Where do you find pioneers? Often (as was always true) in the West. California is one of four states (plus the District of Columbia) already living the majority-minority future facing the rest of the country. And because California has more than its share of high-performing, innovative museums, we can look to the West Coast for lessons on how to surf the waves of demographic transformation and meet the needs of our next generation audiences.
First up on the recommended reading list: The Cultural Museum 2.0: Engaging Diverse Audiences. This report, prepared by The Japanese American National Museum with support from the James Irvine Foundation, explores how a culturally specific arts organization can adapt to changing demographics. Now, you may be thinking “my museum isn’t culturally specific, so this doesn’t apply to us.” But in a majority minority future, will many museums that are mainstream now be seen as culturally specific to the Caucasian minority? Think about it.
In any case, the essential questions addressed in the report, while focused on JANM, are of interest to all museums:
- To what extent is visitor experience influenced by cultural or ethnic-self identification?
- What is the relevance of the Museum to younger, multi-ethnic audiences?
- How can the Museum engage new audiences while sustaining and satisfying its current constituency?
- What impact does engaging these audiences have on the ability of the Museum to sustain itself in the future?
Some of the research findings that were eye openers for the Museum’s staff are probably not that different from what many museums would find when asking the community about their organizations:
- many potential visitors were not aware of what JANM was already doing
- a number of Japanese Americans viewed the Museum as “aloof.” (Staff concluded this may have been an unintended side-effect of promoting the museum as “world-class” in its marketing, creating a perception that it had strayed from its community-based roots.)
- JANM’s key competitors for leisure time were typical every-day activities like going to movies or a restaurant or hanging out with friends
- People wanted to be able to interact with the exhibitions, not just look at them and
- wanted exhibits to be relevant to them today, not just about the past
- allowing visitors to take photos in the galleries using their cell phones and digital cameras (resulting in unprecedented exposure for their “Giant Robot Biennale.”)
- providing more shopping and eating activities (including encouraging L.A.’s famous Korean barbeque taco truck to park outside on JANM’s free Thursday evenings.)
- creating a program model that enables staff to create topical exhibits with a quick turn-around time and less money