The Athenaeum Gets It Right

In a time of economic insecurity for libraries and museums, what explains this institution's success?

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One step inside the Providence Athenaeum reveals a place unlike any other. It immediately ignites the senses, with charming architectural details, the distinctive and gratifying smell of aged books, and creaking floorboards that have weathered the footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and H. P. Lovecraft.

Matt Burriesci’s two-year tenure as executive director of the Athenaeum has marked a particularly prosperous period for the library. Since 2012, the Athenaeum has expanded its donor base by over 50 percent and, within the last year alone, membership and annual visitors have increased by 16 percent and 11 percent, respectively. In mid-August, it was announced that the Athenaeum would be the recipient of a highly competitive $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

One of the city’s oldest libraries and most treasured cultural institutions, the Athenaeum’s remarkable gains over the past several years are all the more impressive in light of the obstacles faced by cultural centers like it. The arts and humanities disciplines historically have struggled for funding, and the Athenaeum has itself faced (and recovered from) periods of financial instability over the past several decades.

An eager and engaging conversationalist whose heartfelt investment in the Athenaeum is clear, Matt makes a point of commending the dedicated and hardworking board and staff at the Athenaeum and credits its recent success to a lot of “minor things” coming together to produce major changes. But as he talks about the Athenaeum’s evolution over the past two years, it becomes apparent that this success has been the result of very strategic and intentional initiatives, however minor or incidental they may seem.

Part of what sets the Athenaeum apart from other historical or cultural institutions is its unique, public-oriented mission. While other organizations may tailor programming to their members, the Athenaeum takes an inclusive approach, offering free public programming and events for both members and non-members. A vast expansion of their signature programming has welcomed larger and more diverse crowds, with a robust lineup of regular and ad-hoc events aimed at cultivating visitors’ cultural curiosity. These include their much-loved Salon Series, a weekly discussion forum complete with food, drink and dynamic conversation, as well as reading and poetry groups, pub trivia nights, concerts, social events, children’s workshops, story hours and developmental playtime, and speaking events with well-known personalities and spirited lecturers from a variety of disciplines.

Less exciting but equally instrumental has been their strategic approach to marketing. Within the past five years, the library has undergone a comprehensive rebranding, hiring a dedicated director of marketing and communications, Robin Wetherill, and teaming up with a creative agency to revamp its public outreach initiatives. Critical to the rebranding process, Matt explains, was increasing awareness of the fully up-and-running library and the physical community of thinkers, learners and socializers with eclectic passions and expertise. They’ve since aligned their print messaging, digital communications and marketing efforts to reflect this rich cultural scene that the Athenaeum brings to Providence.

Beyond this deliberate community outreach and program expansion, however, perhaps widespread support for the Athenaeum emerged thanks to an uncertain and tumultuous political landscape. Founded on American ideals of community service and intellectual enrichment, the library provides a safe space for civil discourse, unity and cultural awareness. Robin poignantly describes the Athenaeum’s fundamental appeal: “It has an intimacy, a gravitas, and a sense of both the past and the present.” And that seems to be just what the people of Providence are seeking.