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Culture and Community in a Time of Crisis: Join a National Audience Research Collaboration

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

As museums navigate the coming months and plan for reopening, they find themselves both deluged with too much information and sorely lacking critical data to inform their decision-making. Your news feeds are probably flooded with stories about coronavirus, but where can we find reliable information about how COVID may change how we serve our audiences, and what our communities expect from their museums? In today’s guest post, Jen Benoit-Bryan, Vice President & Co-director of Slover Linett Audience Research, invites you to join a new research initiative that will help fill that gap.

–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums

We’re in an intense moment of adaptation in the cultural field as we fight for survival while also envisioning—and then immediately creating—new ways of serving our communities. Like others in the arts & culture sector, my colleagues and I at Slover Linett have been asking ourselves how we can help museums and arts organizations as well as our own communities during all this change. I’m a researcher to the core, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I believe that a shared, empirical picture of arts audiences and the wider American community will be one essential element of learning from this moment and shaping a collective response to the crisis.

We’re joining together on this initiative with our friends at LaPlaca Cohen to conduct a rapid but nuanced study of cultural audiences and the wider American public to help during and after COVID. Essentially, it’s an emergency edition of LaPlaca Cohen’s Culture Track research initiative, but with new questions built around the idea that relevance and resilience are two-way streets: What do people and communities need from their cultural organizations, and what can cultural organizations expect from their communities?

We believe that means asking people what they’re going through, how they’re spending their time, the role and relevance of arts and culture during the crisis, how their relationship with arts and culture may be changing, what they miss or long for in the lockdowns, and what kinds of arts and museum experiences would be most valuable to them when we can start to gather again.

Lead support for this work is being provided by the Wallace Foundation, with additional support from Art Bridges and FocusVision. And our work has already been made immeasurably stronger through collaboration with terrific researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago, Advisory Board for the Arts, Wilkening Consulting, and a core group of advisors including both practitioners and methodologists.

We plan to use both qualitative, humanistic methods and a large-scale quantitative survey to deeply explore the questions above. The survey will include a representative sample of the U.S. population and, separately, the audiences of cultural organizations of all sizes and kinds across the country. We’ve been honored and a little amazed to have heard already from more than 100 cultural organizations in 20+ states that want their audiences—visitors, ticket buyers, event attenders, subscribers, members, etc.—included in the study. And that was before we publicly announced the project!

That’s a huge collective start, but we need more representation and range. I invite you to consider joining this research study by volunteering to distribute our survey instrument to your visitors, members, and donors, so that they are included in our survey sample. We welcome all kinds of visitor-based organizations that are interested in participating, but we particularly hope to diversify the audience-list side of our sample to include the audiences of small cultural organizations, culturally specific museums, organizations that serve low-income communities of color, and other entities that are deeply embedded in their communities.

There is no cost to your organization to be part of this national collaboration, and you’ll be able to securely log in to view your own audience’s survey responses as well as the aggregate findings. If you’re interested in learning more, please visit this still-evolving FAQ page with more information and next steps for including your audiences in the survey (scroll down to bottom of the page). Please share with your local and national networks; we’re in this together.

I’m also eager to hear what you’re going through during the lockdowns, and how this research could help your organization or practice. What do you most urgently need to know about your audience or your community in order to make decisions, serve, plan, strategize, experiment, and recover? Email me to share your thoughts, priorities, and questions.

Jen Benoit-Bryan has overseen a portfolio of over fifty large-scale, complex research & evaluation engagements over the past five years at Slover Linett. From study design to meaning-making and strategic recommendations, she helps situate each project in the wider context of innovations in engagement and trends in cultural participation. Jen earned her Ph.D. in public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, focusing on nonprofit management and survey methodology. You can find her on Twitter @jenbenoitbryan @SloverLinett.


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