Photo: Alborz Kamalizad

Audience Engagement In Conversation

Jason Porter

Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement | Seattle Art Museum | Seattle, Washington, USA

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad

International Audience Engagement Network: What do you think is the most pressing issue facing museums right now?

Jason Porter: I think the most pressing issue facing museums, at least those in the US, is whether we will be able to sustain a labor force and continue to cultivate talented, passionate young people to want to invest in being part of the field. Over the last couple of years, museums have had to reckon with many complicated issues including the pandemic, calls for progress on racial justice, assaults on truth and trustworthiness of institutions generally, and all of this has put museum work in a new light, I think, for emerging and prospective museum workers. Museum Studies graduate programs are bursting with debt-laden graduates who struggle to find even entry-level positions and the work itself, at least for those people who assumed museums were bastions of social justice, activism, and progressive education, may not match the level of intensity and purpose that they’d hoped. Coupled with the fact that museums do a pretty poor job of articulating paths for advancement and career development and often lag behind the private sector when it comes to salary levels, transparency, and benefits, museums may struggle to find a highly motivated labor force to sustain its efforts.

IAE Network: What keeps you passionate about what do you do?

JP: Honestly, it’s a combination of factors. On the one hand, seeing the impact that museum work can have on visitors – to see groups of people enjoying themselves together, catching them in conversation about works of art on the walls, seeing families learning together – never fails to remind me that all the hard work is worth it. Then on the other hand, the people I am fortunate enough to work with (inside and outside of the museum) are creative, empathetic, focused on community engagement, and very kind, which inspires me to show up and do good work.

IAE Network: Share one thing your organisation is doing differently to engage audiences?

JP: One thing I’ve been very impressed with at Seattle Art Museum has been the focus on social-emotional learning that the education team has been pursuing both before and during the pandemic. The team has come up with a number of experiences that use art (our content) to think about and explore emotions. Especially during the pandemic, this has been an important way to have conversations that really do matter.

IAE Network: What are you currently reading/watching/listening to that inspires you?

JP: Two books that I’ve read recently (one related to work and one not) are Black Snake by Katherine Todrys about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and Jill Lepore’s epic history of the US called These Truths. I love history, but what I found remarkable about both of these books is that they take key events that most of us were taught as singular and show their connections to so many other incidences throughout history that were either precursors or simply retreads of what had been done before. Culturally, we do such a bad job of learning from our pasts, so I’m always on the lookout for books that remind me that the arc of history bending toward justice not only makes some recursive turns, but it’s also mighty long!

IAE Network: Who should read your book, and where can we purchase it?

JP: We set out to write a book that was equal parts theory, practical advice and suggestions. Though the book is primarily about museum education, that is a broad term, so anyone in museums who works with visitors, community partners, does evaluation or program development, or who’s thinking about how to engage with audiences will find great stuff within the chapter of the book. Currently the book (Museum Education for Today’s Audiences, Edited by Jason L. Porter and Mary Kay Cunningham) is available for preorder on the publisher’s site and at Amazon.com.