Audience Engagement In Conversation

Sarah Jesse

Director | Academy Art Museum | Easton, Maryland, United States

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

Sarah Jesse: Changing demographics in the United States mean that a growing percentage of the population doesn’t fit the profile of a traditional museum-goer. I often think about a report commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums that compares the racial and ethnic make-up of museum visitors to the population over time. We know that by 2042, the percentage of people of color in the United States is projected to be about 46%, yet people of color make up only nine percent of museum visitors. The report warns that museums that maintain the status quo will become increasingly irrelevant to their local populations. We have to work differently and more creatively to make our visitorship reflect demographics.

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

SJ: I’m co-leading a book club at my museum this summer in which participants read a book thematically related to an exhibition and discuss the connections in the galleries. Conversing in front of works of art and making new connections based on the interpretations of attendees reminds me of the power of in-gallery programming and how deeply satisfying it is to discuss art with others.

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

SJ: It’s not radically different from what other museums are doing, but it’s effective—we’re hiring people from the communities we’re trying to reach to create public programming for the museum. For example, each year we hire ten teenagers to serve as interns for a year. They are paid and trained to learn about museum work and design teen programming on behalf of the museum. We also hire community members to conceive and implement public programming for adults. Essentially, we’re expanding the circle of people who help shape the identity of the museum. As a small staff, we’re limited in the perspectives and ideas we bring to the table. As much as we actively try to broaden our outlook, it’s only natural that the programming we generate is based on what we find personally interesting. The only way around this is to share the responsibility of designing programming with others who bring unique backgrounds, interests, and experiences. In contrast to the traditional model of forming a community advisory group to generate program ideas and buy-in, our community programmers are in essence paid staff. The programs they’ve designed have been different from what professional staff would have designed—and very effective.

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

SJ: I’ve been listing to a podcast called The Great Stories in which the host Trev Downey reads a short story and then discusses it with his friend Neil Poole. They introduce me to works I’ve heard of but haven’t read and offer brilliant interpretations of the text. Like the experience of discussing art with others, it’s very fun to hear the meaning people extract from a piece of literature—I always learn something new.