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When the Cleveland Museum of Art decided to launch its Convening the Community project, staff members opted to reach target audiences "where they live" through an exhibit at shopping malls in selected neighborhoods.
A portable standing display unit was designed for the occasion. Key features included velcro walls that allowed an ever-changing array of photographs, lucite pockets for brochures and other "take-aways," and space for a VCR. The entire unit folded down like an umbrella so it fit into a large tube.
Working with public relations directors at ten different shopping malls, CMA staff arranged for the display unit to stay in place for six weeks at a time before it was moved to the next site. The rotating mall exhibit continued for 2 years.
While it was designed to stand alone, the display unit was staffed on weekends by volunteers from the target communities. "The volunteers received a three-hour training session, during which we explained why we had launched the project...that we wanted to introduce the museum to people in their area who didn't know much about us," says Nancy McAfee, CMA Manager of Outreach and Audience Development. An expert from the display company was also invited to the session to explain how to deal with mall traffic. The expert pointed out that exhibitors in shopping centers have, at most, 15 seconds to engage the attention of passersby.
What would the CMA do with the 15 seconds it had to grab shoppers' attention? The display unit video would be the key. Staff knew the misperceptions about the Museum they wanted to correct. They knew the story they wanted to tell. But how?
During a fruitful brainstorming session with one of four different video companies, the answer became obvious: ask a celebrity to host a short, 12-minute video - someone who represents all of the people the CMA was trying to reach. And who better than Mike Hargrove, the Cleveland Indians' popular manager - an amiable and articulate "everyman." In terms of engaging shoppers as they scurried past, says McAfee, "We knew that as soon as anyone saw his face on the video they would stop."
And stop they did. The video itself took on a life of its own, and the tremendously popular exhibit, in tandem with the CMA's "community days," helped raise awareness and membership in most of the targeted neighborhoods. From its central role within the shopping centers, the exhibit eventually found its way to downtown Cleveland's Justice Center, a local community college and even the bustling Cleveland International Airport.
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