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Film: Developing audiences at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

This presentation on Developing audiences at the Irish Museum of Modern Art was given at MuseumNext Dublin on 20th April 2016, by Aoife Flynn, Head of Audiences and Development, Irish Museum of Modern Art. In her presentation Aofie talks about her museums approach to audience development.

Aoife: Hi, everyone. Aoife Flynn is my name and I’m from the Irish Museum of Modern Art where I know a lot of you were last evening. So just by way of introduction, as you probably heard, Cynthia’s not very well so had to opt out of today, and I only heard about this evening when I was very kindly invited to take her place, so just please bear with me. This is the first time this has had its full run-through so I will do my best.

But what I wanted to talk about today, I suppose, and thinking about that idea of communities and the museum, and my title at IMA is Head of Audiences and Development, and someone was saying to me obviously when you’re talking to a large group you want to talk about what you know. I’ve been in that role for six months so what I want to talk to you about is how IMA arrived at the creation of this role, how we’re thinking about our audiences, and I suppose what the challenges are for me in this new role.

So a lot of you were in IMA last night so you’ll be familiar with what it looks like, and for those of you that aren’t, it’s Ireland’s leading national institution for the collection and presentation of modern and contemporary art – very exciting tagline. What that actually means is we operate in a number of different ways. We have a large collection of contemporary and modern work, and that collection is curated in a series of rotating displays throughout the year.

We also have a very busy temporary exhibition programme, and I think you might have seen last night the variety in that programme is really striking, so the two key exhibitions we have at the moment are touring exhibition coming in from Europe by the Italian artist, Carol Rama, some of which is very challenging work, is very new work. Even within our artist community Carol Rama isn’t very well-known. She’s becoming more well-known much later in her life. And then we have Patrick Hennessey who’s an Irish artist, again not a living artist. He’s a modern artist.

And so we have those sorts of programmes and then we also have the project that Sarah Glenning spoke about, which is with [Grysdale] Art which is this huge activated project that’s going to take place in that fabulous courtyard that you walked through last night. That’s going to be rebuilt with a number of creative collaborators, as a village. There’s going to be a school, there’s going to be a learning space, there’s going to be an eating space, we’re growing crops so the variety of what we do in terms of trying to, I suppose, present contemporary art practice is as varied as contemporary art practices today. And that presents a huge challenge for us I think when we start to think about our audiences because we can’t think about one homogenous audience because we don’t have one homogenous programme.

So where do you start? Well, like a good marketer, I start with the mission statement. As you can see from this one it’s as exciting as you would expect a public institution mission statement to be, but I’ve pulled out the piece in red that, to me, is what attracted me to the role and what attracted me to IMA, was that a national institution is using the word ‘enjoyable’ and we heard great use of the word ‘joy’ earlier, and the fact that we can think about creating both an enjoyable and an engaging experience of art for our audience for our public.

And what that actually means, because enjoyable is incredibly subjective, and I really believe that your visit to a museum, and particularly an art museum, is incredibly subjective so it is about how you feel personally so that’s a challenge – how do I know how you’re going to feel if you come to IMA and how do I make sure that you have the right kind of experience at IMA?

So that was the kind of starting point for me, and obviously the next question then is who is IMA’s audience, the classic question that you ask. Is it family groups that come to our making workshops, is it maybe somebody coming on their own, looking at contemporary work, as we see here, is it an older adult group like we heard about earlier on, maybe coming to more traditional displays, is it a really activated summer parties that you see down here so immediately we don’t have one audience, we have audiences, which is why the title is in the plural.

But there are some overarching things that we do know about the audience that I suppose can guide us, and actually before I get into this slide, one of the nice things that we’ve started to do in terms of, I suppose, being in touch with our audience and allowing their creativity to be fed back into IMA, is we’ve really opened up our Instagram over the last year and there’s been a huge – I’m sure a lot of you use Instagram, particularly if you work for visual organisation – but we see the quality of the photographs that people take of IMA, of the buildings and of the exhibitions and they’re really just fantastic and we often republish them with their permission on our Instagram feed so all of the photographs that I’ll be using today are all from users on our Instagram feed.

So what do we know generally about our audiences? We do know that they’re quite young for a modern art museum. 60% of them are under 44, so that’s obviously something we think about and we do think about the millennials that we heard earlier on. I call them digital natives, slightly different but again, that similar audience and you can see they’re very well represented. That’s 27% are 25-34 and 15% are 18-24.

We know that the audience is growing so this I borrowed from someone last night – thank you very much, took the photograph, so our audience has really jumped in the last year and there’s a number of reasons for that. We were offsite for a couple of years; we’re now back in our home but also I think there’s a real energy around the programme that people are responding to so we can really see that, people are coming to events and are coming through the site.

Our online audience is also growing. The numbers are a lot smaller than they would be for our physical audience and our digital strategy is an emerging chapter for IMA but we do see really significant growth. The Instagram growth is off the charts because it’s a new platform we were starting from zero, but the others are very steady and it’s been really encouraging to see how that’s grown this year, and I think we’re nearly at 20,000 followers on Twitter so if you’re not following us yet, we might try and get over the line over the next couple of days.

I suppose then I was more interested in what are the motivations for our visitors, why are they visiting us, and we do a survey which is, and Sarah Boiling is in the room somewhere here today, we do a survey with the Arts Council and Sarah Boiling Associates, which for Ireland is a very unusual thing. We do not have a lot of great data on our visual art audiences, unlike you do in the UK and in some places in Europe. Most of our galleries are free. We don’t operate with the box office model. Our data collection has traditionally been very poor so it has been very difficult to think about visual art audiences.

And the Arts Council, a number of years ago, started a survey which is benchmarked between ten different galleries and it’s incredibly invaluable so it also looks not only at who’s coming but why they’re coming, and these two statistics, to me, were hugely important so 50% of our visitors have never been to IMA before, so we have a huge, I suppose, commitment to make to those particular visitors – how do we engage with them the very first time they come through the door.

And then also that one in eight of our visitors, which was quite significant compared to the other galleries in this study, have never been to a gallery before and I think that was something that we really looked at last year and said the expectation is that if you’re going to a gallery for the first time you might not do that in a contemporary gallery space; contemporary art is challenging so it might not be something that you choose to do, whereas actually the surveys would show us the opposite of that, so we really find that our visitors do want to try something new. They’re interested in engaging.

They also tell us that they want to be moved and they want to think, so I don’t know how well you can read those there, so almost half say that they’re coming to see an artwork that makes them think and 46% of them, again a very large number, say that they’re coming to see an artwork that moves them so they want to feel something.

A number of them, that won’t be a surprise, want to come for peaceful and quiet contemplation – 38% picked that option, and we did a second survey which was an online survey just to get a different cross section of people, and we did that – terribly annoying thing for marketers as well is to have an open question so that you can’t analyse it properly afterwards but what we did do was count how many people used the word ‘relax’ or used relaxing words so a third of people, more or less, mentioned words like quiet, read, walk, wander, so people are engaging with IMA in the context of its site, they’re coming and spending time in the galleries, they’re coming on their own and in different groups but for them it’s a space outside of the chaotic city of Dublin.

And I think one thing that’s very interesting about that as well is that where we were in Kilmainham, and a number of you would have been on busses going out there, we’re actually very close to the city centre but the way that Dublin is conceived and the way that Dublin has been built, Kilmainham seemed like it was out of town, and very significantly out of town so there’s this sense that you have to go on this journey to get to IMA, whereas actually that possibly was a con for a time; that’s a pro now because people want to get out of the city so just that thing of your place can change and the benefits of your place can change over time.

The one that I like the best is that 58% of people, in 2014, selected the option it’s an enjoyable way to spend my time which for us is really important because it links back to our mission. What I really like even more about is that 29% of people chose that a year previously so that’s a doubling in a year. Now I know we’re getting our responses for the survey this week so I’m hoping to see a significant shift up again for 2015 but we’ll see.

So we think that we have an audience that are enjoying being at IMA and what does that mean for IMA in terms of how we have a relationship with our audience, and I suppose this is the one I wanted to walk about a little because I know the team IMA have been thinking about an audiences for a very long time. IMA has been around for 25 years, as some of you might have heard Sarah say that last night, and Sarah’s been with IMA for a couple of years and certainly her and the senior management team over the last few years have been really thinking about what is IMA’s relationship to its audience and what does that mean for the organisation.

So we restructured, recently in a way that really highlights the three core things that make IMA what it is, which is programme, audience and operations, and I think it’s really important internally that we know that those three things are treated equally. It’s not only important that audience and programme is treated equally, but also that operations is treated equally. We can’t put on a programme if we don’t have a function building and a functioning way to put that programme on. We often can’t fund a programme if we don’t have a functioning building to put that on, so it’s really important to us that that is what IMA is about. It’s not being led by one area over the other, that those things are all on equal level.

Another thing that came out of the reorganisation was the creation of a new role and so this is what I wanted to talk just a little about this, so it’s the head of audiences and development and it’s certainly something a little unusual for us. I’d love to hear from the room later if it’s a common thing or if it’s a way that museums are maybe moving, where we’re bringing together two functions in a way, well, maybe three actually, so what I’ve pulled out here from the job spec that I would have looked at and applied against, was what that means and what those two sections are.

And the key thing of interest to us is that we’re bringing together the audiences function and the development function, and obviously development for most of you, is a fundraising element so it’s our membership, it’s our corporate partners, it’s all of our funding. And for me it makes absolute sense that the same department and the same area would be looking at our communities that give us money as much as our communities that don’t.

Our members are treated the same as our audience, obviously a little bit better but we would like to create that membership feeling for all of our audience so for me it’s a continuum. They’re all just different relationships, they’re all just different communities and it’s really important that we’re thinking about how we communicate across that continuum and that they’re not separate things, that we don’t communicate differently with our corporate partners and their staff as we do to our regular audience that come through the door.

The other part, I really pulled that one in there, is that there’s development in there but it’s that synergy between development, marketing, communications, and particularly, visitor engagement and I think that’s something that again was new for IMA and maybe is, and again I’d love to hear how it is in other organisations, there wasn’t a single person or a single area of the organisation that was mandated to look at all of the visitor touch points so for me, whether you’re connecting with IMA online or offline, whether you’re coming through the door, whether you’re picking up one of our publications, whether you’re engaging with one of our exhibitions or one of our programmes offsite or onsite, you need to have the same feeling about IMA, you need to have the same consistency.

I’m not going to say that a consistent brand identity, not really on the branding side but more how you feel about IMA and what you feel the orgnaisations is and the personality of the organisation has to be really consistent, and I think that’s something that often isn’t connected, that the visitor relationship on the ground isn’t connected with the communication relationship online or with the website; it’s all different departments.

And one of the ways we’re changing that at IMA is that we’ve done two things. We have a fantastic team of what we termed mediators – it’s quite a specific term for Ireland and for IMA – who are really our visitor engagement team, they’re visitor engagement facilitators and so that title has changed recently, and the visitor engagement team are the people that you meet. You will have seen them in the gallery last night. They’re the people on the floor that you can ask questions to, that are incredibly knowledgeable about the work. Quite often they’re the people that deliver workshops and tours so they are really at the frontline of meeting our visitors and communicating who we are.

And where we’ve sort of made a change is that I would work very closely with the head of engagement and learning. I’m stumbling because we’ve changed the term. It used to be head of education and community and now it’s engagement and learning, and we work very closely together with the person who heads up the visitor engagement team and so there is a more fluid, I suppose, sense across the organisation of how it is that we’re engaging with the public.

So I suppose where did I want to get to with this? When I think about communities, and obviously my role isn’t to look at the ways in which we engage very specifically with specific communities. As I say, we’ve an incredible engagement and learning team and that’s their role and their skill base. But what I am interested in is the way in which we approach and design our interactions with targeted communities and how we can roll that out across our whole audience, because for me, it’s audiences plural and audiences are made up of different communities, and those communities have different interest groups, and it should be possible for us to communicate with those interest groups exactly where they’re at, at the time that they’re interested in a particular programme of ours.

So for a modern art museum with a very varied programme I want to be able to find you around a particular interest group when I have a programme that is of interest to you. I want to try and narrow the way in which we talk to you so that it is of relevance to you, but we also, I suppose more importantly that you feel, when you come to IMA, no matter how you’re approaching it and what community you’re in at that time, because obviously you come to a museum you’ve different hats on. If you come as a museum professional, you’re walking through the museum and observing things in a different way to how you come as a parent, or if you’re an artist coming to a museum, you engage with the museum in a different way to when you’re leading a school group.

So I suppose the point I would make there is there’s obviously a continuum in terms of how interact with IMA, but I was really struck earlier where people were saying if you come on a facilitated visit or a structured visit we need to find ways to get you back on your own and bring other people, and that’s the thing that I’m most interested in and we need to feel, we need to find a way to not only get you to come back but for you to feel like it’s the same IMA that you’re coming back to every time, that there isn’t a different and special approach for other communities and not for you, so that the focus on one community isn’t to the exclusion of others, that as we heard on the panels earlier on, if you can up with a universal design and follow the universal design principle, to design your programmes and your interactions around a particular community, that’s of benefit to all of your communities, that’s of benefit to all of your audiences, and I know that’s something that we’ve just started journey so I’ll come back next year and let you know how we’re going on.

Thank you.


This presentation on Developing audiences at the Irish Museum of Modern Art was given at MuseumNext Dublin on 20th April 2016, by Aoife Flynn, Head of Audiences and Development, Irish Museum of Modern ArtTo stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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