Denise Montgomery is the founder and president of CultureThrive, a consulting practice focusing on organisational development, program development and implementation, audience development, and communications for arts and cultural organisations. Denise presented a terrific keynote address about audience diversity as part of the 2010 OzCo marketing summit, specifically citing her experience as the Director of Communications & Marketing at the MCA San Diego, as a case study for how museums can broaden audiences. Here she chats to arts interview about diversity.

 Interview by Krista Huebner

What has led MCASD to look at audience diversity as a major strategic objective? And when you talk about ‘diversity’, what are you referring to specifically?

For the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD)—and for me as a practitioner—diversity is about the audience being a reflection of the community we are serving. Because MCASD’s audiences were not as ethnically diverse as the region in which the museum is located, ethnic diversity was our primary focus. MCASD had been a “lily white” organisation in a posh enclave of San Diego, and the organisation successfully redefined itself in the context of California’s high cultural diversity and San Diego’s close proximity to Mexico. [San Diego is 17 miles from Mexico and the San Ysidro border crossing, which is the busiest international border crossing in the world.]

What are some of the practices you implemented in your time at MCASD in order to achieve this strategic objective?

Since the early 1990s, MCASD has been engaged in a series of artistic and institutional initiatives to expand Latino and other diverse audiences and to embrace the bicultural, bilingual community served by the Museum. This has involved a large number of exhibitions, programs, and partnerships and has been woven throughout all aspects of the Museum as a priority. Three major steps to achieving greater ethnic diversity were opening an additional location in downtown San Diego, becoming a bilingual institution through text panels, publications, many visitor services staff, and a substantial commitment to ethnically diverse exhibitions and programming. In other words, this has not been “the Frida Kahlo Syndrome”, where there is a major exhibition and outreach to a targeted audience, but that audience never hears from the organisation again.

I love the statement “Seek to build relationships, not transactions.” The targeted outreach must be looked at as an entry point for relationship building, where it is conveyed to the audience that they are welcome at all times and that the organisation hopes they will return, and that there are many programs potentially of interest. I championed sustained outreach and recognition that diverse audiences are most likely cultural omnivores, with diverse arts and entertainment diets. It is a mistake to assume that audiences are strictly interested in programming that is of their ethnic heritage, although that programming can be a gateway and an important part of the programmatic mix.

Because Diversity itself is such a broad topic, how did you define what success meant to you? i.e. what sorts of metrics did you use to determine whether you’d become “more diverse” as a Museum?

MCASD looked at the ethnic composition of Museum attendees in the galleries as well as programs. One program that has been very successful for young adult audience development—and that young adult audience has been very diverse—is TNT (Thursday Night Thing). Music is a major lure to this evening event, and the Museum regularly programs a diverse line-up of bands and artist talks. Yes, cocktails are served, but people also really check out the art and listen to the artist talks. TNT regularly attracts 1,000+ people, and the multicultural arts and entertainment line-up is integral to this program.

MCASD evolved from attracting virtually no Latino audience to having steady, double-digit percentage Latino attendance for many years running. In an increasingly diverse society, multicultural audience development is important regardless of proximity to border. MCASD as an organisation deserves great credit for making and sustaining a long-term commitment to multicultural audience development. The long-term commitment is essential – this is not just about spikes in attendance.

What are other effective approaches to multicultural audience development?

Research shows that family programming results in organisations twice as likely to draw multicultural audience. Many ethnically diverse families are looking for multigenerational activities. When I spoke in Melbourne also in 2010, a number of people in the audience said it was this point about family programming that really turned on some light bulbs for them.

Another approach that can be effective is to building on a well-known and beloved holiday within a culture and to create programming around it. The Denver Art Museum and Denver Public Library have partnered with the Mexican Consulate and other organisations in a very successful annual Dia del Nino celebration that draws more than 5,000 people each year. This strategy can increase people’s comfort level in coming to a venue for the first time because there is familiarity with the holiday. It also signals “You are Welcome Here”.

You worked as the Director of the city of Denver’s cultural office, how did the issue of diversity shape your work there and the creation of Create Denver?

Working in the public sector I was especially cognisant of how the arts can create pathways to understanding among ethnically diverse groups of people. I was also very focused on access. I love that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes people’s right to experience arts and culture, and I felt it was part of my responsibility working in City government to try to give all people in the community opportunities to experience the arts in their lives.

I worked to have the City-organised programs reflect the community and Denver’s unique cultural heritage. We introduced a Five Points Jazz concert that has grown into a major annual event each spring that is a celebration of Denver’s jazz heritage, and we launched a Latino Rhythms Concert that has become a favourite annual tradition in the community. I also increased the diversity of the appointees on the City’s Commission on Cultural Affairs and of the staff of the Office of Cultural Affairs.

Further reading on diversity and the arts: