Wallace Excellence Awards provide support to exemplary arts organizations in selected cities to identify, develop and share effective ideas and practices to reach more people. Eleven arts organizations with budgets over $1 million received these four-year grants. Findings from their projects are reported here.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) opened its new doors in June 2008 armed with a Wallace Excellence Grant to broaden and deepen our family audience. By investing in content, responding to the needs of our audience, and remaining committed to the belief of exposing families to art, the CJM has garnered a reputation for engaging and serving family audiences well. But, how did we find the nuanced balance of outreach and programming that works?
One of first successes can be attributed to family-friendly curatorial decisions. The CJM has presented a number of exhibitions featuring prominently known children books illustrators including William Steig, Maurice Sendak, Maira Kalman, and Margaret and H. A. Rey. The ability to reach across perceived barriers to entry with familiar children’s stories such as Where the Wild Things Are and the Curious George series made our job that much easier. From this experience, the Museum now plans to continue showcasing family friendly exhibitions.
Second: Timing and Freedom. We listened to parent requests and responded accordingly – particularly with Preschool Gallery Hour (PGH)—one of our signature programs. On select Sundays throughout the year, the Museum opens early—exclusively for preschoolers and their families. These early hours allow parents to engage actively with their children in a museum setting without cutting into mid-day nap-time and without fear of disturbing other patrons. Originally the museum opened one hour early for PGH. But with more than 500 parents and children regularly attending, the museum now opens two hours early.
As the CJM moved further along in its grant period, we got tougher on ourselves to crack the tougher nut—the goal of broadening our audience, one of the hardest needles to move in the world of museums. Yet, studies have shown that children who visit museums with their parents and caregivers are much more likely to become art connoisseurs in their adult life then those who didn’t have this experience. Could our institution help find the strategy to include those family audiences who were less likely to visit–and help affect the long-term diversity in our halls even on days that didn’t have the marketing and entertainment of the successful and well funded Target Community Days?
To be fair, as Professor and educator John H. Falk argues, “Museum-going is far too complex…to be understood on the basis of easily measured, concrete variables such as demographics….”
In his prolific writing, Falk offers a identity driven motivational breakdown of visitor ship and I fully agree. We (art institutions) aren’t learning to reach our audience better through studying demographics. Could we better utilize our understanding of visitor motivations to diversify our audiences?
From this position, we were able to provide a number of course corrections resulting in our School Family Partnership Program which has three touchstones of engagement reaching:
1. Students and teachers through customized multi-session school and museum visits
2. Parents through a “Parenting and the Arts Learning Night”
3. Families through individual school “Family Days” at the CJM
This program shares tricks and tools with parents for family Museum engagement, builds comfort with visiting a museum, and contains opportunities for community building. Our hope is that the ”new to museum visit families” will find meaning, value, and entertainment in their CJM connection; that their own motivations for Museum engagement will surface; and that they will continue to find fulfillment from the CJM and other museum exhibitions and program offerings.
Wallace invested in audience engagement and the rigorous study of the methods, practices, and course corrections that we employ to reach our audiences. This unique grant approach has deeply connected our city’s arts institutions and promises to lead to many shared lessons learned. I look forward to the continued conversation.
Fraidy Aber is the Director of Education at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.