As an undergraduate, I studied art history and was always surprised with how people would react to art and museums. Many felt art museums were boring, existing only for old, rich people. It turns out that these criticisms are not unfounded and are reflected in the NEA’s survey of public participation in the arts, which found that the majority of museum visitors are middle to upper class.
As I began working on my master’s thesis, I thought of those who are least likely to visit art museums: individuals experiencing poverty. Every day millions of Americans struggle with basic essentials, such as putting food on the table or finding a warm place to sleep. According to the U.S Census the official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1%, which means 46.2 million people were experiencing poverty that year.
Imagine if art museums decided to address the most socially marginalized in their communities; the citizens who reside only blocks away from their spaces, but rarely enter their buildings. This audience is substantial and made up of diverse demographic groups. For my masters project I decided to look at art museums and explore how programming could be created as a way to connect with people experiencing poverty in urban settings. I hoped to encourage these institutions to become catalysts for change in their communities, becoming relevant to those with the greatest needs.
Through my research, a resource I found particularly interesting was Matarasso’s study Use or Ornament?, which demonstrated several positive outcomes of arts participation. These outcomes include personal development, social cohesion, community empowerment and self-determination, local image and identity, imagination and vision, health and well-being. Generally speaking, art programs bring people together for the common goal of positive creative expression. This collective unity and a supportive environment can positively impact those dealing with poverty and isolation.
As I conducted research, I found several examples of museums partnering with other non-profit institutions serving those experiencing poverty in urban areas. An example of such collaboration, which actually became my research’s case study, is between the Frye Art Museum and Path with Art, both in Seattle, WA. Together they worked on an art program for formerly homeless adults that culminated in an exhibition called The Seattle Project: Public Belongings. When talking to program participants and staff members of both organizations, I was overwhelmed by the program’s impact. For example, one participant described the therapeutic effects she experienced through the program stating, “When I became homeless I was feeling desperate, I had nothing to connect to. You lose your belongings over and over again and there is a lot of stress daily. Art is essential! It is food for the soul, it brings meaning back. Art today creates meaning about my experience and I try to capture that and share it with others. Its an outlet for your pain and your joy.”
Knowing that museums have unique resources that can provide benefits to a large and diverse population, the next step in my research was to contextualize my case study and better understand how art museums can create programs for individuals experiencing poverty in urban settings. To do this, I interviewed museum professionals and scholars along with professionals in organizations addressing poverty. The results of these interviews are summarized below.
1. Consider the Practical:
Programs must be free. Transportation may need to be arranged by the museum. Look for alternative forms of communication – many homeless and poor individuals do not have regular access to e-mail or phone service.
2. Calm Anxiety:
Many participants will have never set foot in a museum and will be worried about how they will be perceived. Give participants a clear sense of what they can expect. Who will greet them? Can they come late? What should they wear?
3. Be Flexible:
The life of an adult experiencing poverty is not strictly scheduled. When a caseworker gets them a doctors appointment they have to drop everything and go.
4. Find a Partner:
There are thousands of organizations that work with adults experiencing poverty. Museums will find these organizations are invaluable in creating programming.
Museums have an ethical obligation to consider the broader public as part of their mission. Art museum staff should start thinking holistically about their audiences. This might initially require a mindset change, but once museum staff decides to address the most marginalized in their community the rest is easily achievable.
Emily Leighton received her M.A. in Museum Studies from JFK University. She is currently working on her MDes in Interior Architecture at The Rhode Island School of Design. You can view her design-related work on her website, and explore her blog on museum exhibit design.