceived expertise.

In other words, be it government, politics, or culture, older people are more often tied to traditional institutions and reticent to/ ignorant of change. Younger adults offer fealty to few institutions, if not outright seeking the overturn of said institutions.

What does this mean for the State of Race and Culture?  

Race means something very different for older voters. These voters believed that they stamped out racism by holding protest signs in the 1960s and quoting MLK on their Facebook pages. These same voters understood that race is something to avoid discussing for fear of exposing the ugly truths that they feel. The oldest voters startle when they hear the phrase “white supremacist” but also feel uncomfortable saying the word “black.” The oldest voters were raised in an America of assimilation and as such do not have the skills to notice or handle their inherent bias.

The youngest voters see race, as well as gender for that matter, as a complicated spectrum. Diversity, inclusion, and access are familiar words, though the concepts are not always easy for them to put into action. Race is hard to discuss, not for lack of skills, but due to the disconnect between their understanding and the way race is expressed in conventional sources.

Understandings of race are so drastically divergent, and the oldest voters are maintaining control of many traditional sources. For example, the Alpine Institute State of Race symposium had no speaker that represented the youngest voters (likely no speaker under 35).

Conclusion

In reflecting on the symposium, I kept imagining two planets currently moving at different trajectories in fairly independent orbits, just at the moment before the collision. We are at that moment when the atmospheres and moons are crashing into each other, with the previous calmness being pierced by a shocking, surprising racket that is a harbinger of greater problems. In this scenario, both planets could be destroyed, one could survive, or both could survive (one as a subservient moon).

Similarly, the deep-seated differences in our culture between age groups, expressed in race and every other facet of society, might be undoing of us, bring our demise. Or, and ideally, we will find a completely different configuration of how we do things. Conversations like the State of Race symposium are the only way for our society to chart a successful course towards a better society and avoid catastrophic options.

Visitor-Centered means Object-Centered

 

Over the last few years, there have been some heated debates behind the scenes of museum education offices about the ways that visitors should be engaged. Many directors have changed the department moniker from education to learning or interpretation. This change could be seen as a transformation from older methodologies to more sophisticated forms of engagement. (I have my reservations, though that is for another time).

Underlying these changes are some incredibly important cultural transformations. While in the dawn of museums experts spoke at visitors who received ideas, now visitors expect a responsive connection. Museums, like all service fields, have started to develop materials for the visitor, rather than just hoping the visitor likes the materials that are being developed. This move towards visitor-centered museums has been met with some uncertainty.

The most common complaint, often launched by directors or curators, is that museums shouldn’t “dumb it down” as they will lose their core audience. This criticism has some validity. Museums have a core audience of donors and scholars who expect a certain level of language. However, there are some holes in the reasoning that dumbing things down is bad. Firstly, erudite language express simplistic ideas and complexity can be shown simply. Language is often used in museums to imply sophistication and divide people by reading level. This type of exclusionary language occurs as interpretation writers and curators are not able to step outside their own written norms. Their expertise and reading experience makes them poor judges of what is broadly understood. A very smart, Ph.D physicist might not understand un”dumbed down” labels on Tibetan esoteric iconography.  Another problem is that “dumbing it down” implies that starting at that intro level makes you dumb. Intelligence has nothing to do with information retention, and conflating the two is a dumb move. Finally, the core audience is often seen differently by various aspects of the museum. Curators often see their peers or their donors as the end-user of labels; these are the people they engage with most commonly. Educators and interpreters often imagine a generalist as the most common audience for the labels; these are the people they engage most often. Curators, educators, and interpreters are all right. Museums often have multiple core audiences.

To return to the graphic, the solution to the challenges of ensuring visitor-centered interpretation can be to go back to the object. Rather than placing the museum and the object on one side of a see-saw, think of the object as being in the center (the fulcrum). The ideal balance for any object is an interpretation plan that takes into account the museum’s needs and the visitor’s desire. The object is what keeps everything in balance.

So many arguments over interpretation focus on the level of the language or the tone of the program–they are ancillary to the object. Instead, try to start with the object–what is the central ideas that people should know and want to know about the object? Then think about the ways you will communicate these issues. Remember you have many tools. Some will be ideal for the most erudite and some will be ideal for the least (And, remember this isn’t dumbing down but instead introducing people.)

 

Guiding Questions to Think about Bias in Museums (by functional area)

At AAM 2018, there was a wonderful panel led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko about Decolonization. While all the speakers were wonderful, I was particularly struck by Jaclyn Roessel’s remarks about indigenizing museums as an act of transforming the current power structure. Overall, the conversation underscored the importance of systematic and cataclysmic change in transforming the colonialism inherent in museums. This process is one that requires work and the ceding of power to people outside the museum world. Cinnamon et al stressed the importance of collective action and community-organized change.

Walking out of that conversation, I was struck at how much time and energy is required of community groups when they help museums transform. How can museums ensure that they are meeting this sacrifice in good faith? Museum teams need to prepare themselves for tough conversations.

The first step is to find ways to subvert the natural human inclination towards defensiveness. Criticism of any kind can feel like an attack. But, in a society where race is a taboo topic, criticism can become debilitating. Learning to tamp down defensiveness, therefore, can be an incredibly important means of laying a foundation for growth. (Incidentally, Beyond Defensiveness, our book, and our online course can be useful tools to help on the path to dealing with bias).

Once you are personally positioned to be self-critical about bias, you need to examine your work. While each field has a slightly different manifestation of bias, overall, investigating inherent challenges requires thinking about who is missing and why. Making ideas explicit requires seeing what you have been missing, potentially for your whole career. Think of it as an intellectual optical illusion; once seen cannot be forgotten.

An Example

Take this example. Recently, New York writer Jerry Saltz posted a tweet about women artists.

The sentiment was important, as was the fact that it was said by an influencer.  Yet, the tweet had an important omission. The tweet never called out the reason that women were not taken seriously as artists. While this could be seen as simply an issue of “elegant” verbal framing, this was also a way that language hides the actual instigators of inequity.  Exposing such omissions are important as bias cannot be dealt with if it remains invisible.

How do you see the unseen?

The pernicious effects of colonialism and bias thrive on silence and denial. People need to be willing to look at every process with a critical eye. Every element of work needs to be investigated. Choice points need to be considered. Here is a great moment where data and visualizations can help draw conclusions. Data can help make concrete that which is hidden. For example, what percentage of works in an audiotour are of male artists or artists of color? What percentage of artworks have long-form labels? What is the demographic make-up of the audience? What is the demographic make-up of the photographs in the marketing? (Above is a graphic to offer some questions by functional area.)

Doing this type of hard work internally is essential before joining forces with community partners. Those partners have put themselves out to join you on your journey. Don’t they deserve a travel partners who is strong enough to make it down this long road?

6 Tips for Making the Most of a Conference #AAM2018

Conferences are a huge expenditure of time and money.  They are held in huge, impersonal buildings, peopled by hundreds and hundreds of unfamiliar people. The pressure to do conference right can feel overwhelming. But, first and foremost, there is no one “right” way do attending conferences.  You need to find a good balance between engaging with ideas, meeting people, and finding space for yourself. Each person has to find their own best way to handle conferences.  How do you find your own best way to handle conferences? Here are some tips to help you do that. (Follow the tips, and then notice what feels right).

Plan Ahead: Have some clear objectives in mind before you go. For example, think about a few big topics you know you want to think about. Search the program ahead of time for those topics, and pick a few for your calendar.

Be flexible: The best-laid plans are actually the ones with room to bend. Other than your few must-see talks, allow yourself chances to be swept up in the zeitgeist of the conference. You will hear people talking about talks; try a few of those.

Share: Be open with people and allow them to be open with you. Elevators, hallways, coffee lines are great chance to make a quick bit of connection with a colleague.

Document: Make sure to take notes, however, you naturally do. Twitter stream, hand-written, typed. Whatever you already do, keep doing that. You will be taking in a number of ideas, and you don’t want to be stressed about forgetting them. But, also keep your phone in hand. Sometimes it is easier to snap a shot of ppt slides than to take down notes. Also, remember, you won’t catch everything. Be okay with that. After all, you will be able to find plenty of notes on Twitter and SlideShare.

Relax: Conferences are exhausting. You are on all the time. Even the most extroverted person can feel tired. Find your own ways to get a little break. I always have a half-read book in my kindle app. Any time I need a little me time, it’s there in my phone.

Enjoy: Conferences are work, sure. But they are also a chance to be with scores of people with similar values and interests. Luxuriate in that.

 

 

The Cost of Museum Work

Consider these scenarios:

For the Museum: Most cities have few museums. Jobs often have low turn over. With the dearth of jobs, professionals don’t leave museum jobs lightly. The manager, confronted with an open position, sees the chance to (finally) make real change. They are looking across the field for the BEST person. The manager has their pick nationally. Rather than focus on investing in and promoting within, the manager can look for a new person.

For the Job Seeker: The job seeker, on the other hand, knows that they will need to seek nationally because the options are small in your own town. You will likely need to leave home if you want to get a higher position.  The chance of internal promotion is low. Moving is a requirement for promotion.

Being a Museum Professional

Museum professionals invest huge amounts of money into their education. Unlike other professional fields, only a fraction of museum professionals will earn high-level salaries.  Going into the field is a huge gamble.

  • Success is hard to quantify: People go in and work hard. But, hard work is not enough to ensure success. In some fields, hard work is easily connected to success. Accountants who can churn out tax returns like machines are seen as more successful.
  • Success is subjective: Museums want to be able to bring in more visitors for less money while being the most academically rigorous (and ideally garnering an article in the Times), basically the Holy Grail. The path to this endpoint, however, is complicated, confusing, and subjective. Despite the many meetings where a colleague suggests they have the “right” answer to accomplish the grail, there is no single path to improving museums. There are good answers, better answers, and terrible answers–but there are no perfect answers. Museum professionals often feel like they are being measured against this idea of perfection that doesn’t exist.
  • Success doesn’t mean profit: Museum professionals might impact millions of visitors over their lifetime. Their pay for this service is usually good vibes, and potentially professional street cred, but rarely money.
  • Success often means placing the field ahead of family: In order to move into a higher pay grade, most professionals need to move. There are financial costs in moving, often not included in the hiring package. While moving can increase your earning potential, you need to have the stability financially to do that. (See graphic). There are many hidden “costs” to moving. You need to uproot your family. You need to be willing to live away from your family. You have to be willing and able to travel to see family.

The Effect on the Field

The Museum Hiring Culture:

  • Develops a Split with Local Audiences: People who move to work can either grow bonds with their or feel disconnected/superior to their new community. Many museum professionals remain siloed in their work, surrounded by transplants such as themselves. Therefore, they might find themselves supported by people who are not connected to the community. Their work can be affected by an innate superiority about the local community.  This individual attitude becomes infused into the work the museum produces.
  • Promotes bad management: Museums are small networks, so a truly terrible person will never be able to escape their mistakes. But, average bad managers and self-obsessed jerks profit from a culture that eschews internal promotion. In the first couple years of work, most professionals are given some latitude for their failures. About three years in, their colleagues start to judge them. This is the point at which they can improve or leave. Instead of promoting a culture of self-improvement, the hiring culture effectively promotes people leaving (for more money) before improving.
  • Depletes the Field: People might not be willing to move for promotions, and live in small markets, without the availability of local options. People might feel exhausted by the workload requirements. People might not be able to afford to do museum work, as the remuneration is often not a living wage.
  • Prevents Diversity:
    • Museum professionals without families are therefore more likely to be willing to move for a job (though their transitions are not without the stresses of developing new roots.)  Managers then are often people without local roots and without children. They don’t understand the personal obligations of staff, demanding long evening and weekend hours. Therefore, the field unfairly supports those who are willing to put their job ahead of their family. (Remember diversity is not about race, and professionals with families is a form of diversity).
    • The cost of moving means that people who have a greater buffer from families are more likely willing to move. The net result is that executive positions are more likely filled with those from higher economic classes.

Making Change that Matters: Moving Beyond “Diversity” Projects Towards Systemic Change

 

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity can be implemented in a workplace in different ways.

Additive: One is additive, by adding new people and programs in the workplace. In this way, the organization hopes to infuse their existing world with new voices, as like adding spice to a bland meal. This approach has strengths, in that there is more variety being adding to the workplace. But, it puts an unnecessary onus on the marginalized people and programs being added to the institution to “fix” systemic problems.

Subtractive: Many organizations perceive a subtractive approach is more efficacious. For example, when positions come open, they purposeful hire a marginalized person (perhaps also proudly toutly their accomplishment). Unlike the additive method, this approach works under the operating auspices of the organization, i.e. not adding new positions or projects that could be cut eventually. Yet, this approach effectively creates some of the same problems as the additive approach. The marginalized person is still being asked to be the actor of transformation.

Systemic: Diversity and equity initiatives are basically about transforming culture. This requires understanding the many ways that the culture supports inequity and prejudice. Many of these issues are hiding in plain sight, interwoven into all the practices of the institution. Every element of the work of the institution could be imbued with problems. For diversity and inclusion initiatives to truly take hold, the institution needs to examine their practices. Here is where a consultant, or outside voice, can be essential. Just as people are often blind to their own faults, organizations often ignore the largest roadblocks to true diversity.

Systemic change, however, requires a commitment to being honest, thoughtful, and responsive. Unlike the additive and subtractive ways to implement diversity, systemic change is a process-based towards transformation. Processes take time and coordination between people, and ideally, non-hierarchical knowledge-sharing.  Seen broadly, systemic change requires a number of steps:

  1. Grow your team’s ideas and knowledge-base. Organizations, whatever the field, are often siloed knowledge networks. Fields bring people with similar training together, and then they generally partake in similar types of professional development. Change is about fostering difference. So, the staff needs to be able to understand and embrace difference.
  2. Examine the practices of the organization and attempt to understand facets that support or mask bias. This process will be slow and iterative.
  3. Rework those elements in a collaborative manner. This type of change needs to blend many (diverse) voices. They need to be diverse in all sort of ways (age, gender, education) in order to create a process that can handle diverse challenges.
  4. Iterate your new processes. Try out new processes, and then circle back with your teams to see how to improve them. Make sure everyone understands that processes need to grow and adapt so that they are willing to share feedback.

 

 

Reframing Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are now common words in organizational management. Before considering the actual practices, it might be useful to consider the meaning of each of the words.

Diversity:
: Diversity means variations. Genetic diversity, for example, in the human population creates a huge range of hair colors.

Sadly, diversity has become a coded word. Many people feel uncomfortable or defensive about talking about marginalized people. They use the phrase diversity to mean “adding X marginalized person or project.” When they say we need to increase diversity, they might mean that they need to add more people of color. In this way, many people are using diversity incorrectly. They don’t mean diversity in the sense of broad variation. Instead, they are unable to think beyond their narrow definitions of diversity. They see diversity too simply, this person for that person. But, diversity, actually means more of all kinds of people.


Inclusion is another word that is misused. Inclusion is much bigger than the word implies. On its surface, inclusion can seem simple. Including friends into your home can just be about giving them a call. But, in the organizational sense, you are not working with friends. You are working in a stratrified society. Inclusion are the transformational practices set forth to be able to make a diverse group of people feel included.


Community is another coded word that comes into play with diversity and inclusion initiatives. Community is a challenging word in a different way than diversity and inclusion. Community can be used differently by different people depending on where they stand in society. For example, a marginalized person might be using the term to mean their in-group of marginalized people. They are using the word to denote their shared culture, in other words, their community. However, when an organization uses that word, community should not be used to mask an inherent discomfort with naming a specific marginalized community. For example, many organizations have “community engagement” endeavors. These endeavors are aimed at low-wealth, minority patrons. However, rather than directly stating these points, the organization hides behind the term “community.”

This type of linguistic simplification and obfuscation can seem innocuous. However, they are often like canaries, signaling a work culture that is dangerously unable to truly implement diversity and inclusion work.  On Thursday, we will talk about the ways to do diversity and inclusion work well.

A Museum Professional’s Oath for Better Visitor Interactions

 

Museums serve visitors, both on-site and off. Connecting with others is a grave responsibility, a relationship that can change people and organizations. Funders love engagement, like education and community engagement. Museums seek funding for programs that connect them to others, often raising millions for operating support. This work is essential, basically making the museums’ missions manifest. But, there are times when museums need to make good choices.

In my career, I have learned the hard way that funding and allocations are tinged with ethical considerations. For example, the museum professional is asking for support to staff a project that will help thousands of people for a certain term. As an organization, you are putting off making a decision. After the term, you will need to decide how Peter will be robbed to keep Paul working. Non-profits, like museums, can feel like a daily shell game. And, instead of playing for nickels, you are playing for people’s minds. Museum work is not frivolous–it is for the benefit of every person who connects with the institution.

These millions of people deserve to know that they are being treated in the most ethical manner.  Museums often preference pragmatism to stark ethics. You make choices about allocations, pushing pennies to one project to support a team-member effectively robbing another audience. You hope to do it right, but sometimes the fog obscures the true north.

But, there is a simple goal, a cardinal direction of museum work. That our institutions should place collections, knowledge, and people in the forefront of their concerns. Everything we do needs to support these three goals equally. We as institutions have collections and knowledge down, but the visitors are often given short-shrift.  But, people deserve some essential ethical considerations. Just as doctors take an  to cause no harm, museum professionals have an ethical challenge to center their visitors:

Oath of Ethics in Museum W0rk

As a museum professional, I hereby promise that:

1.I will do no harm to the people we are hoping to serve.

2.I will not make assumptions about our patrons. We will ask them.

3.I will not just drop people when grant periods end.

4.I will treat all patrons like people.

5.I will not assume skin color defines interests, actions, or motivations.

6.I will not assume skin color connects people.

7.I will respect everyone, including ourselves. We will act in ways that feel respectful.

8.I will speak kindly, thoughtfully, and considerately. And, I will learn how to speak this way.

9.I will focus on people.

 

 

What is Community Engagement?

Capital, Collections, Cultural Capital and Infrastructure are what museums can offer.
Facets of Community Engagement

Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

Not too long ago, I was thinking about the possible types of experiences that could be part of community engagement (see my handwritten notes above)  Often organizations focus on how they can bring people in their doors, usually with programs.

Yet, a rounded community engagement program should strategically consider the myriad facets of interaction. Museums have collections as well as space, money, soft power.  People’s draw to the museum might not be the collection, at least at first. This is a controversial thought, I realize.  Community engagement, however, needs to be about inviting people into the museum community rather than demanding people use the museum the “right way”.

A huge portion of community engagement should be about sharing. Museums have many resources they can share beyond their programs. Also, there are times when what they have to offer is space, both physical and emotional.  A well-rounded community engagement portfolio should balance multiple elements of the facets of community engagement, ideally developed iteratively and collaboratively with patrons.

Thinking about Value: Universal Rights of Humanity & Free Arts/ Culture

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 explicitly calls out the importance of arts and culture. Article 27 states “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This estimable document includes a number of essential rights, like the right to life and work. Amongst those foundational needs, everyone has the right to knowledge and culture.

Costs

The importance of intellectual and cultural pursuits might be seen as a right by the United Nations but are often unfunded mandates in many countries. In the US,  arts and culture funding generally combines private and public funding like a complicated crazy-quilt. A patron at a library, theater, and/ or museum would be hard-pressed to perceive the sources of money that keep the lights on and the culture coming.  Arts and culture seem to just be there.

The opacity of funding can be a sincere challenge in building ownership in patrons as well as maintain sustainability. Patrons need to understand costs if they are being asked to help pitch in. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a useful model of articulating the actual cost of services. During funding drives, most stations delineate the costs and then remind listeners of their responsibility to pay for what could be free. Breaking down costs concretizes services that otherwise seem ephemeral.

Museums and arts organizations, like NPR, are often available on the user’s timeline. Rather than a theater performance, you can go to the museum during open hours.  You might choose to spend the full day in the galleries or walk out in ten minutes. At the symphony, you would be ejected by polite red-coated volunteers if you tried to stay the day and judged, equally politely, if you walked out in ten minutes.  While this self-determined timeline can be positive for visitors, it can also have ramifications for the perception of value. One museum professional shared that they felt that, “People see us as the friend who is always there for you when you don’t have plans, and this is also the friend that you don’t really pay attention to.”

Visitors often do not understand the true costs of running arts or cultural organizations. Museums and arts organizations support their funding mostly through large donors, who basically subsidize the low-cost or free entrance. So, the visitors are merrily ignorant of the hard work the development staff engages in daily. They see the benefits of this labor as a given.  Alternately, many performing arts organizations have a different model. Patrons pay fees for tickets. These fees do not completely cover the operating costs. But, patrons understand that there is a cost associated that that cultural experience.  The distributed funding model in performing arts exposes the funding needs to a broader sector of their community.

Patrons will not innately understand costs. The onus is on the organizations to make this clear to their broad audience. Many of the costs of this work are different than the costs in other fields. Most office buildings have framed posters on the wall. Not all visitors will understand why the cost of framing and hanging an artwork on a museum wall is exponentially higher. An arts-professional shared the importance of expressing funding needs…”CHRISTINA”

 

Value

Value has a complicated relationship with cost. For example, if the value is seen to be less than the cost, the patron will likely be deterred or disgruntled. If the value is perceived to be more than the cost, the person will be thrilled to make the payment.  But value is not just about getting a steal.  Value can grow over time. Repeated contact can be necessary to really appreciate some costs. Gym membership, for example, is a cost that you might need a few months to truly appreciate.

Arts and culture also have a perception problem. These pursuits are seen as being appreciated by a rarified audience. Certain skills are seen as necessary to “get it.” They have to be “your thing.”  And, if they aren’t your thing, you won’t find enjoyment. A recent British study articulated this issue:

Onboarding is, therefore, a major problem for the field. Entry programs, often through schools, can help people gain an appreciation of arts and culture. However, if these programs are not valued in their family, students often do not grow to value arts and culture in the long term. Families often preference other leisure pursuits, even if those have costs, unlike the free arts and culture. All is not lost, of course. Arts and culture appreciation can grow in young adulthood, often through friends. However, young adulthood is a time of high student loans and low disposable income. So, young adults might not experience arts and culture enough to build a sustained habit.

Free programs, therefore, can be a way to build broad audiences. As one cultural professional said “[without free programs], I think our audience would be even more middle-aged and middle-class than it is, and I don’t know that it would have the chance to diversify, both in those terms and in others.” Free programs are the easiest way to break down a tangible access barrier. Free allows anyone and everyone to enjoy the benefits of arts and culture.

Arts and culture are also often best enjoyed collectively. A live reading of a poetry is different than listening to an audiobook at home. Live theater allows patrons to connect not only to the story but also to the energy of being in a room full of like-minded individuals. When a social group goes to an exhibition, they can learn and explore together. Arts and culture are also cost-effective when experienced collectively. The cost of mounting an opera is exorbitant, and so sharing those costs are the only way that such experiences can exist. Real Rembrandts, and frankly many fake Rembrandts, are too costly for most people to own. Most people’s chance to experience high-quality art is in art museums.  As, the power of experiencing arts and culture, though, is not universally obvious, free opportunities allow people to tap into these experiences of collective learning with authentic arts and culture.

Free also has a number of problems, however. As mentioned above, free means costs must be raised in other ways. Also, as mentioned above, free means people do not understand the true costs, and so they cannot determine the true value. Therefore, for some organizations free becomes a different type of barrier. As a professional at a free museum shared, “People just assume that they can come when they want, and so they never come and go to the things that they pay for. No one wants to lose money.”

Value and cost, therefore, have a convoluted relationship. These organizations are seen as exclusive.  Charged fees support the perception of exclusion. The real costs of running these types of organizations are often invisible to users. However, most people do not place enough value on these resources to pay even a portion of the cost. After all, even when available free, these arts and culture amenities are often eschewed for costlier options. When free programs are valued, patrons grow a deep appreciation and donate funds.

Conclusion

The rights to art and culture are one that is not universally appreciated. There is no single way to run arts and culture nonprofits to help patrons understand their value. Broad social appreciation of these fields is required to sustain audiences. Costs can be an access barrier, certainly, however, fees can also signal value to patrons. Availability can be a way to grow engagement or a means of building engagement.

However, the salient issue here is about perceived value. In order to maintain the arts and cultural sector, writ large, the social value has to be clear to potential patrons.  These programs have to appeal to patrons (rather than organizations). In other words, the arts and cultural sector cannot expect to draw new patrons (or even existing patrons) by maintaining the status quo. They need to find better ways to express their value to their local community while also working nationally as advocates.