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How tech can help bridge the arts access divide


It is only recently that the country’s largest museums have begun to seriously consider the fact that their collections should better reflect the demographics of their communities.

The tide is turning. Yet, there is still a gap when it comes to diverse communities entering these spaces. Barriers which are physical, economic and more keep them out. Additionally, most don’t feel these spaces are ‘for’ them. Technology has the ability to open doors (virtual and real) and expose those who are most disenfranchised to all of the benefits which are connected to the art.

This chat will focus on those who are moving the needle in this space and how others can adopt their best practices.


Dupé Ajayi
Intersectional Marketing Strategist
The Shed

This presentation was filmed at MuseumNext NYC in Autumn 2019.

Dupe Ajayi: That was absolutely incredible. Adam gave me a lot to think about, especially as I’m new-ish to the arts and cultural space, and I’ll give you a little bit more on that in a bit. So my name is Dupe Ajayi, I am intersectional marketing strategist with The Shed, and I’ll get into that intersectional marketing strategist part first, but I want to talk a little bit about Dupe. I’m so grateful to be here, it has been a week for me, and it is a pleasure and an honour to be before you in this capacity, and share stories and experiences and to learn. So there is that. So I am a native New Yorker. It’s rare, it’s rare [inaudible 00:01:11]. So it is rare.

I grew up in a community in New York called Brownsville, Brooklyn. Oh, you know of it? Okay. And Brownsville, for those who don’t know, is a community which is rich in culture, beauty, passion. People work hard, people love their children, just like most communities in the United States. It is also a community that lacks in resources, that lacks care, attention, and a bunch of other things that makes it nearly impossible, very difficult, for a young person growing up. There are obstacles that don’t need to exist that exist just by the nature of where this community stands. It’s on the borderline of East New York.

And so I set that up for you to see, this is an article which was put out about a year ago by The New York Times, and it talks about, it’s pretty cool, if you did a quick Google search, you put in your zip code, and the idea is that based on where a child grows up connected to poverty and resources, resources not only meaning fresh fruit and vegetables and healthy food offerings, but also to education, and of course arts and culture, what their path will inevitably look like. And this is the result of lots of study in this area. And as you see here, Brownsville, which is highlighted in red, I would use the pointer, but I’m afraid, which is highlighted in red there, this community, that children grow up from this community, they’re expected to make about $23,000 a year in adult households.

And I want that to sit with you for just a second, because I’m standing here before you today despite that stat, and those odds. But imagine there are many children in these communities who don’t have a path that’s created for them in such a way, and I’ll share with you a little bit more of that experience, and what access means, and how important it was to me getting to this position, and why I’m so passionate about others following in the same vein.

Look at that pretty building. So that’s The Shed. How many of you have been to The Shed yet? All right, okay. Well, that’s good. So The Shed is, and people have asked me, is The Shed a museum? Is it an art centre? What is it? And I love that, because it is all of those things, and it stands firmly in being all of those things, and it is comfortable with being those things. Now whether or not everybody within the building at all times is comfortable with it being all those things is a whole nother story, but it is flexible and it is dynamic.

As I mentioned, I’m intersectional marketing strategist, and what that means is that it’s my job to help people who may not feel comfortable in certain arts and cultural institutions, to invite them to our arts and cultural institution, and for them to feel comfortable in that space. And I do that in a number of different ways. I am a marketer at heart. Before I had gotten to The Shed, I had done digital marketing for the New York City Housing Authority, which was one of the best jobs that I’ve had. But then also, too, had worked with the Brooklyn Public Library, right before this, digital fundraising and engagement.

I’m a marketer at heart, and so I’m always looking for, well what’s at the core of a story? What is going to make this interesting for people? And it’s even more of a challenge when it comes to selling something new to individuals who may not feel comfortable in a space, period. Right? So I just want you to note that, and the way that I do that is through marketing to intersectional, that means diverse audiences, but also through something called the Ticket Access Programme. And up to 10% of tickets to The Shed go to those communities that I mentioned, through governmental agencies, social impact groups, and nonprofit organisations. And it has been a tremendous wonderful past seven months for me, The Shed has been open for seven months only. It is a startup. Some of the partners that I’ve worked with are CUNY, the New York City Housing Authority, as well as a bunch of other nonprofit and social impact groups. All CUNY students, as well as New York City Housing Residents, all 600,000 of them come to The Shed for free. And I’m proud of that.

And as a result of these touch points with the community, organically, organically, we have these communities coming to us and expressing gratitude, because we’ve extended this invitation in a very authentic way for them to come into our spaces. And it is not just a matter of checking off a box, it really is putting in the time and saying that you are welcomed here. It is in our mission, as Adam had talked about earlier, it is very important that organisations live by their mission. I think the fact that I exist in this role, me, a woman of colour, from where I said I was, who’s very experienced, it says that the institution sees the value and understands that diverse audiences are important, that art needs to be accessible to all.

And so when I’m out, or when I was out over the course of the summer, all of the hard work paid off. We did a couple of tabling events at local events here in New York, we have a relationship with the New York City Housing Authority, as I’ve mentioned, and they had these family community days, and you would have residents, individuals, running up to us and saying, “I know The Shed, I know what The Shed is.” so that question I posed to you in the beginning, let me tell you, for a housing authority resident who is here in New York and worried about a bunch of things tied to living in low income housing, to have them come and run up to us and say, “I know what The Shed is, I love The Shed, I feel good in the space,” that is important, that is valuable. And it’s so amazing that The Shed is paying attention to this early on in its path, right early on in its history.

So how about this? I don’t need to read the stat off to you, but people believe that cultural are not welcoming spaces. And I feel them on that, I understand that, because oftentimes I may not feel welcome in some of these spaces. With all of my credential, with all of my experience, with all that I have, I may get into a space and I may not feel as if this space is for me. And that’s unfortunate.

The US is changing. We don’t have a choice anymore to stick to the status quo. Museums will lose out if they decide to do otherwise. And I think that they know, I think that we know that we have to change and steps are being taken, and we’ve seen at some of the oldest institutions, at least here in the US, you’ve seen them take steps to change what they are presenting to audiences. The feel, though, that is, when I walked through the door, is it inclusive? I think that’s slow to come, and there’s work to be done in that area. It cannot be ignored. It’s more than just putting a piece that represents diversity in a space. It is about how do you make those who come into your space, as I mentioned earlier, feel welcome.

A 2010 study by the American Alliance of Museums predicted that in 2033, so that’s like tomorrow, people of colour would make up 46% of this country’s population. And yet they still represent only 9% of museums core visitors. Think about that. Why is that? So there are some institutions here in New York that are doing the work. You have the Brooklyn Museum, yes, y’all in the house. You have the Brooklyn Museum that went and rewrote its mission statement. They re-installed its American collection to tell a more accessible story. They even changed some of the colouring, the palette, in the actual building. And then you have the notorious First Saturday event as well, opening doors to community. The Queens Museum forges relationships with artistic and cultural communities. The Studio Museum in Harlem serves as an incubator for artists of colour, as well as those who are professionals of colour.

And then when we look across the country, we have the High Museum, which is a North Star, should be a North Star for a lot. Y’all are here? Okay, yeah. I love the work that the High put in thoughtfully to get an inclusive audience into the space. Sitting down, having conversations with staff, having conversations with community, looking at their marketing 360 degrees, who is this for? Why are we presenting it to them? And now their visitors, as far as I had read about, 45% diversity is represented, and that matches Atlanta, that matches what the community actually looks like. That is tremendous. And then we have the Los Angeles Museum of Art, which also too has established these satellite locations.

So this is good news. Cultural organisations, they’re talking about inclusivity and diversity. They still, as I mentioned, had a long way to go. And you may have, and this is the challenge that I put forth to you all, is that you may have individuals who are always that one, I know I’m always that one, that usually I am that one, during your meetings who is mentioning, well, will this message resonate with an intersectional audience? Are we doing as much as we can to make sure that we are bringing diversity into our space? And when I mean diversity, I don’t only mean race and ethnicity. I mean sexual orientation, I mean as far as disabilities are concerned, I mean across the board.

And I challenge you to think about this before an individual like me, that’s my role, but at the table has to bring this up, challenging you to think about at first. Putting intersectionality at the forefront of your marketing efforts. It’s vital. If you’re going to be about that mission, these are the ways that you show your team members that you’re about that mission. And it also makes a better environment, which Adam alluded to earlier.

So New York. My mom and dad were really interesting because, just beautiful, beautiful individuals, but they wanted to make sure, and I mentioned that community that I grew up in, in New York. I was exposed to arts and culture and had a world view of things very early. I’m part Nigerian, and as I mentioned, born here in Brooklyn, my mom is American. So I knew about football before soccer became popular here in the United States. I listened to Fela Kuti before Afrobeat became a thing. I was just exposed to the world really early, because it was basically part of my culture, it was how I grew up. And part of that meant going to art spaces really early. My parents made sure that it happened. They made sure that I had access, and made sure that I felt like I belonged even, as a child.

And so when I look at some of the other institutions that are doing this work, that are telling the stories of what they’re exhibiting and what they’re doing, and taking things from certain communities, or from inside of their walls to communities, I love the example, again, of jazz at Lincoln Centre being in Time Square, and basically bringing the art to the world, or to the community. This past summer at The Shed we did something called open call, where we invited artists from New York to come and showcase their work. What you’re seeing here, over to your right side, is Flex NYC, and it’s called It’s Showtime actually, it’s a programme that is birthed out of Flex NYC.

Flex NYC uses flex in dancing to basically express a number of different feelings and emotions. We had a show this past summer called Maze that had different components, this was at the core of what Maze was, but then we also brought out that style in It’s Showtime, where we moved back that roof on the building of The Shed, and we had our performers performing on the Plaza right outside there by the vessel. And it was, again, welcoming community to come and experience what it is that we have to offer, and the message that we’re getting across.

And outside of that, Flex, the programme at the time, was offered across the city, with NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority, as a partner. So again, it is the idea of when you think about inclusion, and intersectionality, it’s bringing, sometimes bringing your work outside of your building to these communities. And that is an invitation. Think about this, if you’re always telling your friend, “Hey, Hey girl, come to my house.” And you’re always saying, “Come to my house, come to my house, come to my house, you’re not going to come to my house?” That’s not a good friendship. Eventually she’s going to get tired. So we take ourselves out, and thinking about how you can take yourself out into these communities in an authentic way.

And so that said, this technology part. I’m so excited to see that we have said partners who are here, and they are talking about accessibility using these technologies. I do believe that there is deep potential to engage intersectional audiences using this technology, and the two examples that I’m going to showcase, I specifically pick them because in their messaging, they are intentional about saying that they want to bring in inclusive audiences. So it is very specific in the messaging saying that this is going to help you to do that work. So with that said, I’m going to show you two clips back to back, all right.

Speaker 2: Tonight, news force Shomari Stone talks with a former teacher who hopes to bring virtual field trips to classrooms all over the country.

Kai: Hey everyone, my name is Kai, and I am the founder and CEO of Curated By Kai, where we create VR field trips for students across the world.

Speaker 2:  And then it’s uploaded on smartphones.

Kai: You’re going to click on it, and you’re going to turn it so it’s sideways like this.

Speaker 2: Placed in the headset.

Kai: When they put the virtual reality experience on, it’s as if they were standing right there in front of the Memorial.

Speaker 2: Her ultimate goal is to bring the virtual reality to classrooms around the country.

Dupe Ajayi: And here is the second.

Dupe Ajayi: I’m trying not to be misty eyed, I don’t know if you are. So first I want to preface with, we’re not using any of these ideas at The Shed yet, but why these two specific examples spoke so much to me is that when we look at the second, you notice no question was too silly to be asked. And when we think about the nuance of why would somebody not feel comfortable? That’s one of the things, is that sometimes we believe that artwork, everyone should just understand. Why wouldn’t you? Or to have someone explain it to you on a placard at the side is sufficient enough. But we never know, and if our approach to art is as it should be, we never know what questions someone would have, or how they’re experiencing a piece. And I love that that is integrated into the technology. And that, to me is, and should be, the North Star for every institution across the world.

And then the first, Curated By Kai, what I love about this is that I see the VR example, as an example of getting people comfortable with coming into your space by creating that as an invitation to the space. So not saying that a museum experience should be outside of the four walls all the time, but how do we go to where people are, as I said earlier, and bring them to where we want them to be? So thinking about that, these are just two examples of how technology can be used to get there. And so with that, I am happy to take questions, and I thank you.

Sarah: Thank you so much to Dupe, and also-


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