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A Time of Transformation

Category: Museum Magazine
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A special edition of the Culture Track research initiative provides an update on how audiences are doing now.


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


*CORRECTION FROM THE EDITORS REGARDING

“A Time of Transformation” by Arthur Cohen in the March/April issue of Museum, (print version p. 16-21)

The original article stated:

“What can we conclude from the findings of the Wave 2 Culture Track survey? Audiences are still hurting and are looking to cultural organizations to help them feel better and connect them to one another. Given this, cultural institutions may be entering a new phase of identity that we call the “empathetic museum,” which is characterized as a place of respite, comfort, and connection. The welcome extended to all groups is at the core of this construct; inclusion and authentic community representation and participation are essential components for the empathetic museum to foster meaningful connections.”

The author’s reference to the “empathetic museum” and a lack of corresponding citations suggests the term is original to the author of this article. This was not the author’s intent, and we recognize and apologize for AAM’s oversight in the editing process. The Empathetic Museum with its downloadable Maturity Model was established and has been in practice since 2013. The model is widely known and used in the field.

The editors and author submit this rewritten text in consultation with The Empathetic Museum:

“What can we conclude from the findings of the Wave 2 Culture Track survey? Audiences are still hurting and are looking to cultural organizations to help them feel better and connect them to one another. Given this, cultural institutions may be employing new techniques and models of practice to become more empathetic, characterized by respite, comfort, and connection. The welcome extended to all groups is at the core of this practice; inclusion and authentic community representation and participation are essential components for a museum or other cultural organization to foster meaningful connections. An example of this approach can be found in the Maturity Model and accompanying resources of the Empathetic Museum.”


 

After the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown in 2020, LaPlaca Cohen, in partnership with Slover Linett Audience Research, embarked on Wave 1 of our special edition of Culture Track, Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis, to provide a nationwide research tool to help the cultural sector navigate this unprecedented health crisis. Soon after this wave of the study was fielded, from April 29 to May 19, 2020, the country experienced the murder of George Floyd; a quarantine period unlike anything experienced in the modern era; the ultimate development and distribution (and politicization) of vaccines; and gradual, unsteady reentry into public life.

In response to these huge shifts in physical and emotional context, we—along with Slover Linett and Yancey Consulting—fielded an updated and expanded second survey, Culture + Community in a Time of Transformation, about a year later, from April 5–30, 2021. A team of enlightened funders and supporters—including the Wallace Foundation, Knight Foundation, Barr Foundation, Art Bridges, William Penn Foundation, Terra Foundation, Aroha Philanthropies, and the Institute of Museums and Library Services—came together, along with an advisory group of industry experts, to support this in-depth assessment of the “hearts and minds” of audiences around the United States.

What we learned, highlighted in the following overview, was not necessarily what we expected yet provides a robust foundation for the development of audience-focused strategies and programming for the months and years ahead as museums embark on a post-COVID reality.

Who Participated?

Building upon and refining our experience in the Wave 1 survey, for Wave 2 we invited cultural organizations of all types and sizes throughout the US to distribute the survey to their mailing lists of members, subscribers, ticket buyers, and others, and 532 organizations participated. Of these, 192 were museums and collections. We also worked with NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel to add 3,600 respondents who were representative of the broad demographic diversity of the US population but not necessarily arts participants. And we partnered with an equity consultant and invited the participation of culturally specific organizations serving communities that might otherwise be underrepresented in cultural lists.

Finally, we made the survey available in 10 languages. Nearly 78,000 people responded to Wave 2, ensuring a wide range of demographic, racial, educational, and geographic representation.

How Are We Doing?

Social isolation. Political divide. Economic uncertainty. Environmental crisis. Racial and social reckoning. On top of a public health emergency of unimaginable scope and duration, these challenges facing US audiences—many of which continue to this day—created feelings of anxiety and instability that manifested themselves throughout the responses to our 2021 survey, even after some isolation restrictions had lifted and vaccines became widely available to some groups.

Three out of every 10 people surveyed reported a reduction in income, and almost half reported that they themselves, a family member, or close friend had been sick due to COVID-19, more than a three-fold increase from the previous year. Further, income recovery was unevenly distributed across the racial and ethnic divide: while only 24 percent of white respondents reported a continued loss in income in Wave 2, the numbers were much more troubling for some people of color: 36 percent of self-identified Black/African Americans, 39 percent of Hispanic/Latinx, and 45 percent of Native Americans continued to report lost income due to COVID-19 in Wave 2.

Just as disconcerting was the continued emotional toll evident across the audiences we surveyed. In 2021, a greater percentage of people told us they felt “more disconnected” than they had the previous year (60 percent in Wave 2 versus 44 percent in Wave 1). We also encountered a significant increase in those who said they were feeling “more sad or depressed” (41 percent in Wave 2 versus 29 percent in Wave 1). Feelings of boredom, anger, and fear/worry persisted essentially unabated. Overall, the US public revealed itself to be in a state of continued, and often greater, distress despite improved health and social conditions from 2020 to 2021.

Given these feelings and fears, what did respondents tell us they were missing most from their daily lives that could help them recover and feel better? Topping the list of “things I want more of in my life right now” was “fun” (54 percent overall), which we interpret simply as positive, enjoyable, and uplifting experiences that offer a sense of relief from the worries of daily life. Among the other top responses were “calm,” “adventure,” “connection with others,” and “humor.” While some of these desires may seem incongruous (e.g., calm and adventure), they are unified by the promise of escape, ability to refocus, and potential to reengage.

The New Hybrid Reality

After spending the previous year using digital resources as a primary form of contact and connection with the world, society has experienced a “fast-forwarding” of technological reliance and adaptation. How will this recently increased digital dependency fare as audiences can once again choose between analog and digital engagement and in-person activity more fully resumes?

Our study revealed that while the majority of respondents expect to prefer in-person to online cultural activities when they are able to engage in person again, 1 in 10 people expect to “almost always or usually prefer” online activities. And a sizable portion—approximately one quarter of those surveyed—are “agnostic,” meaning they either “will make decisions based on content” or “prefer online and in-person activities about equally.” This represents a significant and growing proportion of museum audiences who will look to your organization to provide more and better digital experiences in the future.

What are the desired characteristics of these digital experiences? Our study identifies three types of access that museum audiences are looking for in online cultural experiences.

  • Free access: over two-thirds of respondents believe that it is important that digital activities are free.
  • Global access: 62 percent feel it is important that digital resources provide access to organizations or artists located in other places.
  • Social access: 45 percent believe it is important that online activities provide a social component to connect people to other participants.

Increased or enhanced access, defined in both literal/physical and social/inclusionary terms, was one of the resounding themes in respondents’ interest and enthusiasm for digital resources. Among the comments shared in the survey were the following:

“Online has greatly improved, and I get a sense of community through art classes.”

“Online activities make me feel safe, and more importantly, there is no other discrimination and criticism.”

“Having online content during the pandemic has been amazing because I’ve been able to attend events regardless of how ill I’m feeling, and it’s been very easy to adapt my environment and physical positioning to allow me to enjoy with less pain/distraction/discomfort.”

When asked what benefit was derived from these online experiences, the most cited responses included “fun,” “learn something new,” “relaxation,” and “connection with others.” The most popular online activities were fairly evenly split across “artist livestream events,” “podcasts,” “online classes or workshops,” “pre-recorded performances,” and “livestream performances.”

Notably, the providers that respondents looked to for this content shifted over time, migrating away from museums (19 percent in Wave 2 versus 27 percent in Wave 1) and toward individual artists and performers (42 percent in Wave 2 versus 38 percent in Wave 1) and performing arts organizations (17 percent in Wave 2 versus 7 percent in Wave 1). These findings align with anecdotal accounts of a greater degree of digital innovation emanating from artists, performers, and performing arts organizations (compared to visual arts organizations) throughout the pandemic.

Recovery and Transformation

While Americans overall, and art museum respondents in particular, believe that arts and cultural organizations are important in their lives, they also want such organizations to grow and improve. The vast majority of respondents (89 percent) cited at least one way in which they hope arts organizations will change to be more relevant to more people. The change they want to see most focused on four key areas:

Access = providing affordable entry, less formality

Equity = treating employees fairly and bringing in a variety of (new) perspectives

Belonging = being more connected with, and welcoming to, all types of people

Community rootedness = supporting local artists and organizations; working with local nonprofits

Finally, audiences today strongly believe that arts and cultural organizations have a key role to play in addressing social inequities. Three-quarters identified one or more social issues they feel arts organizations need to address, with “systemic racial injustice” the most cited issue.

Perhaps most revealing were the different perceptions of systemic racism across art and cultural categories based on self-identified racial or ethnic identity. For example, while only 23 percent of white/Caucasian respondents believe that systemic racism is present in art museums, more than 35 percent of Hispanic/Latinx, over 50 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 54 percent of Black/African Americans believe that systemic racism is present in art museums.

The implications of these findings are clear: to effectively address social inequities, cultural organizations must first ensure that a representative and inclusive range of voices are involved in identifying and framing the problem fairly. In the absence of such a representative group, be they board members, curators, or empowered frontline staff, many issues important to audiences may be overlooked or ignored because they do not impact the people in power who set the agenda. To put it more directly: how, and even if, you frame the problem depends on whom you ask to define it.

Where Are We Now?

What can we conclude from the findings of the Wave 2 Culture Track survey? Audiences are still hurting and are looking to cultural organizations to help them feel better and connect them to one another. Given this, cultural institutions may be employing new techniques and models of practice to become more empathetic, characterized by respite, comfort, and connection. The welcome extended to all groups is at the core of this practice; inclusion and authentic community representation and participation are essential components for a museum or other cultural organization to foster meaningful connections. An example of this approach can be found in the Maturity Model and accompanying resources of the Empathetic Museum.

This need for empathic inclusion in arts and cultural spaces is particularly pressing given the troubling gaps in perceptions of systemic racism across different races and ethnicities. The social divides our society is experiencing do not stop at the museum’s door; in fact, many of these tensions may be at the root of ongoing conflicts between boards and senior leadership and (lower paid) frontline and junior staff. This “empathy gap” has emerged as one of the greatest challenges cultural leaders must confront in addressing the needs of their various internal and external constituents.

Moving Forward

Culture + Community in a Time of Transformation: A Special Edition of Culture Track found that audiences want arts and cultural institutions to take action in four areas.

  1. Prioritize well-being.
  2. Embrace the possibilities of hybrid experiences.
  3. Identify what matters most to the community to co-create new programming.
  4. Take a holistic approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Resources

To access both Wave 1 and Wave 2 data from Culture + Community: A Special Edition of Culture Track, visit culturetrack.com.

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