The Art Museum As Entertainment,
But Not Art?

This NPR story caught my attention because every time I visit an art museum these days, the exact question they ask in this article pops into my mind. The story, entitled People Love Art Museums — But Has The Art Itself Become Irrelevant?, prompts the question about whether people are going to an art museum for the art itself or the experience.

My perception is that they go for both. Of course some percentage of people care about one aspect exclusively and some percentage care about the other, but most are in the middle, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Some industry professionals may lament the fact that people don’t appreciate art as much as they used to, and that may be true, however I think differently. Last month I visited the Van Gogh exhibition at the Clark Art Institute, and replacing the standard audio guides, were tablets with a variety of multi-media ways to learn about the art. I didn’t rent one myself, but I witnessed plenty of 12 – 85 year olds soaking it up. They were each having an immersive experience, not only listening to the audio track but then reading additional information and looking at more images on the device. I was satisfied to see just the art, but I would suggest that their experience was just as good for them. For both of us, it was a great experience, AND the art itself was in fact, relevant.

The bigger issue for me of my experience was one of customer engagement, or the lack of it. You see, I was a first time visitor who paid by credit card. The only information I was asked for was my zip-code. I didn’t give (nor was I asked) for my email address, so there was no follow-up, no ability to ask me to join as a member, or to make a donation.

It seems to me that there is a big opportunity here. If you have people with wifi-enabled devices that you are renting out to them, shouldn’t you be collecting their information? Can you imagine if every theater could equip each audience member with a digital device? Oh, wait a sec – everyone already has one with them!

My mantra for the last few years is that arts organizations must start doing what every forward thinking business of establishment has been doing – building a relationship with its customers.

If you want to do this, an organization-wide maniacal focus on collecting customer data must become a central initiative. Once you have this information, you can start focusing on targeted communications towards building relationships with your patrons, getting them to return, asking them to become members, subscribers, or even donors.

No matter what kind of experience they had (analog or digital) – you can’t get them back if you don’t know who they are!

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