Monday, June 06, 2011

The Event-Driven Museum?

This is the casual attendance data from my first full month as the Executive Director of The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. It doesn't include school groups or facility rentals, but it does include everyone else who walks through our doors during open hours. This graph is making me change the way I think about what our museum is for and how we should market it. Simply, I'm shifting my perspective from an exhibit-driven model to an event-driven one.

Let me explain. Right now, as is obvious from the graph, our attendance at a single "Free First Friday" exceeds casual attendance for the rest of the month. On First Fridays we are open late, for free, with a band, food, and beverages for sale, as well as a few programmatic add-ons. First Friday is not just a Museum event; it happens all over Santa Cruz and has grown tremendously over the past few years. People turn out all over the city for art, and the Museum (along with lots of other galleries, retail stores, and restaurants) benefits.

First Fridays are raucous and fabulous events. It's not just a party; it's arguably the day of the month when we come the closest to achieving our vision of being a thriving, central gathering place for our community around art, history, ideas and culture. The audience is diverse and attentive; the experience is content-rich and on-mission. In May, we packed the auditorium at 5:30pm for a lecture on the future of the Museum, followed by an artist talk and tour. This past Friday, in addition to a small exhibit opening, we hosted a community art-making project where people could make quilt squares related to their most valued memories of home. People danced, pored over the exhibits, drank wine, did arts and crafts, and had a great time.

While part of our attendance spike on First Fridays is certainly due to the fact that the Museum is free, that's not as significant a factor as the fact that First Friday is an exciting event with a lot of community support and publicity. While we do have higher daytime attendance on First Friday than other weekdays (which could be attributed to the free admission), the throngs come from 6-8:30pm: hours we aren't usually open, when we offer a loud, social experience we don't usually provide.

Over the past several months, as I've been thinking about what makes the arts habit-forming, I come back again and again to the primacy of events as the driver that bring people in the door. Events have an urgency to them. They have a specific, focused narrative to them, and often a specific audience as well. They're social. They're often offered at special times that are more conducive to recreation than standard open hours. They provide amenities, like food and drink, that we don't usually offer. They are made for people to enjoy.

At a large museum, events and casual attendance are often thought of as separate parts of the operation, with an understanding that both offer valuable experiences in their own right. My suspicion is that even in organizations with a comparable attendance pattern to ours, the dominant mindset is "we are a museum of exhibits and educational programs that also provides events" as opposed "we are a museum that produces events and also has exhibits and educational programs." I know that's the paradigm I've always employed, despite seeing the huge spikes that museums of all sizes experience for specific events--heritage days, late nights, Dia de los Muertos, art festivals, Chinese boat races.

Why do we see these events as secondary if they are primary for a majority of our audience? From where I sit now, seeing the difference between days when five people visit and First Fridays where the museum is overflowing with people, I start to question why First Friday only happens once a month. For the majority of people who step through our doors, we are an event venue. More people come to the event who don't casually visit the museum than the other way around. And frankly, our casual visitation is so low that it can feel strange to be in the museum when there is no one else there.

And so as I look at this museum and what we have to do to increase participation, I'm starting with an event-based model. It's easier, cheaper, and faster for my team to develop high-quality programs with partners who already reach audiences of interest than it is for us to go directly to those audiences and convince them to casually visit our exhibits. Some of these events are big productions that will go on the calendar, but others are small--an artist demonstration, a game night, a makers' meetup. Even these simple events create a sense that "something is happening" at the museum in a way that exhibitions can't.

I know there are limitations to this model. It would be challenging (and exhausting) to produce events every day of the week, and not every visitor wants to experience museums in a social setting. But by offering events with a variety of types, sizes, intensity levels, and audiences, we can start to demonstrate that the museum is a dynamic, buzz-worthy place.

At the same time, we're working on making the museum a more welcoming physical space. My goal is to activate the museum with events at the same time as we soften some of the colder parts of the building that make a casual visit a little uncomfortable for many people. Again, this has little to do with exhibits--it has to do with being convivial and helping people who come for an event imagine that they might also like to come for a more self-driven experience.

If this all works out, a year from now the Museum of Art & History should both be a go-to program space (based on our events) and an appealing place to hang out (based on our welcoming efforts). I think we need both of those perceptions firmly in place before we can tackle the challenge of increasing casual daytime visitation.

I'm not sure if this strategy is a means to an end or a new model for how we'll operate all the time. What do you think? What would change if your institution was event-driven (or is it already)?
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