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How Atlanta’s High Museum Attracted a 45% Non-White Audience

In an era where art museums are having trouble diversifying their audiences, the High Museum of Art is making great strides.

Visitors enjoy the reading corner in Painter and Poet: The Wonderful World of Ashley Bryan during the High’s Second Sunday program (photo by Alphonso Whitfield, courtesy the High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

For several years now institutional professionals, critics, visitors and stakeholders in the museum field in the US have been talking about how to diversify museum audiences so that these audiences break with the historical trend of being white and middle class. It’s an entrenched issue. One of the most influential and frequently referenced scholars, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, with Alain Darbel, conducted a study of the museum-going public in Europe in the 1960s, published in 1966 in the book The Love of Art which sought to explain why the majority of visitors to the museum are middle class, while those who are poor and working class tend to avoid museums. This is still the case. In fact, the president of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums has described the process of making more diverse audiences welcome as “trying to shift an aircraft carrier.”

However, one museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, has recently found some success in doing so. In an article for NPR, Lulu Garcia Navarro, having interviewed the museum’s director Rand Suffolk, reports that the High Museum has recently had its proportion of nonwhite visitors triple to 45% — for context, Atlanta is roughly 59% non-white. Their experience may provide a useful blueprint for other museums looking to accomplish the same.

An aerial view of the campus of the High Museum of Art (image © Timothy Hursley 2005, image courtesy the High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

Suffolk claims that the staff engaged in a process of reflexive analysis, asking themselves what voice they should have as an institution. The answer they arrived at was that they, as a Southern museum, should evince more Southern hospitality, and that they should be more humble in the ways they talk about themselves. Given these realizations they devised a marketing solution: a tagline for promotional efforts that reads “Here for you.”

But more than merely rebranding their image, Suffolk asserts that they also changed their curatorial approach. He said: “over the course of the past calendar year alone, of the 15 major exhibitions that we’ve done, more than half, in fact nine, have highlighted important work by artists of color, women artists and gay artists.” Suffolk also declares that the docent staff has been made more diverse — a contention that Navarro counters with a question about the makeup of the board of directors, which Suffolk admits is certainly not diverse (though he insists they “are working on it”).

Visitors view an Anish Kapoor work in the High’s galleries (photo by LeahandMark.com)

According to Suffolk, the High is also moving toward not only welcoming ethnic and socio-economic communities that have long felt unwelcome in the museum, they are also reaching out to those who have disabilities, such as those who are deaf. He says: “we decided last year to stop doing audio guides and instead we took those dollars and we’ve invested them to make sure that every single public program we do has an ASL interpreter there.”

Visitors enjoy a presentation in the High’s Atrium during the Museum’s Second Sunday program (photo by Alphonso Whitfield, courtesy the High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

Additionally, Julia Halperin reports from her own conversation with Rand Suffolk that the High Museum has also moved toward organizing more of their exhibitions in house, allowing curators to customize shows for local audiences rather than staging high-profile, traveling shows. Doing more in-house curation also provided the opportunity to draw on the High’s collection, which includes a good deal of work by African American artists. These choices dovetails with a marketing strategy of promoting a cross-section of its exhibitions, rather than a select few blockbusters, thus encouraging both an increase in visiting and repeated visits. More, they have also adjusted their admission pricing, which used to be a tiered scheme topping out at $19.50 for a single adult. Now the price is the same across the board for seniors, children, and adults paying $14.50. These strategies are all mobilized to give visitors the feeling that the High wants to have a relationship with them rather than just intermittent transactions.

The indications are that these strategies have yielded desirable results, but in writing this story I glanced at the home page of the museum’s website and was dismayed by the images there. The main part of the page features a suite of five images that rotate. Three consist of celebratory images, one focused on a baby, one on a group of people at a bar, and another with a child and counselor at their Art Camp. These three images only have white people visible. The other two images consist of a drawing of multi-colored figure with African features and a photo of a group of six, small black children who are lean against a fence exiling them from a playground in which, in the distance white families can be seen playing. Literally the only images containing people of color shows them as figures who are excluded from the enjoyments that whites have, or as creatures of imagination — and they are left out of the other images in which whites enjoy the public programs and associated events of the High Museum. Admittedly, if one scrolls down there are other images to see, ones which do visually illustrate the ethnic diversity being extolled by the NPR article and the museum’s leadership. However, it is odd that on its home page, that message isn’t clearly represented.

Visitors enjoy outdoor activities at the High’s Second Sunday program (photo by Alphonso Whitfield, courtesy the High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

It is disappointing for me that despite a report that champions the success of a museum in achieving greater diversity in its audience, that the same institution isn’t fully aware of how it maintains problematic representations of its audiences. I suppose we have to suffice with the promise that they are working on it.

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