Recently, two of my Carnegie Museum of Art colleagues and I, along with staff from The Andy Warhol Museum and four other museums from around the country, participated in a two-day workshop at the Innovatrium, “an idea market, think tank and research lab for innovation projects” in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our goal was to make our institutions more accessible and compelling to Gen-Xers (born between 1965 and 1981) and Millennials (born between 1982 and 2000). The first day, we learned something of the attributes of these generations and what they value: Gen-Xers are independent, skeptical, and—despite the “slacker” label—entrepreneurial. They are curious and will research before coming to see something. They don’t necessarily trust the voice of authority that emanates from most museum walls and prefer to find their own way (think of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that many of them read as kids). Having cut their teeth at the mall, they like varied and stimulating experiences. Millennials demand diversity of all kinds. They have no recollection of life without computers or cell phones and expect to be constantly in touch, commenting on their experiences and hearing from others. They are collaborative and travel in packs. They take and post photographs all the time—copyright has no meaning for them. They will pay for an experience that can’t be replicated but, used to downloading, they expect most things to be free.
Today’s museum audiences are composed of four generations whose formative experiences are widely divergent and whose needs and desires are equally distinct. While the pre-1946 generation and Baby Boomers have used and supported their museums, there has been a decline in interest among Gen-Xers and Millennials, who pose real challenges for contemplative, static, and often technologically conservative museums. Institutions like Carnegie Museum of Art are invaluable as repositories of art and cultural history. We have unique missions that will not change, but we must open ourselves to new and broader audiences.
We are living in a transitional time, and museums are among many facets of society that will have to change in order to survive. Increased attendance could make a real difference in our economic outlook for the foreseeable future. We are better positioned to thrive in the 21st century than many cultural organizations because we are social spaces that offer the diverse experiences that 20- to 40-year-olds require and everyone can enjoy. Individuals, friends, and families can spend whole days wandering our galleries; eating in our restaurants; shopping in our stores; and going to lectures, concerts, and performances in our theaters. Our immediate task is to become more welcoming and comfortable. Too often there is no one to orient or direct you as you enter a museum; there’s inadequate seating; and food is inaccessible. Our interpretive materials frequently use jargon, limit meaning by over-explaining, or make unfounded assumptions about visitors’ knowledge of art history. We need to be more engaging and provocative. At CMA, these are problems that we are striving to fix for all of our visitors, and they are particularly important to address as we reach out to new audiences.
Our second day at the Ann Arbor workshop involved conceptualizing the kind of interactive and fluid programming that would appeal to Gen-Xers and Millennials. In the coming months, we will hone those ideas, making them into new projects of all kinds at our museums. In the meantime, if you have any ideas for attracting a younger demographic, please let me know.
Until next month,
Read responses to this issue of Inside the Museum.