Engaging Young Professionals: An Inside Look at Society 1858

Museum Hack
Renegade Tours

A key challenge facing museums is drawing in younger audiences — especially Millennials.  One segment of this audience that can significantly benefit museums are Young Professionals, who are poised to be the next generation of museum members.

The Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, has embraced this challenge.  They found success with Society 1858, a young professionals group that has revitalized the museum’s reputation.  This group creates fun and unique education events with local artists, collectors, and gallerists within the museum.  They also throw an over-the-top winter fundraiser each year to support the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art which is a cash prize that’s awarded annually to an artist whose work contributes to a new understanding of art in the South.  

Society 1858 event at home of Richard Hagerty
Society 1858 members at the home of surrealist Richard Hagerty.

We talked with Lasley Steever, Director of Public Programs and Events at the Gibbes Museum, about this awesome young professionals program.  Her insights showed us that by stepping outside the box and bringing in millennials as advisors, museums can reinvigorate their programs and spaces with new life, bring in much-needed potential sponsors, and have lots of fun in the process!

MH: First, I’d love to know how Society 1858 came to life.  What was your inspiration for this group, and how did you make it come to life?  

Society 1858 was the brainchild of several Gibbes Board Members, who recognized the need to engage the young creative community in Charleston who were not affiliated with the Gibbes Museum. The Board Members solicited two active 30-somethings named Helen Pratt-Thomas and Ann Belden Read to lead the charge. They quickly recruited a group of artists, gallery owners, and local tastemakers to form a committee, which became the board of Society 1858. They branded themselves with the mission to “Inspire-Entertain-Inform” and set out to engage up and coming arts patrons with social and educational programming.

MH: Why call it Society 1858?  To me, that name brings images of grand balls and high society during the Antebellum period.

Yes! The Gibbes Museum of Art opened in 1905 (the result of a bequest by James Shoolbred Gibbes) and housed the collection of the Carolina Art Association, which was founded in 1858. Society 1858 takes its name from the year that the CAA was founded. Our curator, Sara Arnold, wrote an article all about the Museum’s history.

Artist sketching nude life model in Gibbes Museum
Patrons get an inside look at the artistic process during the Society’s winter fundraiser.  Image courtesy Fia Forever Photography.

MH: What was the biggest challenge in recruiting young professionals to Society 1858?  How did you address it?

Many of those in our target audience had never stepped into the Gibbes Museum. We didn’t have a reputation for being avant-garde and some people thought we just had lots of portraits of dead Charlestonians hanging on the walls (we do, but there’s so much more!). Society 1858 had a monumental task of challenging that reputation and getting young professionals to step inside and start learning about the Museum and about art in general.

They started with a fun garden party in our courtyard, which was held in conjunction with an exhibition entitled Modern Masters from the Ferguson Collection. Selected from the private collection of prominent art enthusiasts Esther and James Ferguson, this exhibition included paintings, sculpture, and works on paper by significant twentieth-century artists such as Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Christo. The party ticket included membership into Society 1858, and from that first event, they gained a great following.

The group stays at around 200 active members. In order to maintain interest, Society 1858 offers a series of educational programs throughout the year, including visits to artist studios, collectors’ homes, artist-led exhibition tours, and other creative ways to engage with art.

One fun event around Halloween focused on the images carved on tombstones and the skills of the artisans who created them. The evening began at the American College of the Building Arts,  where guests learned about different types of stone carving and then took a tour of a local graveyard with an expert on gravestone symbols.

Society 1858 members learning about gravestone symbols
Exploring graveyards? Sign us up!

Society 1858’s breakthrough moment came with a 2011 winter celebration called Flirting with Art, for which they invited local artists to body paint male and female models—each inspired by a work of art in an exhibition on view at the time. They had a runway show of the finished paintings and people loved it. Their winter celebration continues to be a highlight and always brings in new members.

Male model painted to reflect work of art
Image courtesy Carolina Photosmith.

MH: Tell us about the 1858 Prize.  How has offering this prize helped to engage your audience and position the Gibbes Museum as an active member of the art world? What role do Society 1858 members play?

The 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art began in 2008, and was originally called the Factor Prize. The Prize awards $10,000 to an artist whose work contributes to a new understanding of art in the South. Presented annually, The Prize recognizes the highest level of artistic achievement in any media. Artists from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia are eligible to apply.

In 2014, Society 1858 agreed to raise the funds to support the annual $10,000 prize and related expenses, including the website and artist archive.  The archive is an incredible research tool for artists, curators, gallerists, and anyone else interested in learning what is happening in contemporary Southern art. The Prize has received over 250 applications each year and all applicants since 2011 are represented in the archive.

Society 1858 is thrilled to have created a focus for their organization with The Prize, and to establish a legacy that is making an impact on the art world beyond Charleston. We are not aware of any other young patrons group that have taken on this sort of initiative and we think it is pretty incredible. Recent Prize winners have included Sonya Clark (who also received the Art Prize that same year) and Deborah Luster. Luster, who lives and works in New Orleans, turned to photography as a means to cope with the murder of her mother. She has created thousands of powerful, haunting portraits of prisoners housed in Louisiana. Her recent body of work captures desolate landscapes in New Orleans where murders have occurred.

2015 winners of the 1858 Prize with Gibbes Curator and 1858 President and Founder
From left to right: Gibbes Curator Pam Wall, 1858 President Jamieson Clair, 1858 Founder and Past President Helen Pratt-Thomas, 2015 Finalist George Jenne, and 2015 winner of the 1858 Prize Deborah Luster. Image courtesy MCG Photography.

MH: Has Society 1858 gained any sponsors for the museum?

Yes. Society 1858 has a powerful fundraising arm through their connections in the community. There are many young successful professionals in Charleston who are interested in the arts and the members of Society 1858 have helped to make inroads for the museum.

Society 1858 hasn’t just changed the reputation for young professionals. The group does not set an age cap for members (although one must be 21 years old).  Their energy attracts art enthusiasts of all ages. Their membership numbers represent growth for the Museum overall.

MH: The Gibbes Museum is temporarily closed for renovations.  How are you addressing the challenge of keeping audiences — including Society 1858 members — engaged during the renovations?  

This has been a big challenge for the Gibbes in general. We have made a real effort to keep all of our programming running outside of the Museum walls, which means getting people to follow us around town to different venues and being creative about how to incorporate original artwork.

We’ve also tried to keep the community informed through emails and posts on our blog about different aspects of the renovation, and articles in local media. We do have objects on loan at different venues around town, and we created a rack card — available at hotels, visitor centers, and other venues — that highlights where people can find these works. We recently co-organized an exhibition entitled An Eye for Opulence: Charleston through the Lens of the Rivers Collection with Historic Charleston Foundation at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida and took a group of patrons to the opening reception.

We are giving hard-hat tours to donors and VIPs to show them the incredible transformations taking place in the building. Even as a construction zone, it is amazing to see what we have uncovered in the process, and one can begin to imagine the new Gibbes.

We’ve had some successes and some failures in all this, but overall, our engagement has remained strong. We’re very grateful to our local community for staying active and keeping up with their support even when we don’t have a physical museum to visit.

1858 Board members touring Gibbes during renovations
Insider tours keep millennials engaged during renovation projects.

MH: What role do you see young professionals as playing in the future of the Gibbes Museum and museums in general?  

Young professionals are key to the future of museums. Their creativity, enthusiasm, and engagement help our staff keep a fresh perspective. They work hard and contribute time, expertise, and funds (the Board of Society 1858 contributed $10,000 with a matching gift towards our Capital Campaign). We see them as our future Board Members, donors, and patrons for years to come.

MH: What advice do you have for museum seeking to establish young professionals programs and engage millennials?

For the Gibbes, it has been very helpful to have the support of the “big” Board behind our young patrons group. Gibbes Board Members have invested time, energy, and financial support to mentor the group as it established itself. Our executive director, Angela Mack, also gives them a lot of face time, which reinforces the fact that their contributions make a difference to the institution. Clear communication between museum staff and Society 1858 Board Members to create an annual budget, schedule, and set of goals has ensured that we all have the same expectations. I act as the staff liaison for Society 1858 and attend all their meetings, programs, and events, and work very closely with them on the planning and execution of programs throughout the year. The Gibbes has remained open to out-of-the-box ideas for parties and programming that Society 1858 generates, and the result is always a spectacle for the senses. We are lucky to have such a wonderful group of individuals who give so much of themselves to make Society 1858 a success.

 

Thank you to Lasley from the Gibbes Museum for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas.

Are you interested in developing a young professionals program, or learning more about engaging millennials? Learn more about our museum consulting work or send us an email.

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