Invite In the City: Learning from Audience Data at the Grand Rapids Art Museum
by Brad TerHaar
Over 100 years after our founding in 1910, the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) is still invested in the vision articulated at our founding. We aim to be a “city wide movement,” a cultural landmark where all in our community feel welcome and invigorated by art and design. To live into this vision, we sought advice from those members of the community who were not engaging with the Museum to understand their experiences and discover how we could better serve their needs.
Gathering Data to Learn from Our Community
In 2016, Slover Linett, an audience research and evaluation firm, conducted a qualitative visitor research study for the Museum. The study helped reveal the visitor experience through the visitor’s eyes, with a focus on how people perceive, navigate, and use the Museum. Based on these results, the Museum staff engaged the Johnson Center’s Community Research Institute (CRI) to conduct an audience research study to better understand, serve, and engage existing and potential audiences. Specifically, we wanted to better understand the community’s awareness and perceptions of GRAM, to identify any barriers to visiting, and to determine any aspects of the Museum that research participants might regard as strengths or areas to expand or improve.
The research conducted by CRI included focus groups, empathy interviews, and in-person surveying. Three target audiences were established for the study:
- young people of color who do not regularly visit GRAM;
- diverse families with young children who do not regularly visit; and
- people who do regularly visit GRAM but are not Museum Members.
Some of the key findings of the study were:
- While a high percentage of survey respondents — 84 percent — have heard of GRAM, of those only 62 percent have visited the Museum.
- There is a low level of awareness of the Museum’s various programs, but feedback from focus groups indicated that many of these programs align with the interests of young people, families, and minorities.
- The absence of bilingual resources is a significant barrier for the Spanish-speaking community.
- Hands-on, participatory experiences are highly desired by potential visitors of the Museum.
- Among those who never visited GRAM before, research participants expressed interest in exhibitions centered on social issues and cultural diversity.
The study reinforced and expanded upon many of the findings from the research conducted by Slover Linett, including the community desire for hands-on experiences, and the gaps in awareness about GRAM and many of the programs it offers. The qualitative data from the CRI study also lent credence to anecdotal and visitor comments GRAM has received over the years about the need for bilingual experiences, and the presentation of artists and artworks reflective of the diversity of the community.
The findings from the study armed GRAM with the data-driven research necessary for strategic institutional decision-making. Over the past year we implemented a series of organizational strategies to continue growing and diversifying our audiences, and the findings from the research have proved to be a valuable filter to help inform this important work.
Exhibitions that Reflect the Cultural Diversity of Our Community
One of the main findings from the research was that visitors were seeking experiences that center on social issues and cultural diversity. This informed our approach in organizing a thoughtfully-conceived suite of exhibitions in 2018.
For example, last summer, we presented the concurrent exhibitions, Anila Quayyum Agha: Intersections and Mirror Variations: The Art of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. The exhibitions featured the works of two internationally-acclaimed women artists: Anila Agha (b. 1965), who is Pakistani-American, and Monir Farmanfarmaian (b. 1922), who is Iranian. Both artists synthesize Islamic tradition and modern abstraction into objects of great beauty and depth.
GRAM also organized a retrospective exhibition of Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas (1923–2014), whose work integrates indigenous South American traditions with Western modernism. Oswaldo Vigas: Transformations was Vigas’ first solo exhibition in the United States.
Then, in the fall, GRAM presented the works of 10 artists for its ArtPrize 10 at GRAM exhibition. The diverse group of local, national, and international artists included four women, three artists who identified as ethnic minorities, and one artist who identified as LGBTQ. Their works of art helped spur a dialogue around important issues facing our community, including racism, homophobia, gun violence, and urban wildlife displacement.
Following ArtPrize, our most recent Michigan Artists Series exhibition featured a new body of work by artist and activist Dylan Miner, a Michigan native of Wiisaakodewinini (Métis) descent. Miner’s exhibition, Dylan Miner: When Water Was Sacred // Trees Were Relatives, focused on the cultural heritage of West Michigan Indigenous communities in relation to colonialism, capitalism, and the depletion of regional resources. The exhibition helped raise awareness and fostered a dialogue around these complex, intertwining issues.
One of the ways GRAM is connecting with new audiences is by providing welcoming and inclusive experiences for diverse visitors, including the region’s growing Spanish-speaking community. GRAM prototyped bilingual Spanish and English signage and exhibition labels for our Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle exhibition in early 2018. We then fully implemented bilingual signage and exhibition labels for the Oswaldo Vigas: Transformations exhibition last summer, and for the Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present, which recently concluded.
At GRAM’s annual celebration for the third grade students who participated in our arts and literacy program, Language Artists: Creature Connections, bilingual interpreters were onsite for Spanish-speaking students and family members, as they interacted with teachers, school administrators, museum education staff, and other families. By providing an environment where language is no longer a barrier, the Museum is connecting more people to cultural experiences, and is helping lay the groundwork for fostering a welcoming, safe space for people of all backgrounds, cultures, and communities.
Over the past year, GRAM has developed interactive, hands-on gallery spaces for each of our major exhibitions. CRI’s research findings revealed that visitors — particularly young people and families — seek participatory experiences when they visit the Museum, and want hands-on spaces they connect to. Recent examples of the hands-on stations GRAM developed include drawing stations, an art and music booth, jumbo-sized puzzles of select artworks, magnet walls, “Rube Goldberg” machines, and a light and shadow station.
GRAM surveyed visitors throughout the year, and found that six in ten visitors participated in the hands-on gallery spaces, of whom 78 percent reported being satisfied or very satisfied with the experience. By offering hands-on learning, GRAM is further engaging visitors and building excitement around the themes and subject matter of the exhibitions on view.
Museums for All
CRI’s audience research found that 16 percent of survey respondents had not heard of GRAM, and of those who were familiar with GRAM, 38 percent have never been to the Museum. To continue making inroads with new audiences and expand access to the arts, GRAM recently joined Museums for All, a nationwide access initiative for low-income families and individuals. Visitors who receive governmental food assistance may now visit GRAM with up to three guests at no cost, with unlimited access throughout the year. Museums for All will help GRAM reach new audiences, who will engage with the artworks on view, in addition to having free access to programming like tours, studio art-making, artist talks, and concerts.
GRAM is excited to continue implementing holistic strategies and programming that are informed by data and audience research like the focus groups and surveying conducted by the Johnson Center’s Community Research Institute. Understanding the needs of the entire community through data-driven research is critical to our efforts toward diversifying and growing our audiences, and furthering our mission of connecting people through art, creativity, and design.
Brad Ter Haar has served as the Foundation Relations Manager at the Grand Rapids Art Museum since 2013. He has previously worked as a Field Interviewer for Mathematica Policy Research Institute, and served as a graduate assistant for Grand Valley State University’s Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Education Project. Brad earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Grand Valley State University and received a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in urban and regional policy and planning from Grand Valley State University.