The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which cultural and educational organizations meet their publics. What does relevance look like today? What forces are reshaping both consumers and institutions, and in what ways? How can the arts, museums, and higher education bring their audiences into an authentic, urgent dialogue about possibilities and promises?
These are some of the questions that cultural and educational institutions need to be asking themselves — and each other, since we’re all swimming in the same stream. And they’re the questions behind the questions we ask audiences every day in surveys, interviews, and focus groups. (We’re researchers, so asking questions is what we do for a living).
This blog is about keeping the big picture in mind: the historic shifts, new contexts, and evolving expectations that shape museums, arts organizations, and other cultural and educational institutions. Sometimes, of course, the big picture is made up of lots of little details, and this blog will feature plenty of quick hits, useful tips, and granular observations. Other times, that picture is a sweeping canvas depicting the forces of change in action; so we’ll also wrestle with global ideas and new directions.
The idea here is to think out loud about what’s possible when it comes to engaging audiences in culture and learning, and about how research can help turn those possibilities into realities. After all, the leading institutions in these fields were founded in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries (and in the case of universities, sometimes much earlier). Those histories are impressive and empowering, of course, but they’re also burdens: it’s harder to reconceive the identity and public function of a venerable organization than an emerging one. But it’s all the more urgent, because unless these sectors stay connected to the broader culture, even our most iconic cultural and educational institutions may — no, will — find themselves marginalized as people find other things to do with its time, money, and energy.
In classrooms, teachers and professors try to prepare young people for mental challenges that can’t be foreseen and jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Retirees who witnessed the advent of the computer now swap jokes with loved ones across the country on iChat and Skype. Amateurs around the world contribute their human gifts in everything from t-shirt design to the classification of galaxies. In this world of rapid change, cultural organizations and universities have a choice: they can either lead or follow.
For the ones that want to lead, we’re behind you all the way, and this blog is for you. For starters, we’ve got two suggestions. First, question your own assumptions—starting with the oldest, least visible ones, the ones that dates back to the founding of your organization. Second, bring your audiences into the conversation about change. (Yes, that means research, but also plain old conversation.) You may be surprised at how eager they are to help, and how good they are at it.
What this won’t be is a brag-sheet for our firm. We won’t crow about our wonderful clients or the wonderful work we’re doing for them. (There are other places on the firm’s website for that.) Instead, we’re going to generalize from our experiences, place them in a broader context of what’s being said and done elsewhere, and try to illustrate what healthy relationships between cultural institutions and their audiences look like today. We hope you’ll join us for the ride. At the very least, it won’t be boring. (A little wonky sometimes, but then, we’re researchers.)
Most importantly, we hope you’ll join the conversation by posting comments, ideas, counterarguments, etc. We don’t have a monopoly on good answers, or even on good questions. And who knows? Maybe we’ll find ourselves forming a community as we go.
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