We met Jonathan Cunningham, EMP’s Manager of Youth Programs and Community Outreach, last month at Seattle’s first Arts and Social Change Symposium. We were excited to hear about what he does at EMP and interviewed him to learn more about how he conducts outreach at his museum.
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Incluseum (I): Could you tell us about what you do at the EMP?
Jonathan (J): I manage youth programs and community outreach. On the youth program side, I manage our youth advisory board, which is a group of 16 teenagers between the ages of 15-18 that help us influence our teen programs at the museum. They also work on different projects like helping put together an all ages music showcase that happens towards the end of the year, curating digital content in the museum, and helping with exhibit openings. I also help run camps, which we do in the summer…we’ve done some during the year, but the biggest push is summer for our camps. During the camps, we have teen artist workshops, which have been really good and successful in the past.
On the community outreach side, I get to work on trying to develop some strategies to bring in audiences that have traditionally not been coming in to the museum and work with more underserved groups. So, for example, we’re partnering with Community Day Schools Association that do afterschool programs and Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre…We’re trying to find different strategies to work with different groups to come to the museum.
And the youth and outreach components come together! For example, with our youth advisory board, I’m trying to connect with other youth groups around the city and invite them in our space, instead of being insular. I’m also trying to get more scholarships available…because I would like to do outreach in certain neighborhoods, but I still find it hard for some kids to sign up because of price. So making more space for scholarship is very important.
I: That sounds interesting, how was the position organized before you got to EMP?
J: My predecessor’s title was Manager of Instructional Programs, which is what the title had been for a while before that. The museum knows they need to work on getting some more folks here, and that could only come from some dedicated community outreach.
I: Can you tell us more about how you conduct outreach?
J: We’re trying to get a better understanding of who’s not coming…like a lot of people from south of the city are not coming, so I’m trying to go there and be more of a presence whether it is in schools or community centers. I try to work with key community folks, making sure they feel welcomed to the museum…which involves getting out and not just sitting at the computer; outreach isn’t just an email, you have to go out.
Sometimes outreach can also be tabling at events, making sure we have a presence. Some places we’ve been to before are inviting us back, others are new and we try to be there. I try to give free tickets to the museum so that folks can come, which is very important. And when these groups come, I always try to be at the museum. You know, it’s one thing to invite people and give them free tickets, but it’s very important to be around to greet them too.
But its not always about giving free tickets…Not everything can be free. I have to find a right balance and not take revenue away from the museum. My position wouldn’t be sustainable if I always gave out free tickets. But if the group is an after-school music program, sure bring them over to the museum and “Here’s some tickets.” Then I follow up, asking: “How was that? And if we have something here lets see if we can collaborate.” That’s what I’m working on this year. I’m doing a lot of relationship building, which is very important. There are some relationships I assumed would have been tighter. For example, in talking with Beth and Tristan at The Vera Project I discovered that we hadn’t worked on something together in awhile. Its funny, right? The Vera Project is like a 4 minute walk from the museum!
I: Are there specific organizations you are most interested in collaborating with?
J: There’s a lot. There’s almost too many for me to name. I’m looking at general populations, general geographic areas and then breaking that down. I want to be doing more North and South; not just Seattle specific. Sometimes it’s places like Burien and Renton and Fife and places like that that are really hungry for what we do, so I’m working to visit schools and organizations in those communities. I want to push myself to get out of the city even more and go to Edmonds and Shoreline. They are a little better off than the South but they are also neglected with that Seattle centric thinking. As far as outreach goes it means getting up there and connecting with educators and after school programs for music. Start talking about our programs, camps, and our Sound Off (EMP’s 21 and under Battle of the Bands).
I: Does the “Outreach” in your title mainly refer to youth or does it include other groups as well?
J: My outreach position is definitely not just working with youth. I was just on the phone this morning with someone from the State School for the Blind. They’ll be coming soon, bringing 7 students who are blind or visually impaired to experience the museum from their perspective. Then, they’ll come back and give us some feedback on what our visitor services staff and volunteers could do to better greet and orient folks who are visually impaired or blind. Because our exhibits move and aren’t permanent, it would be hard to braille them all…but there are other things we can do.
At the Art & Social Change Symposium, I met a woman who works with folks with hearing impairments and it would be great to get her group to come to the museum…because the thing with our museum is that you could experience it in so many different ways. But what can I do…and what can we all do to be thinking about being accessible to those populations? I would love to learn!
In June we did a two week camp in partnership with Seattle Pacific University (SPU)’s Music Therapy Department headed by Carlene Brown. The camp was for children with Asperger Syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorders, or related learning and developmental disabilities; individuals who don’t often get invited to the museum. So it was great to have them here, but it came with some training, you know. We got a really good one-sheet document about things to know when communicating with children with autism that we gave to security and visitor services folks. We worked to dim lights and sound and prepare the museum for them. Thankfully the EMP was into it.
I: Did you get feedback from the SPU group?
J: Yea, they loved the experience! It went really well and parents were happy with it. I admit feeling nervous about their visit, you know, the museum has lot of stimulation (sound and visual) and we can’t turn down everything. So what made this visit successful was that it was done in partnership with trained individuals from the SPU Music Therapy program. It’s not something EMP could have done on its own.
I: What else do you want to share with our readers?
J: Just come to the museum! This is an inclusive process and my interest is to connect with other folks who have my job at other museums; that’s really important to me. Because I spend so much time with community and school groups or youth and families – I don’t always take the time to talk with other museum folks…and I want to break past that. So to anyone who wants to reach out, please do!
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Jonathan is originally from Detroit and has a background in journalism, covering music for several newspapers. He’s worked with youth a lot wherever he’s lived. Before his job at EMP, he worked for 2 years at Ground Up, a food justice program in the Central District. He’s excited to expose young people to positive things such as music, which is why he enjoys his job at EMP. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 206.262.3156.