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How the High Museum Defies Museum Diversity Trends
Episode 87

How the High Museum Defies Museum Diversity Trends

CI to Eye with Kristie Swink Benson

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Kristie and Erik discuss how Atlanta's High Museum programs beyond blockbusters, targets their institutional marketing to a three-to-five-mile radius around the museum, and employs thoughtful engagement efforts to attract and engage a more diverse visitor base.

Erik Gensler: Kristie, thank you so much for joining me here today.

Kristie Swink Benson: Thank you for having me, Erik.

Erik Gensler: You are someone who didn’t build your career in the arts and your role of Director of Communications at the High Museum, where you’ve been for about three and a half years, you came from Southern Gas and the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health. So, your first role in the arts, and I think the topic of hiring from within the arts versus looking outwards is an important one for exploration. So, I’d love for you to talk about what it was like to move into a senior role in an arts institution coming from other sectors.

Kristie Swink Benson: So, I’ve heard this a lot and people always … I think they’re surprised to learn that I have not, as I like to say, grown up in the arts, but I think that it gives me a great perspective because I can come in with a different lens and look at things a little bit differently, especially as we talk about how we talk to our audience and how we, maybe, make our business more accessible to them. And so, I think that that’s been key for me. It was not difficult to make the transition, simply because I view communications as a foundational skill and I think anyone that has that skill can take it anywhere and learn the business that they’re in and apply it accordingly. So, communicating is important. The way that we do that is equally important across industries. And so, I don’t think that that necessarily changes and that’s how I’ve always approached it. And so, it was really nice for me to have experience in other industries and be able to come to the arts and kind of merge my personal and professional passions and be able to do all of it at one time and a lot of what I’ve heard is that in museums, specifically, people usually hire from within. So, they start their career very entry-level in that space and they kind of grow their career from that point and I think it is good to have a difference of perspective, as we talk about diversity and inclusion and all the reasons why those things make organizations better as a whole.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. I’d love to turn to that topic and I don’t think it will surprise anyone listening for me to say that museums in the United States have challenges with diversity, to put it nicely. And we know the demographics of museum audiences and staff are just out of sync with the country’s population as a whole. And I think it’s fascinating that’s not true at the high museum. Can you talk about your audience and staff makeup? And then we can talk about how you got there.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes. So, we participated in a study in 2018. It was the Andrew Mellon national study for museums and it looked at staff. So, really, ethnicity, gender, and kind of intellectual leadership from that perspective. And in 2018, the way we matched up against the national average was, there were 76% white intellectual leadership staff by race and ethnicity and at the High Museum, we had 59% white intellectual staff. For the national average, it was 7% Black or African-American; for the High, it was 26%. And then so on and so forth. And so, as we continue, we see more of, I will say, an equalizer in terms of demographics, of diversity and ethnicity, but really those two categories were astonishing, if you look at the national average compared to where the High Museum is, and it continues to, I think, excel. So, right now in 2020, 60% of our employees are white and 40% are nonwhite. And these are numbers that we continuously look at because they’re important and we want to see, basically, how we’re measuring representation within our organization. And so, again, continuing with that diversity of voice, which has really extended into how we also welcome audiences to the museum. So, really making it a point to look like the representation in Metro Atlanta. And so, for the High, our visitation is 51% diverse audience, which is important because that mirrors Metro Atlanta.

Erik Gensler: That’s incredible. How are you tracking that?

Kristie Swink Benson: So, we have a couple of different ways. Primarily, we have polls that are set up throughout the museum and people are able to self-select and answer questions. And so, there are demographic questions. There are household income questions. There are education questions. We have questions in the poll: Why did you come? Who did you come with? So, we want to know all of these things and they’re filtered for school groups, which is really important because as you get school groups that come into the museum—obviously that’s different this year—but that can definitely skew the numbers. And so, when we look at this data, we pull out that particular subset of data so that we can really get to the crux of who’s visiting and what does that look like?

Erik Gensler: When would you say the museum made this a strategic priority and what were things like before then?

Kristie Swink Benson: So, I’ve been with the museum for three and a half years, like you mentioned. Rand Suffolk, who’s the Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., Director of the museum came in in 2015. And so, he came in November, so really at the end of that year, and really started to look at what ways the museum was doing well and where there might be opportunities for the museum to do better. And one of the areas that he saw an opportunity was definitely visitation. So, when he came to the High in 2015, visitation was right at 15% nonwhite.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Kristie Swink Benson: And so, now we’re at 51%. And so, it really has taken us … The analogy I use is people see a tree when it’s fully grown, but you don’t see it-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Kristie Swink Benson: (laughs) … when it started from a seedling and, kind of, all the care and feeding that you had to put into making that tree grow. And so, I would kind of use the same comparison with our visitation and with our audience in general. We’ve put a lot of care and feeding into making sure that people feel welcome to come to the museum and that they see themselves represented within the museum’s walls, within the galleries. So, all of that’s important and that, really, is not just walking through the door, but also the exhibitions that we present and that we showcase so that people can feel like they really are represented in the museum. So, kind of to give you an idea of how that’s changed, since, I guess, in 2016, we were showing about 71% women artists, artists of color, and LGBTQ artists. And so, I would say we we’ve stayed really right on par with that, and it’s gone up and down a little bit, but we definitely overall have been showing 62% of our exhibitions feature women artists, artists of color, LGBTQ artists. And I think that’s important because, again, that’s representation and that’s how people see themselves in the museum.

Erik Gensler: The 71% was when, and I went down to 61%? But it just stayed high?

Kristie Swink Benson: So, that 71% was in 2016, and we actually have done a study from 2011 all the way through to 2020, again, because we keep a running list on the numbers. And so, really, the 62% that I mentioned is an average of all of the years that we’ve kept those numbers and it’s really incredible to see how it’s changed from 2011 to where we are now in 2020.

Erik Gensler: So, you talk about the programming, obviously, and really being conscious of it, talking about it, measuring it.

Kristie Swink Benson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erik Gensler: How has the marketing evolved to support those goals?

Kristie Swink Benson: So, in 2017, when I came in, one of the things that Rand and I had a very candid discussion about was this kind of “death by curation,” is what you hear it called in the industry. And it’s really, kind of, the blockbuster exhibition model. So, blockbuster after blockbuster, having to, year after year, kind of one-up yourself, if you will, to give people the next biggest and best thing. And Rand, particularly, thought that that was not a sustainable model. And so, we really talked about, from a marketing perspective, when you already have the prospect of almost changing your brand every three to four months—because that’s how quickly exhibitions change—it really creates, I think, challenges for you when you go into certain communities thinking that … Well, a good example, or the example that we always use is kind of the Frida and Diego exhibition. And I actually saw that exhibition. I want to say it was around 2016-17 timeframe. And from what I understand, there was a lot of interest and a lot of resources put into what was the blockbuster model. So, taking the majority of your marketing budget, kind of putting all of your eggs in one basket and marketing to certain groups of people because you thought that that might be what they were interested in. And I very frankly shared with him when I started that that would not be our strategy, that we would not assume what people liked based on their ethnicity or based on how they were categorized, but we would tell them what they would experience and then allow them to make that decision on their own. So, that’s really how we started to think about marketing, when we would let people know what exhibitions we had in place. And then, the other thing we really wanted to focus on is, previously, I think there was a huge strategy around the drive market or regional marketing and how you look at the drive market and put different marketing ads out there to entice people to drive from Florida or to drive from different states to come into Atlanta. But we were missing people that were in our own backyard. So, there are people within a three-to-five-mile radius of the museum that have never been and it’s not that they don’t know about the High; it’s simply that they just haven’t made it over here. And so, we really, kind of, thought about what it would mean to really talk to our neighbors, right? Cause we live in neighborhoods and we know that over the last 10 years, neighborhoods have become hyper-local, right? So, people can walk out of their door and go to a restaurant, go experience art and culture in a different way that might not have been categorized, necessarily, in that way previously. And so, we knew that we were working really hard against traffic (laughs), against the fact that you could walk out of your door and go sit on a patio with your friends, at the time, and enjoy a nice meal and maybe get some culture in that way. And we wanted to give people a reason to come back into the city because the museum is located in the heart of Midtown, which is smack dab in the middle of the city. So, if you work here but you live somewhere else, what could entice you to come back into the city to experience art and culture at the museum? And so, that’s what we really focused on. How many people can walk to the museum from their homes? What are people thinking about or how can we make it easy for them to have this experience and not be turned off by this invitation that only comes once a year, as opposed to, now, all the time, because we’re in front of them all the time?

Erik Gensler: So, given your limited marketing budget, rather than try to focus on the broader suburbs or Florida or other markets where … You know, I see it all the time, like, in the (laughs) … You see these full page ads in The New York Times for museums and I always say, like, “God, what you could do on social media for the entire year-“

Kristie Swink Benson: Right.

Erik Gensler: “… for the amount of one of those ads!” So, you took the limited dollars and focused it on a really tight radius. Is that right?

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes, that’s correct. And we’ve seen the benefit of doing that because, again, consistency, right? You want to continue to be in front of people. How many times do you have to touch someone before they really pay attention to an ad? And so, as people are approaching the museum and saying, “Well, why don’t you try this? Or why don’t you try that?” which all sounds great. But as we think about, again, getting in front of people and then people actually digesting the ad and also that becoming a behavioral change, so how do we get them to really transition from seeing it to then physically coming into the space and engaging with us, which is what we want?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative), so you can have reach and frequency if you focus.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes.

Erik Gensler: And talking to everybody … So many markers want to talk to everybody. We want everyone to know about us. You’re talking to nobody!
Kriste: Right.

Erik Gensler: And it sounds like you’ve really defined your minimum viable audience as the people within a tight radius around the museum and it’s working.

Kristie Swink Benson: It is working. If you think about the Metro Atlanta area, within a three-to-five-mile radius of the museum, you hit a lot of different types of people, a lot of demographics, whether you’re talking about education or whether you’re talking about household income or whether you’re talking about ethnicity, there are a lot of different types of people, just within a three-to-five-mile radius of the museum. So, it’s not to say that we don’t see value in the drive market or we don’t want to talk to those people, but we’ve found that when we focused, those folks come anyway, and now what we’re doing is we’re getting people that live really close by, that feel the museum is important—or maybe they wanted to come and just have never made it down—now, we’re really talking to them and not just talking to them, but really providing an invitation, an intentional invitation, to come and really experience what we have to offer.

Erik Gensler: And do you think that focus away from blockbusters—which I want to talk more about—and on a tight radius has really helped with the demographic evolution to be more diverse and representative of the city?

Kristie Swink Benson: I think so, because if you think about word of mouth, we know how important that is. So, you come into the museum, you have an amazing time as a first-time museum-goer. And what we’re seeing is that a lot of people are coming to the museum for the very first time. A lot of people that take the pulse surveys that I talked about earlier, which you self-select to take those, are saying that this is their first time, that they haven’t been a member of the museum. And so, we want that experience to be amazing and we know that that experience starts long before they ever walked through the door. And so, if they have an amazing experience because they’ve come to the museum, they’ve made a day of it, and they go back and they tell five of their closest friends that this was great and you should do it, now, we really are starting to see momentum, not just in the ads we’re placing, but also in the third party affirmation that we’re getting from people.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, which we know is modern marketing.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes.

Erik Gensler: Your customers are your marketing department.

Kristie Swink Benson: Absolutely.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. The study from DataArts at Southern Methodist University that shows the likelihood of attendance drops off with each mile away from an institution from a few years ago is ringing true and that really just totally supports what you’re seeing happen and I’ve never seen such a strong example of it, so thank you (laughs).

Kristie Swink Benson: Thank you!

Erik Gensler: So, within that three to five miles, can you talk about the marketing mix and how you stay focused on that area?

Kristie Swink Benson: Sure. So, definitely, three to five miles, I would say, from the digital billboard perspective, we’ve really kind of looked at the best placement for people who are driving in—if they’re still driving in-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Kristie Swink Benson: … and looking at ways to capture them so it really is consistent, consecutive message. So, if you’re coming down 85 North into the city, you’re going to see one billboard that hits you in the north. Then, you’ll see a billboard that hits you, literally, in the heart of the city. And if you’re driving past, so south, you’re going to see the largest billboard, called the “iconic billboard,” and I want to say, you know, it’s pretty big.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Kristie Swink Benson: Definitely the largest billboard in Atlanta. And you’ll see our messages on that. And so, we have great partners in the digital space. Obviously, we’re a nonprofit. And so, you have to get creative to stretch your dollar and maximize that and make the most of it. We do the hyper-local publications. And so, again, getting back to those neighborhoods and making sure we have a presence in that three-to-five-mile radius, so that there’s always an invitation for people to come to the museum. And we’ve also done some interesting things, actually, in our neighborhood. So, we call them our bookends, but there were some blighted buildings in our neighborhood, which is Midtown, and we worked with Dewberry Capital, whose, they’ve been a really, really great partner with us. So, the buildings were kind of … nobody was using them. They had previously been restaurants and other things. And so, we said, “Well, what if we take this property and we show people what’s inside the museum by placing beautiful images in these places and spaces? And so, it really gives people an idea, who maybe haven’t been to the museum and want to stop and get a selfie with one of the images that we’ve put up, and it gives them an opportunity to see what’s inside the museum’s walls. And hopefully, it encourages them to come in. So, it’s a little bit of advertising, but also a little bit of beautification at the same time. And we’re proud of that project.

Erik Gensler: And when you’re doing digital ads, are you heavying up on the really tight geographic radius? Because, you know, when you’re doing social media ads, like, “Oh, I can target this many people within 25 miles, but this many people if I go 50?” And I think there’s, like, a real, it’s hard to say no to more, but I think you can definitely get more frequency if you stay very tight. So, I’m curious how you, with limited dollars, how you resist that urge to go broader.

Kristie Swink Benson: Again, try … I mean, we just know we can’t be all things to all people. And so, if we stay focused and if we stay tight, I think we stay true to what we are trying to accomplish, which is to get people to come into the museum and engage. We use a lot of our own data, zip code data, to really think about what areas we we’d like to target.

Erik Gensler: Organizationally, when you’re talking on your senior staff, is there talked about a lot how you’re really trying to support a tight area around Midtown Atlanta?

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes, everybody is on the same page from an executive leadership perspective. And I think the key is, really, from a communications perspective, thinking about how we connect the dots for all the channels that we have. So, I didn’t mention, we’re on Medium and we use Medium as a platform for our blog. We then utilize the stories that are written on Medium to put in our email communications and our newsletters. So, again, trying to further the reach, further the narrative and the conversation that we’re having with our own audience about how we can deepen their knowledge of what’s in the galleries, even when they’re not there. So, that’s really important. So, it really … Communication, then, as I see it, becomes a support function for the entire museum. So, we really are touching everything and becoming, kind of, this great instrument for the museum to speak through these different areas.

Erik Gensler: You talked about evangelism and having the people who come be your spokespeople. Is there anything you’re doing onsite or just marketing efforts to support that idea, specifically?

Kristie Swink Benson: In terms of evangelism and getting people to go back out? You know, one of the things that we have a social media program and we see these individuals as an extension of the museum. We don’t go and get people that don’t love the museum already. So, we really do try to work with people with diversity of voice, diversity of thought, that come to the museum often, that has built a relationship with us, so that they can kind of be an extension of what we’re doing and they can really go out. And as we think about, kind of, these micro-communities within, within social media, that they’re speaking to the micro communities of people that support them that are within Atlanta. So, that’s something that we’ve done and that’s a fairly new program. We’re going into our second year with the social media program, but it’s really been successful for us. And I think we’ve really approached it in a very strategic way, again, so that it is still hyper-local and people see these individuals at the museum interacting with us, even on days when they’re not doing any posting for us. And I think that’s super important. So, that would be one example I could use to say that we created these evangelists for us to go out and spread the good news.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) I want to go back to the museum’s reliance on blockbusters and the intentional effort to move away from that. And I’d like to just hear you dig a little deeper of your conversations or the conversations at your leadership level about what happens with audiences when you’re relying on blockbusters, how you move away from them, and what impact that has.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes, which is a very important conversation. So, Colleen Dilenschneider, you’ve had her on your show, she talks a lot about the blockbuster model and getting away from that. And so, we definitely read Know Your Own Bone and we like it. But rand has always had, I think, a thought around the blockbuster model and really not showing people that the museum is essential to the community and has something to offer all the time. So, that’s really how we think about it. If you’re focusing on the blockbuster model, then people only maybe come see you once or twice a year, because maybe that’s the only time that you have a show that’s indicative of a blockbuster that they feel is worthy to bring them into the galleries. If you say, “No matter when you come to the museum, you’re going to have an amazing experience, whether that’s through our programming, whether that’s through our events, or whether that’s through an exhibition that we bring in our doors,” that gives people a reason to come. And then that re repeat visitation, which is really what we’re, what we’re after, right? Not that it just be a one-and-done and that you come to the museum and experience at one time, but that you say, “This is my place. This is where I come. This is where I want to be. This is where I’m going to bring my friends and my family if they’re coming into town because I know that there’s going to be a great experience there.” I think that’s the most important thing and that’s how you get away from that model. So, again, that “quality time, every time,” and I wouldn’t put that in an ad, but definitely kind of-

Erik Gensler: It’s not bad! (Laughs)

Kristie Swink Benson: Yeah, it’s not bad! But definitely, that notion that there’s always something at the museum for you to see, experience, do, and you don’t have to rely on or wait for one type of exhibition to come. And I’ve found that, you know, it’s the smaller exhibitions sometimes that sneak up on you and really surprise you in a way that you might not have been expecting. And for me, when I first came to the museum in 2017, we had a very small exhibition by Amy Elkins called, “Black Is the Day and Black Is the Night,” and it just blew me away. It’s not an … I mean, she’s not an artist that I was familiar with, but really, just coming and getting a chance to experience that is really what we want people to see and what we want people to feel. So, it’s not always about the blockbuster.

Erik Gensler: And so, intentionally in your marketing, in your press and your social media and in your advertising, in your other outreach, how are you talking about the museum, not using the traditional blockbuster model?

Kristie Swink Benson: So, we definitely have a couple of campaigns, one that we’re really proud of, and it’s really been an incremental change. So, we kind of started with a “Here for you” message when I first came on board, that’s really what the museum was utilizing, and really thinking about this notion of being in the South, being hospitable, and wanting folks to know, “If you came to the museum, we’re here for you. Anything you need, we’re going to be able to provide it.” Kind of like Burger King, “Have it your way,” but I guess a little different.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Kristie Swink Benson: And then we kind of transitioned. We went through a reinstallation and that was in 2018. And so, we really, kind of, reimagined our entire collection, the permanent collection. We really thought about how different collecting areas speak to one another and what narratives we could tell around that. And so, in 2018, we closed down for about six months leading up to that reinstallation opening, a grand opening for people, and then we transitioned to, “Art Plus You,” because without … A museum doesn’t really exist without the people that come in to visit it. So, we can have all this amazing art on the wall. If nobody comes to see it, then it really doesn’t make that much of a difference. And so, “Art Plus You” was really a campaign around putting our visitors right beside artwork and saying that we see you here, we want you here, and we wanted people to see themselves in the museum. And now, we’ve really rethought what that means as we’ve been out of reinstallation, now, for two years, people have been able to see the work that we put into, kind of, recreating the galleries and telling stories in a different way. And so, it’s all about, “My place for …” and you fill in the blank however you want to. And so, we really launched that particular campaign, literally right before COVID. But the great thing about these campaigns, I would say, is that they really are evergreen and they are designed to have a long shelf life and they’re designed not to get stale. And so, we can change out the imagery. We can change out the words and it really still is the same campaign, but we’re getting at the same thing that the museum is your place for … right now it’s reawakening because we’re reopened and so, we want people to rediscover what they love about the museum, but that may change as we get out of COVID and become something else. And so, it really does give us a lot of different avenues to connect with people and for them to see that the museum can be anything you want it to be.

Erik Gensler: I love that for so many reasons. One you read so much in marketing about how people care about one thing, mostly, and that’s themselves. And so, when you say, “Art Plus You,” it’s perfect. It’s you (laughs), and then the museum! And your other campaign, “My place for …” Who’s coming first? “My.”

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes.

Erik Gensler: And it puts the person first. And when you’re on the blockbuster model, it’s putting the blockbuster first. It’s all about the blockbuster and when the blockbusters over, you’re not there anymore. I love that. And, you know, it’s like what, Michael Kaiser calls institutional marketing versus show-specific marketing. Most arts organizations spend all their money on show-specific marketing and have no money left for any institutional marketing, but you’re doubling down on the institutional marketing in such a smart, strategic way. I love that.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yeah, and from a budgeting perspective, we talked about that it really needed to be 60/40, right? Special exhibitions are always going to be a part of what we do, right? And it’s important. But what we’re saying is, the “quality time every time” piece is just as important as the exhibitions that we bring. And so, we just need all of it to work together and I think from a leadership perspective, we’ve doubled down on that and said that this is kind of the mix that we want, as we think about how we spend money against our budget to compliment these different areas.

Erik Gensler: And all of these things working together really resulted in a much broader representation of how Atlanta looks inside the museum.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes, absolutely.

Erik Gensler: Have you gotten a lot of press about that? I mean, it seems like such an amazing headline, especially in this moment, when so many arts organizations are asking, “How do we do this?” I mean, y’all are a perfect case study (laughs).

Kristie Swink Benson: Well, you know, we got some really good coverage around what we were doing in 2007. That was really about, kind of, tripling our nonwhite visitation, which I think was really important. And we followed up and kind of shared this ongoing approach that we have to really looking at the numbers, really thinking about how we continue to extend this invitation to people, how we continue to talk to our audience and make sure that they feel welcome. And our Second Sunday event … again, COVID has changed everything. But to see that programming grow … in 2016, little over 2,000 people on average were coming every second Sunday of the month. So ,that’s our free day. That’s the day that you can kind of call it an open house to the community. Anybody who wants to come to the museum can come for free. And we were averaging about 2,200 people in 2016. In 2017, 2,700 people. So, I came on right about that time and there wasn’t a whole lot of marketing of the program. It was kind of really word of mouth, grassroots. And I said, “Well, let’s put some marketing dollars behind it.” We had gotten a grant for about $25,000, which I thought was amazing for six months. And I said, “Let’s see what happens if we start to put some marketing behind the grassroots, this kind of already-occurring with people coming to the museum free on every second Sunday of the month. In 2018, we saw the average jump to 4,700. And then, in 2019—this is FY19 cause our fiscal year starts in June and goes through May. But in fiscal year ‘19 for us, we were averaging 5,600 visitors every second Sunday of the month, every walk of life, every color of the rainbow, coming together at the museum. And it really was an amazing time to see it firing on all cylinders, if you will. And just people enjoying programming and enjoying the galleries and being able to see these exhibitions in a different way. So, marketing is definitely important. The word of mouth is important and when you put it all together, I think it really does do exactly what, what it intends to do, which is speak to people and get them to engage with you in a different way.

Erik Gensler: What was the secret sauce of that campaign and that $25,000? What do you think made it so effective?

Kristie Swink Benson: Oh, my gosh. The cutest pictures of kids and families in the gallery, again, just letting people know that this was their day to come to the museum and enjoy it, right? If you were skeptical about the museum, you didn’t think it was the place for you. Come on this day. It’s free. Try it out, see if you like it. And what we found is, people have, just with the programming that we’ve produced, with the offerings that we’ve had for families and, really, I think, giving families somewhere to go I don’t think people think of families when they think of museums. I don’t think that that is necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. Most people are a little nervous, if they have little ones, that the museum is not a place for them. And so, by having the programming in place, when we went through the reinstallation, we doubled the footprint of our family galleries, which is amazing for the kids to really be able to experience and explore and touch things. And I think just having those types of programs and activities has been really amazing and getting people to come in specifically on that day.

Erik Gensler: And the first thing you said, it was about them. It was pictures of families and kids. You didn’t say, “We put our most famous artwork…” It’s about the people and the hospitality of welcoming them.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes. Very little words, just “Second Sunday, free.”

Erik Gensler: Would you say the culture around hospitality extends to your staff and the staff is seen as a primary stakeholder within the organization? And I’d love for you to talk about, you know, that sense and how that manifests in your internal culture.

Kristie Swink Benson: Absolutely. I mean, for me, as a communicator, you know, as we talk about … previously, we said, we’re really looking for people to evangelize the experience at the art museum. Well, your employees are evangelists for the organization and if you’re not communicating with them, if you’re not talking to them, if you’re not checking on them, then you also see that because when a family member has a question or when they have a concern or maybe they are not pleased with something that we’ve done, those are the people that they speak to. So, it was just really important for us to make sure that staff were on the same page in terms of COVID and the things that we were doing around that implementing some internal resources that we did not have previously … I’m taking a newsletter, staff newsletter, and making it available twice a week so that we could make sure that people felt like they were connected, even though they were working from home. Also, making sure that we had calls weekly for staff. Again, they may not have been long calls, but just to touch base to make sure that everybody was on the same page. If there were questions, concerns, that we could kind of bring those to the forefront and talk about them and it’s not perfect, right? I mean, there are still things. It’s not perfect. There are still things that we need to work on. I think there are still ways that you can always be a better communicator, not only with staff, but with, you know, in the context of what you do on a daily basis. But one of the things I think is that we have continued to kind of survey staff, understand what the needs are, what we can do better, and how we can be of a resource to them specifically. I don’t see how you could move forward and staff not be kind of the first priority because they make the museum run.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. You talked initially about the evolution of this, the diversity and representation and equity in your staff. I I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that and your experience of being there. And you look at your senior leadership team, is that representative of the demographic makeup of the city, as well? And how has this changed your staff specifically?

Kristie Swink Benson: So, our staff know we still have work to do in that area. It’s an area of opportunity for us. Again, I mentioned earlier, we have 40% … 40% of our staff is nonwhite this year, if you look at 2020. And so, again, it fluctuates, right, because people matriculate and they go in and out of organization. And so, we’re always, I think, keeping an eye on that number and making sure that we’re mindful and intentional about what we’re doing to extend, our opportunities for people who may be interested, in coming to the museum to work, that we kind of get out of that framework of only looking to people who have been working in museums. So, people have a lot of different skillsets that foundationally will support what we do at a museum, like myself, even though they didn’t grow up in that space. And so, I think thinking about all of those things and extending an olive branch to people, to let them know that the opportunities exist for them, this space is super important. And so, we don’t, our staff does not look like Metro Atlanta, but that is something that we aspire to. We want our staff to look like Metro Atlanta, which would be 51% nonwhite.

Erik Gensler: Oh, you’re on your way at 40%. And I think that is a point certainly worth repeating and how we open this conversation. The idea of looking beyond museums when you’re hiring, particularly at senior roles, is really a real key to increasing the diversity within your ranks.

Kristie Swink Benson: Absolutely.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it seems obvious, but perhap … but I don’t know, I think it bears repeating.

Kristie Swink Benson: Well, and also giving people perspective about what careers are even available to them in this space. So we’re a part of the AUC Art Collective, which is a program and it’s at Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta. And that’s what we call the AUC Center in Atlanta. And really there’s two parts to it. There is a program that supports students who want to pursue graduate studies in art history and curatorial studies, specifically people of color. And then, there is a program within that program that really focuses on high school students and giving them an opportunity to be exposed to the types of careers that are available to them within the museum space. So, I think that’s super important. We have a teen team—say that three times—which is a group of diverse students. Again, they’re in high schools around the Metro Atlanta area. We usually have anywhere from, I would say, 15 to 18 teens come and they are actually employees of the museum. It’s a two-year program. And so, they start as juniors. They continue into their senior year and many of them continue to work with us after they’ve graduated. But, again, it’s an opportunity for them to get exposure to the museum in a different way. And so, that pipeline is what you’re talking about, is super important. And that’s something that I think we still have many opportunities to develop, but it’s definitely something that we’re focused on and really making sure that we keep our attention on those folks that are coming up and making decisions about their career, but they haven’t necessarily figured it all out.

Erik Gensler: So, what I hear is you’re approaching it at a systemic level, have programs for people on high school programs for people in college. You’re looking at people who already have an interest in the arts, but may not know it’s an opportunity for a career.

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes.

Erik Gensler: Did you, would you call yourself, like, an art lover before you made the switch? What was your personal connection to the arts before you came to the museum?

Kristie Swink Benson: Yes, so, definitely connected to the arts. I was in the marching band and I played the trumpet and French horn and concert band growing up. And so, always have had a connection to the performing arts. And then, my parents have always liked art and I’ve seen it look whether it was the real thing or not in our house. So, pictures hanging up that definitely alluded to how important art is. And so, I just found myself being attracted to that, being drawn to that. And so, when I say, you know, it merges my career, mergers personal and professional passions, I mean, I cannot get away from the arts and giving that credit for developing who I am. I think as a leader today, just based on the experiences that I had and what I was able to see playing the trumpet at Southwest DeKalb High School, one of the best bands—I’ll say the best band in the land—and really having the experience to perform in the 1996 Olympics, the opening ceremonies of that, being able to travel to Nice, France, and perform in their Parade of Flowers and also perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I mean, this is as a young person, like 16 years old, having these experiences. And so, it’s something that has always been a part of my life and something that I’m kind of happy I haven’t gotten away from.

Erik Gensler: So, this has been such an enlightening conversation and we’ve come to your final question and we call it your “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership team, staff, and board of thousands of arts leaders, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Kristie Swink Benson: I think the advice that I would give is to definitely have an open mind about people and how people’s experiences contribute to the rich fabric of any organization. And we shouldn’t just look to one type of person. So, maybe someone that has been in museums all of their life, but we should look to people that again, have a wealth of knowledge that can bring that critical lands to an organization and allow you to develop your ideals about how you speak to people further.

Erik Gensler: Kristie, thank you so much.

Kristie Swink Benson: Thank you for having me, Erik!

About Our Guests
Kristie Swink Benson
Kristie Swink Benson
Director of Communications, High Museum of Art

Kristie Swink Benson is the Director of Communications at the High Museum of Art, where she has helped position the museum as an integral part of the fabric of Atlanta and developed a passionate and diverse audience. She built her communications career in government and the for-profit sector.

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