Museum-goers today are very different than they were one hundred years ago. Art institutions have been updating their communications and marketing strategies in order to attract and hold the attention of socially active, tech-savvy visitors. A recent special section on museums in the New York Times explores some of the ways that culture centers are adjusting to people’s changing tastes and lifestyles and attempting to woo a younger crowd.
Across the country, museums are finding new ways to combine education and technology. Many institutions are taking advantage of our fondness for iPhones, BlackBerrys and other portable multi-media gadgets. The Dallas Museum of Art offers a smartphone tour of its 19th century works. Fans of the Brooklyn Museum will be thrilled to hear that a new iPhone application gives them access to images from the collection.
Museums are also transforming their websites into sophisticated educational tools. The P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center recently launched an online project called Studio Visit, which allows visitors to take a virtual tour of New York artists’ studios. By accessing Studio Visit, art lovers can expose themselves to more artists than they could by perusing the Institute’s galleries. At the same time, the site receives thousands of hits every day, a marketing boon for participating artists. This year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began publishing many of its out of print catalogues online. Curious viewers can access the materials on the Reading Room section of LACMA’s website. Ten catalogues on the art of Southern California in the 1960’s and 1970’s are currently available.
Another strategy for attracting twenty and thirty somethings, is a focus on special events – generally involving late hours and booze. A schedule that accommodates the nine to five workday is a wonderful concept. In Europe, many museums routinely stay open long past five and visitors willingly take advantage of the later hours. The Centre Pompidou in Paris doesn’t shut its doors until 9 pm. Most American museums have not adjusted their daily hours but many have initiated programs that allow for the occasional nocturnal visit. The Museum of Modern Art periodically offers MoMA Nights. On select Thursdays, the museum stays open until 8:45. (Currently scheduled dates include April 1, June 3 and every Thursday in July and August.) Often, later museum hours are being offered as part of a late-night social event. Here in Washington, The Hirshorn occasionally puts on its After Hours events. The museum stays open until midnight and the galleries are flooded with pretty young things who drink wine, flirt and occasionally talk about the art.
While After Hours is generally lauded as a success, other museum social functions can seem tacky, desperate and a bit too focused on anything but art appreciation. A friend and I recently attended The Phillips Collection’s version, Phillips after 5. Once a month the museum stays open until 8:30 and food and a cash bar are offered. We had a lovely time walking through the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit; however, I was a bit disconcerted by the party scene. The Phillips is housed in a lovely, relatively modest sized home. The room with the bar could barely accommodate the revelers. A sign had been put up asking drinkers not to abandon their plastic cups on the lovely antique mantle. The room’s small size placed us in awkwardly close proximity to the art and I found myself worrying that some overly rowdy visitor might fall into a painting.
Other museums are expanding their calendars to include events that don’t even pretend to be about the art. A recent trend is the art-themed singles event. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta offers the occasional Single Mingle. These events can involve such innocuous activities as scavenger hunts and art-themed bingo. The Minneapolis Institute of Art puts on Romantic Third Thursdays. The series offers gimmicks such as speed-dating, mini-French lessons, and face-book organized pairings based on which collection piece most represents ‘you.’ Barf.
I will acknowledge that nothing is quite as sexy as the museum date. What artsy chick hasn’t stared at a noteworthy canvas and thought ‘this would be even better if I could discuss it with some studly tortured soul’? It is romantic to have someone by your side as you contemplate one of man’s greatest achievements. Having marketing-savvy communications staffers try to match you up and light the spark is a bit of a turn off.