Staying relevant in a changing neighbourhood

Staying relevant in a changing neighbourhood

By The Wallace Foundation


Discover how Fleisher Art Memorial is adapting to shifting demographics in its Southeast Philadelphia community. This case study by Bob Harlow was published by The Wallace Foundation.

This case study describes Fleisher Art Memorial’s initiative to bring residents of the surrounding ethnically diverse neighbourhood to its on-site programs.

The report is part of a larger set of 10 case studies commissioned by The Wallace Foundation to explore arts organisations’ efforts to reach new audiences and deepen relationships with their existing audiences.

These in-depth reports lay out how the efforts were created and run, describe the results in detail, identify what helped them become successful, and show what got in the way of success. They add to a growing body of field-based research, providing specific examples of individual organisations’ responses to unique circumstances. At the same time, each aspires to capture more broadly applicable lessons about what works and what does not—and why—in building arts audiences.

Executive summary

The Fleisher Art Memorial was created at the turn of the 20th Century to bring arts education to people of diverse economic and social backgrounds living in Southeast Philadelphia. In its early decades, the school served the families of European immigrants and their descendants who lived in that section of the city.

By the end of the 20th Century and moving into the new millennium, demographics in the neighbourhoods surrounding Fleisher began shifting radically. The streets and homes were now filled with newly arrived and economically disadvantaged people from Latin America, China and Southeast Asia. Yet, within the walls of Fleisher, Southeast Philadelphia's new demographic composition wasn't in evidence. Fleisher was serving these newer residents in its off-site programs but the on-site audience had come to be populated chiefly by a white and relatively affluent clientele from other parts of the city and the nearby suburbs, many of whom were descendants of the original Fleisher student body that had moved on economically and physically.

While it has never been easy for inner-city arts organisations to attract audiences that reflect the ethnic and economic diversity of the surrounding neighbourhoods, that challenge posed a particularly poignant dilemma for Fleisher, which was created more than a century before for that express purpose.

The institution initially responded to this realisation by designing a set of programmes that it hoped would attract children and families from Southeast Philadelphia. However, the research interviews with neighbourhood residents and community organisation leaders revealed that residents didn't recognise Fleisher as a place where they would feel welcome attending classes or even visiting. New programmes weren't going to alter that sense of not belonging.

Based on at least one evidence-based model of audience building, Fleisher staff recognised that changing the way disinclined audiences see an institution is an important first step in encouraging them to take part in its programming and other activities. Relying on additional research and interaction with the surrounding communities, Fleisher concluded that it needed to accomplish two things before residents would be willing to engage with the school:

  1. Build awareness of Fleisher and, more importantly, a sense of trust among the various Southeast Philadelphia communities through an increased presence at neighbourhood events and in other aspects of community life
  2. Create an inclusive environment at the art school so that anyone who walked through Fleisher's doors would feel entitled and enabled to participate

Through staff training, relationship building, and a series of programmes aimed at bringing Fleisher activities to neighbourhood events and public spaces where residents congregate, the art school began the long process of becoming integrated with the community. This effort was about more than simply showing neighbours what the institution had to offer. To succeed, Fleisher staff members believed they had to transform the institution's priorities and processes and demonstrate convincingly to the communities it sought to serve that their residents were welcome at the school and could expect to find activities that would be relevant, affordable and accessible.

Download the full case study to read on:
Staying relevant in a changing neighbourhood (PDF)

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Community engagement
Resource type: Case studies | Published: 2017