Commercial Appropriation — 10 Museum Opportunities
[AAM’s Elizabeth Merritt introduces this blog: I came across a report a few months ago that says digital ad spending in the US will total $58.6 billion and change this year—with nearly $13 million of this being spent by retailers. That story came to mind when I read the essay, below, by Tom Shapiro (a partner at Cultural Strategy Partners.) With that much being spent to influence what consumers think, and want, and think they want, and how they want to get it, museums would be well advised to learn to swim with the current rather than fighting the tide. In today’s guest post, Tom shares some ideas for how museums might co-opt the results of this
brain-washing influence and use it to a good end.]
Admit it: every once in a while it annoys you that commercial offerings often out-rank your museum on the public’s To-Do list. In my interactions with dozens of museum leaders, this lament comes up all the time. We’re all too aware of the many reasons for this, including the fact that alternatives to museums—movies, sporting events, shopping, hanging at the coffee house, and so forth—are “easy” for the consumer to understand and use. Retailers and popular entertainment cater to audiences’ desires and devote large marketing budgets to influencing consumer expectations. This habituates their audiences, and hence yours, to certain rules for enjoying consumer-focused offerings.
Museums, meanwhile, challenge audiences by presenting content and rules of engagement that can come across as esoteric or off-putting. No photographs? No touching? No samples? No selfie-sticks? No way! And while pop culture is by definition comfortingly familiar, museums challenge visitors to migrate from the known to the unknown or even unknowable.
I’ve stepped back to ponder how museums might stay committed to their missions and profit from commercial tactics. Drawing on 15 years of retail management plus 20 years working on museum strategies, I came up with a couple dozen options, of which I want to share ten with you today.
The purpose of these tactics is not to make museums more commercial. Rather, it is to harness the momentum of generally accepted behavior outside of the museum setting, behaviors cultivated by marketing investments far beyond non-profit budgets. While you might find any one of these proposals absurd, a colleague down the road might find it quite plausible. In fact, a number of these efforts are already in practice to some degree at museums around the country. (Where possible, I’ve listed examples.)
None of these ideas requires massive investment or tech wizardry. This means that, just like consumer companies, you can try something and should it fail, move on. True, every tactic has potential red flags (I’ve offered potential rebuttals to the first idea by way of example) but I encourage you to resist the temptation to reject something out-of-hand. Play with an idea instead to tease out whether it might work in your environment. Maybe one or two of the approaches below will blossom into new opportunities for your museum. At the very least, there might be entertainment value to thinking through these provocations.
10 Ways Museum Might Leverage Commercial Tactics
1. VH1 Classics: Do you still spell it out whenever Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” plays or stream your favorite movie when there’s nothing new on Netflix? Of course! People love doing again what they’ve loved doing in the past.Could you do the same with a smash hit art exhibit? The other fine arts live by this, replaying La Bohème and Hamlet regularly and funding their season on Nutcracker’s annual gate. And let’s not get started on movie sequels. Reprising your museum’s most popular special or permanent collection show might again pack the galleries.
The many advantages are clear. The cost of mounting these shows is kept in check because the scholarship, curating, interpretation, and so forth are already completed. Marketing is more straightforward because people already know the product. To be sure, there are also tangible and philosophical challenges. For instance, art loans might be hard to re-secure. More importantly, the investment of your precious exhibition space and “brand equity” would go to repeating rather than advancing art history and scholarship. Still, giving a larger audience the opportunity to (re-)experience your best work has value. (An alternative version could be to reprise and revisit the content, refreshing the scholarship, interpretation, installation, and so forth while not going so far as to create a brand new exhibit.)
[The closest real world example I’m aware of is when a museum recreates its inaugural exhibition at a marquee anniversary year. This, however, tends to be more about institutional history or a eulogistic gesture to a moment in time, not a victory lap for the work from the relatively recent past.]
2. Rearrange a thing or two. Have you noticed that when you move merchandise from one area of your store to another, sales increase (if the move makes sense)? It’s because you’ve allowed shoppers (i.e., the audience) to see the same content in a new context. What they might not have responded to in one configuration could take on a new relevance in a new location.
Why not do the same with an exhibit? While the curator no doubt had a very specific point of view when initially installing a show, it’s likely they considered multiple adjacencies that made sense. Perhaps all it takes is “remerchandising” a handful of works once or twice during the run of an exhibition to generate new ways for the story to be told—and new opportunities to promote the show to your audiences.
[The closest example of this I know is when an exhibit travels from one museum to another. The new physical space demands a different installation. People who see both venues often have, and value the opportunity to have, quite different reactions to the same material.]
3. Data Mining. Google does it. Facebook does it. Even the NSA does it. Let’s do it; let’s use big data. Or in our case, let’s use small data. Here are a few ways you can mine your data to increase attendance.
- Track the times of day and days of the week your visitors are in the galleries. Can you motivate selected audiences (e.g., corporate partner employees) to visit during your slack times?
- Identify your high frequency visitors and make them your ambassadors. Provide them with free membership, companion passes, extra store discounts, and other incentives to bring friends to the museum. [The Dallas Museum of Art’s gamified DMA Friends program uses some of these strategies.]
- Combine your market research data with other arts providers in your area (or similar sorts of museums in other regions) to build a more robust picture of your target audiences.
4. “Let’s Move!” Follow Michelle Obama’s guidance (and shopping malls’ lead) to promote exercise. Many museums are already doing this with yoga in the galleries or Tai Chi in the plaza. Encouraging free-climbing the building or banister sliding might push some liability alarms, but how might you expand your reputation as a place to work out your brain and body?
[The Seattle Art Museum offers both yoga and Zumba lessons in its Olympic Sculpture Park.]
5. Let’s Meet! What makes one dreadful business meeting more bearable than another? Art! How about renting a gallery as a meeting space? The environment will spur creative thinking and can act as an impressive backdrop for a video conference call. You might also hold internal team meetings in the gallery during open hours, making manifest the sort of management transparency audiences increasingly demand and respect.
[The 2013 Goshka Macuga exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago included a conference table as part of a work. The Museum arranged for external and staff teams to hold meetings in that gallery.]
6. The Artist Bobble Head. Baseball, NASCAR and Elvis fans can’t get enough of them! Why not give away a Georgia O’Keeffe, Van Gogh or Kerry James Marshall bobble head? Whose image is more appropriate to appropriate than Jeff Koons’ or Richard Prince’s? Who wouldn’t want Ai Wei Wei or Yoko Ono nodding in approval from the curio cabinet? The first 1,000 visitors get an anatomically correct Charles Ray bobble head!
[Artist Bill Burns’ limited edition of 6 Art World Celebrity bobble heads goes for $1,250 at the New Museum store. At one point the National Air and Space Museum offered an Albert Einstein talking bobble head for far less.]
7. Adopt-A-Highway. In addition to naming galleries, drinking fountains and elevators, why not seek sponsorship for ephemeral “assets”? “Dust bunnies cleaned courtesy of Ever-Ready”; “Lighting powered by Duke Energy”, and in your sculpture garden, “Birdsongs encouraged by Joe’s Pet Store.”
[A supporter of the Aspen Art Museum has underwritten the rooftop “mountain views.”]
8. Text for the Cure. Here’s a chance to educate your public while also allowing them to contribute directly to activities they care about. If a particular piece of art needs extensive conservation work, explain that next to the piece. Then urge visitors to “Text $10” to your conservation fund. Have a work up for acquisition consideration? “Text $50” and your name is added to the credit line.
[The Everson Museum of Art launched a text donation campaign in 2013. The Neon Museum is using Indiegogo to help raise $50,000 to restore the badly damaged Desert Rose sign. It’s a short step from there to posting the funding opportunity—and QR code—directly in the gallery. ]
9. Cross-merchandising. People love to shop and museum stores love to sell collection-related product. Intermingling commercial transactions with art viewing might sound blasphemous, but let’s consider that many visitors don’t view commerce as “corrupting” and have become accustomed to being able to buy what they want when they want it. Clicking the “Buy Now” button while in, and inspired by, the gallery might even enrich the viewing experience: think about calling on Shazam to identify a song on the radio and add it to your music library, all while you are still listening to and enjoying the song.
Is there a conscientious way to bridge showing and selling? Can we enhance the visitor experience by integrating exhibition-specific purchases into the exhibition itself? Here are a few possibilities: sell a thematic music playlist for viewers to download whilst in the exhibition; post a QR code adjacent to a painting that inspired artist-designed earrings so the jewelry will be waiting for you in the gift shop; scan in print-on-demand postcards to print at home; 3-D print models of sculpture waiting for you when you leave the exhibit.
[The Philadelphia Museum of Art and others have print-on-demand posters available on their web sites. Could that offering transition into the gallery?]
10. Onsite pop-ups. Temporary retailing in non-traditional locations crop up seemingly overnight. How about colonizing unlikely locations within the museum to further your mission via pop-up art? Show art in the restaurant or parking lot or even printed on the parking lot ticket. Reframe visitors’ understanding of where art “happens” by giving them unexpected art in unexpected places.
[The Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned Richard Artschwager to design the inside of their elevators.]
These are just a handful of ideas. What other techniques can be lifted from the mall, multiplex, hotel lobby, amusement park, tattoo parlor or gym? Please let me know what you come up with.
 Introductory paragraph by Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director, AAM Center for the Future of Museums.