In the News: Who is Our Audience?

Amanda Shepard, Vice President & COO

A few weeks ago, several museum friends shared with me news of an incident at Newfields in which those tasked with finding the next director of its Indianapolis Museum of Art stated their intention to find a leader that would “attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.” Posted publicly on the search firm m/Oppenheim’s website, the job description quickly made the rounds of the internet and sparked outrage at not just the message, but the people responsible for it. Charles Venable, CEO of Newfields, resigned February 17.

Newfields is a destination in Indiana that is home to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, historically significant buildings, and more than 100 acres of lush gardens that, together, form a dynamic cultural experience. I’m fond of the place, and I say that as a lover of museums in general and a fan of places that engage multiple human interests. My relationship to Newfields is that of an admiring visitor who sees this place as one of Indiana’s treasures. Recent issues, however, have pulled back the curtain and introduced we oblivious outsiders to the most recent scandal, as well as accusations that Newfields is “masquerading as an amusement park.” What’s going on here?

First things first. The language of this part of the job description disgracefully positions the white racial group at the center of the IMA’s whole program. I still can’t believe my eyes when I read it. Diversity, as they describe it, appears to be the wrapping over their traditional, white core. Statistically, Indianapolis is 60% white, but that doesn’t mean that the museum should prioritize this group based on their piece of the demographics pie. Further, this almost surgical division of audiences implies that the museum assumes that members of such audiences will behave in a predictable manner and will prefer the art that reminds them of themselves.

A school tour enjoys some time in the sun, exploring the large, white abstract outdoor sculpture in front of the museum by David Black.
A school group at FWMoA interacts with Crossings, an abstract, geometric sculpture by David Black. Allowing them to explore the sculptures outside helps show younger audiences that museums aren’t just stuffy, intellectual institutions, but spaces for community gathering. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Except that this is not how most people behave, nor is it what they repeatedly tell us, at least at FWMoA, that they want to see in an art museum. Survey after survey shows that our community (about 67% white) wants to see diversity in art, both in the maker and the media. They want to know what their fellow Americans—of every kind—are dreaming up for us to learn from and delight in. For this reason, the FWMoA made it a strategic priority in 2011, and again in 2016, to diversify its collection.  In 2013, we bought 290 prints from the Serie Project, a printing press in Austin, Texas that promotes Latino/a artists, and we also bought 71 photographs from Michael July’s AFROS project. In the last 5 years 46% of the artists collected by FWMoA were women or people of color, and 43% of those acquisitions were purchases. In many cases, we acquired multiple works from a single artist, making these artists’ role in our collection more than just a placeholder. In exhibitions, 60% of the artists featured at FWMoA in 2019 were women or people of color, and in 2020 this figure was 50%. I don’t offer these figures to gloat, and this doesn’t mean that our work is done. I only mean to show that we don’t collect or exhibit based on a strict statistical analysis of the demographic makeup of our community or that of our visitors.

This is not to say that we haven’t identified the people who visit most frequently—it seems that the person who feels most at home at FWMoA (according to different data we collect) is a woman with a bachelor’s degree between the ages of 35-60. But if we put this person at the “core” of our audience, we would necessarily be positioning them as the most important visitor and then might cater to them based on a set of assumptions about how we expect them to behave. Most of our activities would be focused on what we think will make them happy, making our museum more consumer-driven than it should be. We would also be excluding others. A museum that focuses on their most frequent visitor will become a clubhouse rather than the living, breathing, mission-driven educational institution it professes to be. Museums identify the demographics of their visitors all the time, and it’s true that many decisions are made based on who engages with their museum. But other decisions must be made to help the not-so-frequent visitor give the place a shot and feel comfortable enough to enjoy themselves once they are there. The fatal mistake of the IMA in this case was advertising that it would continue to focus mostly on the people that already feel comfortable visiting, and only secondarily focusing on those who haven’t yet felt like there was a reason to step inside.

School children raise their hands and point out details in a school tour led by a FWMoA docent.
Students and chaperones, led by FWMoA Volunteer Docent Marlene, look at and discuss artworks on display at the museum. Schools tours expose young audiences to both art and the museum environment, fostering an early relationship that expands to their family and peer groups. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Understanding the demographics of your community is important, but it shouldn’t be the measure by which care and concern is shown to different groups of people. There’s also no reason to believe that focusing on attracting diverse audiences means that you’re shoving others out the door. Isn’t diversity all about encouraging different kinds of people to come together and appreciate each other as valued individuals? This reminds me of what thirteenth century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas had to say about love in the Summa Theologia: “To love is to will the good of the other.” Notice he didn’t say, “To love is to feel affection for those who are like us.” Love is a choice, an act of the will, and it must be shown to those who are different from us—even radically so.

While I won’t argue the importance of knowing who engages with your museum on a broad scale, the audience mindset might be overly used in our field and encourages us to make assumptions and decisions about groups as a whole, rather than seek to understand people as individuals. We tend to rely heavily on data that only show us certain identity markers (age, zip code, race, income, gender, education, etc.) but tell us little about the complexity of individuals in each group. And even for many museums, this information is difficult to gather without grilling your visitors, which flies in the face of the less consumer-oriented museum experience I’m advocating for. It would be impossible to know every person who engages with FWMoA individually, but it’s not out of the question to try to get to know many of these people as individuals by stopping downstairs to talk to visitors, listening to a brave second grader ask a question on a tour, and paying close attention when someone shares an opinion. When I do, I find that I’m not engaging an audience, I’m encountering a person who is entirely unique and wants to be valued as such. The FWMoA mission statement acknowledges the relationship between audiences and individuals, stating that we will engage broad and diverse audiences so that we can add value to their lives.

Our Curator of Prints & Drawings, Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, spends some time with an individual visitor in her space, the Print & Drawing Study Center. Together, they explore a print by Faith Ringgold.
FWMoA Curator of Prints & Drawings, Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, interacts with an individual visitor in the Print & Drawing Study Center. Together, they explore a print by Faith Ringgold. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

When we think of an audience, we think of a group that experiences a spectacle together, much like a sporting event or big pop concert. While both can exhibit artistry, the spectacle aligns with the ticket price and usually calls for a variety of expensive add-ons like beer and souvenirs. Museums that adopt these same strategies, by focusing heavily on ticketing and trying to “sell” the experience, betray their unique identity in the American cultural landscape and fall short of fulfilling the role that only they can fill for their communities. This is when museums start to create programming for generic “audiences”, rather than unique individuals, and those that pay to keep the experience afloat are looked upon with favor.

The IMA has been accused of doing just that, most recently by previous director Maxwell Anderson, who was there from 2011-2016. Anderson is the one who articulated the amusement park charge I mentioned, saying that the museum had simultaneously cheapened itself and shut out communities by charging $18 admission and then making well-intentioned but misguided moves like putting mini-golf courses in the sculpture terrace. In 2017, the organization rebranded itself as “Newfields: A Place for Nature and the Arts”, subordinating its most important component, the museum, under what appears to be the larger agenda of placemaking. It seems, too, that the organization was losing money and needed to pay back significant debt. Other supposed sins the IMA committed against the museum code include Winterlights, the very popular creative display of lights on the Newfields campus over the holidays for $25 per person. I hesitate to say that these moves are bad in themselves, because I love mini golf, Christmas lights, and things my whole family can do together. But I think the point is well made that these amenities are expensive distractions from the one thing that sets art museums apart from everything else: art.

School children are enthralled by Crystal Wagner's installation piece, which encouraged visitors to walk around, and, even through it!
Art can be an interactive, family experience in itself! This Crystal Wagner installation invited visitors to walk around and through it, completely encapsulating, and captivating, its audience! Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Defenders of the more commercialized museum model say that Americans are no longer interested in the unadulterated experience of looking at art objects and thus need another reason, like miniature golf, to go see them. They also say that there’s no reason why museums shouldn’t charge an admission fee, even a high one, because Americans regularly spend their cash on less high-minded things like sporting events or pop concerts. On the face of it, the argument makes some sense, but it is wrongly focusing on Americans as consumers and less as people. I’m not against museums charging admission, but they should take care to keep it as low as possible and not think of it as a profit-generating enterprise. At FWMoA, we’ve gone from free to $8 per adult in admission fees in 36 years, keeping one free evening each week and sponsoring free or reduced admission programs for military families and people with an EBT card, including free school tours to all students in Northeast Indiana. The fees we collect help us stay financially stable, but if we charged everyone what we spent on each visitor, we’d be charging at least $25 per person.

If museums were corporations, we would be stupid not to charge customers for the market value of our product. But we are not corporations. We are havens of wonder, learning, and inspiration through our cultural and artistic heritage. It is a shared heritage that must include everyone who has shaped our story and wants to learn from it. The places that capture this heritage have financial needs to meet, but the experience we have to offer is priceless and shouldn’t be packaged and sold like every other aspect of American life. Museums have the chance to be the great American refuge from consumerism, spectacle, and the noise of the world, much like our libraries. I have just as much fun as you do watching sports and buying things I don’t need, but my heart knows I need more than that, and I would bet that the rest of us know that, too. If we need it, our neighbor needs it, and the stranger needs it. This is who should be at the center of our efforts.


2 Replies to “In the News: Who is Our Audience?”

  1. What a thoughtful and insightful piece of writing about why we have art museums and provide access to them.

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