How the High Museum in Atlanta Tripled Its Nonwhite Audience in Two Years

As museums across the US seek to diversify their audiences, the High offers a valuable case study.

Visitors in front of a work by Anish Kapoor. Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

It’s a fact the art world has long known: Museums in the US have a diversity problem.

The demographics of museum audiences and staff are wildly out of step with the country’s population. According to a survey conducted in 2010 by Reach Advisors—the most recent comprehensive study available—museum- and gallery-goers in the US are 89 percent white. That’s significantly more than the US population in 2010 (72 percent white) and vastly more than the US population today (62.6 percent—and dropping).

Most museums understand that in order to remain relevant, they will have to find a way to diversify their audiences. But many have not figured out how—or made it enough of a priority.

The High Museum in Atlanta, however, has done both. Over the past two years, the museum’s nonwhite audience has tripled, from 15 percent to 45 percent. Now, its visitors more closely—although not exactly—mirror the population of the Atlanta metro area, of which 51 percent are people of color.

“A lot of it is about owning it from top to bottom, inside and out,” says Rand Suffolk, the museum’s director, who joined the High in 2015. “For all intents and purposes, I’m the chief diversity officer of our organization.”

Of course, the High isn’t the only institution working successfully to change the demographics of its audience. But the steps it has taken may prove useful to other institutions. We spoke to Suffolk about how they did it.

1. Start with content.

The High is perhaps best known for its colossally expensive three-year partnership with the Louvre, which brought works from the Paris museum to Atlanta for a high-profile series of exhibitions. In recent years, the museum has organized more shows in-house, allowing curators to tailor projects to their own audience. Of the 15 shows the High presented this year, Suffolk says, five highlighted the work of artists of color, including the Atlanta-based muralist Hale Woodruff and the Kenyan-British potter Magdalene Odundo. “You can always do another white guy show,” Suffolk says, but that doesn’t mean you should.

Magdalene Odundo’s Symmetrical Variegated Form (1990). Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Curators have also reduced the total number of shows the museum presents and focused more attention on the High’s collection, the majority of which was assembled after 1999 and includes a strong representation of African American artists. “We’ve been maybe a half step ahead of most of our peers when it comes to diversity of collecting over the past decade, and we’re looking at how to better reflect that,” Suffolk says.

2. Change your marketing strategy.

Before 2015, the High spent the vast majority of its marketing budget on the promotion of a few blockbuster exhibitions. The result, Suffolk says, was that most locals didn’t think of the museum as a place that fostered regular, repeat visits. If the blockbuster shows didn’t appeal, they had no reason to go.

Now, the High spends 60 percent of its marketing budget to promote a cross-section of its exhibitions. (“There was a little bit of condescension in telling people come see this show but not invite you back for five other shows,” Suffolk notes.)

The High Museum of Art campus with Roy Lichtenstein’s House III and The Shade by Rodin in foreground. Photo courtesy of High Museum of Art.

It spends the remainder of its budget—40 percent—to promote the museum’s programs and pitch it more broadly as a destination for families and young professionals. The High also adopted a friendly new motto: “Here for you.” The slogan was translated into the four languages most commonly spoken in Atlanta and put on the back of t-shirts.

“We’re doing away with highlighting one gateway for people to connect with the museum,” Suffolk says. “That was a fundamental shift for us.”

3. Tweak your admission fees.

For years, the High Museum had one of the highest general admission fees outside of New York City. (One ticket cost $19.50 for adults; seniors and students cost $16 each; children were $12.) Last year, however, the museum opted to overhaul its tiered structure and charge everyone the same price: $14.50. As Andrew Russeth has pointed out in ARTnews, the move was largely symbolic: Because it raised the price for children, it didn’t actually make the High much more affordable to families. Suffolk notes that the High relies on admission income slightly more than most museums (it accounts for 8 percent of its operating budget, a few percentage points above the industry standard). But he believes the move has made potential visitors feel that the museum is making an effort to welcome them. “We’re telling people, ‘We’re listening to you, we hear we’ve gotten out of kilter with the marketplace,’” he says.

A second Sunday program at the High Museum. Photo by Alphonso Whitfield, courtesy of the High Museum of Art.

Suffolk also notes that the museum is open for free on the second Sunday of every month. The program, which also offers special tours and workshops, has proven immensely popular; attendance nearly doubled, to an average of 4,900 visitors, in the latest fiscal year.

4. Get your docents involved.

In recent years, the High has also seen a radical change in the demographics of its docents—the people who guide students and visitors through the museum and may be the first faces they see when they enter. In 2014, the incoming class of docents was 11 percent people of color. By 2017, it was 33 percent.

Rand Suffolk. Credit: Cat Max Photography. Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art.

Suffolk says he can’t take much credit for this one. “Truly on their own they have bought into the idea and said, ‘We need to diversify who we are,’” he says. A year and a half ago, the docents created a committee dedicated to diversity and inclusion. The group meets monthly to help coordinate training for existing docents and reach out to organizations in the Atlanta area to recruit new members.

5. Diversify your staff.

In this area, Suffolk admits, the High still has a lot of work to do. Its staff has only become slightly less white over the past two years, from 69.6 percent in 2015 to 65.5 percent in 2017. (This is in line with the broader industry, according to a recent study, which found that museum staffs are, on average, 72 percent white—a figure that includes all employees, not just curatorial staff.)

The High is one of six museums that received funding from the Mellon Foundation to support two curatorial fellowships for students from communities that are historically under-represented in the museum field. In November, the Mellon announced an additional $3.25 million to fund the program for five more years. To date, six fellows have gone through the program at the High. And a paid summer program for undergraduate students interested in museum work, also funded by the Mellon, has led to at least one full-time hire.

There is much more work to be done. But Suffolk says it’s possible to move the needle without spending a ton of additional money. In addition to making its audience more racially diverse, the museum has, for example, made a concerted effort to become more accessible to people with disabilities. So it discontinued its audio guides—which Suffolk says were rarely used—and used the money to hire an ASL interpreter for every public program at the museum.

“These things aren’t rocket science and they don’t have fairy dust,” Suffolk says. “It’s just about executing on them.”

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