High Museum leads way in diversifying museum audience

As the leading art museum in the Southeast, the High Museum boasts a permanent collection of works by greats from Monet and Degas to Kara Walker and Howard Finster. A Rodin sculpture graces its campus on Peachtree Street in Midtown Atlanta. And it’s renowned as a showcase for some of the art world’s most sought after special exhibitions.

Still, the High’s most significant work of late may be who’s walking through its doors. Since 2015, the percentage of nonwhite museum visitors has tripled, from 15 percent to 45 percent.

And that number, which was first reported by Artnet News, keeps going up: Midway through fiscal year 2018, High Director Rand Suffolk said in a recent interview with the AJC, “We’re trending at 48 percent.”

The impressive turnaround is the result of an organization-wide focus on diversity that touches everything from what art goes on the High’s walls to who it’s training to possibly work as curators someday. And it strikes at the heart of an issue confounding museums and other cultural institutions around the country: How can they make themselves relevant to the changing face of their communities?

“It would be safe to say that the major topic of conversation at any meeting of museum directors today is diversity,” said Maxwell Anderson, a former director of several major museums in the U.S. and Canada, including the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. He’s now president of the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which preserves and promotes the work of leading contemporary African-American artists from the Southeast. “There’s a thirst on a part of museum professionals to better reflect the demographics of American society.”

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With good reason. Census data confirms that Atlanta is the cultural heart of an ever more diversifying region. Metro Atlanta’s overall population grew by 24 percent between 2000 and 2010, but the slice that was non-Hispanic white dropped by nearly 10 percent to 50.71 of the total population. Meanwhile, African-Americans made up 32.4 percent of metro Atlanta in 2010, up from 28.6 percent in 2000, and Hispanics/Latinos accounted 10.4 percent (up from 6.4 percent in 2000).

Diversity and inclusion include other factors besides race and ethnicity, of course, such as age, income level and even where people live. And the High isn’t the only Atlanta museum confronting the issue head on. At the Atlanta History Center, inclusivity is the No. 1 initiative in the strategic plan it adopted last year, with a specific focus on “significantly boosting” the number of visitors who are non-white, under the age of 50 and from zip codes beyond north Atlanta.

Among steps the museum on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead has already taken: Hiring an expert consultant on diversity and inclusion issues; convening internal and external focus groups to offer input on exhibitions, interpretation and visitor experience, including the “Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama painting that will open to the public in fall 2018; organizing a daylong staff “cultural competency” training session, and offering a full slate of special programming and free admission on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (A record 4,500 visitors attended this year, up from 3,089 in 2017.)

“We’ve made improvements to our facilities and gardens and programming, but if our audience is still not growing and becoming more reflective of the amazing diversity of Atlanta, it’s kind of all for naught,” said the center’s chief operating officer Paul Carriere. “We feel like we have not just an opportunity but also a responsibility as the Atlanta History Center to reach out and include all of Atlanta.”

Broadening a museum’s reach is a good business strategy, especially if it leads to attendance and membership increases or boosts donations. But for Suffolk, who’d led Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art to a 63 percent attendance jump — including five straight years in which minority attendance exceeded 40 percent — before coming to the High in November 2015, a broader bottom line doesn’t just mean dollars and cents

“I asked the question when I came here, ‘Besides sports events and shopping malls, is there one place here in Atlanta where everyone comes together?’ and I heard crickets,” Suffolk recalled. “We’re working to become that place.”

One key way they’re doing that is by focusing on the art. How better to connect with a diverse community, suggests Kevin Tucker, the High’s chief curator, than by “having a broad spectrum of exhibitions to reflect the diverse community.” At the High in 2017, nine of the 15 shows it presented highlighted works by women artists, artists of color and gay artists.

Often, they don’t have to look far. The High will continue to present important outside exhibitions, Suffolk said, including Yayoi Kusama’s landmark “Infinity Mirrors,” which opens next November. Yet what he calls the museum’s “home team of curators” are also being encouraged to develop exhibitions themselves. The High’s permanent holdings include some of the world’s finest collections of self-taught and folk art, Southern decorative arts and civil rights photography. (The current exhibition, “A Fire That No Water Could Put Out: Civil Rights Photography,” features iconic prints drawn from the High’s collection.)

That laser focus extends to acquisitions and even to identifying and training future curators. In a major acquisition for its folk and self-taught art department last April, the High received 54 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, including pieces by Thornton Dial, Joe Minter and Lonnie Holley. The American art department acquired 12 portraits of Native American tribal leaders by antebellum painter Henry Inman as a gift from longtime Atlanta collectors Ann and Tom Cousins and a Romare Bearden collage as part of a special gift from the estate of Louisa McIntosh, who was one of the first Atlanta dealers to represent artists of color.

Meanwhile, the High is part of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program, an intensive two-year paid training program for students from “groups historically underrepresented in the curatorial field,” all of whom first go through a paid one-week Summer Academy at the museum. Six fellows have completed the program so far.

“They have the clear intent of going on to graduate school and becoming museum professionals,” said Tucker, adding that the High’s program grant was recently renewed for five more years. “As important as the question is of how is your audience reflective of the community, it’s also how reflective is your staff?”

But artwork alone doesn’t bring a more diverse crowd through the door. The High also simplified its pricing structure (everyone now pays the same general admission fee of $14.50) and came up with a new marketing plan and slogan (“Here for you”) to make the museum feel more inclusive, more of the time.

“In the past, it (marketing) was whatever the blockbuster exhibition might be, which really limits people’s overall view of what the museum has to offer,” explained High marketing and communications director Kristie Swink Benson. Forty percent of the marketing budget (up from 20 percent before 2015) now goes toward promoting regular programming like tours, Art Talks Back, Friday Jazz and the free, family-friendly Second Sundays events, she said. “It’s letting people know that we’re here all the time and they should be, too.”

Message received, it seems. Average attendance for Friday Jazz is 1,500 this year, compared to 1,200 in fiscal year 2017. And it’s nearly doubled for Second Sundays, from 2,700 people in 2017 to 4,900 per session midway through this fiscal year. And overall, 44 percent of the High’s visitors have household incomes of under $70,000 per year and 46 percent have less than a bachelor’s degree.

“Those are significant statistics if we say we want to change Atlanta and make it better,” said Suffolk, adding that the museum’s next big challenge is converting visitors into sustaining members.”That’s exciting if the High can help bridge gaps and be a place where people in Atlanta can naturally come together.”

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