A few years ago, I (Rose) had the pleasure of working with a Seattle-based non-profit organization called Path with Art. This organization offers art classes to adults who are recovering from homelessness and believes in the life-sustaining power of arts engagement. I was impressed by their approach: Path with Art partners with teaching artists and organizations that serve recovering homeless adults to deliver high quality on-site art programs. Some classes are occasionally offered at other locations such as local museums, dance studios, and galleries. Moreover, they coordinate monthly outings to arts institutions in the area and annual exhibitions that showcase students’ work. Path with Art aims to help build community among the students that they serve AND between these students and other members of the local community.
While working with Path with Art, I became curious if museums in the US had developed similar types of programs. At the time, I was only able to locate a handful of one-off initiatives whereby museum had made their resources available to homeless adults. Beyond these examples, I found that museums around the country had hosted exhibitions in which homelessness was treated as a topic and depicted in the galleries. I found these examples puzzling: lived experiences were extracted and affixed to museum walls, yet the museums had not been in relation with those whose experiences they depicted. In response, I worked with friends I had made through Path with Art, people who had been homeless and/or were activists on issues of homelessness, to create a guide for museums interested in working with homeless adults. I’m thankful for these friends and this collaboration, which eventually formed the basis of my master’s thesis and was presented in different venues including AAM, Museum Practice magazine, and the journal of Museums and Social Issues (but never on the blog).
Here is our short list of recommendation (you can also download it as a print out):
- Consider what you know: recognize that you might lack expertise on the topic of homelessness and must address this insufficient knowledge prior to organizing and launching an initiative aimed towards homeless adults.
- Do your research: start learning about homelessness through online or print sources.
- Be realistic: your role isn’t for your museum to be relevant to all homeless/formerly homeless adults.
- Engage in conversation: talk with individuals who serve homeless adults and those who either have or currently experience homelessness. Identify what they care about and how you could serve them. Ask questions and listen.
- Get involved: volunteer at organizations that serve homeless adults. This will further your knowledge on the topic, contribute to relationship building, and demonstrate care.
- Receive training: museum professionals can take advantage of training opportunities that service provider organizations offer.
- Make friends: partner with a single or multiple organizations that serve homeless adults. Select partners with whom you can establish a mutually beneficial collaboration.
- Share authority: work with homeless adults and organizations serving homeless adults to plan and offer your program or activity.
2. Facilitating Engagement
- Contextualize the museum: ensure that homeless adults know about the museum and what to expect from their visit. Also consider having a museum staff member meet with participants off-site before hand to encourage familiarity.
- Be friendly: make sure all museum staff interacting with homeless adults are friendly, welcoming, and respectful.
- Build community: provide time for people to socialize, relax, share their thoughts, be acknowledged. Provide refreshments.
- Consider off-site offerings: your willingness to meet with homeless adults in a location familiar and safe to them will most likely build trust and increase their comfort-level at the museum.
- Be flexible: avoid reprimanding homeless adults for being late or not attending, allow for input, and be prepared to make adjustments.
- Take a long-term approach: relationships take time, intention, and effort.
- Reflect: how is your initiative working? What do the participating homeless adults think about the initiative? Talk with your participants; don’t just administer surveys.
- Share: talk about and share your work with others so that what currently seems to be marginal museum practices (i.e., facilitating engagement with homeless adults) can become more prevalent.
What do you think? What would be other recommendations for museums interested in going beyond depiction to engage with homeless adults?