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Film: How did a 117-year-old museum reinvent itself? Through a mix of vision, moxie, and action.

How did a 117-year-old institution in central Massachusetts reinvent itself? Through a mix of vision, moxie, and action. Adam Rozen, Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2016 about how his museum learned to love its visitors and started telling them what they can do at the museum.

Adam: “Please Do Not Touch The Artwork”, “Please Do Not Touch The Artwork”, I absolutely love this museum sign, I think it’s truly one of my favourite things about museums. I know it’s not surprising, sometimes it’s not really the art, it is about the art too, but this sign, this sign is like it, I’ve become a connoisseur of these signs, now when I visit museums I actually walk around and I try to find signs like them, I take their pictures, I share them, you know, and I collect them, they’re personal. But I’m so surprised about them, right, they say something and not just the information but they say something else, and what was, really kind of struck me about this was that I would try to find out about a museum, I’d go online, go throughout the website, I’d read about the institution, I’d go through their magazine, printed collateral and it would say something but the signs truly were reflecting something different, it was the undercurrent that you could pick up on, really interesting.

So the question is if you cannot touch the artwork, and for disclosure I stand behind that, I think that makes a lot of sense, than what can you do? And what kind of signs do you want to have at your institutions? Well for the Worcester Art Museum, what I’m going to share with you is the change that happened around four years ago when the then new Director, Matthias Waschek joined, and for me, three years ago, when I first came to the museum and the progress that we’ve made, so join me now for the next 15 or so minutes as we talk about the changes that are happening at the Worcester Art Museum.

In case you don’t know or there’s still time to leave, this is “Do Not The Art Work”, creating signs for a new or for a modern visit at [A&M], need to be spaced out. My name is Adam Rozan, I am the Director of Audience Engagement, I oversee the visitor services, the education, the marketing functions and the studio classes at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. But you should know a little bit about the Worcester Art Museum, it is a 119 year old cultural institution in central Massachusetts, it’s about an hour to Boston, an hour to Providence, Rhode Island, three hours to New York City, it has roughly around 40,000 works of art. Our oldest work of art is a 7,000 year old Japanese vessel, our newest works of art are three murals by an [LA street artist] for a semi-exhibition that just closed which was a really fun project to work on.

We have 242 [full-time employees]. that studio programme is really big, our budget is $11 million and at this point in time we’re seeing about 100,000 visitors. It was always that case though, several years back, if you had visited the Worcester Art Museum, you would have actually just seen empty galleries, guards with nobody to watch, artworks with no audiences. There was this general sense of neglect across the institution for the institutions as a whole, the facility, the staff and our commitment to the community. Similarly Worcester itself was a very wealthy city, capable of creating 12 colleges and universities, five cultural institutions, was no longer that, it’s a post industrial city, trying to slowly rebuild and get out of that hole that it’s in, looking for new residents and new businesses and the museum and the city we’re kind of linked together in this situation, this problem and from this problem came the vision which was how do you make impact? How do you be relevant for a neighbourhood, a region, your community? How do you serve your visitors utilising your collection and your resources, making the most of what you have? The solutions which at first are very small, you could almost kind of like blink and you miss them, the solutions were born out of that vision and the vision was born out of that problem.

Let me tell you about some of the major things we’ve done at the museum to transition. Imagine before that was all about the visitors, that was where the impact was, it sounds very simple but it was the most complex thing to get our heads around and it really became the centre of everything we were doing. Now I don’t know if you were to ask my Director or the Chief Curator, if they would say, “Yes, this is the one thing”, but we would certainly all agree that we spend more of our time now than ever before talking about the visitor and that means the visitors in every conservation, we’re planning for the visitor, we’re thinking about the visitor, we’re actually trying to figure it out with the visitor mind.

It started very simple by going back to the [comic] carts, do you remember those in your institutions? We went back to them, they were in a dusty box, we read them, we were kind of surprised with what we learned and what we didn’t learn, we realised that we didn’t have enough information. We then decided to install iPads all throughout the institution to get more data. When we realised that wasn’t enough data we started collecting emails at the front desk, very simple things but we had to start with the fundamentals, once we got all this new information, we started sharing it, the good, the bad, the indifferent, we shared it. We started inviting people to come to meetings, we formed little working groups, we left the building and we went to meetings in the community. Now we actually have some working teams, it’s really exciting to see people paying attention, we’re asking and we’re listening.

The other thing when you think about audience or visitors, it’s a huge topic, right, a huge group, we broke it down into a even bigger group in some ways but a small group, we decided to focus on families, family focus was a really hard thing, the comments that we received, so the families did not feel welcomed or invited, that if you were a family in the museum you were not supposed to be there. We read that, it hurt our feelings and we decided to embrace it, right. The first thing we did, we built the family gallery in the middle of our art galleries, a gallery in the middle of the galleries. The second thing we did was we created a museum mascot, so now when people showed up, it was the mascot that was welcoming them, plus our friendlier staff. When you got to the museum, past that visitor desk, it was the mascot that wove you throughout the galleries, it was huge.

Now, this year, we just had two weeks ago our first planning meeting, made up by people from the community and staff who feel very passionately about building a family slash nursing, feeding room in the museum galleries. Right now, they’re playing with the idea of a zero to five year old space, focused on the artist studio, it is so cool.

The other thing we’re getting ready to do is have our first ever family focused art exhibition and the children’s illustrator Ed Emberley. Join me next year for the opening of that exhibition, it will be awesome. If I mentioned that visitors mattered than accessibility even matters more. It used to be when we’d go to a meeting everybody would tell you the problems with the facility, it was four buildings pushed together, there are more stairs that there are artworks on the walls, right, the elevators are in the wrong spots, they don’t work well, sound familiar? But rather than continue to complain, we got together the people who actually could do something about it and we said “Put everything down on paper and then divide it up between what you could do right now, what you could next year, the year after and what you could do once you had, you know, a lot of money”, right. And then what was really interesting about the what you could do right now list, they were simple, some of them were free, some of them were so obvious, if you just did it, the world would be a better place.

The other thing we started doing was we shifted our philosophy, we started talking about accessibility and we realised that when you put a bench down there, it’s not just for the senior, it’s for anybody who actually wants to sit like ourselves, so accessibility matters. This was one of my favourite ideas, we knew that art mattered and we wanted our visitors to be in front of our art, we wanted them to be in our galleries but we used to think about galleries as places to only display art and to only interpret art, now we started seeing the gallery as potential. Internally we had this idea that we were passing round, you know, a third space, have you heard of this?

First is at your home, second it was where you go to work, the third is where you go to be part of a community, at Church, at Temple, at Mosque, that arena, a coffee shop and Worcester, Massachusetts it was coffee shops, it wasn’t the museum, and we had a fundamental belief that if we could make the museum somebody’s home, a place where communities could come, that would be huge impacting.

What we decided to do was we planned for it, we bought furniture with or without arms and we put them into the galleries, we added book carts of different topics, we improved the wifi throughout, we bought a docking station and threw it into one of the galleries, we created special programmes. Some of my favourite programmes bombed, it’s okay, fail forward, right, meditation in Worcester Massachusetts didn’t work but we created a new drawing programme, every Thursday from 2 to 5 you come to our museum you’ll see a nude model in one of our galleries and we’ve created a community that’s in a gallery for three hours, that don’t take a break, they all get together, they chat, they talk, for two years now it’s been going on, it’s beautiful, create communities in your spaces, it is such a rewarding thing to do, right.

So we now plan for these places, we really think about it. The things that didn’t work fed new ideas, the things that worked we made them better, gallery art. This was kind of a simple thing in a way, yes, it’s important to do things in a museum, yes, it’s better to transition and improve your galleries, but what if visitors aren’t coming? What if they feel that they’re not welcomed? When we started listening to the things that were going on in our community, one of the things that we heard was in our immediate neighbourhood, the polling location had moved six times in eight years.

We made an appointment, we went down to City Hall and met with the County Clerk and we said “The Worcester Art Museum would like to become a polling location”. He said “No, you don’t, the Worcester Art Museum does not want to be a polling location”, and we said “Yes, we do. Wait a minute, why don’t we?” And he says “That’s not who the Worcester Art Museum is, the Worcester Art Museum isn’t a place that actually wants their neighbourhood there”, right. And I said “We do” and now we’ve just concluded, or we’re about to conclude our second year of voting and it’s been amazing, one of my most interesting things I’ve learned about it, it’s a simple one. I volunteer at the table throughout the day, I recognise a small fraction of the people coming through, everybody else, I had never seen before and these aren’t people in different zip codes, these are our neighbours, the person around the corner had never set foot in it and we asked them why and they said exactly what the County Clerk said “That I never thought was the museum was for me, I never thought I belonged there and thank you very much for doing this”, it was transformational, right. And next year people will vote for the President at the Worcester Art Museum, in our most sacred space, around the Hunt Mosaic, if you don’t know it, it’s epic, right, it’s just epic.

The other thing we did which is very cool, I’m very excited about this one, is we created a farmer’s market, we’ve just concluded our second year of the farmer’s market. What has farmer’s markets have to do with art, with a museum? Everything! It allowed the museum to go outside, it allowed our neighbours to come together with the staff, it allowed our visitors to meet our neighbours to meet the staff, we used the museum as a backdrop, very similar to the previous presentation, we created the welcome. We got people over that hurdle, over that hump, we created some programmes inside, you know, we had the themes, it’s really simple to do but it was really great.

This year we’re planning a few things, unbelievable that we haven’t done it yet, creating a value system for the museum, that’s new to us. We’re going to be doing a customer service training, that’s new to us, and by the end of the year I hope to have a [Voluntary Bastonship programme in place made up of the community so then when you come to the museum the person you’ll be seeing could be your neighbour saying welcome, profoundly important, this is a simple one.

Many of you might have heard that the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts closed, the Worcester Art Museum now has the second largest collection of arms and armoury. We did the obvious thing at first, we created an exhibition called ‘Knights’, then we did the second, in some ways, obvious thing, we created an exhibition called “Samurai!”, exclamation mark, right. Sorry, you know, simple is better, right. But we also came up with new types of programmes, we now have an annual Star Wars day, we teach classes in [Kenya], that’s the Samurai, martial arts, we teach sword fighting, right.

On the weekends you actually show up and our educators are the ones in these outfits, they greet you, how much fun is that? There is that sense that museums should not be mausoleums, right, that museums should be places of fun and life and by having people enjoying these galleries, they’ll start to see them as their own, where people come into the museum and having fun.

Thank you very much, my name is Adam Rozan, that’s how you can follow me on social media, I would love to answer some of your questions.

 

 Female Voice: [Inaudible]

Adam: We have 242, but keep in mind we have an enormous studio programme, so we have nine studio spaces and like many of you who have these programmes, we are going through a process of re-imagining what that role is in our community. So we’re not a, you know, we’re not a degree accrediting institution, we are, there are amateur studio spaces but it’s a big thing to think through, we have lots of ideas and it will be interesting to see how that unfolds.

Female Voice: [Inaudible]

Adam: You know I was supposed to say that, thank you. We have 200,000 people in the city of Worcester and we’re, believe it or not, the second largest city in New England, hard to believe. Yes, all the way in the back, in the cheap seats.

Female Voice: I’m curious about your admission, if there’s any fees or not and then, if so or not, do you do anything special on election days to encourage people to stay to help get them acclimated with the museum?

Adam: A great question. We do charge admission, when we introduced the armour, we actually started charging for children but we do a tremendous amount of things for our community, we have a programme that we do with all the other community museums in Worcester, for $2 you can get … if you’re on the EBT, the food stamp programme, $2 gets you into the museum, we do food stamps and we’re about to do an enormous and ambitious programme to help those with the most need in our community to get unlimited access to the museum by working with the right organisations, stay tuned, early next month we’re going to have a major announcement, around 5,000 people will be the benefits of free admission and my goal is to expand that every year so people can truly come and it will be their third space. Does that answer your question?

Female Voice: [Inaudible]

Adam: Yes, because our voting is now moving to our mosaic area, we’re going to open up the Greek and Roman galleries and we’ll be giving people passes to come back, it happens to be on the day that we’re closed, it was one of the ways that we were able to do it and it actually benefits the voting piece of it and the institution. It was actually one of the things that they liked about it, that Tuesday was closed for the museum, so it’s beneficial for everybody.

Female Voice: So I’m curious about the title of your talk because it’s “Do Not Touch The Artwork”, so do people get to touch the artwork?

Adam: When we introduced the … it’s a great question, thank you for asking that. One of the things that we were … one of the things that I’m passionate about is actually having friendlier signs, we’ve been changing the signs and making them more visitor friendly, more visitor fun, you know, “Do this, do that, take a picture here, sing a song”, kind of thing. But at the same time it’s not dumbing down, it’s actually encouraging people to have meaningful visits.

The other thing we are doing is we’re trying to have artworks throughout the museum that you can actually engage with. So, for example, in the ‘Arms and Armor Gallery’, you put your hand in the glove, which is called a gauntlet, so we’re trying to have more of those moments, right. The idea for me was more of a shift, it was more of a thinking, of a philosophy about what is the messages that we want to put out, right, if we try to become family friendly and every room says “Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this”, how is that really being family friendly? It wasn’t matching the advertisements. Yes.

Female Voice: [Inaudible]

Adam: Right. Actually on Monday I’m about to have my first audience engagement committee meeting and the head of my committee is an amazing person and she is beyond a cheer leader, she is pretty amazing, the idea of really making the museum matter and I think there’s a lot of people in our city because of the type of city it is, what its history is and what it recognises the opportunity is, who wants to see the museum has as much impact in the community as possible, you know, there’s a real need for this cultural institution to exist, this is not something for, you know, the average tourist, this is we can make our city, our community better one visit at a time using our resources and I think it’s a responsibility and I’d like to say that we’re doing it, it doesn’t always feel that way but I think we’re trying to do it more and more. Yes.

Male Voice: Adam, I like the reference to a third place, do you have a cafe and do you find that since you’ve made some of these changes you have people coming to the cafe to hang out, not necessarily to do the art visit, have increased?

Adam: Sure, yeah. We have a cafe, there’s something that we are shifting from, I’m going to answer your question by circling around it if that’s okay. What I’m trying to do at the museum and what I think a lot of my colleagues are trying to do, is not try to place value on a visit, it’s saying one visit is better than another type of visit, they’re all valued visits, right. So a visit to the museum, whether it’s somebody who comes there to read or for a meeting or to take a nap or to go on a tour, in my estimation is all meaningful and important, there’s nothing, one is not better than the other, right, if you take a class that meets ten times, it’s not more beneficial than if you just come to drop off your child. We have that opportunity to have impact of everybody so people coming to stay is meaningful, so I would say loitering is a business model, right, and if people can loiter in our galleries, wow, right, because the idea that all the spaces have artwork in them so they’re in our spaces, around our staff, around our artwork, isn’t that what it’s about? So that’s meaningful to me, to have that cup of coffee and nurse it for hours on end. The question is how do we get bigger cups and cheaper coffee?

So I think that’s it, thank you so much.

—-

How did a 117-year-old institution in central Massachusetts reinvent itself? Through a mix of vision, moxie, and action. Adam Rozen, Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2016 about how his museum learned to love its visitors and started telling them what they can do at the museum.

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