You may have noticed that I have framed relevance strictly from the perspective of what the participant/community wants. Where they want to go. What they want to do. What they think matters.

This is intentional. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It’s about them—their values, their priorities.

In 2007, I sat on a panel at the National Academies of Science about the future of museums and libraries. I was the youngest person there, cowed by the leaders and experts in the room. I’ll never forget a distinguished CEO, banging his fist on the table and saying, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.”

I was too nervous to say anything at the time, but the phrase stuck like a thorn in my brain stem. The thorn jammed in a little further each time I heard it, dozens of times over the years, in meetings and conferences and brainstorming sessions.

This phrase drives me nuts. It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be the experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people “need” too?

I don’t think we can tell the difference between what people want and what they need.

I know what my dog needs. He needs two cups of food per day. He wants a million cups of food per day. I think it is completely reasonable for me to give him not what he wants but what he needs.

I knew what my newborn needed. She needed to nap when she got cranky, even though she kept flailing her limbs. It was completely reasonable for me to swaddle her up and put her to bed–to give her not what she wanted but what she needed.

Very, very few people are in the “dog and baby” category. They are human beings. They are complex. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and engaging in visitor research, and I don’t feel like I have a grasp on the difference between what people need and what they want. Does a mom want a program that includes her kids, or does she need it? Does a young artist want a performance that stimulates his work in new ways, or does he need it?

We spend a lot of time at my institution talking with people about their interests, needs, and values, but that doesn’t mean that we know what an individual needs on a particular day, a particular visit. I don’t know if someone needs an overview of local history or a deep dive into 1926. I don’t know if they need to be empowered or provoked. I do know a bit about what they respond to, what they ignore, and what it looks like when they really tune into something. But what do they need? I assume they are just as changeable and complex as any person in that regard.

Does this mean we shouldn’t care about what people want and need? Of course not. We should care deeply about these things. We should do whatever we can to discover more about peoples’ desires, goals, needs, and values. But learning about someone’s needs and prescribing those needs are completely different.

In my experience, the institutionally-articulated “needs” of audiences often look suspiciously like the “wants” of the professionals speaking. Professionals want silence in the auditorium, so they say “people need respite from their busy lives.” Priests want parishioners to accept the canon as presented, so they say “people need strong spiritual guidance.” Teachers want students to listen attentively, so they say “kids need to learn this.”

When I ask what the phrase “don’t give people what they want, give them what they need” means, I am often told that we should not be pandering to people’s expressed desires but presenting them with objects and experiences that challenge them and open up new ways of seeing the world.

I agree. It is incredibly valuable for cultural institutions to present experiences that might be surprising, unexpected, or outside participants’ comfort zones. But I don’t typically hear this phrase deployed to argue in favor of a risky program format or an unusual piece of content. I don’t hear this phrase accompanied by evidence-based articulation of “needs” of audiences. Instead, I hear this phrase used to defend traditional formats and content in the face of change. I hear “don’t give people what they want, give them what I want.”

Robin Dowden of the Walker Art Center once said that she knew the Walker’s teen website was working because she thought it was ugly and impossible to navigate. What teenagers wanted (needed?) was a website with unicorns and sparkly text. That site was not optimized for Robin’s experience as an adult. It was relevant to the teens she served, not to her.

It takes courage to embrace what different people want or need, especially when it flies in the face of insider culture or standards.

Let’s not sell short the power of giving people what they want. Cultural experiences should be a pleasure. They can also be educational, challenging, empowering, political… but they must first be something people want. If we give up on the idea that people should want what we have to offer, we give up on the idea that what we have is desirable. Talking about what people need is like talking about going to the dentist. It sounds like a painful utility. I don’t want to offer a service people would rather avoid. I want to offer the most desirable experience possible. I want our work to be wanted.