Monday 12 April 2010

Invitation to the party

“Suppose you hear about a party being held every week, but you are not invited. Judging by the buzz around town, this party is the hip place to be, so even if you are not given a formal invitation, you decide to go. When you get there, although it is exciting, you feel awkward, self-conscious. You wonder whether the hosts are whispering about why you are there. You wonder if other guests know you weren´t invited. No one speaks to you or acknowledges your presence. Finally, you get the hint. You leave. You decide you´ll never go back. Eventually you lose interest in the party, and then finally you don´t even remember that the weekly party is going on.”

This is one of my favourite passages from Donna Walker-Kuhne´s book Invitation to the Party. The author has vast experience in audience development and most eloquently describes here the way people who are not used to visiting museums, theatres, etc., must feel when among the ‘initiated’ and those hosts who do not assume as their responsibility inviting new people to the ‘party’ and making them feel welcome.

Regarding the ‘invitation’, I recall two very distinct actions, carried out by different organizations, with different objectives and different means. The first was the campaign of the Royal Opera House in 2008, that offered tickets for the premiere of the season´s first show, Don Giovanni, at very low prices (attention, they were not invitations…) through the populist newspaper The Sun. The Sun´s campaign was very big, editorial coverage, with very suggestive photos ans titles, also (read here). The public´s response was huge and among the people who attended the premiere there were many who were going to the opera and the Royal Opera House for the first time. Charlotte Higgins, culture journalist of the Guardian, talked to those responsible for the campaign and to the public as well (read article here). The first impact indicator? The fact that there was not a mass exodus during interval… The second indicator? Peoples impressions after the show. “It made all the hair on the back of my neck rise up”, said a 50-year old lady. “I just wanted to see what it was like - and now I'm hooked”, said a 25-year old man. Some of the tickets, that had costed between 7.50 and 30 pounds, had been purchased by opera lovers who wanted to introduce opera to their friends. Ir remains to know how many of those people wanted to go back. And also how many managed to go back. Because ticket prices are usually quite prohibitive for a large number of people. Campaigns like this one, than manage to capture the public´s attention and awaken their curiosity, should also think in ways of giving the initiative continuity and creating loyalty among new audiences.

The second action I recall is quite different, more discreet, but, in its own scale, equally efficient. It is carried out by Vale Museum, a contemporary art museum in the brazilian city of Vitória. The Apprentice Programme, part of the Programme Art Education, involves disadvantaged young people, members of the communities living around the museum, in the mounting of temporary exhibitions, allowing them for professional training in carpentry, lighting, painting, etc.; giving them the chance of having a direct contact with the artists; and also raising curiosity and 'educating' their taste for the art exhibited. The Museum manages to create a link with the local community in general and those young people in particular, a feeling of belonging among the people involved and their families and friends, and, most pobably, with some of them, a long-lasting relationship.

I was preparing this text when I read the interview of João Carlos Brigola, Director of the Institute of Museums and Conservation, in the L+Arte magazine, where he was saying: “…The museum´s fundamental mission is to be the repository of memories and to work on its heritage, but this identity seems to be passed over by functions of greater media visibility, where what counts is the number of visitors, the public buzz…”. I felt once again that, when we are facing issues like visibility and increase of visitor numbers we feel compelled to defend “the museum´s fundamental mission”. The functions a museum has to carry out in order to fullfil its mission are five and none should be consideredmore fundamenta than the others. Are functions related to collections and those related to the public mutually exclusive? Why do we feel obliged to defend one against the other? Why do we feel we have to opt for one or the other? Why do we seem to feel uncomfortable when receiving suggestions for actions that might gain media visibility (something we seem to consider synonymous to populism and low quality)?

João Carlos Brigola reminds us also, in the same paragraph, that in the Institute´s Strategic Planning there is not one single objective related to visitor numbers. Why is that? In order to justify the option? Increasing visitor numbers, diversifying their profile should be a museum´s permanent objective. Just as museums do not exist without collections, they do not exist without people either (see discussion on mission in my second post here) In that sense, visitor numbers are a performance indicator, we can´t ignore it. It can´t be the only one. And it can´t be presented without an analysis of what it represents, especially in what concerns visitor profile.

In my opinion, not giving this issue priority means that we are satisfied with what we already have. That we are happy for having, as we sometimes hear people say, “few visitors, but good ones”, what Richard Sandell calls, in his book Museums, Society, Inequality, “the good enough visitor”. It´ll be a pity if, once again, ‘invitations to the party’ are not to be given priority.

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