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How can arts organisations ensure they matter to their audiences and funders? Sara Lock has been learning from Nina Simon, author of The Art of Relevance.

Photo of woman and girl dancing
Beyond Borders at Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

In 2011, Nina Simon became Executive Director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) and embarked on a mission to matter. The organisation was “on the brink of not mattering into extinction”. They had no money and were talking about closing their doors.

In the current funding climate, this scenario may sound all too familiar, but it alerted Nina to a bigger problem. The reason there was no money was that there were not enough people to whom MAH mattered in its community.

If our organisations and work are to matter to enough people for them to be sustainable then we need to understand our outsiders

Embarking on a mission to matter saved MAH from extinction. The story of the museum’s transformation into the thriving institution it is today acts both as an inspiration and a cautionary tale. It is a reminder of what happens when we lose sight of what matters to our communities and our funders.

We are fortunate in the cultural sector to be regularly reminded that we do matter to people. Every ticket purchased, every visit made and every glowing review is an endorsement of our work. But what about the people to whom we don’t yet matter?

Insiders and outsiders

The separation between loyal followers and people to whom we don’t yet matter is beautifully illustrated in Nina’s definition of relevance as a key that unlocks meaning. It’s not the meaning itself but the connection point that opens the door so that people can have a powerful experience.

Our insiders, those who love the arts, have a key to our door. The key sits on their key ring and they can enter our organisations easily without a second thought. They know our work, they’re interested in what we do and they know how to book so it’s easy for them to attend.

There are many other people outside our doors who don’t even see the door. They don’t have a key or any way of imagining that what’s inside might bring value to them. If you love the arts and you have that key, it’s easy to forget that you need a key to enter. But if you don’t have it, it’s impossible to break through that door.

Nina’s definition of relevance stems from the two criteria that linguistics researchers Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber suggest make something relevant: positive cognitive effect and effort. For something to be relevant to you it must provide meaningful information that you can access with minimal effort.

If our organisations and work are to matter to enough people for them to be sustainable then we need to understand our outsiders. We need to know what they value, what is meaningful to them and what we can change in the way we do things to create an effortless experience.

Changes in strategy and purpose

In the past five years, MAH has quadrupled attendance and more than doubled its staff and budget. Nina attributes that transformation to a change in strategy and purpose. It set about making the museum a social gathering space and looking at art and history as stories and ideas to be found, sparked and used to connect communities. It turned the focus to the community and what was important to local people and started articulating the impact they wanted to make through culture.

The art exhibits and programming MAH had been doing mattered to a small group of people but it didn’t matter enough to enough people. The idea of using creativity and culture to build a stronger and more connected community got people excited. The community got involved, they participated and supported the museum financially as well.

To welcome outsiders MAH also changed its programme and opened up new doors that were relevant and visible to them. It ran pop-up events in bars and familiar environments that appealed to people and decreased the perceived effort of attending.

Beginning your mission to matter

MAH’s story is not a template for achieving relevance but there are five key steps we can take from their journey:

  1. Make sure your organisation is clear about who it cares about the most – who are the outsiders to whom you really want to matter?
  2. Become a guest in that community – enter as a learner and explorer, not to sell anything but to take a genuine interest in what matters to people.
  3. Ask honest questions of your organisation. What isn’t working? What do we need to change?
  4. Be prepared to re-centre your programme and open up new doors that are relevant, visible and appealing to the outsiders you care about the most.
  5. Be ready to have difficult conversations with insiders who may feel threatened by or disagree with changes.

Some of those steps may feel challenging. Taking your lead from the community may feel like relinquishing artistic control. Change may feel laden with the risk of alienating insiders. But if the alternative is to end up where MAH began, on the brink of not mattering into extinction, then perhaps that’s a risk worth taking.

Sara Lock is Associate Editor at the AMA.

This article is inspired by Nina Simon’s keynote speech at AMA Conference 2016 and her book The Art of Relevance. All keynote speeches are available to watch on the AMA website, as are fundraising sessions presented in partnership with the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy Programme.

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Photo of Sara Lock