Declining foot traffic continues to be a problem for art galleries. I think we all agree art is better viewed in person. So what happened and how can your gallery change to get people coming through the door again?
There are many contributing factors to the decrease in foot traffic. Here I want to discuss my research findings of how people crave their culture today and what that means for the future of foot traffic in brick and mortar art galleries.
Visiting a gallery can still offer entertainment and intellectual pursuits, but that is no longer as obvious to the average art lover as it is to you. The way people want to consume culture has changed.
The Gray Market Weekly (founded by Tim Schneider) recently published a fantastic article that touches on this topic, and it got me thinking. Galleries host spectacular events in the form of openings, artist talks and art walks all the time, yet foot traffic continues to decline, and online traffic continues to increase. Why?
The article was talking about the Inaugural Chelsea Art Walk in New York, which was designed to bring people into the galleries. The goals and realities of the event do not only apply to this prominent gallery district. They refer to art walks and many other types of gallery events held in small markets as well. The big message I took away from the article was that the goal of gallery events needs to be updated.
“In other words, the goal should be to try to actively draw and meaningfully connect with potential viewers over and over, not just convince them to pop in and glance around occasionally.”
How can this be achieved? I found some insightful points that relate to my observations on how traditionally structured gallery events are not aligning with shifting changes in how people consume culture.
Changes in Cultural Consumption
Several trends have developed over the last few decades in the way the general, educated population like to enjoy culture in their lives. Culture includes going to the theater, a museum, dance or musical production and of course art galleries.
Here are some of the trends that stood out to me. Later, I will highlight possible changes your gallery could make to better align with the trends for your events.
- Art education has been almost non-existent in schools for decades. This has contributed to the decline of curiosity and confidence to look at art with the masses, particularly contemporary art. The lack of understanding and fear of appearing stupid hold people back from attending openings and other gallery events.
- Choices and motivations have changed. There are more choices for how people spend their time and with whom they spend it than ever before. People tend to place a higher value on a shared experience vs. an individual one. Consuming culture as a shared experience is perceived as more enriching, and I believe boost confidence, by validating their choice and motivations.
- People are seeking out opportunities to be actively involved in the creation of culture. The ability to participate in creating art or become immersed in the process is an increasingly sought-after experience. This is especially true for the Millennial and younger generations.
- There is a long-standing negative perception that art galleries are unwelcoming if a visitor is not uber wealthy. Museums are for everyone. Art galleries are only for a select few. People who have this perception reinforced after one or two visits to a gallery are not likely to ever attend a gallery event again.
- With time constraints and the desire for everything at their fingertips, more culture is being consumed online due to the added convenience. Digital images of physical works of art are more widely accepted.
The theme behind these trends is that the relationship people have with culture today requires a greater experiential emphasis. When people consume culture, they want an inclusive, convenient and social interaction that is both educational and entertaining. Many art fairs position themselves with an emphasis on these elements, providing parties and lectures and the convenience of seeing a variety of art offerings.
Below are five ways, and examples, for how your gallery can align your events better with the five trends discussed above.
Important Note: No gallery who participated in the Chelsea Art Walk felt the event was a single fix for increasing foot traffic, but it was a good start that can build momentum. The suggestions below are intended to be adopted as a continuing strategy if they have any chance of success.
1 . Art galleries need to emphasize education in their marketing materials in a fun and relatable way. Produce more in-depth content for both online and in the gallery that speaks to the artist’s intentions and how collectors might relate to those intentions. Explain why a body of work is exceptional and important.
Exhibition descriptions included in invitations and social media are often vague or entirely unrelatable for anyone who does not live inside the art world. Information must be created and distributed in the multiple ways, on various channels, to resonate with different kinds of buyers. Museums are doing an excellent job in this area.
2. Market and position gallery events with a strategic emphasis on themed social interaction. This goes beyond enjoying a glass of wine with friends and look at art or listen to an artist speak. Think of how the theme of an exhibit can be structured into a way for people to interact with each other, the artist or gallery staff.
Here is an excellent example of one gallery event created around a classic social interaction event – the dinner party.
“The relationship between form and function is a part of every art — the culinary world is no different. We are going to explore how different plating styles, utensils, and culinary techniques change the way we think about and approach food, over a 5 course chef’s tasting dinner at the beautiful Glave Kocen Gallery. The art on the walls, and the food on your plate, are both created and shared with the intent to open your mind to the edible and visual “communications” that surround us. Come be a part of this story! This fundraising dinner supports EAT’s mission.”
In addition to art lovers, this dinner party draws foodies who will also learn about art, and it draws socially conscious people who want to have fun while supporting a worthy cause together with friends. The invitation to “come be a part of this story” in the description positions this gallery event as a unique experience with an emphasis on social interaction, participation, and education.
3. Creating a shared participatory experience where gallery visitors take an active part in the creation of art. There are many ways to add this element to your gallery offering. You could allow your social media following to help select a theme for a group show or have an artist create a collaborative work during an event with gallery visitors. The possibilities are endless and only require a little creativity.
One great example I have seen is local galleries and artists collaborating with the community to make lanterns. The very creative lanterns are used in a parade that opens a festival showcasing artworks usage of light. The buildup of excitement lasts for months and momentum grows. As a result, the festival attendance increases every year. Making the lanterns is a fun night out with friends and showing them off in the parade is the highlight of their participation.
4. Identify staff and artists during gallery events. It is discouraging to go into a crowed gallery and have no way to determine who can answer a question. How many sales might be lost because visitors were frustrated trying to find a someone who works in the gallery? This creates a negative experience and possibly the loss of a prospective collector forever.
5. Improve the online experience to encourage the next step of a personal experience in the gallery. The need to consume everything, including culture, immediately requires a positive online experience from a gallery’s digital presence. In addition to providing more meaningful exhibition descriptions and artist bios, encourage attendance and participation by listing a comprehensive list of upcoming events on your gallery website. Pre-educating digital cultural surfers will increase their intellectual pursuits and the confidence to learn more. Use your digital presence to create a customer journey that better leads to the physical gallery.
Crafting gallery events that are a visitor-oriented vs. gallery or artist-oriented is one critical element in reviving gallery foot traffic. There is a gap between the gallery’s understanding of their artists and work and how gallery events are positioned with many prospective buyer’s ways of consuming culture.
Art galleries need to narrow that gap by changing their positioning and marketing messages to align with how culture is consumed today. By incorporating some of the changes discussed in this article, you will not be degrading the art on exhibit or your artist’s message. You will be enhancing it through unique experiences that bring people in the gallery door.
A break from the daily routine through cultural events that provide a unique intellectual and social experience satisfies today’s demand. Foot traffic will begin to increase, referrals will be more prevalent and your gallery will have a competitive edge against those still using outdated formulas, but only if you stick to it.