Thoughts on the elusive (?) young adult audience

By April 19, 2012 Miscellaneous No Comments
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Hello! Opus Affair co-host Jenn DePrizio here.  There is a lot of conversation in arts organizations these days about engaging audience, particularly the so-called elusive young adults.  You all know who I am talking about (because you are probably one of them)—those curious, socially-driven 20-30-somethings who want to enjoy their art experience while making connections with others.  In my position at the Gardner Museum, I’ve been involved in planning our Gardner After Hours which transforms the tranquil museum by day into an atmospheric party by night.  Through this work, my opinion that we are not as complicated as some would have us believe has been reinforced, so when TourSphere asked to share my thoughts on the topic, I welcomed the opportunity.

There are a lot of great things happening in Boston for young adult audiences. I’ve shared my thoughts, I’d love to hear your stories of success and challenges.  See you at the next Opus event at Hawthorne!

[The following post was originally published on the TourSphere blog.]

Jennifer M. DePrizio is the Director of Visitor Learning at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA.  We recently sat down with her to chat about a question we get all of the time, “How can we get more young people through our doors and engaged at a deeper level?” Jennifer was kind enough to share her thoughts with us in the guest post below.

As the Director of Visitor Learning at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum I spend my days thinking about how we can help visitors of all ages connect with works of art in ways that are meaningful and long lasting. For those unfamiliar with the Gardner Museum, it is an imaginative recreation of an Italian palace filled with art collected and installed by Isabella Gardner in the early 20th century. The galleries, which I should mention do not have traditional wall labels and the arrangement of the objects has not been changed per the founder’s wishes, surround a lush courtyard filled with plants, flowers and ancient works of art. This past January, we opened a new Renzo Piano-designed addition that allows for more engagement with art in our studio space, a welcome space called the Living Room, special exhibition gallery, concert and lecture hall, and greenhouse classroom. How do I make this beautiful, intriguing, sometimes puzzling place accessible to our visitors?

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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new Renzo Piano-designed addition. Image courtesy Nic Lehoux 2012.

I’m not the only one thinking about this question. There is a lot of conversation in the museum field these days about how to engage audiences, especially young adults in their 20s and 30s. Some consider this age demographic a tough nut to crack, but I would argue it’s not so complicated. Yes, it may mean stepping outside one’s comfort zone, which traditionally museums are not so adept at, but with a little courage and willingness to take a risk, the results can be extraordinary.

This was definitely the case in 2007 when the museum launched “Gardner After Hours” with support of the Wallace Foundation. While I was not the mastermind behind the program (that credit goes to my colleague and friend Julie Crites), I was part of the core team involved in planning and execution. After Hours, which continues on the third Thursday of each month, is an evening of art, socializing, and music designed to attract those supposedly elusive 20-and-30-somethings. At its roots, After Hours is about participation and engagement; it’s about making the Gardner Museum accessible to young adults who want both a social and an art experience. As a staff member, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work on this program; I’ve been allowed to be creative, to think outside the box, to experiment, to fail, to try again and succeed.

To that end, I’ll share some of the insights about planning programming for young adult audiences that I have gained from working on After Hours. While these ideas may seem obvious, we can sometimes overlook the things that are right in front of us.

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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Courtyard. Image courtesy Clements and Howcroft 2009.

1. BE AUTHENTIC

Whatever you do for whatever audience, it needs to be true to who you are as an institution. For the Gardner, that meant the unique experience of the museum had to be our starting point. The collection, its unique installation, and the passions of Isabella Gardner are at the heart of what we do. I think of the museum as a salon atmosphere where curious visitors with varying degrees of art knowledge engage in conversation about art. The open-ended approach we take in our gallery games (yes, you can play games in a museum), discussions and art making projects reflect the idea that there isn’t one right answer to a work of art and that each visitor can experience art from their own perspective. If the Gardner was a different kind of museum, a white-walled gallery space or a living history museum, while our programming would have been different, our approach would have been the same. Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to be who you are.

2. MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE

Listen to your audience; they have a lot to say. Their insights and questions can inform and improve your approach and will ultimately make your program relevant and visitor-centric. To truly be accessible, you need to understand who you are serving. As part of After Hours we’ve conducted short onsite surveys during the programs, as well as a more extensive qualitative study with the target demographic which was instrumental in future program planning. Our visitors want to talk to us about their interests; I bet yours do, too.

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Attendees to Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s “After Hours” event. Image courtesy Lisa Abitbol 2012.

3. PEOPLE WANT TO MEET PEOPLE

One of the surprising things we discovered by talking to our visitors was that they wanted us to provide ways for them to start conversations with other visitors. I admit at first we scoffed at this—Really? We have to help people mingle? But on further thought we realized that of course, people want to meet others with similar interests and if we can help break the ice, why not? So, our thematic handout for a self-guided gallery tour has transformed into interactive gallery games. Visitors have to talk with museum volunteers and other visitors to successfully complete each game. The games are a huge hit and while I don’t think of After Hours as a singles event, we do observe groups of strangers meeting and chatting.

4. USE YOUR RESOURCES WISELY

One of the key aspects of this program’s success is that the museum’s leadership empowered staff in the target demographic to plan and execute this event. This also extends to the volunteers recruited to work these evenings. We want our audience to see themselves reflected in the staff and volunteers they encounter throughout the evening.

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Illustration and design by Daniel Zeizeij.

The right kind of marketing is also essential to the success of a new program like this. The museum commissioned Danijel Zezelj, one of the museum’s artists-in-residence, to create a signature image. These compelling and provocative images signaled that After Hours was new and different. We also went a bit non-traditional (for museums) in our media strategy with a heavy social media push, a mobile texting campaign, street teams handing out posters and media partnership with the local alternative newspaper rather than the mainstream daily. Directing marketing resources in new and experimental ways has paid off.

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Guests at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s “After Hours” event. Image courtesy Lisa Abitbol 2012.

5. DON’T TAKE YOURSELF SO SERIOUSLY

We say that After Hours is “more than just a party.” This acknowledges that the event is a social one—there is a cash bar and lots of spots for relaxing and chatting with friends or a date—and that’s an important part of the evening. Museums can and should be a place where people come to unwind and escape. In a social setting, we know formal talks and tours aren’t the right thing, so instead we offer short facilitated gallery discussions and interactive games that not only provide museum content but encourage participation and conversation. Learning happens when you are engaged and making connections. Dare I say it? Learning never looked so fun.

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