Even prior to the present pandemic, museums had faced the challenge of getting new segments of the populace interested in their offerings, which had long since begun extending beyond just exhibitions. But 2020 and 2021 saw this challenge grow even more acute due to the multiple lockdowns that brought with them museum closures, restrictions on mobility, and tourism’s de facto standstill. The current expectation is that it will be years before museums once again experience the attendance they’d had before COVID-19, if they ever do so at all. The expansion of audiences, referred to as “audience development” by those in the field, has long been a priority for those who work at museums—with terms like accessibility, inclusion, and participation now ubiquitous in the everyday lives of those who pursue highly professionalised and specialised museum work. Underlying these terms are considerations as to how museums can make their offerings more diverse and easy to access in the interest of facilitating inclusion and participation. The meaning of these terms also depends on which people at the museum are using them: in marketing, the point is mainly to define new target audiences and bring more people to the museum. In museum education, the objective is to present exhibition content with as many visitors as possible in mind. Curatorial departments are responsible for museums’ collections, the research that is done on them, and educational work concerning the exhibitions themselves. And “community outreach” can, just like the concepts mentioned above, be employed either as a marketing tool or as cultural work that actively seeks out its audience. “The two aspects cannot be separated from each other, however; outreach needs to be understood as a whole.”1

What is community outreach?

In general, community outreach is understood to consist in offerings made outside the museum to new and specific groups (communities). This entails expanding museum work to reach communities that had previously been excluded, underrepresented, and/or marginalised, also involving them in the museum itself. An increasingly large role is being played here by the digital realm. Community outreach needs to be understood as an approach and a process. It’s about building—or, one could also say, curatingrelationships.2 The term “curating” originally described an artistic practice and method employed by figures including Susan Lacy, Jeremy Deller, and Grayson Perry3, and it’s been used for decades now in English-speaking museum and cultural work. One lighthouse project here has been MOMA PS14 in the New York City borough of Queens. PS1, founded by MOMA in 1971, ended up being not only a successful community outreach project but an entire institution unto itself that has included a focus on community outreach since the very beginning.

Community Outreach at Belvedere 21

My job as the community outreach curator at Belvedere 21 is to address the museum’s local environment as well as various communities and groups with a range of formats and activities, actively involving them in the programme. This means realising projects outside the museum. The terms mentioned above—access and accessibility, participation, and inclusion—are central and fundamental to our community outreach programmes. Belvedere 21’s community outreach curator position was created in 2018 in light of how the museum’s urban surroundings had changed and were continuing to change quite markedly.5 The museum views itself as unequivocally being part of this change. I began my work at Belvedere 21 in October of 2018, almost simultaneously with the publication of the above-quoted book Museen und Outreach [Museums and Outreach] by Ivana Scharf, Dagmar Wunderlich, and Julia Heisig, which introduces and examines outreach as a strategic diversity tool.6 The authors not only conceive of community outreach as a strategic instrument with which to change museums’ external image but also point out how it can catalyse change within museums themselves. This publication is viewed as one of the standard German-language works on the topic.

Community outreach essentially entails participation. In order to make this possible, we feature various emphases and launch offerings that facilitate dialogue with potential visitor groups. In the case of Belvedere 21, almost all such activities take place outside the museum—i.e., out in the city, in the neighbourhood, in our Sculpture Garden, or in the digital realm—and are developed in collaboration with artists. This goes without saying for a museum of contemporary art such as Belvedere 21, not least because today’s artists address the current social issues and themes that are also dealt with in the museum’s exhibitions. What’s more, our Open Mic format (hosted by the Viennese artist Susanne Schuda) provides a stage for presentations, debates, speeches, and musical performances. The strong involvement by those in the neighbourhood entails that people situated in proximity to Belvedere 21 also come forth with things that are important to them. And during the recent lockdowns, Open Mic was transferred to the Internet—with contributions being streamed as video clips.7

Community Outreach Themes

Museums are not neutral or static places. They’re institutions that have grown out of a historical and political context, and they pursue commensurate intents and objectives on behalf of society in their preservation of art, culture, and our natural heritage. One issue at museums continues to be representation, with its questions of inclusion and exclusion. But it’s also about challenging as well as criticising said representation. It took centuries and much struggle by feminists for women to be taken seriously as artists and hence be featured appropriately in museum exhibitions. And recent years have also seen more and more attention paid to museums’ collections—and how the museums acquired these collections. In Austria, provenance researchers—working on the basis of the Federal Art Restitution Act of 1998—have been investigating the origins of public collections’ holdings. Quite recently, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy made waves with their report recommending the restitution of African cultural property8 to its lawful owners. On the other hand, there are also ever-louder calls for more diversity in terms of not only invitations and exhibiting but also museums’ employment and personnel policies. Portraying societal diversity in museums is becoming more and more central, for which reason this matter must also be dealt with inside institutions—as “inreach”, so to speak—in order to promote inward change.

2021 will witness the third installation of the emphasis “queering Belvedere”9, which revolves around queer themes at the museum. And still other community outreach themes result from dealing with the museum’s geographical context. For instance: in the immediate vicinity of Belvedere 21 is the site of the former Südbahnhof train station, which was replaced by the Hauptbahnhof. This rail hub is where the first “guest workers” from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia arrived in the 1960s and ’70s, while the 1990s saw refugees from the Bosnian War arrive here followed by refugees from the war in Syria in 2015. Vienna is thus home to countless cultural creators with roots in Turkey or the former Yugoslavia, and this likewise results in possible themes for community outreach. In July, for example, we will once again be holding an event focused on the Srebrenica genocide and its aftermath.

An important point is for encounters to take place on an even footing, and it is essential to be permeable and open. January 2019 thus also saw the museum extend its first invitation to a “Neighbourhood Forum”. We meet every six weeks—and by now, the dates are established and relied upon by the participants. During the recent COVID-19 lockdowns with their attendant bans on events, it’s been important to stay in touch—for which reason the forum has taken place online. These meetings are attended by artists, cultural workers, and representatives of both neighbouring institutions and cultural and educational initiatives as well as by people with a general interest in culture. We also visit with each other, engage in exchange, and make plans together as part of exploratory tours. What’s more, the Sonnwendviertel neighbourhood behind the Hauptbahnhof is home to numerous residential and community projects, some them self-organised, and I’ve already been able to invite several of them to the museum to present their ideas. The continuity of our offerings generates trust and identification with our institution. And alongside the themes suggested by the location and its history, locally situated knowledge and oral history are also topics. What special stories exist here in the neighbourhood, how does one work with them, and how to carry forward what one’s gathered? My interest here is also in long-time residents of the 10th district, for their stories are in danger of being lost due to the urban redevelopment and gentrification that are now taking place.

Further Examples of Community Outreach in Vienna

In terms of lighthouse community outreach projects in Vienna, one should mention the Brunnenpassage10 in the 16th district (since 2007) and its “branch location” Stand 12911 at the Viktor-Adler-Markt. These spaces for the arts and culture regularly play host to workshops, movie nights, choir rehearsals, cooking get-togethers, and small concerts. It’s all about the creation of art not for but with people—under the banner of “art for all”.

  1. Julia Heisig, Ivana Scharf, Dagmar Wunderlich, Museen und Outreach. Outreach als strategisches Diversity-Instrument, Münster, 2018.
  2. Nicole Scheyerer, “Wertschätzung ist zentral,” (group discussion with Andrea Bina, Günther Oberhollenzer, and Christiane Erharter), https://www.morgen.at/2020-11-zivilgesellschaft/wertschatzung-ist-zentral, 2020 (accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
  3. Note Ruangrupa next documenta 2022
  4. See the MoMA PS1 mission statement: https://www.moma.org/about/momaps1-mission (accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
  5. Doris Rothauer, “Best-Practice: Ein Museum setzt auf gute Nachbarschaft,” https://www.culturalimpact.at/post/best-practice-ein-museum-setzt-auf-gute-nachbarschaft, 3 Dec. 2019, updated on 18 Jan. 2021 (accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
  6. Julia Heisig, Ivana Scharf, Dagmar Wunderlich, Museen und Outreach. Outreach als strategisches Diversity-Instrument, Münster, 2018.
  7. See the website Belvedere 21 Community Outreach, https://www.belvedere.at/community-outreach (accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
  8. Felwine Sarr, Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics, http://restitutionreport2018.com, November 2018 (accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
  9. See the website Belvedere 21 Public Program, https://www.belvedere.at/public-program-2020 (accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
  10. See the website Art Social Space Brunnenpassage, https://www.brunnenpassage.at (Accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
  11. See the website Stand 129, https://www.facebook.com (accessed on 9 Mar. 2021)
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