BUILDING A BIGGER ROOM
When I first came to the MAH, family experiences lived in one room: Family Art Day. Family Art Day was a monthly Saturday workshop. For a couple of hours, an artist would lead a project for a group of families. About twenty kids and adults would have a great time together in our little classroom. And then they would leave, staying away until the next Family Art Day.
Unsurprisingly, a whole lot of local families had no idea that Family Art Day existed. And because it was the MAH’s only offering that really engaged families, most families didn’t know the museum was there for them at all. As one mom said to me early in my tenure, “do they even allow kids in that museum?”
Early on, I made it a priority to welcome families into the MAH—not just for Family Art Day, but for lots of museum experiences. We added a hands-on art activity into our ongoing First Friday festivals. We started layering all-ages participatory activities into our exhibitions. And we launched a new festival series, Third Friday, that offered dozens of hands-on activities and community workshops.
None of these new activities were targeted explicitly to families, but each welcomed them to take part alongside adults without children. There were doors for families into these experiences. As time went on, we noticed something that surprised us: families stopped coming to Family Art Day. It got to the point where we would have hundreds of mixed-age families at the MAH on a Friday night, and then only a handful the following day for Family Art Day.
What was going on here? We had opened new doors into our exhibitions and Friday night festivals, and we found that families found more value in those intergenerational rooms than the rooms (and doors) made just for them. The intergenerational rooms offered something for everyone, not just for the kids. Rather than entering a narrow door into a focused art activity in which families made their own project, people preferred wide doors into varied festival environments. They preferred rooms with a range of activities, populated by diverse people and amenities (like a bar) not found at family-only events.
So we nixed Family Art Day. That started a process for us of “de-targeting” many of our programs, shifting from offering parallel programs for separate audiences to bridged programs that connect people across differences. The result is a bigger room, one that breaks down the power struggle between insiders and outsiders by inviting everyone in together.
I’ve always struggled with audience targeting. Marketers will tell you that you’ve got to target your message to specific communities. That if you are “for everyone,” you are actually for no one… or more realistically, for whatever pack of insiders connects with your false “everyone” brand. Better to identify your community, market to them, and then once they come inside, keep reinforcing and affirming that they are in the right place.
I understand how this works in retail—Apple people, PC people—but it seems antithetical to the public mandate that so many organizations strive to fulfill. How do you reconcile the desire to be inclusive with the practical imperative to target?
In the past, I’ve subscribed to the theory that an organization should target many different groups of people, offering distinct programs that connect to their different affinities, needs, and interests.
But that’s still targeting. It’s a way of splitting your room into many smaller rooms, some of which overlap, some of which stay separate. And while this “many rooms” approach can be effective when it comes to marketing, it’s limiting if your mission is to reach and engage with a wide range of people. It leads to parallel programming: bike night for hipsters, bee night for hippies, family art day for kiddies. And rarely the twain shall meet.
So we started addressing this challenge through a different lens: social bridging. One of our core programming goals is to build social capital by forging unexpected connections between diverse collaborators and audience members. We are eclectic matchmakers, intentionally developing events and exhibitions with unlikely partners—opera singers and ukulele players, Guggenheim fellows and amateur artists, history buffs and homeless adults. A typical project involves somewhere between 10 and 50 different partners. Our goal in doing this work is to bring people together across differences and build a more connected community.
We’ve seen powerful results–visitors from different backgrounds getting to know each other, volunteers from different generations working together, artists from distant disciplines creating new collaborative projects. Visitors now spontaneously volunteer that “meeting new people” and “being part of a bigger community” are two of the things they love most about the MAH experience.
Our diversifying audience’s interest in bridging gave us the courage to de-target audience-specific programs. This isn’t just a philosophical shift–it was also driven by visitors’ behavior. Families stopped showing up for Family Art Day but flocked to multi-generational cultural festivals. Teachers begged us for art and history tours instead of one or the other. Single-speaker lectures languished while lightning talks featuring teen photographers, PhD anthropologists, and street dancers were packed. Visitors eagerly walked through doors that welcomed them into rooms full of unexpected connections, eschewing doors that led to narrow, familiar experiences.
At our institution, programs that emphasize bringing diverse people together are now more popular than those that serve homogenous groups. My favorite thing to hear from long-time insiders is, “now I come to the museum and see people I wouldn’t meet anywhere else.” They are helping us build a bigger room.
And so, while we continue to acknowledge that specific communities have particular assets and needs, we spend more time thinking about how to connect them with each other than how to serve each on its own. We often start relationships with new communities in targeted ways, constructing doors and anterooms that speak directly to their interests and needs. But the goal is to bring everyone further into one big room, a room where we are all insiders—even if that means a jumble of eclectic furniture. We’re comfortable being deliberately unhip if it means that a seven year old, a seventeen year old, and a seventy year old all feel “at home” at the museum. We like to say that the museum is like a restaurant with a big menu. Everyone should find something to their taste. But they don’t have to love every item on the menu to enjoy the experience inside.