The Art of Relevance

by Nina Simon

This book explains how museums and other nonprofit organizations can expand audiences and build stronger connections with targeted communities. The author is executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH).

“I believe relevance unlocks new ways to build deep connections with people who don’t immediately self-identify with our work. I believe relevance is the key to a locked room where meaning lives… Behind the door is a room that holds something powerful—information, emotion, experience, value… Relevance is the key to that door.”

“Instead of talking about ‘traditional’ approaches and ‘new’ ones, I find it more productive to talk about insiders and outsiders…”

Simon encourages you to “go outside” and visit organizations that serve the community you are trying to reach. “Going outside helps you empathize with the challenge of being an outsider. It helps you identify the doors that others are offering into their own experiences. If you are trying to understand how to build a door for a particular community, the best way to do it is to see what kind of doors that community willingly, joyfully walks into in other contexts… Go there alone. See what makes sense and doesn’t to you. Consider what intimidates you and what you feel comfortable with. Note the people, areas, or experiences you gravitate to as safe starting points.”

“Open-hearted insiders are essential to efforts to engage outsiders…  The existing insiders have a significant impact on how newcomers experience the room.”

“Communities are people. They are not abstractions. They are not rhetoric. They are human beings…  If you’re seeking to be relevant to new communities… you have to find outsiders from those communities with whom you can collaborate…  Don’t look for just any outsiders. Look for those ‘almost comes’ – people who might be inclined towards your content, your experience, but for whom your doors are invisible or unappealing… Outsiders will help guide you to potential doorways you’ve never imagined.”

“I have framed relevance strictly from the perspective of what the participant/community wants… It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It’s about them—their values, their priorities.”

“Let’s not sell short the power of giving people what they want. Cultural experiences should be a pleasure. They can also be educational, challenging, empowering, political… but they must first be something people want… Doors to dullness are quickly forgotten… If the door doesn’t lead to valuable offerings, if nothing touches people’s hearts, interest fades. They don’t return.”

An interesting example from the book is how the London Science Museum connected with the deaf community. “The museum moved away from the idea of sign language interpretation as an amenity to layer onto individual science shows. Instead, staff created a monthly Saturday afternoon event called SIGNtific, geared specifically to deaf families but inclusive of all…. SIGNtific shows flip the roles of presenter and interpreter. The presenters up front doing the experiments are deaf performers, supplemented by off-stage performers who provide voiceovers for hearing guests. While having sign language interpreters off to the side was a barrier to comprehension, voiceover interpretation causes no such problems.”

At the author’s museum, “instead of designing programming and then seeking out audiences for it, we identify communities and then develop or co-create programs that are relevant to their assets, needs, and values.”

“We started layering all-ages participatory activities into our exhibitions… As time went on, we noticed something that surprised us: families stopped coming to Family Art Day… What was going on here? We had opened new doors into our exhibitions and Friday night festivals, and we found that families found more value in those intergenerational rooms than the rooms (and doors) made just for them… So we nixed Family Art Day. That started a process for us of ‘de-targeting’ many of our programs, shifting from offering parallel programs for separate audiences to bridged programs that connect people across differences. The result is a bigger room, one that breaks down the power imbalance between insiders and outsiders by inviting everyone in together.”

“At our institution, programs that emphasize bringing diverse people together are now more popular than those that serve homogeneous groups. My favorite thing to hear from long-time insiders is, ‘now I come to the museum and see people I wouldn’t meet anywhere else.’ They are helping us build a bigger room.”

Programming is not the only way to be relevant. “In many situations, changing the form—process, hours, pricing, rules, techniques—is more effective. Free Shakespeare in the park makes the precious public. Flipped classrooms send lecture home and recast the classroom as a place for discussion and debate. Libraries that stay open late invite people to learn on their schedules.”

Removing distractions is another way of increasing relevance. “We were regularly attracting 500 people to an evening of free exhibits, live music, and tasty appetizers. But we had a problem.” Very few attendees visited the exhibition galleries where no food was allowed. “We cut the food. We added a hands-on art activity. Within months, attendance had doubled—and everyone was making the trek up the stairs to exhibitions. Within a year, attendance tripled. 1,500 people were coming monthly for an evening of exhibitions, live music, art activities… and no food.”

“Institutions that pursue relevance without connecting it to mission run into problems of clarity and focus… The result is often an exhausting internal battle between ‘outreach’ and ‘core’ activities… Institutions with clear missions sail right past these arguments… It takes courage and focus to maintain one core. It takes open-heartedness and humility to open many doors. It takes trust to hold it all together… The stronger your core, the more you can reach out with confidence. The more doors you open, the more relevant you will be.”

Although tangential to the theme of this book, I feel compelled to point out a couple of stunning data points from a section of the book describing the work of the Foster Youth Museum: “36% of foster youth age out into homelessness. 70% of California prison inmates are former foster youth.” Wow! I’m sure this is a complicated problem to solve, but clearly this community is in need of some strong leadership and innovative approaches, which may also address some root causes other chronic societal problems.

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, California: Museum 2.0, 2016.  Buy from

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