By Gwendolyn Craig
People of color are not often visiting two major attractions in the Adirondacks, and more than $330,000 in state and federal funding will go toward figuring out why — and how to change that.
The Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake and The Wild Center in Tupper Lake are partnering in the research project and training program. It will involve diversity training for staff and interviews with people of color in focus groups that are within driving distance from the destinations.
The effort is funded by nearly $212,000 from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and nearly $130,000 from Empire State Development’s Market New York Program.
David Kahn, director of Adirondack Experience, said the museum often does research projects, but it has not officially tracked the diversity of its visitors. Staff members at the museum have noticed, however, that very few non-white people come through. Occasionally people of East Asian descent have visited, Kahn said.
“We figured, well, we really need to go to people and start talking to people to see: Do they know about the Adirondacks; what do they know; what do they think; and what might encourage them to come?” Kahn said.
Throughout 2020 there will be at least four focus groups gathered to learn from African Americans and Latinos in Plattsburgh, the Capital Region, Utica and Syracuse, Kahn said. People, Places & Design Research out of Northampton, Mass., will assist.
Throughout 2020 and into 2021 Donathan Brown and Cindy Rodriguez of Adirondack Diversity Solutions will work with both museums, too, focusing on recruiting and retaining a diverse staff. Experts from renowned institutions will assist with diversity training. They include Ann Hernandez of the Association of Science and Technology Centers out of Washington; Porchia Moore of the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina; and Cecile Shellman, who leads diversity initiatives at the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, according to a news release.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services noted the grant’s project summary, which said that African Americans and Latinos are two groups “currently underrepresented in the institutions’ audiences, staff, and boards. Full-time and seasonal staff at the museum will participate in cultural competency training. The museums will establish institutional diversity task forces; update recruitment, retention, and professional development policies and procedures; and create a regional community of practice.”
“This isn’t intended to be a dead-end project,” Kahn said, referencing expected personnel and recruitment changes to come.
Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director of The Wild Center, said in a news release, “It’s incumbent on us to make everyone feel as though they belong. This investment is a step forward in identifying where we may fall short of that goal and what steps we can put in place to reach it.”
Reached by phone, Ratcliffe declined to comment further on the project, saying that the Adirondack Experience museum was taking the lead.
While the state and federal funding is specific to Adirondack Experience and The Wild Center, the lack of diversity is a tourism issue that other places, including the whole Adirondack Park, have experienced. Kahn pointed to how the National Park Service noticed its visitors were mostly white, and worked with community leaders to learn how to market to a wider audience.
In the Adirondack Park, specifically, the state has allocated $250,000 to fund the new Adirondack Diversity Initiative and announced its first executive director, Nicole Hylton-Patterson. The Adirondack Diversity Initiative is not directly involved with this project, but Kahn and Hylton-Patterson said they have had an initial meeting and may be partnering in the future.
The state’s Market New York Program is intended to help with projects attracting more tourism to the state. Records show the Adirondacks benefited from $1.5 billion in tourism in 2018, which supported more than 21,000 jobs.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services provided funding through its Museums Empowered program, “a special initiative of the Museums for America grant program that supports staff capacity building projects that use professional development to generate systemic change within a museum,” said Erica Jaros, a communications specialist with the organization.
Overall, the institute hopes the project will make both Blue Mountain Lake and Tupper Lake places become, “trusted spaces for community engagement that enable people of all backgrounds and abilities to discover and use the collections and resources.”
Kahn said it will “be a great learning opportunity for all of us at the two musuems, and also in the region.” He plans to share the results of their studies with others in the Adirondacks.