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Secrets to strengthening community engagement with The Newark Museum of Art

Silvia Filippini Fantoni and Darryl Dwayne Walker share the strategies and techniques that have helped them to dramatically increase the diversity of museum visitors and successfully engage local communities.

The Newark Museum of Art is New Jersey’s largest art museum and features a wide collection of American art as well as arts of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Established in 1909 by John Cotton Dana to promote the appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the arts and science, it has garnered a reputation for being among the country’s most progressive cultural institutions.

After emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, the team have sought to do more than ever to deliver on the museum’s mission of providing “inclusive experiences that spark curiosity and foster community”.

At the heart of these efforts has been an engagement strategy delivered by a dedicated team of experienced professionals including Darryl Dwayne Walker, Manager of Community Engagement and Silvia Filippini Fantoni, Deputy Director, Learning & Engagement.

Silvia’s remit includes school programmes, public programmes, community engagement, interpretation and more. Having worked in a range of museums across Europe and the US, Silvia says that she feels truly at home in Newark at a museum that reflects her own passion:

“My love for museums doesn’t really stem from objects,” she says. “It stems from people and their experiences. At The Newark Museum of Art community engagement is hugely important to what we do and I love seeing people discover our institution.

“Here we try to ensure that we serve a diverse community. Because that is the community that we are embedded in.”

As a city with a population that is 90% comprised of people of colour, Silvia, Darryl and the broader museum team work hard to ensure that community engagement genuinely spans the full breadth of the Newark community and the surrounding areas.

Modern challenges to community engagement

As a museum professional on the frontline of the museum’s effort to connect with its communities, Darryl has a clear insight into the hurdles that need to be overcome in order to build relationships and, ultimately, drive footfall.

“It all begins with awareness,” he says. “Information is slow to filter through to underserved and underrepresented communities for the most part. In more affluent areas with well-established resources and channels it is much easier to connect with people.”

Darryl continues, “I also think there’s an important hurdle of perception to overcome. In some communities it is hard for people to see art in a way that they can relate. For too long museums have told stories with a narrative that doesn’t include the voices of people of colour. And it is very difficult to change or shift that narrative.

“But part of my role is to help people feel excited who maybe haven’t always felt welcome or represented in a museum environment. I love introducing people to the museum for the first time – particularly those who are born and raised here but had never heard about us before. Getting those people to visit us and see them enjoy what we have to offer is a joy for me.”

He continues, “Of course money is the other big issue. We have a challenge to face in terms of accessing funding to grow our museum’s presence – in the way that some larger, internationally recognised museums and galleries may not. Making a difference on a smaller budget is hard – but not impossible.”

Silvia adds that despite The Newark Museum of Art being founded to serve a largely immigrant population and with a heritage of helping to serve local communities (as a safe space during social unrest in the 1960s, for example) staying front of mind with Newark’s residents can be tricky:

“If people don’t feel represented in the stories we tell, the art we exhibit or by the staff they engage with, they won’t want to spend time here.”

As she explains, turning that around requires cultural institutions to be self-reflective and : “We have had to understand that the way we have worked as a museum in the past isn’t the way community organisations work. So, in order for us to open up our doors and make these important groups feel welcome we must become more nimble, flexible and agile.

“Unlike museums – which are used to programming months in advance – the community groups we need to be engaging with work more reactively and focus on the short term. As a community engagement team, we need to be able to accommodate that.”

Creating a flexible and collaborative strategy for community engagement

At the heart of engagement for The Newark Museum of Art is a commitment to collaboration. Crafting new initiatives now includes a range of community voices as standard. Darryl says, “Normally museums programme internally and then push it out to the audience. Our process is different because we draw on a community advisory board to inform decision making.”

The advisory board is comprised of local artists, businesses, city representatives, cultural institutions and what Darryl refers to as “local tastemakers”. This group meets with the museum four to five times a year to help shape community engagement programming for the period ahead.

“The board’s direct access to the community helps to ensure that what we plan is appealing to a diverse range of groups. It also helps to get the word out about our exhibitions and programmes because these stakeholders go back into the community and tell people about what we are doing.”

The Community Advisory Board also plays a vital role in helping the museum extend its reach beyond its doors, by fostering connections with the wider community. This is achieved through active participation in citywide festivals and events, where the museum offers artist residencies (in local schools), facilitates artmaking activities, and share information about upcoming programmes.

The proof of this activity can be seen clearly in the pudding. Attendance and diversity figures have increased dramatically at the museum since the pandemic, and a growing range of community partners have come forward looking to collaborate with the museum on an ongoing basis.

In the last year alone, the diversity of programme attendees has increased by an incredible 30% – resulting in a total of 80% BIPOC visitors. In addition, the under-45 programme audience has grown by 32% and the number of families has also increased by 19%.

Silvia says, “This community advisory board was really the starting point for us, which we actually created during the pandemic to inform our virtual programming. The format for working with the board has been refined over time but, essentially, they serve to curate our programmes – like our Community Days and our signature Art After Dark events.

“In addition, we’ve successfully opened up our museum to host events run by our partners. That’s been a great opportunity for us to showcase our museum spaces to people who may not have been inside before. It’s an important part of our mission of growing the museum as a place for the community in Newark.

“What we have shown is that the museum is a space for them to meet, to get together and to socialise.”

These events can involve business gatherings, film festivals, celebrations, showcases and more.

The advisory board has also helped the museum to establish a space for showcasing work from within the community – a Digital Community Art Gallery. Designed to provide a platform for local artists, this popular showcase (which is presented on a projector in the museum’s welcome center) has helped get contributors’ voices heard and artworks shared.

According to Silvia and Darryl, the key to collaboration is a willingness to be flexible and shape the offering around what our community partners would like to achieve, rather than what the museum thinks they want.  Sometimes, however, we need to be creative and figure out ways to give our partners what they want within the limitations and constraints of our institution . Silvia says,

“For example, we often get our community partners coming forward with ideas for  exhibitions. But as museum professionals know, it can take years to put together full-scale exhibitions. So, we typically look at ways we can pivot to a different format and give them what they want through a different medium, one that we can implement in a short amount of time”

Darryl adds, “What’s important is that sense of ownership and inclusion that we can cultivate by collaborating and ensuring that community voices are feeling heard.”

Bringing external voices into the galleries

In addressing the issue of inclusivity within The Newark Museum of Art, Silvia explains that the museum’s curatorial team have been working hard to find new and innovative ways to incorporate diverse voices and narratives, as well as perspectives form the local community.

The museum is keen to reflect perspectives on some of the historical events and corresponding artworks  that have been previously untold or under represented. Silvia says, “We’ve been on a journey to understand the stories that have been missing from our collections – particularly in our 18th and 19th century American galleries. By consulting with focus groups that include local teachers, museum visitors, artists, as well as front line staff, we’ve explored new stories and new ways to tell those stories.”

Of course, being more inclusive is more labour intensive. But as Silvia notes, “We have a commitment to prioritising diverse voices and community engagement and, for us, the additional time and effort is worth it for the awareness it raises and the platform it provides the community and underrepresented groups.”

Another area of focus for the museum in its drive to enhance inclusion and accessibility lies in language. With a growing Latinx community (now 36% of the Newark population) and a fast-growing community of people of Caribbean descent in recent years (many of whom speak Creole as their first language), this is an area the museum knows it must be proactive in.

From labels to marketing materials that go out into the community, Darryl and Silvia are quick to point to the importance of making diverse groups feel comfortable and accommodated wherever possible.

Silvia notes, “Really, that is the first step in convincing the community that we offer a safe and inclusive space for them. By overlooking their needs we would be almost letting them know that they are not welcome.”

Find out more about The Newark Museum of Art’s engagement strategy here.

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