For Americans, traditional arts engagement is on the decline. A 2015 study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) claims that the number of visitors to core art events-- classical music, jazz, art museums and galleries, plays, musicals, ballet, and the opera-- have been declining for two decades. For museums in particular, art related and others, there has been a general push to reach out to broader, previously overlooked audiences and millennial visitors in efforts to combat dwindling attendance. While attendance may be down at more traditional sites of cultural production and display, participation in informal cultural engagement is on the rise.
In their report “Public Engagement in The Arts: A Review of Recent Literature”, researchers Stephanie N. Stallings and Bronwyn Mauldin analyze the decline of attendance in traditional arts arenas, but also examine the rise in “informal arts” (folk, traditional, avocational, media-based) participation. In their report, Stallings and Mauldin cite Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertossi’s suggestion that we are now living in a “new participatory culture” (Stallings and Mauldin 4). This new participatory culture is marked by four factors:
- Low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement;
- Strong support for creating and sharing what one creates with others;
- Transmission of knowledge and skills through informal mentorship networks; and
- A degree of social currency and sense of connectedness among participants
Jenkins, H., & Bertossi, V. (2007).
When I read through the four criteria of the “new participatory culture”, I did not think of museums or other cultural institutions; instead, my mind was immediately brought to Black Twitter. If you are unfamiliar with Black Twitter, The Daily Show produced a video that aims to inform people about the diverse and nuanced individuals and communities that comprise Black Twitter.
Professor Meredith Clark, who has aimed to establish a theoretical framework for approaching Black Twitter, defines it as “a temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a black frame of reference.” Clark describes the process of self-selection that occurs when individuals decide to participate in conversation-through hashtags, retweeting, replying, favoriting, etc.- and the community that comes along with this participation. She states, “communicators know that they are not alone in this conversation, that there is someone there that’s paying attention that is willing to be engaged.”
Reflecting on the rise of informal arts and cultural engagement and the decline of attendance to traditional sites of cultural transmission, I wonder what insights these traditional institutions can gain from examining the success of communities like Black Twitter in this era of “new participatory culture”. For the purposes of this essay, I will look at elements of Black Twitter that may be helpful for museums to understand in their quests to reach new audiences, increase participation, and maintain relevance.
Based on a 2011 public survey commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums, the American public considers museums to be the most trustworthy source of information, “rated higher than local papers, nonprofits researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers.” With this trust, comes a responsibility for museums to maintain a level of professionalism and seriousness--from the research of objects, to the text used in wall labels, to the content of educational programming offered. As young children, many of us were taught to view museums as a place of order and rules.
By contrast, social media platforms are often amorphous and informal, viewed as spaces to post selfies and share personal stories. Black Twitter demonstrates that informality does not always always mean frivolousness. On Black Twitter the lighthearted #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies and the thought-provoking #IfIDieInPoliceCustody received similar levels of participation and engagement. The content shared and produced on Black Twitter falls under what author Mary Mullen would define as “Public Culture”. She states, “By public culture, I mean culture that thinks of ‘publicity itself as authority’... Not a sphere, not simply a counter-public, public culture authorizes community actions and conversations that subvert as well as support institutional authority, that lead to consensus as well as dissent” (Mullen 3). In her article “Public Humanities’ (Victorian) Culture Problem”, Mullen argues that, informed by their Victorian roots, cultural institutions like museums aim to control the idea of what constitutes culture and in the process undermine public culture. In other words, the formal vision of culture as pursued and supported by institutions can conflict with the varied cultural realities--formal/informal, serious/lighthearted, academic/vernacular--of the public. Unlike museums, for many Black Twitter users, the content they create and share, is not done to be seen as purveyors of culture and stewards of knowledge, but is in fact just public culture itself, reflections of their communities. In efforts to attract wider audiences, museums could benefit from broadening their definitions of arts and culture and loosen their reigns on order and authority--meeting people where they are versus where they’re expected to be.
Many 21st century museums operate on a framework of audience development, where visitor participation and engagement is often measured by how many people come across the threshold. This framework for assessing visitor engagement is spurred by the financial needs of museums to bring as many people as possible who can pay admission, buy merchandise, and dine at the cafe. One issue with the framework created by this profit model is that visitors are viewed as consumers, and consumer and producer relationships can be at odds with the “new participatory culture” that is on the rise. Mullen describes the connection between museums and commodification, “In a neoliberal age where privatization is the norm, the mere inclusion of the word ‘public’ is energizing, evoking a sense of community and shared discourse that is essential for democracy, but actively eroded by increasingly dominant profit-driven logic” (Mullen 2)
It is difficult to compare the financial structures of a museum and Black Twitter, as one is a physical space dependent on visitor revenue and the other an online community housed on a social media platform supported by ad based revenue. However, it is useful to look at the ways Black Twitter and other informal cultural sectors that operate with little expense foster public engagement, in contrast to the profit-driven strategy of audience development used by most museums. In their review of public engagement, Stallings and Mauldin conclude that cultural institutions should aim to gain a better understanding of why people participate in cultural activities and where they are doing so versus examining visitors through the traditional lens of audience development which is centered on bodies entering museum spaces. This new framework based on genuine understanding of how and why people participate “requires a wider lens than participation-as-attendance that considers an array of professional and avocational arts, and creative and cultural activity... It must also consider differing goals of arts engagement and outline some principal outcomes and possible indicators” (Stallings and Mauldin 10).
Looking at how and why people participate in Black Twitter, one can point to the transparency of the platform and the way it is effectively used for civic engagement and activism. The current profit models of most museums force them to take the position of neutrality on many matters in order to avoid upsetting board members, donors, and potential visitors. However, the idea of neutrality is a myth, as museums and their guests do not and can not live in a vacuum. Social connection is increasingly valued by the public participating in formal and informal arts and culture sectors (Stallings and Mauldin 23). If museums are aiming to boost visitorship and public relevance, they must look beyond the ways they can entice visitors to come through the doors, and examine the ways visitors can engage socially in their spaces and with their collections. This social engagement does not have to be at complete odds with making a profit, as understanding one’s audience is central to the success of any 21st century business model (Falk Chapter 1).
Museums have a tendency to over define themselves and others. In his account on the success of “outsider-history makers”, author Benjamin Feline describes a flaw of many museums. He states, “Perhaps we in museums have focused too much on what we think people need instead of what they want. What drives outsider historians? For starters, they don’t think of themselves as outsiders. They aren’t consciously defining themselves in opposition to universities, museums, and historic sites. In some ways, the truth is more disquieting: instead of defying museums and universities, the outsiders mostly don’t think about them at all” (Filene 14). Those who are engaging with informal cultural production do not do so in aims of positioning themselves as cultural authority, but instead do so as a means to connect to culture, arts, and other important issues directly. Museums have a fascination with labeling groups as “the other”, “publics”, “counter-publics”, and “outsiders”, and in doing so position themselves as the standard or the norm. In contrast, Black Twitter users do not view themselves as “others” and their participation and engagement in cultural matters is not motivated by their “outsider” status.
Researchers, Kreidler and Trounstine use the above model as a framework for understanding the cultural ecology of a community (Stallings and Mauldin 16). At the base of this model is cultural literacy, which supports the top two levels- participatory cultural practice and professional cultural goods and services. Through attempts to define and draw lines between culture and public culture or between “us” and “them”, museums distance themselves from the vastness of activities that occur in the lower two sections of this cultural ecosystem. There is a whole word of cultural practice, like that which occurs on Black Twitter, happening below and around the commodification of cultural goods and services. Of course museums cannot replicate this world, nor should they. However, it would be in their interest to better understand this world and the role they play in the wider cultural ecology of a community.
While many museums have made some tangible, successful pushes to fall in line with the four points associated with “new participatory culture”, institutions need to make more effort to look outward at unstructured and informal cultural sectors. These areas of cultural engagement and production are often understudied and undervalued in their roles in supporting a community’s cultural ecology. Newer forms of arts and culture participation can provide institutions and museum practitioners tools, language, and techniques to refine previous methods of attracting audiences and understanding visitor engagement (Stallings and Mauldin 23). Not only can exploring these models of participation help museums better understand their audiences, but they can also provide museums with new tools to understand themselves--their flaws, their strengths, and the roles the can play in the broader cultural atmosphere.
“Are Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?” Brilliant Idea Studio, brilliantideastudio.com/art-museums/are-museums-neutral-or-are-they-neutered/.
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Filene, Benjamin. “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us.” The Public Historian, vol. 34, no. 1, 2012, pp. 11–33.
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Ramsey, Donovan X. “The Truth About Black Twitter.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Apr. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/the-truth-about-black-twitter/390120/.
Stephen, Bijan. “How Black Lives Matter Uses Social Media to Fight the Power.” Wired, Conde Nast, 1 May 2017, www.wired.com/2015/10/how-black-lives-matter-uses-social-media-to-fight-the-power/.
Sutton, Benjamin, et al. “US Arts Attendance on a Downward Trend, NEA Studies Find.” Hyperallergic, 12 Jan. 2015, hyperallergic.com/174175/us-arts-attendance-on-a-downward-trend-nea-studies-find/.