There is little doubt that New York City is one of the world’s epicenters of arts and culture. However, despite the plethora of renowned institutions for enjoying and engaging in art, music, performance and literature, the reality is that access to these venues reveals a tale of two cities. While Black and Latino communities continue to expand and proliferate across America, people of color account for considerably less attendance at museums throughout the country than white individuals (Olivares and Piatak, 2021). This is unacceptable in cities such as New York, where these thriving communities make up a significant portion of the overall urban population.
In addition to the racial divide, there is a gap in visitors based on class and socioeconomic status. Lower-income visitors are far less likely to visit museums than middle and upper class individuals. As studies have shown, simply lowering the admission fees, or eliminating them altogether, has not had the intended impact of ushering in a more inclusive audience. As museum educator, Silvana Oderisi, notes (see: Oderisi, 2018), museums must go further than the barrier of admission fees in order to make their institutions more inviting and equitable. A general issue that keeps non-white and lower-income people from visiting museums is the perception that they are not welcome within these environments. This feeling is called “attitude affinities,” and it is based less upon the content a museum displays than the social, emotional and cultural efforts the institution employs to make visitors feel welcome, comfortable and valued. According to The National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations conducted in 2016, some of the main reasons that visitors were discouraged from visiting museums and other cultural institutions (even though they expressed interest in going) are: preference for other leisurely activities where they feel more welcome (i.e. movie theaters and sporting events); difficulty getting to the physical location; visitation conflicts with work schedule; negative prior experiences; and the perception that the museum is not for people like them.
There are exemplary instances of museums making an effort to be relatable, accessible and flexible to more diverse audiences. For example, the Queens Museum has set up local events and programs for those who have been marginalized from broader cultural participation. Instead of asking these individuals and groups to visit the museum, which may present a hardship due to a variety of quality of life issues, the museum has brought site specific cultural initiatives directly to these neighborhoods that have been historically left out of the picture. One of these locations is Corona, a culturally rich working class neighborhood in New York City’s borough of Queens. Coincidentally, the Queens Museum is also located in Corona, but for a variety of reasons (most of which reflect the aforementioned survey responses), local residents expressed and experienced hardships that affected their ability to visit the museum.
In order to address this issue, the museum worked with local neighborhood advocacy organizations to launch the Corona Plaza Project in 2006. The project served as a platform to support local artists and artisans, like Laura Reynoso, who have been setting up display tables on the sidewalk adjacent to Corona Plaza to sell their crafts for many years. In a dialogue between museum staff and community members, it became clear that turning Corona Plaza (which was a parking lot at the time) into a communal space was an essential endeavor. The Queens Museum collaborated with these artisans, community organizations and the Queens Economic Development Corporation, in order to reclaim the space as an outdoor community center and exhibition space. This type of initiative where museums work directly in a neighborhood and present public art and cultural events that are in line with what residents want and need is a great way that museums can be transparent about their mission to serve the culture at large and make diverse groups feel visible and welcomed (see: Brand, 2018).
One of the many disadvantages that stems from the lack of inclusiveness within museums and cultural sites, is that children from marginalized communities are not getting the benefits of quality museum educational programs. Most museums organize workshops for families, as well as after school opportunities that enrich social skills, self-esteem and multidisciplinary critical thinking (see: Geng, 2016). Not only would these programs serve marginalized groups, but the experience of all participants would be enhanced by having a more diverse audience that encapsulates the spectrum of identities and cultures within a city like New York. We know this is true from a pedagogical perspective, because studies and experiences within classrooms show that classrooms containing students with different backgrounds, identities and prior learning experiences, increases the overall support and development that all students receive (see: Hehir et al, 2016).
While a gap in opportunities and resources for lower-income students remains, long standing community organizations like the Fresh Air Fund continue working hard to provide transformative cultural and social experiences for underrepresented children in urban settings. Established in 1877, the organization gives children a chance to enjoy an array of activities in tranquil environments outside of the city during the summer months. One of these activities is art. A recent artful endeavor during the Fresh Air Fund’s summer programming culminated in an online exhibition of young and talented artists from across New York City, titled Portrait of Summer. The work that comprises the exhibition was inspired by an open-ended prompt that the young artists were given, which was to consider what summer means to them. The participants visualized that motivating question using both traditional and digital artmaking materials.
Aside from creating compelling imagery, the artistic process provides both a means to transform oneself physically and emotionally. Engaging in creative activities offers respite from the stresses of daily life, as well as eye-opening reflections that build positive self-esteem and empathetic responses for others. These were clear outcomes of the Fresh Air Funds’ summer art sessions, as evident from the statements from the children who expressed both efficacious and critical thoughts in response to the work they made (you can see a selection of artwork along with quotes from the artists on the Fresh Air Funds’ blog).
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Brand, David. “Do NYC’s Museums Meet Low-Income Visitors Halfway?” City Limits, 10 July 2018. https://citylimits.org/2018/07/10/do-nycs-museums-meet-low-income-visitors-halfway/
Geng, Lisa. “School At The Museum Improves Confidence, Communication, Social Skills.” Cherab.org, 8 November 2016. https://pursuitofresearch.org/2016/11/08/school-at-the-museum/
Hehir, Thomas; Grindal, Todd; Freeman, Brian; Lamoreau, Renée; Borquaye, Yolanda; and Burke, Samantha. (2016). A Summary of the Evidence on Inclusive Education. https://alana.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/A_Summary_of_the_evidence_on_inclusive_education.pdf
Oderisi, Silvana. “Lower Income Families: How Can We Encourage Visitation?” Museum People, . https://museumpeople.wordpress.com/2018/11/21/lower-income-families-how-can-we-encourage-visitation/
Olivares, Alexandra, Piatak, Jack. Exhibiting Inclusion: An Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Museum Participation. Voluntas (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-021-00322-0